Lieutenant General Robert Stephenson Smyth Baden-Powell (1857-1941) was a British Army officer and Boer War hero best known as the founder and first Chief Scout of the world-wide Scout Movement.
He was the author of Scouting for Boys (1908), the inspiration for the entire Scouting Movement, and several of his books on military reconnaissance and scout training – which were based upon his considerable military experience – were also very popular with young male readers. Along with his sister, Agnes, he was also the founder of the international Girl Scout Movement.
Baden-Powell built scouting out of the ashes of the Boer War and, according to authority Michael Rosenthal, the movement had its roots in “Edwardian military anxieties” and “the deterioration of Britain’s manhood.” The first demonstration camp, which Baden-Powell held at the Brownsea Island Scout camp (1907), is considered to be the beginning of Scouting.
The first Scout Rally was held at the Crystal Palace in 1909, and the First World Scout Jamboree took place in Olympia in West Kensington in 1920. Baden-Powell is celebrated as the “Chief Scout of the World,” and his birthday – February 22 – continues to be celebrated as “Founder’s Day” by Scouts worldwide.
In principle, Scouting involves a fine and noble ideal: to make boys physically and mentally strong so that they can “Be Prepared!” (the Scout motto) to make meaningful contributions to society; to instill within them a strong sense of duty to G-d, country, and family; and to promote an optimistic view of life.
It may therefore be shocking to many readers to learn that the founder of Scouting was an imperialist, a monarchist, a brute, a war criminal, a shameless racist concerned about “the moral tone of our race,” and an anti-Semite who openly expressed admiration for Mussolini and Hitler and praised them for having “done wonders in resuscitating their people to stand as nations.”
Even well before the Nazi era, Baden-Powell had established himself as a war criminal while serving as a cavalryman and army officer in South Africa during the Second Boer War when, during an 1888 operation to track down Zulu rebels, the men under his command murdered at least three men. But it didn’t end there.
In 1896, he was accused of executing a prisoner of war, the Matabele Chief Uwini, whom the British believed was responsible for leading a rebellion against their rule. With white settlers being murdered in Matabeleland, Baden-Powell was ordered to capture Uwini and, after promising the chief that his life would be spared if he surrendered, he ordered Uwini’s execution by firing squad.
The English colonial civil authorities sought a civil investigation and trial, but Baden-Powell was exonerated by a military court of inquiry, which all but whitewashed the murder.
Baden-Powell manifested his deep-seated racism as early as 1896, when he referred to blacks in The Downfall of Prempeh as manifesting “the stupid inertness of the puzzled negro, duller than that of an ox” and described them as “certainly not men.” In defending him(!), his biographer, Tim Jeal, said that the “worst that is normally said about him is that he starved 2,000 black Africans in Mafeking and stole their food to feed the white population.”
Notwithstanding the various tortured apologist theories proposed by his defenders, there is little doubt that Baden-Powell was an anti-Semite. For example, in Life’s Snags and How to Meet Them, his sketches are classic anti-Semitic caricatures entirely consistent with Nazi depictions of Jews in Der Sturmer.
When criticized for his odious drawings, he responded that he would never “deliberately” draw racial caricatures of Jews or any other race; in other words, his vile drawings were somehow inadvertent. However, the undeniable fact remains that he thought specifically of Jews when imagining people flaunting their wealth in a crude and pretentious manner.
In one of his greatest debacles, Baden-Powell, emphasizing that some of Lenin’s colleagues were German Jews, wrote a 1924 article in which he declared that the Russian communists were “under German-Jew direction.” Admonished by A. Yellin, chair of the Boy Scouts Association in Jerusalem at the time, he steadfastly refused to communicate with Yellin or to apologize for his defamatory statement, though he did claim that he had “the greatest admiration for the [Jewish] race.”
Baden-Powell’s record on Nazism, however, is muddled. On one hand, his Scouts played a role in resettling Jewish children saved in the Kindertransport during the Holocaust, and each family hosting a child received a card drawn and signed by Baden-Powell in which he thanked the host for “helping to give friendly shelter and assistance to our distressed refugee brother”.
