Official Secrets: What the Nazis Planned, What the British and Americans Knew

Overview

An important new work based on newly declassified archives.

As defeat loomed over the Third Reich in 1945, its officials tried to destroy the physical and documentary evidence about the Nazis' monstrous crimes, about their murder of millions. Great Britain already had some of the evidence, however, for its intelligence services had for years been intercepting, decoding, and analyzing German police radio messages and SS ones, too. Yet these important papers were sealed away as ...

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Overview

An important new work based on newly declassified archives.

As defeat loomed over the Third Reich in 1945, its officials tried to destroy the physical and documentary evidence about the Nazis' monstrous crimes, about their murder of millions. Great Britain already had some of the evidence, however, for its intelligence services had for years been intercepting, decoding, and analyzing German police radio messages and SS ones, too. Yet these important papers were sealed away as "Most Secret," "Never to Be Removed from This Office"-and they have only now reappeared.Integrating this new evidence with other sources, Richard Breitman reconsiders how Germany's leaders brought about the Holocaust-and when-and reassesses Britain's and America's suppression of information about the Nazi killings. His absorbing account of the tensions between the two powers and the consequences of keeping this information secret for so long shows us the danger of continued government secrecy, which serves none of us well, and the failure to punish many known war criminals.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"A new tour de force from Breitman . . . sure to revise greatly our knowledge of the planning and implementation of the Final Solution."—Konrad Kwiet
Dominic Donald
[Breitman] concludes that Britain had recognized the Nazi policy of mass killings of Jews in the East by mid-September 1941 and by the following January realised that Hitler was intent on exterminating European Jewry. -- The Times (London)
Robert Harris
[T]his book seems to be built upon the premise that the military struggle was almost peripheral, that Churchill and Roosevelt should somehow have had, almost as their prime concern, the fate of peoples other than their own. But surely no leader or nation has ever done that — and none, I suspect, ever will. —Literary Review
Peter Grose
Official Secrets is a remarkable study, concise yet carefully nuanced....well established as a pathbreaking scholar of the Holocaust, Breitman offers a corrective to the more extravagant conclusions....As for...what British and American policy makers knew...Breitman has hit the mother lode....He weaves solid new scholarship into a gripping narrative...
The New York Times Book Review
Istvan Deak
...[A] balanced and novel account....How much did the Anglo-Americans know about the Holocaust? Breitman's answer is quite categorical: they know quite a lot, and early. But the diffusion of this knowledge was severely limited by the requirements of war....The killings would have gone on in any case; but it was the moral eclipse of the outside world that completed the tragedy.
New Republic
Robert Harris
[T]his book seems to be built upon the premise that the military struggle was almost peripheral, that Churchill and Roosevelt should somehow have had, almost as their prime concern, the fate of peoples other than their own. But surely no leader or nation has ever done that - and none, I suspect, ever will. -- Literary Review
Peter Grose
Official Secrets is a remarkable study, concise yet carefully nuanced....well established as a pathbreaking scholar of the Holocaust, [Breitman] offers a corrective to the more extravagant conclusions....As for...what British and American policy makers knew...Breitman has hit the mother lode....[He] weaves solid new scholarship into a gripping narrative... -- The New York Times Book Review
Peter Grose
Breitaman sheds provocative new light [in] a remarkable study, concise yet carefully nuanced. His achievement leaves solid new scholarship into a gripping narrative that reveals a startling nonchalance in facing evil.
New York Times Book Review
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780809001842
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Publication date: 9/1/1999
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 336
  • Sales rank: 1,040,832
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 0.75 (d)

Meet the Author

Richard Breitman, professor of history at American University, is the author of Architect of Genocide, a biography of Himmler. He lives in Bethesda, Maryland.

