Who knew?

Norman Stone

  • The Terrible Secret by Walter Laqueur
    Weidenfeld, 262 pp, £8.95, September 1980, ISBN 0 297 77835 8

After the Second World War, an often-heard German excuse was that ‘we did not know.’ Even very senior Nazis, among them Goering and Speer, said that they had had no knowledge of Hitler’s plan to destroy the European Jews, let alone responsibility for it. The central planning of the Final Solution was intentionally such that very few records of essential decisions were kept; David Irving may even be formally right in his assertion that there is no written document to link Hitler himself with the Final Solution until October 1943; and the same absence or confusion in the written record has even been taken as evidence that the whole thing did not really happen at all. ‘It wasn’t six million: it was only four million’ is a familiar refrain these days.

‘We did not know’ was an excuse that people other than the Germans had some interest in advancing. Did the Allies do all they could to save the Jews? For that matter, did the leaders of the threatened Jewish community respond intelligently to the problem? In occupied Europe, particularly in Poland and the Netherlands, the Germans encouraged the creation of Jewish Councils to which they handed administration of the ghettos. These Councils, containing the prominent members of the Jewish community, had their own police, who were used to carry out a great part of the work of deportation and even, in some notorious instances, to hand over would-be Jewish resisters to the Nazis. Their argument, at least in 1941-42, was that if the Jews collaborated, then the Germans would limit their persecution. If for instance, the ghettos produced work for the German war effort, then it would be in the Germans’ own interest to preserve the Jewish communities. This view was taken in Warsaw, Lodz and Amsterdam. When, in the spring of 1942, the Germans said that they wished to deport ‘superfluous’ Jews to ‘places of settlement’ in the east, the Jewish Councils again collaborated. It was a largely Jewish police force that herded deportees to the Warsaw Umschlagplatz for transportation by train to the camps, Treblinka or Sobibor or Belzec, which were built simply to kill their inmates. In the case of the ghetto in Amsterdam, collaboration between the Jewish Council and the Germans went so far that the Council even forwarded the Germans the names and addresses of Dutch Jews who might otherwise have passed unnoticed. Two prominent members of that Council survived the war and were tried for collaboration: they, like their German persecutors Harter and Fuenten, could argue ‘we did not know.’ It was certainly true that, had their circumstances been those of any other occupied community, faced with a tyrannical but not murderous enemy, their policy would have made sense – the ostensible collaboration of the Danes, for instance, gave plenty of opportunity for passive resistance and quietly effective sabotage.

Walter Laqueur has set himself the uncontroversial task of finding out whether in 1941-42 people did know of the Final Solution, and when. He discusses documentary, press and radio evidence, drawn from many sources, and his book is divided into sections that deal with the Germans, the Allies, Poland, the neutrals and the Jews themselves. It is a soberly-written piece of work which, except for a brief aside on the Vatican, never departs from the task Mr Laqueur has set himself of merely examining the evidence.

The publishers have claimed that this book is ‘the first disturbing account of how the news of Hitler’s “final solution” was suppressed, and how it was eventually revealed’. The book has many merits, which are only distorted by claims of this far-fetched kind. There is not a line in the book that suggests that there was official suppression by the Allies of any authenticated German act of anti-semitism. Some officials thought, for perfectly understandable reasons, that propaganda must be confined to demonstrable facts. In the earlier war, with its angels at Mons and the like, Allied propaganda had frequently been ridiculous and counter-productive. Now, there were only to be truthful reports: and there were enough to show that German behaviour was atrocious. In the summer of 1941, as the German Army swept through western Russia, the Soviet Jews were systematically hunted down and killed. There were plenty of observers – Red Cross, neutral businessmen, conscience-stricken Germans, Jews who escaped – who let the world know what was happening. The Polish underground, which had agents in Kiev or Zhitomir or elsewhere in the Ukraine, could quite easily report to London through friendly neutrals or the radio, and accounts of the atrocities reached the Allied press in great numbers.

It was not until the spring of 1942 that deportations to death-camps in occupied Poland started on a considerable scale, even though there had been some use of gas-chambers before then. The Germans had constructed three camps at Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka where Jews were to be killed by poison gas, and two others, at Majdanek and Auschwitz, where those who could not work would be gassed and where for those who could work there would be industrial installations, directed by German businessmen. Throughout the summer of 1942, Jews were deported from the ghettos of Warsaw or other places in Poland, as well as from occupied or satellite Europe. By the end of the year, the ‘stateless’ Jews living in France had been deported, together with 40,000 Dutch Jews and considerable numbers of Slovak or Croat or Greek Jews, as well as the bulk of the Polish Jewish community. Altogether, about 2,500,000 Jews had been deported by the end of the year – most (though not all) to the gas-chambers.

