Sir Martin Gilbert on Churchill and the Holocaust

Sir Martin Gilbert on Churchill and the Holocaust

Holocaust historians

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.

Palestine, 1945-49

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:

Churchill and Pales­tine, 1945-46

Churchill and the Road to Israel, 1947-49

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.

More on Sir Martin Gilbert

“In Search of Churchill by Mar­tin Gilbert: An Appre­ci­a­tion,” 2023.

“Sir Mar­tin Gilbert CBE 1936-2015, Part 1,” 2015.

“Sir Mar­tin Gilbert CBE 1936-2015, Part 2,” 2015.

“Gilbert and Man­ches­ter: Com­ple­men­tary Biog­ra­phers,” 2012.

One thought on “Sir Martin Gilbert on Churchill and the Holocaust

  1. I had the plea­sure of meet­ing Sir Mar­tin twice.
    I found him kind and a man of sin­cere humility.
    Although we dis­cussed oth­er WWII issues not relat­ed to the Holo­caust, I firm­ly believe he cap­tured all of the most rel­e­vant aspects of Churchill’s life as evi­denced by his writ­ings on all things Churchill includ­ing Churchill’s mem­oirs on the Holocaust.
    I was shocked when I was told of his pass­ing and I had been look­ing for a way to hon­our him. I hope with these few words I have accom­plished this.

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