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Documents: Britain Leaders Knew of Early Slaughter of Jews

May 22, 1997
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Newly released British intelligence documents showing that British leaders knew of Hitler’s Final Solution from day one provide startling new details about the Holocaust, but few revelations, Holocaust scholars say.

Britain this week released transcripts of intercepted German police radio messages showing that the systematic extermination of Jews began several months before it had previously been believed and that senior British officials had intimate knowledge about the Nazi campaign.

“What these records reveal is how much the British knew of the atrocities as they were happening,” John Fox, a lecturer in Jewish history and Holocaust studies at Jew’s College in London, was quoted as saying.

Fox had pushed the British government to declassify the documents after the U.S. National Security Agency declassified similar British intelligence information last fall, following a Freedom of Information Act request by a U.S. researcher.

Both sets of documents contain similar findings about the beginning of the German slaughter of Jews. The British documents simply flesh out additional details.

In the fall, Richard Breitman, a professor of history at American University, went public with British intelligence reports provided by the NSA showing that London knew about the first massacres of Russian Jews in June 1941, following the German invasion of Russia.

Historians had previously believed that the Final Solution was set in motion several months later, in early 1942, when the Nazis began the mass extermination of Jews in death camps.

The intercepted German police messages showed, however, that mass killings of Jews began taking place in the summer of 1941. A Sept. 12, 1941 British intelligence report referred, for example, to “evidence of a policy of savage intimidation if not of ultimate extermination” of Jews.

In addition to providing a new glimpse into the beginning of the Holocaust, the documents attest to the close cooperation of ordinary German police units with SS troops in the massacre of Jews.

Juergen Matthaeus, an historian and research fellow at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, said the role the German police played in the extermination of Jews “is not a new element when it comes to the history of the Holocaust.”

But, he added, it is something that is not “all that prevalent in the public mind” and needs to be underscored.

Holocaust scholars, meanwhile, took a dim view of the re-emergence of estimates that as many as 7 million Jews may have died in the Holocaust. Despite media reports to the contrary, they say there is no evidence to support that claim.

Revelations about Britain’s detailed knowledge of the early slaughter of Jews has also raised the question about whether the British shared that information with the United States.

“I’m still working on that one,” said Breitman, who plans to publish a book examining the German cables.

“There was intelligence-sharing during the war and agreements were made,” he said, “but no one has deduced into which category this particular information fell.”

Breitman anticipates that the British declassification will lead to a new round of research into “how much the West knew and when, and what might have been done with the information.”

Some Jewish leaders are calling for a thorough examination of that matter, particularly in light of the search for historical truth that Switzerland and other nations have been pressured to undertake.

“Now that we’ve pointed the finger and said what the neutrals did, I think it’s time to ask ourselves, `What could we have done?'” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, addressing his organization’s leadership conference in Washington this week.

“Why, if we knew from day one, was there so little done?” Foxman said. “I think it’s time to ask ourselves, what could we have done, what did we do, and why didn’t we do more?”

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