‘Unwarrantable Interference’ – Hitler’s murderous repression is not ‘our business.’

Pretext No. 9 –

for British appeasement of Nazi Germany

Attlee – “I do not believe that you will do very much by outlawing the Nazi regime.”

There were also other commentators, throughout the thirties, who thought that it shouldn’t be our concern to consider the rights and wrongs of what was happening. An editorial in the Church Times in August 1933 reasoned that the round up of German Jews and Socialists, even if it was distasteful, wasn’t any of Britain’s business. So long as the Nazis “confined themselves to murdering German socialists and taking (the) livelihood away from German Jews,” that was “a matter of internal policy, concerning which other nations… (have) no right of protest.”[1]

Three months earlier, on 31 May, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Cosmo Gordon Lang, speaking in the House of Lords, had expressed a more compassionate view,  deploring “the oppression of members of the Jewish race” in Germany,  but he reminded fellow peers that “we must make allowances for the heat of revolution and we may even admit that there have been elements in the influence of the Jews in German life which may have irritated their fellow citizens.”  He also made it clear that in voicing his abhorrence for the persecution of German Jews he didn’t wish to provoke the Nazi regime and he was pleased to notice that “there is no motion on this subject,” commenting, “and it is not desirable that there should be.”.[2] Presumably on the grounds that the Germans would view any such motion as an unwelcome interference in their internal affairs. Possibly such sentiments explain why the following year von Ribbentrop, after dining with the Archbishop,  noted that he was “a kind of English National Socialist.”[3]

Cosmo Gordon Lang – “A kind of English National Socialist”. Image Wikipedia

An editorial in The Times on 22 March had put forward a near identical anti-interventionist view, arguing that “however much foreign friends of the country may deplore the cruelties inflicted by German upon German, the destitution of patriotic servants of the state on account of their political beliefs, the brutal maltreatment of artists and tradespeople on account of their racial origin, and the destruction of cultural values – all that is primarily a matter for Germany herself. Only if these methods were to be applied to foreign subjects, or transferred to the field of foreign affairs, would they become a matter of concern to other countries.”[4]  Other national and regional newspapers seem to have shared the same strongly non-interventionist ideology.  The Western Morning News commenting on 15 May that “Germany has as much right to go Fascist as Italy and perhaps a very good reason for the Germans are not a political people. Even the persecutions, though deplorable, are not strictly our business.”[5]

This right of the Nazi regime to treat its own people as it wanted and the conviction that Britain had no right to “meddle” in Germany’s “business” had quickly become a key article of faith of the establishment’s ideology.  The statements by the press and church on the issue were mirrored by a declaration in parliament by Lord Hailsham.  Speaking on behalf of the British government as  leader of the House of Lords,  on 30 March,  he argued that any official representation made on behalf of Germany’s Jews would be “an unwarrantable interference,” declaring “I think it would be only right that I should say at once that the British government do not think they can claim to have any special right to intervene with regard to German subjects who are of the Jewish race.”[6]

Lord Hailsham “unwarrantable interference” – image Wikipedia

The Times gave its wholehearted approval, again cautioning its readers, that “As Lord Hailsham pointed out on Thursday in the House of Lords, there can be no question of official intervention by this country on behalf of the subjects of another state.” It then tried to justify its position by making the dubious assertion that any robust political action against a nation, as yet highly dependent on Britain economically and still virtually unarmed,  “would only make the position of the German Jews more perilous and would provoke German nationalism to frenzy.”[7]

Such negative thinking seemed to ignore two points. First that the extreme nature of Nazi antisemitism could never be tempered by conciliatory diplomacy and second it overlooked Germany’s relative strategic and economic vulnerability in 1933 to external political pressure.  Even The Times itself admitted in an editorial in May, that “Germany cannot afford to antagonize the entire world. In her weakened condition she least of all is capable of living in isolation.”[8]  Yet, despite such an acknowledgement, there was no discernible change in the paper’s “no interference” stance.

