WHAT THE ALLIES KNEW
NOVEMBER 20, 1996
What did the World War II allies know and when did they know it about the mass execution of Jews by Nazi Germany? Some surprising clues are contained in more than 1 million wartime documents now stored at the National Archives. A group of American scholars recently succeeded in getting the papers declassified under the Freedom of Information Act. One of them, Richard Breitman, of American University, talked earlier with Charles Krause about those documents from 1941.
A RealAudio version of this NewsHour segment is available.
Online NewsHour links
November 19, 1996:
U.S. auditors are investigating Swiss banks in an effort to recover funds lost by those who died in the Nazi Holocaust. Betty Ann Bowser reports.
May 24, 1996:
An interview with Daniel Goldhagen, author of Hitler's Willing Executioner's: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust.
The United States Holocaust Museum Web site
JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight,What did the World War II allies know and when did they know it about the mass execution of Jews by Nazi Germany? Some surprising clues are contained in more than 1 million wartime documents now stored at the National Archives. A group of American scholars recently succeeded in getting the papers declassified under the Freedom of Information Act. One of them, Richard Breitman, of American University, talked earlier with Charles Krause about those documents from 1941.
CHARLES KRAUSE: Prof. Breitman, thank you very much for joining us.
RICHARD BREITMAN, American University: Thank you for inviting me.
CHARLES KRAUSE: If you would, set the stage for me. What was happening in Europe in the summer and fall of 1941?
RICHARD BREITMAN: Well, the big event of the summer of 1941 was the German invasion of the Soviet Union June 22, 1941, which caught the Soviets completely by surprise. And Germany penetrated quickly and deeply into Soviet territory, killing or capturing many thousands of prisoners and behind the German armies came special units from the various branches of the police, and their function was to execute targeted enemies of the Nazi regime.
CHARLES KRAUSE: Now, Britain had already declared war against Germany at that point.
RICHARD BREITMAN: Yes. Britain had declared war in September 1939.
CHARLES KRAUSE: The United States had not.
RICHARD BREITMAN: The United States did not come into the war until Germany declared war against the United States shortly after Pearl Harbor.
CHARLES KRAUSE: Now, was it known at the time--putting aside the information which you just uncovered--was it known publicly at the time that the Nazis were exterminating Jews in the Soviet Union?
RICHARD BREITMAN: There were some individual reports of executions which leaked into the press in various countries. There was not enough information to discern any systematic pattern.
CHARLES KRAUSE: Was it known at the time, or was it known later that this had occurred?
RICHARD BREITMAN: The general consensus among scholars who have studied the Holocaust is that the allied governments did not really recognize what was taking place until December of 1942, in other words, a year and a half after the German invasion. And even then, some government officials in London, as well as in Washington, continued to express skepticism about atrocity reports that were coming in. The new information, of course, indicates that British intelligence had very clear information about what was taking place in the Soviet Union much earlier than that.
CHARLES KRAUSE: In fact, during the summer of 1941.
RICHARD BREITMAN: Summer and fall of 1941, yes.
CHARLES KRAUSE: Now, tell me, if you would, the British had undertaken a very extensive and apparently very successful effort to decode German communications.
RICHARD BREITMAN: Yes. Between the first decode in mid July of 1941 and the codes changed every day and so some days they broke the code and some days they couldn't break the code. They couldn't break it more often than they could break it, but they broke it enough between mid July and mid September of 1941 to discern a pattern, because some of these reports talk about 2200 Jews executed in such and such a village, 4400 Jews executed in this city, I mean one report after another, so that the pattern after a while became clear. In mid September of 1941, the chief of the German Order police sent out a very interesting radio warning that the commanders in the field should send ordinary information and confidential information by radio, but that they should not send top secret information by radio because there was a danger that the enemy might intercept and decode, and he specifically said do not send reports of execution totals by radio, send them by courier instead.
CHARLES KRAUSE: Based on what you know now, what did the British do with the intercepts and information that they had in the summer of 1941 about the executions?
