Isaiah Berlin and the Holocaust

What did Berlin know, and when did he know it?

When Isaiah Berlin left Oxford in July 1940 he was single – “inépousable” according to his future mother-in-law – a relatively unknown philosophy don, prone to dark moods. While most of his friends and colleagues were called up, Berlin’s weak left arm, damaged at birth, and his Latvian origins, meant that he was stuck in Oxford at the beginning of the war.

Yet Berlin went on to have a very successful war. The war years, writes his editor, Henry Hardy, were “a watershed” for Berlin. According to his biographer, Michael Ignatieff, “America was to be the making of him.” Seconded to the British Embassy in Washington, his dispatches were read at the highest level, including by Churchill and the Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden. He made lifelong friendships among the leading New Dealers and soon knew everyone who was anyone in wartime Washington, from Walter Lippmann and George Kennan to Maynard Keynes.

Berlin returned from the war transformed. Lord Beaverbrook invited him to write a column for the Express newspapers. Churchill consulted him on historical detail for his memoir of the 1930s, The Gathering Storm. Chatham House asked him to lecture, and he started broadcasting on the BBC’s Third Programme. In 1946 he was awarded the CBE. One can see Berlin’s war years as a key part of a larger narrative, the rise from obscure émigré don, little known outside Oxford, to recognition as one of the leading British intellectuals of the post-war period.

But thanks to the four volumes of letters (2004–15), magnificently edited by Henry Hardy and his colleagues, we can now see that the story of Berlin’s war was is more complex than it once seemed.

The darkest chapter of Berlin’s war is the debate about what he knew about the Holocaust and when he knew it. This sounds straightforward. Berlin said he didn’t speak out about the Holocaust because he didn’t know anything until the last year of the war. He didn’t move in the right circles, the American press wasn’t reporting anything. How could he have known? And even if he had known, what could he possibly have done?

Berlin was a famous Jewish émigré who lost many of his own family during the Holocaust. It was a desperately painful situation for him, and from across the Atlantic how could he have known what was happening to the Jews in eastern Europe, thousands of miles away?

However, Berlin’s silence about the Holocaust is more complicated. He was not just silent in public about the destruction of the Jews in Europe, he was silent in his letters – at least those that have been published – about his relatives in Riga. Silent at the time, he became increasingly evasive on the issue during the following decades. The tone is often defensive. He protests too much. Why?

Isaiah Berlin was a prolific writer. It wasn’t just the quantity of writings, it was also the range. He wrote on Vico and Macchiavelli, Russian writers and Jews like Marx, Moses Hess and Disraeli, hedgehogs and foxes, great statesmen like Churchill, Roosevelt and Weizmann and obscure thinkers he admired.

However, there is one striking area of silence: the Holocaust. The extermination of Berlin’s family in Riga, Ignatieff writes, “was a fact he was prepared to mention but never to discuss. Nor did he write directly about the Holocaust in his later work. It was Stalin’s crimes, not Hitler’s, that roused his most intense imaginative response.”

Berlin’s letters confirm the same pattern. He was a prolific letter-writer and wrote on a remarkable range of subjects.  However, in four volumes of letters, over more than 2500 pages covering almost seventy years, there is little about the Holocaust. Barely more than a handful of references.

Even his wartime dispatches from Washington have little to say about what was happening to the Jews in eastern Europe. In Washington Despatches 1941–1945 (1981), edited by HG Nicholas, who in over six hundred pages brings together many of Berlin’s weekly political reports to London, there are only a few references to the Holocaust. None in the Index; only four references to Hitler. Just one significant reference. Berlin’s introduction to Washington Despatches, written almost forty years after the war, doesn’t address this.

