‘Holocaust Diplomacy’: How Axis, Allied and Neutral States Affected the Pace of Extermination Between 1942 and 1944

By Izaak Radecki


The term ‘Holocaust Diplomacy’ was first coined by Professor Richard Toye and Dr Nicholas Terry at the University of Exeter. The following is an assessed essay I wrote for ‘A Transnational History of the Holocaust’, Dr Terry’s specialist module at the university.


The minutes from the Wannsee conference suggest that as early as 1941, leading Nazi officials expected international diplomacy with Axis states to play a major role in directing the course of their quest to rid Europe of its Jews.[1] It is surprising then, that international diplomacy regarding the Holocaust was not initiated by Germany with countries identified at the conference, like Romania, until 1943. It is clear that German officials did not predict the level of resistance that they would receive from some of their supposed allies, such as Romania and Italy. Neither did they anticipate that diplomatic approaches from Allied states, neutral countries and NGOs would greatly impact the potential of their ideological campaign against the European Jewry. Individually, these countries and organisations had varied and often limited effects on the efficiency of the mass murder of Jews, but against the backdrop of a crumbling Axis war effort towards 1944, the success and speed of extermination became greatly influenced by the international diplomacy of this collective.[2] In the 1950s, many historians began to examine the diplomatic exchanges between Axis states, then by the 1960s, the considered rescue attempts of the Allies as bystanders became popular.[3] More recently, particular attention has been paid to the humanitarian efforts of NGOs, however, few existing studies have successfully drawn all of these efforts together and even fewer have started to evaluate their respective impacts on the process of Jewish annihilation.[4] In fact, in her study of Italy in the Holocaust, Susan Zuccotti admitted that ‘something is missing’ from studies examining extermination processes through an international lens.[5] Indeed, it is possible that investigating the concept of international ‘Holocaust diplomacy’ could fill this historiographical void. For the purpose of this essay, the term ‘Holocaust diplomacy’ will be taken to mean any international diplomatic interactions which had some degree of effect on the process of practically implementing the ‘final solution’ to the Jewish question. Therefore, any potential influences on the ideological development of the final solution are not relevant, unless they translated into practice. Likewise, specific rescue attempts shall not be examined in detail, although their implications may be considered in relation to any effects on the extermination process. This essay will investigate the gradual emergence of Allied diplomacy and interactions with neutral states, how Germany interacted with the Axis states to conduct extermination, and the campaigns of NGOs, such as the Red Cross, in terms of their respective implications on the processes that facilitated the Holocaust. Geographically, specific attention will be paid to the effects on the Holocaust in Hungary, Romania and the Italian occupation zone in Croatia while the wider focus will be on extermination processes in South-Eastern Europe. This region experienced the Holocaust very differently to the rest of Eastern Europe and the USSR, and in part, this was due to the involvement of international diplomacy.

