Notes from Limmud 2015
Allied Intelligence and the Holocaust: A Reappraisal
[Standard disclaimer: All views not in square brackets are those of the speaker, not myself. Accuracy of transcription is not guaranteed.]
Many historians have often perhaps unconsciously read the book of history backwards: they know what happens later; this is mistake. The Holocaust gradually gained the status of a defining event in Jewish and European history. The questions are always in an accusatory tone: Why didn't they prevent this from happening?
But you have to look at the events of the Holocaust as it was understood in realtime.
The father of modern warfare, von Klausewitz, wrote:
Intelligence is all the knowledge we have about the enemy and his country. Many intelligence reports in war are contradictory. Even more are false, or are uncertain.
These rules trained intelligence officers: they have to be cautious and make sure the reports they receive are correct.
Arnold Price, a German Jew, fled in the 1930s and was recruited by the American OSS (Office of Strategic Services), precursor of the CIA. Intellectuals with left-wing views, they sat in Washington and wrote detailed assessments. Writing as an intelligence officer acquainted with Nazi Germany, he wrote afterwards:
We remained ignorant about the Holocaust. The USS saw a map of Nazi concentration camps, but none was identified as a death camp. We knew nothing about the Final Solution. I was surprised as I had always thought of the Nazis as wanting to do away with the Jews.
So, what did the Allies know about the Holocaust, and when did they know it? There are conflicting timelines about the Final Solution and the warfare. Also, what did they understand? It's not just a question of what information there was, but what they understood in realtime about those reports based on their classified materials.
Who knew? Secret intelligence gets distributed in small circles. Who were the consumers of these reports? How was it distributed? Were there people who didn't receive it?
We don't have a monolithic intelligence community. The Americans didn't have any centralised intelligence agency until 1942 when the OSS was formed. This was due to their isolationist attitude in the 1920s and 1930s. In the UK that was not the case, but the intelligence agencies evolved and expanded during the war.
There are two main forms of intelligence and of sources. Firstly, human intelligence (humint) from spies, informants, Polish refugees and members of the underground: "A German businessman I met yesterday in Switzerland said..." Diplomats of neutral countries. Also representatives of Jewish organisations reporting to representatives of the UK or American intelligence communities.
The other main form of intelligence is signal intelligence (sigint). Bletchley Park and all that jazz. This was probably the achievement on a strategic level of the Second World War. Also aerial reconnaissance and photographs; and open sources: newspapers, radio broadcasts, etc.
1942 used to be considered the year when Allied intelligence began to receive information about the Final Solution—mass killings started in the summer of 1941.
However, research on intelligence is an ever-evolving field in academia, as national archives get declassified. In the late 1990s the USA government and then the UK declassified a tremendous amount of documents which revealed that Bletchley Park had in the summer of 1941 deciphered several messages or reports sent via the German Order Police—battalions of policemen operating along the eastern front—about their assignments within the occupied USSR, that they reported mass shootings of partisans, looters, and twenty thousand Jews, thirty thousand Jews, forty thousand Jews. This pushes back the date at which the Allies knew anything.
This took place for a few weeks when there was a window of opportunity. Churchill delivered a speech in August when he mentioned the crime actions of German policemen in the USSR, and perhaps the Germans caught on that these reports were being decoded, as they switched from sending them by radio to courier. But already in the summer of '41 there were people aware of the extreme conduct applied to the Jews within the USSR.
Though this was the first stage of the Final Solution, this was not decided upon at one point. No one would have known where this process led to.
Those on the Ultra intelligence reception list were aware of this conduct within the USSR—a large region but limited.
In September 1941, Nigel De Grey, deputy director at Bletchley Park sent a message that the Germans are killing the Jews everywhere within the USSR, we're not going to report about this again unless instructed to do so. He probably didn't understand the significance of this at that time.
Intelligence work is directed towards military activities, not civilian actions within occupied territories. Effectively "We don't have time for this now; we have a set of priorities, unless you the senior decision makers tell us to change those priorities."
In 1942 there were a series of reports that gradually reached the free world. The first was issued in January 1942 by Molotov about atrocities carried out in the USSR. He mentions the killing of Jews, but does not talk about it as an extraordinary event; it's just part and parcel of the atrocities carried out by the Nazis.