In 1972 Berlin was invited to Jerusalem to give the first Jacob Herzog Memorial Lecture, later published as “Zionist Politics in Wartime Washington: A Fragment of Personal Reminiscence” in Volume 1 of his Letters. Most of the lecture is about the problem of dealing with both the pro-Arab British government and with Zionists in wartime America. There are passing references to the “vital” stake of the Jews in an Allied victory and “the bitterness of Jewish despair before the apparent indifference of the world to a mass murder carried out on a scale to terrible to be believed.” Towards the end of the lecture, Berlin addresses the growing popularity of Zionism after the war. One factor was “the experience of those who saw the death-camps in Germany and Poland, Dachau or Belsen or Auschwitz.” Then a few references to “statistics of the murdered Jews”, “the photographs and films of the skeletons and the emaciated corpses”– and that’s it.

Berlin was in Jerusalem in 1961 during the Eichmann trial but didn’t write about it. In a letter in 1962 he writes, “I went to the trial for half an hour or so”, and then follows a long paragraph about Eichmann (“he looked like a small, slightly cancerous rat”), his view of the outcome (“I hope they do not hang him, but I fear they will”) and what was behind the trial (“the purpose of the trial, as everyone understands, was so to speak educational”). There is one other published letter about the trial, to Teddy Kollek, on 27 July 1960 but this contains no thoughts on the Holocaust itself. Nor were the other passing references to the Holocaust during this period particularly interesting. Reading these letters, you never feel you are in the presence of a leading thinker coming to terms with a great historical event.

Of course, few of Berlin’s contemporaries engaged with the destruction of European Jewry either. This silence in the culture only started to change in the 1960s and especially the 1970s.

Berlin, though, had more cause. Many of his own family were murdered during the liquidation of the Riga Ghetto on 30 November and 8 December 1941. One interviewer, the Iranian philosopher, Ramin Jahanbegloo (published in Conversations with Isaiah Berlin, 1992), asked Berlin about the fate of his family. Were any of them killed by the Nazis? “Yes. Both my grandfathers, an uncle, an aunt, three cousins, were killed in Riga in 1941.” What was his reaction? “I felt exactly like everybody else. I thought that it was the greatest disaster that had ever happened to the Jews…. What can one possibly say about such a horror?” It’s hard to say which is more striking, the brevity or the platitudes.

Contrast this with the deeply moving opening paragraph of his own father’s memoir, which he started writing on 11 March 1946. Mendel writes:

“I started several times to write down my autobiography and some facts of my life for the benefit of my son, but during the war I could not concentrate sufficiently; now, when the extinction of nearly all the members of my wife’s and my family by the Nazis has been confirmed, I feel the necessity for these records is real; the living link between the past and the future, the link who still remembers the past, is practically only myself.”

During the war, even in the many letters to his parents, Berlin hardly refers to his relatives trapped in Riga. After the war, there are no references in his published letters to the fate of his family; according to Shlomo Avineri, Berlin never came back to the subject in the interview with Jahanbegloo, “never, for that matter, mentioning it on any other occasion in public.”

Berlin was largely silent about the Holocaust. But just as important are his denials and evasions. Jahanbegloo asks Berlin, “How did you experience the Second World War as a Jew?” The key part of Berlin’s answer is about what Berlin knew:

“After the invasion of Poland, I assumed that terrible things were happening to Jews, that they would be arrested, persecuted, tortured, perhaps killed, but none of us knew what was going on. Before the events of the Warsaw ghetto, no news came. We just assumed appalling horrors. Before 1944 I knew nothing about systematic extermination – the gas chambers. Nobody told me, in England or America; there was nothing about it in anything I read – perhaps that was my own fault.  That makes me feel ashamed. There probably were articles on back pages [sic] or news items in newspapers, but I missed them. The first time the full news of the horrors came out was when someone came and reported this in Switzerland. There was a man who got the news to a Rabbi in New York, who went to see President Roosevelt; but nothing was done and nothing was made public. At any rate I continued to know nothing of it. .… I do not know why nobody ever told me – perhaps life in an embassy was too protected. Still, I met prominent American Jews from time to time, and nobody ever told me about this. I still feel some guilt about it even though it was not really any fault of mine.”

