In advance of Holocaust Memorial Day 2021, Nathan Abrams reviews a new book about the Nazis’ British hitlist and who wasn’t on it.
Around 1939, the Gestapo drew up a list. In the case of the Nazi occupation of the United Kingdom, some 2,600 named individuals were to be targeted for removal. They would have been the Nazis’ first victims. Most of the list was taken up by German Jewish exiles and Jews who were to be put under surveillance and executed. But there were others: writers, humanitarians, religious leaders, scientists, artists, academics, industrialists, politicians, social reformers and the like. This is the subject of The Black Book: The Britons on the Nazi Hitlist by the historian Sybil Oldfield.
What is of real interest, though, is not who was on that list but who was not and what it tells us about the Nazi-occupied Britain the Gestapo envisaged.
The Nazis expected British resistance that would have to be neutralised from the start. Interestingly, though, they did not view the leaders of the Labour Party as in any way revolutionary because they were assessed to be typical products of the feudal public-school system and hence absorbed into collusion with the social and political outlook of the Conservatives.
The Nazis noted how Britain’s political leadership was drawn from its public schools which they enviously described as ‘having done England the great service of inculcating in each younger generation the traditions of the English ruling class. Here the English gentleman who has no interest in philosophical problems or much knowledge of foreign cultures, who sees Germany as a living embodiment of evil but regarding English imperial power as untouchable, is read. The whole system is designed to bring up men of the most determined will and an energy uninhibited by morality, for him spiritual intellectual problems are a waste of time but to have a knowledge of people and understand how to be ruthlessly dominant.’
Few British religious leaders were targeted for immediate arrest, and relatively little was said about Catholics because the Gestapo did not expect much resistance from that quarter.
The British of all classes are praised for being quite willing to spy for their country, thinking of spies not as criminal informers or paid traitors but as soldiers in an army. It was hoped that such a separation between patriotism and morality would be emulated in Nazi Germany.
The Gestapo also singled out those for possible collaboration. Since Ukrainian experts and emigres in Britain were anti-Bolshevik, they were considered promising possible collaborators with the German occupation.
The director of the National Museums of Scotland, Arthur J H. Edwards, is praised for having been consistently sympathetic to Germany.
Lord Rothermere owner of the Daily Mail was singled out for being alone among the British press barons friendly towards Germany.
No doubt the Nazis approved of the widespread antisemitism amongst members of the British Medical Association.
The Nazis planned to requisition the oil industry alongside other key sectors of the economy including ICI and several car factories, as well as heavy industry, engineering and the banks. They took a strong interest in various leaders of British industry and big business either as potential collaborators.
One wonders what the degree of collaboration that would have occurred between big business and the Nazi occupiers in case of a German invasion but there almost certainly would have been instances of collaboration in industrial Britain as showed by Vichy France. Given the Nazi policy of deporting British males aged from 17 to 52 as forced labour to Germany, some leading industrialists, as in wartime France, might have started by collaborating to protect their workforce from this fate. Other individual business leaders much more sympathetic to Nazism than to communism would most possibly have believed that the future including their own and their shareholders’ futures now lay with the Nazis. The recent opening of MI5 files has revealed that probably hundreds of right-wing extremists joined Nazi networks including the British branch of Siemens during World War II.
What is not clear is whether non-Jewish British businesspersons were to be willingly recruited to serve the Reich with all their international contacts and expertise. A significant element of British banking, business and industry had already had a close, even cordial, social commercial relationship with Nazi Germany between late 1935 and 1939 as is shown by the Anglo-German Fellowship in those years.
The Anglo-German Fellowship
This new Fellowship which had been set up to succeed the original Anglo-German Association had no Jewish members and was blatantly sympathetic to Nazi Germany while claiming to be non-political. It was promoted by von Ribbentrop, the soon-to-be German ambassador to Britain. Members of this elitist fellowship included such influential peers as Lord Nuffield, Lord Lothian, Lord Londonderry, Lord Redesdale and the Duke of Wellington, more than a dozen Conservative MPs on the far-right of the party, the Governor of the Bank of England, Norman Montague, and the merchant banker E.W.D. Tennant, a financial backer of the Fellowship.
Other backers were Geoffrey Dawson, the editor of The Times, the directors of Tate and Lyle, ICI and Distillers, members of the Cliveden set and Frank Cyril Tiarks who visited Germany to give a friendly lecture in Cologne as late as March 1939. Its corporate members included Price Waterhouse, Unilever, Dunlop Rubber, Firth-Vickers, Stainless Steel and several banks.
Exchanges were organised with the Hitler Youth, the British Legion and German ex-servicemen. Members also organised English country house parties where they potted game with delighted visiting Nazis, discreetly raising the swastika among the rhododendrons and dressing up in jackboots and drinking toasts to the Fluhrer. Such activities appealed to a clutch of society hostesses, including Lady Emerald Cunard, Lady Sybil Colefax, Lady Londonderry and Nancy Astor MP who happily entertained von Ribbentrop and helped to make Nazism fashionable. Hitler himself entertained members of the Anglo-German Fellowship along with Lord Rothermere and Lord Beaverbrook.
The professed purpose of the Anglo-German Fellowship was to build social, commercial, sporting and cultural ties with Nazi Germany in the interests of economic advantage and European peace. Off the record, however, was the hope which also been voiced by Sir Henri Deterding, Director of Shell, that there should be an alliance with Germany that would sooner rather than later make triumphant war against Bolshevik Russia. Known as the ‘Napoleon of oil’ and allegedly the most powerful man in the world after 1933, Sir Henri was infatuated in his support for Hitler. As early as 1935, in case of a war he was already planning to sell reserves on credit. When he died in 1939, he was granted a Nazi state funeral in Germany.
It is telling, therefore, that most of those eminent members of The Anglo-German Fellowship were conspicuously absent from the Gestapo’s blacklist. Only when Nancy Astor cooled towards von Ribbentrop as the Second World War approached was she placed on it as someone who was no longer a friend to Germany.
While the intention of The Black Book is to highlight those who were singled out for targeting, the chilling side of the book is to consider those who weren’t and what it tells us about modern Britain today.
The Black Book: The Britons on the Nazi Hitlist by Sybil Oldfield is published by Profile Books,