Secret Recordings Reveal Hitler’s Generals Knew of the Holocaust
For decades after World War II, the German army seemed to get a pass on the Holocaust. At Nuremberg, high-ranking generals insisted they never knew what was happening in the concentration camps. The SS was responsible for the Final Solution, they insisted. Historians called it “the legend of the unblemished Wehrmacht.” They were skeptical, but it was difficult to prove otherwise.
Not anymore. In a remarkable book published this fall, German historian Sönke Neitzel reveals secret transcripts of conversations between dozens of German generals that make clear just how much they knew about atrocities being committed in the east—and just how many of them were directly involved. Neitzel’s book, Tapping Hitler’s Generals: Transcripts of Secret Conversations, 1942–1945, relies on a massive operation by the British Secret Intelligence Service, which secretly recorded the conversations of eighty-six high-ranking German officers being held during the war at an interrogation center called Trent Park, fifteen miles north of London. The generals were notoriously tightlipped during interrogation, but when they thought they were alone, they spoke candidly about their views on the war, Hitler, and, most disturbingly, the war crimes they’d seen and committed at the front. Neitzel includes the transcripts of 167 of these conversations, which were declassified in 1996. They reveal that even “good Germans” like Gen. Dietrich von Choltitz—who was sent to Trent Park after defying Hitler’s order to destroy Paris—knew far more about the dark secrets of World War II than they ever let on.
Almost all of the generals at Trent Park had some firsthand knowledge of the atrocities. Several described mass shootings of Jews at Riga and Dünaburg, and many had seen the executions of Russian POWs. Five generals said they’d seen death camps equipped with gas chambers. “The trouble is that unfortunately it is nearly all true,” Gen. Georg Neuffer, a veteran of the eastern front, told another officer. “The Russians haven’t reached the spot yet where those largescale mass murders took place…Katyn was child’s play in comparison….But things are always like that with us; sheer mass murder.”
Even von Choltitz, who was lauded after the war for his decision not to burn Paris, admitted his hands weren’t clean. On August 29, 1944, he confessed to another officer that he had overseen the execution of an unmentioned number of Jews, something historians have never suspected. “The worst job I ever carried out—which however I carried out with great consistency—was the liquidation of the Jews,” he said. “I carried out this order down to the very last detail.” Von Choltitz didn’t say where this took place, but Neutzel suspects it was in the Crimea. “I feel extremely ashamed,” von Choltitz told a colleague later. “Perhaps we are much more guilty than that uneducated beast, who knew nothing else in his whole life.”
Gen. Gerhard Fischer, who was Wehrmacht Kommandant in Koblenz in 1945, echoed the sentiment: “We have behaved like savages, not like civilized people.” And Gen. Johannes Bruhn, an artillery commander who was awarded the Knight’s Cross, told another officer, “If you were to ask me: ‘Have we deserved victory or not?’ I should say: ‘No, not after what we’ve done.’”
Even though some of these same generals denied it at Nuremberg, the transcripts leave little doubt that nearly all them were aware of what was happening in the death camps. “Everybody knew that dreadful things happened in them—not exactly what, but just that dreadful things happened—every one of us knew that as far back as ’35,” said Gen. Karl Wilhelm von Schlieben, the commanding officer of the Cherbourg fortifications during the Normandy landings. At the very least, the generals had a sense of the Holocaust’s scope. After listening to a BBC broadcast in 1943 about the number of Jews being slaughtered in the east, Neuffer casually remarked, “I should have thought about three million.” As Lt. Col. Otto Klenk, who fought at Stalingrad, put it: “A world order exists and we have sinned against it.”
Japanese Mass Graves Located on U.S. Island
It was the only major military action on North American soil during World War II, and it resulted in a higher percentage of American casualties than any battle but Iwo Jima. But the Battle of Attu, an eighteen-day struggle between American and Japanese forces on a small island in Alaska’s Aleutian chain, has been largely overlooked by history. The War Department kept mum about it during the war, fearing news that enemy soldiers were on American soil would hurt morale.
Attu finally got the attention it deserves last summer, when a small Department of Defense team, along with a Japanese delegation, was sent to the mountainous island to find the mass graves where more than two thousand Japanese soldiers— almost the entire garrison of the island—were buried after the battle. Four gravesites were located, and the Japanese government plans to send a recovery team to bring its fallen soldiers back to Japan.
