January 2019 newsletter – Doreen Warriner and Winter in Prague, 1938-39

Regular readers of this Newsletter’s obituaries will recall some of the stories of heroism shown by economists who fled Central and Eastern Europe in the 1930s, to enjoy outstanding careers in the west. In this article, Ian Preston, University College London, describes the activities of a UK economist who worked fearlessly to help hundreds of refugees flee the threat of Nazi persecution.

80 years ago this winter, as borders in central Europe were redrawn by invasion and annexation, the safety of large numbers of refugees concentrated in Czechoslovakia depended upon finding a means of escape before what seemed the inevitability of coming Nazi occupation. Some of this story is well known, particularly where it intersects with the wider story of the Kindertransport through which large numbers of mainly Jewish children were rescued. But less so is the operation which succeeded in extracting political refugees in even larger numbers and in which one of the central figures was a 34 year-old economics lecturer.


Early career

Doreen Warriner was born into a Warwickshire farming family. She was educated at Malvern Girls’ College, then went up to St Hugh’s College, Oxford, in 1922 where she gained a first in politics, philosophy and economics in 1926. A research scholar, first at LSE then at Oxford again, she gained her doctorate from the University of London in 1931 writing on ‘Combines and Rationalization in Germany’. Her interest at the time in theoretical questions was reflected in an article published in the Economic Journal in 1931 on conceptions of static equilibrium and the role of entrepreneurship in Schumpeterian analysis.

In 1933 she took up a position as assistant lecturer at UCL. Her research centred on the economics of peasant farming with yearly trips to central and eastern Europe between 1935 and 1937. By 1939 when her book on the subject came out she was a lecturer at the School of Slavonic Studies in London. She stressed the depth of eastern European farming poverty, attributing it above all to the consequences of over-population on farming land, to restricted trading opportunities, and the impossibility of out-migration. The book’s preface is written from Prague in November 1938 but it was not for research purposes that she had returned to the city.

When the crisis of 1938 developed, her familiarity with the region made what was at issue more to her than what Chamberlain described as a ‘quarrel in a far away country between people of whom we know nothing’. Created only twenty years earlier, the territorial integrity of Czechoslovakia had been sacrificed by Western European governments concerned to avoid war. The Sudeten areas bordering Germany and the recently absorbed Austria had been relinquished, and Hungary and Poland had taken control of lands to the East. Over 100,000 refugees .owed into the rump Czech areas, mainly Czechs but also a large number of ethnic Germans politically opposed to fascism. With widespread expectation that invasion of the remaining territory would not be long delayed and with a weak government in Prague unlikely in the meanwhile to feel able to resist demands from Germany, the danger to many of these refugees of staying in the country was apparent and efforts to enable flight to safety began almost immediately.


‘…a desperate wish to do something’

Warriner was about to fly to the United States to finish off a Rockefeller fellowship. Instead, on 13 October 1938, she abandoned her plans and flew to Prague. ‘I had no idea at all what to do, only a desperate wish to do something.’ She later suggested that she had been thinking maybe of arranging soup kitchens or finding support in England for destitute children. The abiding thought was that internationalism had been betrayed. Soon after arrival she met with the displaced leaders of Sudeten Social Democrats and with visiting delegations to the city — Quakers, British Labour party officials, trade unionists of different nationalities.

250 Sudeten Social Democrats were soon identified as most urgently needing to leave. It was too dangerous to cross German territory. Planes would have enabled quickest departure but were expensive and could only cope with small numbers. The most practical route out was by train through Poland and then by sea. But travel across Poland was possible only with an onward visa. In Britain, trade unions fearful of labour market competition insisted that refugees not be allowed to work, so guarantees of permanent support were needed before visas would be granted. Officials expressed concern also that issuing visas to Sudeten Germans violated the spirit of the Munich agreement. Without yet having the backing of necessary funds, Labour party officials nonetheless offered the needed guarantees and train journeys began. Warriner accompanied one of the first parties as guarantor of the formalities.

