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?

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