Notices to the US State Department Regarding Nazi Plans to Eliminate Jews Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In 1942, a German industrialist with ties to the Nazi hierarchy learned of Nazi plans to exterminate the Jews of Europe. That July, he leaked the information to a Swiss businessman who informed a journalist. He in turn relayed the news to Gerhart M. Riegner, director of the World Jewish Congress (WJC) in Geneva. Riegner then alerted the diplomatic offices of Britain and the United States. Riegner hoped that news of Nazi plans would motivate the Allied leaders to take direct action to rescue the victims of Nazi atrocities and to stop Nazi plans for genocide. They did not know that by that time, the mass deportation and killing of Jews was already under way.

Summary Overview

In 1942, a German industrialist with ties to the Nazi hierarchy learned of Nazi plans to exterminate the Jews of Europe. That July, he leaked the information to a Swiss businessman who informed a journalist. He in turn relayed the news to Gerhart M. Riegner, director of the World Jewish Congress (WJC) in Geneva. Riegner then alerted the diplomatic offices of Britain and the United States. Riegner hoped that news of Nazi plans would motivate the Allied leaders to take direct action to rescue the victims of Nazi atrocities and to stop Nazi plans for genocide. They did not know that by that time, the mass deportation and killing of Jews was already under way.

On August 10, 1942, American vice consul Howard Elting Jr. sent a copy of the memorandum he wrote based on his conversation with Riegner to Leland Harrison, the American envoy in Switzerland. The following day, Harrison forwarded his opinion on the memorandum along with the original document to the US State Department.

Defining Moment

In 1942, World War II raged across Europe and the globe. Nazi forces, under the leadership of Adolf Hitler, had conquered large swaths of land, from France to Norway to Poland. As the Nazi military machine rolled across Europe, it deported European Jews to thousands of concentration and forced labor camps and, the world would soon learn, death camps. Since Hitler's and the Nazis' rise to power in 1933, the Third Reich had launched a relentless regime of systemized persecution of Jewish people and others deemed to be “enemies of the state” or “undesirable.”

The Nazi advance through Europe was swift, and it came at a time when the United States had settled into a nativist and isolationist mood. Following World War I and later with the onset of the Great Depression, Congress had set strict immigration quotas, and the United States was not alone in this stance. As persecution against the Jews mounted, many Jews sought to flee Germany and neighboring lands, only to find that they had nowhere to go. Most nations refused them refuge or, like the United States, accepted only a small number of those trying to immigrate. Despite reports of Nazi violence against Jews, the United States did not relax quotas to admit more Jews during the 1930s. After Germany annexed Austria in March 1938, leaders of several nations met at the Évian Conference that July to discuss a remedy for the Jewish refugee problem. However, little was done. Immigration to the United States increased slightly but only briefly, and just as the United States joined the war and the death camps began to operate, immigration dropped.

The first death camp, Chełmno, opened in Poland in 1941. There, the Nazis began the mass execution of Jews through the use of mobile gassing vans. In the next two years, five more death camps would begin gassing thousands of Jews a day and burning or burying their remains. Despite Nazi attempts to hide the extermination of the Jews, news leaked through those who escaped, those who worked in the camps, and other observers. In July 1942, the New York Times printed a story on the killings at Chełmno as reported by the Polish underground resistance. Among those who informed on Nazi plans for genocide was Eduard Reinhold Karl Schulte, a prominent German businessman with ties to the Nazi elite who passed the information onto Isidor Koppelman in Zurich, Switzerland. Koppelman communicated what he had learned to Benjamin Sagalowitz, a journalist for the Swiss Jewish Press Agency; on July 29, 1942, Sagalowitz passed on the information to Riegner. Riegner took the information along with reports from Europe confirming massive deportations of Jews across Europe to the American and British consulates. He spoke personally to Vice Consul Elting, requesting that the report be sent to the State Department in Washington and to Rabbi Stephen B. Wise, WJC president, in New York. At the same time, Riegner asked the British consulate to forward the information to MP Samuel Sydney Silverman in London. He hoped that the information would reach not only Allied leaders but also Rabbi Wise, by one or both means.

Author Biography

Howard Elting Jr. was born in 1908, grew up in Chicago, and studied at Exeter Academy and Princeton University before joining the US Foreign Service. He would work in the diplomatic corps for thirty years and was serving as the vice consul of the American embassy in Geneva in 1942. As vice consul, Elting was subordinate to envoy Leland Harrison. He died in 2001.

