This was part of my History Honours, in 2004.
Britain in the 1930s is often typified as ignorant of the situation in Nazi Germany. E.R. Punshon’s Crossword Mystery (1934) discusses the Terror: anti-Semitism, concentration camps and brutal oppression. Would Punshon’s readership (the educated middle-class) have known of these things by the book’s publication in June 1934? Was Punshon dealing with a popular theme, or introducing new ideas?
According to the most influential work of detective criticism of the last forty years, Julian Symons’s Bloody Murder, the detective story existed in an apolitical vacuum.
The period in which they were written was one in which the number of unemployed in Britain rose to three million and remained near that mark for a decade, …in which dictatorships rose to power. It was a period that ended in a long-expected war. These things were ignored in almost all the detective stories of the Golden Age… The fairy-tale land of the Golden Age was one in which murder was committed over and over again without anybody getting hurt.
(Julian Symons, Bloody Murder, 1985 Viking, p. 96)
Such an argument is not sustained by one of the most interesting works of the English detective writer E.R. Punshon, Crossword Mystery (1934), an early entry in his long-running Bobby Owen series, which introduces the themes of Nazism and the horrors of totalitarianism into his work.
Although the book is set throughout in England, the motive for murder is a hoard of gold removed from Germany, a theme which allows Punshon to introduce the horrors of the Nazi Terror – concentration camps, anti-Semitism and the treatment of political prisoners – into his novel. But does he introduce them to his audience, or were they already aware of the current situation in Germany by the time of the book’s publication in June 1934?
Before we go any further, it would be useful to establish who the average audience of the detective story actually was. According to Colin Watson’s Snobbery with Violence: Crime Stories and their Audience, detective stories were read by “the same people who bought a daily newspaper and one or more of the sort of magazine that contained, in short story serial form, a ‘good read’. They had an income high enough and of sufficient regularity for a shilling or two a week to be spared for subscription to a circulating library or to hire their reading from a ‘chain’ or lending library – apart from the occasional outright purchase of a novel to read on a journey or holiday… They doubtless included a fair number of the million-and-a-half wage and salary earners with entitlement in the 1920s to holidays with pay… But the majority of these readers were not commuters or wage earners. They were women – the middle-class wives and mothers and daughters whose task it commonly was to select and bring home a fresh supply of the family’s reading matter.” (Colin Watson, Snobbery with Violence, 1971 Eyre & Spottiswoode, p. 29.)
The middle classes were not alone in reading detective stories, for the genre, as opposed to that of the thriller, had become not merely an intellectual pastime but a “highbrow cult” by the beginning of that decade (Watson, Snobbery, p. 95. Those who read Punshon’s book would most probably have come from the great middle classes or from the smaller but more influential intelligentsia and upper reaches of officialdom.
As well as detective stories and other ‘light’ fiction, Watson believes that the middle classes existed in an apolitical vacuum, with little idea of what occurred in the world outside Surbiton. Only one newspaper, the News Chronicle, “consistently present[ed] foreign and home events with due regard to the realities of the situation. The readers of the rest were shown an Italy and Germany whose rulers, while not quite gentlemen, perhaps, were too busy building autobahns and getting trains to run to time for the entertainment of any aggressive intentions…” (Watson, Snobbery, p. 37)
To contest such a bald and possibly dubious statement, three newspapers will be examined in detail. The Times is the best-known, and at that time possibly the best, newspaper in the English speaking world. If it is the paper of the centre, politically neither to the right nor to the left, but striving for objectivity, the other two papers occupy different wings of the political stage.
On the left is the paper of the intelligentsia, the New Statesman, which, despite its circulation of 18,033 copies a week in 1934 (and increasing every year), was in no small way responsible for shaping intelligent public opinion through its editor and presiding genius, Kingsley Martin (Edward Hyams, The New Statesman: the History of the First Fifty Years 1913 – 1963, 1963 Longmans).
On the right, and noteworthy for its praise of Mosley’s Black Shirts in the early 1930s and Hitler’s Germany in later years, is the Daily Mail, which, despite its declining circulation, still retained its wide, low-brow appeal (S.J. Taylor, The Great Outsiders: Northcliffe, Rothermere and the Daily Mail, 1996 Weidenfeld & Nicolson).
