Auschwitz and the British

When did the British government know of the true role of Auschwitz-Birkenau in the ‘Final Solution’?

"Selection" of Hungarian Jews on the ramp at Auschwitz-II-Birkenau in German-occupied Poland, May/June 1944, during the final phase of the Holocaust. Jews were sent either to work or to the gas chamber.
Hungarian Jews divided on the ramp at Auschwitz-II-Birkenau in German-occupied Poland, May or June 1944, during the final phase of the Holocaust. They were sent either to work or to the gas chamber. From the Yad Vashem Auschwitz Album.

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 1942-43 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 eye-witness accounts of Polish women’s experiences in Birkenau from autumn 1943 to spring 1944. This begs the question of why news should have ceased when atrocities against Jews peaked.

The most significant document, however, which proves unequivocally that the British government had full knowledge of the exterminations of Jewry at Auschwitz-Birkenau was a recently released memorandum, submitted to President Roosevelt on December 8th, 1942, from Rabbi Perlzweig and Jewish organisations, which was received by the Foreign Office. The report, a twenty-page appraisal of the perilous situation of Europe’s Jews, stated that Hitler’s annihilation programme had begun and that almost two million Jews of Nazi Europe had been exterminated through mass murder, starvation, deportation, slave labour and epidemics in ghettos, penal labour colonies and slave reservations created for their destruction. The report stated that ‘five million Jews inside Nazi-occupied territory are threatened with total extermination under the terms of an official order by Hitler calling for the complete annihilation of the Jews of Europe’.

The report went on to relate that thousands of Jews in Austria, Poland and Belgium had been exterminated, as had deported Jews from all across Europe, and that ‘resettlement in the east’ was a euphemism for mass murder. It added:

‘Centres have been established in various parts of Eastern Europe for the scientific and cold blooded mass murder of Jews. Polish Christian workers, eye-witnesses, have confirmed reports that concrete buildings, on the former Russian frontiers, are used by the Germans as gas chambers in which thousands of Jews have been put to death’. [Reports of] ‘the slaughter of trainloads of Jewish adults and children in great crematoriums at Ozwiecim [Auschwitz] near Cracow is confirmed by eye-witnesses’.

Auschwitz was not mentioned until page eleven of the report, which implies that this was not a revelation. The report also gave an accurate account of other well-known methods of extermination and stated that the latest reported method for the scientific and low cost extermination of Jews was the injection of air bubbles into the veins. ‘German physicians have found it possible to murder 100 Jews per hour by this method’.

Why then was information on Auschwitz-Birkenau suppressed during the war? News on war crimes was kept from the public, thanks to Foreign Office sensitivity about press comments and out of concern that nothing should impede the war effort, whether by injuring foreign relations, shaking confidence in governments, or disrupting national unity. The plight of Jewry was considered low priority and subordinate to news concerning the war effort. The military took priority over the political in wartime. The government’s imperative was to win the war which, it maintained, was the only way of aiding Europe’s Jews. Information was also withheld to protect sources of information; to prevent further reprisals on the victims; to avert criticism of the government’s inaction and forestall pressure to permit refugees access to Palestine; and, as Britain was threatened with imminent invasion, to prevent panic.

That was then, but why is information on Intelligence files concerning the Holocaust still embargoed for several years to come?


Barbara Rogers is a doctoral student at the University of Aberystwyth where, under the supervision of William Rubenstein, she is researching British perceptions of the suffering of European nationalities during the Second World War, placing reception of news about the ‘Final Solution’ in context.