The Genocide Generals: secret recordings explode the myth they knew nothing about the Holocaust
During the latter half of World War II, the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) undertook a massive clandestine operation of which the full, extraordinary details are only now coming to light.
Between 1942 and 1945, a section of SIS - known as MI19 - secretly recorded no fewer than 64,427 conversations between captured German generals and other senior officers, all without their knowledge or even suspicion. The 167 most significant of these are about to be published for the first time.
Together, they provide us with a goldmine of information about what the German High Command privately thought of the war, Adolf Hitler, the Nazis and each other.
They also explode the post-war claim of the Wehrmacht that they did not know what the SS were doing to the Jews, Slavs, mentally disabled and others among what they termed "untermensch" (sub-humans).
The Combined Services Detailed Interrogation Centre (CSDIC) was based in Trent Park, a magnificent estate once owned by the Sassoon family, near Cockfosters in North London. It was here that German senior officers were brought for internment once they were captured.
Then a huge top-secret operation swung into play, involving several hundred recording technicians, stenographers, transcribers and interpreters, not to mention stool-pigeons and agents provocateurs whose job it was to stimulate conversations between German generals, brigadiers and colonels.
A number of ruses were employed to encourage the Germans to speak to one another in one of the 12 rooms in the common areas of the house that were wired for sound. Luftwaffe commanders were mixed with Wehrmacht generals; newspapers and radios were used to pass on snippets of news from the front. Occasionally, Lord Aberfaldy - a CSDIC agent posing as a welfare officer -would simply bring up subjects that might provoke debate once he had left the room.
The astonishing success of the operation can be measured in the sheer number - and the extreme candour - of the conversations that ensued. To read the transcripts today is to be reminded of some of the worst horrors of World War II.
Of course, British Intelligence wanted above all to discover operational secrets by eavesdropping on their captives recognising that this method might yield results that direct, face-to-face interrogations would not. But they also heard evidence of sustained mass atrocities, especially on the Eastern Front.
Attempts to suggest that genocide was solely the responsibility of the SS and Nazi fanatics, and not widespread across the whole Wehrmacht, completely collapse before the evidence of these recordings.
Although most of the generals at Trent Park were captured in North Africa, Italy and France, it is clear they knew perfectly well what was happening throughout the Third Reich and its occupied territories.
Between 1939 and 1945, no fewer than 10,191 German and 567 Italian prisoners passed through Trent Park and its two related POW listening centres. Some of the conversations, originally recorded on gramophone discs, are only half a page in length; the longest is 22 pages.
Even General Dietrich von Choltitz - who has had the reputation of being a "good" German ever since he refused to carry out Hitler's orders to destroy Paris - is implicated by these transcripts of killing Jews in the Crimea in 1941 and 1942.
None of the generals had the slightest idea that they were being listened to. And it is only now that we can read verbatim what they actually said to one another, giving us an intimate glimpse into the mind of the German High Command as it dawned on them that they were likely to lose the war.
Several of these officers wrote to Churchill towards the end of the war, offering a "renewal" of Germany "in the spirit of Western Christianity", but the transcripts expose their hypocrisy.
Another example of this was their criticism of Field Marshal Friedrich von Paulus for surrendering Stalingrad - for if they themselves had not all surrendered, they would not have been at Trent Park.
Some of the generals were genuine anti-Nazis, and were delighted when one of their number, Count Claus von Stauffenberg, attempted to assassinate Hitler on July 20, 1944, because they believed that his glorious failure would save the honour of the Wehrmacht officer corps.
The contempt that von Choltitz had for the arch-Nazi General Reinecke, who had helped condemn Stauffenberg after the plot was discovered, is palpable: "Such a common commercial traveller, such a vulgar horrible fellow!"
Yet these unguarded, seemingly-private conversations do not protect the honour of the German officer corps, since it is obvious that almost all of them knew of the Holocaust, right to the top of the High Command.
General von Thoma, who commanded a panzer division in Russia before being captured at El Alamein, told the pro-Nazi General Ludwig Cruwell in January 1943: "I am actually ashamed to be an officer."
He related how he had spoken to the Army Chief of Staff, General Franz Halder, about the atrocities, only to be told: "That's a political matter, that's nothing to do with me."
So he put his protests in writing to Army Commander-in-Chief General Walther von Brauchitsch, who said: "Do you want me to take it further? If you want me to take it further, anything might happen."
Thoma said of those who believed the Fuhrer was ignorant of what was happening: "Of course, he knows all about it. Secretly, he's delighted. Of course, people can't make a row - they would simply be arrested and beaten if they did."
The kind of things that were happening to Poles, Russians and especially Jews were common currency in the 'private' conversations at Trent Park.
In December 1944, Generalleutnant Heinrich Kittel, commander of 462 Volksgrenadier division, told Generalmajor Paul von Felbert, commandant of Feldkommandantur 560: "The things I've experienced! In Latvia, near Dvinsk, there were mass executions of Jews carried out by the SS."
"There were about 15 SS men and perhaps 60 Latvians, known to be the most brutal people in the world. I was lying in bed one Sunday morning when I kept hearing two salvos followed by small-arms fire."
On investigating, Kittel found "men, women and children - they were counted off and stripped naked. The executioners first laid all the clothes in one pile. Then 20 women had to take up their position - naked - on the edge of the trench. They were shot and fell down into it."
"How was it done?" asked Felbert.
"They faced the trench," Kittel replied. "And then 20 Latvians came up behind and simply fired once through the back of their heads, and they fell down forwards into the trench like ninepins."
Kittel gave an order forbidding such executions from taking place "outside, where people can look on. If you shoot people in the wood or somewhere where no one can see," he told the SS men, "that's your own affair. But I absolutely forbid another day's shooting here. We draw our drinking water from deep springs; we're getting nothing but corpse water there."