Punshon’s novel flies in the face of the detective story’s supposed aversion to harsh reality, for, as mentioned above, the novel revolves around gold smuggling and a refugee from Nazi Germany, Herr Nabersberg.
Although he describes the horrors, Nabersberg is not opposed to them, but would much prefer to be left in peace. Instead, he was imprisoned in a concentration camp as “a political prisoner… Of course, that made it much more serious – meant much severer treatment.” His crime was to not be purely Aryan, for his “maternal grandmother was a Jewess.”
The denunciation of this fact to the Nazi police results in his immediate arrest, as “the Hitler Government does not feel it can fully depend on the zeal and the loyalty and devotion of Germans of Jewish descent. For me, of course, I denied that I was Jewish, but the truth was proved beyond doubt, and then it looked bad for me, because I had tried to claim I was pure Nordic. That was considered to make my case very grave…”
Nabersberg’s case is similar to the descriptions of the Jewish boycotts and anti-Semitic persecutions appearing in the papers at the time: “My business, of course, was ruined. My friends forgot my existence. I do not blame them. If any had tried to communicate with me, they might easily have been thrashed to death by the Storm Troopers, or perhaps sent to a concentration camp.”
Descriptions of such anti-Semitic persecution appeared in the papers from within a few weeks, if not days, of Hitler’s accession in March 1933. The Times was agitated by the Jewish boycott of late March and early April: the arrest of Jewish professionals in Frankfurt, Gorlitz, Duisburg and Dortmund and the smashing of shop windows in Göttingen (The Times, 30th March 1933, p. 13); the establishment of a “concentration camp for refractory citizens who make their purchases from Jews” (containing a donkey) in Kassel, the arrest of Jews trying to flee to Czechoslovakia and the general passiveness of the public, who were not “spontaneous[ly] hostil[e] to the hard-working small Jewish shopkeeper or trader,” but did “dislike and distrust…certain alleged characteristics” of the Jews (The Times, 3rd April 1933, p. 14).
The Statesman was more vehement than The Times, arguing that “Hitler’s anti-Semitism is…the continuation in a particularly vicious form of an old tradition,” which had included “massacres and burnings at the stake, …robberies and confiscations, compulsory herding in Ghettoes and the wearing of a badge of shame,” and which now, as a result of Nazi propaganda, caused “Jews in every station in life” to be “mobbed, beaten and stabbed.” (New Statesman and Nation, 1st April 1933)
It was not the newspapers alone which published such accounts of Nazi horrors. The information was available through books and pamphlets, all of which were advertised by The Times and New Statesman:
- the World Alliances for combating Anti-Semitism’s J’Accuse (advertised in The Times, 10 May 1933, p. 13);
- H.N. Brailsford’s The Nazi Terror;
- La Peste Brune (trans. The Brown Plague);
- the Nazi Rule Information Committee’s pamphlets (New Statesman, 13th May 1933);
- Arnold-Forster’s account of Dachau, “a terrible corroboration of a mass of evidence which constantly comes to our hands” (New Statesman, 18th November 1933, p. 622);
- and The Brown Book of the Hitler Terror (of which the first volume was published in 1933 by Punshon’s publisher, Gollancz, and the second in 1934 by John Lane of the Bodley Head).
A Times Literary Supplement review of the latter said that, while “the details are often repulsive; all are alien to British political instincts,” it was “perhaps, the most formidable indictment of the movement which has yet appeared.” (Derwent May, Critical Times: The History of the Times Literary Supplement, 2001 Harper Collins, p. 212. Times Literary Supplement, 7th September 1933.)
According to Derwent May’s study of the TLS, the paper’s attitude towards Communism and Fascism was largely set by one Harold M. Stannard (né Steinhart), who also reviewed for The Times. From 1932, Stannard was concerned about the threat Hitler posed to Europe, evident in a 1933 review of Mein Kampf, wherein he drew attention to the Führer’s demagoguery, emotional control over the German people, fanatical hatred of the Jews, and militarism (H.M. Stannard, “Herr Hitler’s Philosophy,” The Times Literary Supplement, 19th October 1933. May, Critical Times, p. 212).
