Monday Book: Turning a blind eye to genocide

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The Independent Culture
READING THIS book produces an uncomfortable feeling of deja vu. Notwithstanding the significant differences between the Nazi mass murder of Jews and the slaughter of civilians in Kosovo today, in both cases the world response has been little and late. The unpleasant truth is that knowledge of atrocities in war zones has never been a sufficient condition for remedial action by governments facing powerful counter-arguments based on realpolitik. Nor is the punishment of the criminals responsible or the heads of state who preside over torturers and killers carried out with much more determination now than in the case of the Nazis.

It may be that this failure of nerve, despite the incantation since 1945 of "Never Again", has fuelled the controversy addressed by Richard Breitman's latest book. Breitman argues that the British and American wartime leadership knew about the Holocaust earlier than has previously been thought, and that there is scant excuse for their poor record of action to save imperilled Jews. Certainly, it is easier to beat our breasts about the inadequacies of policy 50 years ago, when discussions of appropriate action are merely academic, than to acknowledge the same lapses today.

But do the parallels that will be drawn from Breitman's work hold good? Much of his argument rests on recently declassified decrypts of radio traffic between Berlin police headquarters and German militarised police units engaged in the massacre of Russian Jews. This traffic was intercepted at Bletchley Park, decoded and passed on to intelligence analysts for use by the highest military and political echelons in Britain.

However, Breitman is on shaky ground when he claims that the decrypts from summer 1941 gave Allied leaders an insight into what historians now call the Holocaust. New research by young German historians suggests that from September 1939 onwards, homicidal policies were initiated against the Jews and other "racial undesirables" at different levels of the German administration, at different times, and for a variety of reasons - although all were underpinned by the deadly racial-biological assumptions of the Nazi state. None of these initiatives was conceivable without Hitler's inspiration or ultimate consent, but the centre itself initiated limited slaughter before it launched a global plan for genocide, into which all other murderous practices were integrated.

Breitman maintains, controversially, that Hitler's decision to kill Europe's Jews came well before the invasion of Russia. As if to cover all eventualities, he blurs the mass murder of Jews in the USSR in mid- 1941 into the "Final Solution" of mid-1942. Arguably, what British analysts read in summer 1941 indicated a wave of massacres perpetrated against Russia's Jews - appalling enough, but circumscribed. If historians today, with access to all the documents, cannot agree on the timing of Hitler's decision to embark on genocide, how can we impugn wartime leaders for their "failure" to warn Jews or act to prevent it?

By contrast, there is no escaping his conclusion that, during 1942, the deliberate withholding of Enigma decrypts that confirmed reports of systematic killings throughout Europe allowed sceptical officials and ministers to delay action, with terrible consequences. Breitman dramatically reveals that by May 1943 intelligence decrypts and Polish underground sources had proved that Auschwitz-Birkenau had become a vast killing-site that had already consumed 640,000 lives. This shocking discovery underlines the incomprehensibility of the Allies' failure in 1944 to use air power against the camp.

Breitman, a tenacious researcher who translates a mass of complex documents into a highly readable narrative, throws important light on the role of the "Order Police" and their unsavoury commanders, from Kurt Daluege downwards. Daluege was executed by the Czechs for the obliteration of Lidice, but escaped opprobrium for the massacre of Jews, in which his men played a role that historians have so far underrated. Most of them got away with it. Their ability to evade retribution rested partly on Britain's scandalous decision not to supply decrypted information for use in war crimes trials.

Breitman attributes this despicable concealment to a continuity of official attitudes towards the Jews: their murder did not bother British policy makers that much, so nor did the punishment of those responsible. Yet he discloses that during the war Britain, astoundingly, did give the Soviet Union material based on decrypts. Why, then, did the USSR not prosecute the killers?

Breitman raises as many questions as he answers, not least because his book is somewhat episodic and his own explanation of the Final Solution not watertight. But he is such a good historian that he acknowledges the lacunae and never claims to be definitive. Official Secrets is an important contribution to solving the puzzle surrounding Nazi mass murder and the response of the free world. Sadly, the events we read about every day provide their own, partial answer to that conundrum.

The reviewer, who is professor of modern Jewish history at Southampton University and director of the Wiener Library, recently published `Arthur Koestler: the homeless mind' (Heinemann)