Survivors visit the former Auschwitz-Birkenau camp in Poland on the anniversary of its liberation. Photograph: Kuba Ociepa/Agencja Gazeta/Reuters
War crimes files revealing early evidence of Holocaust death camps that was smuggled out of eastern Europe are among tens of thousands of files to be made public for the first time this week.
The once-inaccessible archive of the UN war crimes commission, dating back to 1943, is being opened by the Wiener Library in London with a catalogue that can be searched online.
The files establish that some of the first demands for justice came from countries that had been invaded, such as Poland and China, rather than Britain, the US and Russia, which eventually coordinated the post-war Nuremberg trials.
The archive, along with the UNWCC, was closed in the late 1940s as West Germany was transformed into a pivotal ally at the start of the cold war and use of the records was effectively suppressed. Around the same time, many convicted Nazis were granted early release after the anti-communist US senator Joseph McCarthy lobbied to end war crimes trials.
Access to the vast quantity of evidence and indictments is timed to coincide with the publication on Tuesday of Human Rights After Hitler: The Lost History of Prosecuting Axis War Crimes by Dan Plesch, a researcher who has been working on the documents for a decade.
The documents record the gathering of evidence shortly after the UN was founded in January 1942. They demonstrate that rape and forced prostitution were being prosecuted as war crimes in tribunals as far apart as Greece, the Philippines and Poland in the late 1940s, despite more recent suggestions that this was a legal innovation following the 1990s Bosnian conflict.
The Polish government in exile, the files also record, supplied extraordinarily detailed descriptions to the UNWCC of concentration camps such as Treblinka and Auschwitz, where millions of Jews were gassed. The accounts had been smuggled out of occupied eastern Europe. A charge sheet from April 1944 mention victims being forced to strip off clothing and how “the terracotta floors in the chambers … became very slippery when wet”.
The Wiener Library was founded in Amsterdam in 1934 by Dr Alfred Wiener to monitor Nazi antisemitism. He shipped his collection to London on the eve of the second world war, then worked with the British government to inform officials about Hitler’s regime and provide evidence for the Nuremberg trials.
Now based in Bloomsbury, central London, the library supports study of the Holocaust and genocide. It also works with the International Tracing Service to provide free help to those searching for relatives who vanished into the concentration camps.
“The UN War Crimes Commission catalogue, which can be searched online, will be available through our website this week,” the library’s archivist, Howard Falksohn, said. “People will then be able to come in and look through the archive itself.
“We anticipate a lot of interest. Some of the PDF files [on to which the 900GB UN archive has been copied] each contain more than 2,000 pages. This is the first time they will be available to anyone in the UK. It may well be that people will be able to rewrite crucial chapters of history using the new evidence.”
Plesch, who is the director of the Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy at Soas in the University of London, had to get special permission to read the documents, which were closely guarded by the UN in New York.
Only researchers who received authority from their government and consent from the UN secretary general were allowed to read them, and they were not allowed to take notes or copies. Plesch helped persuade diplomats, including the then US ambassador at the UN, Samantha Power, to release the secret material.
“This is a huge resource for combating Holocaust denial,” Plesch said. “The German national authorities were never given access to the archive by the allies after the war. All of this has never seen the light of day.”
Some of the earliest files of evidence were collected to indict Adolf Hitler directly for his role in the coordinating and controlling massacres carried out by Nazi units in Czechoslovakia. Much of the evidence was collected by the Czech government in exile. There are more than 300 pages detailing his orders and responsibilities. The Nazi leader was eventually indicted in secret by a meeting of the UNWCC in late 1944 as Luftwaffe bombs fell on London.
One affidavit in the files is from a British soldier, Harry Ogden, who was captured at Narvik in Norway in 1940, escaped from a prisoner of war camp to join Polish partisans and was re-imprisoned in another POW camp alongside Auschwitz.
By the late 1940s, the US and British governments were winding down prosecutions of Nazis. President Harry Truman made anti-communism, rather than holding Nazis to account, a priority, Plesch says. “Even action against the perpetrators of the massacre of British RAF officers attempting to escape from prison camp Stalag Luft III, a flight made iconic by films such as The Great Escape, was curtailed.”
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