After WWII ended, a black book containing a list of over 2,300 prominent British citizens was discovered among the papers of Nazi leader Heinrich Himmler.
The book, titled Sonderfahndungsliste G.B. (meaning Special Search List) was dated 1940 and contained a list of politicians, writers and journalists who were to be immediately arrested if Germany successfully invaded Britain.
This list included Virginia Woolf and her husband Leonard as well as Prime Minister Winston Churchill, Sigmund Freud, E.M. Forster, H.G. Wells and many others.
Although it is not clear exactly what prompted the Nazis to target them, the Third Reich’s aggression and hostility towards free-spoken, anti-Nazi intellectuals was no secret. In addition, Leonard Woolf was Jewish and Virginia was his wife so neither one of them were likely to be spared.
The Nazis had compiled a similar list of 61,000 Polish activists, actors, writers and politicians who were eventually targeted, arrested or killed during Operation Tannenberg in Poland between 1939 and 1941.
The Sonderfahndungsliste G.B. was compiled by Walter Schellenberg, who was the personal assistant to Heinrich Himmler and a deputy chief in the Reich Main Security Office, along with the help of two captured British secret agents and a third rogue agent, according to an article in The Independent:
“The captured agents were Captain Sigismund Payne Best and Major Richard Stevens of the British Secret Intelligence Services, who were kidnapped by German agents during a foolish visit to the Dutch frontier in November 1939 and held throughout the war. How much they were forced to reveal was never made clear, even after they returned safely to Britain after the war. Much more seriously, a rogue British intelligence officer, Colonel Dick Ellis, admitted after his retiral that he had sold ‘vast quantities of information’ about the British secret service to the Germans.”
The list was created for a Nazi handbook, known as Schellenberg’s Informationsheft G.B, which was intended to be a blueprint for the invasion and occupation of Britain, a military plan the Nazis called Operation Sea Lion.
In preparation for Operation Sea Lion, the Nazis printed about 20,000 copies of the Nazi handbook, but only three survived the war.
Although the blacklist was included in the Nazi handbook, it was also printed in its own separate book, now known as the black book.
A copy of the black book is currently on display at the Imperial War Museum in London.
Operation Sea Lion never took place and the reason why has mystified historians ever since. Instead of invading Britain, Hitler called his troops back to Germany and began preparing for his doomed invasion of Russia.
It was unlikely that Virginia Woolf, or any of the other individuals on the list, knew about the black list at the time as it remained a secret until after the war, but Nazi atrocities towards civilians during invasions was well documented and Virginia and Leonard knew they had reason to fear.
As the war raged on, Virginia and Leonard Woolf made a suicide pact. They stored an extra can of gasoline in the garage and planned to asphyxiate themselves with exhaust fumes if Germany invaded, according to Virginia’s diary, in an entry dated May 15, 1940:
“We discussed suicide if Hitler lands. Jews beaten up. What point in waiting? Better to shut the garage doors. This is a sensible, rather matter of fact talk…No, I don’t want the garage to see the end of me. I’ve a wish for 10 years more, & to write my book wh. as usual darts into my brain.”
Leonard Woolf also obtained a vial containing a lethal dose of morphine from Virginia’s brother Adrian, who was a psychiatrist, as a backup plan.
After her suicide in March of 1941, the press speculated that the looming threat of invasion may have contributed to Virginia’s decision to kill herself, although she didn’t mention the war in her suicide note.
The Guardian; Nazi’s Black List Discovered in Berlin; September 14 1945
Virginia Woolf: An Inner Life; Julia Briggs; 2005
Virginia Woolf and the Great War; Karen L. Levenback; 1999
Virginia Woolf and the Real World; Alex Zwerdling; 1986
Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany; William L. Shirer
The Independent; Newly Published SS Handbook Give Blueprint for Nazi Britain; James Dalrymple; March 2000: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/this-britain/newly-published-ss-handbook-gives-blueprint-for-nazi-britain-724121.html