At the same time, The Times ran a series of extracts from “the book which Germans are enjoined to study for instruction in Nazi principles; but English readers will find it more illuminating as a psychological revelation” (The Times, 20th July 1933, p. 12) – rather along the lines of ‘Know thy enemy.’ It therefore appears that the information was available in the most widely read newspapers – but did it make any impact on Punshon’s educated readership?
If the correspondence columns of The Times may be taken as an accurate gauge of public pressure, one may say that the more progressive elements of the British public exploded, for angry letters to the editor appeared in most issues, debating all sides of the German question.
Among these was a letter from one of the most outspoken critics of the Nazi regime, Dr. J.H. Hertz, Chief Rabbi of London, who protested against the “unbelievable trampling under foot of the human dignity of every Jew and Jewess in that land” (The Times, 6th April 1933, p. 10).
The notable feminist and Independent M.P., Eleanor Rathbone, argued against the rearmament of “an autocracy more complete, more truculent, more contemptuous, of individual liberty and of minority rights, rasher and more inexperienced than any Government before the War,” with its “programme of ruthless suppression of all opinions with which its leaders do not agree and…those leaders’ maniacal anti-Semitism.” (The Times, 11th April 1933, p. 10)
Protest against Hitler’s oppressive policies also manifested itself in a series of well-attended public speeches and meetings, nearly all of a left wing and / or working-class nature.
The earliest known are that presided over by Lord Mount Temple on 1st April 1933, “to protest against the persecution of the Jews in Germany,” and the meeting held the next night, attended by 2,000 people and supported by Lord Snowden, George Lansbury and Clement Attlee, “to protest against the ‘repression of Jews and working-class organisations carried on by the Nazi regime in Germany’.” (The Times, 3rd April 1933, p. 11)
- the meeting of the YMCA, Liberals, Labour Party and University Women on the 16th May, at which Lord Melchett concluded that “Germany was an absolute death-trap for the 600,000 Jews there” (The Times, 17th May 1933, p. 4);
- the “service of prayer and intercession on behalf of the Jews in Germany” on the 9th July 1933, at which Dr. Hertz said that “nothing less than extermination of the Jew would, it seemed, satisfy the wilder spirits among the Nazis” (The Times, 10th July 1933, p. 8);
- and the speech made by Leonard G. Montefiore, president of the Anglo-Jewish Association, on the 10th of October, in which he presciently argued that “that same Government which made life a misery for half a million people inside Germany might one day, if it got the opportunity, apply the same methods to people outside Germany’s borders.” (The Times, 11th October 1933, p. 14)
A number of charities were also set up, foremost among them the German Refugees Assistance Fund, an amalgamation of the Academic Assistance Committee, the International Student Service, the Refugee Professionals Committee, the German Emergency Committee of the Society of Friends (i.e. Quakers) and the Save the Children Fund German Appeal Committee (New Statesman, 9th December 1933, p. 723), whose Jewish subscribers had “raised almost half a million pounds since the Nazi revolution” by April 1934. (The Times, 21st April 1934, p. 15)
While such anti-Hitlerian views were held by the more progressive sections of society, they were by no means universally shared, which indicates that, even though they may have had access to the facts, people chose not to believe.
According to the Socialist New Statesman, the City “accepted Hitler’s view of himself as the investor’s bulwark against Communism, [which also appealed] to the traditional ‘under-dog’ sympathy of Englishmen.” Indeed, the Evening Standard went so far as to dub the BBC attaché Vernon Bartlett’s mention of anti-Semitic brutalities in a wireless broadcast “a ‘contentious view,” and was apparently “even prepared to take seriously Hitler’s assertion that there has been no persecution of the Jews.” (New Statesman, 21st October 1933, p. 475)
The strongest support of Hitler’s regime appeared in the Daily Mail, owned by Lord Rothermere, an erstwhile ally of Mosley’s and close friend of Hitler’s (Taylor, The Great Outsiders). From 1931 to the infamous Albert Hall rally in June 1934, Rothermere’s paper supported the Blackshirts, whom he viewed as “little more than an energetic wing of the Conservative Party” (Taylor, The Great Outsiders, p. 281), and published articles praising Hitler’s regime.
Perhaps the most extreme was one (Daily Mail, 10th July 1933) which suggested that the opponents to Nazism were all Communist agitators, for “the most spiteful detractors of the Nazis are to be found in precisely the same sections of the British public and press as are most vehement in their praises of the Soviet regime in Russia”.
