In the United States as well as in many other countries, early reports of industrialized mass murder perpetrated by the Germans during the Second World War were connected not with the Holocaust but—beginning in early 1941—with crimes committed as part of the German “euthanasia” program. The writings and reports of journalist and popular radio personality William L. Shirer in particular shaped public perception of the murder of disabled people. The author of this article traces Shirer's German and American sources, drawing possible connections to journalists, State Department officials, and members of the German resistance.
The earliest reports of industrial-scale murder perpetrated by the Germans appeared in the United States and other countries in early 1941, and were related not to the Holocaust but to the “euthanasia” crimes that touched off the National Socialist genocide.1 The concept of the gas chamber was likewise first mentioned in connection with euthanasia.2 Perhaps more than any other public figure, journalist and radio reporter William L. Shirer (1904–1993) shaped public perceptions of National Socialism, and more specifically of Nazi euthanasia policy, in the United States and other countries. His bestselling Berlin Diary (1941), and to an even greater extent his Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (1960), exerted a strong influence for years after their publication.
Like many of his contemporaries, Shirer had dreamed of a literary life in Paris. At the age of 21, soon after finishing college in 1925, he fled the provincial-seeming United States for the French capital. The Chicago Tribune provided him with his first major employment: in 1930 and 1931 he reported for the paper from India, with special focus on Mahatma Gandhi and the Indian independence movement, as well as from Afghanistan. Shirer took a year-long break from journalism to write a novel about India, spending the time with his wife Theresa (Tess), an Austrian photographer, in the idyllic Catalan fishing village Lloret de Mar. He moved to Nationalist Socialist Germany in 1934. His break as a journalist came in 1937, when he became the voice of CBS, reporting to millions of Americans from the capital of the Reich and other central European hotspots. Because of the sharpening political situation and increasing censorship in Germany, Shirer—like many of his colleagues—returned to the United States in late 1940. Back in his home country, he published three articles addressing Nazi euthanasia.3 Their impact was so great that the author was credited with bringing the crimes to light.4 The significance of the reports stemmed above all from Shirer's popularity and his perceived trustworthiness and authenticity as an eyewitness, but also in part from their sensational nature. This article presents these key texts and explores their reception outside Germany; it then reconstructs the American and German sources in order to integrate them into the history of the National Socialist genocide.
The implementation of the Nazi euthanasia policy—a program that took the lives of between 200,000 and 300,000 people—can be divided into distinct phases according to timing, victim groups, decision-makers, and methods of murder. The so-called “Aktion T4” in particular had a relatively clear organizational structure: large groups of adult patients were transferred from psychiatric institutions to one of six facilities located in central Germany or in former Austrian lands, and were murdered there in gas chambers.
The comparative visibility of these events meant that Aktion T4, which strictly speaking was carried out from January 1940 through August 1941, received a certain amount of public attention; international reports about Nazi euthanasia dealt almost exclusively with this particular program. Perhaps due to its medical façade, the “child euthanasia” program initiated at the beginning of the war received much less attention. The same was true of the decentralized phase of the euthanasia program, which began with Hitler's termination of Aktion T4 in August 1941 and continued through the end of the war.5 Murders committed in late 1939 and after at institutions in the occupied Polish territories were subsumed under German crimes against the Poles, and not described as an element of the euthanasia program.6 By the summer of 1940, many inmates had been murdered based only on the grounds of their having been identified as Jews. Yet, the special treatment of “Jewish” inmates in institutions in Germany received scant attention.
