Between 1939 and 1945 there were 26 stories about the mass murder of Jews in the New York Times. When the British first reported the “greatest known killing” in 1942, it only got a small column on the fifth page and was roundly ignored as a nonstory.’ It seems that people were aware Jews were being killed in large numbers, but no one was really interested or cared very much. People seemed to care about the atrocities committed by the Germans in Belgium in WWI. Was the lack of concern because of anti-semitism?
Knowledge about atrocities was widespread in Allied countries, both in the public and in the governments.
When the Einsatzgruppen in the Soviet Union began mass executing Jews in the wake of the German invasion. It took the Allied governments but one month to intercept, de-crypt and transcribe them. By mid-July 1941, the British government was fully aware of the activity of the Einsatzgruppen, which they reported to Berlin via HF Radio and which the British soon very able to decipher. The Einsatzgruppen Situational Reports USSR as they are known are incredibly frank and open about anti-Jewish policy in both the Reich and the Soviet Union. Take for example the first report the British intercepted. Report No. 101 from October where concerning the massacre at Babi Jar, the Einsatzgruppen report:
Sonderkommando 4a in collaboration with Einsatzgruppe HQ and two Kommandos of police regiment South, executed 33,771 Jews in Kiev on September 29 and 30, 1941.
This is but one of these reports where they openly state that they are killing hundreds of thousands of Jews.
Similarly, the Western Allies were aware of the Operation Reinhard Death Camps when they started operating in 1942. The best example for this is the so-called Höfle Telegram. A precise statistic on how many Jews had been killed in these camps until December 31, 1942, which was encrypted on an Enigma Machine and thus deciphered and intercepted by the British. While British code breakers apparently missed its relevance, the Polish government in Exile and their Commission for the Crimes against the Polish Nation did indeed pick it up in its significance and duly reported to London about it.
The Polish government in Exile did a lot of work to spread the knowledge of these crimes. Going so far as to have members of the Armia Krajowa smuggle out reports from the Auschwitz Concentration Camp. And while it is right that the London government largely dismissed these reports. That was not the result of disbelief necessarily but rather of the official position that it was important to concentrate on winning the war militarily in order to end this rather than focus on this particular plight too much.
That the Allied governments were aware of what was going on is also revealed by their policy surrounding the German occupation of Hungary in 1944. There, for example, a Swedish diplomat, Raoul Wallenberg, handed out 30.000 Swedish passports to Jews in Hungary in order to save them from deportation. With the very precise knowledge that they were going to be killed. Similarly, the British government several times initiated negotiations with some of the Axis countries to save Jewish children by transporting them to Switzerland and Palestine.
As for the public in the US and the UK, they too were aware if not of the fine details, that Germany was killing Jews in large numbers. The New York Times e.g. published an article in 2001 admitting to its own failure to report more prominently on the Holocaust. They wrote:
Why, then, were the terrifying tales almost hidden in the back pages? Like most — though not all — American media, and most of official Washington. The Times drowned its reports about the fate of Jews in the flood of wartime news. Its neglect was far from unique and its reach was not then fully national. But as the premier American source of wartime news, it surely influenced the judgment of other news purveyors.
While a few publications – newspapers like The Post (then liberal) and PM in New York and magazines like The Nation and The New Republic — showed more conspicuous concern. The Times’s coverage generally took the view that the atrocities inflicted upon Europe’s Jews, while horrific, were not significantly different from those visited upon tens of millions of other war victims, nor more noteworthy.
Only once did The Times devote its lead editorial to the subject. That was on Dec. 2, 1942, after the State Department had unofficially confirmed to leading rabbis that two million Jews had already been slain and that five million more were indeed ”in danger of extermination.” Even that editorial, however, retreated quickly from any show of special concern. Insisting in its title that Jews were merely ”The First to Suffer,” it said the same fate awaited ”people of other faiths and of many races,” including ”our own ‘mongrel’ nation” and even Hitler’s allies in Japan if he were to win the war.
Following the less than enthusiastic coverage of this topic, on March 9,1943. Screenwriter and Zionist Ben Hecht staged the play We Will Never Die in Madison Square Garden in front of 40.000 people in order to raise awareness of the plight of European Jews and then further traveled around the US with it, even winning over Frank Sinatra to participate.
