Peter Hitchens has re-published a remarkable speech by George Bell, the Bishop of Chichester, who addressed the House of Lords in 1944 on the grim subject of the bombing of German cities. Here is a short extract…
The sufferings of Europe, brought about by the demoniac cruelty of Hitler and his Nazis, and hardly imaginable to those in this country who for the last five years have not been out of this island or had intimate association with Hitler’s victims, are not to be healed by the use of power only, power exclusive and unlimited. The Allies stand for something greater than power. The chief name inscribed on our banner is “Law.” It is of supreme importance that we who, with our Allies, are the liberators of Europe should so use power that it is always under the control of law.
I have spent the day exploring the life of this splendid cleric, of whom I had been entirely ignorant. He was an object of derision for his sympathy for German citizens, inspiring Noël Coward’s song “Don’t Let’s Be Beastly to the Germans”. His insistence on a clear distinction between “the Hitler state and the German people” was reflective of an overly optimistic perception of the natives of the country. One need not be Daniel Goldhagen to acknowledge that there was a profound sickness at the heart of the society, infecting the populace: thousand upon thousand of civilians had bullied Jews, informed on dissentients and smiled as millions were carried off into the East. These were not combatants though; still less were their cowed and unhappy neighbours and still less were the innocent children and aged relatives of these people. Blockbuster bombs, of course, did not discriminate between them.
Nor were the library of Hamburg or galleries of Berlin tools of war. Bell was right to say that Germany was not inextricable from Nazism but had to be saved from it. He was also correct to plead that the Allies temper their force with moral restraint. The callousness that was in evidence during the bombings was rampant in the post-war displacement of millions of Germans from Eastern Europe, who were forced to leave their homes and often herded into camps where, as R.M. Douglas has written in his recent book, “beatings, rapes of female inmates, gruelling forced labour and starvation diets of 500-800 calories [were] the order of the day”. Bishop Bell was a rare critic of the expulsions, addressing the House of Lords to denounce “a root-and-branch removal of immense populations for racial reasons to clear the ground for the new occupiers”.
Bell had long been a man whose compassionate heart was allied to an incisive mind. He had, indeed, been one of the first opponents of the Nazis. He had observed their takeover of Germany while working in Berlin and by 1934, when the Daily Mail carried an article titled “Hurrah for the Blackshirts”, he had befriended Dietrich Bonhoeffer and was publicising his reports on the descent of Germany into the moral abyss of fascism. “There can be little question,” claims Eric Metaxas in his Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, “[That] Bell and Bonhoeffer were vital to galvanizing British sentiment against Hitler and the Third Reich”. “Before 1939,” observes Victoria Barnett, Bell and others received letters “castigating them for being too hard on the Germans and too swayed by “Zionist propaganda””. “Once the war began,” she wryly continues, “They were accused of undermining the war effort”.
He was not merely courageous in his rhetoric. Throughout the 1930s, as many Britons griped about Jewish refugees, he helped dozens of emigrants escape from Germany, even allowing exiles to find shelter within his home. His establishment of the Famine Relief Committee was a brave if doomed attempt to oppose the Allied blockades that had inspired the Nazis to loot their occupied territories and leave their peoples, most notably the Greeks, to starve. Mr. Hitchens claims that he even succeeded in coaxing Brightonians out of a house that they had been stunned to discover they were sharing with unexploded bombs.
We do not like to recall either the fact that our collective opposition to the Nazis was at least somewhat delayed or that our treatment of German civilians was brutal. Bishop Bell, who was such a formidable exception to these phenomena, has thus been neglected by history. He may have expected this. The former Archbishop of Canterbury observed that he…
…knew that cultural or political cosiness was a temptation to be strenuously resisted as the most insidious temptation for an ‘insider’ in the British establishment; and he knew that if the insider failed to use his patronage and leverage for the voices that the establishment as not eager to hear, then there was a serious moral issue about that established status.
As he is too little known, though, this is an attempt to do something towards the righting of this wrong. All societies must have people who will speak for something more than personal and tribal interests; people for whom the compulsion to express the truth exists regardless of how convenient circumstances have made it. The least that we can do is salvage them from history.