Berlin diary, 1928-1945

This video is called Auschwitz Birkenau Death Camp.

By John Green in Britain:

Flags In Berlin: An Account Of Life In Berlin 1928-1945
by Biddy Youngday

Sunday 25 November 2012

How easy it is to incite racist behaviour by successfully portraying certain of our fellow human beings as “Untermenschen” – sub-human – and scapegoating them for society’s problems.

Britain did it with its colonial peoples, the US with the Vietnamese and the Israelis with the Palestinians. Biddy Youngday illustrates here how the nazis did it with the Slavs, Jews and Gypsies. We never seem to learn.

Youngday was an upper-middle class Anglo-Irish girl who studied art at the Slade and took herself off on a learning trip through Europe, ending up in Berlin towards the end of the 1920s.

There she met other young artists from the Bauhaus group, including Peter Peri, and married a young communist photographer.

They married and had two children just as Hitler came to power and this book is her retrospective diary of those years, written in the 1950s, but only now published.

It has no literary aspiration in the sense that Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin did but it is a fascinating history of everyday life experienced first hand.

She documents vividly how her friends and neighbours rapidly accept – enthusiastically or reluctantly – the fascists’ rise to power. She and her husband continue to work clandestinely for the Communist Party but once her two girls are born Biddy is forced to take a back seat. Her husband, Willy, is captured only a year before the end of the war and is guillotined by the Gestapo.

The deprivations of the war years in Berlin – continuous bombardment and shortages of everything, make life a nightmare of desperate survival for a lone mother with two small children.

She describes the relief she experiences with the arrival of the Red Army and, despite everything that has been said elsewhere about mass rape and pillage, she relates her experiences with Soviet soldiers of a totally different nature.

The book has a very tragic coda once she returns to Britain. Her traumatic experiences in nazi Germany during the war so damaged her that she suffered a nervous breakdown and persecution mania and was confined to a mental institution for over a year.

In the epilogue, however, we read that she returned to lead a normal and full life, first in the Communist Party and then in the Labour Party in her local West London community. She died in 1987.

Copies of the book, price £7, are available from Doctor Clare Lowy, 44A Rosemont Road, London W3 9LY.

8 thoughts on “Berlin diary, 1928-1945

  1. I really find it hard to accept that Britain treated its colonial populations as sub-human, having lived in several colonies before their Independence.
    Britain after all, is the country which created a law in 1772 which decreed that any slave who set foot in England immediately became a free man, and os the country which freed all slaves in its colonies in 1834, and it was celebrated with a public hollday all over England. This meant that goods from the colonies immediately became more expensive, but England was prepared to pay the cost of having free peoples in its colonies. It also maintained a Royal Navy squadron for sixty years to patrol the seas, and try to eradicate the slave trade between other nations.
    During the American Civil War, starving cotton workers in Manchester who were suffering from not getting cotton from the South, demonstrated in favour of the North and Abolition.
    Captain Cook’s orders from the Admiralty were to treat any native peoples he discovered, with courtesy and to respect their customs and territories. England was famous for centuries for always being a refuge for those persecuted in their own countries. These actions, among many, are not those of people who treated others as sub-human,


    • Hi Valerie,

      The British empire has a long history, during which the situation at different times was not always the same; the situation in different countries was not always the same; and different people in positions of power in colonial rule did not always act in identical ways.

      Even at the same time in the same country there were differences; as depicted, eg, in The Outstation by Somerset Maugham:

      You had relatively good experiences.

      But there were instances where Empire subjects were clearly seen as subhuman.

      Like in the torture of pro-independence people in Kenya:

      In Rudyard Kipling’s well-known poem The White Man’s Burden, there are the lines:

      Your new-caught sullen peoples,
      Half devil and half child.

      In Australia, Aboriginal people in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries until 1967 were officially considered “wildlife” and they were sometimes hunted like hunters might hunt deer:

      So far, about the “subhuman” issue. You mention many interesting and complex historical issues, which I will deal with in another comment.


    • Hi Valerie, indeed since the eighteenth century there was a law in Britain that slaves when landing in Britain ceased to be slaves. That, however, was usual in many European countries. In the seventeenth century, a slave ship captured from Spain landed in Zeeland province in the Netherlands. The government then decreed that all slaves aboard should be freed.

      Indeed, in 1834, the British empire abolished slavery; but that was after a long hard fight by abolitionists:

      “During the American Civil War, starving cotton workers in Manchester who were suffering from not getting cotton from the South, demonstrated in favour of the North and Abolition.” True. But among the propertied classes in Britain, there was much sympathy for the Confederacy. The government did not eventually recognize the Confederacy because of the popular movement from below which you mention.

