The Holocaust: what the Allies knew
By James Brewer
For 10 years, public figures and civil servants in some of the world’s leading powers refused to accept how severe and widespread was Nazi persecution of Jews, Slavs and other victims. There were exceptions to the reluctance to condemn and to act, but the ultimate cost was, as is well chronicled, many million lives and horrendous suffering.
The grim tale of indifference and seeming impotence in the face of appalling brutality was documented in a talk by historian Jonathan Walker to a packed audience in London on January 23 2018 – four days before Holocaust Memorial Day – to the Women in War Group.
Much of the story is underlined by the gulf in understanding what the Nazis were capable of, said Mr Walker.
A key to explaining the response, or lack of it, to the cataclysmic events, was that many in authority “did not seem to understand that killing on this industrial scale would go on. They did not understand the extent of the racial war.”
Mr Walker, speaking to the theme Holocaust: what the Allies knew, said that In 1933 when the Nazis achieved power, they immediately codified discrimination against Jews and began to build the first of many concentration camps, at Dachau near Munich. Externally it was branded as just a harsh penal colony. Dachau had over 100 sub-camps at industrial sites and armaments factories for dissidents and “undesirables” and there was even a sub-camp for clergy who were opposed to the regime.
The outside world was too slow to recognise what was going on and to ease immigration criteria. Once the savagery was under way it was extremely difficult to stop especially within the Reich because of the repressive police system, which made hiding Jews and conveying news extremely difficult. If British civil servants and politicians had opened their minds more as the Nazi threat became obvious and had listened to Polish warnings, they would have been in a better position; but once the wagons were rolling towards Auschwitz very little could be done.
The event was hosted by Ognisko Polskie, the Polish Hearth Club in Kensington, a significant venue because Poland suffered proportionately more than any other nation in World War II.
Responding to questions from his audience about 1935 and 1936 reports published in London on the treatment of Jews in Germany, Mr Walker said that “it seemed a remote thing that was happening, people in a different country. To the mass of the British public it was just something they could not have an effect on… and there are a lot of parallels – today, reports of atrocities in the Middle East are certainly not headline news.”
We can see how in the 1930s such an attitude was becoming standardised, he went on. “The whole thing was so piecemeal. There are records here, there and everywhere, there is nothing bringing everything together to make sense of it.” Our own wartime civil servants failed to understand how a civilised people could descend into such barbarity, because it was beyond their imagination.
The Jewish hierarchy themselves were split, some asserting that a boycott of German goods would provoke even more anti-Semitic attacks.
The smokescreen covering Nazi camps was in place in July 1935 when a British Legion delegation travelled to meet Hitler and his deputy Hess and was even taken to see a new camp at Dachau. Some of the British party had supper with Heinrich Himmler whom they judged “a reasonable fellow.” Himmler was head of the SS which was enforcing the ruthless policies.
Kristallnacht, a night of concentrated violence against Jewish people, shops and synagogues on November 9 1938, was widely reported in the British press and the British government relaxed its immigration quotas and let in Jewish children between the ages of two and 17 years on the Kindertransport system.
There was nevertheless some resistance in Britain, still suffering from a financial depression, to welcoming Jewish refugees. In the US, Congress was against allowing migrants, citing fears they would take local jobs.
Britain and her allies failed to understand from the outset that Hitler’s offensive was as much about racial conquest as it was about territory.
By 1941, it was estimated that 500,000 men, women and children were murdered by SS firing squads on the Eastern Front in the invasion of Russia. Einsatzgruppen were assigned to follow the army into the conquered areas and round up and kill Jews, but Hitler decided that this was a waste of ammunition and was hurting the morale of the German soldiers.
The killing of Jews and communists in the Soviet Union had been under way for some months when Hitler summoned a conference at Wannsee, a lakeside mansion in a suburb of Berlin, to direct the aims of the next stage. On January 20 1942, 15 senior Nazi civil servants and 85 officers met to listen to Reinhard Heydrich, the most enthusiastic perpetrator of the Holocaust. Totals of Jews to be eliminated in European countries were drawn up, more than 11m in all. These included 330,000 in England. Systematic killing was to be stepped up by means of transport to extermination camps, as the so-called final solution to the Jewish question.
The British public were drip-fed stories of massacres, such in June 1942 in the Daily Telegraph – but a report of 700,000 people being gassed at Chelmno and other sites, was on page five.
In Paris in three days in 1942, Jews were herded into the Vélodrome, a cycle stadium. Of the 76,000 deported from France, only 2,500 survived deportation. Their destination was unknown at the time, but the fact that the deportations were taking place was reported from Paris.
Codebreakers at Bletchley Park found out what was going on – instead of ‘killing,’ the words ‘special handling’ were used, but Britain did not want to give away the fact it had broken the enemy code. Churchill said in 1941 that whole districts were being exterminated with executions in cold blood, but made no mention the victims were overwhelmingly Jewish.
The British had no agents on the ground in Poland, but did receive important information. The courier Jan Karski was one of the first to deliver credible accounts of the Holocaust to Allied leaders. He was captured in 1940 and tortured but managed to get away. His was a largely futile mission. He came to London, but in the end received was only moral support. He tried to lead President Roosevelt to take action but that effort was lost in the fog of committees.
