National Socialism’s American vacation

The gate in Birkenau. Photographer Stanisław Mucha, courtesy Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum.

On 20 January 1942 fifteen top Nazi officials met at a villa, on the shore of Berlin’s lake Wannsee, to plan the Holocaust. Thirty years later one of them, Georg Leibbrandt, went on holiday to America.

Newly published documents, including declassified CIA files, and the first interview with Jeffrey Mausner, the now-retired US Department of Justice (DOJ) lawyer responsible for investigating Leibbrandt in 1979, reveal new details about his role in the Holocaust and how he became the highest ranking Nazi ever to visit the USA.

Leibbrandt attended the Wannsee Conference alongside more notorious war criminals such as Adolf Eichmann. According to the minutes of the meeting, it was called to discuss the “organisational, factual and material interests in relation to the final solution of the Jewish question in Europe.”

Front page of an old historical document shwoing leibbrandt's name on the invitation list for the Wannsee conference
Attendance list for the Wannsee Conference, showing Leibbrandt’s name.

Leibbrandt was there as the second most senior official in the Ostministerium, the Ministry for occupied territories in the East. Born in what is now Ukraine, he was seen as an expert on the various nationalities found in the east. Before the war he had documented hundreds of German-speaking colonies in Russia, and in the post-war period he kept in touch with American genealogists keen to trace their roots back to those settlements. In addition to meeting with a notorious American holocaust denier, his trip to the US was partly an attempt to reclaim his academic collection, which had been seized by American forces.

By late 1941, when Leibbrandt received his invitation to the Wannsee conference, mass shootings were already commonplace in occupied Soviet territories. The Nazis had also used gas sporadically, particularly against the inmates of psychiatric hospitals. However, the SS organisers of the Wannsee conference wanted to move from mass murder to genocide – the deliberate killing of all Europe’s Jews.

The Wannsee minutes list the 11 million remaining Jews in each European country, including 330,000 in England, and describe how, “In the course of the practical execution of the final solution, Europe will be combed through from west to east.”

“It was shocking that Leibbrandt had been in the United States,” said Jeffrey Mausner. “Not only that he was at a senior level, but that he was directly involved in the final solution.” During a phone interview Mausner, now in his 70s and living in Los Angeles, still sounds as outraged as he did when he first learned about Leibbrandt. Back in 1979 Mausner was a new recruit at the DOJ’s Office of Special Investigations, a small Nazi-hunting team formed that year after public outcry about Nazi concentration camp guards setting up home in American suburbs.

The 1974 film Marathon Man, a paranoid thriller starring Dustin Hoffman, captured the mood. The film is best known for its scene in which a Nazi dentist played by Laurence Olivier keeps drilling into Hoffman’s teeth, asking “Is it safe? Is it safe?” Yet an equally horrifying moment comes when a concentration camp victim, a tattoo clearly visible on his arm, spots his torturer on the streets of New York’s diamond district.

Leibbrandt photo.
Georg Leibbrandt, head of the Political Department of the Reich Ministry for the Occupied Eastern Territories.

Leibbrandt wasn’t a camp guard or torturer. Hannah Arendt, who reported on Eichmann’s 1961 trial in Jerusalem, coined the term Schreibtischtäter, desk-murderer. They may not have pulled a trigger or manned a watchtower, but the desk-murderers wrote the policies which defined who was a Jew when considering the offspring of mixed marriages, they organized the trains to take Europe’s Jews to Auschwitz, and they settled bureaucratic turf disputes in favour of genocide. Leibbrandt was one of these men.

When Mausner now reads his 1979 report justifying the revocation of Leibbrandt’s visa he is shocked by the evidence he cited:

Extract from DOJ memo, setting out the reasons for cancelling Leibbrandt’s visa.

“Looking at it now, it’s even more shocking that the Germans never prosecuted him. The smoking gun. And even though there’s this use of the euphemism ‘solution of the Jewish question’ that’s all part of this. He knew very well what “solution of the Jewish question” was. This statement is in October 1942 – Wannsee was January 1942. This is basically him saying I intend to bring about the murder of hundreds of thousands or millions of people. Wow.”

