Auschwitz and the British

By Rogers, Barbara | History Today, October 1999 | Go to article overview

Auschwitz and the British


Rogers, Barbara, History Today


WHEN DID THE BRITISH GOVERNMENT know of the true role of Auschwitz-Birkenau in the `Final Solution'? Surprisingly few historians have tackled this question. One reason for this is that research is impeded by the government's continuing bar on access to Intelligence files. This issue has been the subject of much conjecture. Until now, no document has been unearthed which could prove that the British Government knew that Auschwitz-Birkenau was being used in the `Final Solution' prior to June 1944. My research of Foreign Office files and of the periodical the Polish Fortnightly Review at the Polish Library, has revealed beyond question that the British government knew of the grisly role that Auschwitz-Birkenau played in the Holocaust by December 1942, the month that Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden declared in Parliament that the planned systematic extermination of Europe's Jews was being executed by the Nazis.

Auschwitz operated as three camps in one: a concentration camp originally built for Poles in May 1940, which had a crematorium; a slave-labour complex; and a killing centre mainly for Jews (Birkenau or Auschwitz II). Historians have established that throughout 194243 atrocity information on Jews was relayed by the Polish Underground and the Home Army to the Polish government-in-exile based in London, but have been unable to prove that it was forwarded to the British Government. Past historiography concluded that the Allied governments first learnt of Auschwitz-Birkenau's horrific function in June 1944, when the Vrba/ Wetzler report (named after two Slovak Jewish Birkenau escapees) reached the West. However, new evidence proves otherwise.

The Polish Fortnightly Review, produced by the Polish Ministry of Information, operating under the aegis of Brendan Bracken, Britain's minister of information, assisted in establishing government knowledge regarding Auschwitz-Birkenau, as the government vetted and approved material for publication in Britain. When in May 1942, Auschwitz began its gruesome role, news quickly began to filter out. It is evident from Bracken's booklet published on June 9th, 1942, entitled Bestiality Unknown in any Previous Record of History, that such news reached the British government. This was also reported in the Polish Fortnightly Review dated July 1st, 1942. The information is significant as Birkenau, although unnamed, was described as an `additional camp nearby' Auschwitz, nicknamed `Paradisal' because `from it there is only one road leading to paradise', which had a crematorium `five times as large as the one in the main camp'. Further, the report declared that `poisoned gas' had been used on prisoners along with other experiments.

However, there was no reference to Jews, due to the ruling by the Ministry of Information's Planning Committee on July 25th, 1941, that propaganda should not deal with Jews.

On July 15th, 1942, the Polish Fortnightly Review reported on a press conference chaired by Brendan Bracken at the Ministry of Information on July 9th. This is significant as either Bracken defied the ruling which forbade mentioning Jews, or the extermination of Jewry was no longer considered propaganda, as he declared that 700,000 Jews had been murdered in Poland, which was the `beginning of wholesale extermination of the Jews'.

It is notable that no editions of the Polish Fortnightly Review mention Auschwitz-Birkenau after August 1942 until May 1st, 1945, as the war ended, when a whole edition was devoted to reporting eyewitness accounts of Polish women's experiences in Birkenau from autumn 1943 to spring 1944. …

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