New Book Brings to Light Suppressed UN War Crimes Archive, Revealing Early Evidence Of Holocaust Death Camps

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Kept sealed for the past seventy years, files created by the United Nations War Crimes Commission reveal over 36,000 indictments of war crimes tried from Guam to Greece, Poland, France, the Philippines, Hong Kong, and Yugoslavia. Dan Plesch dug through these newly public archives and has made their secrets public in his new book: Human Rights after Hitler.

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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.

Kept sealed in the UN archives for the past seventy years, files kept by the United Nations War Crimes Commission (UNWCC) reveal war-time secrets and provide impetus to reinforce our much-needed human rights efforts today.

A little-known UN agency operating between 1943 and 1948, the United Nations War Crimes Commission (UNWCC) was tasked with the goal of identifying, classifying and assisting national governments with the trials of war criminals in Europe and East Asia. They did this with astonishing success, assisting with more than 36,000 cases and convicting hundreds of war criminals. Australia, Belgium, Canada, China, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, Ethiopia, France, Greece, India, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, United Kingdom, United States of America and Yugoslavia prosecuted WW2 war crimes through the UNWCC. Despite this, in 1949 the US government shut the Commission down. Why, and what made the files so valuable that they had to be locked away?

Dan Plesch, Director of the Centre for International Studies & Diplomacy at SOAS, spent five years lobbying to gain access to the UNWCC files. Now, in his ground-breaking new book, Human Rights after Hitler, he breaks the silence and, in doing so, rewrites the history of human rights since World War II.

Of huge significance are the legally-certified documents, government transcripts, and interviews with victims of torture that prove beyond doubt that the UK and US governments were told about Hitler’s extermination camps in the early years of the war, that they acknowledged their existence and yet, they did almost nothing to stop it.

Beyond that, the Commission’s commitment to tackling any crime, including rape, atrocities by foot soldiers “just following orders” and torture (the US routinely prosecuted the use of water torture, deemed acceptable to use today), and its wide level of support from countries across Europe and beyond reveals how dedicated, fearless, and forward thinking they were.

Thanks to the UNWCC, the United States conducted hundreds of trials of war criminals according to fair trial standards. These trials have the power of legal precedent today and can be seen on the project website The United States and its Allies operated a successful international system of collecting evidence from refugees and resistance fighters and applied the results in subsequent trials of ordinary soldiers and low level commanders. Human Rights after Hitler also highlights the work of an unsung hero, Congressman and Ambassador Herbert Pell, father of Senator Pell and amajor champion for the UNWCC.

Could a UNWCC 2.0 exist and work in the future? With xenophobia, Holocaust denial, anti-Semitism, and anti-Muslim prejudice on the rise again, Human Rights after Hitler is also a timely and thorough exploration of some of the specific ways in which the remarkable legacy of the UNWCC can - with modern-day applications - be carried forward. As Plesch says, “The suppression of the UNWCC’s achievements and its work should embolden us to use it as a model to the full, energized by outrage and its long enduring loss.”

Dan Plesch is director of the Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy at SOAS, University of London and a human rights activist. He is the author of America, Hitler and the UN, co-editor of Wartime Origins and Future of the United Nations, and has written and broadcast extensively on problems of international peace and security. Find out more at:

Listen to his NPR interview here: the quotation above is taken from this interview

Media should contact Jackie Beilhart at jb594(at)georgetown(dot)edu

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