"What did they do to the children?" asked Felbert. Kittel - who sounded "very excited" at this point, according to the transcriber - answered: "They seized three-year-old children by the hair, held them up and shot them with a pistol and then threw them in. I saw that for myself. One could watch it."
Another general, Generalleutnant Hans Schaeffer, commander of the 244 Infantry division, asked Kittel: "Did they weep? Have the people any idea what's in store for them?"
"They know perfectly well," replied Kittel. "They are apathetic. I'm not sensitive myself, but such things turn my stomach."
Later on, however, Kittel mused: "If one were to destroy all the Jews of the world simultaneously, there wouldn't remain a single accuser," and "Those Jews are the pest of the east!"
"What happened to the young, pretty girls?" asked Felbert, when the subject turned to concentration camps. "Were they formed into a harem?"
"I didn't bother about that," Kittel answered. "I only found that they did become more reasonable. The women question is a very shady chapter. You've no idea what mean and stupid things are done."
In another conversation later that same day, Kittel told Schaefer about Auschwitz: "In Upper Silesia, they simply slaughtered the people systematically. They were gassed in a big hall. There's the greatest secrecy about all those things."
Later still, he said: "I'm going to hold my tongue about what I do know of these things." He little suspected that his every word was being recorded, transcribed and translated.
The following February, Generalmajor Johannes Bruhn, Commander of the 533 Volksgrenadier Division, discussed the Holocaust with Felbert, saying: "I must assume, after all I have read about the Fuhrer, that he knew all about it."
"Of course he knew all about it," replied Felbert. "He's the man who is responsible. He even discussed it with Himmler."
"Yes," said Bruhn. "That man doesn't care a hoot if your relatives are annihilated."
"That man doesn't care a damn," agreed Felbert.
The following month, Bruhn - one of the few generals to emerge with credit from these conversations - said he believed that Germany did not deserve victory any longer, "after the amount of human blood we've shed knowingly and as a result of our delusions and blood lust. We've deserved our fate."
In reply, Generalleutnant Fritz von Broich said: "We shot women as if they had been cattle. There was a large quarry where 10,000 men, women and children were shot. They were still lying in the quarry. We drove out on purpose to see it. It was the most bestial thing I ever saw."
It was then that General von Choltitz, the "saviour" of Paris, spoke of the time he was in the Crimea and was told by the CO of the airfield from where he was flying: "Good Lord, I'm not supposed to tell, but they've been shooting Jews here for days now." Choltitz estimated that 36,000 Jews from Sebastapol alone were shot.
"Let me tell you," General Count Edwin von Rothkirch und Trach told General Bernhard Ramcke on March 13, 1945, "the gassings are by no means the worst."
"What happened?" asked Ramke. "To start with, people dug their own graves, then the firing squad arrived with tommy-guns and shot them down. Many of them weren't dead, and a layer of earth was shovelled in between. They had packers there who packed the bodies in, because they fell in too soon. The SS did that."
"I knew an SS leader there quite well, and he said: 'Would you like to photograph a shooting? They are always shot in the morning - but if you like, we still have some and we can shoot them in the afternoon sometime.'"
Three days later, at Trent Park, Colonel Dr Friedrich Von der Heydte told Colonel Eberhard Wildermuth about the Theresienstadt concentration camp in Czechoslovakia: "Half a million people have been put to death there for certain. I know that all the Jews from Bavaria were taken there. Yet the camp never became over-crowded. They gassed mental defectives, too."
"Yes, I know," replied Wildermuth. "I got to know that for a fact in the case of Nuremberg - my brother is a doctor at an institution there. The people knew where they were being taken."
"We must uphold the principle of only having carried out orders," suggested Generalleutnant Ferdinand Heim. "We must stick to that principle if we are to create a more or less effective defence."
As the war progressed, the Trent Park internees divided between Nazis and anti-Nazis. Some of the Nazis' fanaticism was undimmed by the way the war was going.
"What do I care about Good Friday?" asked Generalmajor Wilhelm Ullersperger, who had been captured during the Ardennes offensive in the last days of 1944. "Because a filthy Jew was hanged umpteen years ago?"
Generalmajor Walther Bruns recalled the attitude of the members of the firing squad who killed thousands of Jews in Riga: "All those cynical remarks! If only I had seen those tommy-gunners, who were relieved every hour because of over-exertion, carry out their task with distaste, but not with nasty remarks like: 'Here comes a Jewish beauty!'
"I can still see it all in my memory - a pretty woman in a flame-coloured chemise. Talk about keeping the race pure. At Riga, they first slept with them and then shot them to prevent them from talking."
Meanwhile, Colonel Erwin Josting of the Luftwaffe recalled an Austrian friend being asked by a lieutenant: "Would you like to watch? An amusing show is going on down here; umpteen Jews are being killed off."
Josting continued: "The barn was full of women and children. Petrol was poured over them and they were burned alive. You can't imagine what their screams were like."
After the publication of this extraordinary, horrific but compelling collection of secretly-recorded conversations, the alibi of the German High Command - that they did not know what the SS were up to, and anyhow they were, as Heim put it, "only carrying out orders" - is shown to be demonstrably false.
To make it all the more powerful, the evidence for this comes not from the prosecution, or from "victors' justice" as it is sometimes accused of being.
Instead, out of their own mouths, they are condemned before the bar of history.
More information on this will be available soon in a book called "Tapping Hitler's Generals: Transcripts Of Secret Conversations 1942-45", edited by Sonke Neitzel with an introduction by Ian Kershaw. Published in August 2007.
If these recordings are genuine then many of the leading German Generals who professed ignorance of the atrocities being committed in Poland and Russia are exposed as liars.