As Walter Laqueur, soberly, shows, it was impossible to keep all this secret. The existence of ‘Hauswitz’ was soon known to the Red Cross. The post-offices still worked, and there was plenty of evidence by letter or postcard, even to neutral countries, as to what was happening. The émigré press carried such reports; and by June 1942 the Daily Telegraph stated that Hitler planned to exterminate the Jews, although the Manchester Guardian still believed that the chief plan was to use the Jews as slave labour.

Auschwitz itself was very close to the main railway-line of industrial Silesia. The stench of the crematoria sometimes spread to Katowice itself; there were 40,000 people who moved from Auschwitz to one or other of its innumerable satellite work-places; there were German industrialists (notably of IG Farben) who employed the industrial labour there; the Polish population round about knew very well that people were gassed. The Vatican warned the Slovak Government even in March 1942 not to deport Jews to Poland, because they would be killed.

The Polish underground regularly reported to London on the various measures taken to persecute the Jews. Some Swedish businessmen who had interests in Warsaw – particularly Sven Norrman, who even filmed the ghetto – carried messages, which would reach London in ten days. There were Jews who escaped from the death-camps. The deportations from Warsaw began on 22 July 1942. An ‘aryan-looking’ Jew, Zalman Friedrich, went to Treblinka, saw what was happening, and reported it to the ghetto leaders, who thus were told by 28 July. The extraordinary Polish beau sabreur, Jan Karski, even smuggled himself into a death-camp, and escaped to London to tell his story – not that, for some time, he was believed. There were even some Germans (notably, Kurt Gerstein, who was entrusted with delivering the prussic acid to the SS death-camps, and who begged neutral diplomats to reveal the business) who wanted to let the Allies know.

In a way, the strangest fact of all is that the Germans themselves released people from Auschwitz. Apart from the 500 (known) escapes in 1942-43, 1000 people were released in 1942 – for the most part, Jehovah’s Witnesses. They went back and told their stories. Indeed, prisoners from Auschwitz were used in the Netherlands to construct the camps from which the Dutch Jews were to be transported. Clearly, knowledge of the death camps was quite widespread. The Dutch historian, Louis de Jong, to whom we owe a great deal for his painstaking research, charitably concludes that people will not think the unthinkable, which, by implication, absolves the Jewish Councils from blame for their collaboration and explains why it was only in the spring of 1943 that the Warsaw ghetto erupted in its heroic last stand.

The report to which Walter Laqueur’s publishers allude in their claims for the book came in July 1942 from a Jewish representative in Switzerland. Gerhardt Riegner was a young lawyer from Berlin who served the world Jewish community in neutral Switzerland. He reported to London that he had heard from a German industrialist that ‘in the Fuehrer’s headquarters’ plans were discussed ‘to resolve once for all the Jewish question in Europe’; prussic acid was mentioned. The industrialist had been appalled, and informed Reigner through an intermediary who was prominent among Swiss Jews. The same source had revealed other information – for instance, the impending dismissal of General von Bock at the time of the failed Moscow offensive in December 1941 – which showed that it could be trusted. The identity of this industrialist has never been disclosed, and the British files bearing on the subject are closed, for some time to come. It may be that the industrialist didn’t really exist and that the information, like so much else, came, indirectly, from British readings of top-secret German codes; Anthony Read and David Fisher, in their Operation Lucy, show very well how deviously that system worked, so that top-secret information could be divulged where it mattered, without the source being disclosed or even suspected by the recipient. Whatever the case, Riegner’s report was duly sent off. It was not believed. The British were sympathetic, though anxious to avoid unauthenticated propaganda. Some Americans were heartless, here as in other matters, and an element of anti-semitism obviously affected the State Department’s dismissive reaction.

Even so, by the end of 1942 (the point at which Laqueur ends his book) the BBC and other Allied sources made it clear that Hitler’s intention was to exterminate the Jews. The Germans themselves listened in; there was a large section of the foreign service and the propaganda departments that could even do so officially. Laqueur does not suggest what might have been done by the Allies, beyond pointing out that they could have put more pressure on Hitler’s satellites. He is guarded on the subject of the Polish resistance, and confines himself, in the case of the Vatican, to asking what the Church knew of it all. The German masses’ seemingly total incapacity to act with a shred of decency is an unmistakable, but also unstated, background to this book. Over it all, hangs a question-mark about the behaviour of the Jews’ own self-appointed leaders. A heroic figure in the Jewish resistance, Ringelblum, who led the Poale Zion movement, and who made it his business to find out what was happening and to report it as widely as possible, said in despair as he witnessed the peaceful evacuation of a Jewish community:

It will remain completely incomprehensible why Jews from villages around Hrubieszow were evacuated under a guard of Jewish policemen. Not one of them escaped, although all of them knew where and towards what they were going ... One gendarme is sufficient to slaughter a whole town ... In Lublin, four Gestapo men set up and performed the entire operation.

In mystification, he did qualify his statement, with a reference to possible hostages. But even with the qualification, and even if we strip the question of the overtones Hannah Arendt gave it, does it not still stand?