InterviewAlbert Einstein, H.G. Wells and Chaim Weizmann made the list

Hitler kept secret hit list of 3,000 prominent Brits for after Nazis defeated UK

Author Sybil Oldfield reveals the Gestapo’s infamous ‘Black Book’ and the plan to Nazify Britain by rounding up the Jews – and non-Jews – who stood in the Third Reich’s way

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

Adolf Hitler, left (Bundesarchiv Bild); Winston Churchill, right (CC-SA 2.0/ Yousuf Karsh); 'The Black Book: The Britons on the Nazi List,' by Sybil Oldfield. (Courtesy)
Adolf Hitler, left (Bundesarchiv Bild); Winston Churchill, right (CC-SA 2.0/ Yousuf Karsh); 'The Black Book: The Britons on the Nazi List,' by Sybil Oldfield. (Courtesy)

LONDON — The names were nothing if not eclectic. From actors to astrophysicists, future presidents to poets, and spies to scientists, the Nazis’ secret list of the nearly 3,000 prominent Britons they intended to round up had they invaded the UK was characteristically thorough.

The discovery of the so-called “Black Book” at the end of the war provoked a number of wry comments from some of those whose names it contained. “My dear, the people we should have been seen dead with,” wrote the author Rebecca West to playwright Noel Coward, while the cartoonist David Low quipped: “That is all right. I had them on my list too.”

But as academic Sybil Oldfield details in a recently published book “The Black Book: The Britons on the Nazi List,” there was nothing in the least bit comical about the Germans’ carefully laid plans to unleash terror had they crossed the English Channel. Armed with copies of the “most wanted” list, 20,000 SS troops were to sweep the country engaging in a deadly ideological and racial manhunt.

Some of those detained would have been placed under house arrest or thrown into newly constructed camps. Many others would have suffered a still worse fate. SS Col. Franz Six, a professor whom the murderous Reinhard Heydrich appointed to lead the task of eliminating any opposition to the Nazis in Britain, was also authorized to “set up Einsatzgruppen [paramilitary SS death squads]… as the situation dictates and the necessity arises.” While he never made it to Britain, Six later left a bloody trail across the occupied Soviet Union and was sentenced to 20 years imprisonment at Nuremberg.

The Black Book was compiled under the watchful eye of SS Col. Walter Schellenberg, a Heydrich favorite. The Gestapo’s foreign intelligence unit began compiling the Sonderfahnungliste GB — the “special search” list for great Britain — in around 1937. It consisted of two parts: an alphabetical list of 2,619 suspects and their addresses, together with nearly 400 organizations which were to be raided and banned.

‘The Black Book: The Britons on the Nazi List,’ by Sybil Oldfield. (Courtesy)

That original list was supplemented by the Gestapo’s Informationsheft GB — roughly translating to “information brochure for Great Britain” — drawn up as Hitler’s plans to invade Britain were readied between May and July 1940. It was to have served as a handbook to the UK for occupying troops, but also contained further names of those to be detained.

Oldfield says that as she combed the list for clues, fascination soon mingled with admiration.

“Once I so quickly discovered that these anti-fascist Britons … were marvelous human beings — brave, humane, intelligent — the more I wanted to learn more and then share it,” she tells The Times of Israel in an interview.

While Oldfield says the Gestapo did not have “octopus tentacles” in the UK, it was not short of informers — pro-Nazi Germans and postgraduates residing in England, as well as British fascist sympathizers.

How diligent the Nazi note-takers must have been searching through newspapers, listening to gossip, scrutinizing German passport visas and keeping track of the poor exiles who had fled from persecution in their homeland

“How diligent the Nazi note-takers must have been searching through newspapers, listening to gossip, scrutinizing German passport visas and keeping track of the poor exiles who had fled from persecution in their homeland,” The Guardian newspaper commented sourly in September 1945 after a copy of the list was found in the Gestapo’s Berlin HQ.

Sybil Oldfield, author of ‘The Black Book: The Britons on the Nazi List.’ (Courtesy)

Oldfield says the 400 organizations which the Nazis intended to shut down — which ranged from the quintessentially “Middle England” Rotary club to the all-powerful Transport and General Workers Union, as well as the YMCA, Workers’ Educational Association, and the Quakers — underlined the ambition of the “plan to Nazify the whole of Britain.”