      Indeed, during the nineteenth century, people like Karl Marx and other political refugees, were welcome in Britain. A stark contrast with today, when the British government co-operates with the CIA in “extraordinary rendition” to torture.


      • Talking about cotton workers in England: in the 1930s, they also welcomed Gandhi, fighting for India’s independence. With the British government then, Gandhi was not so welcome.


      • Yes, I think what goes on today is appalling and shameful, but I also honour the people who did their best to move the world on from some dark days. Britain’s record on slavery is a good one, which included getting the Germans to swap Heligo land which was important to Britain, for Zanzibar so they could abolish slavery there.
        They got the French to sign up for abolition in 1814, and in the vote abolishing the slave trade, only 15 MP’s in the House of Commons voted against it. No other country spent millions maintaining a navy squadron for sixty years to try to stop slave trading…So there is light as well as dark..

        Not just Karl Marx but refugees in other centuries – like the Huguenots – also found a safe place in England, as also of course in the thirties, when communists, as well as German Jews, fled to England. . including Ed Milliband’s grandfather!.


        • Hi Valerie, indeed we should honour the people who did their best to move the world on from some dark days. But they usually had to do that in opposition to the established powers.

          In 1814, the issue at the Vienna congress was not abolishing slavery (which France, like other slave-owner countries, did later), but ending importing still more slaves from Africa.

          In 1834, “the bill emancipates the slaves in all British colonies and appropriates a sum equivalent to nearly $100 million to compensate slave owners for their losses.”

          That is, let us say, a weak point in this emancipation. Compensating the slave-owners; and not compensating the slaves. That is similar to how slavery was abolished in other slave-owner countries. In The Netherlands and its colonies, there was also compensation for slave-owners, not for slaves.


          Wikipedia writes about the 1930s:

          Before and during World War II

          Though there was some growing anti-semitism during the 1930s, this was counterbalanced by strong support for British Jews in their local communities leading to events such as the Battle of Cable Street where anti-semitism was strongly resisted. Consistent with its complex history, Britain was not particularly receptive to Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazi regime in Germany, and the other fascist states of Europe. Approximately 40,000 Jews from Austria and Germany were eventually allowed to settle in Britain before the War, in addition to 50,000 Jews from Italy, Poland, and elsewhere in Eastern Europe. Despite the increasingly dire warnings coming from Germany, at the Evian Conference of 1938, Britain refused to allow further Jewish refugees into the country. The notable exception allowed by Parliament was the Kindertransport, an effort on the eve of war to transport Jewish children (their parents were not given visas) from Germany to Britain. Around 10,000 children were saved by the Kindertransport, out of a plan to rescue five times that number.


          • This is all so interesting – including your point of view…
            I love hearing how other countries developed too – so The Netherlands had a law making slaves free as soon as they landed – like the Chief Justice’s ruling in England in 1772 – did they?
            Yes, I knew that Britain had sheltered just under a million Jews before World War 11, apart from the governments of Holland, Norway, France etc, but I’ve never known how many refugees other countries took in. Does your encyclopaedic knowledge extent to these countries and figures? It would be fascinating to compare…


            • Hello Valerie,

              The 1772 Somersett case did not totally ban slavery in England. Wikipedia says:

              “The Somersett judgment, even if limited to prohibiting the forcible removal of slaves from England, [did] establish a radical precedent. It went against recent legal authority in both the official opinion of the Attorney-General, Sir Philip Yorke and the Solicitor-General, Mr Talbot in 1729, and the court decision of Sir Philip Yorke, by then Lord Chancellor Hardwicke, in 1749 in the case of Pearne v Lisle.[8] These decisions had stated that slaves were items of property (Hardwicke described them as ‘like stock on a farm’) who were not emancipated either by becoming a Christian or by entry into England, that possession of them could be recovered by the legal action of trover, and that their master might legally compel them to leave England with him.”


              When in 1596 a captured Spanish slave ship with 100 slaves arrived in Middelburg in the Netherlands, local people were so indignant that the slaves were freed immediately.


              Between 1933 and 1939, 35.000 Jewish refugees arrived from Germany in the Netherlands. The Dutch government gradually made things more difficult for them. Like in many other European countries, one might cynically say rich Jews were welcome, poor Jews very unwelcome. Some Latin American countries had more humane immigration policies, I think.


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