“Authentic” Reports from a Contemporary Witness
Like many of his colleagues, Shirer published a report on the National Socialist state soon after returning to the United States from Germany. In just nine lines in the second part of his detailed February 1941 report “Inside Wartime Germany,” he informed readers of Life magazine about the “fantastic ‘mercy killings’” by the Gestapo.7 Citing these lines of Shirer's text in full, the author Francis Hackett noted in his monograph about Hitler's Mein Kampf:
No reporter from Germany is more guarded in his statements than William L. Shirer. In Life, at the beginning of 1941, he described “Inside Germany” for millions of Americans, and few will have forgotten this: Never related before in this country and known to few people in Germany itself, has been the execution of tens of thousands of the mentally deficient throughout the Reich. Few details of these fantastic “mercy killings” are known, but it has been established that the Gestapo is now carrying out the systematic murder of thousands of mental misfits dragged from both private and state sanitariums. Only Hitler and a few men at the top—and of course the relatives who are told to fetch the ashes—know of it yet.8
In mid-March 1941, shortly after the report appeared in print, Shirer's friend Joseph C. Harsch (1901–1998)—an equally popular and trustworthy journalist recently returned from Berlin—published a similar report in the Christian Science Monitor.9 The first article exclusively on Nazi euthanasia appeared in the May 5 edition of the New Republic, a left-leaning intellectual magazine with a small circulation.10 In “Germany Executes Her Unfit,” 24-year-old author Michael W. Straight did not question the reality of the crimes; he focused, however, on Christians’ resistance to the euthanasia program. Among the large daily papers, only the Washington Post reprinted Straight's article, and it relativized the murders in its adaptation by pointing to the supposedly far more criminal Soviet dictatorship.11
Shirer managed to report on the thorny subject again in a mass publication: his article “Mercy Deaths” ran to several pages in the June issue of Readers Digest, a magazine that described itself as having the largest circulation in the English language.12 With this article, a publication as conservative and anti-Communist as Life—and therefore above suspicion—confirmed the “fantastic reports.” That a hitherto isolationist publication would publish such revelations shows that Shirer’ accounts were so persuasive, and his popularity so great, that they disrupted firmly entrenched political paradigms. The publication was delayed several weeks, however, because DeWitt Wallace, the publisher of the Reader's Digest, had doubts about the veracity of the report. When other former Germany correspondents were questioned, they confirmed the existence of the Nazi euthanasia programs and supplemented Shirer's text.13
Shirer included an expanded version of the article in Berlin Diary, which appeared on June 20 and would become the best-selling nonfiction book of 1941; it was declared a main selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club before it was released.14 First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt reported her impressions of the work in her widely published daily column.15 Shirer's book presented a subjective story by a contemporary witness rather than a systematic analysis; thus Berlin Diary, which begins its coverage in 1934, barely mentioned the pervasive antisemitism, political persecutions, or concentration camps. The author raised these subjects only when he observed events in the course of his daily life—for example, the persecution of Jews that accompanied the German march into Vienna in 1938. But these entries, as the texts of the diary make clear, are not unfiltered evidence. Shirer sometimes revised his texts extensively before publication. Appropriately, he described his book to a colleague as “a little pseudo-literary work.”16 He revised those passages that, from the critical distance of 1941, revealed an earlier political ambivalence about Nazi Germany and Hitler.17
In both publications, Shirer was able to report on carefully guarded details of Aktion T4—for instance on the contents of the secret authorizing document issued by Hitler.
In Berlin Diary he identified Philipp Bouhler as the person principally responsible.18 The authorization euphemistically allowed for the “mercy death” of the “incurably ill,” but in reality was a legitimization of the mass murder of people with mental illness or psychological disabilities. This is the only surviving written “instruction” by Hitler that, however obliquely, refers to a crime of such dimensions. Shirer dated the text, as well as the beginning of the Nazi euthanasia program, to the summer of 1940 (and not, more accurately, to the fall of 1939). He pointed to Himmler as the initiator of the crime, and placed the responsibility clearly with the Gestapo and the SS. According to Shirer, these institutions did not limit themselves to the specific instruction to murder the mentally ill and psychologically disabled, but significantly enlarged the circle of victims. Shirer ascribed to Hitler a rather limited role in the initiation of the murder of the sick. For the first time, the names of the extermination institutions of Aktion T4 appeared in print: Grafeneck (which had been described by other authors, but not given a name), Sonnenstein, and Hartheim. Shirer could provide concrete details only for Grafeneck: the SS closed off the isolated castle and posted signs warning of epidemics. At night, trucks stopped at the castle. Shirer did not know precisely what happened there or in the other Aktion T4 centers—as in all other descriptions, they remained a “black box.” Shirer did mention, however, that rumors were circulating about experiments with gas. According to those rumors, the number of victims was as high as 100,000, but he thought that estimate too high; he put the number at several thousand dead. The much lower number may reflect the author's abundant caution, and is a figure that the skeptical news services would be less likely to dismiss as propaganda.
