(W)Archives: Ike’s Foresight — Publicizing the Concentration Camps
Tuesday, Jan. 27 was the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. That infamous site and the other major death camps such as Treblinka and Sobibor were mostly in Poland, territory overrun by the Soviets as German defenses collapsed. For most of Eastern Europe, “liberation” by the Soviet Army turned out to be a sick joke, but even Stalinist brutality was an improvement on the hell on earth that prevailed in these camps.
One measure of the horror of the death camps is that they were far worse than the Nazi concentration camps liberated by the Western allies such as Buchenwald, Dachau and Bergen-Belsen. Yet even these were so awful that hardened Western soldiers were unable to find words to describe what they found at the camps. Before the liberation, signals intelligence, the testimony of refugees and other sources had given Allied officials privy to intelligence materials some sense of the Holocaust. This understanding was, however, fragmentary and purely abstract. Few if any officials had a visceral understanding of what was happening.
This week’s documents help illustrate the period in which that visceral understanding started to come about in the West. They are contained in a collection of materials curated by the National Archives and Records Administration entitled “Publicizing the Horrors of the Concentration Camps, April-June 1945.” They include an April 1945 Top Secret telegram from General Dwight Eisenhower to U.S. Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall, which reported of the camps his armies had come across that “whatever has been printed on them to date has been understatement.” Elsewhere in the collection, Eisenhower reports that what he saw at one camp left him a “bit sick” and that presented with an opportunity to enter a room which contained “twenty or thirty naked men, killed by starvation, George Patton would not even enter. He said he would get sick if he did so.”
Eisenhower knew that images of this horror must get out and that as many people as possible should see these camps in person. He did not want anybody to be able to claim in the future that the stories were exaggerated propaganda. He offered to facilitate visits of congressmen and journalists to “these places where the evidence of bestiality and cruelty is…overpowering.” He also arranged for many other visitors, particularly including Germans, to visit the sites. The mayor of the town of Gotha committed suicide after seeing what his fellow Germans had done.
These actions helped ensure that before long everyone knew about the Holocaust and only the willfully stupid could ignore it. The repercussions of the Holocaust and the measures to publicize it that began with Eisenhower would have profound impacts on international law, German strategic culture, European speech laws, the state of Israel, and many other elements of today’s international scene. Eisenhower was often mocked as a simpleton by his British allies and later by his American political opponents. However, his treatment of the concentration camps is actually a sign of an excellent strategic mind, one which was able to think far beyond purely military matters.
Mark Stout is a Senior Editor at War on the Rocks. He is the Director of the MA Program in Global Security Studies and the Graduate Certificate Program in Intelligence at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Arts and Sciences in Washington, D.C.