As one of the pillars of the Axis alliance, one would have expected Italy to have both ideologically and practically supported every stage of Germany’s quest to rid Europe of Jews. After Adolf Eichmann became director of the Section IV B4 of the Reichssicherheitshauptamt (RSHA), he provided the diplomatic link which facilitated the execution of the decisions made at the Wannsee Conference within Axis states.[6] German diplomats therefore worked closely with the governments of Axis states, like Italy, to convince them to hand over their Jews for deportation to the east. Thus, after being politely approached by Otto von Bismarck, the Minister of State at the German Embassy in Rome, in August 1942 to surrender Jews from the Italian zone of occupation in Croatia for deportation, Benito Mussolini’s government agreed.[7] Raul Hilberg noted that this style of diplomatic approach to collecting Jews in contested territories was typical of the Nazi foreign office when dealing with Axis states.[8] Unlike Romania, Italy’s government did not need convincing to agree to hand over its Jews, however, this diplomatic agreement was merely superficial. In fact, a handful of Italian officials from across the country’s diplomatic organs opposed Mussolini’s immediate compliance with the Reich, and therefore set out to sabotage governmental efforts to fulfil this German request by simply refusing to obey German orders delivered through their diplomatic channels. This was a ‘silent mutiny’ of well-connected diplomats who were in charge of thousands of Italian civil servants and military administrators, and therefore, their compliance was vital to facilitating the capture of Jews in occupied Croatia.[9] Jonathan Steinberg commented that at this point, there was no way that these officials could have anticipated the full extent of the final solution without von Bismarck arrogantly revealing that the Croatian Jews were to be subject to ‘liquidation’ after deportation.[10] Therefore, by refusing to involve themselves in organising the deportations of Jews from the Italian occupied zone, transporting Jews from the occupied zone to the east was temporarily impossible. These high ranking Italian diplomats had substantially limited the scope of extermination in Croatia while emphasising a hierarchical rift through their defiance of German backed orders from Mussolini.[11] This momentous act would set a precedent for the success of Italian diplomacy in slowing down the Holocaust, as ambassadors and civil servants based in Southern France and Italian-occupied Greece would also refuse to comply with Nazi orders between 1943 and 1944.[12] Mussolini’s toothless support, von Bismarck’s inability to deliver on his duty of diplomatically convincing the Italians to deport their Jews, and the defiance of Italian civil servants in Croatia, caused the German government to face the first major obstacle in achieving the annihilation of the European Jewry. The episode in the Italian-occupied territory of Croatia illustrated the ability of diplomats on the ground to unify and prevent the deportation of Jews from within their territories to their eventual deaths in the east, and therefore directly hinder the process of extermination.

Other than illustrating the success of a bottom-up approach to sabotage, Holocaust diplomacy between Germany and Italy regarding Croatian Jews simultaneously highlighted how bureaucratic and volatile diplomacy could be used to prevent Nazi Germany having access to the Jews of a particular region. Much like Mussolini, Ion Antonescu subscribed to the German goal of annihilating the Jewish race in Europe to the point that he formally agreed to deport thousands of Romanian Jews in August 1942.[13] Consequently, Romania was granted sovereignty throughout the course of the war which reinforced the importance of the role that diplomacy would play in carrying out the final solution.[14] Meanwhile, the importance of the Vienna Award of 1940 was equally emphasised by this relationship, as Romanian diplomacy adopted a nationalistically resistant style after the loss of territory to Hungary that was overseen by Germany.[15] This was key to the process of Holocaust diplomacy, as German advisors would regularly meet with Romanian officials including Antonescu and Radu Lecca as well as Dr Nandor Gingold of the Central Jewish Office (CJO) with the intention of trying to dictate Germanic anti-Semitic policy to eventually carry out the deportation of Romanian Jews to Poland.[16] Indeed, Lecca’s mission to Berlin to confirm that Romania would deport its Jews to Poland ultimately broke down after he was insulted by German diplomats, and so the agreement was disregarded and no Jews were deported. Meanwhile in Romania, Gingold was successfully procrastinating against German requests to prevent Jewish emigration to Palestine, which ultimately closed the door to German attempts to convince Romania to deport its Jews to Poland. Volatile Romanian diplomacy and Jewish-led procrastination kept German aims in suspension, and therefore prevented deportations which would have resulted in death. Furthermore, the increasingly poor Axis performance in the war exacerbated the Romanian nationalist agenda that underpinned most diplomatic meetings, and so it was unsurprising that Antonescu disregarded his initial agreement to deport Jews. The fallout from these diplomatic miscarriages between Germany and Romania amounted to Antonescu independently deporting many of Romania’s Jews to Transnistria, much to the dismay of the Nazis who endorsed a more systematic approach to the final solution by deportations to Poland. After refusing to deport Jews to Poland, the internal deportations to Transnistria did result in an independent contribution to the wider Holocaust, as 300,000 Jews died as a result of the Antonescu regime.[17] Paradoxically, despite the fact that before 1943 Romania did deport its Jews from Bessarabia and northern Bukovina to Transnistria, the gradually deteriorating diplomatic relationship between Germany and Romania prevented further Romanian Jews from being handed over to the Reich to certain death, and thus saved around 375,000 lives, according to Dennis Deletant.[18] Generally, historians like Deletant have agreed that Antonescu was a complex, opportunistic and temperamental leader, and therefore the paradox that his diplomacy both saved and sentenced hundreds of thousands of Romanian Jews accurately reflected his character.[19] Furthermore, it wholly illustrated how Romania’s unstable, nationalistic diplomacy with Germany had a remarkable impact on the course of the Holocaust. Similar to the Italian approach to Holocaust diplomacy over Croatian Jews, the Antonescu administration was able to diplomatically suspend German efforts to annihilate all Romanian Jews, albeit for nationalistic purposes rather than for any humanitarian motive.