The tone is extraordinary. Avineri thought Berlin responded “somewhat lamely”. There are the insistent denials. Berlin keeps saying he knew nothing: “no news came”, “I knew nothing”, “nobody told me”, “I continued to know nothing of it”, “I do not know why nobody ever told me”, “nobody ever told me about this”. Was it his fault? No, “it was not really any fault of mine”. But “perhaps it was my own fault”. He is curiously unsure. Even if it was not his fault, it “makes me feel ashamed”, “I still feel some guilt about it”.

Why does he protest so much? Why not admit that he knew what was happening, but he couldn’t do anything to stop it – or even that it is surprising, given the information that was available in his circles, that he knew nothing?

Several times Berlin claimed he knew nothing about the Holocaust during the war. On 17 November 1972 he wrote to Sarah Groll, “you are quite right in supposing that the holocaust [sic] – the real, unspeakable disaster […] – was not known, at least in my world, until 1945.” The timing of this letter is interesting. In October, Berlin had given his lecture in Jerusalem on “Zionist Politics in Wartime Washington”, which never mentioned what was known about the Holocaust at the time. The lecture was published in Hebrew in instalments, between 3 and 11 October in Ha’aretz. According to his editor, Henry Hardy, “there followed a bitter controversy in the paper between B and the Israeli publicist [sic] and historian Nathan Yellin-Mor over what had been known about the Holocaust in wartime Washington.”

On 13 November Berlin wrote to a friend, “The only thing I mind being accused of is callousness in face of the Holocaust. I wish I could remember what we knew in those days My impression is that it was not reported in 1942–4 in such a manner as to make an impact on American opinion, either Jewish or gentile.” A footnote by Henry Hardy reads: “A survey of two large-circulation newspapers, to which IB certainly would have had access, the Washington Postand the LondonTimes… suggests that while Allied newspaper reporting of the Holocaust was much less extensive than might be expected by a modern reader, a clear and accurate outline on what was occurring in Nazi occupied Europe was emerging by the winter of 1942.” In a later footnote, Hardy points out that “In both the Washington Post and the Timesthere were reports, by 1943–5, of the Nazis’ use of the gas chambers, and although they were not numerous they were explicit.”

Berlin goes on, “of course, Eden’s speech in the House of Commons and the fact that the Commons rose for a minute’s silence in memory of the slaughtered Jews in the Baltic and Poland – I think late in 1944 – occurred…” In fact, as Hardy points out, this happened on 17 December 1942 — two years before. Berlin insisted several times that the Holocaust only became known about in the US in 1944. There is no evidence for this.

Berlin writes, “I do not know [sic] why news which must, after all, have been in the hands of the Zionist leaders in America was never made really public,” but “I do not believe that anything more happened than bits and pieces from here and there, isolated horror stories, no cumulative, dramatic reports.” Whatever news there was, “none of this got through to me in my ivory tower in Washington.”

Berlin argues that he didn’t know what was happening in east Europe until 1944 (but there was good reason to know what was happening as early as late 1942), and that the press was not covering it (major newspapers in Britain and America were). If there was coverage, there wasn’t much and there was no outcry. One of Berlin’s main jobs was to monitor Jewish opinion in America, so he might have known about people like the Bergson Group – named for its leader, Hillel Kook, who used the alias Peter Bergson, the group was connected with the Irgun Tseva’i Le’umi Zionist Revisionists – who from 1942 worked to publicise the plight of Jews in Europe. News didn’t reach him in his “ivory tower” (“life in an embassy was too protected”, as he told Jahanbegloo, “I was outside all that, in my embassy enclosure,” as he wrote in a letter on 2 November 1983). So many excuses.

Berlin’s “ivory tower” was in fact a ringside seat at the centre of power. He knew all the leading Zionists, American and foreign; major columnists like Arthur Krock and Walter Lippmann, State Department officials like Charles Bohlen and George Kennan, and everyone in the British Embassy, who in turn received important news from London. It is hard to imagine anyone, anywhere outside Nazi-occupied Europe, who would have been in a better position to know about the Holocaust during the war. So why not admit this?

