Nazi war criminals got away with atrocities because of evidence hidden in UK and US archives

Thousands of pages of documentation describe atrocities carried out in both Eastern and Western Europe

Nazi war criminals escaped prosecution because crucial evidence in Britain’s National Archives and in government archives in the United States was ignored for decades.

The thousands of pages of documentation describe atrocities carried out in both Eastern and Western Europe – but have only been examined by German government war crimes investigators over the past four years, after most of the suspects and witnesses had died. At no stage had British or US intelligence told the Germans of the existence of the material.

Much of the original material was gathered when British and US intelligence services bugged a small number of  prisoner of war camps near London and  Washington DC during World War Two. For years the documents were kept under wraps by the intelligence services because the prisoner-of-war camp bugging program would have been regarded as illegal under international law – and, more importantly, because, during most of the Cold War, the US and Britain did not want to alert the Soviets to the fact that they had developed this intelligence gathering technique.

“All the relevant material was of course known to the British and American intelligence services during and after the war – and was in the public domain after its declassification in the US in the 1970s and the UK in 1996. However, prior to 2009, no use was ever made of the material to track down war criminals. If the direct evidence and the indirect leads contained in the material, had been used earlier by official war crime investigators, there is no doubt that a number of   war criminals would have been arrested and brought to trial,” said  London School of Economics historian, Professor Sönke Neitzel, co-author of  Soldaten: On Fighting, Killing and Dying – a recently published book on the World War Two allied prisoner-of-war camp bugging operation.

“It is regrettable that the intelligence services in the UK and the US did not make use of  the documentation and did not pass it on to the German war crime investigation authorities in the latter part of the 20th century, before many of the suspects had died,” he said.

A Channel 4 documentary – Spying on Hitler’s Army – on the secret bugging operation will be broadcast on Sunday evening.

In total some 3000 hours of clandestine recordings were made of German  prisoners- of-war in UK and US PoW camps. Of those 3000 hours, up to 200 hours referred to war crimes. The US material was declassified in the 1970s, while the UK material was declassified in 1996. Professor Neitzel started his research into the material in 2001.

His first academic article was then published in 2004. In 2009 German government investigators heard that Professor Neitzel was carrying out academic research on the British and American documents and requested the material from him, which he then supplied. However, by that time, most of the suspects had died.

“In the rare cases which offered some prospects of success, our investigations ended up revealing that the relevant persons had died,” said a spokesman for the Official German State Justice Administration responsible for investigating Nazi war crimes.

Because of the illegal nature of the bugging and the wish to keep it secret from the Soviets, the material was not used in the Nuremberg war crime trials.

Commenting on what appears to have been a proposal by the British Army’s department responsible for war crimes prosecutions (the Judge Advocate General’s Branch), MI19 (the Intelligence Service section responsible for the bugging operation) insisted that the existence of the transcripts could not be revealed in any way. This precluded their use in any war crime trials – and almost certainly greatly limited their use even in investigations.

A formerly top secret, and up till now unpublished, letter written by an MI19 lieutenant colonel on 16 November 1945, found by Professor Neitzel, in the National Archives at Kew, states that the organisation considers “as of the highest importance the avoidance of anything which could draw attention to or make public the methods employed” to obtain the information.

The letter went on to say this was partly because “these methods” (ie. the bugging of German prisoners) “would presumably again feature largely in any future war” – ie against the Soviets. 

What’s more, the letter pointed out that, at the time, those methods were “still being employed” inside prisoner-of-war camps by allied intelligence services outside the UK.

The letter added that MI19 wanted to “avoid at any cost” anything that might disclose “the names of [German] PoWs who have been actively working for us”.

The MI19 lieutenant colonel also made clear the advanced nature of the British bugging techniques and equipment.

The Germans “have in fact used similar methods themselves, which, however, they have never brought to that point of perfection reached by us,” says the formerly top secret 1945 letter.

