Official Secrets: What the Nazis Planned, What the British and Americans Knew

by Richard Breitman

Official Secrets: What the Nazis Planned, What the British and Americans Knew by Richard Breitman

The following is an excerpt from the book

Official SecretsWhat the Nazis Planned, What the British and Americans Knew by Richard Breitman

Published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux; 0-8090-3819-6; $25.00US; Nov. 98
Copyright © 1998 Richard Breitman

Read an Excerpt from the Book || Contents

In the course of its war for world domination and a projected racial utopia, Hitier’s government committed monstrous crimes. As defeat neared, the Third Reich’s officials tried to destroy all the physical and documentary evidence about their murder of millions. They did not fully succeed, but huge gaps in the historical record have made it hard for us to reconstruct how they planned the Holocaust.

Great Britain already had some of the evidence, however, for, all along, its intelligence services had been intercepting, decoding, analyzing, and circulating many German police radio messages and some from the SS. Yet this critical evidence was sealed away–marked “Most Secret;” “To Be Kept under Lock and Key,” and “Never to Be Removed from This Office”–and it has only now reappeared.

Integrating this new evidence with the known sources, Richard Breitman examines how Germany’s leaders brought about the Holocaust–and when. He assesses the British and American suppression of information about Nazi killings, and the tensions between the two powers over how to respond. His absorbing work concludes with an examination of the consequences (including the failure to punish many known war criminals) of keeping this information secret for so many decades.


Richard Breitman is a professor of history at American University, editor in chief of Holocaust and Genocide Studies,and the author of The Architect of Genocide: Himmler and the Final Solution.He lives in Bethesda, Maryland, with his wife and family.

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Introduction 3

1. Foreshadowings 13

2. Planning Race War 27

3. A Battalion Gets the Word 43

4. Reports of Ethnic Cleansing 54

5. Transitions and Transports 69

6. British Restraint 88

7. Auschwitz Partially Decoded 110

8. American Assessments 122

9. Breakthrough in the West 137

10. Reactions to Publicity 155

11. Competition and Collaboration 177

12. The Treasury Department’s Offensive 192

13. The Mills of the Gods 212

Conclusion 225

Epilogue 235

Notes 247

Index 311

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The United States, like Great Britain, was in a favorable position to get information about Nazi secret crimes, but not with high technology. Technically neutral in the war until December 1941, the United States had reporters and diplomats in Germany during the first wave of the Holocaust. Even if they had nothing so revealing as the German police decodes, American observers could pick up substantial information about Nazi measures against Jews from public sources, insiders within the regime, and opponents of it. Some of this information reached the American government and the public, but little of it was broadcast to Nazi-controlled Europe, even after Pearl Harbor and America’s entrance in the war. Although the United States did not have the problems of direct rule over Arabs brought about by the British mandate in Palestine, some officials in Washington shared other British political considerations and calculations.

Following Germany’s invasion of the U.S.S.R., the Jewish-American press was, in general, quick off the mark. Yiddish newspapers in New York City reported in July 1941 that the Nazis had killed hundreds of Jews in Minsk, Brest-Litovsk, Lvov, and elsewhere. The Yiddish press had a circulation of about four hundred thousand, more than half of which was in New York City. The Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA), a news service, issued a Daily News Bulletin, which was the main source for most English-language American Jewish weeklies and periodicals. JTA items occasionally reached the mainstream press as well.

Other relatively early newspaper accounts of killings and atrocities stemmed from Soviet and Polish sources that did not emphasize Jewish victims. On October 26, however, TheNew York Times carried a story about a German and Ukrainian massacre of fifteen thousand Jews in Galicia, some of whom had been deported from Hungary. The sources were letters reaching Hungary and eyewitness testimony from officers present. In mid-November, the New York Journal American featured a story about the Rumanian killing of twenty-five thousand Jews in Odessa; the actual total was considerably larger. A couple of weeks later it also printed a story based on Soviet information about the killing of fifty-two thousand people in Kiev (where the victims included more than thirty-three thousand Jews liquidated at Babi Yar).

American reporters also wrote extensively about the deportations of Jews from Germany; some even witnessed early departures of Jews crammed into railcars. The destination of German Jews was said at first to be ghettos or camps in Poland, not the Soviet territories. At the end of October, Louis P. Lochner, the Associated Press’s senior German correspondent, wrote that total elimination of Jews from European life was “fixed German policy” and that the fate of Jewish deportees from Germany was unknown. When the New York Herald Tribune carried a story in late November 1941 about the condition of Jews in the Soviet territories, it accepted the accuracy of reported deportations (for example, twenty thousand Jews sent into the Pinsk marshes) but was noncommittal about more extreme measures: “some reports received here from Central Europe speak of massacres of Jews by Germans.” This was the beginning of a trend in the mainstream American press of treating reports of mass killings of Jews skeptically.