Shirer also reports on Pastor Friedrich von Bodelschwingh's protest against impending transfers of patients from his institutions. The pastor, German sources told Shirer, made an appeal to a famous Berlin surgeon (probably Ferdinand Sauerbruch) who was personally acquainted with Hitler. The surgeon “rushed to the Chancellery,” where Hitler told him that “nothing could be done.”19 Bodelschwingh and the surgeon subsequently visited Reich Justice Minister Franz Gürtner. The minister appeared to be more concerned about the extralegality of the killings than about their inhumanity, yet he promised to raise an objection with Hitler. Although there is no record of a meeting between the surgeon and Hitler, the described meeting with Gürtner did in fact take place at the minister's home in Berlin Grunewald on July 12, 1940. It included another representative of the German Protestant Church—Paul Gerhard Braune—whom Shirer did not mention, however. The two pastors provided the apparently uninformed Gürtner with abundant evidence of the murder of the sick and the disabled.20 Bodelschwingh continued to delay the transfers, but because of his popularity the local authorities refused to arrest him. Shirer wrote of the September 18 bombing of the asylum: “Now I understand why a few people wondered as to who dropped the bombs.”21
Berlin Diary received significant attention in newspapers and magazines in the United States, yet most of the reviews paid little or no attention to the institutional murders. The low level of resonance probably was the result of a mixture of incredulity, lack of interest, and the simple desire for the story not to be true. Even so, no one dared to voice explicit doubt about the veracity of Shirer's presentation. Berlin Diary was widely read outside the United States as well—where military and political conditions allowed its publication. Like the American public, the British public learned of the crimes from William Shirer—though not until the fall of 1941. Excerpts from Berlin Diary appeared in a four-part series in the Daily Express. The last part, published on September 25, dealt exclusively with the Nazi euthanasia program. The series appeared in book form on October 3, and by the end of the year the British edition was in its fifth printing.22 Noting that everything of importance had been described by Shirer, the British Foreign Office made diplomatic reports about the institutional murders available to the public.23 Kingsley Martin, publisher of the leftist New Statesman and Nation, remarked (pseudonymously as Tom Paine) in a review of the Berlin Diary that the British public was interested primarily in Shirer's reports on the murders of the handicapped and the sick. The reviewer for the conservative Spectator called Shirer's work a sensational revelation.24 For both of these writers the Nazi euthanasia program was something new, even at this late point. Berlin Diary was published in Portuguese in 1941 and in Spanish in 1942. The translations appeared in Brazil and Mexico, but not in Europe. Shirer's presentation of Nazi euthanasia attracted attention even in Germany: in the beginning of 1941, his article “Mercy Deaths” reached the chancellery of the Nazi Party.25 A few weeks later Hitler unexpectedly cancelled the program that had become known as Aktion T4. There is no way to prove that Shirer's report and the international attention it drew to the Nazi euthanasia program influenced its sudden halt: those directly involved in the decision-making committed suicide at the end of the war and left no written documents. In any case, the coincidence of the timing is baffling.26
What sources did Shirer use, and who may have provided him with the explosive information? When Shirer left Germany in late 1940, the existence of the authorizing document (Ermächtigungsschreiben), was known only to a few people inside the National Socialist power elite. Since the CBS correspondent did not have the contacts necessary to acquire such exclusive information directly, we may assume that he was positioned at the end of one or more chains of information. In what follows, I reconstruct these chains to the extent possible.
Shirer's records leave few concrete references to his sources. In Shirer's small notebook containing handwritten notes from the 1930s and 1940s (the “Blue Notebook”), the entry for November 25, 1940 is titled “article Berlin M.J.”—possibly a reference to Shirer's colleague Max Jordan (1895–1977). Under the same date in Berlin Diary, Shirer describes the key details of the Nazi euthanasia program. While in Germany, he did not record any observations critical of the regime. He instead committed them to memory, writing them down only after he was beyond the borders of the Reich. Even in the significantly revised version of the diary, one finds no reference under the date in question. However, the records contain disordered and undated notes, on pieces of paper of varying size, containing barely legible references to the murders of the sick.27 These annotations leave the impression that Shirer received the information orally, and because of the regime's monitoring, very likely when he was outside Germany. The notes also show that the correspondent learned more than he published—for instance, the significance of Hitler's tasking Karl Brandt with organizing the mass crimes.