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Table of Contents

Introduction 3
1. Foreshadowings 13
2. Planning Race War 27
3. A Battalion Gets the Word 43
4. Reports of Ethnic Cleansing 54
5. Transitions and Transports 69
6. British Restraint 88
7. Auschwitz Partially Decoded 110
8. American Assessments 122
9. Breakthrough in the West 137
10. Reactions to Publicity 155
11. Competition and Collaboration 177
12. The Treasury Department's Offensive 192
13. The Mills of the Gods 212
Conclusion 225
Epilogue 235
Notes 247
Index 311
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First Chapter

Chapter One


FORESHADOWINGS


ADOLF HITLER MIXED CANDOR and dissimulation in nearly equal parts. His writings and speeches, as well as records of his private monologues and other sources, gave important indications of his thinking, but he was also a very secretive man. He sometimes issued instructions as to what not to record, and he boasted of his refusal to confide in others, of his willingness to lie. In modern times, only Joseph Stalin could compete with Hitler on the standard of deceit.

    Hitler organized a secret effort to overthrow the Bavarian state government in November 1923, designed as the first step toward a general revolution in Germany. After botching the coup d'etat in Munich, the thirty-four-year-old Hitler was convicted of treason and served a brief prison sentence. During his stay in Landsberg prison, he began work on a long and rambling memoir and political tract, which he called Mein Kampf (My Struggle). The book appeared in two volumes, the first in July 1925, the second in December 1926. The sections about Hitler's youth in Linz and Vienna traced his early rise to political and racial consciousness, as well as his view of history and politics. But they distorted and concealed as much as they revealed. Hitler may well have picked up racist and anti-Semitic sentiments in his youth, but (though some writers disagree) he actually drifted until he found his political orientation and his calling in a chaotic postwar Munich in 1919.

    The general, ideological sections of Mein Kampf, however, held broader political significance--so much so that the book posed a problem later for Hitler the politician and head of government. In 1938, Hitler supposedly told his onetime lawyer Hans Frank that, if he had known in 1924 that he was going to become chancellor, he would never have written his book. This comment applied particularly to what Hitler had stated about Germany's foreign-policy options and goals, which revealed his conviction that the German race needed much more land to survive and to thrive. He had shown not only his proclivity for war but also his hostility to France and the Soviet Union. After Mein Kampf, he wrote a second book specifically on foreign policy, but by 1929 he had come far enough politically to recognize the wisdom of not publishing it. The work remained secret for decades; the historian Gerhard Weinberg discovered it and published the text only in 1961.

    Hitler's worldview--a blend of intense and expansionist nationalism, racism, antiliberalism, anti-Marxism, and, not least, anti-Semitism --pervaded both volumes of Mein Kampf as well as the unpublished second book. Anti-Semitism cropped up even in strange contexts. In chapters 10, 13, 14, and 15 of the second volume of Mein Kampf, Hitler repeatedly "explained" how the Jews were behind all foreign opposition to Germany and all internal problems afflicting the German people and obstructing the advance of Nazism. Disputes between Roman Catholics and Protestants within the Nazi Party were leading it from its true mission and thereby, consciously or not, serving Jewish interests. Russian Bolshevism was nothing other than the attempt by Jews to seize world domination. In other words, Hitler automatically associated any problem, any difficulty, any opponent with Jewish efforts or Jewish interests. He believed there was no need for specific evidence, which might be lacking because of Jewish secrecy and cunning. This conspiratorial view of history and politics had practical implications: only a conspirator could succeed in a conspiratorial world. Moreover, it suggested that, if he came to power and held to his views, Hitler would seek to neutralize what he perceived as the Jewish threat to Germany.

    Scholars have described Hitler's early writings as everything from a "blueprint for power" to "the generalizations of a powerful, but uninstructed intellect: dogmas which echo the conversation of any Austrian cafe or German beer-house." Virtually every expert has accepted the sincerity of Hitler's early worldview; in dispute is whether the early Hitler fixed a clear course for the future and subsequently held fast to it.