In May 1942 two representatives of the Bund smuggled out a report which reached the UK in June, which talks about the mass murder of Jews in the General Government (occupied Poland): seven hundred and fifty thousand victims. Also mentioned the existence of mobile gas vans. The significance of these is while the murder technique is not that important to the victims, the existence of these almost the imaginary aspect of the Final Solution [sic]. The use of a killing technique for mass murder had never been used on this scale before or afterwards.
So what were the officials thinking when they learned this? Apparently, not much.
Much intelligence work is carried out based on previous experiences. During the First World War, there were a series of reports about the use of poison gas by the Germans which turned out to be false; this caused officials within the UK intelligence communities to be cautious about atrocity stories.
The Bund report did receive publicity in the British press, though not necessarily as headlines. The BBC's Polish broadcast broadcast parts of this report back to Poland. Several Jews living in the Warsaw Ghetto, just before the deportations started, reported enthusiastically about these reports saying "now the world knows." But at best the Bund report was viewed by officials in the UK as a propaganda item, not as raw intelligence.
A month later, an event took place regarded as the watershed of intelligence about the Final Solution: The Riegner Cable. The secretary of the World Jewish Congress in Switzerland received information from an unknown source about a programme being worked out to eliminate four million Jews in Europe. He received this in August. He approached the American consulate in Geneva and sent out two cables, one to Steven S. Weiss, one of the leaders of the American Jewish community, with ties to Roosevelt, and the second to Sydney Silverman, a British MP. By this point the mass killings had been taking place since the previous summer, and deportations were well underway.
The Americans held back this information for a year from Weiss. Silverman heard it because the British didn't want to hold it back from an MP. Silverman then reported it to Weiss.
The official declaration took place on December 17th, 1942. Intelligence officials were cautious. They wanted to clarify and double-check their information.
During this period more information came in. Jan Karski, a member of the Polish underground, arrived in the UK in November, and met with several officials. He thought he had entered an extermination camp in Poland, Bełżec, though it was actually a transit camp nearby.
So there was a long process of reckoning with the information that came in.
At this point there was no influence on the consumers [of the information].
On December 17th 1942, Anthony Eden read out in the British Parliament an official declaration about the mass murder of European Jews.
Another variable: national security. Why didn't they go public? The answers include social climate, antisemitism within the political establishment.... but also, these were secret sources. Were the Allied governments, which at this point were losing the war, going to go public and disclose where they had got this information?
The Joint Intelligence Subcommittee of the Cabinet, who met regularly, discussed on 22 December the need for coordination about reports about atrocities (terms like "war crimes" or "crimes against humanity", don't exist yet). Gathering information about these now is a [lacuna]
The chairman, a senior official, Victor Cavendish-Bentinck, commented that some of the information of the highest quality has come from sources that are best not to be used. There were two sources: The decoded Enigma reports (not revealed until the 1970s, so also not used in the Nuremberg trials), and microphones planted within the barracks of German PoWs, of all ranks from generals down to common soldiers. In the first years these were crew members of submarines, and pilots. After the surrender of German forces in North Africa, we also see infantry and other troops.
These reports are interesting for what they show the average German knows about what was going on. The British Intelligence staff was tasked with working out from these what interested the consumers, before editing and translating these reports into English. So, obviously, they got military matters [being discussed], but also politics. We have soldiers mimicking politicians, talk about morale back home, jokes—but also discussions about events they either witnessed on the eastern front or heard about (no one ever says they participated in them). Conversations like:
A striking description of the events in Vilna where seventy-five thousand Jews were murdered in Ponar. A member of a submarine staff describes in detail the process of shooting there. He had been there as a member of a work unit before he enlisted in the German fleet. (The Foreign Office did not get this information but the War Office and others did.) How the Jews were stripped of their clothes and their valuables were confiscated. He focuses (being a nineteen year-old man) on the fate of one Jewish girl whom he describes as being beautiful, but concludes by saying she was shot too.
The reports include in brackets "laughter" or "disbelief". It's important to convey this to senior officials too. [An audience member said his grandmother had been amongst those translating what the PoWs said, and she refused to believe it. She thought they were boasting by exaggerating.]
