On November 18, 1943, the head of the BBC warned employees not to broadcast anything that might be designed “to correct the undoubted anti-Semitic feeling which is held very largely throughout the country.”
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He was concerned, explained Robert Foot, the director-general of the British Broadcasting Corporation, that such efforts might have the opposite effect of the one intended.
Though certainly the BBC, a most trusted source of information, had a responsibility to include “the facts as they are reported from time to time of Jewish persecutions, as well as any notable achievements by Jews,” Foot reasoned that any undue focus on the suffering of Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe might actually “increase rather than decrease the anti-Jewish feeling in this country.”
Foot’s instructions may sound convoluted, or worse, today. But at the time, they reflected a range of institutional attitudes in the United Kingdom toward Jews that ranged from the ambivalent to the downright anti-Semitic, as well as an unusually patronizing opinion of the general public.
Having openly dedicated itself to playing an active role in the war effort, the BBC regularly consulted with government agencies about how to keep public morale high. Together with the Foreign Office, the BBC fretted at great length about the degree of sympathy British subjects would have for the subjects of reports about the persecution and murder of Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe.
One concern was not to repeat the experience of the Great War, when British media had been ready to report stories about alleged German atrocities - that later turned out to be untrue. Reporting unchecked stories that ultimately proved inaccurate would hurt the long-term credibility of this most important of media, went the logic.
According to a documentary program broadcast on BBC Radio 4 in 2011, which examined the relationship between the government and the BBC during the war years, there were officials in both institutions who either feared that the public would not believe the accusations or, even worse, that it would be unmoved by them, since the victims were Jews.
Didn't smack of Nazi efficiency?
Yet, from some of the internal documents from the period that have been examined by historians, it becomes evident that at times it was the officials themselves who lacked interest in the German persecution of the Jews, even when the public was receptive to the story.
On December 17, 1942, Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden, speaking in the House of Commons, declared that Germany was “now carrying into effect Hitler's oft-repeated intention to exterminate the Jewish people in Europe.” In this case, his speech was carried on the BBC, and later, Eden acknowledged that the main response he received from members of the public to his comments had been frustration that the government was not doing enough to help the victims of the Nazis.
But aside from a period of several months in 1942 when the fate of the Jews was allotted more attention in the British press, coverage for the most part remained laconic. For one thing, Robert Foot noted at another time, every time the BBC broadcast something seen as pro-Jewish, “the anti-Semites would demand the right to reply, which would be difficult to refuse.”
As late as August 1944, when there was ample evidence available of the Germans’ intentions and acts, Roger Allen, an official at the Foreign Office, had a hard time accepting reports that they were using gas chambers to murder Jews, because, after all, such reports “have usually emanated from Jewish sources.” In any case, he went on, “I have never really understood the advantage of the gas chamber over the simpler machine-gun, or the equally simple starvation method.”
In a 2011 article previewing the Radio 4 documentary, The Independent noted that even in April 1945, when BBC correspondent Richard Dimbleby famously reported, with both images and audio, from inside a liberated Bergen-Belsen, his editors back in London were unwilling to air his reports until they had been confirmed by stories in newspapers. And when they were finally used, “the broadcasts mention only in passing the Jewish identity of the victims.”