Cross purposes'It wasn't the BBC's job to warn the Jews'

‘Don’t mention the Jews’: How wartime BBC failed to issue Holocaust warnings

75 years after the Nazis marched into Hungary, ToI investigates whether Britain’s state broadcaster said too little, too late about the Final Solution

Robert Philpot is a writer and journalist. He is the former editor of Progress magazine and author of “Margaret Thatcher: The Honorary Jew.”

Illustrative: Anthony Eden opens an Organization for European Economic Co-operation council meeting in Paris, circa 1948-1957. (Public domain)
Illustrative: Anthony Eden opens an Organization for European Economic Co-operation council meeting in Paris, circa 1948-1957. (Public domain)

LONDON — On December 17, 1942, Britain’s foreign secretary, Anthony Eden, rose from his seat in the House of Commons and revealed that the Nazis were now carrying out Hitler’s oft-repeated threat to “exterminate the Jewish people in Europe.” He went on to condemn “this bestial policy of cold-blooded extermination.”

After he had delivered the statement, which had been coordinated with other Allied governments, MPs stood in the chamber and observed a minute’s silence.

By this time, the United Kingd’s public broadcaster, the BBC, had already reported evidence of the mass murder of Jews in Eastern Europe. News of the unfolding horror was also transmitted through its European outlets, such as the BBC Polish Service, to the very scene of the greatest crimes.

But there was a peculiar and troubling exception: the silence of the BBC’s broadcasts to Hungary concerning the fate of the Jews.

That silence was a deliberate policy. It is one, moreover, that remained in place right up to the moment that the Germans, rightly fearing that Hungary’s authoritarian ruler, Admiral Miklós Horthy, was about to abandon his allegiance to the Axis and switch sides, occupied the country 75 years ago this spring.

The position of Hungarian Jews had long been a precarious one. They were subject to a raft of domestic anti-Semitic laws and restrictions – the earliest of which long predated Hitler’s rise to power – and many died after around 50,000 men were conscripted in labor battalions and sent to the eastern front.

Hungarians were also complicit in other atrocities. Thousands of non-Hungarian Jews were handed over to the Nazis by Horthy’s regime and subsequently massacred in Ukraine in August 1941. Hungarian forces also murdered approximately 3,000 Jews and other civilians in Novi Sad, in northern Serbia, in January 1942.

But repeated German pressure to deport Hungarian Jews had hitherto been rebuffed by the government of then-prime minister Miklós Kállay. Indeed, when news of the Ukraine massacres reached Budapest, deportations were halted and five officers were court-martialed for the killings in Novi Sad. Thus, on the eve of the German occupation in March 1944, Hungary’s Jewish community was the largest – and last – in continental Europe to be mainly untouched by the Final Solution.

This photo provided by United States Holocaust Memorial Museum shows Hungarian soldiers as they execute Serbians and Jews on Miletic Street in Novi Sad, Yugoslavia, January 23, 1942. (AP Photo/Jewish Historical Museum, Belgrade via United States Holocaust Memorial Museum)

The BBC’s Hungarian Service finally broke its silence about the extermination of the Jews on March 24, 1944, five days after Hitler’s tanks rolled into Budapest. It then began to broadcast desperate appeals for Hungarians to aid the imperiled Jews, warnings about the justice which would meted out upon those who collaborated with the Nazis, and calls for resistance against the German occupiers.

“In the past, there were many people in Hungary who displayed their human feelings by assisting Jews and other victims of the Germans who fled to Hungary,” a March 24 broadcast suggested. “Today every Hungarian who helps the victims of persecution not only acts humanely, but he also serves his nation, because his deeds may be credited to his country by the United Nations at the final reckoning.”

It was, however, too late. Within weeks, the Nazis, aided and abetted by the Hungarian authorities, set in train the murder of nearly half a million Hungarian Jews.

So why had it taken the BBC so long to tell Hungarian Jews about the Final Solution, and why was its approach to Hungary in such stark contrast to that of other countries in Europe?