In an issue of The Scouter, he wrote of his great blessing in finding “a perfectly excellent Jewish doctor” who was “driven out of Germany and treated me with marketed ability.” According to biographer Jeal, Baden-Powell – on two separate occasions – hoped to marry a Jewish woman. Moreover, at a time when Hitler was rising to power in the mid-1930s, he dismissed a British Lady lecturing him on “the Jews’ secret plan for ruling the world” as “an eccentric.”
Many prominent Jewish leaders supported Scouting, among them Lord Nathaniel Mayer Rothschild, whose grandson was a Scout. In a March 5, 1915 note thanking Rothschild for his largesse, Baden-Powell wrote, “We have a very considerable number of Jewish boys in our organisation now, and we hope to be able to do a great deal of good for them in the poorer districts of London, Glasgow (where we have a fine lot of them), and other manufacturing centres.”
It is clear that Hitler had no great affection for either Baden-Powell or his movement. He characterized Scouting as a dangerous espionage organization; described it as “a haven for young enemies of the new State”; and banned Scouting, which he saw as a competitor to his all-important Hitler-Jugend, Bund Deutscher Arbeiterjugend (“Hitler Youth, League of German Worker Youth”) in June 1934.
Evidencing extreme national paranoia, the Nazis believed that as a British intelligence officer, Baden-Powell created the Scouts for the sole purpose of facilitating espionage against Britain’s enemies and, as such, was a grave threat to the Fatherland.
SS General Walter Schellenberg’s 1940 plan for the invasion of Great Britain included a list of almost 3,000 prominent British citizens who would be rounded up. Pursuant to that plan, Baden-Powell’s name was listed in the infamous 1940 “Black Book,” designating him for detention and “special treatment” after the Nazis’ expected defeat of Great Britain.
But there is also considerable evidence that Baden-Powell was a Nazi-sympathizer and an admirer of Hitler. Even very early in Scouting history, “Thanks Badges” and the Scouting “Medal of Merit” badge included a prominent swastika (see exhibit).
In the November 1933 The Scouter, Baden-Powell quoted approvingly from Mein Kampf, describing his source as “a manifesto recently published in Germany.” He envied the massive financial resources that Germany was allocating to Nazi youth, and he imagined the benefits of similar government subsidies for his Scouting movement.
Moreover, two entries in his diary are particularly worthy of note. First, writing in his diary about his March 2, 1933 meeting with Mussolini, Baden-Powell described the Italian tyrant with affection as “small, stout, human and genial.” He writes that Mussolini told him “about Balilla, and workmen’s outdoor recreations which he imposed through moral force (sic).”
Second, in his October 17, 1939 entry, he wrote: “Lay up all day. Read Mein Kampf. A wonderful book, with good ideas on education, health, propaganda, organization etc.” He went on to condemn Hitler for not going far enough in carrying out the ideals he expressed in his masterwork, and he conspicuously failed entirely to condemn the anti-Semitism that comprises such an important part of the Fuhrer’s magnum opus.
On March 8, 2010, the British Security Service produced newly declassified documents covering the World War II years, including police notes regarding the activities of Hitler Youth members in Britain. Among these documents was a copy of a November 20, 1937 correspondence from Baden-Powell to Joachim von Ribbentrop, then German ambassador to London, thanking him for having received him a day earlier and having arranged to meet key Nazi Hitler Youth officials.
Writing with great apparent affection, Baden-Powell penned, “I sincerely hope that we shall be able in the near future to give expression to it through the youth on both sides, and I will at once consult my headquarters and see what suggestions they can put forward.”
Another document that came to light is a report that Baden-Powell transmitted to the Scout International Commissioner in which he explains that the leaders of Hitler Youth “are eager to see the Scouts get into closer touch with the German youth movement”; that Ribbentrop “sees in the Scout Movement a very powerful agency” to help bring together the two youths; and that he and Ribbentrop agree that “true peace between the two nations will depend on the youth being brought up on friendly terms together in forgetfulness of past differences.”