Professor Neitzel also believes that British war crimes prosecution authorities were not particularly interested in pursuing relatively junior war criminals even if their crimes were extensive and horrific.

“The British were only really interested in prosecuting top generals, politicians, government officials and doctors,” he said. 

Of the  10,000 prisoners who were secretly bugged, more than 300 were recorded as stating that they had participated in activities which were obviously war crimes or had witnessed such activities.

That information in turn provided evidence that may have helped identify hundreds of  other German soldiers who had committed war crimes, but had not been taken prisoner. 

“Churchill definitely knew about MI19’s bugging operation – but it’s not known whether the immediate post-war discussion about preventing their use in war crimes trials reached his level,” said Professor Neitzel.

The transcripts reveal information about  many types of war crime, including  the mass-murder of  Jews, the killing of PoW’s, the slaughter of  civilians in anti-partisan operations and the rape of women in Nazi occupied territories in both Eastern and Western Europe. They provide evidence of war crimes which occurred in Russia, Lithuania, Latvia, Poland, Serbia, Belgium, France, Italy and Greece.

The suspects referred to in the bugging documentation – virtually all of whom have now died – include members of the Waffen SS  and of the Wehrmacht – mostly from the lower ranks but including some more senior officers.

If the transcripts had been used for war crimes investigations at a much earlier stage, it’s likely that Lieutenant-General Heinrich Kittel (who died in 1969) may have faced prosecution as an alleged accessory because the documentation reveals that, when he was a colonel, he had witnessed serious war crimes – but apparently did nothing to stop them. General Dietrich von Choltitz, who died in 1966, might also have faced prosecution for his alleged role in the Holocaust, as revealed in the transcripts.

Other potential suspects died in the later 20th century and early 21st – including a Waffen SS non-commissioned officer called Fritz Swoboda who died in 2007 – just two years before the German investigators had access to the bugging operation transcripts.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookA wonderful selection of salads, starters and mains featuring venison, grouse and other game
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Sport
Ojo Onaolapo celebrates winning the bronze medal
commonwealth games
Arts and Entertainment
Rock band Led Zeppelin in the early 1970s
musicLed Zeppelin to release alternative Stairway To Heaven after 43 years
Arts and Entertainment
Tracey Emin's 'My Bed' is returning to the Tate more than 15 years after it first caused shockwaves at the gallery
artTracey Emin's bed returns to the Tate after record sale
Environment
Neil Young performing at Hyde Park, London, earlier this month
environment
News
i100
News
Prince Harry is clearing enjoying the Commonwealth Games judging by this photo
people(a real one this time)
Sport
Lionel Messi looks on at the end of the final
football
Extras
indybest
News
Richard Norris in GQ
mediaGQ features photo shoot with man who underwent full face transplant
News
Gardai wait for the naked man, who had gone for a skinny dip in Belfast Lough
newsTwo skinny dippers threatened with inclusion on sex offenders’ register as naturists criminalised
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Project Coordinator

    Competitive: The Green Recruitment Company: The Organisation: The Green Recrui...

    Project Manager (HR)- Bristol - Upto £400 p/day

    £350 - £400 per annum + competitive: Orgtel: Project Manager (specializing in ...

    Embedded Linux Engineer

    £40000 - £50000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: Embedded Sof...

    Senior Hardware Design Engineer - Broadcast

    £50000 - £65000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: Working for a m...

    Day In a Page

    The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

    The air strikes were tragically real

    The children were playing in the street with toy guns
    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

    Britain as others see us

    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
    Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them altogether

    Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them

    Jonathon Porritt sounds the alarm
    How did our legends really begin?

    How did our legends really begin?

    Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
    Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz
    A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

    A new Russian revolution

    Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
    Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
    Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

    Standing my ground

    If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
    Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

    Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

    The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
    The man who dared to go on holiday

    The man who dared to go on holiday

    New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

    For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
    The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

    The Guest List 2014

    Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
    Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

    Jokes on Hollywood

    With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on