If anyone had marked killing sites on a map at the time—and the speaker does not know whether that was done—they could all have been marked out at the time. E.g. Babi Yar just outside Kiev. Several German PoWs referred to what they heard about or saw at Kiev (i.e. Babi Yar). The news of these events made their way back to Germany: A German Jew, Viktor Klemperer wrote in April '42, several months later, about these events.
These events tell the entire story of mass murders within the USSR. There were British Intelligence reports about this, but the reports were not used during wartime or afterwards in terms of doing something about the fate of European Jewry, but the information was obtained in realtime by officials within Britain.
About the use of gas for mass murder, there was a gradual acceptance of reports about this. The Bund report was disregarded within the intelligence community. Acceptance came [lacuna]. Most of the information received between '42–'43 about the use of gas and permanent extermination camps was handed over by the Polish underground, less by Jewish organisations. A lot of this information, due to the means in which information was collected and delivered, took a lot of time to do so: a gap of half to one year before it arrived in the UK. So it arrived in the UK over the summer of 1943.
Cavendish-Bentinck had minutes of internal correspondence about the use of gas chambers: "In my opinion it is incorrect to regard information... as trustworthy. The Poles and to a far greater extent the Jews tend to exaggerate in order to stoke us up. I do not believe there is any evidence about gas chambers. They played this up with radio warfare, but they have no foundation. On the other hand, we do know the Germans are out to destroy Jews of any age unless they are fit for forced labour."
Three extermination camps in Poland were already nearing the end of their operational life by that time. This shows how far behind intelligence was lagging.
Karski in the summer of 1943 travelled to Washington DC and met with Roosevelt and with Jewish Supreme Court judge Frankfurter. Frankfurter refused to believe him. The third person in the room, the Polish ambassador in exile, said: "Are you calling him a liar?" Frankfurter says, "No, I just don't believe it." Like others, he had an inability to fully grasp what was happening in Europe.
Beginning to come to terms with the events didn't happen until 1944 or 1945, but by then most of European Jewry had already been eliminated. (This talk does not deal with what operational capability there was to do anything about it.)
Later on, information through PoWs was also received about the extermination camps and killing centres. The Germans kept this secret better than the killings in the USSR. But again PoW information did reveal:
A German general, in December 1944: "In Upper Silesia [i.e. Auschwitz-Birkenau] they simply slaughtered the people systematically, they were gassed in a big hall." "When?" "Up until spring." "Who did this?" "I don't know."
In May 1944, a few weeks before mass deportations of Hungarian Jews, two Slovak prisoners got out of Auschwitz-Birkenau. They provided a detailed description of Auschwitz-Birkenau. The existence of a concentration camp in Oświęcim was known about from 1940; however British intelligence had failed almost until the end of the war to understand that there were different kinds of camps: ones only for Jews, and extermination camps. There are decoded SS reports from 1942 describing conditions in Auschwitz, but they're only describing deaths amongst those who have been accepted into the camp.
The Slovaks' report arrived in London in June 1944, but was disregarded, and stated by one official as not being trustworthy: we don't know where the prisoners were, they may not have known the language, we don't know that they know where they were either.
This tells us something about the inability to view the victims as trustworthy or part of the war effort. This is at the time of the appeals to bomb Auschwitz-Birkenau. (This was the time of the first deportations from Hungary. The Jews had bad luck in that this turning of events within the Final Solution happened at the same time as Operation Overlord, and the huge offensive operation by the Soviet Union on the eastern front, and the fate of the Jews was given lower priority than the military operations.)
Audience question about the Red Cross. Various organisations either did nothing or far less than we would expect, and the Red Cross is one of those organisations. Some of it had to do with Swiss concerns about infuriating the Germans, some to do with their attitudes toward Jews.
Audience question: What would have convinced them? In the summer of '44, Paul Winterton, a UK operative embedded in the Red Army, visited Majdanek, which had been liberated by the Red Army, and reported about the existence of gas chambers. That should have. But the real shock only came when they liberated the concentration camps mistaken for extermination camps and saw the survivors. Even then, it took several years for Auschwitz to become a symbol for the Holocaust.—Originally posted on Dreamwidth, where there are comments. Please comment there using OpenID or a DreamWidth account (which you no longer need an invite code to create). Though I am leaving comments enabled on LiveJournal for a bit, please don't comment here if you can do so there instead.