Historical Notes: Official secrets of the Final Solution

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The Independent Culture
ON 28 JANUARY American officials announced that they had intercepted conversations among senior Serbian officials about a massacre of 45 civilians in Kosovo. This evidence, they stated, demonstrated the need for an international war crimes investigation. It remains to be seen whether the ann-ouncement of near-perfect evidence of Serbian war crimes and the threat of punishment will work against Serbian officials. But open use of intercepted communications as a weapon against ethnic cleansing represents something of a reversal of the Second World War experience.

During the war Britain was able to intercept and decode tens of thousands of German police and SS radio messages. In 1997 the Public Record Office at Kew made transcripts of these messages available, along with some British intelligence analyses of Nazi operations on the Eastern front. These documents cast new light on the murderous activities of the German Order Police, which scholars of Nazi Germany had underestimated until the 1990s. New evidence also indicates that British intelligence had recognised a systematic Nazi policy of exterminating Jews by early 1942, before this information arrived in the West from other sources.

The information British intelligence secretly gleaned from SS and police radio messages, however, went essentially unused during (and after) the war. Throughout most of 1942 Foreign Office officials (and their counterparts in the State Department in Washington), lacking access to the direct German evidence, refused to credit reports coming in through Jewish and Polish channels that Nazi Germany was systematically slaughtering hundreds of thousands of Jews.

In mid-December 1942, responding in part to other reports and to public pressure, the Allied governments formally recognised that Nazi Germany was pursuing a policy of exterminating the Jewish people, which produced a brief British broadcasting campaign to alert the German people to this monstrosity. In January 1944 the newly established United States War Refugees Board began to use other intelligence about the Final Solution and to threaten punishment of those who took part or collaborated.

The "final solution of the Jewish question" was originally one of the great secrets of the Nazi regime. Officially, Nazi Germany was merely resettling Jews in Eastern Europe and using them for labour: deception of the victims was sometimes maintained until the moment of mass murder.

The idea of using information (combined with political-diplomatic pressure against Germany's allies and satellites) to try to save lives during the Second World War is not a matter of hindsight; it was done on a limited basis relatively late in the war. But the earliest and best wartime evidence of Nazi killings of Jews - intercepted and decoded German messages - never was used at all, even though Britain did not have to compromise the secrecy of its code-breaking operations. It might have simply endorsed other reports about Nazi policies that reached the Government or the public.

The opportunity for Allied military intervention against the Holocaust was limited. All the Allied powers faced desperate military difficulties of their own in 1942. Neither Britain nor the US gave much thought to military operations to rescue or aid Nazi victims until the Allied invasion of France had succeeded more than two years later.

But military action was not the only possible Allied response. If the Allies had demonstrated earlier that the fate of Jews mattered to them, alerting potential victims and rescuers, warning Nazi collaborators, urging neutral countries not to turn away Jews seeking to escape the Nazi vise, tens of thousands more lives would likely have been saved.

Richard Breitman is the author of `Official Secrets: what the Nazis planned, what the British and Americans knew' (Penguin, pounds 20)