The Terrible Secret

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 14)

The title of Walter Laqueur’s book, The Terrible Secret: Suppression of the Truth About Hitler’s ’Final Solution’ is somewhat misleading. One of the points that Laqueur painstakingly documents is that much information about the Holocaust was available to those who were willing to read and having read, believe. In a few cases, especially involving the United States government and, to a much lesser extent, the British government, the information was suppressed, but such suppression did not prevent the facts of the Holocaust from getting out and from being published by the newspapers of the period. What Laqueur convincingly demonstrates in his book is that the Holocaust was really not a secret at all. What he proves is that the very ample information about the Holocaust was merely ignored both by governments and the public alike.

Laqueur’s book is a part of the growing body of literature on the Holocaust. Differing from such titles as A. D. Morse’s While Six Million Died (1968), J. Morley’s Vatican Diplomacy and the Jews During the Holocaust (1980), H. L. Feingold’s The Politics of Rescue (1981), and M. Gilbert’s Auschwitz and the Allies (1981), all of which study the question of the apathy and indifference of the Allies during the Holocaust, The Terrible Secret focuses on a very narrow theme—knowledge of the Holocaust. The specific questions explored in this book are: (1) “When did the information about the ’final solution’ first become known to Jews and non-Jews?”; (2) “Through what channels was it transmitted?”; and (3) “What was the reaction of those who received the news?” The answers to these questions lead to the much broader question of the meaning of knowing and believing. That the response of the Allied powers to the Holocaust was apathy and indifference cannot be doubted. The titles cited above and many others clearly document that indifference on the part of the governments and peoples. Laqueur provides insight into part of the reason for such indifference—namely, the inability, failure, or refusal to believe. Contained herein is the terrible psychological problem of a truth that is so horrendously tragic, so overwhelmingly disturbing, that the human psyche cannot handle it and, therefore refuses to believe. In the case of the Holocaust there really was not a terrible secret, but while the intellect knew, the judgment refused to accept, to believe, and so reality was denied—was overridden by the emotions, or so Laqueur argues.

By implication, Laqueur’s thesis provides a justification and rationalization for the apathy and indifference of the Allies and their refusal to assist the suffering victims of the Holocaust. The thesis deflects responsibility from peoples and governments and logically leads to the conclusion that nothing was done to prevent the Holocaust and save its victims because belief was not possible and, hence, nothing could have been done. The Laqueur book yields a psychological interpretation that explains all, that justifies all, and that makes the question of responsibility a matter of indifference. If one is to accept the Laqueur thesis, apathy and indifference are transformed into the concept of paralysis of the will, a normal and appropriate psychological response of the Western Allies. Given such a “normal” response, the contrary response of believing and acting to assist the victims of the Holocaust almost generates, for Raoul Wallenberg, Angelo Roncalli, Gerhard Riegner, Emanuel Ringelblum, Richard Lichtheim, and others who reported information or aided the Jews, the charge of abnormality.

The Laqueur thesis binds victim and bystander together with the same psychological mechanism. It has long been argued, from the time of the publication of Raul Hilberg’s The Destruction of the European Jews (1961) that Jews allowed themselves to be led, like sheep, to their own destruction, in part because they could not bear to believe in the likelihood of their own destruction. Hence, they practiced self-delusion, even though they were informed. They could not believe. Laqueur cites many victims on this topic, such as David Sompolinsky, a leading member of the Jewish community of Denmark: “We did not understand the situation. Despite all indications of imminent action against the Jews we continued to be skeptical . . . we could not get used to the idea that it could happen to us. Louis de Jong attributed self-delusion to: “a love of life, a fear of death, and an understandable inability to grasp the reality of the greatest crime in the history of mankind.” Laqueur expands this interpretation to include bystanders, such as the Allies. In the words of François La Rochefoucauld, “Man cannot stare at the sun or at death.” Holocaust victims and bystanders alike suffered paralysis of the will and could not act to prevent destruction.

Laqueur attempts to prove his thesis through a methodical analysis of sources and publication of information. Beginning with a description of Germany, Laqueur contends that in spite of the camouflage of language, the euphemisms for the Holocaust, information about the “final solution” reached large numbers of German people. Even in a totalitarian government such a secret could not be kept because thousands and thousands of...

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(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 14)

Choice. XVIII, May, 1981, p. 1328.

Christian Science Monitor. LXXIII, February 11, 1981, p. 17.

The Economist. CLXXVI, September 20, 1980, p. 110.

Library Journal. CV, December 15, 1980, p. 2570.

The New York Review of Books. XXVIII, October 22, 1981, p. 17.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVI, February 1, 1981, p. 1.

Saturday Review. VIII, January, 1981, p. 77.

Time. CXVII, March 2, 1981, p. 89.

Times Literary Supplement. November 14, 1981, p. 1288.

The Wall Street Journal. CXCVII, February 10, 1981, p. 26.