German People Knew Jews’ Fate


It is only fitting to note, in this week of Yom HaShoah and Holocaust remembrance, that the open secret about the German people’s knowledge of the fate of European Jewry during the war years has come to light.

Benjamin Schwartz, literary editor of The Atlantic, writes in the May issue of the magazine that, based on recent, major research into life in Nazi Germany, it is increasingly clear that “contrary to claims made after the war, the German people had wide-ranging and often detailed knowledge of the murder of the Jews.”

His essay, based on four new serious books on the Nazi era in Germany, asserts that “from the very onset of the war, it was impossible not to know the Jews’ fate.” The historians describe how soldiers spoke to family and friends of the mass killings, railway staff knew of the special trains going to the concentration camps, and Nazi leaders spoke openly about their policy to exterminate Jews, though no details of implementation were ever mentioned.

“The Final Solution” was “too vast in scale and scope to be comprehended fully,” Schwartz writes, but it was also “too vast to be kept secret.” He quotes Ian Kershaw, who writes in his new study, “Hitler, The Germans and The Final Solution,” that: “Only those anxious to shut their ears…could have been utterly ignorant. And only the willfully ignorant could have imagined a drastically different fate for the Jews than was actually in store for them.”

Studies indicate that about five percent of the German population favored exterminating the Jews and an equal percentage completely opposed anti-Semitism. Twenty-one percent showed “a degree of moral sensibility (advocating, for example, a future Jewish state)” and 69 percent showed indifference to the fate of the Jews.

According to Schwartz, the realization that their army was murdering Jewish civilians in great numbers spurred citizens and Nazi leaders alike to push forward with the war effort, recognizing the terrible price they would pay should they be defeated and the facts of the genocide become known.

“We’ve burned our bridges behind us,” Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda, told the German people in 1943. “We will either go down in history as the greatest statesmen of all time, or the greatest criminals.”

More than six decades later, that legacy is not in question.

was editor and publisher of The Jewish Week from 1993 to 2019. Follow him at