On January 9th, the Sir Martin Gilbert Learning Centre zoomed a reading of one of Martin Gilbert‘s greatest lectures. Read by Lady Gilbert, it brought back memories of a memorable evening. (Video on YouTube.) The 1993 presentation included an introduction and afterword by my friend and colleague Dr. Cyril Mazansky, who lost part of his family in the Holocaust. By the end there wasn’t a dry eye in the lecture hall.
“Churchill and the Holocaust: The Possible and Impossible” was delivered on 8 November 1993 the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. As editor for the old Churchill Centre, I published it in our Proceedings series two years later. Alas today, copies are scarce and often pricey. Esther Gilbert did us a service by reprising this vital piece of history.
Sir Martin’s speech
In the Q&A session, the question came up of how Martin Gilbert spoke. Did he have detailed notes or a script? I was able to relate my experience at the very first lecture of his I attended in 1985. His method was extraordinary. I have never seen anything like it. You can read my recollections here.
Lady Gilbert and Dr. Mazansky have permitted me send a transcript of both speeches to anyone who wishes a copy. Simply email my contact link. (Your email is never given out or used for promotions in any way.) She has also permitted us to publish the text on the Hillsdale College Churchill Project. (You can subscribe to its free weekly updates here: Scroll to bottom, and fill in your email in the box entitled “Stay in touch with us.” (Again, your email is secure.)
Why so little in Churchill’s memoirs?
Another question was why Churchill wrote so little about the Holocaust in his war memoirs. There were sound reasons for this. Intelligence restrictions were still in place on many aspects of the war, and war crimes trials were occurring. Also, Churchill had an understandable reluctance to criticize American officials such as John McCloy, who blocked his order to bomb the railway lines to Auschwitz. The war had ended. but a new cold war was on. Churchill was never wont to open a quarrel with allies over the past. And, as Lady Gilbert pointed out, it wasn’t actually known as the “Holocaust” for years later.
Churchill, however, brought out the sickening evidence uncovered by the liberating armies, long before his war memoirs. I have supplied these to the Learning Centre:
19 April 1945
Churchill to the House of Commons:
No words can express the horror which is felt by His Majesty’s Government and their principal Allies at the proofs of these frightful crimes now daily coming into view. I have this morning received an informal message from General Eisenhower saying that the new discoveries, particularly at Weimar, far surpass anything previously exposed. He invites me to send a body of Members of Parliament at once to his Headquarters in order that they may themselves have ocular and first-hand proof of these atrocities.
The matter is one of urgency, as of course it is not possible to arrest the processes of decay in many cases. In view of this urgency, I have come to the conclusion that eight Members of this House, and two Members of the House of Lords, should form a Parliamentary Delegation, and should travel out at once to the Supreme Headquarters, where General Eisenhower will make all the necessary arrangements for their inspection of the scenes, whether in American or British sectors.
Members who volunteer for this extremely unpleasant but none the less necessary duty should give their names to their Party Whips, in order that a body representative of all Parties may be selected by the usual methods during this afternoon. I should propose that they should start to-morrow.I hope that the House will approve of the somewhat rapid decision I have taken.
The delegation was duly sent, and what came to be called the Holocaust was duly and shockingly reported to Parliament and the public.
26 April 1945
A week later Churchill rose again in the House of Commons to declare that the German Reich would be held responsible for the care of all prisoners, not just military POWs:
The Allied warning to Germany about the care of prisoners is not in principle limited to Allied prisoners of war, internees and deported citizens of the United Nations. Its scope extends to all prisoners in Nazi hands, of whatever race, origin or religion, including Stateless Jews and German and Austrian political prisoners who have suffered as a result of sympathy with or activities on behalf of the cause for which the United Nations are fighting.
His Majesty’s Government, in common with other Governments of the United Nations, have repeatedly declared their intention to hold enemy authorities responsible for the maltreatment of persons who have been imprisoned on grounds of race and religion. I must add that in framing this answer I have not had time to consult other Allied Governments upon its actual terms. But I cannot conceive there is the slightest difference between us on the main principles.
Sir Martin in his remarks also covered developments in Palestine as the war ended. The Holocaust heightened the desire of stateless Jews in Europe to emigrate to West Palestine. (This was one-seventh of the full Palestine Mandate, the rest being East Palestine, now Jordan.) For examples of Churchill’s distress over the Labour Government’s performance in this area, see my two timelines:
1 August 1946
Churchill continued to brood publicly over the Holocaust. From my book, Churchill by Himself, again in Parliament:
I must say that I had no idea, when the war came to an end, of the horrible massacres which had occurred; the millions and millions that have been slaughtered. That dawned on us gradually after the struggle was over.
Editor’s note: As his biographer Sir Martin Gilbert has shown, Churchill had only limited awareness of the extent of the Holocaust during the war; his reactions to the news were in keeping with his character.
The Dream, 1947
The Dream was Churchill’s fanciful short story about conversing with his long-dead father in 1947. In it he explains all that had happened since his father died in 1895. The full text is available. Referring again to the Holocaust, he described the two World Wars:
“Papa,” I said, “in each of them about thirty million men were killed in battle. In the last one seven million were murdered in cold blood, mainly by the Germans. They made human slaughter-pens like the Chicago stockyards. Europe is a ruin. Many of her cities have been blown to pieces by bombs. Ten capitals in Eastern Europe are in Russian hands…. Far gone are the days of Queen Victoria and a settled world order. But, having gone through so much, we do not despair.”
The magic name of Churchill has allowed me the privilege of meeting or knowing many figures that I would otherwise know only from reading. Robert Hardy, William F. Buckley, William Manchester, Alistair Cooke, Fitzroy Maclean, Anthony Montague Browne, Margaret Thatcher and Mary Soames come to mind. From no one did I learn as much about judicious, honest history, and how to write it, than from Martin Gilbert. I encounter his words almost every day. Esther’s words brought him back again to life. He lives in memory.