The rise of the “Third Reich” attracted numerous reporters from foreign countries. In the early war years, some 200 foreign correspondents reported from Berlin, operating in a sequestered, highly-structured world of hotels, clubs for foreigners, and Propaganda Ministry and Foreign Office venues. Press conferences were held in rapid succession, and often in competition with each other.28 Given the political significance of the United States, the German regime for many years treated American correspondents with particular esteem. Especially after Roosevelt was re-elected in November 1940, however, American journalists’ working conditions worsened to the point that many decided to leave Germany. By fall 1940 some correspondents had become aware of the murder of people with disabilities or illnesses, but most of these viewed the claim as unsubstantiated.29 Among American correspondents, five appear to have had a more extensive knowledge than their colleagues. In addition to Shirer, these included the above-mentioned Joseph C. Harsch of the Christian Science Monitor; Max Jordan of NBC; Sigrid Schultz of the Chicago Tribune; and Wallace R. Deuel, correspondent for both the Chicago Daily News and the New York Post. Schultz and Jordan, both of whom had spent much of their lives in Germany and planned to return to Berlin, initially refrained from publishing on the Nazi euthanasia program; they did, however, share their knowledge with colleagues.30
On January 18, 1941, an employee of the monitoring service of the Reich Ministry for People's Enlightenment (Volksaufklärung) and Propaganda transcribed a BBC German-language transmission of a report on the institutional murders. In the report, an unidentified “Geneva representative of the National Catholic Welfare Conference [Genfer Vertreter des nationalen katholischen Wohlfahrtsausschusses]” commented directly on the issue:
The Germans murder their mentally ill.… Further details are now becoming known about the murder of about 100,000 German inmates of asylums. This order came at the behest of the National Socialist authorities, who wanted in this way to free the German national community [deutsche Volksgemeinschaft] of fellow citizens whom they consider a useless burden. The Geneva representative of the National Catholic Welfare Committee reports how this came to happen. The first of these so called “experiments” were carried out in a city [in the region] of Württemberg. The inmates were taken from asylums and carried away in buses whose windows were darkened so that people on the street could not see what was happening. [The inmates] were herded together into wooden sheds and then exposed to poisonous gases. Similar experiments were also carried out in other parts of Germany.31
According to a separate report by the British Political Intelligence Department (PID), also called the Political Warfare Executive (PWE), the same person had reported from Geneva on December 9, 1940 that the Nazis had killed 100,000 mentally ill individuals.32 It is noteworthy that in these early statements the subject was discussed openly and without reservation by an authoritative source. (It took some courage to speak openly in Switzerland, surrounded as it was by Germany and its allies, about the murders.) The source was NBC's Max Jordan, a resident of Basel. Beginning in 1931, Jordan had also worked as the Europe correspondent for the news service of the National Catholic Welfare Conference (NCWC) headquartered in Washington.33
Jordan's reporting and commentary on the rise of National Socialism had brought him a great deal of international attention. His reporting frequently revealed an insufficient reportorial distance from the regime, so that some saw him as a conveyor of National Socialist propaganda.34 NBC, the largest American broadcasting company, rarely reported critically on Nazi Germany. Sensitive to what might influence American public opinion, the German regime therefore treated the network as privileged through the late 1930s. With the aid of foreign media, and under the cover of supposedly neutral reporting, it hoped to garner support for the “New Germany.”35 Jordan was always on the lookout for scoops: in 1936 he reported exclusively from the Hindenburg, the world's largest dirigible, on its first commercial flight to the United States. In March 1938 he was the first American journalist to report from Vienna on the entry of German troops, and in the same year he reported exclusively—just a few minutes after the signing—on the Munich agreement, which opened the way to the dissolution of Czechoslovakia. Jordan's reports often masked German brutality, presenting events as unproblematic National Socialist successes. But if Jordan initially sympathized with some aspects of Nazi policy, by the start of the war he strongly disapproved. Increasingly, he lived a double life, working to establish contacts between the British government and German opposition groups such as the circle around Robert Bosch and Carl Friedrich Goerdeler.36 The British Foreign Office rejected his efforts, however, and, recalling his reporting for NBC, labeled him a “cheap journalist” and “primarily and essentially a News Hawk of the worst kind.”37
Yet Jordan's influence on reporting of the Nazi euthanasia program was not limited to the denominational press. In 1940, he brought the crimes to the attention of his colleague—and perhaps his greatest competitor in Berlin—William Shirer.38 Visiting Shirer in his room at the Hotel Adlon in Berlin, Jordan described Pastor Friedrich von Bodelschwingh's resistance to the transfer of the inmates from his institution and the subsequent damage to a wing of his building during a bombing raid. Jordan presumably told Shirer also about Sauerbruch's (fictitious) meeting with Hitler.39 Later, back in the United States, Jordan advised Shirer not to mention Bodelschwingh's name in print.40 Although Shirer failed to heed Jordan, Bodelschwingh apparently suffered no consequences.
Wallace R. Deuel
Wallace Deuel (1905–1974) arrived in Germany in 1934 at the age of 29 to manage the Berlin office of the Chicago Daily News and the New York Post. Here he befriended William Shirer, and in December 1940 returned with him to the United States. A few weeks later Deuel looked over Shirer's article for the Reader's Digest and provided some knowledgeable commentaries about the context of the crimes. Shirer incorporated many of the remarks, without edits, into his text. He significantly changed one remark regarding the possible circle of victims, however. Deuel wrote:
It is a fact, however, that a good many of the patients in institutions are there because of temporary derangements or breakdowns which nobody claims are hopeless—women suffering from mental difficulties accompanying the menopause, for example. What guarantee there is that the persons executed are really hopelessly and incurably defective, and to what degree, even in the light of present knowledge, I do not know. Other implications of the policy are too obvious to require comment from me.41
Shirer modified Deuel's careful commentary to read as follows:
Many of them were suffering only from temporary derangement or from plain nervous breakdown. The Gestapo had been killing them too, though Hitler had specified only persons “suffering from incurable mental or nervous diseases.” (Reader's Digest)
X, a German, … says the Gestapo is doing to death persons who are merely suffering temporary derangement or just plain nervous breakdown. (Berlin Diary)
The circle of victims was now no longer limited to society's “others”—the mentally ill or disabled. The Reader's Digest quotation also makes clear that Shirer had bought into the carefully developed, propagandistic Hitler-myth that depicted the Führer as a political moderate and a tamer of radical forces inside National Socialism.
