Previously Classified OSS Records
(For later releases, see the Records of the Office of Strategic Services (Record Group 226).)
By Richard Breitman and Timothy Naftali
On June 26, 2000, the Nazi War Criminal Records Interagency Working Group (IWG) will make available to researchers approximately 400,000 pages of previously classified documents from the records of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), 1942-45, and its successor the Strategic Services Unit (SSU), 1945-46. These documents are a portion of the OSS collection, much of which has been declassified for years. Some portions of the IWG release duplicate or overlap material in the open OSS collection, but the IWG release also contains new and historically valuable material that would not have been declassified without the passage of the Nazi War Crimes Disclosure Act and the efforts of the National Archives and the Central Intelligence Agency under that act.
The IWG release consists of OSS documents previously withheld by the CIA. These withheld documents cover diverse topics and activities; they are also disorganized. What they have in common is only that they contained or may have contained information that ruled out declassification in previous years, principally "sources and methods" information. The staff of the National Archives has an inventory of this collection, but researchers need to understand its eclectic nature. These documents contain much general information about OSS activities, about Nazi Germany and its allies--a good deal of it has little or nothing to do with specific war crimes.
What follows is an attempt to highlight some particularly interesting new documents and to suggest how they may be historically significant. This report is not a comprehensive evaluation of a huge collection. Researchers who are willing and able to pore over many thousands of pages may find documents that are equally valuable.
There was a close intelligence relationship between Britain and the U. S. during World War II, which meant that the two sides shared much information. Information provided by foreign governments had previously remained almost entirely classified and was exempt from declassification even under the terms of the Freedom of Information Act. Since the quality of British intelligence work was very high, it is not surprising that IWG release contains much British intelligence information of historical value.
British intelligence was able to intercept and decipher messages of the SS Security Service (SD) sent by radio from Rome to Berlin (and vice versa) during the late summer and fall of 1943. The official history of British intelligence indicates that British intelligence broke this SD cipher in late August and continued to intercept and decipher SD messages until February 1944, but the authors made hardly any use of this information in their text. The translated text of the SD messages during August, September, and October 1943 may be found in the IWG release.
These decrypts do not offer a perfect record of Italian events. They contain garbled passages and omissions, and the SS and police conveyed some information through other means such as personal visits, couriers, and telephone calls. Nevertheless, the British decrypts of SD radio 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. In fact, we now have a much better picture of how the Holocaust in Italy began.
Here is a chronology of key events, compiled partly from the captured German document collection of the National Archives and partly from the British decrypts of SD messages. Items from the decrypts of SD messages are marked by an asterisk. Items drawn from other documents within the IWG release are marked by a double asterisk.
- July 25, 1943
- Mussolini's government is overthrown and replaced by a new government headed by Prime Minister Pietro Badoglio; the new Italian government arrests Mussolini.
- September 3
- The British 8th Army lands on the mainland of Italy and establishes a base at Calabria.
- September 8
- The Allies announce the surrender of the Badoglio government; Germany responds by sending additional troops into northern and central Italy.
- *September 9
- Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS, requests information whether Nazi officials are safe, and wants to liberate Mussolini. The American 5th Army lands at Salerno and meets heavy German resistance.
- *September 10
- The first German troops and SS men enter Rome.
- *September 12
- Himmler repeats his order to free Mussolini, expressing the view that rescue of Mussolini takes priority over all other police activities.
German Army excuses and objections will not be accepted.
- Himmler repeats his order to free Mussolini, expressing the view that rescue of Mussolini takes priority over all other police activities.
- *September 12
- Otto Skozeny's kommando unit frees Mussolini. Mussolini leaves immediately for Vienna and then Berlin.
- *September 13
- General Kesselring orders disarming of the population of Rome.
- September 15
- Mussolini has dinner with Hitler, Himmler, and Ribbentrop at Hitler's East Prussian headquarters.
- September 16
- Germany occupies Rome with about 10,000 troops.
- September 16
- Himmler discusses the Jewish question with Ernst Kaltenbrunner, head of the Reich Security Main Office.
- *September 18
- Karl Wolff, formerly Himmler's liaison to Hitler and now appointed Highest SS and Police Leader for Italy, arrives in Rome and begins to work with new Fascist militia.
- *September 21
- Germans seize and ship off gold from Italy's state bank to Milan.
- *September 24
- German police attaché in Rome, Herbert Kappler, reports to Berlin that the Vatican had sold some Spanish, Argentinean, Mexican, and Portuguese visas to Jews trying to leave Rome on a train for Spanish diplomats.
