“The whole idea is preposterous”: the true story behind London’s Holocaust Memorial

The ‘Holocaust Memorial’ presently being considered by Westminster City Council is on a far vaster scale than anything contemplated in 1980 – but even then the proposals were dismissed as ‘preposterous’ by the British Foreign Secretary.

In April 1980 Michael Heseltine, Environment Secretary in Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government, wrote to his colleague Lord Carrington, Foreign Secretary, to consult him about plans that Heseltine had been discussing for the past year with the Board of Deputies of British Jews, “to erect a memorial to those of all faiths who died in the Nazi Holocaust.”

This triggered more than 18 months of strong opposition by Lord Carrington, some of his fellow ministers, and the most senior officials of the Foreign Office to the proposal for a London “Holocaust” Memorial, even though both the Board of Deputies and Heseltine regularly stressed its “modest” scale.

Understandably, Carrington felt that “any monuments in the area concerned should be of a British national character.” He added: “It is by no means self-evident that Crown land in London should be used for a memorial to events which did not take place on British territory or involve a large part of the British population. In addition, a long time has passed since the events which the proposed Garden would seek to commemorate.”

Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin – who consistently sought to use the ‘Holocaust’ as a diplomatic weapon against Britain – had been boss of the Irgun terror gang that butchered two British sergeants, causing international revulsion in 1947.

Reflecting wider Foreign Office concerns, Carrington also suggested that “some Arabs might see the monument as endorsing Mr Begin’s point that the fate of the European Jews in the ’30s and ’40s should influence British policy on the Arab/Israel question in the ’80s.”

This was a reference to then Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, former leader of the anti-British terrorist group Irgun, who during the early 1980s persistently used the Holocaust as a diplomatic weapon against British, French and German governments.

Archival records show that Carrington was echoing the views of senior diplomats including the Foreign Office Political Director Julian Bullard (later British Ambassador to West Germany).

Julian Bullard, Political Director of the Foreign Office, was one of the most eloquent and well-informed opponents of the Holocaust Memorial project.

A memo by Bullard (whose father and several other relatives were also senior British diplomats) explained:

“I continue to see no particular reason why Crown land in London should be used for a memorial to events which did not take place on British territory or involve a large part of the British population. The lapse of time (now 35 years) prompts the question why, if a memorial in Britain was desirable, it was not organised at the time, when the memory was greener.
“I continue to suspect that at least some of the sponsors of the project are hoping that, if realised, it would strengthen the idea that Britain has some sort of special responsibility towards Israel on account of the events of 1933 to 1945, and that these events are or should be still a factor in British policy in the Middle East. A perhaps even more unworthy thought is that some of the sponsors may be deliberately throwing down a challenge to anti-semitic elements in this country.”

Bullard’s colleague Sir John Graham, then Deputy Under-Secretary for the Middle East, agreed:
“I fully share Mr Bullard’s doubts. Why should not the Jewish Community buy a site and erect a memorial if they wish? Would we permit a monument to Deir Yassin in a Royal Park? And yet our responsibility for that massacre was as close (or as distant) as for the massacre of the Jews by Hitler.”

In a later memorandum, Sir John (a baronet and career diplomat who later served as British Ambassador and Permanent Representative to NATO) repeated and amplified this argument:
“The possible followers of the precedent include the Armenians (Turkish massacres), the PLO (Deir Yassin), the supporters of Allende and so on. Of course it is a free country and people may erect monuments, subject to planning permission, but they ought to do it on their own land and at their own expense.”

Senior Foreign Office diplomat David Gladstone compiled a summary of the arguments against a London Holocaust Memorial

A summary of the argument against the memorial was drawn up by David Gladstone, head of the Foreign Office Western European Department. He wrote:
“Mr Begin and other members of his government refer frequently to the Holocaust to justify their current security policies and to demonstrate, in the absence of convincing rational argument, why Europe is necessarily disqualified from any role in peace efforts and is not entitled to challenge Israel’s own view of her security needs. The Israeli Ambassador in London has taken a similar line in two recent speeches here, in which he has also suggested more or less explicitly that the motives for our policy are purely commercial. A memorial in London on government land might prove an irresistible stick with which to go on beating HMG from time to time.”

An aide memoire drawn up for Carrington before a Downing Street meeting on the project read:
“Why a memorial to Holocaust after 35 years? Is real motive political? Concerned at use made of Holocaust by present Israeli government to justify unacceptable policies and pillory European peace efforts unjustifiably.”

Julian Bullard once again weighed in: “This incorporates my views, which have strengthened with the passage of time. It cannot be wise to contemplate authorising the proposed memorial at a time when Arab-Israeli problems, and Britain’s attitude to them, is constantly on the front pages. But the Secretary of State will want to be sure that his colleagues support him, given the likelihood of press stories.”

Arguments against the Memorial were “strongly endorsed” by the Permanent Under-Secretary himself – Sir Michael Palliser, Head of the Diplomatic Service.

Two of the senior ministers opposed to the Holocaust Memorial were Home Secretary William Whitelaw (above left) and Minister of Defence Francis Pym (above right), seen here attending the Thanksgiving Service after the Falklands War in 1982. Both Whitelaw and Pym had been awarded the Military Cross for their bravery under fire during the Second World War.

Carrington and his Foreign Office advisers received support from other senior figures. Francis Pym, Minister of Defence, wrote that a Holocaust memorial “would be rather a strange newcomer to a part of London where the existing memorials – whether one thinks of the Cenotaph itself or of the military leaders commemorated in Whitehall or around the Ministry of Defence Main Building – relate very much to the British national tradition and to our own victories and sorrows. Indeed I am afraid that I am still not entirely clear what is the object of the proposed memorial.”

Home Secretary and Deputy Prime Minister William Whitelaw agreed: “I have strong reservations about the erection in Whitehall of such a memorial. …I am also puzzled about the purpose of the memorial.”

It is worth pointing out that the three senior ministers with reservations or objections had all seen active service during the Second World War, and all three had been awarded the Military Cross, granted for “an act or acts of exemplary gallantry during active operations against the enemy on land.” Carrington spent a decade with the Grenadier Guards from 1939 to 1949, eventually with the rank of acting major, and was awarded the MC in March 1945 for his bravery while commanding a tank crossing the Rhine, capturing and holding a bridge at Nijmegen. Pym served in the 9th Lancers in North Africa and Italy, also to the rank of major, and was awarded the MC after being twice mentioned in despatches. Whitelaw was with the Scots Guards, and later the 6th Guards Tank Brigade, commanding tanks during the Battle of Normandy in the summer of 1944. His MC was awarded after the 26-year-old Whitelaw took over from his battalion’s second-in-command who had been killed in front of him.

The future Lord Carrington (centre) with his fellow Grenadier Guards

However on 12th November 1981 Prime Minister Thatcher – for largely political reasons – overrode these objections and a “modest” Holocaust memorial was eventually erected in Hyde Park, officially unveiled in June 1983.

The full story of this memorial, and the planning arguments involved – highly relevant to the present battle within Westminster City Council’s planning committee over whether to approve a far more grandiose memorial – is told in a detailed report submitted to Westminster City Council by H&D‘s Assistant Editor Peter Rushton.

Click here to read this detailed and fully documented report.

Comments are closed.

  • Find By Category

  • Latest News

  • Follow us on Twitter