Upon his return to the United States, Deuel and his family settled in Westport, Connecticut. His friend and colleague, Sigrid Schultz (1893–1980), lived in the neighborhood. While serving as the Berlin correspondent for the Chicago Tribune, Schultz had been the best-informed American journalist in the city, according to William Shirer.42 She had arrived with her parents in Berlin at the age of 21, just before the start of World War I, and because of her knowledge of German and her roots in Berlin society, she was able to make many valuable contacts. Her exceptionally detailed knowledge is perhaps best demonstrated in a text she prepared in 1942 for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). Here she could bring to bear her knowledge without the fear of endangering her German sources.43 Schultz identified the Columbushaus on the Potsdamer Platz as the location of the euthanasia program's central administration; it had in fact operated at this address beginning in December 1939, but in April 1940 occupied in addition an “Aryanized” villa a few meters away at Tiergartenstrasse 4 (hence the name “Aktion T4”). She alone named the central figures of the murder organization and established their respective responsibilities. She reported that, in an informal letter, Hitler had granted broad authority over the organization to Philipp Bouhler, his personal physician Karl Brandt, and (though this was incorrect) Heinrich Himmler. Herbert Linden and (Viktor) Brack were entrusted with the actual running of the organization. The original letter, Schultz had heard—and this was entirely plausible—remained in Bouhler's possession.44 Shirer was the only other reporter to name Bouhler at this time, as far as I can tell. Whether Schultz conveyed this knowledge to her colleagues remains unclear.
As early as February 1941, during her return voyage to the U.S., Schultz suggested to her publisher, Robert McCormick, that she should share her information on the Nazi euthanasia program with other journalists working for him so that they could report on the story. She did not want to publish it herself because she was planning to return soon to Germany.45 No reply from “the Colonel,” as McCormick was called, has been preserved; nor was I able to locate any evidence that any of her colleagues received or followed up on her suggestion to publish the information.46 But Joseph C. Harsch, a friend and colleague of both Shirer and Schultz from their time in Berlin, used information he received from them in his 1941 book Pattern of Conquest. Harsch's monograph was far less successful than Berlin Diary, however.47
Because the United States remained neutral after the war broke out in Europe, American diplomats and reporters remained in the Reich during the time of Aktion T4.48 Only the German order to close American consulates in July 1941, and the closure of the embassy following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the German declaration of war in December of that year, forced their ouster. In 1940, the United States had five consulates-general and six consulates in Germany and annexed Austria. Despite the dangers, many Germans secretly contacted American officials or journalists to pass along information and to express their revulsion at the murder of those with disabilities. The State Department received a total of ten reports through its diplomatic missions in Germany between March 1940 and March 1941.49 Shirer almost certainly drew on two of the diplomatic reports—one from Leipzig dated October 16, 1940, the other from Berlin dated December 20, 1940—in his publications.
American consulate in Leipzig, report dated October 16, 1940
On October 9, 1940, a German acquaintance directed the attention of Vice Consul Charles Hulick to conspicuous death notices in the local newspapers.50 Each notice listed one of the three murder centers operating at that time—Sonnenstein, Hartheim, and Grafeneck—as the place of death, and, as was customary at that time, took note if the deceased had been a decorated World War I veteran. Hulick's German acquaintance relayed in great detail what he had learned about Grafeneck from a doctor, and about Hartheim from a young woman whose mother had recently been murdered there. It was clear that the SS was killing patients, but precisely what was happening in the institutions “remain[ed] a deep and dark secret,” according to an eight-page report compiled by Paul Dutko, Hulick's superior officer, in mid-October. Dutko sent the report, together with twenty-two death notices translated into English, directly to Washington and to the embassy in Berlin. Shirer published English-language translations of some of the notices from the Leipziger Tagespresse: three in the Reader's Digest and five in Berlin Diary. Since these translations are similar to those accompanying Dutko's report, we may conclude that Shirer had seen the consular documents.