Born in New York City on April 25, 1883, Leland Harrison would go on to make a life of diplomatic service. After graduating from Harvard Law School, Harrison served in a number of diplomatic posts around the world, from Tokyo to Peking (present-day Beijing) to London to Bogotá. He later served as assistant secretary of state in various capacities from 1922 to 1927. At that time, he resumed his diplomatic career in the Foreign Service and, following several posts, became envoy and minister to Switzerland in 1937. He remained there for the duration of World War II and left that position in 1947. He died in 1951.

Historical Document

TELEGRAM RECEIVED

MEC

This telegram must be closely paraphrased

before being communicated to anyone. (SC)

FROM

Bern

Dated August 11, 1942

Rec'd 2:35 p.m.

Secretary of State,

Washington

3697, August 11, 3 p.m.

STRICTLY CONFIDENTIAL.

Gerhardt M. Riegner Secretary World Jewish Congress Geneva called on Vice Consul Elting Geneva Saturday eighth greatly agitated and requested following quoted message be transmitted for information American and other Allied Governments and be notified in Department's discretion to Dr Stephen Wise New York City:

“Informer reported to have close connections with highest German authorities who has previously generally reliable reports says that in Fuehrer's [sic] headquarters plan under consideration to exterminate at one blow this fall three and half to four millions Jews following deportation from countries occupied, controlled by Germany and concentration in east. Method execution undecided but prussic acid has been considered. Information transmitted with reservation as exactitude cannot be ascertained.”

Confidential Legation

CONFIDENTIAL Legation note: Legation has no information which would tend to confirm this report which is however forwarded in accordance with Riegner's wishes. In conversation with Elting Riegner drew attention to recently reported Jewish deportations eastward from occupied France, protectorate and probably elsewhere. The report has earmarks of war rumor inspired by fear and what is commonly understood to be the actually miserable condition of these refugees who face decimation as result physical maltreatment persecution and scarcely endurable privations malnutrition and disease.

HARRISON

AMERICAN CONSULATE

Geneva, Switzerland, August 10, 1942

STRICTLY CONFIDENTIAL

Subject: Transmitting Memorandum of Conversation with Secretary of Jewish Congress, Geneva, concerning Report that Germans are Considering Wholesale Extermination of Jews.

THE HONORABLE SECRETARY OF STATE, WASHINGTON.

Sir:

At the suggestion of the Legation at Bern, I have the honor to enclose a copy of a memorandum in the above entitled matter.

I desire to reiterate my belief in the utter seriousness of my informant.

Respectfully yours,

Howard Elting, Jr.

American Vice Consul

Enclosure:

Copy of memorandum, as stated.

MEMORANDUM

Subject: Conversation with Mr. Gerhart M. RIEGNER, Secretary of World Jewish Congress

This morning Mr. Gerhart M. RIEGNER, Secretary of the World Jewish Congress in Geneva, called in great agitation. He stated that he had just received a report from a German business man of considerable prominence, who is said to have excellent political and military connections in Germany and from whom reliable and important political information has been obtained on two previous occasions, to the effect that there has been and is being considered in Hitler's headquarters a plan to exterminate all Jews from Germany and German controlled areas in Europe after they have been concentrated in the east (presumably Poland). The number involved is said to be between three-and-a-half and four millions and the object is to permanently settle the Jewish question in Europe. The mass execution if decided upon would allegedly take place this fall.

Riegner stated that according to his informant the use of prussic acid was mentioned as a means of accomplishing the executions. When I mentioned that this report seemed fantastic to me, Riegner said that it struck him in the same way but that from the fact that mass deportation had been taking place since July 16 as confirmed by reports received by him from Paris, Holland, Berlin, Vienna, and Prague it was always conceivable that such a diabolical plan was actually being considered by Hitler as a corollary.

According to Riegner, 14,000 Jews have already been deported from occupied France and 10,000 more are to be handed over from occupied France in the course of the next few days. Similarly from German sources 56,000 Jews have already been deported from the Protectorate together with unspecified numbers from Germany and other occupied countries.

Riegner said this report was so serious and alarming that he felt it his duty to make the following requests:

(1) that the American and other Allied Governments be informed with regard thereto at once;

(2) that they be asked to try by every means to obtain confirmation or denial;

(3) that Dr. Stephen Wise, the president of his organization, be informed of the report.

I told Riegner that the information would be passed on to the Legation at once but that I was not in a position to inform him as to what action, if any, the Legation might take. He hoped that he might be informed in due course that the information had been transmitted to Washington.

For what it is worth, my personal opinion is that Riegner is a serious and balanced individual and that he would never have come to the Consulate with the above report if he had not had confidence in his informant's reliability and if he did not seriously consider that the report might well contain an element of truth. Again it is my opinion that the report should be passed on to the Department for what it is worth.

