- 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.
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
Vol. 3 No. 2 · 5 February 1981
SIR: Writing on the persecution of Amsterdam Jewry, in his review of Walter Laqueur’s The Terrible Secret, Norman Stone comments: ‘Two prominent members of that [Jewish] Council survived the war and were tried for collaboration, they like their German persecutors Harten and Fuenten (sic: transmogrifications of Harster and Aus der Fuenten) could argue ‘we did not know’ (LRB, 20 November 1980). As a matter of fact, the two personalities concerned were never brought to trial at all, as a preliminary investigation failed to reveal anything culpable in their behaviour. True enough, a Jewish honorary board disqualified them from holding office within the Jewish community, but otherwise they were allowed to continue undisturbed their pre-war careers of university professor and diamond manufacturer respectively.
Nor is it true, as one could be led to assume after reading the review, that the Amsterdam Jewish Council had its own police force that assisted the Germans in carrying out deportations. In fact, all deportations were carried out by German and Dutch police units, both regular and irregular.
Although at one stage the Chairman of the Jewish Council did indeed hand over a list with names and addresses to the Germans, with fatal results, this was done long before the beginning of the deportations, indeed even before the Final Soluton had been decided upon. Hence this was a case of naivety rather than of deliberate collaboration. Accusations as to the latter have had to be rescinded because of lack of evidence. Incidentally, it is highly doubtful whether the Jews could otherwise have passed unnoticed. The Germans could manage very well without the Jewish Councils, the function of the latter being mainly to facilitate the task administratively, so that more German hands could be freed for other assignments.
Mr Stone indulges in speculation as to whether the German businessman who informed the Jewish Agency representative in Switzerland of what was going on may have been a foil for British Intelligence. If this was the case, his explanation of why the British did not believe the information – that they ‘were anxious to avoid unauthenticated propaganda’ – becomes untenable.
Finally, I am disturbed by the gratuitous reference to the ‘Jews’ own self-appointed leaders’. Far from being self-appointed or even elected, the members of the Jewish Councils were hand-picked by the Germans. Basically, they are tragic figures. Some responded heroically to the challenge, committing suicide rather than accepting outrageous demands. A few collaborated in order to save their skins. In most cases, whatever they might be guilty of was expiated by a horrible death. A death for which those standers-by, Allied or otherwise, who through their connivance and their silence helped to make it possible must bear at least some of the guilt.
Norman Stone writes: I am grateful to Mr Brakel for his interesting letter. The role of the Jewish Councils under Nazi occupation is of course a contentious one, and in basing my remarks on the works of Presser and Trunk, which Mr Brakel will know, I was aware that the matter is far from resolution. It is obviously possible to defend ‘Jewish collaboration’ in the same terms as other collaborations – though Walter Laqueur, by showing the extent of knowledge of the death-camps, implicitly questions even this. It was, of course, a situation of incredible difficulty for any Jew with a sense of responsibility, and I should certainly not wish to be as dogmatic as Hannah Arendt was. Still, the fact remains that where Jewish Councils existed, Jews by and large were deported and killed; where, as in Belgium or occupied France, these Councils did not really exist in any numbers, Jews by and large escaped. I am grateful to Mr Brakel for pointing out places where, in summarising complex issues, I seem to have created a misleading impression of details. I had always assumed that prepositions such as von, aus etc could be omitted from German surnames where they are not preceded by Christian name or title. I did indeed speculate as to whether the British, who were reading Germany’s secret codes, did through an ostensibly different source inform the Jewish Agency in Switzerland of what was happening to the Jews. ‘Lucy’ operated in ways like that. It would have been part of the pattern for ‘Lucy’ information not to have been very widely divulged – certainly not to propaganda people – as there was a vital need to conceal the British discovery of German top-secret codes. But this is pure speculation on my part – though it seems to me more plausible than the ‘conscience-stricken German industrialist close to the Führer’s innermost circle’ who is alleged to have told the Jewish Agency what was happening.