American embassy in Berlin, report dated December 20, 1940
Two months after Dutko sent his report from Leipzig, the chargé d'affaires of the United States diplomatic mission in Germany, Leland B. Morris (1886–1950), forwarded a five-page, typewritten letter on the murders of the disabled and the mentally ill to the State Department in Washington. The letters GFK at the end of the missive indicate that in all likelihood, this remarkable document was prepared not by Morris himself, but by First Secretary George F. Kennan (1904–2005).51 According to the report, the murders occurred in what was “believed to be a concentration camp near Hartheim” and in “Samaritenstift Grafeneck, a lonely castle near Muensinger.”52 In regard to the attitude of the German population, the author concluded that it was not the crimes per se, but the secrecy surrounding them that led many to dread these operations. Like other diplomats—and like Shirer—he was circumspect in reporting on the alleged method of killing. The figure he provided for the number of victims was identical to that reported by the CBS correspondents. The relatives of the victims, according to the report from Berlin, had lodged a protest with Reich Justice Minister Franz Gürtner. The minister limited his assistance to pointing out, within the state bureaucracy, the lack of a legal foundation for the killings.53 Equally fruitless, according to Kennan, was an effort led by the famous surgeon “Professor Sauerbrueck” with his colleagues’ support. The letter did not provide specifics about the actions of the minister or the professor of medicine. Kennan reported, as did Shirer later, on resistance by “Kurt v. Bodelschwingl” (Friedrich von Bodelschwingh) against the planned deportation of his patients. The German pastor, in all likelihood protected by his popularity, was not arrested. Kennan conveyed the darkly sarcastic view circulating at the time that the British bombing of the institution in Westphalia had been a stroke of luck for the Germans: now they did not have to kill the children themselves. From a historical perspective, the most highly charged detail of Kennan's report was that Hitler himself had initiated the murders. But the Reich Chancellor had decided against establishing a statutory basis for them and instead empowered “Gauleiter Bouhler” to organize and carry out the plan.54
The letter from the Berlin embassy wended its way through official channels in the State Department, stamped as received in the Division of Communication and Records on January 15, the Division of European Affairs on January 17, the Division of Commercial Affairs on January 23, and finally the Archives on February 27. This document, like other references to the murder of the disabled and the mentally ill, was not forwarded to top State Department officials—a practice that was to be repeated later with information about the Holocaust.55
Shirer's reports and those of the embassy had common features. All referred to Grafeneck as a “lonely castle.” In his manuscript, Shirer—like Kennan—called the small town close to the killing center “Muensinger,” but he later rendered it “Muenzingen” (Reader's Digest) or “Münzingen” (Berlin Diary). In a later version he added Gürtner's given name—Franz—which had been omitted from the diplomatic reports, and he demonstrated the same uncertainty about the spelling of Friedrich von Bodelschwingh's name.56Berlin Diary and the embassy report both mention Bouhler's central role and use similar expressions: “a simple letter,” “the ‘coup de grace [Gnadenstoss]’ in certain instances,” in Kennan's report; in Shirer's text, “simply wrote a letter”; “Gnadenstoss (coup de grace) in certain instances.” The activities of Bodelschwingh, Sauerbruch, and Gürtner occupied a relatively large portion of all the documents, but they were described differently. Whether Shirer's descriptions of these three men were based solely on Jordan's information, or on other sources as well, remains an open question. The texts also differ significantly in their assessments of Hitler's role. Kennan charged the German leader with authorship of the crimes, and did not consider the “radical National Socialists” to be the driving force. Despite these differences, it seems likely that the diplomatic report was a key source for Shirer.
There is no written record of any contact between Shirer and an American diplomat in early 1941. Shirer was acquainted with Kennan, the presumed author of the despatch dated December 20, 1940, and was on friendly terms with Jacob D. Beam, who served as third secretary in the U.S. Embassy in Berlin between December 1934 and August 1940.57 In recent treatments of U.S. foreign policy during the war, Beam is known for his illuminating reports criticizing the National Socialists.58 In his memoirs, Shirer mentioned that an embassy official had smuggled some of his notes across the border.59 It is possible that he was referring here to Beam, who returned to the United States shortly before Shirer did, or to Kennan, who returned shortly after. Beam was the only official who, according to archival sources, is known to have pressed for a State Department reaction to the Nazi euthanasia killings.
In the early days of 1941, Wallace Deuel paid Beam a visit and raised the subject.60 Having ascertained that the Department had yet to react, Beam may have conveyed the information to Shirer.61 The fact that Shirer sent his article to Reader's Digest in mid-March, and not earlier, supports the conclusion that he learned of the documents only after he had been back in the U.S. for several weeks.62
German Sources for the Embassy Report
Which individuals in the Nazi regime knew, in late 1940, the sensational details of the Nazi euthanasia program? And which of these were ready to commit treason to pass on this information to Americans? Only a person who was both morally outraged about the institutional murders and fundamentally opposed to National Socialism could take such a step. That person must also have had contacts within the Confessing Church and the American community in Berlin, as well as a connection to the Reich Justice Minister.63 Since no single individual, to my knowledge, meets all these criteria, it seems likely that information about euthanasia was conveyed by more than one person (see illustration below).
