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April 22, 2004


Nazis and Jews: Insights From Old Diary


WASHINGTON, April 21, 2004 -- James G. McDonald was an American diplomat who knew every major public figure in the 1930's as Europe and later the rest of the world rushed to war. He was also, it turns out, a dedicated and precise diarist, recording his meetings with Hitler, Mussolini and Roosevelt and detailing his own impressions of Nazi intentions.



James G. McDonald, the League of Nations high commissioner for refugees, aboard a ship in 1934. (AP)

The previously unpublicized diaries, numbering more than 10,000 pages, are now in the possession of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and will be made public beginning Thursday. They show, for example, that Mr. McDonald believed as early 1933 that the Nazis were considering the mass killing of Europe's Jews. It was a view he apparently shared with President Roosevelt, who seemed deeply concerned and said he wanted to find a way to send a warning message to the German people over the head of Hitler, according to the entries.

Severin Hochberg, a historian at the Holocaust Museum, said that the entries showed that Roosevelt was greatly concerned and that "this picture is very different from the claim that he was indifferent to the fate of Jews."

The diaries of Mr. McDonald, who served as the high commissioner for refugees for the League of Nations, provide fresh material for what has become a long-simmering debate among historians: Did the Nazis who took power in 1933 have an early intention to annihilate the Jews of Europe? Or was the plan for genocide something that evolved over the years and was impelled by other factors like the German Army's military setbacks in the east?

The McDonald diaries also provide accounts of his entreaties to Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli, then the Vatican's secretary of state, to help Europe's Jews. Cardinal Pacelli became Pope Pius XII, and his behavior during the Holocaust years has produced its own emotional debate as the Roman Catholic Church considers his eligibility for sainthood.

Mr. McDonald, who spoke German fluently and whose mother was German, toured Germany in April 1933 and reported that a friend of his from Harvard said fellow Nazis were planning the elimination of Jews from Germany.

He met on April 3 with the friend, Ernst (Putzi) Hanfstängl. Mr. Hanfstängl was part of Hitler's entourage and was, according to his own writings, enthralled with the Nazi leader.

Mr. McDonald records that Mr. Hanfstängl "spoke poetically" of the Nazis. He said that when he told Hitler of an international movement to boycott Germany, Hitler "beat his fists and exclaimed, 'Now we shall show them that we are not afraid of international Jewry. The Jews must be crushed.' " Mr. Hanfstängl then spoke of plans to assign a storm trooper to each Jew.

Five days later, Mr. McDonald met with Hitler in his office and got a softer view. Hitler said he was not making war on Jews as such, but on Communists and Socialists. Like many who met Hitler in that period, Mr. McDonald noted that he had striking, hypnotic eyes.

Weeks after meeting Hitler, Mr. McDonald conferred with Roosevelt in the White House about his views of what was happening in Germany.

Richard D. Breitman, a historian of the Holocaust at American University, said in an interview that the McDonald diaries were not conclusive as to when the Nazis decided on the mass killing of the European Jews. "But they remind people that the idea of killing Jews was there at the beginning of the Nazi regime," he said.

The Nazi leaders generally did not put their plans in writing, fueling the debate over when their full intentions for the Jews became clear. The diaries also show Cardinal Pacelli as someone who expressed sympathy for the Jews to Mr. McDonald, but was mainly concerned with the church's problems with the German government.

After an Aug. 14, 1933, meeting with Cardinal Pacelli, Mr. McDonald wrote to Felix Warburg, a financier and friend, that he was "deeply disappointed in the attitude" of the cardinal. He said that during an hourlong meeting, Cardinal Pacelli was "noncommittal but left me with the definite impression that no vigorous cooperation could be expected from that direction."

But in 1935, after similar meetings, Mr. McDonald recorded that he finally got Cardinal Pacelli's attention when he offered him a quid pro quo; in exchange for helping Jewish refugees from the Saar region, Mr. McDonald offered to help the Vatican deal with a left-wing government in Mexico that was hostile to the church.

Mr. Hochberg, the museum historian, said it appeared that some Catholics did help Jewish refugees after a referendum in which the Saar voted to join Germany, but that it was unclear if Cardinal Pacelli played any role. Nor is there any evidence, he said, that the Vatican received help in dealing with the Mexican government.



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