    Most individuals learn, adapt, and evolve over time; some politicians switch parties and programs. Many a statesman has been known to reverse previous foreign-policy pronouncements and respond primarily to circumstances and opportunities. Some have used heated rhetoric to make names for themselves or mobilize support. But there was a very high correlation between what Hitler wrote in the 1920s about Lebensraum (living space) and German foreign policy and the future path of the Third Reich. Did Hitler tenaciously hold to his original vision in other respects, or did the policies and programs of the Third Reich occur because of the actions of others or the pressure of circumstances? There is unfortunately no definitive way to trace the range and consistency of Hitler's thinking and state of mind from 1925 until his suicide on April 30, 1945. His writings, speeches, and decisions supply crucial evidence but also contain mendacious elements, gaps, and camouflage.

    If key Nazi officials took Mein Kampf--or the ideology expressed in it--as a guide for their actions, then it becomes even harder for a historian to discount the continuity and impact of Hitler's early ideology. If sophisticated non-Nazi observers at the time looked to Mein Kampf to help them understand the impulses and direction of the Nazi regime, the case is stronger still. This chapter offers a small sample of both types of assessments of Mein Kampf.

    One of the most assiduous readers of Mein Kampf was a young Bavarian political organizer named Heinrich Himmler. Mortified by Germany's defeat in World War I, which he blamed on the Marxist left, and fascinated by the principles and methods of breeding in agriculture, which he had studied at Munich's Technische Hochschule, Himmler was particularly susceptible to Hitler's line of racial thought. In fact, he may have taken it more literally than Hitler himself. Later, as Reich Fuhrer SS, he would try to make his own organization into a racial and political elite. Himmler first met the Fuhrer in 1926, when he was serving as deputy Gauleiter (regional party leader) under Gregor Strasser in Lower Bavaria. Within a year Himmler was also deputy leader of the small unit of Nazi guards known as the SS, outnumbered by the larger Nazi paramilitary force, the Sturmabteilung, or SA.

    A meticulous record keeper, Himmler kept a partial, dated list of his reading, along with brief comments about each book. He finished the first volume of Mein Kampf on June 19, 1927, writing: "It contains tremendously many truths. The first chapters about his own youth contain many weaknesses." Not captivated by Hitler's personal story, Himmler nonetheless found the book a great inspiration.

    Himmler's copy of volume 2 of Mein Kampf, which he read in December 1927, has now emerged from obscurity. From markings on this volume, it is possible to examine his early reactions to Hitler's ideology in greater detail. In general, he looked for practical ways to apply the "truths" of his Fuhrer. Next to the passage about the importance of instilling self-confidence and a sense of racial superiority into youths through education and training, Himmler wrote in the margin: "education of SS and SA." Hitler had blamed the German revolution of 1918, which he said had been carried out by pimps, deserters, and rabble, partly on the failure of the intellectual elite, hobbled by its upper-class etiquette and lack of manliness: they should have learned boxing. Himmler endorsed the criticism and Hitler's remedy.

    Himmler approved of Hitler's comment that, just as races were different and unequal, some individuals within a race were more valuable than others. Hitler had expounded in some detail on how those races that had remained pure throughout history had thrived; they began to decline when they intermarried with others: nature did not love "bastards." Racial intermingling created a new hybrid but also tension between the hybrid and the remaining pure element of the "higher" race. The danger for the hybrid race would end only when the last pure elements of the higher race had been corrupted. Himmler took Hitler's remarks very seriously, writing: "the possibility of de-miscegenation is at hand" (die Moglichkeit der Entmischung ist vorhanden). Just how this would be accomplished remained unclear in 1927.

    This criticism of racial intermingling was directed at Germans as well as Jews. The current German population was already racially suspect according to this view; only a segment remained pure. Hitler believed that Jews were seeking to defile and corrupt the "Aryan race" through intermarriage and seduction of German women. Ending the threat to the higher race meant not only neutralizing the hybrid but also removing the threat of Jewish infiltration and destructiveness. Himmler later used underlining and a margin line to highlight many passages in Mein Kampf, among them Hitler's retroactive solution for Germany's defeat in World War I:


If at the beginning of the War and during the War twelve or fifteen thousand of these Hebrew corrupters of the people had been held under [subjected to] poison gas, as happened to hundreds of thousands of our very best German workers in the [battle]field, the sacrifice of millions at the front would not have been in vain. On the contrary, twelve thousand scoundrels eliminated in time might have saved the lives of a million real Germans, valuable for the future.