The Battle of Attu saw some of the war’s most ferocious fighting—and had many of the hallmarks of the better-known island bloodbaths to come. The Japanese occupied the island in 1942 as part of the Midway operation. A year later, on the heels of the American victory at Guadalcanal, fifteen thousand troops landed on the island to take it back. The Japanese didn’t try to defend Attu’s many beaches, waiting instead for the Americans to advance into mountains laced with pillboxes and machine guns. The Americans suffered more than 3,800 casualties on Attu; one out of every four men was wounded or killed. Only twenty-eight Japanese soldiers were captured, none of them officers. Half of the Japanese soldiers on the island died in a massive banzai attack after their forces had been routed. The Japanese dead were buried in unmarked mass graves.
Home Front Munitions Disaster Site Proposed as National Park
Port Chicago, a munitions facility in the San Francisco Bay area that was the site of the biggest home front disaster of World War II, could soon become a part of the National Park system. George Miller, U.S. representative from nearby Martinez, introduced a bill last summer that would dramatically expand the small, inaccessible site thirty-five miles east of San Francisco, bringing into the spotlight a long-neglected chapter of World War II— one that many historians believe sparked the eventual desegregation of the military.
During the war, Port Chicago was the gateway to the Pacific: millions of tons of munitions shipped west from eastern factories were hauled off railcars on its docks and loaded onto waiting ships. On the night of July 17, 1944, while two ships were being loaded with more than five thousand tons of depth charges, bombs, and ammunition, a devastating explosion rocked the pier. All 320 men on duty—more than 200 of them black sailors responsible for loading the dangerous cargo—were instantly killed.
The navy’s response to the disaster caused additional damage. White survivors were given a month’s leave. Black sailors—who did the most dangerous work on the base, while living in separate barracks and serving under white officers—were ordered to clean up the mess.
The decision outraged many sailors who were already fed up with the way they were treated on the segregated base. When the job was done and they were ordered to return to work under the same conditions, a group of 258 black ammunition loaders refused. After being imprisoned on a barge for three days, fifty of the group’s leaders, who became known as the “Port Chicago 50,” wouldn’t back down, even when charged with mutiny— a capital offense during wartime. The men were convicted and imprisoned, but not in vain.
After Port Chicago, the navy, confronted with the unfairness of assigning dangerous jobs based on race, slowly changed its policies. White sailors began working as munitions loaders; the navy’s training facilities were integrated soon after. Three years later, the entire military was desegregated. The Port Chicago 50 were granted amnesty in 1946.
Record Collection Puts a New Spin on Hitler’s Taste in Music
Not only was Hitler an evil megalomaniac, when it came to music, he may have been a hypocrite as well. The Nazi leader raged in Mein Kampf about there being no such thing as Jewish art, and he had nothing but contempt for the culture of the Russians, who he referred to as “Untermenschen.” But when it was recently revealed that a former Russian intelligence officer had stolen nearly a hundred gramophone records at the end of World War II from Hitler’s bunker— and secretly kept them at his home in Moscow—the Nazi leader’s musical tastes, in all of their surprising diversity, seem to have been exposed.
Despite his rants about “racially pure” German music, it turns out that Hitler apparently listened to the music of his avowed enemies. Along with Beethoven and Wagner, the records included works by Tchaikovsky, Borodin, and Rachmaninoff—all scratched from frequent playing. One of the Tchaikovsky concertos kept in Hitler’s bunker was performed by Bronislaw Huberman, a Jewish violinist who spent the war in exile. Another recording was the work of Artur Schnabel, an Austrian Jewish pianist whose mother was killed in a concentration camp.
Hitler’s not-so-fascist musical preferences were preserved by Lev Bezymenski, a captain in a Russian intelligence unit that was assigned to inspect the Reich Chancellery in 1945, only a few days after Hitler committed suicide. While other soldiers took silverware or medals as souvenirs, Bezymenski, who went on to become a respected historian, filled a box with records marked with the label “Führerhauptquartier,” meaning “führer headquarters.”
While there’s no definitive proof these were Hitler’s records, the only remaining survivor of Hitler’s bunker, bodyguard Rochus Misch, has said Hitler often listened to classical music when he needed distraction.
Bezymenski, who died this summer, said he kept his find to himself, fearing he would be considered a looter. When his daughter asked him to write an account of it before he died, Bezymenski expressed shock at Hitler’s preferences. “They were recordings of classical music, performed by the best orchestras in Europe and Germany, with the best solo performers of the time,” he wrote. “I was surprised that it also featured Russian music.” The records have spent the last sixty years in Bezymenski’s attic.
Originally published in the November 2007 issue of World War II Magazine. To subscribe, click here.