What, then, did Berlin actually know about the Holocaust and when did he know it? This is not as easy to answer as we might expect. In his letter to Sarah Groll on 17 November 1972, he wrote, “I simply tried to tell the truth about how matters looked to me when I was in Washington, and the thing that seems most evident is that facts afterwards known in retrospect were either unknown or not known at all clearly at the time.” As we have seen, in his interview with Ramin Jahanbegloo, he claims that, “before 1944 I knew nothing about … the gas chambers.” “I never heard about this until the end of 1944. Even by 1943–4 I realized that the Nazis wanted to kill Jews even more than they wanted to win the war… But, as I said before, I only discovered the full horror of the holocaust [sic] very late.”

Yet in his own dispatch from Washington on 28 August 1943, he writes, “PM prominently displays articles on slaughter of Jews in Europe and the New Republichas issued a special fifteen-page supplement on ‘The Jews in Europe – how to help them’…” Of course, “slaughter of Jews” is not necessarily the same as the Holocaust.

Berlin’s published letters do not clarify the situation. Volume 1, Flourishing: Letters 1928-1946, includes 185 pages of letters written between the German invasion of the USSR and VE-Day in 1945. He moves between London and Washington. There is nothing about the Holocaust.

The two subsequent volumes of Letters, which cover the years 1946–1975, don’t help either. There are a few scattered references, no substantial engagement and no reflections on what he knew or when except for a few pages in November 1972 following the fierce exchange with Nathan Yellin-Mor. This is where he mentions Eden’s speech to the Commons which he (mis)remembers as being in “late 1944” (instead of 17 December 1942).

Already we have three dates: “1945”, “the very end of 1944” and around 28 August 1943 (his memo about the “slaughter of Jews”).

In Isaiah Berlin: A Life, Michael Ignatieff devotes four pages to the subject. He begins, “From August 1942 onwards, reports about the concentration camps began to reach Jewish organisations in Washington and New York.” His footnote refers to five books published between 1951–94. Berlin might have read some of these by the time he wrote his letter in 1972 or gave his interview to Jahanbegloo, published in 1992. Ignatieff continues, “By early 1943 senior officials were aware that the Germans were planning whole-scale extermination.” On 22 May 1943 Chaim Weizmann spoke to Berlin (in a conversation which Berlin reported to the Foreign Office) of large numbers likely to be exterminated by the Germans. According to Ignatieff, “This was the first time that an oblique mention of the Holocaust figured in Berlin’s discussions with Weizmann.” He then continues, “The word ‘extermination’ figured in Berlin’s own memos from May 1943 onwards,” but “[T]he only direct reference to these places [the death camps] in his official reports occurs as late as 28 April 1945.” In July 1943 Jan Karski visited America and told leading figures, including Berlin’s friend Felix Frankfurter, of the fate of the Jews in Poland which he had witnessed himself on his visits to the Warsaw Ghetto.

We still can’t say precisely what Berlin knew about the Holocaust – or when. Partly because of his own vagueness (May 1943 to 1945). But also, as Ignatieff points out, because who knew in those years what exactly the Holocaust was? People were being slaughtered, but in what numbers? Were the shootings on the eastern front more than pogroms? Were concentration camps the same as death camps? How many were being killed in gas chambers? Rudolf Vrba’s report on the gas chambers at Auschwitz was not available until June – July 1944.

What we can say for certain is that Berlin did not write much about the Holocaust in his published letters (during or after the war), his reports from Washington or in his later work. Why not? There are several different explanations. First, because he was not by temperament someone who dwelt on terrible events. He often told about how in 1917 as a child he witnessed a Russian policeman being dragged away by the mob in Petrograd. The story is frequently cited as an explanation for why Berlin was immune to the temptations of Communism. He had seen its horrors close up. But as Shlomo Avineri writes, while Berlin wrote with passion about Akhmatova, Pasternak and the fate of the Soviet intelligentsia under Stalin, “there is hardly any reference to the brutality of Stalinists towards the peasantry.” “[T]he horrors of collectivisation and the consequent hunger and massive death in Ukraine are barely mentioned.” He was always more fascinated by great figures than by the masses.

Second, he was suspicious of what he saw as the sentimentality and piety which started to surround the Holocaust in the late 20th century. “He actively despised the Holocaust industry,” writes Ignatieff. “Silence seemed more truthful.”

