War Crimes Archive Reveals Early Evidence Of Holocaust Death Camps After almost 70 years, evidence used to prosecute Nazi-era war criminals has become public. NPR's Kelly McEvers talks to Dan Plesch, one of the few outside researchers who's seen this archive.

War Crimes Archive Reveals Early Evidence Of Holocaust Death Camps

War Crimes Archive Reveals Early Evidence Of Holocaust Death Camps

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After almost 70 years, evidence used to prosecute Nazi-era war criminals has become public. NPR's Kelly McEvers talks with Dan Plesch, one of the few outside researchers who's previously seen this archive, about what can be learned from the archive.


When Dan Plesch first started looking through a massive archive of evidence of atrocities committed during World War II, he was surprised.

DAN PLESCH: I never expected to find any of this, never in a million years.

MCEVERS: And what he found was evidence against 36,000 individuals including for acts committed at Auschwitz, Treblinka and other death camps, evidence that was collected by U.S. officials and their allies during the war that could have been used later in war crimes trials.

Plesch is the director for international studies and diplomacy at the University of London and wrote a book about what he found in the archive. And when I talked to him earlier today, he said the biggest surprise was that this information was collected but not made public. That was because of resistance from officials like then U.S. Senator Joe McCarthy, who wanted to focus on rebuilding Germany and fighting communism, not bringing Nazis to trial, and by some in the U.S. State Department.

PLESCH: Part of the reason was not to further alarm the Nazis. That was a reason to keep it secret. But also large parts of the State Department and the British government weren't at all keen on prosecuting the Nazis. They were already looking to rebuilding Germany after the war. And indeed with the onset of the Cold War, this whole process was closed down.

So there was an interagency battle within the U.S. government at the time, and as it were, the people not interested in war crimes, trials won out and suppressed the heroic leadership of people such as Herbert Pell, who worked tirelessly in London under Nazi bombardment with people from the exiled countries to develop war crimes charges on a huge scale.

MCEVERS: So on the one hand, you have these people inside government working to build these cases to collect this evidence. And on the other hand, you have people who say, we don't really want that evidence to get out.

PLESCH: Yes. I think there's a legal adviser at the State Department, Green Hackworth, who really doesn't even want to receive the papers from London. You can look at what the McCarthyites succeed in doing in having this whole war crimes process suppressed, shut down at the time and eradicated from our history for 70 years to really see the dangers.

MCEVERS: Right. It was sealed in 1949.

PLESCH: Yes, and although any country could have made it open, they didn't choose to do so until Samantha Power acted on advice from a number of organizations and individuals and made the whole thing public around the end of 2014.

MCEVERS: Samantha Power, who's the former United States ambassador to the U.N.

PLESCH: Yes, indeed.

MCEVERS: How did you get access then?

PLESCH: Well, I had been authorized by the British government to access parts of it. And then once the U.S. made the whole thing public, the British government followed suit.

MCEVERS: What is that one of the most chilling details that you remember from your research?

PLESCH: Well, one that sticks in my mind is an account of Treblinka, a death camp in Poland. And the resistance had smuggled files out, and charges were brought at the beginning of 1944 when the SS still ruled. And in it, it says, the floors of the gas chambers at Treblinka are made of terra cotta tiles which become very slippery when wet.

Now, you have to ask, who knew? Who could have known that the floors of the gas chambers were slippery, and who could think to put that in an affidavit to be submitted at war crimes trials when the SS were still dominant? And I think that should tell us a lot about the importance of supporting war crimes processes today because if they could do that then, what excuse have we got now not to pursue war crimes processes?

MCEVERS: You know, there are still people in this world who deny the existence of the Holocaust. How does the release of this archive counter that?

PLESCH: We shouldn't need any more evidence to combat Holocaust denial. The evidence is there. But if you want to put more nails in the coffin of Holocaust denial, this gives you a whole hardware store of nails because there are - this is legally authorized documentation from the countries where the Holocaust was taking place about what was going on made during the time of the Holocaust. And that is a different order of evidence - different type of evidence than the compelling evidence which we already have.

MCEVERS: Dan Plesch, thank you so much.

PLESCH: I find it very useful to talk to you, and hopefully your listeners will find it useful, too.

MCEVERS: Dan Plesch's new book is "Human Rights After Hitler."

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