LONDON — British government officials were repeatedly warned of a rising tide of anti-Semitism on the home front during World War II, but took no action to counter it, newly released documents have revealed.
Instead, they said Jews themselves were to blame for any increase in prejudice, and belittled reports of it.
The highly sensitive papers have been stored in the National Archives for the past seven decades, and were not due to be made public until 2021. They were published this week by The Times following a request by the newspaper under Britain’s Freedom of Information Act.
The file, “Anti-Semitism in Great Britain,” contains internal documents from the wartime Ministry of Information, which was charged with monitoring public opinion, pumping out propaganda to maintain morale, and censoring news and information.
Its discovery, The Times reported, “will revive nagging doubts about whether, had the Nazis invaded, Britons would have betrayed or rescued their Jewish neighbours.”
In a May 1943 report to Brendan Bracken — a close confidant of Winston Churchill who served as Minister of Information for much of the war — the ministry’s top civil servant suggested that “there had been a considerable increase in anti-Semitic feeling” since the outbreak of the conflict nearly four years prior.
But, continued Cyril Radcliffe, the ministry’s director general, regional officials he had called to a meeting on the subject “regard it as quite beyond argument that the increase of anti-Semitic feeling was caused by serious errors of conduct on the part of Jews.”
Only Northern Ireland and the northeast of England appeared not to have seen an increase in anti-Semitism. The picture appeared similar in both rural parts of the country and the big industrial cities, as well as in areas, such as Manchester and Leeds, with long-established Jewish communities, and others where few Jews lived.
During the course of the war, as the East End of London was subject to heavy German bombing and mothers and children were evacuated, many Jews were sent to live in areas without large Jewish populations. It has been estimated that half of those evacuated from the East End — the epicenter of the capital’s Jewish community at the time — were Jews.
Radcliffe suggested that resentment against Jewish evacuees was a factor in stoking tensions. Jews, he advised Bracken, had displayed “a lack of pleasant standards of conduct as evacuees.” A further source of complaints reported to him by the ministry’s regional civil servants was the allegation that Jews had “an inordinate attention to the possibilities of the ‘black market.’”
Rationing had produced an illegal trade in goods such as food, clothing and petrol, which allowed those who could afford it to escape the worst of wartime shortages and restrictions.
“I reminded them,” Radcliffe said of his meeting with the officials, “that it was part of the tragedy of the Jewish position that their peculiar qualities that one could well admire in easier times of peace, such as their commercial initiative and drive, and their determination to preserve themselves as an independent community in the midst of the nations they lived in, were just the things that told against them in wartime when a nation dislikes the struggle for individual advantages and feels the need for homogeneity above everything else.”
Radcliffe recommended a low-key approach of action. “I thought that our main contribution from headquarters would be to try to keep before people’s minds the recollection that anti-Semitism was peculiarly the badge of the Nazi,” he wrote to Bracken.
He also appeared to fear that countering Jew-hate might simply publicize anti-Semitic myths.
Referring to a March 1943 stampede at a bomb shelter in the East End’s Bethnal Green that killed 173 people — and which had been falsely blamed on panicking Jews — Radcliffe wrote: “If specific stories hostile to the Jews could be traced and pinned down as untruths, such as the recent canard of the Jews being responsible for the London shelter disaster, this should be done by countering it with the individuals who were putting it about, not by giving it general publicity.”
Another document unearthed by The Times drips with contempt for British Jews’ fears about anti-Semitism.
After a high-profile black market case in Salford in Greater Manchester, a local Ministry of Information civil servant reported to London that there had been “anxiety among the Jews culminating in the visit of two representative Jews to the regional office.”
At the meeting, the community’s emissaries suggested employers were discriminating against Jews, highlighting the fact that local councils were — despite shortages — failing to employ Jewish nurses.