In September 1941, American diplomats noticed an intensification of Nazi propaganda against Jews, including renewed charges that world Jewry sought the destruction of the German people. The Nazi press explained that the Jewish question had to be solved “without any sentimentality.” A few weeks later the American embassy in Berlin picked up rumors of mass deportations of German Jews to Lublin, Lodz, or Warsaw, part of a policy to “remove all Jews in Germany to Poland and other eastern areas as rapidly as is feasible.” Later despatches explained that shortages of trains had slowed down the process. According to the diplomats, the deportation policy was unpopular:


… the Berlin populace is showing increasing sympathy with the Jews as the scope of the present action becomes more widely known. Several cases have been noted of people being reprimanded for showing kindness on the street and in shops to elderly persons wearing the Jewish star or for criticizing the present drastic measures in public.


By late October, the American embassy expected that all Jews in Germany would be deported within a few months, and in mid- November, it added that able-bodied Jews were being sent from Germany to Russia for forced labor. Meanwhile, the American military attack in Berlin reported separately at around the same time that there was no question that SS units were killing Jews in many occupied localities in Russia. The normal procedure for the Nazis upon taking over a city, he said, was to establish local commandos, to separate the Jews, and to shoot them. He also correctly revealed atrocities and mistreatment of Soviet prisoners of war. A logical conclusion was that the deportees would also be killed in the East. The diplomats knew that deportations of Jews to the East would bring grave hardships; they cited rumors filtering back to Berlin of deaths of Jews from disease, cold, starvation, and outright massacre. But they did not indicate clear knowledge of the fate of the deportees.

In mid-November, Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, using his own name, wrote an article that was published in the paper Das Reich under the title “The Jews Are to Blame”; this blame allegedly included responsibility for the war. Hence Germany would, under the law of retribution, fulfill Hitler’s prophecy of January 30, 1939, that a war would result in the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe. Goebbels condemned Germans who allowed themselves to be duped by Jews into sympathizing with them: among the greatest weaknesses of Germans, he declared, were their magnanimity and forgetfulness. He found it remarkable that every measure taken against Jews in Germany was reported in the British and American press the next day. Jews must have some secret means of communication with enemy foreign countries, he claimed. Side by side with ideological and emotional rationalizations of a Holocaust, here were signs of some nervousness about the leakage of specific information, particularly since liquidations of German Jewish deportees were about to commence in Kowno, Riga, and Minsk.

Germany’s declaration of war on the United States just after Pearl Harbor radically altered the situation for American observers in Germany. Most American reporters who had not left the country, along with remaining embassy staff and a few American military officials, were interned as enemy aliens in Berlin; then they traveled on a guarded train to the resort of Bad Nauheim, north of Frankfurt, where they were held at the abandoned Jeschke’s Grand Hotel. During their enforced idleness of roughly five months, and in spite of the presence of a Gestapo officer, the Americans managed their own affairs and activities much of the time. With the aid of a secret battery-operated radio, they listened each night to the BBC (and some other foreign broadcasts) and generally kept in touch with events.”

In February or early March 1942, the American military attack distributed a questionnaire to the newsmen at Bad Nauheim and asked them to produce individual analyses of the climate of opinion in Germany, the strengths and weaknesses of various countries’ wartime broadcasts, and recommendations for future American information policies. The military attack, Lieutenant Colonel W. D. Hohenthal, summarized the findings, concluding that “propaganda” was vital to weaken the morale of the German people and deplete their war effort. The principal objective of propaganda, he wrote, should be to drive a wedge between the German people and the Nazi leadership, as well as between the regular armed forces and the Nazi Party.

Given the difficulties of measuring popular attitudes in a police state, the reporters’ detailed responses are worthy of some attention. They also reveal something of the reporters’ attitudes about both the climate in Germany and what the United States could or could not do to influence the situation. P. C. Fisher of the National Broadcasting Company (NBC), for example, believed that American propaganda had to reach the German intelligentsia first; the intellectuals could and would pass on the message to others. Fisher wanted American broadcasts to stress, among other things, the corrupt Nazi judicial system, the outrages perpetrated by the Gestapo, barbaric pogroms against the Jews, and ruthless outrages committed by the SS in Poland and other occupied countries. But he also warned not to give the Jewish question a prominent place in American propaganda and not to allow Jews to write or disseminate American propaganda, adding: “I say this not in bigotry or any dislike for the race, but merely because I know that anything which smacks of the Jewish angle or has a Jewish ring will be suspected and will not be well received in Germany.”

