A closely held secret of the Allied forces in WWII was that news of the Nazi death camps in Poland reached the West months after they had begun to carry out the “final solution.”
Before the Nuremberg trials there was a United Nations War Crimes Commission, founded in the darkest moments of WWII, which identified, classified, and assisted national governments trying war criminals in Europe and Asia, according to “Human Rights after Hitler: the story of the UNWCC,” by Dan Plesch of London University.
However, Plesch told The Independent on Tuesday, the UNWCC archive on which he based his book had been closed to researchers for 70 years, and access required permission from the researcher’s own national government as well as the UN Secretary General. Even then, he noted, for several years researchers were not permitted to make notes.
The infamous January, 1942 Wannsee Conference of Nazi officials who were gathered to design the Final Solution was a highly kept state secret, but by the summer of 1942 the secret was out, and the extermination of millions of European Jews was publicly condemned in specific detail by the Americans, the British, and the Soviets—well before the liberation of the death camps in 1945.
Early on, Allied archives received documents which specifically described the Nazi industrial murder, including the use of poison gas and detailed descriptions of the extermination camps, with well-researched accounts issued by the Polish government in London, according to Plesch.
Indeed, in late December 1942, after the US, UK and others issued a public declaration about the mass murder of Jews, UK Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden told Parliament: “The German authorities, not content with denying to persons of Jewish race in all the territories over which their barbarous rule extends the most elementary human rights, are now carrying into effect Hitler’s oft-repeated intention to exterminate the Jewish people.”
Since WWII the UNWCC has broken new ground in pursuing a wide range of war crimes, including routine prosecutions of sexual violence, torture, and large-scale massacres that we would today recognize as genocide and crimes against humanity—and the new book covers the entire story, the Holocaust is the subject of only the third chapter. Titled “When the Allies Condemned the Holocaust: early condemnations of Nazi war crimes,” and with the documents it contains, this chapter now opens new questions about the failure of the Allies to help the Jews whom they publicly stated to be at risk of murder. It also provides further material against the claims of Holocaust denial.
“Among the reason given by the US and British policy makers for curtailing prosecutions of Nazis was the understanding that at least some of them would be needed to rebuild Germany and confront Communism, which at the time was seen as a greater danger,” Plesch writes.
According to Yad Vashem, “a distinction should be made between reports on specific mass-murder incidents and reports on genocide. Information regarding mass murders of Jews began to reach the free world soon after these actions began in the Soviet Union in late June 1941, and the volume of such reports increased with time.
“The early sources of information include German police reports intercepted by British intelligence; local eyewitnesses and escaped Jews reporting to underground, Soviet, or neutral sources; and Hungarian soldiers on home leave, whose observations were reported by neutral sources.
“During 1942, reports of a Nazi plan to murder all the Jews – including details on methods, numbers, and locations – reached Allied and neutral leaders from many sources, such as the underground Jewish Socialist Bund party in the Warsaw ghetto in May; Gerhard Riegner’s cable from Switzerland in August; the eyewitness account of Polish underground courier Jan Karski in November; and the eyewitness accounts of 69 Polish Jews who reached Palestine in a civilian prisoner exchange between Germany and Britain in November.
“On December 17, 1942, the Allies issued a proclamation condemning the ‘extermination’ of the Jewish people in Europe and declared that they would punish the perpetrators. Notwithstanding this, it remains unclear to what extent Allied and neutral leaders understood the full import of their information. The utter shock of senior Allied commanders who liberated camps at the end of the war may indicate that this understanding was not complete.”
Which means that even Yad Vashem, whose research on the Holocaust is highly regarded, must now update its archives to reflect the revelations in Plesch’s book.