Half a century after the end of World War II — one of the most recorded events in history — researchers are uncovering new details about just how much U.S., British and Russian intelligence knew about Nazi operations and the Holocaust.
More than 400,000 pages of declassified documents from the records of the Office of Strategic Services — the predecessor to the CIA — are helping historians at the National Archives understand many events for the first time.
Under the Nazi War Crimes Disclosure Act of 1999, all U.S. government agencies with any documents on possible Nazi war crimes are scouring their files and releasing to the public as much material as possible.
Soon, they may have even more to sift through.
Researchers and historical experts at the National Archives say some of the most interesting details may emerge later this fall, when they hope the CIA will release an additional set of documents.
It is widely expected that the CIA may finally declassify its long awaited files on Adolf Hitler and his SS chief Heinrich Himmler. Those files are expected to contain psychological profiles of both men written at the time by U.S. army doctors for the OSS.
And this week, an American government official announced a development that should make even more World War II-era records available. The official said the United States and Russia had reached an accord on opening archives to help find property looted by the Nazis during World War II.
May Provide Explanations
Scouring through the hundreds of thousands of already-released U.S. documents is taking months, and historians are cautioning there are probably no massive new revelations.
Much of the material may simply add more details to already well-known events.
For example, researchers hope the documents will finally put to rest decades-old rumors that Gestapo chief Heinrich Mueller may have survived the war.
They are also poring over documents detailing a previously known Nazi plan to send Hungarian Jews to the Allies in Istanbul to convey a Nazi offer to trade one million Jews for 10,000 trucks.
So far, many of the released documents are British intelligence transcripts of intercepted SS messages sent via short wave radio back and forth between Rome and Berlin during late 1943. The intercepts were shared by British intelligence with the OSS counter-espionage branch throughout the war.
They may once again raise questions as to how soon the allies knew about the Holocaust.
Holocaust in Italy
The decrypted messages “give a day-to-day, sometimes hour-to-hour evidence of the SS reaction to Italy’s attempt to withdraw from the Axis and the German military occupation of Italy,” write Richard Breitman and Timothy Naftali, two private historians working on the project for the archives.
“In fact, we have a much better picture of how the Holocaust in Italy began,” they add.
In a message from October 1943, Ernst Kaltenbrunner, head of the Reich main security office, warns Herbert Kappler, the German police attache in Rome: “It is precisely the immediate and thorough eradication of the Jews in Italy which is [in] the special interest of the present internal political situation and the general security in Italy.”
Kaltenbrunner then orders Kappler to assist in the detention and deportation of the Jews of Rome.
A few weeks later, Kappler reports back that the Germans have arrested 1,259 Jews in Rome but that the Italian police were “unreliable” in helping the Germans and the Italian public was engaging in passive resistance.
Reuters contributed to this report.