A strategic silence

The answer lies in a memo prepared two years prior by Britain’s foremost expert on Hungary, Prof. Carlile Aylmer Macartney. Macartney was a man from British Establishment central casting: a former diplomat in Vienna, secret service officer, Oxford academic and wartime adviser to the Foreign Office.

In early 1942, Macartney worked alongside the Political Warfare Executive, a government body which oversaw the BBC’s overseas broadcasts. Together, they devised a strategy for the BBC’s Hungarian Service. It aimed both to reduce Hungarian military support and supplies to Germany and “eventually to compel Germany to divert a certain number of troops to Hungary, either as a safeguard against disorders and sabotage, or as an occupying force.”

Illustrative: Arrow Cross and German troops in Budapest in October 1944. (Bundesarchiv bild)

In short, the British government, through the BBC, sought to drive a wedge between Nazi Germany and Hungary, and tie down Hitler’s forces in the east.

As Gabriel Milland, who has studied its approach towards the Final Solution, has argued: “The fundamental role of the BBC Hungarian Service … was as a weapon of political warfare.” But this posed a dilemma. “To secure influence it first had to achieve an audience and respond to their instincts,” he notes.

Macartney followed up this plan with a memo advising the BBC on what content might best appeal to those instincts, and what topics to avoid. Among the latter, according to Macartney, were: Communism; big business and capitalism; the aristocracy; liberalism and democracy; and “Jews in general.”

The subject of the Jews, Macartney argued, should simply not feature in broadcasts to Hungary: “We should not mention the Jews at all except to say that, on the one hand, we want a national Hungary, on the other hand, a tolerant Hungary – appeal to Hungary’s traditions real or imagined.”

Underpinning Macartney’s advice was what he called the Hungarian “floating vote.”

The “great majority” of Hungarians, he argued, were neither pro-Nazi nor pro-British. “The irreconcilables on either side are really very few, and include few Magyars [ethnic Hungarians] indeed: the irreconcilable pro-German group is mostly Swabian [referring to German-speaking Hungarians], the pro-British, Jewish.”

It was, he continued, “more important to gain the floating vote than to please the faithful supporters.” In order to gain a hearing in Hungary and thus help the Allied war effort, Macartney was arguing, the BBC needed to take into account the alleged anti-Semitism of much of the Hungarian populace.

Other BBC anti-Jewish policies

Prof. Frank Chalk speaks at the 99th Armenian Genocide Commemoration in Montreal, 2014. (YouTube)

Alerted to the existence of the memo in 2012 by Prof. Frank Chalk, director of the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies at Concordia University in Canada, BBC radio’s “Document” program decided to investigate.

Trawling the corporation’s archives, it revealed that Macartney’s strategy was not conjured up in a vacuum. Instead, it was a response to continuing concerns that the Hungarian Service was, in fact, too associated with Jews. A December 1939 internal BBC memo, for instance, detailed criticism the corporation had received that the service’s announcers had “Jewish-sounding voices” and that its six Hungarian staff were “purely or preponderantly Jewish.”

A further memo 18 months later showed that the critics had not let up. “One of the main criticisms of our broadcasts,” it reported, “has been on the ground of Jewish accents.” It was necessary, therefore, to bring in “a nucleus of Aryan voices.”

A minute of a meeting, attended by Macartney and others, to discuss the alleged shortcomings of the service, sarcastically stated: “At present the broadcasts were written and delivered,” it was felt, “by Hungarian bar-proppers to their fellow Jewish bar-proppers in Budapest and consequently were of very little use.” The present staff should be fired and material “more palatable to the mass of the Hungarian people” broadcast.

Macartney’s subsequent plan was assiduously followed by the Hungarian Service over the next two years, with the historian himself becoming a regular broadcaster. Delivered in Hungarian, his talks described life in Britain and offered analysis of the world situation. Crucially, he also commented on Hungary’s wartime policy. His talks, one Hungarian academic has suggested, “maintained a fine middle ground between supporting the Hungarian regime and criticizing it for pursuing … an overtly pro-German” foreign policy.

Regent of Hungary Miklós Horthy de Nagybánya (left) with Adolf Hitler, year unspecified (Wikimedia Commons)

But, as the BBC’s “Document” program also revealed, Macartney’s strategy – and the perception that he himself was too sympathetic to the Horthy regime – caused concern in government circles, disquiet among staff at the service, and anger among Hungarians living in Britain.

In August 1942, Robert Bruce Lockhart, the director-general of the PWE, weighed in.

“I’ve never been very happy about the general question of our propaganda policy towards Hungary,” Lockhart wrote to the head of the BBC Hungarian Service. “The picture of a pro-British Hungary has always been something of an optical delusion.” Macartney, he ordered, should be “given a rest from broadcasting.”

These concerns did not, however, appear to provoke a marked shift in tone or direction, even after Eden’s statement to parliament in December 1942. Indeed, the corporation’s official historian, Jean Seaton, admitted to “Document” that she’d never encountered any evidence in the BBC’s archives that this announcement had provoked an internal discussion on how the corporation might assist the effort to, in her words, “save the Jews of Europe.”

A warning unheeded

It is arguable, however, that the BBC owed a special responsibility towards Hungary’s Jews. The strategy it had adopted, albeit at the behest of the PWE, was predicated on forcing Hitler to send troops into Hungary. Such a move, it was known by 1942, would bring terrible consequences for Hungarian Jewry.

In October 1943, the Jewish Agency in London warned the Foreign Office that any defection by Horthy to the Allies at that time would provoke a German invasion. The result would be the “extermination of the last important body of Jewry left in Europe.”

But in his extensive research on the subject, Chalk has detected no sign that these concerns forced a rethink.

German and Hungarian soldiers transport arrested Jews to the Varosi theater in Budapest, October 1944. (Bundesarchiv bild)

“I have found no archival evidence,” he wrote, “that the British asked Hungary to delay its withdrawal from the alliance with Germany or that they took seriously into account saving the lives of Hungarian Jews.”

“British policy and the BBC’s Hungarian Service worked toward only one goal: to advance the cause of an Allied victory,” he wrote. For the British government, of course, that goal and bringing an end to the Final Solution were inseparable.

Thus, throughout the early months of 1944 before the German occupation, the Hungarian Service repeatedly urged acts of resistance and encouraged an uprising to increase pressure on the Horthy regime.

As Milland has exhaustively detailed, after the Germans marched into Hungary, the BBC began to pump out news bulletins and broadcasts underlining the imminent threat to Jews in the kingdom. On March 25, for instance, it ran comments by Roosevelt about war crimes and the need to protect the “hundreds of thousands of Jews who had found a safe haven from death in Hungary … and who were now threatened with annihilation.”

Hungarians could resist the Nazis, a broadcast the following day stated, by doing “their utmost to help all those other Hungarians or others who are persecuted by the Germans and their Hungarian agents.”

There were also insistent warnings about the post-war reckoning that would await those Hungarians who participated in what one broadcast called “the shedding of blood of innocent people.” Such individuals, it continued, would be “ruthlessly punished.” The PWE also instructed the Hungarian Service to run Roosevelt’s statement that those in the Hungarian authorities who participation in “racial persecution” would be held accountable for “war crimes.”

Broadcasts sought above all to appeal to Hungarian’s patriotism, linking that to the fate of the Jews, and offering pointed reminders of the heroic actions of the Danes. “What is at stake for Hungary is the reputation of its people, the question whether or not … in a community of free nations, the name of the country will be besmirched with [the] Yellow Patch of cowardice and pusillanimity,” suggested one.

German and Hungarian soldiers transport arrested Jews to the Varosi theater in Budapest, October 1944. (Bundesarchiv bild)

The Hungarian Service also attempted to carefully target its appeals. Religious figures, such as the Archbishop of Canterbury, were deployed to deliver messages to the “Christian people of Hungary,” telling them that “Christian discipleship” demanded they do all in their power to assist persecuted Jews. Trade unionists were similarly given air time to appeal to workers in key industries, such as the railways.

More unanswered questions

Nonetheless, there remain difficult questions as to why the Hungarian Service, although making appeals on behalf of “persecuted” Jews, appears to have delayed reporting news of deportations, and certainly mass murder, when other BBC outlets were already doing so.

Indeed, Milland’s survey of the broadcasts suggests that it was not until July 1, 1944, that the Hungarian Service directly mentioned for the first time that deported Jews were being butchered at “the notorious German camp in Polish Galicia.”

Thereafter, explicit messages were broadcast. To Hungarian railway workers, a senior British trade unionist made a simple appeal: “Delay the ‘death-trains’! Help the Jews to their escape!”

There was a particularly cruel irony, however, that these appeals were broadcast shortly after Horthy – under intense pressure from the Catholic Church, the Allies, and neutral Sweden – defied the Germans and ordered a halt to the deportations.

What might account for the Hungarian Service’s delay in reporting the onset of mass murder? Even without confirmed reports, asks Milland, could not the BBC have simply used its knowledge of the fate that had befallen Jews in other countries the Nazis had occupied? But such a stance, he continues, would “have run counter to BBC policy of only broadcasting what was known to be absolutely true and confirmed – a crucial part of [its] strategy in securing an audience.”

Arrow Cross leader and German-installed prime minister of Hungary Ferenc Szalasi enters the presidential Sandor Palace, October 18, 1944. (Bundesarchiv bild)

The respite ordered by Horthy was, however, all too brief. In October, the Germans finally removed the unreliable regent after he had once again attempted to conclude an armistice with their enemies. The fascist Arrow Cross under Ferenc Szálasi, which shared Hitler’s desire to eliminate the approximately 200,000 Hungarian Jews who had thus far survived, was now installed in power. Deportations commenced and the Arrow Cross set about massacring Jews in Budapest. Again, however, the Hungarian Service went silent about the tragic events, unable to obtain the confirmations it required to broadcast news of them.

There remains a difficult, but ultimately unanswerable, question as to whether, had the BBC’s Hungarian Service acted differently, it could have helped to reduce the number of Jews the Nazis and their Hungarian collaborators were able to murder. Historians are split, both on this question and the wider one of how much information Hungarian Jews anyway possessed.

“The odds are strong, given the authority of the BBC in the minds of Hungarian Jews, that explicit warnings specifically addressed to them would have broken down the psychological barriers immobilizing their defense mechanisms” wrote Chalk.

Uprisings and greater acts of resistance might have ensued, slowing the killings and tying down more German troops. “Very many Jews would have died in any case, but their deaths while resisting and seeking to escape would have had more meaning and the war would have ended sooner,” he said.

But, for Milland, “the simple answer” as to whether the BBC could have saved lives is “no.”

“Once Germany occupied Hungary, the Jews were its prisoners,” he wrote. “In this context both the potential and actual impact of the BBC on Hungarian Jewry was limited.” Indeed, he noted, the appeals it made to Hungarians to assist their Jewish neighbors largely went unheeded.

The late David Cesarani, one of the foremost experts on the Holocaust, took a similar stance. “It wasn’t the job of the BBC to warn Jews that the Nazis were coming to get them. The responsibility lay elsewhere. The BBC was doing everything it could to help win the war,” he told the “Document” program in 2012.

“Some could have built bunkers, hideaways, some could have tried to get false papers. But we’re talking about 750,000 people, surrounded by a hostile population, by countries either allied to the Nazis, or occupied by the Germans. There was nowhere to hide, nowhere to run,” he concluded.

read more:
Never miss breaking news on Israel
Get notifications to stay updated
You're subscribed