Q&A with Sybil Oldfield, author of The Black Book

28 October 2020

 In 1939, the Gestapo created a list of names: the Britons whose removal would be the Nazis’ first priority in the event of a successful invasion. Who were they? What had they done to provoke Germany? For the first time, the historian Sybil Oldfield uncovers their stories and reveals why the Nazis feared their influence

Among them are the writers E. M. Forster and Virginia Woolf, the social reformers Margery Fry and Eleanor Rathbone MP, the artists Jacob Epstein and Oscar Kokoschka. Oldfield not only sheds light on the Gestapo worldview; she also movingly reveals a network of truly exemplary Britons: mavericks, moral visionaries and unsung heroes.

Buy your copy from your local independent bookshop or at Waterstones, Amazon or Hive.

 black book


With her editor, Ed Lake

Ed Lake: Why/how did you decide to investigate the black book?

Sybil Oldfield: Once I learned that in 1938-9 the Gestapo compiled a list of those people they would arrest immediately on invading Britain, I had to find out who these anti-fascist men and women were.

Some were well-known anti-fascists – e.g. E.M. Forster who wrote in 1939 that ‘Jew-mania’ was ‘now the most shocking of all things’, and Virginia Woolf and H.G.Wells. But others I had to search for in WHO’s WHO 1939, the Oxford DNB and in the German, French, Czech, Dutch and Polish versions of Wikipedia, not to mention the Quaker archives in Friends’ House Library for the refugee rescuers and Stefan Lorant’s Picture Post before September 1939. Then there were the 20 years of research for my Dictionary of British Women Humanitarians, 1900-1950, and my personal knowledge of some individual refugees, eg Hans and Ilse Singer, who remembered Eleanor Rathbone – “She vos qvite a voman!'”

EL: What does it tell us about how the Nazis saw Britain?

SO: The Gestapo List tells us that to the Nazis, anti-Nazi Britain was not anti-fascist but simply anti- German -‘deutschfeindlich‘ . The Nazis saw Britain as the aggressor, declaring war on Germany in September,1939, refusing Hitler’s peace offer in July 1940, ;nd as an imperial maritime power encircling poor Germany by land and sea.

EL: Who was the most interesting inclusion?

SO: They are all fascinating and worth discovering, but I find the ‘Red’ Duchess of Atholl, most interesting. She was a Conservative MP whose passionate anti-appeasement stance, based on her revulsion against Nazi inhumanity, made the Conservatives withdraw the Party Whip from her.

EL: Who was the most surprising omission?

SO: Some say Bernard Shaw, but I think it was George Orwell, whose socialist The Road to Wigan Pier had already been published in 1937.

EL: What resonance does the Black Book have in the current political climate?

The Black Book shows us where fanatical, tribal nationalism can lead – to arrests, imprisonments without trial, and eventually to mass-executions. See p. 372: ‘What’, asks the moral philosopher Susan Neiman, ‘can we learn; from the Holocaust? we can learn [to] be aware of the beginnings. Be aware of racism, be aware of nationalism’.