Jewish attempts at Holocaust diplomacy usually sought the prevention of deportations into German occupied territories, which was represented in the case of Gingold’s diplomatic procrastination. The remarkable number of Jews saved by the Romanian decision to disallow German-led deportations is testament to the potential that Holocaust diplomacy had to slow down the killing process. Therefore, in theory, the proposed Transnistria Plan of 1942 should have been a diplomatic triumph for Jewish negotiators as it had the potential to save around 70,000 Jewish lives and therefore slow down the Holocaust just as it was gaining momentum in Romania.[20] However, despite the Transnistria Plan complying with Antonescu’s support of Jewish emigration and receiving support from Jewish and Allied leaders, poor-quality negotiations between Romanian and German diplomats ultimately prevented its realisation. German approval was required to enable the large-scale emigration of Jews from Transnistria, but once the German ambassador to Bucharest, Manfred von Killinger, was made aware of the Transnistria Plan, he consistently dismantled negotiations that were aimed at defining its cost, logistics and feasibility. Consequently, the agenda of independence which underpinned all Romanian negotiations with Germany became frustrated, and the voices of Jewish negotiators became muffled by Antonescu as he sought to ransom Romanian Jews while allowing for their emigration. Again, diplomatic efforts had broken down, but this time it had prevented an opportunity for one of the most successful attempts to allow Romanian Jews to escape the Holocaust, and had meanwhile resulted in another failure of Jewish Holocaust diplomacy. The abandonment of the Transnistria Plan by 1943 resulted in the deaths of thousands of Jews who could have been saved if diplomacy between Romania, Germany and Jewish agencies had been conducted properly. Thus, the Holocaust in Romania was able to continue for another year without being significantly disturbed.

Although the Allies were aware of the Transnistria Plan in 1943, the true extent of the support that they would have offered remains a mystery. By this point in the war, the Allies were generally too distracted by the conflict to engineer any attempt to prevent the extermination of Jews, even though British intelligence was becoming increasingly aware of the scale of mass killing.[21] On 17th December 1942, a UN declaration was even signed by the Allies formally recognising the German atrocities, but even this did not open the doors of Britain and America to the thousands of European Jews who were being ransomed by Romania and persecuted by the Axis.[22] Furthermore, the proposed Brand mission to succumb to Nazi ransoming of Jewish lives was appropriately dismissed by the British government and barely considered by the US as the demands of the Germans would have helped their war effort.[23] Therefore, often through no fault of their own, the collective Holocaust diplomacy of the Allies until early 1944 was toothless and at times practically non-existent, which therefore failed to have any noteworthy effects on the pace of extermination in South-Eastern Europe.[24] However, individual Allied states did begin to initiate their own diplomatic efforts to try and save Jewish refugees as the war developed, and internal disputes even erupted between Britain and the US over how to provide support to Jewish refugees. For instance, Britain reluctantly agreed to issue forged Palestinian citizenship certificates after pressure from the US which would have supposedly allowed Hungarian Jews to emigrate to Palestine safely.[25] However, no holders of these certificates were legally able to reach Palestine before the liberation of Hungary, and so this opportunity to save thousands from the Holocaust was effectively wasted.[26]

