Britain and the Holocaust: A Critique

William D. Rubinstein takes issue with the argument that Britain could have done more to prevent the Holocaust.

Education about the Holocaust – the attempt by Hitler and the Nazis to exterminate the Jews of Europe – is now compulsory in British schools. The Holocaust is now regarded as one of the seminal events of modern history, probably the lowest depths to which Western man has ever descended, and it has been endlessly debated by historians. Recently, the Holocaust Educational Trust has published a brief, attractively produced booklet on one aspect of this subject, Britain and the Holocaust , written by Professor David Cesarani of the University of Southampton, which will doubtless have an extremely wide circulation in schools. In some respects the booklet is a balanced account of this question, mentioning the important role of non-Jewish Britons such as Eleanor Rathbone in providing assistance for refugees. But in most respects it is totally lacking in historical balance or context.

The purpose of this essay is to highlight some of the very misleading aspects of Britain and the Holocaust , and it is my hope that this essay can form part of the basis of classroom discussions of Britain's role in the Holocaust. In particular, Cesarani fails to take into account the changing nature of Hitler's anti-Semitism, the grim military realities under which Britain was fighting, or the virtual impossibility of the rescue of significant numbers of Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe. The booklet is, instead, a one-sided indictment of British policy in the Holocaust, blaming Britain for ‘crimes’ that she did not commit. It is also written with the perspective of hindsight and fails to appreciate that what is now long in the past was once equally far in the future, and thus unknowable at the time.

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