In September 1940, Polish cavalry officer Witold Pilecki deliberately walked into a German roundup in Warsaw, and got himself thrown into Auschwitz which was thought to be an internment rather than a death camp, to find out what conditions were like. Beginning in March 1941, Pilecki’s reports were forwarded via the Polish Resistance to the British government. He was part of a daring escape in 1943. (In 1947 the Polish Communist secret police arrested him, put him on show trial and executed him as an imperialist spy). Stalin immediately discounted anything from men such as Pilecki – the Soviet dictator carried out his own racial cleansing in Ukraine.
Among those who spoke up was William Temple, archbishop of Canterbury. He addressed the House of Lords in March 1943, listing specific Nazi atrocities and urging action, saying: “My chief protest is against procrastination of any kind. … The Jews are being slaughtered at the rate of tens of thousands a day on many days.”
There was a public clamour for action, and representatives of the British and US governments met in Bermuda but little was done. Among excuses was concern that the Nazis would infiltrate parties of immigrants.
Another avenue of information was the holding base of Trent Park in north London, where listening devices were planted to hear what captured Luftwaffe officers were saying about conditions in Germany and Eastern Europe.
Reports by the Polish Resistance continued to reach Britain, but inundated by despatches about other matters from occupied Europe, they were downgraded. Many civil servants took an arrogant attitude towards the unfortunates. A senior civil servant wrote in a memo that the Poles and to a further extent the Jews tended to exaggerate German atrocities “in order to stoke us up.”
By the summer of 1944, the evidence reaching the Allies was irrefutable, but it is the moment when the slaughter reaches its climax, among other disasters 13,000 Jews being killed in the Warsaw uprising.
In early telegrams intercepted by British intelligence, there had been reference to the brutality of female guards at the concentration camps, but civil servants believed the women to be incapable of such behaviour.
Mr Walker said that until recently, German society “clung to the life raft” that it was only the SS who perpetrated the Holocaust. But recent scholarship and nationwide exhibitions forced a painful re-think, especially among German youth. Their grandparents, those ordinary bureaucrats who staffed the offices of the Reich, or Wehrmacht soldiers who were posted to the Eastern Front, may have played their part in the genocide.
German communities knew what was happening. Far from being psychopaths, many people carrying out or complicit in outrages came from educated, Christian families. Many held academic doctorates. Even railway workers displayed scant or no sympathy for families crammed into cattle trucks on their way to eradication.
When the British entered Bergen-Belsen on April 15, 1945, they were met by appalling scenes and typhus was rampant. The female ex-guards were forced by the British to handle (without gloves) bodies that were riddled with infectious disease. Germans who had lived near the camps, were taken in groups to be shown the terrible aftermath. But after years of indoctrination, many were shocked but still found excuses. A common response was “I’m sure the Führer wouldn’t have wanted this. If only he had known.”
Before the war crimes trials the full extent of the Nazi mission was still not understood by the public. “For many in Britain, it was one more horror in a war of horrors.”
It was, perhaps, the German people who had travelled furthest on the journey of realisation, said Mr Walker. They were exposed to details of Nazi war crimes during the Nuremburg Trials and then the trial of Adolf Eichmann brought forth new revelations. A recent change in German law meant that men such as 93 year-old Oskar Gröning could be convicted in 2015 as an ‘accessory’ to the murder of Jews. Last week his appeal for a pardon against his prison sentence was rejected.
“So Germany, though notably not Austria, has carried out the public and very raw examination of its recent past. But modern German scholars have yet to reconcile how a civilised people could descend into such barbarity.”
Mr Walker was asked about the proposition, why not bomb the gas chambers in the extermination camps, or the rail tracks? “If the RAF or US had bombed Auschwitz, all the Jews would have been killed,” he said. The Germans could repair railways within days – winning the war was their priority.
Could the German and other authorities have been bought off from their murderous policies with cash and bribes? There was talk of supplying the SS with trucks and motor vehicles in exchange for German Jews but that was ruled out.
Among the illustrations for his talk, Mr Walker showed stones set in the footpaths of affected cities to commemorate victims.
Opening the meeting, Celia Lee, co-chair with Paul Strong of the Women in War group, said that the group studies the work undertaken by women during all wars. She expressed appreciation for the hospitality of the Polish Hearth Club staff, and thanked Lady Belhaven, the organiser, who is also a member of the Women in War group.
The session was chaired by Georgina Natzio who like Mr Walker is a founder member of the Women in War group. Ms Natzio is a defence writer and a freelance essayist who specialises in aspects of military science and military sociology, and has participated in BBC broadcasts. She is a member of the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security.
Mr Walker is a member of the British Commission for Military History, and Honorary Research Fellow in War Studies at the University of Birmingham. He has written and contributed to 10 books, and he lectures widely on aspects of 20th century conflict. He recently featured in the BBC programmes Portillo’s State Secrets, Heroes of War and The Last Battle of the British Empire. He has acted as historical advisor for television dramas and, as critic, he was recently one of the judges for the British Television Documentary Awards.