Decoded Cables Revise History of Holocaust
German Police Implicated; British Knew
By Michael Dobbs
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 10 1996; Page A01
The Washington Post
The date was July 18, 1941, less than a month after Nazi Germany's Blitzkrieg attack on the Soviet Union. As was his custom, the German commander in the western Soviet republic of Belarus provided his superiors in Berlin with a daily update of the activities of the men under his command.
"In yesterday's cleansing action in Slonim, carried out by Police regiment center," wrote Erich von dem Baxh-Zelewski, in the dry, matter-of-fact tone of the German military bureaucrat, "1,153 Jewish plunderers were shot.
During the course of the next four years, tens of thousands of such reports would be filed, describing the methodically planned mass extermination of an entire people. But this particular report is remarkable for several reasons:
It is one of the earliest pieces of documentary evidence for what later became known as the Holocaust. It is new evidence that much of the killing was carried out by ordinary German police units, and not the elite SS. And it was intercepted and deciphered by British signals intelligence within three days of its original transmission.
The report from Bach-Zelewski is just one of hundreds of intercepted German cables recently declassified by the National Security Agency and now available in the reading room of the National Archives. More than half a century after the end of World War II, information is finally becoming available to scholars that shows in detail how ordinary German police and army units cooperated with elite SS brigades in carrying out Adolf Hitler's order to exterminate the Jews.
The intercepts, which were part of the top secret British code-breaking operation known as Ultra intercepts, also shed new light on the controversial question of what Western governments knew about the Holocaust. Some Holocaust researchers have accused Britain and the United States of withholding information about the mass killings of Jews until the discovery of the concentration camps at the end of the war.
"The extraordinary thing about these documents is that they contain new information both about the Holocaust itself and what the West knew about the Holocaust," said Richard Breitman, a professor of history at American University, who filed a Freedom of Information Act request for 1.3 million pages of German intercepts handed over to the NSA by the British.
The release of previously secret German reports on the early stages of the Holocaust follows the Russian decision last month to turn over 15,000 pages of documents covering the same period to the United States Holocaust Museum. The Russian documents are now being sorted and catalogued.
The new trove of documents, which include reports of the same events from the perspective of both executioners and victims, is likely to add significantly to knowledge about the early stages of the Holocaust. While considerable attention has been paid to certain Nazi atrocities in the Soviet Union, such as the execution of 32,771 Jews in the Ukrainian village of Babi Yar in October 1941, this stage of the Holocaust is not nearly as well documented as the death camps of Buchenwald and
Auschwitz, which began operating in 1942.
"The Holocaust began on Soviet soil," said Wesley Fisher, deputy director of research at the Holocaust Museum. "Up to now, however, this has been the unknown face of the Holocaust. The Germans did not keep records of everybody they were killing."
The newly released documents bolster the view that the Holocaust really got underway with Hitler's invasion of Russia on June 22, 1941. During the course of the next few months, hundreds of thousands of Jews were systematically executed by German units in large-scale mopping-up operations.
Historians who have worked on the Russian materials say that the total number of Holocaust victims may have to be revised up from the 6 million to 7 million estimated after the war. Breitman estimates that at least half a million Jews were killed in the Soviet Union during the six months prior to December 1941.
The intercepts discovered by Breitman cover relatively brief periods in July, August, and September 1941 when the British were able to read intercepted radio messages between German commanders in Russia and their superiors in Berlin. Even though they are fragmentary and incomplete, the messages make clear that massacres were taking place on a large scale. In a message to Berlin dated Aug. 7, 1941, which was decrypted a week later, Bach-Zelewski reported that "total number of executions in territory under my jurisdiction has now exceeded 30,000."
The documents also shatter the notion that it was only SS police units, the so-called "Einsatzgruppen," that were committing the atrocities. The new evidence shows that a key role in the extermination of Jews was carried out by the Order Police, municipal units whose activities have attracted relatively little attention from historians. According to Breitman, four times as many Order policemen as Einsatzgruppen commandos were involved in the first stage of the Holocaust.
Typical of the messages intercepted by the British is one dated Aug. 27, 1941, from the German commander in Ukraine, Friederich Jeckeln, which records that Order Police Battalion 320 shot 4,200 Jews near the town of Kamenets-Podolsk. Four days later, Jeckeln reported that the same battalion had executed a further 2,200 Jews.
Both Jeckeln and Bach-Zelewski filed their reports to the head of the Order Police, Kurt Daluege, and the head of the SS, Heinrich Himmler.
Despite the documentary evidence that massacres of Jews were being carried out on Soviet territory, western governments were reluctant to publicize the atrocities. Senior officials in Britain and the United States were skeptical about reports from agents that the Nazis had embarked on a "final solution" of the "Jewish problem." As late as September 1944, a British diplomat argued against publicizing the atrocity stories on the grounds that it would compe officials to "waste a disproportionate amount of their time dealing with wailing Jews."
"There may have been some anti-Semitism [in the West], but this was not the decisive factor," said Walter Laqueur, author of "The Terrible Secret," one of the standard works on western knowledge of the Holocaust. "You needed a certain imagination to understand what was going on. The people who were analyzing intelligence reports were narrow-minded. They did not have the perspective that we have now. They wanted to know where a certain brigade was, and were not so much interested in reports of atrocities."
It is unclear when the British made their material available to the Americans. There was widespread intelligence-sharing between the two sides, particularly after the U.S. entry into the war in December 1941. The intercepts, which are stamped "Most Secret. To Be Kept Under Lock and Key: Never to Be Removed From the Office," have not been declassified in England.
The fragmentary German intercepts about massacres of Jews in the western Soviet Union are likely to be fleshed out in much greater detail by the 15,000 documents handed over to Holocaust researchers by the Russian government. These archives include reports by Soviet agents operating behind enemy lines, Russian translations of captured German archives, and interviews with eyewitnesses compiled by a Soviet war crimes commission at the end of the war.
Typical of the documents handed over to the Holocaust Museum is a report, signed by an SS leader in the Latvian town of Daugavpils, on the "annihilation" of 1,134 Jews in the town on Sept. 9, 1941. Another document reconstructs the mass executions that took place at Panari, near the Lithuanian capital Vilnius, in the summer and fall of 1941 in the weeks immediately after the Soviet invasion.
"They made us stand in front of a ditch, six metres deep by 35 metres long. The [German] soldiers stood in a line, shooting six people at a time," recalled Arbagem Blyazer, who survived a mass execution in October 1941 by throwing himself into the ditch the moment the first shots rang out and pretending he was dead. Blyazer told a Soviet war crimes commission that there were four large pits at Panari, each containing between 18,000 and 25,000 bodies.
Some disturbing parts in there; it's been six years and there does not seem to be too much backlash.