Third, it was too painful. Like many contemporaries, including Eric Hobsbawm and Peter Gay, his heart was in the 18th and 19th centuries – in his case the Enlightenment, the Counter-Enlightenment and Romanticism, the great 19th century Russian writers, Herzen, Tolstoy, Turgenev. He loved Russian literature–but he didn’t write about Babel and Grossman, who wrote about the horrors of Stalinism. He didn’t write about Holocaust literature. There is a single, passing reference in his Lettersto Lanzmann’s Shoahin 1987.

Perhaps it was too painful for another reason. He was constantly reassuring his parents about how well he was. All that gossip and gregariousness, those torrents of words, the apparent gaiety. What was that about? What was it fending off? Was the murder of so many relatives too dark to contemplate?

We should also put Berlin in context. It is interesting to read the responses of Eden and Churchill to Berlin’s dispatches from Washington. In January 1944 Churchill asked Eden who wrote the summaries that went out under Halifax’s name. The Foreign Office response read, “Mr. Berlin, of Baltic Jewish extraction, by profession a philosopher.” The dispatches, Churchill wrote to Eden, “present a somewhat perfervid picture of American affairs.” Eden commented, “I agree. There is perhaps a too generous Oriental [sic] flavour.” Someone else from the Washington office wrote of Berlin in 1942 as “A v. [sic] clever Jew who works in the British Propaganda dept. here. [The paper Berlin had written] has the schadenfreude of the Jew…” The British establishment was deeply anti-Semitic during this period. This may explain Berlin’s reluctance to write in his despatches about the Holocaust. Was he worried about how others would react?

He had another reason for not drawing too much attention to his Jewishness during the war. He was playing a double game, between his British employers and his fellow Zionists, including Weizmann. Writing too much about the Holocaust (and too much could mean a few memos or letters) might draw attention to the Jews he was meeting in Washington.

There are, however, less kind explanations. Was he too self-centred, too fascinated by the Washington world of gossip, all those society hostesses and long lunches? Or too ambitious? In many of his letters towards the end of the war he wrote at great length about his future career prospects. Might it blot his copybook at the Foreign Office if he went on too much about the Holocaust? Was he frightened of seeming too, well, Jewish? These were the years his career took off. Would he have risen so quickly if he had kept mentioning the Holocaust?

Something which emerges from the Letters is that Berlin was a terrible fence-sitter. People asked his opinion, Eden on Suez, or American friends about Vietnam, and he would say one thing but mean another or just not commit himself to a view. Perhaps writing about the Holocaust would lead others to ask him what should be done by the Allies to save the Jews and then what would he say? Nothing could be done? Nothing shouldbe done?

Finally, this can be seen as part of a larger network of references to and representations of other Jews. “He felt a basic, unapologetic solidarity with Jews everywhere,” writes his close friend, Avishai Margalit.  Really? His Letters show that Berlin often saw himself as the consummate insider compared to Jewish outsiders, who were less accomplished, less well connected, and more, well, Jewish, then the Oxford don-come-diplomat welcome at High Table in England and at high society gatherings in Washington. Was he the Latvian Jew? Or the diplomat who was invited to lunch by Churchill? Look at how he writes about Rabbi Stephen Wise and Peter Bergson, who were both trying to draw attention to the fate of Europe’s Jews. Wise, he wrote, was “erratic, noisy, unreliable.” Throughout his life Berlin often distinguished between “noisy” Jews, outsiders, and insiders like Frankfurter, Brandeis and himself. This reflected Berlin’s anxieties about what kind of Jew he was, a Latvian Ostjudeor an Oxford don.

Berlin’s Jewishness was complicated, far more complex than we realise. There are many silences. The greatest silence concerns the Holocaust. What he knew and what he said he didn’t know or couldn’t have known. Everyone agrees he had a good war. It was the making of him. But perhaps his accounts of the Holocaust tell us more about Isaiah Berlin than we ever realised.

This essay features in the Summer ’18 issue of Jewish Quarterly.

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