United Nations files documenting the scale of the war crimes committed during the Jewish Holocaust have been sealed for 70 years.
Recently opened, they prove the Allies knew that millions of civilians were being killed and tortured by the Nazis as early as 1942 — two-and-a-half years before the modern narrative assumes.
It’s long been thought that U.K., U.S., and Russian forces only realized the scale of the human rights violations when they discovered and liberated the concentration camps in 1944.
But the records reveal that U.K. Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden made a statement to the British parliament as early as December 1942 on the matter.
“The German authorities, not content with denying to persons of Jewish race in all the territories over which their barbarous rule extends, the most elementary human rights, are now carrying into effect Hitler’s oft-repeated intention to exterminate the Jewish people,” Eden said.
In his new book, Human Rights After Hitler, author Dan Plesch explores this unknown history — revealing a trove of information the international community had, but didn’t act on, for years.
His research focuses on United Nations War Crimes Commission (UNWCC) — an international agency operating from 1943 to 1948.
Though it received little attention for its work (especially when compared to the famous Nuremberg and Far East trials), the commission assisted in more than 30,000 cases against generals and heads of state as well as against individual soldiers who had committed lower level crimes like waterboarding and rape.
“Against heavy opposition from Allied politicians and diplomats who wanted — for a number of reasons — to see war crimes by Axis powers forgotten, the UNWCC was a key force in ensuring accountability for atrocities,” a release on the book explains.
Looking at war crimes petitions against Hitler as well as witness testimonies smuggled from the concentration camps — all of which have been sealed for around 70 years — Plesch learned the Allies knew in 1942 that two million Jews had already been murdered and that five million were at risk.
Even with this significant evidence and international prosecution, though, the Allies refrained from invading the places where they knew the camps were held.
When Franklin D. Roosevelt’s envoy to the UNWCC tried to take action, he received resistance from anti-Semites in the State Department. They were, the envoy later claimed, concerned about the economic ramifications of the human rights trials.
It is possible, Israel’s Holocaust remembrance website argues, that despite this new information, leaders did not fully grasp the extent of the atrocities.
“Notwithstanding this, it remains unclear to what extent Allied and neutral leaders understood the full import of their information,” the site reads. “The utter shock of senior Allied commanders who liberated camps at the end of the war may indicate that this understanding was not complete.”
The UNWCC was shut down in 1948 and its archives were sealed. Anyone who wanted to look at them required permission from their own government and the U.N. Secretary General — and even then, they were not allowed to take notes on what they found.
This inaccessibility meant that the archives — which set important precedents for how international courts can prosecute mass murder, rape, and torture cases — were unusable in international horrors like those that occurred in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia.
Beginning in 2010, Plesch led efforts to make the information available to the public and —
with the help of then-American ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power — eventually persuaded the organization to disclose the entire archive to academic institutions around the world.
Perhaps these new records on informed inaction in the face of international human rights violations might shed a different light on events in Syria, where an estimated 470,000 people have been killed.
Next, take a look at 22 heartbreaking photos from the front lines of the Syrian refugee crisis. Then, learn how this one man saved hundreds from the Holocaust.