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Europe: Declassified U.S. Documents Shed New Light On World War II

  • Charles Fenyvesi

Washington, 13 February 1998 (RFE/RL) --America's National Archives has received close to 11 million pages of declassified documents on World War II, producing a bonanza for historians and other researchers.

Many of the once-secret diplomatic dispatches, intelligence reports and other such World War II documents are also becoming a source of news.

One such revelation is a report by Japanese Ambassador Osama on his private meeting with Adolf Hitler in Berlin in August 1943. After the German defeat at Stalingrad but with the fate of the Red Army counteroffensive still in doubt, the ambassador asked the German chancellor if he would consider a separate peace with the Soviet Union.

The answer was an immediate and surprising yes, the ambassador reported to Tokyo. But on one condition, Hitler added: the Russians would have to cede Ukraine to the Reich. Hitler explained that he needed the rich resources of Ukraine to win the war on the western front.

Historians know that at various times either the Germans or the Russians considered a separate peace. Historians also know that the Japanese were eager to mediate between the two European belligerents, as they feared that the Soviet Union would join its Anglo-American allies in fighting Japan, which did happen in the last days of the Second World War.

But Hitler's condition for a separate peace is news to historians who have not had the privilege of reading the Japanese ambassador's reports from Berlin. Until a few weeks ago, those reports were top secret, part of the batch of diplomatic cables intercepted and decoded by U.S. intelligence and handed to President Franklin Roosevelt each day.

The documents, now in the U.S. National Archives, are accessible, free of charge, to any American with a Social Security card or a driver's license or, in case of a foreigner, a passport.

For researchers, the tough question is what files to ask for. Historians and journalists are overwhelmed when they walk into the futuristic new archives building in College Park, Maryland, a few miles outside Washington. Reading through piles of photocopied or carbon-copied documents jammed into gray cardboard boxes, they are engaged in what some of them compare to panning for gold; and others, to hunting for buried treasure. Their finds, such as the Japanese ambassador's cable, will revise the historians' judgments. For instance, Roosevelt's knowledge of Hitler's condition for a separate peace with Russia will shed new light on Roosevelt's reasons to avoid tension with Stalin.

Another unexpected find reveals that in 1943 British and American cryptographers broke the code the Vatican used in communicating with its nuncios around the world. Also in the file was a historical study which explained that the Holy See used encryption from the 14th century on and that its cryptographers were very sophisticated. At the time the Allies read the code, there were three cipher systems -- known as red, yellow and green. The language was Italian, not Latin as in earlier centuries. Messages fell under three rubrics: first, routine Church business; then diplomacy and politics, and, thirdly and surprisingly, commerce.

Another document boasts that British and American intelligence services were able to capture and decode nearly 100 percent of the Vatican's telegraphic communications. But to find the decoded messages themselves, a researcher has to look for other boxes of files, stacked elsewhere in the huge storerooms and many of them are not yet declassified.

According to State Department sources, over the past few months the Vatican has been pressuring the U.S. government not to release some of those files as they deal with sensitive matters, such as the gold the Nazis plundered in the countries they occupied. Over the past year, the issue of gold and other valuables the Nazis took from Jews has become a subject of great interest to the U.S. Congress and the State Department, and has led to tensions with the Vatican and Switzerland.

Researchers working in the National Archives say they have found evidence that Vatican banking institutions accepted for safekeeping some of that gold, for instance from Croatia. But so far researchers have been unable to find out from the files how long the Vatican kept the gold and what it did with it.

"Just in the next few years there may be as many as 20 books written by these researchers," says archivist Greg Bradsher as he points to the men and women of all ages who hunch over marble-covered tables with rounded edges, set up in groups of four and resembling that icon of good luck, the four-leafed clover. Bradsher is responsible for compiling a 700 page study guide which serves as the road map for every researcher trying to find a way through the maze of documents relating to Nazi gold.

"Ninety-nine percent of the World War II material is now open to the public or soon will be," says Brian Latell who heads the office responsible for checking the documents to see if their labels "secret" and "top secret" may be removed. What remains classified, says Latell, an officer in the Central Intelligence Agency, are reports given to the U.S. by an allied government, such as Britain, or a neutral such as Sweden, which object to publication for a variety of reasons. The most common reason is that third countries do not want to be known as the supplier to the U.S. of certain pieces of intelligence.

Another argument for maintaining secrecy is that certain documents may embarrass individuals once employed by U.S. intelligence or reveal American methods of gathering information.

Archivists say that over the past year, close to 300 researchers perused the declassified wartime files, which makes the subject "the most studied." World War II draws ten to twenty times more researchers than the previous top subjects, the Kennedy assassination and Richard Nixon's presidential papers.

Besides historians and journalists, steady visitors to the Archives include researchers from law firms and financial institutions looking for documents on property stolen by the Nazis. Still others come from Congressional committees investigating Swiss and Swedish dealings with Axis powers, and from Jewish organizations trying to trace valuables taken from Jews killed in the Holocaust. No single individual has as much as skimmed all the files, though some groups engaged in a joint research project claim to have "gone through" two million of the close to 11 million pages. "It will be years before we know what we have in these files," says Bradsher, originally a historian of the American past who became so involved in World War II documents that he spends his weekends at the Archives.

He says: "It will take a generation or two of historians to assess the information that is being released now."