Gürtner conveyed some of the information, probably without knowing it. By the fall of 1940 he knew the names of the people in charge of the program and was aware of Hitler's rejection of the idea of a law; he had received a copy of Hitler's authorization from Bouhler on August 27, 1940. Gürtner in turn was in close contact with Hans von Dohnanyi, an anti-Nazi who since the beginning of the war had served in the Abwehr (the intelligence service of the armed forces).64 Dohnanyi had worked as a personal consultant to the minister of justice until 1938. After his criticism of the Nazi regime became known, he was transferred to the Supreme Court of Leipzig to serve as a judge there. He was active in the anti-Nazi resistance, and participated in a February 1943 attempt to assassinate Hitler. On April 6, 1945, a “drumhead” military court, finding that he was the “spiritual leader” of the July 20, 1944 assassination plot, sentenced Dohnanyi to death; he was hanged three days later.65
Dohnanyi probably learned of the T4 program from Gürtner in the autumn of 1940.66 On November 13, Dohnanyi took part in a meeting between Gürtner and Brandenburg court judge Lothar Kreyssig regarding the murder of the disabled and the sick. Gürtner dismissed Kreyssig's objections to the extralegality of the actions, showing him a copy of Hitler's authorizing letter. Dohnanyi thus clearly knew the important details of the T4 program as of that time.
Moreover, Dohnanyi was in contact with pastors Friedrich von Bodelschwingh and Paul Gerhard Braune over the matter of the institutional murders. As the head of the Bodelschwingh Institute in Lobetal near Berlin, and as a vice president of the Central Committee of the Inner Mission, Braune occupied a high position in the hierarchy of the Evangelical Church. In the summer of 1940, he vigorously protested the euthanasia program, collecting information about the deportations from Church facilities throughout the Reich and meeting, often together with Friedrich von Bodelschwingh, government officials in Berlin.67 In a May 9, 1940 meeting at the High Command of the Armed Forces arranged by Dietrich and Karl Bonhoeffer, Braune spoke with Dohnanyi, the psychiatrist Karl Bonhoeffer's son-in-law; Braune described Dohnanyi as a “very eager and promising gentleman.”68 In the following weeks, Dohnanyi assisted Braune in many ways: he conveyed Braune's materials to Gürtner and, in a series of meetings in May and July 1940, helped him compile the meticulously detailed report on the institutional murders.69 Finally, Dohnanyi mediated the July 12, 1940 conversation between the two pastors, Ferdinand Sauerbruch, and the Reich justice minister. Another indication of the likelihood that Dohnanyi contributed to the wider awareness of the murders is the fact that he had already crossed the threshold of treason: in the same year, with the help of Munich lawyer Josef Müller and Pope Pius XII, he had conveyed information to the British ambassador to the Holy See, Francis d'Arcy Osborne, concerning the plan to overthrow Hitler. His appeal to the British for assistance was unsuccessful.70
No evidence of contact between Dohnanyi and any American journalist or U.S. embassy official in November/December 1940 has come to light.71 Such contacts can be confirmed, though, for Helmuth James Graf von Moltke, the central figure of the resistance group known as the Kreisau Circle, an expert on international law, and—like Dohnanyi—an Abwehr official. According to Dohnanyi's pocket calendar, the two met during the period in question at least three times—September 5, November 12, and December 12, 1940—in Moltke's lodging at Derfflingerstrasse 9 in the Tiergarten neighborhood of Berlin.72 Moltke, who like Dohnanyi was executed shortly before the end of the war for resistance activities, had numerous national and international connections and a substantial appetite for risk. For instance, he smuggled the sixth and last flyer of the White Rose resistance group, dated February 1943, as well as information about the Holocaust, into Scandinavia.
Documentary evidence shows that Moltke met secretly with both George Kennan and Wallace Deuel in the fall of 1940. His last meeting with Deuel took place just a few days before the journalist's return to the U.S. on November 27.73 Moltke seems to have passed his information to the secretary of the embassy on the evening of December 18, in Moltke's apartment; the letter from the embassy is dated Friday, December 20.74 Precisely how much Moltke had learned about the euthanasia killings and what he said at this meeting remains uncertain. The gaps in the record make reconstruction of the events difficult. Based on the chronology, however, the information chain I've traced here seems the most plausible explanation of how the explosive information—known only to a small circle of Nazi elite—found its way to the international public.75
In Spite of Shirer: The Unreality of the Crimes
With the Allies’ liberation of Eastern and Central Europe, shocking accounts and pictures of the German mass crimes reached the international public. Only with the reporters’ on-site accounts and the hellish images did the dimensions of the terror, until then inconceivable, become real for mass audiences. Years earlier, the print media in some countries had reported on German crimes against the populations of occupied territories in the East, and on the Holocaust. Like the reports on the institutional murders, these stories had not reached the front pages of the daily press; they were scarcely noticed by the public and remained without any practical political consequences.76 Scholars have pointed to a number of interrelated reasons for this lack of public outcry—reasons that apply equally to the reporting on Nazi euthanasia.
