A Shameful Episode Disclosed
Menu JTA Search

A Shameful Episode Disclosed

The British government and its Commonwealth allies — including Canada — agreed in 1948 to end the prosecution of Nazi war criminals, according to a newly declassified top secret British document obtained from the Defense Ministry in London.

The document, and others related to it, were presented at the hearings of the Deschenes Commission which is conducting an inquiry into Nazi war criminals presently living in Canada. The commission, consisting of former Quebec Superior Court Justice Jules Deschenes, was set up by the government earlier this year to identify war criminals in Canada and recommend legal measures against them.

The document showed that in 1948, only three years after the end of World War II, a top-level British government committee including then Prime Minister Clement Atlee, leader of the Labor Party, concluded that no new trials of alleged Nazi war criminals should be initiated after August 31 of that year. Britain asked the Commonwealth governments to adopt the same policy and all acquiesced.

A 1947 Canadian document released to the Deschenes Commission showed that less than a year before the policy decision in London, the Canadian government was on the look-out for 154 suspected Nazi criminals.


The British document made clear that the Commonwealth leaders were anxious to put World War II behind them in order to concentrate on the Cold War with the Soviet Union and its allies. A previously top-secret telegram sent by the Commonwealth Relations Office in London to the seven Commonwealth governments on July 13, 1948, stated:

“Punishment of war criminals is more a matter of discouraging future generations than of meting out retribution to every guilty individual. Moreover, in view of future political developments in Germany envisaged by recent tripartite talks, we are convinced that it is now necessary to dispose of the past as soon as possible.”

Another confidential document dated August 13, 1948, stated that the governments of Canada, New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, India, Pakistan and Ceylon “have replied agreeing or at any rate, not disagreeing with our proposals.”

The same document cautioned that “no public announcement” was to be made of this policy decision. At the Deschenes hearing, officials of Canada’s Ministry of External Affairs explained that at the time, Britain and its Commonwealth allies were in a race with the Soviets and Americans to recruit German scientists.

The revelations in the documents astonished and angered lawyers attending the hearings. They noted that these revelations confirm long-standing charges that Canada had done nothing for nearly 40 years to track down and prosecute Nazi war criminals, many of whom had no trouble becoming naturalized citizens.

Irwin Cotler, the McGill University law professor who is representing the Canadian Jewish Congress at the Deschenes hearings, said the documents make clear why Canada has had such a dismal record toward Nazi criminals within its own borders.

“In 1948, shortly after the Holocaust and the devastation, when many of the victims were still in displaced camps, you have here a clear, unequivocal policy statement saying we should dispense with bringing Nazi war criminals to justice,” Cotler said.

He observed that it was inconceivable that the Commonwealth allies should so quickly have forgotten the millions of Jews and others who perished at the hands of the Nazis. “It is a scandalous indictment of the public policy prevailing at that time in the UK and in members of the Commonwealth which acquiesced in it,” Cotler said.

Canadian governments continued to comply with the 1948 decision until the early 1980s when the newly installed Solicitor General, Robert Kaplan of Premier Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s Liberal Party, reopened the question of Nazi war criminals in Canada. It was pursued by the present Conservative government of Premier Brian Mulroney, which established the Deschenes Commission.

Founding Funders

The digitization of the JTA Archive would not have been possible without the generous support of the following donors:
  • The Gottesman Fund
  • Righteous Persons Foundation
  • Charles H. Revson Foundation
  • Elisa Spungen Bildner and Robert Bildner, in honor of Norma Spungen
  • George S. Blumenthal
  • Grace and Scott Offen Charitable Fund