The use of the term “unwarranted interference” by Lord Hailsham in parliament in March appeared to apply to any action ranging from diplomatic criticism of Nazi atrocities to threats of economic or military sanctions. However, in May 1933, the Foreign Office went even further by arguing, in an internal memorandum to the Home Office, that any action to obtain the support of the League of Nations to resettle the thousands of refugees fleeing the regime would be equally inadvisable as the Germans would consider it “an act of unwarranted interference, it not hostility, and Sir John Simon (the foreign secretary) could  not advise that it should be made.”[9]

Einstein accused of “alien agitation” – image Wikipedia

The no-interference viewpoint was again advanced forcefully in October by the London Evening News, one of London’s two leading newspapers. It warned its readers not to attend a fund raising event for European refugees at the Albert Hall, which was to be addressed by Professor Einstein, the best known of the few German Jewish exiles who had been allowed to enter Britain.  Einstein had assured the press a week prior to the event that he did not intend “to make an attack on the German government,”[10] but to many the very idea of the talk seemed subversive.

By the evening of Tuesday 3 October, when the meeting convened, every seat in the hall was taken. Although the professor confined his talk, according to The Times, mostly to comments on “intellectual and individual freedom,” and although, as the New Statesman noted,  the event was “quite unpolitical”,  Einstein did make a passing reference to “innocent scholars who had been persecuted.”[11] The London Evening News,  had anticipated such dangerously candid comments.  “The lecture,” it had warned in an editorial earlier that day, “is a piece of alien agitation on British soil” and it stressed that whatever one felt about the treatment of Jews by the Nazi regime,  no one should forget the cardinal principle of not interfering in the internal affairs of other countries.

Intelligent and patriotic people will stay carefully away…,” it advised, “not because they necessarily approve of everything done under the Hitler regime, but because ‘fair play’ as they see it, means allowing the Germans to run their own country in their own way exactly as we demand the right to run our country in our own way.”[12]

In Scotland the “no meddling” dogma also had powerful adherents. In February 1934, under the headline “Minding Her Own Business,” the Scottish Borders local newspaper, the Southern Reporter, carried an account of a speech by the Conservative Unionist politician Lord William Scott, according to which he informed a Unionist meeting at Selkirk that “although he was not very keen on a Fascist regime,” he thought “it was no accident that Hitler was adopted by a nation of intelligent Germans,” since “it was a sheer necessity produced by the hopeless failure of a Socialist government,” before he went on to make a powerful plea for Britain “minding her own business.”[13]

More surprisingly the view that Germany’s internal policies, however disagreeable, shouldn’t influence Britain’s foreign policy was also central to the editorial decisions of the progressive Manchester Guardian. In March 1935, its editor, William Percival Crozier, reprimanded Robert Dell, the paper’s Geneva correspondent, for allowing his heartfelt hatred of Nazism to influence his reporting  “It simply won’t do, in my opinion, to treat Germany as an outlaw, or a mad dog; she is entitled to have ‘equality’, whether she is run by Nazis or Communists or anyone else.”[14]

The “mind our own business” mindset also influenced the foreign policy judgements of another icon of many progressive intellectuals – Ramsay MacDonald,  the illegitimate son of a farm labourer, who had, for ten months during 1924,  served as Britain’s first Labour prime minister. Though, from 1931, MacDonald headed a national government coalition of 470 Conservative, 35 Liberal and just 13 National Labour MPs, at heart he still considered himself a committed socialist.

It is true that many viewed MacDonald as a self serving pragmatist and some on the left considered him a “Judas”,[15] but, relative to the mainstream of establishment opinion, his beliefs were still considered progressive, verging even on what some deemed dangerously radical.  In March 1933, an editorial in the Daily Express demanded that Conservative MPs force the “Socialist MacDonald” out of office, declaring that “MacDonald and his friends will wreck the Conservative Party in the constituencies (its future election chances).”[16]   So it is noteworthy that in April 1933, the prime minister  admitted to Leopold von Hoesch, the German ambassador, that he himself held the same opinion as his Conservative and Liberal colleagues in government, that whatever happened within the German frontiers was an internal matter. Hoesch was then able to convey the good news to the German foreign ministry that the British prime minister considered that the Nazis were “not to be treated as renegades on account of the internal affairs of the regime.”[17]