In Britain too – though complicated by British media laws – the public was aware of what was going on if they chose to read the newspapers. The Daily Telegraph reported in 1942 about traveling gas chambers. Which given that the Einsatzgruppen did indeed use gas vans is surprisingly accurate. Simon Leader’s 2004 PhD Thesis on the British regional press and the Holocaust (pdf warning) shows that
[British] newspapers were fully aware of the intention to murder all Jews under their control by December 1942. They all reported the events that came to be understood as the Holocaust, (some in extraordinary detail) but the Manchester Guardian stood apart because of the consistency of its coverage
Concerning the expressions of surprise often cited from soldiers liberating camps when they came across them, for the soldiers who liberated these camps, the abstract knowledge of horrible things occurring was something definitely present if they were avid newspaper readers. Seeing it, however, was something completely different. Even Eisenhower who definitely had heard about the intel collected was still completely shocked by what he saw because, once again. Knowing something exists in the abstract is something different than actually beholding it.
Something similar can be applied to Casablanca and other movies e.g. Ernst Lubitsch’s To be or not to be. Also, Casblance was based on an unproduced 1940 play Everybody comes to Rick that was written before the Holocaust started. In the sense that Allied publics were aware to an extent of atrocities but the actual concrete pictures and extent of it came as a major surprise once camps were actually liberated.
And the public did care (somewhat). Gallup writes that:
Americans rarely agree as overwhelmingly as they did in November 1938. Just two weeks after Germany coordinated a brutal nationwide attack against Jews within its own borders. An event known as “Kristallnacht”. Gallup asked Americans: “Do you approve or disapprove of the treatment of Jews in Germany?” Nearly everyone who responded — 94%, indicated that they disapproved.
Yet at the same time:
Yet, even though nearly all Americans condemned the regime’s terror against Jews in November 1938, that very same week, 72% of Americans said “No” when Gallup asked: “Should we allow a larger number of Jewish exiles from Germany to come to the United States to live?” Just 21% said “Yes.”
The anti-refugee sentiment was fueled both by the lingering effects of the economic depression. As well as anti-Semitism being a far more popular sentiment back then. The Gallup article traces 100 new anti-Semitic organizations founded in the U.S. between 1933 and 1941 and a variety of pro-german organizations spewing hatred in public.
Once the war came around, both the British and the US governments followed the line that they didn’t want the war effort to be perceived as being about saving Jews or any other European nationality. Their approach to the war effort centered around their own situation. As to preempt critics of the war who had argued that Britain or the US should not get involved in such a war to save some Poles, Czechs of Jews.
That’s why they did mention German atrocities but tended to even more highlight the struggle of and for Britain. Rather than for other European nations. This was strongly influenced by the above traced sentiment among the electorate. The war had to be about freedom and democracy and the threat to us. Not necessarily to the Poles, Czechs or Jews because that would – in the governement’s reasoning, not be enough to endure the hardships of war by the electorate.
As for the public, another thing that needs to be kept in mind is that the full extent of the Holocaust was – despite the existing press coverage – hard to grasp at the time. While difficult to exactly trace this, portrayals such as that of Band of Brothers. I talk more about this here. Showing a fictionalized version of the surprise felt by the troops ring mostly true with the historical sources.
As stated above, it is very well possible that members of liberating troops had read about atrocities in Europe. But as I wrote above, it is one thing to read about such things in the newspaper backpages, another to come right across them. Both scale and actual devastation caused by the Germans towards their prisoners were still shocking to many Allied troops, even Eisenhower who was certainly aware of the intelligence, was shocked and horrified by what his troops found.
So, in summary: The Allied governments of WWII chose not to highlight the murder of the Jewish and other peoples in Europe too much for fear of their own electorate, which in considerable parts did not believe in helping refugees and immigrants because of xenophobia and anti-Semitism but was also reluctant about going to war for the people of Eastern Europe for similar reasons. Also, while difficult to prove, it is highly likely that despite media coverage both the full extent and the cruelty of the Holocaust was not realized by the public until images and reports after the war emerged and made it to the front page.
Sources (aside those mentioned):
Robert J. Hanyok: Eavesdropping on Hell: Historical Guide to Western Communications Intelligence and the Holocaust, 1939-1945, 2004.
Witte, Peter; Tyas, Stephen (Winter 2001). “A New Document on the Deportation and Murder of Jews during “Einsatz Reinhardt” 1942″. Holocaust and Genocide Studies. Oxford University Press. 15 (3).
Jan-Erik Schulte: London war informiert. KZ-Expansion und Judenverfolgung. Entschlüsselte KZ-Stärkemeldungen vom Januar 1942 bis zum Januar 1943 in den britischen National Archives in Kew (Fundstück), in: Rüdiger Hachtmann u. Winfried Süß (Hrsg.), Hitlers Kommissare. Sondergewalten in der nationalsozialistischen Diktatur, Göttingen 2006 (Beiträge zur Geschichte des Nationalsozialismus, 22), S. 207-227.