Who tried to silence Churchill’s 1930s Warnings about Nazi Germany?
Featured Image: “The Wood-Carvings of M’Bongo M’Bongo: A Struethsayer or Prophet of Doom.” Cartoonist J.L. Carstairs lampoons Churchill’s dire predictions of the threat from Nazi Germany. (Punch, 12 September 1934)
Q: Did Churchill’s Conservative Party try to discourage publishers from printing his articles in an effort to diminish his warnings about Germany in the 1930s? Martin Gilbert’s In Search of Churchill contains a chapter on this, and Churchill’s unique sources of information, such as Ralph Wigram. While Gilbert mentions Conservative attempts to discount Churchill, I don’t see anything about them ordering the newspapers to silence him. —K.M., Chicago
A: John Reith, first director-general of the British Broadcasting Corporation (1927-38), and Geoffrey Dawson, editor of The Times (1912-19, 1923-41), tried harder to silence Churchill than the Conservative Party. Both were reflective of the Conservative establishment, which considered Churchill a dangerous troublemaker both in broadcasts and in print. Reith’s editors at The Times trimmed the dispatches of their Berlin correspondent, Norman Ebbutt, claiming they were too long. Churchill insisted they were cut because they told too much of the truth.
In 1988 BBC Radio aired the documentary “Conspiracy of Silence.” Producer Denys Blakeway argued that Reith’s BBC deliberately misled the public by supporting Chamberlain’s appeasement policy and censoring Churchill’s criticisms. Blakeway said the BBC had abandoned its principle of independence as early as 1933. Reith, he charged, suppressed programs hostile to Hitler or to the government’s foreign policy. But an organized effort to silence Churchill is difficult to prove. Sir William Haley, who headed both the BBC and edited The Times, claimed that the political parties, not the BBC, controlled the selection of speakers (see Moran excerpt below). Churchill had never enjoyed broad support among the Conservatives, whom he had abandoned in 1904-24 and opposed on the India Act in the early 1930s.
The strongest party effort to silence Churchill was an attempt to de-select him as a Member of Parliament for Epping in 1938. This, however, was a local effort by a Conservative apparatchik, Colin Thornton-Kemsley. At the outbreak of the war in 1939, Kemsley apologized. Churchill’s reply was characteristic: “I certainly think that Englishmen ought to start fair with one another from the outset in so grievous a struggle, and so far as I am concerned the past is dead.” (See Thornton-Kemsley, “Winston Secures his Base” in Through Winds and Tides, 1974, pp. 26-36.)
There is no evidence that the Conservative Central Office tried to silence his articles. Churchill continued to write foreign affairs columns for the Daily Telegraph after his column was dropped by Beaverbrook’s Evening Standard in early 1938. (Many articles from both newspapers were collected in his 1939 book, Step by Step.) The Telegraph later came round to Churchill’s thinking about Germany.
Wickham Steed, former editor of The Times (1919-23), wrote presciently in Picture Post on 25 February 1939: “Were I asked whether I think Winston would be a good Prime Minister, I should say, ‘He might in a supreme crisis be the greatest Prime Minister the country has known since the days of the younger Pitt.’ But the crisis would have to be so big as to surpass even his powers of dramatizing it.” Steed’s successor, Geoffrey Dawson, remained an implacable foe until war was declared. (See Gilbert, In Search of Churchill excerpt, below.)
The newspapers were not government-censored and varied in their judgments. The BBC, a government-supported entity which claimed to be independent, almost always sided with the government. From the evidence it would appear that the British government, which was on friendly terms with Reith and Dawson, tried to influence the media to silence or downplay Churchill, but issued no overt orders. Different newspapers took different approaches. Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain did meet with Times editors to ask their support of his policies—but this is a long way from demanding that they silence Churchill.
Martin Gilbert, after relating the startling story (found at the end of this post), concluded that the Berlin dispatches Randolph Churchill thought had been maliciously abbreviated by The Times were probably shortened for length. Still, the need for editing means that editors are guided by what they think important – and Sir Martin suggests that The Times might have interfered with other dispatches in a way as to silence or rebut Churchill’s views.
Despite the grudge Churchill long held against the BBC for their efforts to silence him, they did allow him three powerful broadcasts to the USA after the Munich agreement: “Defence of Freedom and Peace” (16 October 1938), “Nazi Blandishments” (28 April 1939) and “Europe in Suspense” (8 Aug 1939). By then, of course, he had a growing following as people began to realize he’d been right.
Richard M. Langworth, Churchill by Himself, 2012, 318: “You see these microphones? They have been placed on our tables by the British Broadcasting Corporation. Think of the risk these eminent men are running. We can almost see them in our mind’s eye, gathered together in that very expensive building, with the questionable statues on its front. We can picture Sir John Reith, with the perspiration mantling on his lofty brow, with his hand on the control switch, wondering, as I utter every word, whether it will not be his duty to protect his innocent subscribers from some irreverent thing I might say about Mr. Gandhi, or about the Bolsheviks, or even about our peripatetic Prime Minister.” —Churchill broadcast speech to the Royal Society of St. George, 24 April 1933.
Martin Gilbert, Churchill: The Wilderness Years, 1982), 74: Sir Samuel Hoare wrote that Churchill and his son “fight like cats with each other and chiefly agree in the prodigious amount of champagne that each of them drinks each night.” Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald went even further than Hoare and tried to silence Churchill. On 7 May 1934 MacDonald asked to see him at 10 Downing Street. Churchill reported the ensuing conversation to a friend, who recorded that MacDonald had “harangued” Churchill on the duty of everyone pulling together at this difficult time “in Europe and the East.”