The same month, MacDonald also made clear his strong non-interventionist position in parliament. On 6 April,  when he was asked by John Morris, Conservative MP for Salford North, to consider a motion which requested a debate on Jewish persecution in parliament along with “friendly representations” to the German government, MacDonald refused, claiming that “the press of parliamentary business makes it impossible to allot time for the discussion of this motion.” When Morris then asked him if there was no way of expressing to the German government the “strong feeling that obviously exists upon all sides against the persecution of Jews in Germany,” MacDonald again dismissed the request, explaining that “it is a matter of discretion and we are quite willing at the moment to leave it where it is.”[18]

Possibly, a less contentious example from the progressive end of establishment thinking is that of Clement Attlee, who was later to head the post war Labour government which created Britain’s welfare state and nationalised key industries.  As early as 7 November 1933 he had also spoken out clearly against taking any action against the Nazi regime, declaring in parliament that “I do not believe it is very much use in this House to indulge in strong language against the Nazi regime. I do not believe that you will do very much by outlawing the Nazi regime…. We have to live in the same world as Germany under its present rulers,” and he added that “it is useless, if you believe in anything like world peace, to think that you can have relations only with those States whose internal organisation or policy you like.”[19]

He appears to have maintained this view, which mirrored that of the rest of the British establishment, throughout most of the 1930s.  On 26 October 1935,  the first day after his appointment as interim Labour Party Leader,  he attended a rally of 20,000 in Hyde Park to protest the Nazi persecution of Jews, other minorities and political opponents.  However, Attlee made it clear that, though they were there to “rally the forces of public opinion against a foul thing,” he was not going “to ask our government to take particular action.”[20]  However even this highly qualified endorsement of public resentment at Nazi crimes, provoked a stern word of caution from the London Evening News which suggested that such protests might be better directed at Soviet Russia. “Do not deplorable things happen in other countries ?” it asked, before reminding Londoners that “the Nazi regime came into power in Germany through one of the most bloodless revolutions in history. No regime anywhere commands such enthusiasm from the nation it rules.  But what of Russia… ?“[21]

Three months later, in January 1936, the same mentality of favouring supposed political “neutrality” influenced a decision by Bradford City Council, a town with a sizable German Jewish population.[22] The council met to decide which European countries to send students to on language courses.  Dr. D. Black, a Jewish councilor, made a passionate, but futile, plea to suspend exchange programmes with the Nazi regime.  He reminded his colleagues that anyone visiting Germany was confronted with notices such as ‘Jews not wanted here’ and ‘Jews clear out’ and that students could not safely be hosted in houses occupied by Jews.

“If members of the council have one spark of humanity or fellow-feeling in them they would vote against the proposed interchange of students because the psychological effect on Bradford children visiting Germany would be terrific (appalling).”

D. H. Waterhouse, Chairman of the Education Committee,  was first to oppose what he called “political bias,” arguing that although “there is a good deal of wrong-doing in Germany… that is not the point we are considering.”  He was strongly supported by Douglas Hamilton, former president of the Bradford Chamber of Commerce, who said that “he did not think Bradford children going abroad would worry much about politics,” and warned “Do not let a valuable institution break down because the present situation in Germany, (which is) not a permanent one, is not all that we could wish.”  The council then decided, by 35 to 26 votes, to continue sending Bradford’s students to Germany with the one condition that they should be securely hosted by non-Jewish hosts.[23]

The non-judgmental and non-interventionist view also continued to remain the predominant ideology among key politicians at least as late as 1937. In May that year,  shortly before Sir Nevile Henderson was appointed as the new British ambassador in Berlin, he was advised by Chamberlain that it was not Britain’s business “to interfere with forms of government which other countries chose to have.” Chamberlain doubtless knew that this outlook matched perfectly with Henderson’s own pro-German sympathies which he had already outlined in a memorandum the same month.  “It is not even just,” he had argued, “to endeavour to prevent Germany from completing her unity or from being prepared for war against the Slav, provided her preparations are such as to reassure the British Empire that they are not simultaneously designed against it.”[24]

A more surprising advocate of non-intervention that year was Winston Churchill.  In an article published on 17 September, in both the Evening Standard and the Yorkshire Post, he made it clear that he believed Britain had no right to take a stand on the Nazi persecution of the Jews. “We cannot say,” he confessed, “that we admire your (The Nazi regime’s) treatment of the Jews or of the Protestants and the Catholics of Germany. We even think our methods of dealing with communism are better than yours. But, after all, these matters, as long as they are confined inside Germany, are not our business.”[25] In other words although he did not approve of  Hitler’s treatment of the Jews, so long as the Nazis didn’t seek to assassinate anyone outside Germany’s borders,  it was none of Britain’s business what murderous policies Hitler pursued inside Germany.