- September 26
- Kappler starts to extract gold from Rome's Jewish community.
- *September 29
- Kappler reports that measures against Jews are creating Italian sympathy for them.
- Kappler indicates that Wolff had sent (Reich Security Main Office official) Theodor Dannecker to Rome to seize all Italian Jews in lightning actions and forward them to Germany. Although this action could not be carried out in Naples because of unfavorable conditions, preparations for the action in Rome have been concluded.
- **October 6
- Kappler receives an order to seize the 8,000 Jews in Rome, who are to be liquidated. A German diplomat suggests use of these Jews for work on fortifications in Italy as an alternative.
- *October 11
- Kaltenbrunner issues a stern order to Kappler as follows:
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. To postpone the expulsion of the Jews... can no more be considered than the idea mentioned of calling up the Jews in Italy for what would probably be very unproductive labour under responsible direction by Italian authorities. The longer the delay, the more the Jews who are doubtless reckoning on evacuation measures have an opportunity by moving to the houses of pro-Jewish Italians of disappearing completely. [Dannecker] has been instructed in executing the RFSS [Himmler's] orders to proceed with the evacuation of the Jews without further delay.
- October 15
- Heinrich Mueller, head of the Gestapo, talks with a German Foreign Office official about the difficulties of seizing Jews in foreign countries with limited police manpower. He indicates misgivings about Hitler's order to roundup the Jews of Rome.
- *October 16
- Kappler reports to Kaltenbrunner that German forces managed to seize 1,259 Jews in Rome. The Italian police were considered unreliable in this action, and the Italian public engaged in passive resistance. Although the German police had to release the part-Jews, foreign Jews, and families in mixed marriages, they are scheduled to ship off 1002 Jews on October 18.
- *October 20
- Wilhelm Harster, commander of the Security Police and SD for Italy, reports that the transport of Jews from Rome numbered X70469 left Rome at 9 a.m. on October 18 and is travelling by way of Vienna and Prague to Auschwitz.
In short, these decrypts contain much detail about the early German decisions to deport Italian Jews to Auschwitz, and they suggest that Karl Wolff was an essential participant in this process. It is worth considering that Wolff, Himmler's longtime chief of staff who participated in Operation SUNRISE (the surrender of German forces in northern Italy arranged with Allen Dulles) near the end of the war in Europe, was never tried by the International Military Tribunal or an American court. He was brought to trial in West Germany only in the 1960s.
Most of the SD messages in this collection took British cryptographers little time to decipher. The translations were usually distributed by British intelligence within a few days following the radio transmissions. The British also shared the Italian SD decrypts with the United States. Officers of X-2, the counterespionage branch of William J. Donovan's Office of Strategic Services, worked very closely with their British counterparts in London. As a result of a special sharing agreement reached earlier in 1943, X-2 officers were recipients of British decrypts of German intelligence messages. Preliminary research suggests that because of this special relationship with the British, X-2 officers in London, and perhaps even officials at OSS headquarters in Washington, may well have had access to the SD decrypts outlining Nazi plans for a roundup of the Jews of Rome at the same time as the British. Excerpts from the 1943 SD Italian materials were circulated to the OSS in October 1943 as intelligence "flashes." The release of the SD decrypts, translated by the British and shared with the United States, raises the historical question once again of what Allied governments knew about the Holocaust during World War II and what might have been done with information they possessed.
There are other examples, in this newly released collection, of this special liaison with the British. By the spring of 1944, X-2/OSS started circulating a digest of the more interesting decrypts of German intelligence communications. These summaries offer an unprecedented inside-look at the workings of the Nazi espionage system. They paint a portrait of a German intelligence community in decline and denial.
Another set of British records consists of excerpts of secretly tape-recorded conversations among German POWs. This practice was apparently carried out extensively during the last year of the war, and British analysts scrutinized the recordings and transcripts made from them for interesting and relevant information. Some of the POWs were generals in the army or the SS; others were simple soldiers, policemen, and sailors. While it would be hazardous to attempt to estimate soldiers' attitudes on the basis of the sample examined so far, the transcripts do indicate a considerable difference in attitude toward the Nazi regime between the army and the SS. The generals and soldiers frequently reviled Himmler: he was the symbol for them of what was wrong in the Nazi regime. Many POWs discussed the killings of Jews and atrocities in concentration camps, in most cases confirming that such things had happened, in some cases questioning how such things had happened. But some prisoners defended the harshest treatment for enemies of Germany. In some cases, soldiers and SS men discussed how much they had seen of specific incidents. One example was a very detailed description of the (December 1941) shootings of Latvian Jews at Liepaja (Libau in German) by members of the SS, Latvian auxiliaries, and German naval gunners.