He added that Ribbentrop invited him to Germany to meet with Hitler, but such a meeting is not known to have occurred.
In response, Baden-Powell defenders note that the swastika was an ancient religious icon in Eurasian culture and a symbol of divinity and spirituality in several Indian faiths, and that his use of the image was wholly unrelated to Nazism; in fact, they argue, when Nazi use of the swastika became more prevalent, the Scouts stopped using it. (However, that may well have been a public relations face-saving attempt, given the developing British and American antipathy to Hitler and Germany.)
Biographer Tim Jeal writes that it was “Baden-Powell’s distrust of communism” that led to “his implicit support, through naïveté, of fascism”; that his admiration for Hitler was with respect to his ideas about boys’ education; and that he “wanted to introduce the Scout movement into Germany to foster friendship between the two countries.”
Other commentators add that notwithstanding Baden-Powell’s early positive comments about Hitler and Mussolini, he later criticized them for their promotion of unity through state repression.
Some of Baden-Powell defenders maintain that it was actually Hitler who was influenced by Baden-Powell, not the other way around, and that many of the polices that Hitler advocated in Mein Kampf about training and educating youth were taken from Scouting for Boys. In fact, Mussolini made just such a declaration to Baden-Powell, admitting that he had based his youth movement in Italy upon the Scouts.
Baden-Powell supporters reason that given its emphasis on discipline and the supremacy of the “greater good” and his belief that “every boy ought to learn how to shoot and obey orders,” it is hardly surprising that authoritarian governments were drawn to some aspects of Scouting philosophy.
Baden-Powell devotees further assert that his diary entry about Mein Kampf was not intended as an exposition on Hitler’s political philosophy and that his failure to comment on anti-Semitism constituted neither approval of anti-Semitism nor support for National Socialism. They argue that, as an international organization, the Scouts had to remain apolitical and maintain neutrality. Thus, for example, in 1937, the World Scout Conference enacted resolution 15/37 (entitled “Patriotism”):
The Conference resolves that the International Committee be requested to do all that it can to ensure that Scouting and Rovering in all countries, while fostering true patriotism, are genuinely kept within the limits of international cooperation and friendship, irrespective of creed and race, as has always been outlined by the Chief Scout [Baden-Powell]. Thus, any steps to the militarization of Scouting or the introduction of political aims, which might cause misunderstanding and thus handicap our work for peace and good will among nations and individuals should be entirely avoided in our programs.
In 1920, British High Commissioner Herbert Samuel tried to establish a joint Jewish-Arab branch of the International Scouting Association in Eretz Yisrael, but the plan failed and Jews (through their scouting organization, the “Tzofim”) and Arabs pursued separate paths.
However, the Arab Scout group was admitted into the World Organization while the Jews were left with neither official status nor funding, and when Baden-Powell visited Eretz Yisrael in April 1921, he reviewed Arab Scout troops in Jerusalem and excluded the Jews from all ceremonial events.
Nonetheless, Jews held a Hebrew ceremony in Czechoslovakia in honor of Baden-Powell, most likely during his 1929 visit to the country when he received its most prestigious honor, the Order of the White Lion. Exhibited here are two very rare original photographs of that event, the first of a parade of members of the Scout youth movement holding Jewish flags, and the second showing Baden-Powell in the center of a group of young Jewish Scouts.
In 2008, a statue of Baden-Powell was installed in Poole Quay facing Brownsea Island, where he had founded the Scout movement in 1907. In the contemporary spirit of the day where “offensive” statues are being torn down, a group calling themselves “Topple the Racists” identified Baden-Powell as a target based upon the “atrocities he committed against the Zulus in his military career and [because he was] a Nazi sympathizer.”
When the Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole Council announced that it was planning to take down the statue, the Scouts organized to defend it and set up a camp at its base, so the Council decided to relocate it to protect it from violent protests.