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American Jewish History 88.1 (2000) 133-135

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Official Secrets: What the Nazis Planned, What the British and Americans Knew. By Richard Breitman. New York: Hill and Wang, 1998. viii + 325 pp.

The critical questions about the Holocaust witness role of the United States and Britain concerns what they knew and when they knew it. Official Secrets takes us a long way in providing an answer. In short, it is this: the British government and, to a lesser extent, the Roosevelt administration knew almost everything, and they knew it comparatively early.

We learn that the British talent for cryptography allowed them, a few weeks after the invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, to decode much of the communication of the Order Police (Ordnungspolizei), those local police units who, together with the SS- trained Einzatsgruppen, did much of the actual killing behind German lines. The decodes, which came into Breitman's hands fortuitously, shed new light on old problems, but at the same time they raise new questions. Why, for example, was no effort made to inform Jews of the fate that awaited them if they fell into Nazi hands? Such an information strategy was possible without compromising the secret of the decrypted codes. Why were the decodes shared with Moscow but not with the U.S.? Why was the information about the officials involved in the killing not used in the post-war denazification procedure and as evidence in the war-crimes trials?

The task Breitman faced in filtering out the nuggets of useful information and grafting it on to the stock of what was already known must have been formidable. It required a detailed familiarity with the complex tapestry of the Holocaust so that the new pieces can be fit as in a puzzle. The previously neglected role of Kurt DaLuege, Commander of the Order Police, is one of the most interesting of these. The composition of that organization has become crucial evidence regarding the involvement of the average German citizen in the murder of the Jews which so concerns Daniel Goldhagen and others. These units were not indoctrinated to carry out the ideological mission of racial purification. Ostensibly, they were "ordinary men" and can therefore give us an insight into the question of whether it was "eliminationist" anti-Semitism or peer pressure or even desire to avoid service on the eastern front which [End Page 133] propelled most members to daily continue the business of mass murder and to rarely seek to transfer out of these units. Breitman is a moderate functionalist who is convinced that, while the idea of genocide has an old and unchanging place in Hitler's mind, the actual strategy and plans for mass murder were worked out operationally. The Nazi bureaucracy did not know precisely how it would accomplish the much desired goal of making the world Judenrein, but neither was European Jewry destroyed in a fit of absentmindedness. In sharp contrast to Goldhagen, Breitman concludes that "if all German police had been 'willing executioners' there would have been less official concern and far less urgency behind the push toward the use of gas chambers as a means of mass murder" (p. 226).

It is in his observations regarding information or propaganda strategy that Breitman's analysis is most convincing. The crucial muting of the information available on the killing by the American Office of War Information and the British Ministry of Information was based as much on the assumption that the war should not be imaged as one to save the Jews, as on an unwillingness to believe the accumulating evidence of genocide. Surely there was some anti-Semitism involved in the assumption that there was exaggeration in the information provided by men like Gerhard Riegner, the World Jewish Congress agent in Switzerland, but there was also a fear, especially in Anthony Eden's Foreign Office, that Berlin would wield the Jewish question like a weapon of war and use the refugee crisis to exacerbate the critical strategic situation in the Middle East. Eden's...


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