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Societal reactions to the Holocaust

Before addressing the reaction of Britain’s far right to the news of the Holocaust, it is necessary to add a level of contextualisation by addressing the general public’s reaction, levels of public antisemitism at the time and the effect of the Palestine Crisis. Only by doing this is it possible to discern whether the reactions of the far right were different, exceptional and noteworthy. Today the tragedy of the Holocaust has entered the wider public consciousness via thousands of books, documentaries, films, monuments and events such as the annual Holocaust Memorial Day. Most people, except a coterie of Nazis, fascists, Hitler worshippers and discredited deniers, accept that somewhere in the region of six million Jews and many hundreds of thousands from among other minority groups were systematically exterminated by the Nazis’ industrial extermination programme.

Until recently, the traditional consensual narrative on the public’s concept of the Holocaust during the years in question generally agreed that while the liberation of the death camps provoked major media coverage, the general public were left with a wholly incomplete understanding of the events due to news reports that tended to focus on concentration camps rather than the death camps. As such the British public, while well informed about the conditions in the Belsen camp, liberated by the British armed forces, were on the whole ignorant of the mass extermination of Jews in Eastern Europe.22 However, more recently historians such as David Cesa-rani have provided fresh evidence that re-assesses and challenges the old consensus that said survivors stayed silent, resulting in few memoirs as well as lack ofcoverage in the media and popular culture such as literature and films. Quite to the contrary in fact, Cesarani states that by the mid 1950s ‘there were so many books on Nazi atrocities that authors and publishers felt the need to apologise for the appearance of yet more’2’ and that if the ‘wartime plight of the Jews was spoken of less often in public discourse from the early 1950s onward it may have been because it was too well known to bear reiteration’.24 In addition the newsreels of the period focused heavily on the liberation of the camps and clearly showed the nature of Nazi atrocities, and in 1945-1946 had a regular audience of about 26 million per week in Britain plus the majority of the armed forces abroad.25 Similarly, the American media also flooded society with news of Nazi atrocities. In 1945 between 20 April and 11 May, the New York Tinies alone ran 105 atrocity-related items including 82 articles and 23 pictures, which was an average of three articles and one picture daily. It has been estimated that this is more than 1,280 column inches of space - an average of 75 inches daily - devoted to informing the American public about the news of Nazi crimes.2'’ As was the case in Britain, many Americans also saw the newsreels from the camps, with somewhere between 65 million and 85 million people visiting the cinemas each week.27

On the charge that the British public were aware of only Belsen and ignorant of the Eastern death camps it is worth noting that following the Belsen Trial in the autumn of 1945 the camp’s relationship with the death camp of Auschwitz in the East was firmly established.21* As Cesarani has stated, ‘If there was widespread ignorance in Britain about the death camps in “the east” it was not for lack of material’.2’ Furthermore, by late 1945 the fact that up to six million Jews had been exterminated was widely accepted.3" For example, the journalist and anti-fascist Frederic Mullally, writing in 1946 on whether one should take the resurrection of British fascism seriously, argued that not to do so ‘is to turn our backs, with a shrug of indifference, on the foul inhumanity ofBelsen and Buchenwald, on the memory of six million innocent men, women and children fiendishly butchered on the high altar of fascism’.31 While the general public in the late 1940s and 1950s may have lacked the comprehensive and structural understanding of the Holocaust that we possess today, there was sufficient understanding and acceptance of Nazi atrocities against the Jewish people to make some of the opinions expressed by British fascists in the immediate postwar period both exceptional and inexcusable. It is important to understand the public consciousness of Nazi atrocities so as to challenge the denial of later British fascists and apologists who have often claimed ignorance of the Holocaust as the primary defence when seeking to reform the image of early deniers. When writing about his fathers reaction to Nazi atrocities Nicholas Mosley partly aimed to excuse Oswald, the leading British fascist of the age, by stating, ‘This was a time when the worst stories of German atrocities had not yet come out’.32 Apologetic claims such as this are regularly trotted out by antisemites or those with a vested interest in reforming the tarnished character of either themselves or others. However, the work of historians such as Tony Kushner and David Cesarani has provided the necessary evidence to challenge the apologetic assertions of those who aim to whitewash the black mark of denial from next to their name by proclaiming widespread ignorance of Nazi atrocities.

However, despite the spike in societal antisemitism that resulted from the Palestine crisis, it is worth reiterating that the vast majority of people remained convinced by the overwhelming evidence of Nazi atrocities. Any lingering doubts that the news of Nazi horrors had been wartime propaganda were usually dashed by the radio and newsreel reports from the camps. As the Daily Express exhibition of photographs from Belsen, Buchenwald and Nordhausen put it: ‘Seeing is Believing’.33 This was an age when the idea that ‘the camera does not lie’ was widely accepted. 34 Thus when judging the reactions of Britain’s fascists to the news of Nazi atrocities it is worth remembering that while events in Palestine angered many and reduced public sympathy towards the Jews it did not lead to widespread denial of the facts. As recent scholarship has shown, while the structural and comprehensive understanding of the Holocaust that we possess today was not yet in place, the understanding that the Nazis had engaged in the widespread extermination of Jews resulting in the death of up to six million was widely accepted by the late 1940s and throughout the 1950s.

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