RICHARD BREITMAN: This is an area that requires further research, and I have not been working in London. I've been working here. But what I have seen here indicates that these particular decodes were distributed to a range of offices within the British Secret Service, to the Air Ministry, to the Ministry of Economic Warfare, and a summary of some items was passed up to Prime Minister Churchill's office to the point where by mid September a British intelligence analyst wrote, we do not propose to continue sending reports about atrocities in the Soviet Union to the prime minister--and I'm paraphrasing, rather than giving you a direct quote--because it is perfectly obvious that the Nazis are killing every Jew that they can lay their hands on.
CHARLES KRAUSE: Why do you think the British would have not wanted to know, in effect?
RICHARD BREITMAN: On the surface, there is a clear and simple reason, but when one looks a little closer, it gets more complicated. The clear and simple reason is that the British did not want to give away the fact that they had broken the code. They did not want to do anything that would indicate to the Nazi regime their success at code-breaking, because this was one of the great advantages that Britain and the allies had during the war. The fate of Jews in foreign countries was less important--to some it was completely unimportant--but to others, it was less important than winning the war, itself, and they were trying to concentrate all of their efforts and all of their attention on winning the war. We do know, based on later events and later documents, that there were many officials in the British Foreign Office, as well as in the American State Department, who thought that giving attention to Nazi atrocities against Jews would simply stimulate complaints at home that governments were paying too much attention to Jews. There was, after all, a good deal of anti-Semitism around in both countries at the time. And the British were particularly concerned about their position in the Middle East and keeping Arab opinion on the right side during the war.
CHARLES KRAUSE: When were these intercepts--when was this information also shared with the United States?
RICHARD BREITMAN: We don't know the answer to that question yet. I would very much like to find that out. It is possible--I should say that we do know that there was extensive sharing of intelligence between Britain and the United States during the war. There's nothing on these particular documents that tells me when they were turned over. I hope, based on additional research, to eventually find out, but it's possible that unless I can find somebody who actually saw these documents and handled these documents at the time, that we may never have an answer to that question.
CHARLES KRAUSE: Had the British taken the information which they had in 1941 and made it public, or done something about it, that the Holocaust might not have happened?
RICHARD BREITMAN: I wouldn't go that far, no. I would say that Hitler, Himmler, other top officials were extremely determined to kill as many Jews as they could. I don't think--barring internal political turmoil--that the outside world could have persuaded them not to go ahead. I do think, however, that a serious publicity offensive might have caused problems for them at least in alerting Jews across Europe that this might be their fate and in reducing the level of innocent sort of cooperation with the Nazis, because people were--many people were deported to extermination camps, not knowing what lay ahead of them. And had there been a publicity offensive, it is quite possible that the sweeps that occurred and the deportations that occurred would have been much less efficient.
CHARLES KRAUSE: Why would the British have kept--and the United States for that matter--kept all of this information secret for 50 years?
RICHARD BREITMAN: I think that's easier to answer from the American side than it is from the British side. The Americans would not declassify documents of British origin with British permission. So why wouldn't the British declassify them? Here, we can only speculate. British secrecy, British classification policy is much stricter.
CHARLES KRAUSE: What do you think the larger meaning of this information is?
RICHARD BREITMAN: I think it will add quantitative evidence and details to our knowledge of the Holocaust as it was carried out in the occupied areas of the Soviet Union. And I think it provides qualitatively new evidence about western response to the Holocaust, or lack of response to the Holocaust, and a lot of what has been written in the past about western governments not reacting because they weren't confident of the information that they were getting now has to be reconsidered and rewritten.
CHARLES KRAUSE: You used the word "response." Is it also responsibility?
RICHARD BREITMAN: There's certainly a moral element involved here, and sort of bringing moral judgments into politics is always a tricky business because one needs to decide whether to measure decisions against some absolute moral standard--the moral standards of the time or some kind of tradeoff between political--what is judicious politically and what is ideal morally, but one needs to raise the moral issue as well.
CHARLES KRAUSE: Professor Breitman, thank you very much.
RICHARD BREITMAN: Thank you.