If Jews fell dead in the forest, and British agents heard it but did nothing, is there noise to be made about Allied complicity in mass murder?

This disturbing question haunts Richard Breitman’s latest contribution to the literature of the Holocaust, Official Secrets: What the Nazis Planned, What the British and Americans Knew. An American University history professor, Breitman has emerged as one of this country’s leading Holocaust scholars: editor in chief of the journal Holocaust and Genocide Studies and author of, among other books, The Architect of Genocide: Himmler and the Final Solution (1992), an exhaustive biography of Heinrich Himmler, the SS chief who was Adolf Hitler’s most murderous criminal adjutant.

Many scholars before Breitman have sought to assess how much American President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill knew about Hitler’s program to exterminate European Jewry, with their conclusions ranging from exculpatory to damning. Perhaps most novel is the work of historian William D. Rubinstein, author of the plainly titled The Myth of Rescue: Why the Democracies Could Not Have Saved More Jews from the Nazis (1997). Rubinstein argues that even if American and British officials possessed full prior knowledge of the Holocaust, and, moreover, a passionate desire to save Jewish lives—and they possessed neither, by all accounts—overwhelming logistical hurdles would still have thwarted any Allied rescue and/or relief efforts beyond those undertaken.

In rebutting Rubinstein, and in challenging or supplementing the work of other scholars, Breitman makes use of newly declassified documents from the vaults of British intelligence, evidence apparently unseen by any civilian (nongovernmental) eyes before his. It turns out that from 1941 to 1943, British code analysts routinely deciphered the encrypted radio traffic of the German Order Police, those tens of thousands of non-SS officers who shadowed the German army’s campaign across the Soviet Union, and who willingly—eagerly—rounded up hundreds of thousands of Jews in the occupied territories and shot them.

There is some serendipity in Breitman’s having uncovered British “decrypts” of the communications of these particular killers at this particular time. The dominant trend in Holocaust studies in this decade has been a push to identify, with ever greater specificity (by name, even), the perpetrators involved—the so-called ordinary Germans far removed from Hitler’s mountain retreats and court intrigues, who used their energy, brains, and bare hands to murder at least 6 million innocent people. Increasingly, this trend has seen Holocaust scholars like Christopher R. Browning (Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland, 1992) and his academic bête noire, Harvard’s Daniel Jonah Goldhagen (Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust, 1996), zero in on these same Order Police battalions, for reasons empirical and polemical.

First, by bringing to light the massive—and previously unknown—extent to which the Order Police battalion members took part in the killings, these scholars fulfill the basic empirical duty of any historian: They add to our factual record. As Breitman writes, “[t]he Nazi campaign to destroy Germany’s enemies in the East was carefully planned in advance, and the Order Police battalions were from the beginning an essential component of the process.” Though not as efficient as the Nazis’ other main mobile killing units, the SS Einsatzkommandos, the Order Police deserve the newfound attention of scholars, having largely escaped that of war crimes prosecutors.

A focus on the Order Police also enables these historians to assay the deeper question of how much guilt should rest with the German people—as distinguished from the Nazis—from whose ranks the police battalions were drawn. Breitman figures:

[I]t would be hard to see this group as one of political fanatics….At the end of 1941, 70 percent of the active officers of the Order Police and 93 percent of its reserve officers were not members of the SS….Yet they managed to carry out mass murder repeatedly anyway.

And, as Goldhagen has pointedly demonstrated, members of at least one police battalion enjoyed—and usually rejected—offers to opt out of the killing.

Space prohibits full exploration here of the debate between Browning, who suggests that brutal wartime conditions transformed “ordinary men” into killers, and Goldhagen, who argues that a deeply rooted “eliminationist anti-Semitism” among Germans culminated in the Holocaust. For his part, Breitman dismisses Goldhagen’s work as “appeal[ing] to readers who wanted a relatively simple version of German history even in 1933-45…” This is a bit cavalier; anyone who made the long march through Hitler’s Willing Executioners knows that Goldhagen’s “simple” argument deliberately eschews a monocausal approach. So polarizing a study is Goldhagen’s book, though, that Breitman feels compelled to attack it three pages into his own, the first major entry in the field since Goldhagen’s.

Although Breitman’s archival discoveries provide some ammunition for him to join the “academic duel” over the German character, Official Secrets proves most rewarding when addressing the Allies’ contemporaneous knowledge of the Holocaust. The Order Police’s radio messages—the only means by which the battalions could communicate with Berlin from deep Soviet territory—were easily decoded, because the Germans inexplicably used a code that they themselves had broken from the British in World War I.