Their concerns went unheeded. “It appears that the Jewish leaders are so anxious to avoid admitting that ‘The People’ have been especially blameworthy in black markets that they are unwilling to take strong spiritual and communal action,” the memo suggested. “Blindness to facts and alternate periods of arrogance and whines are unlikely to endear the Jewish cause to Britain.”
A London civil servant noted approvingly the “reasoned arguments put forward in this memorandum.”
At other times, officials simply displayed complacency. Shortly after Radcliffe’s memo to Bracken, the minister invited Margaret Corbett Ashby, a Liberal party politician, feminist and suffragette, to a committee he had convened to advise him on the problem.
Corbett Ashby told Bracken and his officials of her alarm about increased anti-Semitism. The latter subsequently did their best to downplay her warnings.
One civil servant examined the weekly reports of the Special Branch, the police unit which works with Britain’s security services to combat extremism and subversion at home, for examples of anti-Semitism.
He listed six instances dating back over the previous six months. They included stickers plastered on doors and windows of businesses in the heavily Jewish area of Shoreditch in the East End which featured two Jews and the words: “Britannia rules the waves — yeth, but we rule Britannia”; a fascist publication; a far-right pamphlet which blamed Jews for anti-Semitism; and anti-Semitic graffiti such as “Down with the filthy Jews” and “burn the Jews” in parts of London, Manchester and Hove, a seaside town in southeast England with a large Jewish population.
“You will agree that there is nothing in all this to suggest anything in the nature of organised activity, at any rate on an important scale,” the official wrote. The colleague to whom his memo was passed wrote dismissively on it: “I did not think that Mrs. Corbett Ashby’s account showed signs of careful consideration.”
The file indicates politicians sometimes lent the community a more sympathetic ear than their civil servants.
Bracken’s predecessor, Duff Cooper, supported a Jewish homeland in Palestine and had resigned from prime minister Neville Chamberlain’s cabinet in protest of the 1938 Munich Agreement which appeased Hitler’s aggression towards Czechoslovakia. In early 1941, Anthony de Rothschild, who had founded the Central British Fund for German Jewry to assist the Nazis’ first victims, wrote to him laying out the UK community’s anxieties.
“There is an impression that there has been of recent weeks a growth of anti-Semitism in the country and there is some reason for supposing that it may not be unconnected with enemy propaganda, although this is hard, of course, to establish,” de Rothschild argued.
“Representatives of the Jewish community in London have considered the matter and are naturally perturbed from their own point of view, but it also seems to them that developments on this line help the enemy and damage the war effort,” he wrote.
He proposed a radio broadcast labeling anti-Semitism as a threat to Britain.
Cooper’s response was warm. “My dear Tony,” he began, “I shall be very pleased to have a talk with you about the important matter.” Four months later, however, Churchill moved him to another government post.
As The Times notes, “the depths of the horrors uncovered by the liberators” in 1945 meant that “anti-Semitism became taboo.” However, the paper added, “there was a price to pay for the British authorities’ tolerance of anti-Semitism” during the war. It cited the anti-Jewish rioting which occurred in 1947 in the UK after the Irgun hanged two British sergeants in mandate-era Palestine in retaliation for the execution of three of its members.
Although nobody was killed, the violence — which was worst in Liverpool and Manchester in northwest England and the Scottish city of Glasgow — shocked many. Even the newspapers which had sensationalized the British soldiers’ murder swiftly called for calm, branding the weekend’s disturbances “a national disgrace.”
Moreover, while events in Palestine had been the immediate cause, the link between wartime anti-Semitism and its thankfully brief violent post-war manifestation was a clear one. Britain was already struggling under the weight of the cost of the war and reconstruction, with austerity imposed by the government and rationing and controls still largely in place. In 1947, these difficulties were compounded by a sharp economic downturn and rising unemployment.
Jews, historian Tony Kushner has suggested, became a scapegoat, being seen as “black marketeers gaining from the war but not contributing to the effort.”
While the Ministry of Information had closed its doors the previous year, the anti-Semitic myths it failed to tackle during the war lingered on.