Those villains “have started a clamorous campaign of denunciation against what they call ‘Nazi atrocities’ which, as anyone who visits Germany quickly discovers for himself, consists merely of a few isolated acts of violence such as are inevitable among a nation half as big again as ours, but which have been generalised, multiplied and exaggerated to give the impression that the Nazi rule is a bloodthirsty tyranny”.
Those “few isolated acts of violence,” the paper argued, were due to the fact that Germany had been “rapidly falling under the control of its alien elements”: Jews in the government, Jews “insinuating themselves into key positions in the German administrative machine,” and Jews in charge of “conveying news and interpreting policy to the public”.
According to S.J. Taylor’s history of the Daily Mail, however, the paper’s support of Nazism should not be taken at face value, for, little more than a year later (October 1934), Rothermere’s attitude secretly changed.
Fearing that “Hitlerism meant war” (Taylor, The Great Outsiders, p. 300) and that Germany was ruled by “the most dangerous, ruthless men who have ever been in charge of the fortunes of a people of 67,000,000 in number,” he passed on his correspondence with the Führer to the British Government and urged rearmament.
However obsequiously he may have behaved towards Hitler, Taylor (p. 320) argues that Rothermere “aimed at delaying a war he believed inevitable.”
That condonation does not negate the damage Rothermere’s papers caused, for it is possible that, had it not been for his favourable reports of Germany, Britain may have woken up much faster to the danger brewing on the continent.
Unfortunately, as the Statesman editor’s account (23 September 1933, p. 348) of meeting a young publican indicates, less educated readers were less likely to believe the accounts in The Times and Statesman than in the Daily Express and Daily Mail.
WHAT PEOPLE KNEW
So far, we have established that the British public reacted to the Nazi Terror, to the persecution of the Jews and to the increasingly oppressive autocracy prevalent in Germany at that time – but were they conscious of the details, or merely of the larger picture?
The first recorded case (at the beginning of April) of Nazi violence was the lynching in Kiel of a Jewish lawyer “by an angry mob in the cell where he was confined” (The Times, 3rd April 1933, p. 14), but he was not the first.
Indeed, as the Statesman made clear, such brutalities were deemed necessary by the Nazi high command to keep their adherents devoted – “We had to throw some bone to the dog.” (New Statesman, 15th July 1933, p. 64)
It appears, therefore, that Nabersberg’s account of giving the “Nazi salute” to “a number of high-spirited young Storm Troopers kicking an aged Jew into a canal, and then pulling him out to kick him in again,” may well have been based on any one of a number of similar stories appearing in the papers.
The attacks were not confined to German Jews alone. Those from other nations were also in danger: two Englishmen were known to have vanished (New Statesman, 8th April 1933, p. 433), while Americans, owing to the large Jewish population, were at risk.
The attack on Philip Zuckerman in Leipzig was merely one of “more than a score of cases, major and minor, brought to [the notice of the American authorities] since the beginning of the revolution.” (The Times, 22nd July 1933, p. 12)
Of the three papers under consideration, it was the New Statesman which drew particular attention to the fact that it was not Jews alone who were terrorised, but any dissenters against the regime.
Having mentioned the “persecution of Jews as well as of ‘Marxists’” on 18 March, it wrote on 1st April 1933 of the horrifying treatment of the Socialist Sollman, who was “beaten unconscious, then brought back to consciousness by a burning torch held under the soles of his feet, then spat at, tormented in other ways, beaten again, and left helpless in a coal-cellar… The sworn statements of victims thrashed in Nazi barracks with dog-whips and ash-wands cannot be dismissed as fairy-tales.”
Later issues described:
- the suicide of several Jews, the arrest of two British citizens, and the flogging and forced application of castor oil to Communists and Social Democrats (8th April, p. 434);
- the kidnapping of left-wing intellectuals, returned “beaten almost beyond recognition,” and the Friderichstraße barracks, abandoned “because the tenants of neighbouring houses complained of the screams of the victims” (22 April, p. 497);
- and the “deliberate sadism” which “inspired a group of young men to laugh uproariously when their flogging operations are temporarily interrupted by the working of a glass of castor-oil administered before the flogging began,” and the torture with “rubber hose pipes” and “lighted cigarette ends” of an innocent man (13 May 1933, p. 595).
To its credit, The Times was not far behind in alerting its readers to the existence of concentration camps for those of Jewish blood or dissenters against the regime. (The extermination camps were not set up until 1941.)
While the earliest mention in British papers seems to have been in the New Statesman, on 6th May 1933, both papers were publishing articles in August of that year, both (coincidentally enough) on the 26th, when the Statesman published a first-hand account of life in, and The Times’s (anonymous) German correspondent visited, such a camp.
The Statesman said that “the prisoners are treated with extreme brutality,” and went on to describe the beating by S.A. men of a prisoner, the brutal treatment of new arrivals, and the fact that one prisoner, “suffering from a nervous disorder, went mad” (p. 231).
The Times did not mention the brutality in detail, but was more struck by the German idea of justice (the fact that prisoners “are placed under restraint without trial and without the slightest opportunity of stating their case”) and the harsh conditions, for “nothing can mitigate for the more educated prisoners the almost intolerable strain of being herded together in comparatively narrow quarters with men of all types, while for all alike there is the knowledge that their wives and children and other dependents are destitute and subject to petty persecutions of every kind.
These “stuffed” conditions of the camp are commented on by Punshon, whose character remarks that “where I was sent, they were furious; they said they had no room at all; even in the Governor’s bathroom there was a prisoner, they said. Oh, they made a great fuss, but they had to take me in all the same.”
A month later, on 19th September 1933, The Times ran an article by a former prisoner in a concentration camp which held “about 2,500 prisoners…of whom only 5 per cent. were Jews. The rest were Communists, Social Democrats and other political enemies of Hitlerism.”
While the Statesman had run earlier articles on the institutionalised sadism of the Nazi regime, it was an avowedly Socialist paper, with a much smaller circulation than The Times. This article, then, may well have been one of, if not the, most important pieces in making the British public aware of the details; aware that “prominent prisoners were punished more often than the others, but everybody had his full share of beating”; aware of the Nazi habit of scrubbing prisoners with “black boot polish”; and the high level of suicide.
Certainly the Nazis were concerned enough to publish Konzentrationslager Oranienburg, which repudiated The Times’s accounts of “inhumane treatment of prisoners at the Oranienburg camp” (The Times, 16th March 1934, p. 13), and to urge Dr. Ludwig Levy, a former inmate living in Potsdam, to rebut the article in a letter to The Times.
The writer of the article retorted (The Times, 4th October 1933, p. 8) that “if it is to be taken as a true and spontaneous statement of fact, I can only congratulate Dr. Levy on having survived a month in a Nazi concentration camp with a whole skin, and the Nazi propaganda department on having found a Jewish ex-prisoner who could give a certificate to that extent,” and went on to discredit Dr. Levy, whom he had seen assaulted several times, and who, knowing no English, must have written the letter at the behest of the Nazis.
Victims of Nazi persecution were subjected not only to physical attacks and incarceration, but also to increasingly oppressive laws. In late March – early April 1933, the Nazis ordered the compulsory dismissal of Jewish employees and the boycotting of Jewish businesses, and forbade Jews to fire Gentiles (The Times, 1st April 1933, p. 10); indeed, many Jews tried to leave the country, of whom large numbers were arrested.
Surely Punshon had these events in mind when, in his novel, the Jewish Nabersberg was freed from prison only after “promising to hand over my business…to a real Nordic,” and exiled from his “country for its good, since only the pure Nordic can take part in the building up of the new pure Nordic State.”
Later in the year, the Statesman (29th July 1933, p. 122) recorded that “anyone who molests, or is found guilty of intending to molest a Brownshirt, is to be liable to summary execution,” while the death penalty applied to “the dissemination of ‘atrocity propaganda’ and…certain types of banned literature”. As well as the Statesman itself, these would no doubt have included pamphlets like the Brown Book advertised in The Times.
This was elaborated on by The Times (19th October 1933, p. 11), which recorded with dismay that “the constitutional guarantees of the person are suspended; that anybody in the country may be arrested at any time, heavily sentenced for the utterance of a few words, or held indefinitely in detention without a charge being preferred, and that such arrests have been almost a daily occurrence. Every week cases grow more numerous in which persons accused of behaviour or statements endangering the stability of the present regime, and therefore labelled as ‘traitors,’ receive increasingly heavy sentences.”