Before the war Leibbrandt, an ethnic German who grew up near Odessa, had been an academic, publishing seven volumes mapping German-speaking colonies across Russia. Stalin’s brutal resettlement of ethnic Germans, including members of his own family, underpinned Leibrandt’s anti-Bolshevism, which eased his ideological path into National Socialism in 1933.

After the war Leibbrandt remained engaged in historical and genealogical research, frequently liaising with groups like the American Historical Society Of Germans From Russia.

Letter from Georg Leibbrandt to his brother Gottlieb in Canada asking for assistance in organising his trip to North America. Photo courtesy of Karen Brglez.

In 1974, by now in his mid-70s, he visited the US with his son, partly in an attempt to reunite his academic papers, seized by American forces at the end of war. According to academic Samuel Zinner, in Washington Leibbrandt met with Professor Austin App, a holocaust denier whose pamphlet, ‘The Six Million Swindle,’ was banned from sale on Amazon earlier this year. After visits to Cleveland, Ohio and Niagara Falls to see his brother Gottlieb, also a former Nazi, Leibbrandt returned home.

Leibbrandt never faced justice before he died in 1982. After the Nazi defeat he was detained by British troops but, despite the urging of the World Jewish Congress, he wasn’t put on trial at Nuremberg, instead appearing as a witness. 

Mausner believes the decision by German post-war prosecutors not to try Leibbrandt was “unforgiveable.”  

“Why, at this time, were they not interested in prosecuting a high level mass murderer, a Nazi? I think they just didn’t care that much about the Holocaust. I think that there may have been people still in the government who had been involved with the Nazis. Basically they really didn’t care very much,” said Mausner.

Perhaps the closest Leibbrandt came to a reckoning came from his son, Hansgeorg. According to his biographer Martin Munke, in the 1960s Leibbrandt slapped his son after he confronted his father, calling him a desk-murderer.

Mausner is still frustrated that all he was able to do was cancel Leibbrandt’s visa, and revoke the US citizenship of camp guards. “These people committed some of the worst crimes ever committed. You would spend years prosecuting them. And then the punishment did not at all fit the crimes. But at least we did something. Which is more than most countries did.”

“The people who worked on it were really serious about it. We worked really hard on it and we used whatever we had to try to get some justice. The laws just weren’t there, they weren’t commensurate in any way with what they did.”

“So that was that.”

A hut of one’s own

Photo by Nachelle Nocom on Unsplash

A guide to the building, living in and politics of your own log cabin

What if the room of your own you’ve been longing for also had a view overlooking the forest, a log burner keeping you warm, and all you could hear was the occasional soft thump of snow falling off the trees? What if you had chopped the firewood, as part of a simpler life lived enveloped by nature? What if you yourself had built your own cabin?

This is the flight of fancy many of us have been having even before the pandemic. Henry David Thoreau’s influential description of living in a log cabin next to Walden pond in Massachusetts dates back to the 1840s, long before the blogging phenomenon of Cabin Porn sold us the dream of a hut in the mountains overlooking a lake.

Andrew Salter at his home in Kent. Photo: Nick Donovan

Walking up to the front door of Andrew Salter’s two-room wooden barn, nestled against a slow-moving river in Kent, my first impression isn’t visual however. I’m struck by the sheer intensity of birdsong. Surrounded by concentric circles of garden, meadows, and his neighbour’s farms, “I feel like I’m living in a field. I’m constantly aware of the surroundings,” said Andrew. “I’ve got French doors this side, and a window on that side and sometimes I’ll get swallows just flying through.”

Inspired by Japanese culture and reading Walden when he was 16, at the recommendation of a singer being interviewed on Radio 1, the tiny size of Andrew’s home has forced him to shed distracting possessions. But his isn’t a hair-shirted life. Just as Thoreau left out three chairs for visitors, Andrew has found himself spending more time on the porch, getting to know his neighbours.

Andrew’s tiny house in the snow. Video by Andrew Salter.

For Cath Sherrell and Beccy Foley too the idea of living in a tiny house is about setting aside what Beccy describes as “the materialistic side of our lives and just focusing on what is actually important.”