Brian Gardner, Churchill in His Time, 1968, 16-17: Geoffrey Dawson, editor of The Times, wrote on 3 July 1939: “The Daily Telegraph joined in the hue and cry for the inclusion of Winston in the Cabinet in order to impress the Germans. We continued the more effective process of calling attention to the growing strength of the British Army.” But Dawson forgot that he was in no position to gauge such “effectiveness.” An opinion is not a fact; it was a conceit not unlike him. But whereas the Conservative Party “establishment” were against Churchill almost to a man, the public were beginning to think otherwise: for someone who was meant to be an adventurer, his warnings had been going on a remarkably long time, and with strange consistency, determination, and integrity.
Paul Addison, Churchill on the Home Front 1900-1955, 1992, 421: It was for commercial and not for political reasons that the Churchill government took the decisive step of ending the BBC’s monopoly in television. There had been no mention of this in the manifesto, but following the party’s return to power a commercial lobby with vocal allies on the back-benches began to put pressure on the government. In the past Churchill had greatly resented the power of the BBC and he did indeed say to Moran: “I am against the monopoly enjoyed by the BBC. For eleven years they kept me off the air.” But when it came to the point he was lukewarm to the point of boredom about the introduction of commercial television. It was a tiresome issue which gave rise to divisions within the party—and he was deeply uninterested in television. Beyond the fact that he allowed it to happen, the ending of the BBC’s monopoly by the Television Act of 1954 owed nothing to Churchill.
Lord Moran, Churchill: The Struggle for Survival, 1966, 806: [Sir Winston’s] grumbling had its roots in an old grievance: that the BBC had kept him off the air before the war. [Sir William] Haley explained that the BBC had, foolishly perhaps, handed over to the three parties the rationing of political broadcasts, and the selection of the speakers. It was the Tory Party, and not the BBC, which had kept Winston off the air. However, in spite of Haley’s clear explanation, the next time Winston had to broadcast the old grievance was fished out. The truth is that Winston could not bring himself to pin the blame to the party system, in which he had been cradled. He was sure that the intolerable wrong that had been done to him during the years in the wilderness was due to the machinations of the BBC. Winston, Haley pointed out, was not always very consistent in his actions…. He explained that the BBC would have to take back the rationing and selection of speakers from the parties. Everyone agreed to this except Winston, who kept up his opposition for nine months, insisting that the political parties ought to do the selection of speakers. In short, he wanted to perpetuate the very machinery which had been his own undoing. When this was pointed out to him he argued that his position before the war was a very special case; it would not occur like that again.
Martin Gilbert, In Search of Churchill, 1994): 36-37: [Donald McLachlan was then editor of the Sunday Telegraph.] Randolph, still hoping to be asked to write several articles about the [official biography], wanted to make a good impression. We ghosts [Randolph’s “Young Gentlemen” researchers] were instructed to be on our best behaviour. A fine dinner was commanded from the cook-housekeeper then in residence. Its climax was to be a baron of beef, ordered from Randolph’s favourite butcher.
McLachlan arrived. The talk turned, as so often at Stour, to Neville Chamberlain and appeasement. Randolph spoke angrily about the prewar editor of The Times, Geoffrey Dawson, for cutting out parts of the dispatches of his Berlin correspondent, Norman Ebbutt. The visitor, in a quiet voice, dissented. Ebbutt’s dispatches were not cut because they told the truth about Nazi Germany, but because they were sometimes too long. Randolph looked puzzled. It was an act of faith at Stour to denounce Dawson for hiding the truth about Hitler’s Germany from the British people. We, Randolph’s minions, wondered what would happen. The visitor went on in his quiet, but now also firm voice, to say that it was not Dawson who had cut the dispatches but our visitor himself. It was he who, as a young sub-editor between 1933 and 1935, who had spent most of 1931 and 1932 in Germany, and had been for several months in 1934 in charge of the paper’s Berlin office, had decided to trim the Ebbutt dispatches, which had been “far too long.”
The cutting of the Berlin dispatches was a central point in the perfidy of the appeasers. Now the “villain” had revealed himself, and done so without realizing what he had done. I looked at Randolph, but he had risen from the table and was already at the sideboard, where the baron of beef was awaiting, his back to us. Suddenly he turned towards the table, brandishing the carving knife, shaking and trembling, and exploded with a bellow of fury: “Shits like you should have been shot by my father in 1940.” The stress on the words “shits” and “shot” was fearsome to hear. Then he lunged towards the editor, who had to dodge round the table, until Randolph hurled the carving knife on to the floor and strode out of the room. We never saw him again that night. In the morning McLachlan left the house.
What was the truth about the Berlin dispatches? I have little doubt that the sub-editor had cut them because they were too long, and without any malicious political intent whatsoever. But Dawson himself took a definite view that Hitler was not to be antagonized, and that The Times should even try to please him; and perhaps the period during which our visitor was responsible for how long the items should be was not the same period during which the cuts had been made for reasons other than length.
One of the discoveries of which I was most proud, partly because it gave Randolph so much pleasure, and partly because it was so self-explanatory, and for the anti-appeasers so self-condemnatory, was a letter Dawson had written in 1937 to a friend which I found in the Scottish Record Office in Edinburgh: “I should like to get going with the Germans. I simply cannot understand why they should apparently be so much annoyed with The Times at this moment. I spend my nights in taking out anything which I think will hurt their susceptibilities and in dropping in little things which are intended to soothe them.”