However, 1944 proved to be a watershed moment for Allied Holocaust diplomacy, as Zoltán Vági, Lászlò Csősz and Gábor Kádár recognised that many of the Allied diplomats who were awarded the Yad Vashem title of ‘Righteous Among Nations’ did so because they were able to save tens of thousands of Jews in Hungary in 1944.[27] After enormous pressure from Jewish agencies in the US throughout the course of the war, Franklin D. Roosevelt established the War Refugee Board (WRB) in 1944 which played a pivotal role in launching diplomatic efforts to save the Jews of Budapest.[28] From this bureaucratic initiative, the collective Holocaust diplomacy of the Allies was revived and even began to encourage neutral states to begin to take diplomatic action against Miklòs Horthy’s administration.[29] For example, the Vatican finally broke its silence on the Holocaust in Hungary after appeals from the WRB and Roosevelt’s public condemnation of the deportation of Jews.[30] Pope Pius XII called for Horthy to end his ‘war against the Jews’, which was unhelpfully translated by the Papal Nuncio in Budapest to apply exclusively to baptised Jews.[31] While this frankly pathetic attempt at Holocaust diplomacy would not have individually caused the pace of deportations to slow, it formed part of the collective diplomatic effort that was spearheaded by the WRB and the US. Meanwhile, the efforts of neutral states contributed significantly more to the collaborative diplomatic effort. Pertinent to this, several Swedish diplomatic efforts evolved into successful rescue missions in 1944, as Raoul Wallenberg demonstrated in his mission to Hungary in 1944.[32] Wallenberg, as a representative of the WRB on the Swedish special envoy to Budapest, managed to issue ‘protective passes’ which effectively gave Jews a form of demi-diplomatic immunity which saved 10,000 Hungarian Jews and even aided another 40,000, according to Steven Koblik.[33] In contrast to British attempts at direct Holocaust diplomacy through means of credential protection, Sweden had approached the persecution of Jews in Hungary with unprecedented success. The efforts of Wallenberg and the WRB saved tens of thousands of Jews while successfully contributing to collective Allied diplomatic efforts which slowed down the Holocaust in Hungary. The burst of Allied and neutral diplomacy in 1944 involved successful diplomatic rescue attempts and saw states capitalising on Horthy’s nationalistic insecurities to remarkably slow down deportations. Just like Antonescu, by 1944 Horthy was concerned about the image of his country, and just as the Transnistria Plan has been interpreted as a means of Romania reaching out to the Allies, Horthy’s decision to stop deporting Jews in the summer of 1944 illustrates the tangible success of Allied holocaust diplomatic efforts on bringing the Holocaust in South-Eastern Europe to a grinding halt.[34]

The efforts of the Swedish government and diplomats were conducted alongside the equally influential diplomatic campaigns of the Swedish Red Cross, which was internationally connected to the Swiss-based International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). The general humanitarian efforts of the ICRC can be considered as one of the most influential of any non-governmental organisation (NGO) with regard to influencing the speed of the Holocaust in 1944 primarily due to the efforts of the Swedish wing. Indeed, in proportion to the wider ICRC, the Swedish Red Cross proved itself to be considerably more productive in diplomatically aiding Jews in Hungary. The fact that the ICRC was physically unable to send its humanitarian units into regions of mass Jewish suffering, including concentration camps, effectively undermined any diplomatic efforts it would have made from the outset as it would have been far less likely to effectively translate Holocaust diplomacy into tangible rescue operations. In fact, only when Germany began to retreat from South-Eastern Europe did the ICRC begin to properly mobilise, but by then most of the Jews in the region had either fled or had already been killed.[35] Consequently, the ICRC was tasked more with helping survivors than changing the course of the Holocaust, as the course of the war was more responsible for reducing the speed of killing by the end of 1944. It is therefore understandable that the support the Swedish wing of the ICRC offered the government and the WRB in the Wallenberg rescue operation has been retrospectively emphasised as such an exemplary NGO success before the retreat of the Germans.[36] In effect, the Swedish Red Cross offered safe passage to thousands of Hungarian Jews in 1944, thus preventing them from falling into the hands of the Nazis at a time when extermination was drastically intensifying.[37] The Swedish government provided the funding while the Red Cross had aided Wallenberg in saving thousands of Jews through successful utilising diplomatic tools. Meanwhile, the ICRC was able to partially overcome its relative wartime redundancy by helping survivors of concentration camps after the German retreat.[38] While this may not have had an effect on the speed of the Holocaust, the actions of the ICRC and the Swedish Red Cross can be reconciled for this study. As such, their collective impact on reducing the speed of Holocaust in Hungary must be acknowledged.