Many of the targets — Winston Churchill (described, alongside his Secretary of State for War, Anthony Eden, as “representatives of Jewish interests”), his cabinet, senior Labour politicians and trade unionists, and well-known pre-war anti-fascists and anti-appeasers — were predictable.

So, too, were the roll-call of prominent British Jews, including politicians, businessmen, press magnates, and entertainment gurus, along with communal and Zionist organizations.

Among their number were Israel’s first president, Chaim Weizmann (a British citizen until he renounced his UK nationality in 1948); Oscar Deutsch, owner of the Odeon cinema chain; film producers Ivor Montagu and Isidore Ostrer; and Lords Melchett and Bearsted from the worlds of business and finance. Sir Samuel Joseph of the construction giant Bovis, and Louis Halle Gluckstein and Sir Samuel Gluckstein, the founders of the catering and hotel empire J. Lyons, were also listed — along with scores of other Jews who held directorships of companies or banks.

Indeed, the Informationsheft frequently quoted a bank’s capital in a manner suggesting it was the personal asset of the directors. Thus its central narrative, writes Oldfield, was that “almost the whole of Britain was really controlled by very rich, assimilated British Jews,” while in the media Jews exercised a shadowy “anti-German influence.” Moreover, well over half of those on the list were refugees — at least two-thirds of them Jews — who had fled to the UK before the war.

Albert Einstein, center left, and Chaim Weizmann, center right, were both targets of the Nazi hit list. Also pictured in this 1921 photo aboard the SS Rotterdam are Benzion Mossinson, left, and Menachem Ussishkin, right. (Public domain)

Other entries in the Black Book were, perhaps, a little more surprising: the Boy Scout movement, suspected of being an arm of the “English Secret Service,” was to be banned and its founder, Lord Baden-Powell, arrested. And some of those the Nazis hoped to seize would surely have evaded them: Albert Einstein, the nuclear physicist Leo Szilard and the Black singer Paul Robeson had already slipped away to the United States, while Sigmund Freud had died within three weeks of the war being declared.

Oldfield, the daughter of a German refugee, says her principal aim in writing the book was to discover why the Britons on the list — among whose ranks she includes Jewish refugees who became British — were “suspected above all others of having the potential to obstruct the successful Nazification of Great Britain.”

She is also keen to fill what she believes to be a gap in the historical record, with the prewar efforts of anti-fascists to make Britain realize the danger posed by Hitler too often overlooked and ignored.

“It’s rather disturbing that the Nazis, who seem to exercise a sort of taboo fascination in popular consciousness, a forbidden darkness, always somehow get the headlines,” she says.

It’s rather disturbing that the Nazis, who seem to exercise a sort of taboo fascination in popular consciousness, a forbidden darkness, always somehow get the headlines

While, as Oldfield writes, those on the list were not “plaster saints,” they nonetheless represent a veritable who’s who of the people who tried to sound the alarm about the Nazi threat, fight fascism and assist the imperiled Jews of Germany and Austria.

Frank Foley, a passport officer at the British Embassy in Berlin, worked 15-hour days desperately trying to help rescue German Jews, issuing (often fake) documents which enabled them to travel to the UK or Palestine. Foley, whose position was not protected by diplomatic immunity, was in a doubly perilous situation as he also operated as a secret agent in Germany on behalf of the British intelligence services. Fellow rescuers Robert Smallbones and Arthur Dowden, who worked at the British consulate in Frankfurt and issued thousands of temporary visas to allow Jews into Palestine, were also on the list.

British passport officer Frank Foley worked 15 hours a day trying to rescue German Jews from the Holocaust. (Public domain)

Groups within the UK that had worked to assist Jewish refugees before the war would also have been targeted. These included a network of Quaker and UK Jewish organizations which, working together, played a pivotal role in the Kindertransport, which saw Jewish children plucked from the jaws of the Nazi genocide and brought to the UK to be fostered by British families.

