Eavesdropping on hell

One of the most hotly debated questions about World War II is how much the Allies knew about the Holocaust and when they knew it and why military action wasn't undertaken to slow the killing. There is little doubt that the Allies had to know that the Nazis were engaged in a systematic campaign to persecute and expel Jews from Germany and Nazi-occupied territory. This campaign began within weeks after Hitler assumed power with boycotts of Jewish businesses. Over time, it expanded to the imprisonment of Jews thought to be threats to the state, the banning of intermarriage between Jews and Germans, and a variety of other restrictions. However, in 1939, the persecution of the Jews had not yet turned exterminationist. The invasion of Poland in 1939 resulted in a a very large Jewish population falling under Nazi control. These Jews were expelled from their homes and forced to live in large crowded ghettoes. Although many Jews were killed, either through starvation, disease, forced work, or summary execution, even as late as 1941, the Holocaust still had not yet turned primarily exterminationist.

That changed with the invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941. This brought an even large number of Jews under Nazi control, and by this time it had become clear that other plans the Nazis had developed to expel the Jews to places like Madagascar were completely impractical. It was at this point that the Final Solution truly started to turn exterminationist, as mobile killing units known as the Einsatzgruppen moved across newly occupied territory, carrying out mass slaughters of Jews and suspected Communist Party officials. After the Wannsee Conference in January 1942, it became the explicit policy of the Nazi regime to deport Jews in the occupied territory to the East, use some of them as slave labor, and kill the rest, with Reinhard Heydrich, SS chief Heinrich Himmler's head deputy and head of the Reich Main Security Office, envisioning as many as 11,000,000 Jews eventually being subjected to the Final Solution.

Yesterday in the New York Times, there appeared an article discussing the intelligence behind what the Allies knew about the Holocaust at the time it was happening. An analysis of intelligence-gathering about the Holocaust by Robert J. Hanyok, a historian with the National Security Agency's Center for Cryptologic History in Maryland, entitled "Eavesdropping on Hell" was released last month. Most interesting about the report is how the clues were often there but not understood because of a shortage of translators, bad translations, and a large backlog of intercepts. An example:

But the bits of information often arrived without necessary context.

For instance, one message, declassified in 2000 and barely noticed except in scholarly journals, was intercepted on Jan. 11, 1943. It specified the number of Jews killed under "Operation Reinhard" at four death camps - Lublin, Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka - through 1942: 1,274,166.

But, the report notes, "the message itself contained only the identifying letters for the death camps followed by the numerical totals."

The only clue that these were death camps would have been the reference to Operation Reinhard, a tribute to the SS general Reinhard Heydrich, who had been charged with organizing the Nazis' plan to eliminate Europe's Jews.

But that was probably "unknown at the time" to the British code breakers, the report says. Still, British analysts obviously considered the message important. It was classified as "Most Secret" and marked "To be kept under lock and key: Never to be removed from the office."

There was also even a suggestion that widespread anti-Semitism in the U.S. and Britain may have made the intelligence operatives less concerned. Also, because they weren't specifically looking for evidence of crimes of this nature, they either failed to grasp the enormity of what was going on or were willing to ignore or downplay it:
Mr. Hanyok said analysts had been looking for information about internal security, impacts of bombing and prisoners or war rather than potential evidence of war crimes and probably would not have grasped the enormity of the Nazis' plan.

He also quotes a memorandum from a British cryptologic official, dated Sept. 11, 1941, that takes account of German massacres in the Soviet Union and concludes: "The fact that the police are killing all Jews that fall into their hands should now be sufficiently well appreciated. It is not therefore proposed to continue reporting these butcheries unless so requested."

Mr. Hanyok attributed the British official's response to "either his inability to appreciate the implications of the massacres, or his willingness to ignore what the Nazis were doing."
What this all shows is yet more evidence of the messiness of intelligence gathering and interpretation during a time of active warfare,. It is very easy to criticize the Allies after the fact for not appreciating the full scope of the Holocaust. However, with the information available to the Allies at the time the slaughters were going on, it is unlikely that the full scope of the Holocaust could have been discerned earlier than it was. Does this observation let the Allies off the hook? Not completely. While their policy that the best way to stop the killing of Jews was to defeat Germany was militarily sound and bombing the rail lines to Auschwitz or its crematoriums would have been unlikely to impede the killing much, that does not entirely excuse them for not taking more substantive steps to get more Jews out while it was still possible, by loosening immigration controls, for example. On the other hand, it is difficult to imagine that very many Jews could have gotten out of Europe between 1941-1945, with Germany in control and the Holocaust in its most deadly phase. Although many historians criticize the Allies for there inaction, there has been no consensus as to what, if anything, could have been done to decrease the killing, and this report is unlikely to change that.


  1. I wonder what the allies could have done even if they did know ahead of time. Should they have instantly attempted a near suicidal (in 1942 anyway) attack on the German mainland? As far as I understand, the Americans were under heavy pressure from the Japanese in the pacific during this time and the British weren't faring to well either. Stalingrad had not yet turned into the disaster it was for the German army and so they were still in fairly good condition.

    I see the criticism, but I just can't see what the allies could have done even if they knew. It would have been hopeless either way.

  2. Additionally, one needs to remember that the allies hd to be very careful how they used the often confusing data they obtained - they couldn't allow the Nazis to learn that they had cracked the codes (esp Enigma). This placed great constraints on how much they could let out about what they learned.

  3. Orac

    Glad to see your back to some WWII posts. This one inspired me a bit, hope you can check it out:


    its a link here, along with a link to a 1996 Marvin Kalb lecture on this subject that you and your readers might find interesting.



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