Moreover, despite orders from Himmler to employ euphemisms when updating Nazi superiors, the German battalions scarcely camouflaged their radio transmissions. They included, Breitman shows us time and again, “dozens of open reports of mass killings…carried out by the Order Police….[I]t was hardly possible, even without totaling all the body counts, [for British intelligence agents] to miss the scale of the massacres.” Indeed, Official Secrets numbs the reader with numbers: 1,342 “cleansed” on one day, 875 girls the next, 23,600 over another two days, and so on. The decodes, then, provide us with “original documentation of Nazi policies and simultaneously of British knowledge of those policies.”

Weaving this new evidence with previous scholarship, Breitman establishes conclusively that by September 1941, “almost three months before the start of operations in the first extermination camp and more than four months before the Wannsee Conference [at which, historians have long believed, Nazi leaders approved the Final Solution], British intelligence had a basic grasp of Nazi intentions toward Jews in the Soviet territories.” He quotes a British intelligence summary from Sept. 12, 1941: “‘The execution of “Jews” is so recurrent a feature of these [radio] reports that…the figures are…conclusive as evidence of a policy of savage intimidation, if not of ultimate extermination.’”

When the Nazis shifted to gassing as their preferred killing method, the British knew about it. The radio decodes showed increasing orders for, and transports of, lethal Zyklon B gas to specific destinations, like Auschwitz. Enjoying simultaneous access to German railway decodes, British intelligence, Breitman confirms, “could and did, with some delay, track the changing population and mortality at Auschwitz….[The analysts] knew from the data that the Auschwitz camp population was not…taking in Jews in numbers comparable to what the transports must have brought in and that the Jews were not departing. Had Auschwitz become one of the largest cities in Europe?” Moreover, this knowledge, as Breitman shows, only added to what Hitler and other senior Nazis had publicly vowed to do to the Jews since at least 1924.

“Intelligence,” the author aptly notes, “was and is meant to be used.” But the British “simply hoarded” the decodes, sharing them with the Soviets but not the Americans (until 1982, when London made them available for war crimes prosecutions here). Beyond using the decodes for trade bait with Soviet intelligence, the British sat on them, just as American leaders—who had “less reliable information than London, [but were] nonetheless able to get a reasonably accurate picture of the Final Solution…[by] late 1942″—also did next to nothing.

The official line, tendered to influential Jews who managed private audiences with Roosevelt and Churchill, was that the quickest way to save Jewish lives was to win the war, and that no resources could be “diverted” from that effort. The Allies also wanted to avoid lending legitimacy to Nazi propaganda that they were fighting a war “for the Jews,” and the British fretted over their future dealings with Arab countries on the issue of Palestine. “No Western action could have come close to stopping the Holocaust,” Breitman acknowledges. But he credits the U.S. Treasury Department with creating the War Refugee Board in 1943, and notes, contrary to Rubinstein, that one Allied effort saved 5,000 Jewish children in France in 1942. “If there is a distinction between Churchill and Roosevelt on rescue and relief efforts,” he writes, “it is hard to see how it is in Churchill’s favor.” He notes:

Churchill’s statements suggest that he recognized at the time the moral and historical significance of Nazi policy toward the Jews, but he did not act as if he did, nor did Roosevelt. Both [men], but particularly Churchill, deserve great credit for recognizing the evils of Nazism at an early date; and both men, especially Churchill, took tremendous risks to oppose Nazi Germany, but during the war they inevitably dealt far more with larger questions of military and diplomatic strategy and of Allied partnership than with specific decisions about rescue of Jews.

But, Breitman concludes, by “not try[ing] to do what might have worked”—alerting targeted Jews to their fate, or more directly intervening in some way—both governments “failed to display effectively the values of Western democratic societies.”

The research underpinning Official Secrets makes it a significant and indispensable volume for any future study of the Holocaust. It shines needed light on murderers like Kurt Daluege, head of the Order Police, and others, who long escaped historical scrutiny or infamy. It contains important new documentation on how the early mass shootings in Soviet territory were carried out, and also on the transition from shooting to gassing. And, of course, it will rank near or at the top of any list of books covering the Allies’ reaction to the Holocaust.

In so doing, perhaps Breitman’s chief accomplishment is to provide further evidence, sadly needed, for use against those who would claim that the Holocaust never happened. After all, as Breitman asks, “if British intelligence analysts could determine in late 1941 that Nazi Germany was systematically slaughtering Jews, is it not peculiar that five decades later some historians cannot manage to come to the same conclusion?”CP