A review of Dan Plesch, Human Rights After Hitler: The Lost History of Prosecuting Axis War Crimes (Georgetown University Press, 2017), £23.
The international tribunal in Nuremberg brought some of the leading Nazis responsible for the Holocaust before military courts. These trials, held in 1945, are well known. But proceedings were also brought against thousands of other Nazis—including Adolf Hitler—for war crimes.
This is what Dan Plesch has uncovered from an examination of the documents—suppressed until 2014—that make up the archives of the United Nations War Crime Commission (UNWCC). In this important book Plesch shows conclusively that it was simply not the case that governments did not know the full horror of the Holocaust until the end of the war.
The UNWCC was set up in 1942 in an agreement between 17 of the Allied nations, including the United States. Its archive consists of 8,000 dossiers of specific war crimes charges that were brought against 36,000 people and units. These are officially examined, endorsed and recorded statements written during and shortly after the war.
The gruesome details turn the stomach. The first of the death camps was erected in 1939 in Lublin, Poland. By early 1942 the first reports leaked out that special electrical installations were used there “for a quick mass killing of the Jews”. For their part in running this concentration camp charges were brought against 17 named Nazis. Other European states also brought prosecutions against named Nazis for their part in the extermination of the Jews. A US State Department report released in December 1942 stated that two million Jews had been killed or deported and a further five million were “in danger of extermination”.
So what happened to all the Nazis who were charged? In 1949 American intelligence officials “classified” the entire UNWCC archive. Without the evidence in the files, war crime charges could no longer be pursued: “US diplomatic and intelligence organisations unilaterally declared the archive closed even to government prosecutors despite the opposition of the commission’s chair and representatives of other states”.
Plesch explains the reasons why all the charges against the Nazis were dropped. US and British policy makers curtailed prosecutions of Nazis, as “some of them would be needed to rebuild Germany after the war”. In one chapter titled “Liberating the Nazis” Plesch shows how thousands of Nazis charged as war criminals were set free. For US president Harry Truman by 1949 “anti-communism was the priority over holding the Nazis to account for their crimes”.
The Allies all condemned the Holocaust—while it was taking place. As early as the summer of 1942 the Polish government in London accused the Nazis of mass killings with gas. In response to these barbarities there developed a “multi-national condemnation of the fact that Hitler was implementing a program to exterminate the Jewish population in Europe”. On 20 December 1942 foreign secretary Anthony Eden read out a declaration in the House of Commons drawn up jointly with the US and Russia that condemned “the carrying into effect Hitler’s oft-repeated intention to exterminate the Jewish people in Europe”. Parliament stood in silence in respect of the dead and the BBC broadcast the declaration in more than 20 languages. The reality of what the Nazis were doing was public knowledge.
But, despite the condemnation, saving people from the Nazis was not a war aim, and after the war prosecuting Nazis was dropped as a priority. In the US key SS men convicted of mass murder and sentenced to death walked free after spending just a few years in prison.
The archive shows that charges of torture were brought in thousands of cases. Included are charges brought by the US against Japanese soldiers over prisoner abuse and “water treatment”—partial drowning—now known as water boarding. These practices were considered as “war crimes” when the victims were American soldiers in the Second World War.
Not all American leaders fully supported the setting up of international courts to try people for crimes of terror and murder. In early 1944 the US Secretary of State for War, Henry Stimson, declared opposition to international courts that have jurisdiction in other countries, as “the United States would open itself to international prosecutions of those who conducted lynching…and that can not be permitted”. The so-called “right to lynch” in the US needed defending.
This was not just a theoretical question; the end of lynching was a prime concern of the civil rights movement of the 1940s. African American civil rights activists campaigned under the “Double V” slogan: “Victory over aggression, slavery, and tyranny” abroad, and victory “for coloured Americans over those who perpetrate these ugly prejudices” within.
Plesch believes that lessons about human rights today can be learnt from an examination of the UNWCC archive. He warns that the “international community” today must not be reluctant—as they were in the 1940s—to bring those guilty of “international crimes” to face justice. He names just two presidents who should be facing war crimes charges today: Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir, and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. However, it is clear from Plesch’s own research that it is the biggest world powers who decide who faces war crimes charges and when such charges are dropped. They act in pursuit of their own interests, not in defence of people and human rights.
With so few survivors of the Holocaust alive today to give testimony the detailed accounts contained within the UNWCC archives should be heard widely in order to counter those who still deny the horrors of the Holocaust. For every opponent of fascism this book is an essential read.
Mark Krantz’s most recent publication is The Cotton Famine: Lancashire Textile Workers and the American Civil War (2017). He is a long-standing member of Manchester SWP.