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Black Book: the Gestapo’s most wanted Britons

‘A valuable piece of work’, The Black Book recalls the prominent Brits on the Gestapo’s hit list, says Nicolas Jacobs

25 June, 2021 — By Nicolas Jacobs

Stafford Cripps

PRIOR to Operation Sealion, the planned German invasion of England in 1940, the Gestapo (Nazi secret police) drew up a list of nearly 3,000 names of prominent British men and women – politicians, academics, scientists, writers and artists – it wanted to reserve for “special treatment”.

In the open society of the time, when most people in Britain were listed with their addresses in the phone book, the compilation of such a list, which also included the 70,000 mainly Jewish refugees from Austria and Germany – many already on the Gestapo radar – cannot have been difficult.

Sybil Oldfield’s The Black Book is an outstandingly valuable piece of work. It is surprising that it has not been done before. It must have required huge and patient research in many different fields.

On the basis of those listed, the author has recreated the intellectual, political, scientific, literary and artistic world of the beginning of the war in Britain, and she follows her subjects’ achievements right the way through the Second World War and beyond.

She has therefore compiled no less than a comprehensive biographical dictionary of those “Wanted” by the Gestapo, turning its “Black Book” into a true roll of honour of more than 400 pages, including excellent photographic portraits of some of the main characters.

Sybil Thorndike

Names like Eleanor Rathbone, Stafford Cripps, Victor Gollancz, Ellen Wilkinson, Sybil Thorndike and John Strachey, from a total of over 1,000 mentioned in the book, mean that it’s an invaluable Who’s Who of Britain on the brink of world war.

Highly original is the author’s stress that the war was fought by a union of anti-Nazi nations, including service personnel from the Caribbean and West and East Africa, and from Poland, France, Belgium, Holland, Czechoslovakia, Norway, Australia and New Zealand, among others, not to mention Canada and eventually the USA.

Her coverage of the war is not a continuous chronology, but is unusually detailed, both from the point of view of outstanding individual achievement in civil and military life, and of the more general picture, so that it is difficult to think of a better introduction to the British conduct of the Second World War.

This encyclopedic volume has a quality of militancy about its committed, Labour left political stance, and the urgency with which it exposes the often tragic policy of the internment of “enemy aliens” (as a result of which Rudolf Olden, one of the most brilliant anti-Nazi German journalists, was drowned with his wife and hundreds of other refugees). Thus, the book covers much valuable ground barely mentioned in other volumes.

In addition to the nearly 3,000 individuals listed in the Gestapo Black List, the author includes numerous humanitarian (ie, some pacifist) and Jewish Organisations also listed by the Gestapo.

This makes this volume a unique record of Britain as Hitler’s target and what it escaped, thanks largely to the individuals and organisations so lucidly and painstakingly described here.

  • The Black Book – Britons on the Nazi Hit List. By Sybil Oldfield, Profile Books, £25

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