The Great Escape: as told by the reporters of the Guardian newspaper

Jane Speller, Project Archivist for the Guardian newspaper foreign correspondence cataloguing project, writes:

The archive of the Manchester Guardian contains countless reports of refugees desperately fleeing Germany to escape persecution and often murder at the hands of the Nazis. From early 1933 onwards much of the foreign correspondence is dominated by these accounts.

Many refugees had no real plan of escape beyond getting across the German frontier. Reading their stories brings to mind the classic World War II film, The Great Escape (1963). Based on a true story, The Great Escape follows escapees from the infamous German POW (Prisoner of War) camp Stalag Luft III, as they desperately attempt to reach neutral Switzerland, Sweden, and Spain. Of fifty men, only three succeed in escaping; the rest are returned to prison or shot. Two men row to freedom, eventually stowing away on a Swedish merchant ship. The third man bicycles through the countryside to France, where he is guided by the Resistance to Spain.

Allied propoganda image, ‘French resistance partisans fight alongside Allied troops to retake their cities’ (around 1944) © Wikimedia Commons
Allied propoganda image, ‘French resistance partisans fight alongside Allied troops to retake their cities’ (around 1944) © Wikimedia Commons


Berlin correspondent Frederick Voigt writes to his editor W.P. Crozier about the plight of the Socialist workmen who have had to leave Germany because of their political views. On 29 August 1933, he comments, that they fought against the ‘Brown Shirts’ and are now destitute and starving. There are hundreds of refugees in camps or barracks round Paris. Some quarters are alright others are squalid. More refugees are arriving all the time. Robert Dell reports from Geneva on 6 April 1933 that several thousand refugees, Jews and others have arrived at Basle and Zurich. No official measures have been taken so far to accommodate them.

As the Nazi regime progressed, it became harder to get out of the country. The majority of refugees fled illegally which meant that they arrived with few possessions, no identity papers and no money (it was forbidden to take or send money out of the country). On 27 May 1933 Alexander Werth reports from Paris that the Reuters news agency account of 25,000 Jewish refugees in Paris is incorrect. There are in fact 25,000 German refugees, of whom 5,000-10,000 are Jewish. On 27 Jul 1933 Voigt draws Crozier’s attention to a Daily Telegraph article about the 1,500 penniless refugees currently in Britain.

On 30 May 1933 Voigt writes to Crozier about the relief efforts for German refugees. He says the Hospitality Committee in England is doing good work, but its scope is limited. On 19 June 1933 he reports that in Paris suicide, venereal disease and crime are beginning to spread amongst the refugees.


On 30 May 1933, Voigt says he believes that less than 5% of the refugees are coming to England, due to the restrictions. Dell, Werth, Voigt and Marcel Fodor, the Vienna correspondent, all report on relief efforts for the refugees and the problems surrounding the issue of Nansen passports (refugee travel documents).

On 7 July 1933, Werth tells Crozier that Valerian Dovgalevsky, the Soviet Ambassador, has said that the Soviets might employ some of the doctors and engineers who are refugees; they might also give refugees land for settlement. Dovgalevsky was however a little sceptical in view of the ‘bourgeois’ mentality of most of the refugees, commenting ‘if they were workmen, we would take them like a shot’.

Voigt writes a letter on 23 October 1933 regarding the treatment of German fugitives who are landing in England. On arriving, several have been shocked to have been asked if they are Jewish. He suspects one particular workman who he knows personally was turned away because he is poor, even though he his papers were in order.

…and Deaths

Dell reports on 10 April 1933, that Rudolf Breitscheid (1874-1944) a leading member of the Social Democratic Party and member of parliament, has come out of Germany legally. Voigt reports on 8 April that Breitscheid would like to work, but he is too noticeable (very tall and thin, with striking features) and would be arrested immediately. Breitscheid says he is thinking of going to London to start life afresh. He is an old friend of the Manchester Guardian, and former editor C.P. Scott used to refer to him as ‘the only German Liberal’.

Rudolph Breitscheid, German Stamp, 1974 © Wikimedia Commons
Rudolph Breitscheid, East German stamp, 1974 © Wikimedia Commons

Breitscheid and his close colleague Rudolf Hilferding (1877-1941), a Marxist economist and Socialist theorist, flee Germany to the South of France. Efforts were undertaken by the Refugee Committee to get them to Spain, but they both refused to leave illegally. In 1941, they were arrested by the Gestapo.

The situation for many refugees seemed hopeless. On 30 May 1933 Voigt reports on two suicides last week in France. The situation for refugees in the Saar and in Czechoslovakia is just as bad.

On 4 April 1935 Voigt telegrams Crozier a breaking story. Dr Dora Fabian (1901-1935) and fellow political émigré Mathilde Wurm (1874-1935) have been found dead in their Bloomsbury flat, ‘a bottle which is believed to have contained poison was lying near the bodies and a mass of correspondence in foreign languages was strewn across the floor’ (The Age newspaper, 6 April 1935). Fabian was an anti-Nazi activist, writer and journalist, described by Ellen Wilkinson as ‘one of the most brilliant brains exiled from Germany by the Nazi revolt’. Wurm was a socialist, feminist and passionate anti-Fascist. She had been a close friend of the Marxist theorist and revolutionary socialist Rosa Luxemburg (1871-1919).

Mathilde Wurm, Lore Agnes and Clara Zetkin
Mathilde Wurm (right) with political activists Lore Agnes (left) and Clara Zetkin (middle), in front of the Reichstag, Berlin (1919) © Wikimedia Commons

Wurm and Fabian were connected with Socialists all around the world and actively helped refugees escape from Nazi Germany.

The women became friendly with Dr Hans Wesemann (1895-1971), a German refugee in London, who unbeknown to them was a Gestapo agent. It is believed that the information gathered by Wesemann led to the arrests of a number of the women’s friends and colleagues in Germany.  Writing on 7 April 1935, Voigt suggests that the knowledge of this inadvertent betrayal drove the women to a suicide. There was however a suspicion that they were murdered by Gestapo agents, as their apartment had been burgled on two previous occasions and papers removed. This and other refugee stories are examined in The strange case of Dora Fabian and Mathilde Wurm: a study of German political exiles in London during the 1930’s by Dr Charmian Brinson.

1 comment on “The Great Escape: as told by the reporters of the Guardian newspaper

  1. Reblogged this on Bibliodeviancy.

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