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Review of Richard Breitman’s “Official Secrets: What the Nazis Planned, What the British and the Americans Knew”

October 23, 2011

Richard Breitman, Official Secrets: What the Nazis Planned, What the British and Americans Knew (New York: Hill and Wang, 1998).

This review, in particular, is both challenging and frustrating for me to write. Not only is it difficult for me to address all the details Richard Breitman’s Official Secrets that I find noteworthy, but I also simply do not have the time at this stage of the semester to closely investigate his sources and findings in a way that is remotely satisfying to me. As many of my peers are aware, my research into corporate culpability in the Holocaust is related to what Dr. Breitman has presented here and has a direct effect on the future implications of my work.

But allow me to back up – what, exactly, is presented in Official Secrets? Breitman utilizes recently declassified documentary evidence on the German Order Police’s involvement in the Holocaust via messages intercepted and decoded by British intelligence between 1939 and 1941. In the process of investigating these sources, he isolates three major controversies: The degree of official Nazi planning and improvisation, the attitudes and participation of ordinary Germans in the Holocaust, and the Western Allies’ knowledge of and reaction to the killings. The first two controversies are related and are central to the historiography of the Holocaust, which I will detail in a moment; but the third is also tantalizing. With several critical caveats, Breitman notes that British and American officials could not know more than the Nazi officials themselves, had reason for skepticism after the fiasco of faked German “atrocity” stories during World War I, and had a certain level of distraction with World War II itself – all of which contributed to inaction in light of the intercepted information about the unfolding genocide. Nevertheless, Breitman demonstrates that British and American officials not only had more information about the mass killings than was previously known, but also failed to utilize this information to prosecute former Nazis after the war.

As someone who was raised Jewish, the Shoah (Holocaust) is an intensely personal subject to me. Before I was familiar with the historiography, I found it easy to judge the Nazis, particularly high officials from Hitler on down, for their responsibility in perpetrating the genocide against the Jews; however, once I ventured into the world of Holocaust scholarship, I realized that there were profound disagreements between scholars about where responsibility lay. Without getting into too much detail, the major debate centers around two groups: The “functionalists,” who argue that Nazi officials were not in control of the day to day perpetration of the Holocaust and left the job to subordinates, who jockeyed for power, continually taking more extreme interpretations of anti-Semitic policy, and the “intentionalists,” who contend that Hitler and his inner circle were explicit in their intentions for mass murder of Jewish populations.[1] I personally became sympathetic to historians who attempted to synthesize the two groups,  such as Hans Mommsen, who argued that Nazi regime was a chaotic mess of competing bureaucracies, which I found useful in explaining the phenomenon of innocuous yet extensive penetration by U.S. corporations seeking profits within Nazi Germany.[2]

On the surface, I see Official Secrets taking the intentionalist position, but Breitman’s qualifiers, which come out in the course of his study, suggest a more synthetic approach. He notes that there was a significant gap between the willingness to commit genocide on the part of Nazi officials versus the German police and military. Critically, he also underlines the importance of orders, deception and secrecy in handling the opinion of the German public’s reaction to the unfolding Holocaust. Although the implications of his work are still sinking in for me, I find his moderated intentionalist leanings compelling.

I do have one minor criticism worth mentioning. Breitman isolates Allen Dulles as an example of how governments might react to knowledge of mass killings. He notes that Dulles passed on information about the deportation of Hungarian Jews to Poland to murder them in the camps to Washington and London to “publicize this fact in radio broadcasts, warning that those who planned or carried out the deportations would be included as war criminals” (232). I take issue with this statement based on my own research. I find it difficult to believe that Dulles was naïve about killings when he also worked for the law firm that represented IBM, who organized the deportations, the BIS which helped pay for them, and IG Farben, which often carried out the killings and/or produced the lethal chemicals for such purposes. Additionally, Dulles purposefully sheltered the infamous Nazi, General Karl Wolff, who personally oversaw the shootings of thousands of Jews, from war crimes trials.[3]

Due to my research interests, I found the implications in the epilogue of Official Secrets tremendously interesting and illuminating. Breitman has the understandably harsh historians’ indignation about the continued withholding of classified documents related to the Holocaust. He states, “Governments that withhold critical information from the historical record and the public long after the events do their countries and the world no service…No democratic politician or official can in the end control future assessments of him or her by historians, but the longer critical sources are kept secret, the longer such control is possible” (246). Without delving into conspiracy theory, the connections I have laid out above may be a possible reason why so many documents from the World War II era continue to be withheld by the U.S. government. We are lucky to have a scholar with such a keen sense and even temper to continue to explore these issues.

[1] For a concise explanation see also Michael Marrus, The Holocaust In History (Toronto: Key Porter, 2000), 42. A prominent example of the “functionalist” school is represented in Götz Aly, Architects of Annihilation: Auschwitz and the logic of destruction (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002). Likewise, an example of the “intentionalist” school can be found in Daniel Goldhagen, Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and The Holocaust (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996).

[2] Hans Mommsen, translated by Phillip O’Connor, From Weimar to Auschwitz (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1991).

[3] Jason Weixelbaum, “Following the Money: An Exploration of the Relationship between American Finance and Nazi Germany” See also “The Contradiction of Neutrality and International Finance: The Presidency of Thomas H. McKittrick at the Bank for International Settlements in Basle, Switzerland 1940-46”

  1. The more I read makes me feel more sure that Adolph Hitler will some day be awarded with the “Greatest Patsy of All Time Medal”. I am not a historian but to blame WW II on one guy, even if he was a complete bastard seems like a stretch! All those people making heaps of money! The ones who subsequently disappeared into the woodwork! I like this blog! Thanks.

    • jasonweixelbaum permalink

      Thank you for checking out my work! I appreciate your comments.

      One observation: Patsy is not the word I would choose. My argument is that a madman like Hitler is most lethal when he is enabled by transnational corporations with enormous resources at their disposal. Nevertheless, Hitler was undoubtedly one of the most destructive personalities of the twentieth century. He deserves his status as a symbol of unmitigated evil.

      But we should know the whole story. And those that make money off of war and genocide deserve blame as well. There are ample shares when it comes to World War II and the Holocaust.



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