Many people doubted the truth of these stories, sometimes calling them “fantastic.”77 This reaction was based less on the numbers of victims than on the reported rationality and cold-bloodedness with which a state had committed industrialized murder. The word “fantastic” contains an element of the unreal: the reports were viewed as exaggerated or invented. Especially at the time when Shirer published his stories, the reports must have reminded observers of rumors that circulated during the First World War about German war crimes—rumors that later came to be viewed as inventions of British propaganda.78 The 1914–1916 military-political constellation appeared to be repeating itself: in 1940 and 1941 the United States remained neutral, though Great Britain had a strong interest in its entry into the war. Moreover, the reality of the institutional murders was more difficult to accept in the early phase of the war, when no other German crime of this nature had come to light. Both factors naturally supported the suspicion that the reports were based on British propaganda.79
The German authorities’ tight control over access to information only heightened questions of authenticity. Since access to mass murder sites was blocked and news was strictly limited, only those who worked clandestinely could report the crimes. Many in the West questioned the sources’ neutrality: for their own safety they remained anonymous, and could be somehow biased. They could, according to this thinking, have an interest in exaggerating German crimes. Western media outlets thus received the reports guardedly and with skepticism.80 Although Shirer was later seen by the American public as a very trustworthy reporter on the German mass murders in Eastern Europe, he could not entirely resolve the unreality of the moment. In Berlin he reported what he had learned second- or third-hand, rather than directly from the sites of the crimes. The readers’ horror and the uncertainty could be allayed by the impreciseness of the number of victims and the vagueness of details about what was happening in the death centers.
News is of greatest interest to audiences when it evokes emotions. The central victim groups of the Nazi euthanasia program—the disabled and the mentally ill—were at the margins of society. Their fate, especially in times of war and crisis, must have seemed to most readers to be of lesser importance. The same was true for reporting on the persecution of Jews: politicians and the press alike believed that they had to take into account latent antisemitism in their own countries, and to avoid the impression that the war was a response to the murder of the Jews.81 Many reports about the Nazi euthanasia dealt with the “problem of the victims” by turning the victim sequence on its head, identifying persons with physical illnesses as the main target group.82 This misrepresentation reflected the social status of the actual victim groups: the life of physically ill persons appeared to carry more weight than that of persons with congenital disabilities or mental illnesses. The marginality of the latter groups in reports corresponded to their marginal position in their own society. The reversal of the order of the victims, it seems, was intended to highlight the criminal and inhumane character of the National Socialist regime. It reflects a perceived need for clarity and consensus vis-à-vis Nazi Germany, and served as a political instrument against isolationism—or, after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, as a motivator for war against Germany.83
Despite their monstrosity, the many crimes perpetrated during the war attracted significantly less attention than had antisemitic measures of the 1930s such as the Nuremberg racial laws of 1935 and the Kristallnacht pogroms in November 1938.84 In the early 1940s, military developments and public debates about the war claimed much of the media and audience attention in Western countries. Reports on the Holocaust and the Nazi euthanasia program were at a disadvantage because they rarely featured stories of heroism, telling rather of victims who were powerless in the face of German force.85 This hopelessness with regard to the Holocaust was considered incompatible with war news: “Bombing raids, invasions, and naval battles are the stuff of news, not delayed, often hearsay accounts of the wheels of the murder machine grinding relentlessly on.”86 In such a situation, only particularly shocking pictures—because of their apparent authenticity, their evidentiary nature, and their emotional effect—would have had the power to arouse interest and sympathy.
The shocking details of the institutional murders in Nazi Germany were published in 1941, above all by William Shirer. No essential details could be added, as no new information became available outside Germany. Because media outlets are geared toward reporting stories that are perceived to be new and important, very few articles on the subject appeared later in the war. In addition, the victims of euthanasia, as compared to the victims of the Holocaust, lacked advocates who, through public actions such as press conferences and demonstrations, could continue to call attention to the murders in the institutions. This chapter in the story of National Socialist destruction during the war was thus almost forgotten.
Translated from the German by Fred Flatow