Richard Crossman’s broadcasts about Germany for a British audience seem to go through something of a subtle evolution throughout the 1930s and the 1940s. As he witnessed the events of 1934 and reported on them through the BBC, Crossman had a strong academic interest in German affairs. He treats the subjects of his talks not as outright enemies but rather with a certain degree of objective detachment and curiosity. ‘There is no question’ he states in one talk from May 1934 that the inmates of Nazi labour camps ‘were extremely happy and fit’.1 This is not to suggest that Crossman does not feel uneasy about the camps – or the methods employed to keep order within them – but even here that unease takes the form of intellectual speculation: ‘that is the picture I want to give you – a paradox certainly, a danger – perhaps’.2 Yet he also, somewhat unusually (perhaps after a response from the BBC or his audience), edits his broadcasts to make them appear less supportive of the camps (in one example he removes a reference to inmates being able to visit the cinema, something which, on its own, might imply that conditions were reasonable).
Similarly, his initial reaction to the ‘Night of the Long Knives’ (broadcast on 2 July 1934) is drawn less to the brutality of the act and instead to analysis of its political motives. Indeed, his assessment is that the alleged conspiracy by the paramilitary S.A. to seize power, used by the Nazi leadership to justify the organised execution of the group’s leaders, is ‘a personal intrigue, and its importance lies in the methods Hitler used for its suppression’.3 By contrast, nearly a month later it is the cruelty of the act which so appals Crossman. In much stronger language he denounces the way in which Röhm and other paramilitary leaders were ‘butchered in cold blood’, 4 and warns those in Britain who may have inclinations towards appeasement (or, as he phrases it, ‘those who believe that their spoons are long enough to sup with the devil’).5
By the time the war has truly begun in 1940, it is this satanic image that Crossman attempts to convey: ‘I am speaking myself of a country which I formerly loved; and I tell you we have far too long tolerated the devil’.6 Ending his talk with a call to arms, he tells his audience: ‘The Nazi régime has lived by force. The time has now come when our force must destroy it’.7 Eventually, he comes to manifest his loathing of Nazism through a subtle and contemptuous form of humour. When describing a Nazi ceremony to honour the party leaders in 1940, he dismisses it as a ‘cross between the admission of some new heroes into Valhalla and a School Prizegiving’.8
It is difficult to pinpoint exactly when and where this academic interest gives way to revulsion (even in other talks from 1940, he is drawn towards philosophical ruminations on topics such as Nazi education policy). Crossman’s former Parliamentary Private Secretary (PPS) and biographer, Tam Dalyell, suggests that the revulsion was born precisely of disgust at his earlier interest.9 Likewise, the Oxford historian A. L. Rowse confronted Crossman in a letter from 1947 on his record of political judgement, that he had initially been optimistic on the Nazis coming to power and hoped – naively – that it might, as a by-product, ‘bring socialism to Germany’. 10 Yet it is very likely that an irrate Rowse was overstating the extent of Crossman’s views – possibly taking a throw-away remark out of context. As the author of Plato Today, Crossman had an almost peerless loathing for totalitarianism; indeed, it is highly probable that his changing attitude was an attempt to prove his own revulsion at the regime to himself as much as to transmit it to the British people at large.
Many of the transcripts of Richard Crossman's radio and television broadcasts are now digitised and available to search.
Andrew Burchell, August 2012