I met Beccy and Cath at the Centre for Alternative Technology in Machynlleth, where the friendliest carpenter in Wales, Carwyn Lloyd Jones, hosts a ‘Build a Tiny House’ course. Before the pandemic a group of us, some of whom hadn’t used a saw before, gathered to learn how to build a small wooden cabin in a week.

As one of the wettest places in Britain, Machynlleth is the perfect place to learn how to keep warm and dry. The overhang of the roof and the cladding of your walls are important when the rain becomes horizontal. Carpentry is interspersed with sessions on how to choose solar panels, how to balance ventilation with insulation and what size log burner to buy for a tiny house.

The tuition is practical and step-by-step, literally from the bottom up: floor, walls, then roof. Carwyn is the most approachable tutor you could imagine. When we mis-measure the window frame, leaving a letterbox sized hole underneath the window sill, he chuckles gently and then helps us fix it.

How to build a tiny house – course at the Centre for Alternative Technology, Wales.

There is a simple joy to be had from building something – whether well or badly. For Toby Philips and Matteo Sanguinetti Bird, what started off as a hobby became an obsession. “We source each bit of wood really carefully. We spent hours when we’re laying out the floorboards thinking about which ones look nicest in which part of the room. It’s a bit over the top!” said Toby. They love using  Douglas fir, both for its heady scent and a light pink hue which greys gently with time. One of their favourite moments in the build comes seeing the frame erected “you start to see the shape, it’s really satisfying.”

Reforesting Scotland’s 1,000 Huts campaign won a battle to get a definition of a hut into Scottish planning law. Campaigner Donald McPhillimy says that a hut “can’t be your principle residence, it’s for intermittent recreational use, it’s a temporary structure to be removed at the end of its life, it’s largely off-grid, it’s something completely different from a house.” This difference has helped to reassure some planning authorities that a building a hut won’t lead to urban sprawl.

Donald is confident that eventually these reforms will lead to the building of thousands of cabins in Scotland. Both Scotland and the rest of the UK are starting from a low base. According to Lesley Riddoch, author of Huts, a place beyond, Scotland has just a few hundred huts, compared to Norway’s 400,000. While 93% of second homes in Norway are wooden huts, and just 7% converted barns and farmhouses, in the UK the reverse is true. Through a long tradition of more equitable access to land and a law against turning primary residences into second homes, Norway has created a more democratic hutting tradition.

“Friluftsliv”

A word first used by Ibsen in 1859 meaning “a state in which recreation, rejuvenation and the restoration of balance are achieved through immersion in nature”

Lesley Riddoch, Huts, a place beyond.

The result is culture which values leisure as more than ‘time-off.’ The Norwegian word Friluftsliv, which Lesley writes was first used in print by playwright Henrik Ibsen in 1859, describes “a state in which recreation, rejuvenation and the restoration of balance are achieved through immersion in nature.” It is hard to think of an English equivalent.

For Donald the appeal of a hut is simple. It is a “place to get away. Place to switch off. Place to simplify life. Ideally you’d leave your phone and laptop behind. A place to slow down. Centre yourself, get a balance. Cook some food. Read a book. Have a sleep. Take your time.”  While for Cath Sherrell the pull of a cabin “goes back to us being kids. Whether it’s a treehouse, or a Wendy house, we all loved having a play house. I think adults always need a play space, or a den, or a hideaway, and that’s what those small spaces are about.”

A taxonomy of cabins, huts, treehouses and sheds
Cabin, shed or treehouse? A taxonomy of huts by Nick Donovan.

Top 5 books to read in a cabin

  1. Walden, Heny David Thoreau, the original simple-lifer.
  2. A room of one’s own, Virgina Woolf, the feminist classic.
  3. Huts, a place beyond, Lesley Riddoch hutting politics in Scotland and Norway.
  4. Cabin Porn, edited by Zach Klein, to dream.
  5. Misery, Stephen King, for when it all gets a bit too twee.

Listen to Donald McPhilimy discuss the 1,000 huts campaign in episode one of The Cabin: