On this day in 1945, a group of MPs arrived at Buchenwald concentration camp to report first hand on the atrocities perpetrated by the Nazis. Dr Myfanwy Lloyd, who has recently developed a new exhibition on the liberation of Bergen-Belsen for the Soldiers of Oxfordshire Museum, guestblogs for us on the visit and the impact it had on the MPs who went to Buchenwald…
On 21st April 1945 a cross-party group of parliamentarians arrived at Buchenwald camp near Weimar, which had been liberated by Eisenhower’s men ten days earlier. They had been invited to see for themselves, and on behalf of the British people, what was the truth behind the stories beginning to circulate about German atrocities in concentration camps. Nothing could have prepared them for the gruesome sights that awaited them. Half-starved and disease-ravaged survivors, heaps of bodies, and the apparatus of routine torture were all taken in by the eight MPs and two Lords.
The camp at Buchenwald was opened by the SS in 1937 to house political prisoners, but it was eventually used to persecute a wide range of groups including Jews, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Roma and Sinti, prisoners of war and so-called ‘a-socials’, in total some 250,000 people from across Europe. One estimate puts the numbers of male prisoners murdered at 56,000, but a significant number of prisoners were never recorded, and their fate is unknown. When American soldiers from the 6th Armoured Division arrived, they found more than 21,000 prisoners still in the camp in a desperate situation.
Tom Driberg (Independent, Maldon) was delegated to use his journalism skills to write the report for the British Parliament. His own notebook from the Buchenwald visit, along with the notes of the other delegation members, is preserved in the Driberg Archive at Christ Church College, Oxford. Their visit was brief, and despite hopes to go on to Bergen-Belsen camp which the British had liberated on April 15th, the delegation did not proceed so far – Bergen-Belsen being still behind enemy lines. The MPs and Lords returned to Britain immediately, and on 25th April Earl Stanhope (Conservative peer) submitted the report to Churchill, who presented it to Parliament on 27th April 1945.
By then some photographs of Buchenwald and Bergen-Belsen had appeared in the national newspapers, spurring on the final efforts of the war. As well as still images, some of the horror of the camp is captured in film footage. Combined with film from Bergen-Belsen this was shown in cinemas after 30th April in a Pathe News broadcast. The only woman member of the delegation, Mavis Tate (Conservative, Frome) introduces and explains the news film, urging viewers: ‘Do believe me when I tell you that the reality was indescribably worse than these pictures.’
Mavis Tate had previously been associated with Archibald Ramsay’s anti-semitic ‘Right Club’. But after a nervous breakdown in 1940 she distanced herself from her former views. In contrast, the Liberal member for Birkenhead East, Graham White, had been a strong supporter of German refugees and internees from the outset of the war, making him an excellent candidate for the fact-finding mission to Buchenwald. Sydney Silverman (Labour, Nelson and Colne) had been imprisoned as a conscientious objector during the First World War, and was an indefatigable campaigner for penal reform. He was described in the report as ‘a member of the Jewish race.’ Two of the delegates were doctors: Sir Henry Morris-Jones (Liberal-National, Denbigh), and Lord Addison (Labour peer). Driberg remarked of Addison that he was able to cope with the Buchenwald visit by maintaining a ‘professional’ medical approach to the inhumanity around them.
But within weeks of the visit the members of the Parliamentary delegation faced the general election. In July 1945 both Tate and White lost their seats, along with Lt-Col Tom Wickham (Conservative, Taunton). Driberg may not be the most reliable witness to many episodes of political life, but his papers and writings reveal a dimension of the Buchenwald visit that has been overlooked. When, in his posthumously published memoir ‘Ruling Passions’ (Jonathan Cape Ltd, 1977) he writes ‘I am now the only survivor of the party’, Driberg is making self-conscious reference to their shared experience, as well as to the camp prisoners they met that day. Despite all their political and social differences, some sense persisted of themselves as a ‘group’, based on having been through the horror of the camp visit together, and on the immediate and lasting impact this had. Ness Edwards (Labour, Caerphilly) reported to his family the trauma of what the delegation had witnessed. In 1989 his daughter, now Baroness Golding, recalled in a Parliamentary debate on War Crimes how, on returning from the Buchenwald visit, her father did not sleep for weeks and had nightmares for years. Sir Archibald Southby (Conservative, Epsom) was the only Conservative of the group to keep his seat in 1945, but he did so during an extended convalescence of many months, having suffered from influenza and ‘near-jaundice’ from April 1945, which was attributed to his visit to Buchenwald. Mavis Tate, who struggled with both her physical and mental health after the loss of her parliamentary seat, committed suicide in 1947. Whatever the truth of her mental state, contemporaries in large part contributed her breakdown to the experience of Buchenwald.
Driberg himself was directly concerned with one Buchenwald survivor. He arranged for the speedy transfer of Latvian-born Joseph Berman into the hands of relatives in Britain. Berman had been interviewed by the delegation, and was quoted in the report submitted to Parliament, as well as in the newspapers, alerting his uncle that he was still alive. He was deeply disturbed by his experiences in the camp and struggled to manage after the war. Until at least the late 1960s, Driberg remained in touch with Berman and tried on more than one occasion to find him work or ease concern about his financial situation.
Seventy years on from the liberation of the camp, the report by the Parliamentary delegation is worth remembering as a document born out of eye-witness accounts by a group of MPs and Lords utterly unprepared for their visit into the devastation wreaked by Nazism. The individual fates of the delegates may have been varied, but there was truth in the final conclusion of their report:
‘The memory of what we saw and heard at Buchenwald will haunt us ineffaceably for many years.’
With thanks to Baroness Golding, Judith Curthoys (archivist at Christ Church College Oxford), and David Higham Associates – Literary Agents for Tom Driberg.
Dr Myfanwy Lloyd is a freelance historian and researcher based in Oxford. Between 2012-2014 she developed a new exhibition on the liberation of Bergen-Belsen and the role of Oxfordshire Yeomanry troops for the Soldiers of Oxfordshire Museum. She will speak about her research at the 70th anniversary event at the IWM in April 2015. She teaches for the Department of Continuing Education in Oxford and for the WEA, specialising in memory, gender and women’s history.