J. M. Fleisher of the United Press cautioned that the evidence and proof of atrocities should be so convincing when reported that there could be no doubt of authenticity: “in general, I believe it would be better to ignore the atrocity idea because it became quite generally discredited as a result of world war [I] practices.” Louis Lochner, who had spent twenty-one years in Germany, expressed grudging respect for the effectiveness of Nazi propaganda. Germans slowly began to repeat what they heard over and over again on the radio and in the press, he said:

people who in 1933 wanted to be fair to the Jew now repeat the same arguments that the press brings for their complete despoliation and elimination. I often could not refrain from saying to German acquaintances, who thoughtlessly repeated the popular slogans and arguments, “Have you lost all power of thinking?”

Lochner also noted that the September 1941 introduction of the yellow Star of David, which German Jews were required to wear, was unpopular with decent Germans but that the Propaganda Ministry had put out false word that it was retaliation for Americans requiring Germans to wear swastikas, which placated some. (An American diplomat had previously reported that the regime spread this swastika story but claimed that ordinary Germans gave it little credence.) Lochner did not express an opinion about the use of atrocities against Jews in American broadcasts.

Frederick Oechsner of the United Press advised against impassioned defenses of the Jews. Only Glen Stadler, also of the United Press, specifically recommended not only a media campaign of accusations against the Gestapo but also the use of statistics on concentration camps and death rates in them. Stadler wanted discussion of the Nazi treatment of the Jews to be part of an approach based on truth, accuracy, and sympathy for the German people. Alvin Steinkopf of the Associated Press, however, warned against allowing Jews to prepare anti-Nazi propaganda, cautioning against threadbare stories from Jewish immigrants, who had their own reasons for hating and misjudging Germans.

Many of the correspondents recommended pursuing the line that Nazism was un-German. Several newsmen specifically advocated using stories about the Nazi “euthanasia” program, even spreading rumors that severely wounded soldiers might be put to death. It was certainly possible to argue that revelations of Nazi killings of Jews and other victims might widen a split between Germans of conscience and the Nazi regime and that an American supply of factual information might counter the effects of Nazi anti-Semitic propaganda. But most of the newsmen preferred to leave the subject alone or to give it a subordinate position in any American broadcasts. The military attack went with the majority when he concluded that it was inadvisable to defend or champion the Jewish cause vigorously.20

Formulating their recommendations, the newsmen were reticent about what they actually knew of the Nazi persecution of Jews. They may have feared that German authorities would seize their papers. Joseph Grigg of the United Press mentioned in passing that he had made a special study of the Jewish question in Germany and of German attitudes toward Jews, but he included hardly any specific comments about persecution in his responses to the questionnaire.

In the spring of 1942, the interned Americans were exchanged for German nationals similarly caught in the United States, which soon removed constraints on what the reporters said and wrote. In the interim, important information had reached the American press from other sources. In March 1942, the JTA and The New York Times both reported that the “Gestapo” had murdered 240,000 Jews deported from Germany and other parts of Central and Eastern Europe into the Ukraine. Deportations were continuing, the articles asserted. This information was obtained by S. Bertrand Jacobsen, an official of the American Jewish joint Distribution Committee who had served in Budapest for two years. Jacobsen had talked to Hungarian soldiers who had served in the conquered Soviet territories, and when he returned to New York, he held a press conference.

At the beginning of June 1942, Joseph Grigg issued a bleak, detailed survey of events during the past year in the Baltic region. In Latvia, SS 91 troops and Latvian irregulars had killed fifty-six thousand Jewish men, women, and children in several days over the summer of 1941. In Lithuania, special “cleanup” squads that came from Nazi-ruled Poland disposed of thirty thousand Jews, and Grigg described the process of machine-gunning victims in prepared graves. In Poland, the total number killed was at least eighty thousand, a high percentage of them Jews. Grigg estimated the total number of Jewish victims as at least two hundred thousand. In a 1942 book he wrote about his experiences, Frederick Oechsner put the total killed by Nazi execution squads between the outbreak of war in the East and the spring of 1942 at at least two hundred thousand; the precise total, he wrote, would never be known. Stadler put the total at more like four hundred thousand. Both turned out to be low. In contrast, Lochner did not mention killings of Jews but did describe the deportations and also condemned the Nazis’ barbarous behavior.

Grigg connected the killings with Hitler’s public declaration to the German Peichstag on January 30, 1939, that if the Jews succeeded in forcing Germany into a war it would lead to the destruction of the Jews themselves: “those of us who lived in Germany know that he and his agents have done everything to make the prophecy come true.” The pattern was becoming clear to those who had a feel for the events and the climate in Nazi-controlled territory.