In November, she visited refugees in camps. Czech refugees were mainly quartered in the households of peasants, Germans in camps, schools, halls, and castles. She commented that ‘their defeat seemed complete and final, and I wondered what words could be found . . . Yet hope arose from the comradeship.’ She drew a contrast with her experience of English socialism — ‘intellectual and rather spiteful in tone’ — and Russian — ‘fatalistic and abstract’. What she saw as the solidity, efficiency, loyalty and sympathy of defeated German socialism appealed. Complaining that ‘…we have ceased to believe that England has any task in the world to fulfil’ she drew inspiration from seeing Germans ally with Czechs against Nazism.

By December various sources of funds supporting refugee efforts were consolidated into the British Committee for Refugees from Czechoslovakia and Warriner was made its representative in Prague. Hope for more visas after the initial batch had receded. Warriner’s time was wasted seeing off attempted ‘rake-offs’ by corrupt business interests and officialdom trying to restrict permitted routes for refugees. She sent frustrated letters to the Telegraph and Guardian on conditions in camps, stressing the need for ‘visas not chocolate’. Viewed in Britain as counter-productive, the letters almost led to her removal from the post.

Christmas saw the arrival in Prague of Nicholas Winton who took charge of the emigration of children, returning to London to secure support and visas while the less well-known Trevor Chadwick took control of things in Prague.


Frustration and success

It was in January that the operation was turned around. A £10 million loan from the British government to Czechoslovakia was confirmed including a £4 million gift for assisting Sudeten refugees. ‘So the refugees ceased to be objects of charity’. Robert Stopford, a sympathetic Treasury official from now on worked closely with Warriner. Critically, Canada offered visas for 1200 families. Warriner noted the irony that the only British Dominion to take a liberal attitude to social democratic refugees was the most capitalist and that because immigration was under the influence of railway companies and not labour interests. Still bureaucracy slowed the operation down as each visa needed independent attention. She returned to London and tried to impress the danger on officials responsible but ‘it was impossible to get through the cotton wool which prevented them from hearing’.

‘February was wonderful’. 600 visas had been approved and a new easier bulk visa scheme made the bureaucracy hugely easier. Large train parties started to depart, up to 500 on one train. ‘For us in Prague it meant release and hope. But for Europe it meant that the last defenders of German liberty were leaving . . . the departure of the élite of the working class . . . The great emigrations have usually been made by those who rebelled against oppression: we were in the tradition.’ But families of departing activists were still there waiting for visas — ‘the most refined form of charitable cruelty imaginable’.

The long-anticipated German invasion occurred in mid-March. The decision was made to evacuate remaining family members immediately. 700 women and children were still in camps, up to ten hours away from the capital. Telegrams were sent and everyone summoned to Prague. 500 arrived overnight and left on a hastily issued collective visa, crossing the border with blinds drawn.  

The leaders of the Social Democrats were still in Prague, hiding now in the British Legation. A plan to fly them out was frustrated by cancellation of flights. Instead some fled in disguise with false papers by skiing to the Polish border while Warriner followed by train with their true papers.

The 200 who had failed to receive the message in time arrived in Prague too late. The impression was that movement around Prague would be safe while only the army was in occupation, too busy to care, but that it would not be once the secret police would arrive. Women and children were led to secret locations in hotels and elsewhere across the city. In urgent efforts to shred and remove incriminating evidence, passports were left behind and fell into the hands of the arriving occupiers. Attempts were made to get some out on false passports, some were pulled off departing trains and never seen again.

New decrees required that anyone leaving now needed also an exit pass. Stopford managed to negotiate the return of some of the passports and issue of the required exit permits. By April the Gestapo had evidence of Warriner’s role and was searching for her. It was felt that her continued presence would put remaining refugees in danger and she left in April, only days before they reportedly turned up at her accommodation. The Canadian, Beatrice Wellington, stayed on and took a principal role in organising the departure of the remaining women.

Once war had broken out, Warriner took a position in the Ministry of Economic Warfare and later worked in political intelligence at the Foreign Office. An OBE in 1941 recognised her role in Prague. After the war she was placed in charge of UN relief and rehabilitation efforts in Yugoslavia.

