Interview: Dan Plesch
A London academic wants the United Nations to unlock its wartime files on the massacre of the Jews
The 1945 conference adopting the UN charter. The organisation was set up three years earlier and its members knew about the Holocaust, argues Dan Plesch
Historians like nothing better than to nail a myth. Dan Plesch is confident that he has managed to refute two fairly major misconceptions about the Second World War. The first is that the United Nations was a creation of the post-war world, and the second is that, for all the suspicions that the Nazis were murdering Jews in Eastern Europe, this was never formally acknowledged by the Allied powers. According to Plesch, the UN was formed shortly after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour in 1942; and the organisation made a clear statement in December of that year that the Nazis were massacring Jews.
Plesch, the director of the Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy at Soas, University of London, says he became aware of the wartime United Nations when he typed the words "United Nations 1942-1946" into a search engine and was confronted with an avalanche of material online.
In his new book, America, Hitler and the UN, Plesch maintains that the birth of the organisation occurred in 1942 with the United Nations Declaration, formulated by Churchill and Roosevelt - which was, in part, a method by which Roosevelt sold the alliance to his own people and enabled the US to send vital supplies to Britain and the Soviet Union as part of the Lend-Lease arrangement.
Plesch, whose family moved from Berlin to London in 1933 - his grandfather was Einstein's doctor - says: "Without the UN and Lend-Lease the outcome of the war was in question. There could have been a Nazi victory or some kind of score draw. For the Jews there would have been an even more grizzly and lengthy outcome. Roosevelt needed the ideas and ideals of the UN to generate political support from the isolationists in his country."
Before his current job, Dan Plesch was Senior Research Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute. He has been on the council of CND and an adviser to the government over the Freedom of Information Act
Following the creation of the United Nations in 1942, a number of UN organisations were set up, including the United Nations War Crimes Commission (UNWCC) which provided the first multinational agreement on a range of international crimes prior to the Nuremberg trials. This was preceded by a statement issued by the UN which accused Germany of carrying out a massacre of European Jews in Poland. Plesch feels that this explicit statement has rather been overlooked by history.
"This is an extraordinarily important document which needs to be given more prominence," he says. "The statement basically says that the Germans were doing exactly what they said they would do, that they were doing it in Poland and that they were doing it to all of Europe's Jews. This statement was agonised over by Poles, Czechs and Russians and you finally got the British and Americans signing up to it too. In an era of creeping Holocaust denial, this was a clear benchmark."
Of course, the clear statement that the UN powers had in-depth information on Nazi atrocities begs the question of why these same powers did not do more to stop it. Plesch thinks there was a sense among senior politicians that the best way to end the massacres was to win the war. There was also a logistical and moral question mark over the bombing of camps such as Auschwitz, which housed prisoners. Not only was precision bombing at extreme range difficult, but there was also the probability that you would kill many of the people you were trying to help."
Plesch points out that not all in the British government were worried about the welfare of the Jews. "I quote a rather despicable statement by Viscount Cranbourne, who was one of Churchill's ministers, which basically says, 'Sorry, the Empire is full, there is no room for the Jews'. There continued to be a great deal of antisemitism everywhere."
While investigating the role of the UNWCC, Plesch attempted to gain access to files the organisation retains in New York. He was told they were not available. He was outraged. "For those concerned about Holocaust history there are in excess of 10,000 case files in that archive. Plus there are all the discussions over what constitutes a war crime. It would make a difference to our understanding of the Holocaust. Hopefully this book will help to open up this resource. I hope it does. Clearly, some nations are influencing the UN to keep the files locked."
Whatever his complaints over access to files, Plesch feels the UN has fulfilled an important function since its birth in 1942. But how much can the modern UN be traced back to its wartime foundation? Was the term United Nations not just a synonym for the Allied powers at this time?
Plesch says: "It was a superior synonym which encompassed the Soviet Union and some countries in Latin America which weren't actually at war with Germany. So it's a more encompassing term. When President Truman announced VE Day, he said that the forces of Germany had surrendered to the United Nations."
He adds: "Roosevelt and others maintained that the UN was here for the peace as well as the war. American postage was stamped "United Nations in war and in peace", so the intent for this to become a permanent organisation certainly existed from early in its life."
Most people think of the British-American-Soviet alliance as the Allied powers. But newspapers and the public at the time referred to the Allies as the United Nations from 1942 onwards. There is even a service of thanksgiving, at the Liberal Jewish Synagogue in London, held to mark "the final victory of the United Nations" in the war.
While Plesch acknowledges that the modern UN has not ushered in the golden age of peace that some dared to hope for, he adds that this should be tempered by the UN's greatest achievement. "We haven't had a third world war. We forget that a key aim of the UN was to stop the winning alliance from turning in on itself. There was a general assumption that a third war would come out of the ashes of the second, but we haven't had one."
American, Hitler and the UN is published by I B Taurus at £20