The idea of using poison gas against some Jews was already planted in not only Hitler's mind but also Himmler's.

    Plenty of others read Mein Kampf, even if few took it so literally. Despite the hefty price of twelve marks per volume, 23,000 copies of volume 1 and 13,000 copies of volume 2 were sold before 1930. Then a cheaper edition and the Nazi breakthrough in the September 1930 national elections caused sales to take off dramatically. (By the time Hitler became chancellor in 1933, sales totaled 287,000.) If Hitler the ideologue was an unknown quantity to the German public during the incessant election campaigns from 1928 to 1933, it was not for lack of evidence.

    Political campaigns often do not bring clarity to the issues. Nazi organizers, speakers, and writers frequently campaigned against the "Marxists" and the unwieldy democratic regime known as the Weimar Republic. Successes came in part because their targets were widely unpopular except with the German working class. The Nazis also learned how to appeal to specific needs and fears of social and occupational groups and to adjust basic Nazi principles to local preferences. The image the Nazi movement presented to the German public was more differentiated and in some ways more sophisticated than what Hitler had formulated in Mein Kampf but also blurrier. The Nazis attracted the most diverse constituency in German politics, held together primarily by shared emotions--desperation, common resentment, and fear. Nazi campaign propaganda called for a new start, a rebirth of Germany through the creation of a national community that transcended traditional divisions--a theme partly shared by right-wing nationalist parties, but Nazi presentation was more vigorous and more effective. Partly for this reason, Hitler and other key Nazi speakers exploited better than more experienced political rivals first a rising tide of nationalism in the late 1920s, and then growing public frustration with, and despair about, the political system and the great economic depression.

    In other words, a vote for Hitler or other Nazi candidates was hardly a direct endorsement of Hitler's worldview. Still, none of Hitler's themes, which other Nazi officials and candidates endorsed and reinforced, hurt the Nazis politically; most of them found increasing resonance from 1928 on. Shared ideas and emotions gave Hitler and the Nazi Party a substantial base of enthusiasts and willing followers, whose activity and dynamism drew others. The rise in the number of Nazi Party members and their increasingly visible activities created a sense of movement and hope for change in others. A substantial minority of German voters either accepted the Nazi program or had no objection to it, in part because it derived from a familiar late-nineteenth-century current of radical nationalist and racist thought. Nazi electoral support in democratic elections peaked at just over 37 percent of the vote in July 1932, making the Party the largest in parliament by a considerable margin. But the level of popular support was insufficient to bring Hitler to power, and he refused to join any coalition government unless he was made head of it, an intransigent stance that seemed to contribute to a substantial Nazi decline in the November 1932 elections.

    Then a political deadlock and convoluted backroom negotiations gave Hitler coalition partners who were willing to accept his leadership at a moment when the incumbent chancellor, General Kurt von Schleicher, reached an impasse. Schleicher had no prospect of surviving a vote of confidence in the newly elected parliament, and he could hardly gain a breathing spell from still another dissolution of parliament and new elections. His predecessor, Franz von Papen, had already tried that tactic twice without success; it was played out. Schleicher could not govern around the constitution any longer. Shunning a move toward abolition of the constitution and a potential military dictatorship, on January 30, 1933, the aged conservative President Paul von Hindenburg reluctantly appointed Hitler as chancellor (head of government).

    Germany had seen chancellors come and go; coalition governments in the Weimar Republic had lasted on the average only a little more than a year. Some expected the pattern to continue, because the new government, like its predecessors, lacked a parliamentary majority and needed the President's emergency authority to bypass the deadlock in the Reichstag. Hitler, however, had not concealed his intention of abolishing the democratic system. Some voters had undoubtedly backed Nazi candidates for precisely that reason, thinking almost any change would be for the better. They were quite wrong, but it took many of them a decade or more to realize it--those who survived that long.

(Continues...)

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