Six months later, the situation had deteriorated to the point where “the death penalty is applicable to instigation to treasonable undertakings, subversive propaganda by means of the printed word, gramophone records, wireless, and other methods” (The Times, 3rd May 1934, p. 14).
Instead, as The Times pointed out, it was papers like Julius Streicher’s blatantly anti-Semitic papers which of which the Nazi government approved.
The Angriff listed those citizens who had assisted the Jews in some way, and urged readers to watch Jews “in the street, in the country, in the cafés, in business, on journeys, everywhere that a Jew, and more especially a group of Jews, is encountered” (The Times, 12th May 1934, p. 11).
Die Stürmer, “devoted from first to last to the most crude and violent type of anti-Semitic propaganda tainted with prurient and pornographic elements which render it attractive to a certain kind of depraved mind,” advocated the mandatory castration of all Jews, mob-justice, and the lynching of “men of alien race who dishonour German blood and German women, German libertines and sexual criminals” (The Times, 16th May 1934, p. 15).
The Times also drew attention to Fridericus, which has ominously frightening hints of the Holocaust: “When the nation as a whole really knows the Jews there will be no more room in Germany for the Jews… One can begin with half measures, but one day this struggle will have to be brought to an end with ruthless brutality by the predominantly Nordic peoples.” (The Times, 22nd May 1934, p. 10)
Symons and Watson’s theory of the innocence of the interwar detective story and its audience, whose newspapers only reported “nice” news, is increasingly hard to believe. Punshon’s Crossword Mystery concerns Nazism, with concentration camps, anti-Semitism and government-endorsed sadism worked into the story.
As a trawl through three of the principal newspapers of the time reveals, the topic of Hitler’s Germany was very much under discussion at the time. The Times and the New Statesman reported objectively, publishing descriptions of brutal violence committed on Jews and dissenters, concentration camps, the oppressive laws and the poisonous trash which passed for newspapers in the country; and both newspapers drew attention to and reviewed books and pamphlets criticising the regime.
On the other hand, the New Statesman’s description of its fellow newspapers suggests that even though people may have had access to the facts, they were reluctant to believe; while the populist newspapers – notably Rothermere’s Daily Mail – were openly pro-Hitler.
Nevertheless, the educated public believed much of what would later turn out to be the truth, discussing the facts in letters to The Times, and attending numerous public meetings and protests from early 1933 on.
In conclusion, therefore, Punshon did not introduce his readers to Nazism, but rather worked topical elements into his novel, to reach a wider audience. There is no excuse for the failure of the British to know what was happening in Nazi Germany; all one can say is that, given the newspapers, the novels and the extensive public debate, they ought to have done.
The History of the Times – the 150th Anniversary and Beyond: 1912 – 1948. Part II: Chapters XIII – XXIV 1921 – 1948. London: written and published at the office of The Times, 1952.
Hyams, Edward. The New Statesman: The History of the First Fifty Years 1913 – 1963. London: Longmans, 1963.
May, Derwent. Critical Times: The History of the Times Literary Supplement. London: Harper Collins Publishers, 2001.
Punshon, E.R. The Crossword Mystery. London: Penguin, 1948. First published 1934.
Symons, Julian. Bloody Murder. London and New York: Viking, 1985 (revised edition); first published 1972.
Taylor, S.J. The Great Outsiders: Northcliffe, Rothermere and the Daily Mail. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1996.
Watson, Colin. Snobbery with Violence: Crime Stories and their Audience. London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1971.
Daily Mail. London: Associated Newspapers, Ltd., 10th July 1933.
New Statesman and Nation. London: 18th March, 1st April 1933, 8th April, 22nd April, 13th May, 15th July, 29th July, 26th August, 23rd September, 21st October, 18th November, 9th December 1933.
The Times. London: 30th March, 1st April, 3rd April, 6th April, 11th April, 10th May, 17th May, 10th July, 21st July, 22nd July, 26th August, 19th September, 4th October, 11th October, 19th October 1933, 16th March, 21st April, 3rd May, 12th May, 16th May 1934.