She continued to write, concentrating still on poor farmers. Her plan for Eastern Europe after Hitler, published as a Fabian pamphlet during the war, included a trading federation with Western Europe and enhanced migration possibilities. Angered at post-war Western efforts to block economic reform in opposition to communism and concerned that the success of fascist movements in Eastern Europe between the wars might be repeated, she wrote positively about the communist revolutions in Eastern Europe, taking a sanguine view of the political costs. She later wrote that ‘in the years immediately after the war, it did indeed seem as if communist policy were doing the things that needed to be done’ but recognised that collectivisation had failed.

She returned to a position at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies in 1947, rising eventually to a professorship in economic history. Land reform remained a focus of her thought with her research turning towards the Middle East and Latin America. Summing her views up in her 1969 Land Reform in Principle and Practice she positioned herself between rival worldviews, an American conception that was right in seeing the importance of individual title and the need for credit but wrong in ignoring size, type of farming, and marketing, and a communist conception that was ‘wrong in ignoring incentive and indeed every economic aspect except that of getting the peasants under control.’

She died after a stroke in 1972. Her memoir of the winter in Prague, the source of most quotations in this article, was published posthumously in 1984. Nicholas Winton lived long enough to enjoy eventual recognition for his role but always spoke generously of those such as Warriner and Chadwick who had died too early to enjoy the same acclaim. The rescue of thousands was the work of no-one acting alone. It was the combined outcome of the actions of refugees themselves, of Czechs who helped for example with hiding them, and of outsiders like Warriner who could assist in securing visas and external support. The success required acts of individual bravery, especially after invasion, but relied above all, as William Chadwick notes in his book on the subject, on more important if more prosaic characteristics such as resilience, persistence, resourcefulness and organisation in the face of resistant bureaucracy and indifferent politics.



E Abel-Smith, 2017, Active Goodness: The True Story of How Trevor Chadwick, Doreen Warriner and Nicholas Winton Saved Thousands from the Nazis, London: Kwill Books.

L E Brade and R Holmes, 2017, ‘Troublesome sainthood: Nicholas Winton and the contested history of child rescue in Prague, 1938-1940’, History and Memory 29, 3-40.

W Chadwick, 2010, The Rescue of the Prague Refugees 1938/39, Leicester: Matador.

S Cohen, 2011, ‘“Winter in Prague”: the humanitarian mission of Doreen Warriner’, AJR Journal, August 2011, 4-5.

A Grenville, 2011, ‘Doreen Warriner, Trevor Chadwick and the “Winton children” ‘, AJR Journal, April 2011, 1-2.

K Kocourek, ‘Doreen Warriner: a woman on the edge of appeasement’, UCL SSEES Alumni Stories, online.

A Lambton, 1973, ‘Doreen Warriner, 1904-1972’, Slavonic and East European Review 51, 292-293.

S Old.eld, 2004, ‘Warriner, Doreen Agnes Rosemary Julia (1904-1972), rescuer of refugees and development economist’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

D Warriner, 1931, ‘Schumpeter and the conception of static equilibrium’, Economic Journal 41, 38-50.

D Warriner, 1938, ‘The population question in Eastern Europ’, Slavonic and East European Review 16, 629-637.

D Warriner, 1939, Economics of Peasant Farming, London: Frank Cass and Co.

D Warriner, 1940, Eastern Europe after Hitler, London, Victor Gollancz.

D. Warriner, 1947, ‘The real issues in Europe’, Political Quarterly 18, 1-12.

D Warriner, 1949, ‘Economic changes in Eastern Europe since the war’, International Affairs 25, 157-167.

D Warriner, 1950, Revolution in Eastern Europe, London: Turnstile Press.

D Warriner, 1953, ‘Some controversial issues in the history of agrarian Europe’, Slavonic and East European Review 32, 168-186.

D Warriner, 1957, Land Reform and Development in the Middle East: A Study of Egypt, Syria and Iraq, London and New York: Royal Institute of International Affairs.

D Warriner, 1969, Land Reform in Principle and Practice, Oxford: Clarendon Press.

D Warriner, 1984, ‘Winter in Prague’, Slavonic and East European Review 62, 209-240.


From issue no. 184, January 2019, pp.10-12.