Not surprisingly, the British establishment did not wish to welcome Jewish refugees from the Nazi terror to Britain. As early as April 1933,  the Daily Express under the headline “Watch For Refugees” noted that “special precautions were taken to prevent Jewish refugees from entering” the country at Folkestone, which was expecting the arrival of 500 Germans by ferry for an Easter Sunday day trip to London.[26] Later that year, on 30 August 1933, three German Jews were convicted at Old Street Police Court in London on the charge that “being aliens they were found in the United Kingdom having landed without leave of an immigration officer.”   Istow Tondonsky, 28 years of age, a decorator, Ludwig Starogubski, also 28 years, a tailor, and Israel Grubsbztejn, 22, handbag maker, were each sentenced to three months imprisonment.[27]

Their crime was to smuggle themselves on to a cargo ship in order to flee the Nazi anti-Jewish purges. Tondonsky had been taken at gunpoint to the Braunhaus, the Nazi headquarters in Munich, where he had been warned that he would be shot if he did not immediately leave the country. Starogubski had survived over four months of detention after he had declined an “alternative offer” to emigrate and Grubsztejn endured six weeks of imprisonment, without any court appearance, but at the end of his sentence he was warned that if he did not leave Germany within five days he would be detained for life in a concentration camp.[28]

The Nottingham Evening Post, under the headlines, “Jewish Refugees from Germany – A Grave Matter if We are Inundated with Them,” reported the magistrate Herbert Metcalfe’s concluding remarks. He accepted that it was “very unfair that respectable men of Jewish origin should (have to) come here and that it should mean the taxpayers having to keep them if they were imprisoned.”  However his overriding concern, already expressed in the the headline, was that “it was a very grave matter… if we were to be inundated with German Jews. The only thing he could do was to direct that they should be imprisoned for three months with a recommendation for deportation.”[29]

We do not know whether Starogubski pondered the irony that the length of his sentence for daring to enter Britain illegally was almost as long as that originally imposed by the Nazis for defying orders to leave Germany.  All three refugees appealed and their case was brought before the London Sessions in October. Sir Percival Clarke, the chairman, overruled the prison sentence, but upheld the deportation order, reaffirming the concern expressed by the magistrate in the initial hearing.  “We must not let the idea get abroad that this country will welcome people who come in contrary to the Aliens order.”[30]  It is not known what happened to them after they were forcibly returned to Germany but it is unlikely that any of them survived the holocaust.

The establishment continued to believe that it was dangerous for Britain to indicate too much sympathy for Nazi victims within Germany’s borders if this meant that the government might need either to open Britain’s borders to help such refugees or to threaten sanctions or military measures which might see Hitler’s regime replaced by a socialist or even, in the deluded nightmares of some, a communist government.  Even as late as the spring of 1940, six months after the outbreak of war, Nevile Henderson was still stressing that Britain’s fight with Germany had nothing to do with her barbaric treatment and persecution of Jews, trade unionists and political opponents. “Internal oppression,” he explained, “was the German nation’s own affair.” It “was distinct for me from external aggression, which was a British concern; and when I first went to Berlin (as ambassador in 1937), I felt that it was unjust and impolitic finally to condemn a whole system because of certain of its most obvious vices.”[31]


1. The Church Times, 11 August 1933, p159.

2. “The Primate Appeals To Germany,” the Yorkshire Post, 1 June 1933 p3

3. Andrew Morton (2015), “17 Carnations: The Windsors, the Nazis and the Cover-Up,” Michael O’Mara Books Limited, p57

4. “The Spirit of Potsdam,” Editorial in The Times, 22 March 1933 p15 accessed online in The Times Digital Archive on 20 July 2017.