The impact of ‘Holocaust diplomacy’ on the course and speed of the Holocaust in South-Eastern Europe was massively varied depending on who was conducting the diplomacy, where it was being carried out, and most importantly, if such diplomacy effectively translated into a tangible effect on the speed of the Holocaust. In terms of the Axis states, German approaches to collect Jews for deportation were often met with resistance from diplomats and civil institutions, which did often result in some groups of Jews being inaccessible to the Nazis, thus pausing the rate of killing in the Italian occupied zone of Croatia, for instance. Meanwhile, the complexities of Romanian diplomacy and Antonescu’s multifaceted character had a monumental effect on the course of the Holocaust, as Dennis Deletant highlighted. Hundreds of thousands of Jewish lives were saved, lost and abandoned by German, Romanian and Jewish negotiations as the war progressed and Ion Antonescu became conscious of Romanian blame, Allied perception and the financial state of his country. While Axis Holocaust diplomacy certainly had a more significant impact on the rate of the Holocaust throughout the war, by 1944, the Allied response had finally amounted to an influential collective diplomatic effort that subsequently attracted neutral states like Sweden and the Vatican to try and save Jewish lives in South-Eastern Europe. Despite most efforts amounting to nothing throughout the war, by the end, Britain, the US and Sweden in particular were able to use diplomacy to save thousands of Jewish lives in Hungary and therefore derailed many last-ditch Nazi attempts to continue annihilating the Jewish race. Finally, the efforts of the ICRC and Swedish Red Cross combined did provide supplementary help to Allied diplomacy. ‘Holocaust diplomacy’ is a term which requires a firm definition within Holocaust historiography by reconciling the international bystander history of the 1960s and the studies of Axis diplomacy which were typical of the 1950s. Admittedly, only the surface has been scratched here and future studies will undoubtedly re-examine evidence of diplomacy during the Holocaust through the lens of ‘Holocaust diplomacy’ to determine just how the rate of killing was affected.


Image: A Red Cross Nurse aiding deportees


[1] Protocol of conference on the Final Solution of the Jewish question held on January 20, 1942 in Berlin, Am Großen Wannsee No. 56-58, translation online at http://www.ghwk.de/fileadmin/user_upload/pdf-wannsee/engl/protokol.pdf

[2] David Cesarani, Final Solution: The Fate of the Jews 1933-49 (London, 2016) pp. 699-702

[3] Robert Cherry, ‘Holocaust Historiography: The Role of the Cold War’, Science and Society, Vol. 63, No. 4 (1999) 472-475

[4] Martin Shaw, Genocide and International Relations: Changing Patterns in the Transitions of the Late Modern World (Cambridge, 2013) pp 67-73

[5] Susan Zuccotti, The Italians and the Holocaust (Nebraska, 1985) p. 99

[6] David Cesarani, Eichmann: His Life and Crimes (London, 2005) p. 181

[7] Jonathan Steinberg, All or Nothing: The Axis and the Holocaust 1941-43 (London, 1991) p. 1

[8] Raul Hilberg, The Destruction of the European Jews, Third Edition, Volume One, (New Haven, 2003) p. 455

