1941:  Churchill and the BBC

450 words/2 minute read

In June 1941 the Germans invaded Russia and the horrifying events … began.  British Intelligence authorities were able to read many dozens of the top-secret radio circuits, messages being sent from Germany to the front, and from the front to Berlin.  Of some 120 circuits, probably eighty or ninety were broken into and read.  Among them, in the summer of 1941, were top-secret messages sent by the German police forces in the East to Berlin.  It is they which first give an idea, not of the full scale of the slaughter in the East, but a clear intimation that it is taking place – and taking place on a systematic scale.

 Between 18 July and 30 August 1941, at least seven such top-secret signals were read by British Intelligence.  They referred to four categories of victims:  Jews, Jewish plunderers, Jewish Bolsheviks and Russian soldiers.  They reported, if one adds them up, more than 50,000 executions in an area where we now know many hundreds of thousands of killings were taking place.  Churchill was shown these.  In a speech in September he referred to the killings in the East as being unprecedented and barbaric. 

On 12 September 1941 which was shortly before the Babi Yar executions in Kiev, the chief of the Ordnungspolizei in Berlin gave an instruction that no more information was to be sent by top-secret radio messages.  I suspect we will never know why he did this.  The result was that all subsequent information was sent by telephone, which could not be listened to; or by letter, personal report, and by courier.  This small incomplete window on the Einsatzgruppen killings was closed almost as soon as it had been opened.  Only sixteen days after the order not to transmit by radio, the Babi Yar executions took place, and 33,000 were murdered in three days.

Churchill was in dispute at this time with the British Broadcasting Corporation.  He had a general view that publicity about the mass murders was essential.  The Jewish groups who approached him strongly favoured and urged such publicity.  But the BBC, in its internal memoranda and in its policy for many months, sought not to emphasise what it called the “racial aspects” of the killings:  not to stress the Jewish aspect.  Their internal argument was that this would give some negative impact to the propaganda value of showing that the Nazis were carrying out mass murder.  Yet Churchill persevered with his attempt to make publicity as wide as possible, and eventually, both the BBC and the newspapers began to publish quite substantial articles on the killings as they reached the West. 

Excerpt from Sir Martin’s “Churchill and the Holocaust” lecture, delivered 8 November 1993 at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, published by the International Churchill Societies, 1995.

On 9 January 2024, Esther will be reading from this speech, zoomed by the Sir Martin Gilbert Learning Centre.  Click here to reserve your place.

Read: Churchill and the Jews

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