5. “Our London Letter”, the Western Morning News and Daily Gazette, 15 May 1933, p6

6. Lord Hailsham quoted in “Position of Jews in Germany,”  the Yorkshire Post, 31 March 1933 p7

7. “According to Plan ?” The Times, 3 April 1933 p15 accessed online in The Times Digital Archive on 20 July 2017.

8. “A Challenge To Peace,” The Times, 16 May 1933, p15 accessed online in The Times Digital Archive on 21 July 2017

9.  A.J. Sherman (1973), “Island Refuge: Britain and Refugees from the Third Reich,” Elek Books Limited, London p113

10. “Einstein and the Nazis,” the Daily Mirror, 27 September 1933 p2

11. “Dr Einstein on Liberty,” The Times, 4 October 1933 accessed online in The Times Digital Archive on 21 July 2017. The first and last quotes were taken from The Times but the comment that the event “was quite unpolitical” is from the New Statesman cited in Russell Mark Wallis (PhD Thesis) (2010) “The Vagaries of British Compassion: A contextualized Analysis of British Reactions to the Persecutions of Jews Under Nazi Rule,” Royal Holloway, University of London p224.

12. The London Evening News, Editorials on 27 September and 3 October 1933 quoted in Andrew Sharf (1964), “The British Press and Jews under Nazi Rule,” Oxford University Press,  London p41.

13. “Minding Her Own Business,” The Southern Reporter, 15 February 1934, p6

14. Crozier to Dell, 12 March 1935, The Manchester Guardian Archives, quoted in Franklin Reid Gannon (1971), “The British Press and Germany: 1936-1939,” Clarendon Press, Oxford p78-79

15. See “Word ‘Judas’ Raises Storm,” the Daily Mirror, 16 March 1933, p4

16. “These Ministers Must Go !” Editorial in the Daily Express, 15 March 1933, p10

17. Hoesch to the Foreign Ministry cited in Richard Griffiths (1983), “Fellow Travellers of the Right,” Oxford University Press, 1983, p116.

18. See “The German Persecution,” the Manchester Guardian, 7 April 1933 p10, “Position of Jews in Germany,” the Yorkshire Post, 7 April 1933 p7 and Hansard online at http://hansard.millbanksystems.com/commons/1933/apr/06/germany#S5CV0276P0_19330406_HOC_138

19. Clement Attlee speaking in the House of Commons on 7 November 1933, Hansard online at http://hansard.millbanksystems.com/commons/1933/nov/07/disarmament

20. “Persecution of Jews in Germany,” The Times, 28 October 1935 p11 accessed online in The Times Digital Archive on 21 July 2017

21. The London Evening News, 28 October 1935 quoted in Andrew Sharf (1964) “The British Press and Jews Under Nazi Rule,” Oxford University Press, p56

22. For a history of the Jews in Bradford including an account of the important contribution of German Jews see http://bradfordjewish.org.uk/a-history-of-jewish-bradford/

23. “Bradford Students’ Visits to Germany Not to Stop,” the Yorkshire Post, 15 January 1936 p4

24. Neville Chamberlain and Sir Nevile Henderson quoted in Ian Kershaw (2004) “Making Friends with Hitler: Lord Londonderry and Britain’s Road to War,” Allen Lane, Penguin Books, p201

25. Winston Churchill, “Friendship with Germany”, the Yorkshire Post, 17 September 1937, p10.

26. “Watch For Refugees”, the Daily Express, 17 April 1933 p7. See also “Harbour Traffic,” the Folkestone Herald, 15 April 1933 p15

27. “Jewish Refugees from Germany – A Grave Matter if We are Inundated with Them,” the Nottingham Evening Post, 31 August 1933, p5

28. “Dragged out of Bed by Nazis,” The Daily Worker, 14 October 1933 p1

29. “Jewish Refugees from Germany – A Grave Matter if We are Inundated with Them,” the Nottingham Evening Post, 31 August 1933, p5

30. “Deportation Order for Men who Landed in Secret”, the Daily Express, 14 October 1933, p3

31. Sir Nevile Henderson (1940), “Failure of a Mission: Berlin 1937-39,” G.P. Putnam’s Sons, New York, p25