[9] Steinberg, All or Nothing, p. 58

[10] Ibid, p. 56

[11] Esther Gitman, Rescue and Survival of Jews in the Independent State of Croatia (NDH) 1941-45, PhD, The City University of New York (2005) p. 152

[12] Steinberg, All or Nothing, p. 3

[13] Hilberg, Destruction of the European Jews, p. 501

[14] Dennis Deletant, Hitler’s Forgotten Ally: Ion Antonescu and His Regime, Romania 1940-1944 (Basingstoke, 2006) pp. 1-3

[15] Ernst Presseisen, ‘Prelude to “Barbarossa”: Germany and the Balkans, 1940-41’, The Journal of Modern History, Vol. 32, No. 4 (1960) 360

[16] Ephraim Ophir, ‘Was the Transnistria Rescue Plan Achievable?’, Holocaust and Genocide Studies, Vol. 6, No. 1 (1991) 5

[17] Deletant, Hitler’s Forgotten Ally, p. 1

[18] Ibid, pp. 2-4

[19] Tuvia Friling, Arrows in the Dark: David Ben-Gurion, the Yishuv Leadership, and Rescue Attempts During the Holocaust, Ora Cummings (trans.), Volume One, (Wisconsin, 2005) (ebook) pp. 198-200

[20] Ophir, ‘Was the Transnistria Rescue Plan Achievable?’, 1

[21] Nicholas Terry, ‘Conflicting Signals: British Intelligence on the ‘Final Solution’ Through Radio Intercepts and Other Sources’, Yad Vashem Studies XXXII, (2004) pp. 351-352

[22] David Wyman, The Abandonment of the European Jews (New York, 1984) pp. 6-7

[23] Bernard Wasserstein, Britain and the Jews of Europe, 1939-1945 (New York, 1979) pp. 249-253

[24] Shlomo Aronson, Hitler, the Allies, and the Jews, (Cambridge, 2004) (ebook) p. xii

[25] Wasserstein, Britain and the Jews of Europe, p. 268

[26] Ibid, p. 268-269

[27] Zoltán Vági, Lászlò Csősz, Gábor Kádár (eds.), The Holocaust in Hungary: Evolution of a Genocide (Maryland, 2013) pp. 313-314

[28] Richard Breitman & Allan Lichtman, FDR and the Jews (Massachusetts, 2013) p. 3

[29] Richard Breitman & Shlomo Aronson, ‘The End of the “Final Solution”?: Nazi Plans to Ransom Jews in 1944’, Central European History, Vol. 25, No. 2 (1992) 198

[30] Cesarani, Final Solution, p.716

[31] Ibid, pp. 715-717

[32] Tony Kushner, ‘’Pissing in the Wind?’ The Search for Nuance in the Study of Holocaust ‘Bystanders’’, The Journal of Holocaust Education, Vol. 9, No. 2 (2000) 70

[33] Steven Koblik, ‘Sweden’s Attempts to Aid Jews, 1939-45’, Scandinavian Studies, Vol. 56, No. 2 (1984) 90

[34] Vladimir Solonari, ‘Nationalist Utopianism, Orientalist Imagination, and Economic Exploitation: Romanian Aims and Policies in Transnistria, 1941-1944’, Slavic Review, Vo. 75, No. 3 (2016) 603-605

[35] John Fletcher, ‘Introduction’, in Jean-Claude Favez, The Red Cross and the Holocaust, John Fletcher and Beryl Fletcher (eds. and trans.), (Cambridge, 2000) p. 8

[36] Koblik, ‘Sweden’s Attempts to Aid Jews, 1939-45’, Scandinavian Studies, 104

[37] Yehuda Bauer, Jews For Sale? Nazi-Jewish Negotiations, 1933-1945, (London, 1994) pp. 239-240

[38] Jean-Claude Favez, The Red Cross and the Holocaust, John Fletcher and Beryl Fletcher (eds. and trans.), (Cambridge, 2000) pp. 251-253




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