As Oldfield notes, such raids would have been doubly productive in the Gestapo’s eyes, allowing the Nazis to both round up some of the most “determinedly active anti-Nazis” as well as to learn the whereabouts of “Emigranten” (as the Germans preferred to term them) now living in Britain. The Black Book also correctly identified some key British Jews who led rescue efforts, including Norman Bentwich, a pro-Zionist former Attorney General of Palestine, and Otto Schiff, a Frankfurt-born banker who established the Jewish Refugees Committee. By 1939, 80 percent of refugees in the UK were registered with Schiff’s committee.

Beyond the entirety of Churchill’s war cabinet and prominent Jewish politicians — such as the former Liberal Party leader, Home Secretary and High Commissioner for Palestine Herbert Samuel and the future Labour cabinet minister Manny Shinwell — relatively few parliamentarians were included in the Black Book. Those singled out by the Gestapo included some of the most vocal advocates for the plight of German Jews: Labour’s Josiah Wedgwood, the independent MP Eleanor Rathbone, and Conservative Victor Cazalet.

Victor Cazalet. (Public domain)

Unsurprisingly, the Nazis also planned to arrest those who had led the battle against Nazi appeasement in the 1930s. By politics and background, they were a diverse group. From parliament, their ranks included the postwar Conservative prime minister Harold MacMillan, who resigned the government whip in 1936 when sanctions against Mussolini were dropped, and his fellow Tory the Duchess of Atholl, who was deselected from her safe seat in 1938 because of her fierce opposition to Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement policies.

From the left of the political spectrum, leading anti-fascists in the Black Book included the future Labour cabinet minister (and passionate Zionist) Richard Crossman, who was a lonely voice for rearmament within his party in the 1930s; the actor Dame Sybil Thorndike; and former suffragette leader Sylvia Pankhurst.

The Black Book also contained a highly comprehensive list of British publishing houses which were to be shut down. Some, such as Penguin Books and the highly popular Left Book Club, which was founded in 1936 by the Jewish publisher Victor Gollancz, had a long track record of publishing books which were damning of developments in Nazi Germany. But others, Oldfield finds, are labeled “Marxist” and slated for closure simply on the basis of “just one anti-Nazi book.” The Gestapo, she says, may not have “managed to read quite every book critical of Hitler and Nazism published in Britain,” but they had nonetheless been “impressively thorough.”

Writers and academics were well-represented on the Gestapo’s blacklist too. The novelist E.M. Forster’s anti-Nazi broadsides, delivered to an audience of millions on the BBC and driven by his hatred of the regime’s “Jew-mania,” had earned him his place. His fellow novelist J.B. Priestley, whose works had been banned in Germany since 1936, and science fiction pioneer H.G. Wells had also well-advertised their opposition to fascism.

Noel Coward (CC-BY-SA 3.0/ Allan Warren)

The playwright and actor Noel Coward shared his own hostility to fascism and appeasement only among friends, but the Gestapo was keenly aware of his work gathering information on the Nazis for British intelligence. As Coward later admitted, his “reputation as a bit of an idiot … and silly ass” meant that, as he traveled the world, “people would say all kind of things that I’d pass along.”

Coward was recruited by another name on the list, the Hungarian Jewish filmmaker Alexander Korda. Korda’s London film company was clandestinely funded by the UK secret service and, like Coward, his work provided the perfect cover for travel and on-the-side undercover work. Cambridge don and literary critic F.L. Lucas, who Oldfield terms “one of the most tireless and outspoken of all the British opponents of Nazism and appeasement,” had long caught the Nazis’ eye — Goebbels even responded to one of his many letters in the British press. A brilliant linguist, Lucas was recruited to work in September 1939 on the “Enigma” code-breaking project at Bletchley.

Alexander Korda, left, with his brother Vincent Korda. (Courtesy BFI National Archive)

Many of those whose names made it onto the list were German and Austrian refugee writers and journalists who tried, as Oldfield writes, to “play a vigorous part in anti-Nazi intellectual activities in London” before the war. Among their ranks were the acclaimed Austrian Jewish writer Stefan Zweig, the German Jewish theatre critic Alfred Kerr (father of the much-beloved children’s author Judith Kerr), and a fellow German Jewish exile journalist Gabriele Tergit, who had narrowly escaped when the SA broke into her Berlin home in March 1933.

Nor had the Nazis forgotten the names of the many British correspondents posted to Germany before the war who had — sometimes despite their newspapers’ editorial lines — sought to alert their readers to the perils of Nazism. They included the Daily Express’ Sefton Delmer and The Times’s Norman Ebbutt. As the Germans suspected, a number of these men, such as Victor Gordon-Lennox of the conservative Daily Telegraph, were gathering intelligence for the British secret services and Foreign Office.

Surprisingly, the Hungarian Jewish journalist Stefan Lorant, who had been imprisoned in Germany for several months in 1933, was not on the list. However, Lorant’s most famous creation, the pioneering news magazine “Picture Post,” which frequently attacked the Nazis and was read by millions of Britons, was, alongside dozens of magazines and newspapers, listed for proscription.

Nonetheless, as Oldfield recognizes, many of the warnings about the Nazis issued by those in the Black Book in the latter half of the 1930s went unheeded by a British government and public which was determined to avoid entangling the country in another war. “They really felt they were cassandras, telling the truth and always being rejected,” she says.

Nancy Astor. (Public domain)

Oldfield says she was also initially somewhat mystified by some of those on the hit list. Society hostess Nancy Astor, the first woman to take her seat in parliament, was a leading light in the upper-class, pro-appeasement “Cliveden set” seen by many as fascist sympathizers. (Cliveden was the name of Astor’s country residence.) Similarly, George Ward Price, a special correspondent for the pro-Nazi Daily Mail, was, according to Oldfield, Hitler’s favorite British journalist. She believes both Astor and Ward Price are likely to have been listed for, in the Gestapo’s view, betraying the Fuhrer by turning against Germany and appeasement after the invasion of Czechoslovakia in March 1939.

Several hundred names in the Black Book — thought to be those of secret agents or spies — are difficult to identify, especially give the vague manner in which they are itemized. Many of these entries were probably gathered as a result of the infamous November 1939 “Venlo incident” when a Nazi sting operation netted the Gestapo a host of information about British intelligence and operations on the continent.

Nonetheless, some military and secret service names do stand out. Col. Frank Noel Mason-Macfarlane, for instance, was the British military attache in Berlin in 1938 and 1939 who famously offered to assassinate Hitler from his house in the Charlottenburger Chausse. (“Easy rifle shot. I could pick the bastard off from here as easy as winking.”)

Jona “Klop” Ustinov, who was born in Jaffa and had Jewish ancestry, worked as a journalist in London while spying for the Weimar government’s Foreign Office. Fired by the Nazis, he became an agent for MI5. Ustinov’s most important source was a highly placed, anti-Nazi aristocrat at the German Embassy in London, Wolfgang Gans zu Putlitz. Although sadly too often ignored, von Putlitz’s warnings, delivered via Ustinov, about Hitler’s intentions proved to be, in the words of senior MI5 officer Peter Wright, “priceless intelligence, possibly the most important human-source intelligence Britain received in the prewar period.”

Illustrative: German soldiers prepare to fire a V1 rocket in 1944 (PK-Lysiak/Transocean-Europapress German Federal Archive via Wiki-commons)

Ustinov’s work, says Oldfield, is illustrative of the huge contribution made by those in the Black Book to the eventual defeat of Nazism. Countless others whom the Germans intended to arrest — many of them refugees — could lay similar claims. Paul Eisler, an Austrian Jew who moved to Britain in the late 1930s, for instance, played a pioneering role in inventing the electronic technology which helped defend London against the V1 rockets launched by Hitler in the last year of the war.

But Oldfield is also keen to demonstrate the wider contribution that the refugees from Nazism listed in the Black Book made to their adopted country. From art historians to musicologists, political thinkers to scientists and classists, “Germany’s loss,” she says, “was England’s gain.” “British cultural life,” she quotes the contemporary sculptor Anthony Gormley as saying, “has never quite been the same since they arrived.”

“I hope people will think that we did owe a lot to those refugees, and perhaps refugees aren’t the destitute, naked miseries that somehow they’re taken too often to be,” Oldfield says. “They never bring nothing with them — they always bring themselves. There’s all their experience, education, [and] culture. We need to think much more about what they bring to us than any possible harm, which I don’t think exists.”

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