In June 1940, the French government surrendered to the German army at Compiègne. British morale was low, and Hitler hoped that the British government would soon cave in, cowed by the French defeat. Meanwhile, he was also drawing up plans for a potential invasion of Britain, known in English as ‘Operation Sealion’. There is still controversy as to whether the invasion plans were serious or just a bluff, and it’s unclear whether Operation Sealion would have succeeded had it gone ahead. Several senior German military figures later said that it would have proved near impossible due to the superiority of British air and naval power. At any rate, plans to invade appear to have been serious enough that the SS officer Walter Schellenberg was tasked with preparing an informative handbook about Britain. 20,000 copies of the resulting Informationsheft GB were published, to be given to German officers in the event of an invasion. The idea was that having access to a detailed picture of contemporary Britain would help German officers to easily target hostile individuals and organisations.
The information in the handbook came partly from British newspapers, partly from leaked intelligence. It included analyses of British geography, government, legal system, military, education system, museums and culture, press and radio, religion, demography, Jews, police apparatus and secret service. It went into astonishing detail; for example, information on politicians was not limited to name and party, but included photos, home addresses, and even their hobbies. Factual assessment was punctuated by Schellenberg’s own observations, which ranged from the astute to the paranoid. Schellenberg noted perceptively of the independent school system that ‘the one half of a percent of children who attend public schools will eventually occupy about 80% of all important social important and political posts’, and advised German officers not to bother putting their children down for Eton as it was fully subscribed until 1949.
Other sections of the handbook, influenced by typical Nazi paranoia about any non-National Socialist organisation, were less objectively reliable. They contained assertions that the Boy Scout organisation was a covert spying operation for MI5 and MI6, and that the YMCA was dominated by Jewish Freemasons and could prove ‘a dangerous weapon in the hands of British plutocrats against National Socialist Germany’. Unsurprisingly, these organisations would be among the first to be banned, coinciding with the arrests of their leaders.
Attached to the main handbook was a ‘most-wanted’ list of 2,820 prominent individuals to be immediately arrested in the event of a successful invasion. It was similar to earlier lists prepared by the SS, such as the Sonderfahndungsbuch Polen which was a list of 61,000 Polish ‘enemies of the Reich’ (mainly the upper classes and the intelligentsia) to be targeted by Einsatzgruppen. The British equivalent included politicians, activists and writers such as Charles de Gaulle, E.M. Forster, Aldous Huxley, Sylvia Pankhurst, Neville Chamberlain, Nikolaus Pevsner, Bertrand Russell, Winston Churchill, H.G. Wells and Virginia Woolf. The list actually contained serious mistakes – it included some people who were already dead (Sigmund Freud, Lytton Strachey) and some who had moved away (Paul Robeson).
After the war, a version of this list was published separately from the main handbook. To be on it was a source of some pride; Noel Coward wrote ‘if anyone had told me at that time I was high up on the Nazi blacklist, I should have laughed. I remember Rebecca West, who shared the honour with me, sent a telegram which read: ‘My dear – the people we should have been seen dead with”. By contrast, not to be on the list could be humiliating. When George Bernard Shaw and David Lloyd George found out that not only were they not on it, but were listed as ‘Friends of the Reich’, they were utterly mortified. Shaw’s ‘friendly’ status came from a throwaway remark in which he maintained ‘we should make peace with him [Hitler] instead of making more mischief and ruining our people instead’. David Lloyd George was considered a potential supporter because he’d often observed that Hitler ‘is indeed a great man…a born leader, yes a statesman’.
Unsurprisingly for an author obsessed with race, the handbook was interspersed with notes on the British national character. Like many other high-ranking Nazis, Schellenberg was actually something of an Anglophile. A large number of Nazis saw the British as a fellow Germanic people who had lost their way under decadent liberalism. Although Hitler had previously called some of the British working class ‘racially inferior’, this was not an epithet reserved for the population at large; it’s very different from the Nazi stance on Eastern Europeans, whom they regarded as sub-human. Schellenberg writes that ‘the contradictory and arbitrary characteristics of the British have achieved mastery through tradition and experience, favoured by certain attributes of their national character – unscrupulousness, self-discipline, cool calculation and ruthless action’. Rather ironically, it was the Nazis who were to be remembered by the British for their ‘unscrupulousness’, ‘cool calculation’ and ‘ruthless action’.