The POW transcripts offer a kind of running inside commentary on Nazi officials and on events during the last months of the war. They reflect the hopes, fears, and concerns of many Germans, and they will be used by scholars as a gauge for measuring German opinions late in the war.
Still other British records contain summaries of interrogations of captured SS and police officers that served in Nazi-occupied countries. British intelligence analysts often developed a detailed picture of just who did what, whom got along with whom, and who was still around. Even more importantly, they gained a realistic understanding of how the Nazi administrative machinery worked.
One example of an important debriefing is that of Constantin Canaris, commander of the Security Police and SD in occupied Belgium and the nephew of Wilhelm Canaris, head of the German intelligence organization known as the Abwehr. The younger Canaris gave his British interrogators substantial information about the relations between his uncle and Reinhard Heydrich, head of the RSHA. Canaris, however, did not discuss the roundup and deportation of the Belgian Jews, a process in which he had played some part. Canaris's example illustrates a more general problem: American and British interrogators had difficulty determining who was likely to be a war criminal unless the individual volunteered incriminating information or unless they had independent sources of information.
British intelligence gathered some information about Nazi officials at various concentration camps and extermination camps through interrogation of some captured camp officials and debriefing of some prisoners. Whether these documents will produce new evidence or details about camp activities depends on a close comparison of the documents with the existing literature--something that will take some time. But the documents will offer a much better glimpse of how much Western officials knew about Nazi atrocities and specific perpetrators in 1945-46.
One of the best informants for OSS was an anti-Nazi German Foreign Office official named Fritz Kolbe, who carried many hundreds of documents with him on frequent visits to Switzerland, where he met with OSS officials there. Kolbe, codenamed George Wood, became Allen Dulles's best source in Bern during 1944 and 1945: this story is well known to intelligence historians. Many of Kolbe's documents and extracts from them are scattered throughout various locations of the open OSS collection, but the IWG release contains a complete set of them in translation, showing that they were sent to President Roosevelt and others. This set may provide new information and will offer researchers much greater ease of use.
A State Department special interrogation mission debriefed Kolbe in September 1945, and a copy of the report made its way into OSS records. This debriefing of Kolbe had been declassified previously, but with a number of redactions. The fully declassified version now available indicates that Kolbe drew upon the assistance of some twenty other Germans, whom he called the "Inner Circle." One of them was a Catholic official named Schreiber, head of the monastery at Ottobeuern. Within the German Foreign Office Kolbe got help from a man named Dumont, a Fraeulein von Heimerdinger, and a man named Pohle. Further research may develop more information about these individuals, who are not well known in the German resistance. Kolbe also identified specific sources of information about German economic activities in Spain, which had been redacted previously.
The IWG release contains a few documents about American direct and indirect contacts with an SS official in Switzerland named Hans Wilhelm Eggen. In January 1945 Dulles read a summary of another American's (Frederick R. Loofbourow) meeting with Eggen and concluded that this might be the beginning of an effort to Afish around inside the SS and find a party who would sell out on a big scale. This speculation began a process of further contacts, some of which are also in the OSS files, that led to the surrender of German forces in northern Italy in late April 1945.
OSS records also contain many debriefings of individuals who escaped Germany or German-occupied territories and made their way to the United States or to American officials abroad. An American citizen of Polish descent was on a visit to Poland when Germany invaded in 1939. Trapped by the war, she was arrested in 1942 and imprisoned in Lublin, where she acquired information about the Nazi camp at Maidanek. Later she was sent to a concentration camp at Liebenau. Eventually she was repatriated. A French attorney (who was Jewish) gave an extensive assessment of politicians and political conditions in France. He described both French police involvement in deporting Jews and increasing popular opposition to Vichy's cooperation with the Nazis on the Jewish question. These are but two of many such examples of individual accounts--from refugees, survivors, witnesses, or persons with relevant technical knowledge about Germany or German operations in conquered territories--that will add details to the historical record.
F. H. Hinsley, et. al., British Intelligence in the Second World War: Its Influence on Strategy and Operations, vol. 3, part 1 (New York, 1984), 115-16, 487, 503.