There is attached a draft of a telegram prepared by Riegner giving in his own words a telegraphic summary of his statements to me.

Howard Elting, Jr.

American Vice Consul

American Consulate

Geneva, Switzerland

Document Analysis

In 1939, in a speech to the Reichstag, Hitler had promised that if war broke out in Europe, it would result in “the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe.” Evidence was mounting that the Führer had meant his words, but Allied leaders and the world did not believe the rhetoric.

This document comprises a memo embedded in a telegram. The memo originates from Vice Consul Elting, who wrote the document as a summary of his conversation with Gerhart Riegner, which took place August 8, 1942. Elting then transmitted the memo to his superior, Harrison, to convey to the State Department in Washington. In the memo, Elting reports that Riegner had received word from a German businessman, “from whom reliable and important political information has been obtained on two previous occasions,” that the Nazis were considering “a plan to exterminate all Jews from Germany and German controlled areas in Europe.” Elting admits that he considered the report “fantastic” but goes on to explain that Riegner substantiated the information by citing the mass deportations of Jews already taking place—14,000 from France, with 10,000 more due to be deported, and at least 56,000 from the Protectorate. Elting explains that Riegner desired that the information be passed on to Allied leaders to investigate the claims, and to Rabbi Wise. In conclusion, Elting advises that the report be relayed to the State Department. Though Elting was amazed by the information, he believed that Riegner brought it forward in good faith, and moreover, he believed that Riegner considered his own source—later disclosed as Schulte—to be reliable. Elting asserts this belief in his cover letter, dated August 10, when he passed on the memo.

The following day, Harrison sent a telegram to the US State Department with Elting's memo and message enclosed. Harrison and Elting clearly considered the message to be of great importance—and potentially volatile—as they both marked their telegrams “strictly confidential,” and Harrison's led with the notation, “This telegram must be closely paraphrased before being communicated to anyone. (SC).” Harrison adds his own confidential note in which he communicates his doubts regarding the enclosed information: “The report has earmarks of war rumor inspired by fear.” Harrison dismisses the information as an exaggeration of the true suffering of refugees as a result of “physical maltreatment persecution and scarcely endurable privations malnutrition and disease.” The suggestion is that the Jews and other peoples of Europe are admittedly suffering but that Harrison doubts the existence of any deliberate plan for mass extermination of the Jews. This reasoning plays into the predisposition of Allied leaders to deny the mounting evidence for genocide as a cause that might justify assistance to Jewish populations in Europe by relaxing immigration restrictions and by taking direct action to liberate victims of Nazi camps.

Essential Themes

Riegner communicated the knowledge given him by Schulte in two ways: American and British consular channels. The information relayed in these documents became tied up in the State Department for three months, and was not authorized to be passed on to Rabbi Wise for fear of the public response. However, British parliamentarian and WJC official Sydney Silverman did send a cable to Rabbi Wise on August 29, 1942, in which he communicated Riegner's information. At the same time, American and British leaders were receiving other disturbing reports about the Jewish deportations and about death camps operating in Poland. Ultimately, the US State Department investigated and confirmed the Nazi plan for extermination of the Jews; in November, Wise held a press conference disclosing the news to the public.

The pivotal theme behind this document is the evidence it offers regarding what the Allied leaders knew, when they knew it, and how they responded. Specifically, it demonstrates the ongoing Allied resistance to believing the full intentions of Hitler's onslaught in Europe as well as to risking direct action to stop the Nazi campaign against Jews in particular. From 1933 to 1945, the United States extended asylum to only about two hundred thousand Jews. More than six million would die at the hands of the Nazis, most of them in the death camps from 1941 to 1943. Even once the information in this document was confirmed, the Allied response was to issue a declaration condemning Nazi policy for extermination. To Riegner's and others' great disappointment, the Allies did not provide specific or immediate aid to the victims of that policy, nor would they for the remainder of the war.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Breitman, Richard, Official Secrets: What the Nazis Planned, What the British and Americans Knew. New York: Hill, 1998. Print.
  • Hamerow, Theodore S. Why We Watched: Europe, America, and the Holocaust. New York: Norton, 2008. Print.
  • Kershaw, Ian. Hitler, the Germans, and the Final Solution. New Haven: Yale UP, 2008. Print.
  • Neufeld, Michael J., and Michael Berenbaum, eds. The Bombing of Auschwitz: Should the Allies Have Attempted It? New York: St. Martin's, 2000. Print.
  • Roseman, Mark. The Wannsee Conference and the Final Solution: A Reconsideration. New York: Metropolitan, 2002. Print.
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