In June 1942, new reports through the Polish underground also reached London, and they substantially raised both the death counts and the visibility of Nazi killings of Jews. Some of this material was publicized in the United States as well. The most critical report to reach the public came from the Jewish labor organization in Poland known as the Bund. Dated May 11, 1942, it left Warsaw on May 21 and reached the Polish government-in-exile in London, with the aid of Swedish businessmen traveling between Warsaw and Stockholm, in less than two weeks. The Bund’s report summarized Nazi actions against the Jews of Poland and put the number already dead at seven hundred thousand. The rest were in dire danger:


The above facts prove unquestionably that the German government has begun to implement Hitler’s announcement that five minutes before the end of the war, whatever the end, he will kill all the Jews in Europe. Millions of Jewish citizens of Poland face the threat of immediate extermination.


The Bund requested an immediate Allied response.

The BBC carried the thrust of this story on June 2 and issued a general directive on June 24 to emphasize it. On June 6, the Polish cabinet delivered a note to the Allies protesting German crimes in Poland, including extermination of the Jewish population. Szmul Zygielbojm, the Bund’s representative in London, was able to get a major story based on the Bund report into 7he Daily Telegraph the next day. It mentioned the Nazi use of mobile gas chambers .27

On June 29, Ignacy Schwarzbart, the representative of the Zionists on the Polish National Council, held a press conference in London at which he announced that one million Jews had already died. The Times of London and other British newspapers highlighted the story and the number. A high official in the Polish Ministry of Information told Schwarzbart: “Hitler murdered many Jews, but you exaggerate the numbers.” Polish Foreign Minister Edward Raczyfiski was also dubious, influenced in part by the attitudes in the British Foreign Office: “we had to be absolutely precise and very cautious not to meet with the criticism that we exaggerated.” American reaction was more low-key and also skeptical. Some American newspapers picked the stories up without giving them much prominence; others attributed them to Jewish sources. In a late June Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) news broadcast from New York City, however, Quincy Howe cited a World Jewish Congress estimate that the Germans had already massacred more than one million Jews since the fall of 1939.

Around the same time, another secret account, complementing the Bund report, emerged from Poland. A number of British soldiers trapped in Warsaw had found shelter in the ghetto. In mid-June 1942, one of them escaped and managed to get to neutral Lisbon within two weeks. Presumably, British officials debriefed him in Lisbon and later in Britain, but those records are not known to be available. An American official in Lisbon, however, talked to the escapee and wrote up a summary of his experiences and conclusions. (Circumstantial evidence suggests that the American was Gerald M. Mayer, a former newsman for NBC fluent in German, then on his way to Switzerland to run an outpost for the American Office of War Information.) The American report began:


Germany no longer persecutes the Jews. It is systematically exterminating them. The new racist policy, which in cold calculated cruelty surpasses the horrors of Magdeburg [destroyed during the Thirty Years’ War] or Carthage, was revealed to me by a British officer who escaped the bell of the Himmler ghetto in Warsaw. For several months now, the Third Reich has been brutally destroying the Jewish population by two effective means: starvation and mass execution.


The remainder of the five-page document recounted some of what the officer had experienced and much that he had heard. There were exaggerations, some inaccuracies, and major gaps. The officer reported a trial shooting at Sobibor, but he could not have known of gassings there–they had not yet begun when he escaped. He assumed that the ghettos were themselves the major sites of destruction, working through starvation, disease, and occasional shootings. Still, the officer learned that Himmler had visited Warsaw that spring and insisted on complete extermination of the Jews. Himmler had allegedly said that they were not disappearing fast enough to please the FŸhrer.

This officer’s comments made their way from the American in Lisbon to American intelligence officials, and they presumably reached British intelligence as well. But there is no sign of an immediate effect. The information was not, apparently, used to affect Allied policy toward the fate of Jews then being deported from Western Europe into Poland. The American official in Lisbon followed up, however, with another article on Nazi extermination of the Jews several months later–this one written from a spot (presumably in Switzerland) on the German frontier:


The exact date when Hitler decided to wipe the Jews [sic] from the surface of Europe in the most literal sense of the word, namely by killing them, is unknown. Evacuations and deportations accompanied by executions date as far back as the Polish campaign, but the organized wholesale slaughter of whole communities and trainloads of Jews appears to have been practised not before the German attack on Russia.


This account culminated with a description of the killing of Jewish women and children outside Minsk in gas vans, though the author thought that phosgene gas, not carbon monoxide, was the killing agent.

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Footnotes not included

Copyright © 1998 Richard Breitman

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