US Diplomatic Reporting from Central and Eastern Europe on Antisemitism and the Persecution of Jews, 1939-1945
When the prominent American diplomat and historian George F. Kennan published his memoirs from the interwar years in 1967, he dedicated a separate chapter to his term of office as Secretary of the Legation in Prague. Kennan had arrived in the Czechoslovakian capital at the end of September 1938, immediately before the Munich Agreement, and was to remain there until the beginning of the Second World War on September 1, 1939. When the U.S. State Department officially closed the Legation in March 1939, after the German occupation of the remainder of Czechoslovakia, Kennan stayed behind to report on further developments of the country. “In the end, I was left as practically the only Western political observer regularly residing in what remained of Czechoslovakia. The fare of a small nation already occupied and suppressed by the Germans was not of great interest to the metropolitan dailies of the Western countries. Czechoslovakia had gone down the drain, and that was that. But it was not uninteresting for me. Horrified but fascinated by what was taking place before my eyes, I poured forth a stream of letters and reports to the government. Not more than five people, I suppose, ever read them in Washington. […] Almost everything that I had previously experienced was useful to me in observing and in trying to understand the drama of the disintegration of the initial Czechoslovakia that was now taking place before my eyes. With knowledge of Russian, it was not too difficult to learn enough of the Czech, Slovak, and Ruthenian tongues to read the papers and to carry on conversations of sorts with people who spoke nothing else. Long years of residence in Germany and Austria meant that the Germans, who were now the other leading part of this drama, were no mystery to me. Service in Vienna, in particular, had given me some idea of the old Central Europe out of which the state Czechoslovakia had emerged.”
Kennan's memories of his time in Prague shed light on the prerequisites, opportunities,and limits of American diplomatic reporting from the Central and Eastern European successor states of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Ottoman Empire: If a diplomat possessed knowledge of foreign languages and was familiar with the history and culture of the country, if he was curious and interested in political and social developments, and was granted freedom from administrative duties, he could produce reports at a high level of reflection and transcend the forwarding of official documents and press clippings. However, this did not guarantee that these reports were widely received in Washington and influenced general American policies of the interwar years.
These policies were guided by manifold political and economic aspects and, of course, domestic considerations. After the failure of the League of Nations treaty in the U.S. Senate in 1919, the United States remained politically and economically present on the international stage and steered a middle course between detachment and involvement – with growing isolationist tendencies in the 1930s. The United States tried to promote economic exchange and the peaceful resolution of conflicts through bilateral treaties and guarantees. In Europe, they advocated for pragmatic solutions of political problems in the interest of political and economic stability but abstained from collective security agreements.
With regard to the pressure on ethnic or religious minorities in Europe, the American position remained unchanged throughout the 1920s and much of the 1930s. Members of Congress, representatives of interest groups, and private American citizens who encouraged the President or the State Department to be more active in this regard received the standard answer, “that this Government is not in a position to make representations to a foreign Government with respect to conditions which do not directly affect American citizens or interests.“ Despite sometimes emotional reports from American diplomats on the fate of the Jews in the states of Central and Eastern Europe and, after 1933, in the German Reich, the restrictive American immigration rules for refugees from Europe remained in place until the end of the Second World War.
Soon after the founding of the United States in the late 18th century, the new state established diplomatic missions and the first consulates abroad. In the 19th century, the Foreign Service expanded, but many of the most important posts were given to favorites of the President regardless of qualification and local requirements. Only in 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt began to professionalize the Foreign Service, and the Rogers Act of 1924 unified diplomatic and consular career paths. But high-ranking diplomatic posts at the embassies continued to be filled by political appointees and only consulates were on principle being filled by career officials. Embassies and legations cultivated political relations, whereas the consulates assisted compatriots in distress, represented American economic interests and – since the introduction of visa requirements and immigration quotas for foreigners – examined visa applications.
As a result of the professionalization process, the network of U.S. consulates in many countries had shrunk significantly. While in Germany, during the peace years of the “Third Reich,” in addition to the Embassy and the Consulate General in Berlin, there were consulates at nine other locations, in the Central and Eastern European countries the United States was represented only by embassies or legations and a consulate in the capitals.
With Romania, diplomatic relations had been established in 1880 already, shortly after the Berlin congress of 1878 and the founding of an independent state. Bulgaria followed in 1911. After the First World War, between 1919 and 1922, American diplomatic missions opened in the newly formed states of Czechoslovakia, Poland, and Hungary. American consulates had existed in all the states since the 1880s already, with the exception of Bulgaria where the first American consul general was not appointed before 1915. The position of consul Benjamin F. Peixotto, a lawyer and former president of the American B’nai B’rith, in Bucharest was a peculiarity of American foreign representation because it was created in 1870 on Peixotto’s own initiative – explicitly to help the Romanian Jews.
The State Department in Washington welcomed and occasionally explicitly demanded political reporting from both its embassies and consulates. All correspondence with Foreign Service posts since 1910 was archived with the help of a decimal system, which assigned a signature to each document that identified the country and subject and then ranged it chronologically. Reports from embassies and consulates are usually contained in several sub-series, but the central series for political reporting on internal affairs, including aspects of ethnic and religious minorities, is the “Internal Affairs” series for each country. These series are available on microfilm for the interwar and war period for all countries.
The documents provide valuable insights into the American perception of political and social developments in the respective countries, but since the United States did not have any consulates outside the capitals which could have contributed regional and local perspectives on a regular basis, the reports from Central and Eastern Europe focus primarily on national developments, new legislation, comments by members of the governments and other elites, or information derived from the major newspapers. With few exceptions, they were written or at least approved by the ambassadors.
Among the representatives of the United States in Central and Eastern Europe in the late 1930s and early 1940s, none of them had George Kennan's linguistic and regional geographic background. Kennan had learned German as a young child. As a Foreign Service officer, he had followed a special training program in the Russian language, history, and politics at the University of Berlin’s Oriental Institute. From 1931 to 1933 he was stationed at the American Legation in Riga, Latvia, which was focused on political reporting on the Soviet Union, and in 1933 he accompanied the first American ambassador to Moscow.
When Kennan arrived in Prague in 1938, his superior was the Foreign Service career official Wilbur J. Carr (1870-1942). Carr had joined the State Department in 1892, took charge of the consular service in 1909 and guided the reform process to the Rogers Act of 1924. He served as Assistant Secretary of State from 1924 to 1937, before receiving his first and only foreign assignment by becoming ambassador to Czechoslovakia in July 1937. After the closure of the Prague Embassy, he returned to the United States in April 1939.
In Poland Anthony J. Drexel Biddle Jr. (1896-1961) took over the ambassador post from John C. Cudahy (1887-1943) in June 1937. Cudahy had received his first appointment as a diplomat in Warsaw in 1933, and his successor Drexel Biddle did not have much Foreign Service experience either. Drexel Biddle was born into a rich family in Pennsylvania and, after serving in the military during the First World War, had tried his hand in the business world. He owed his appointment to the ambassadorship in Norway in 1935 to his financial support of the Democratic Party. He transferred to Poland in June 1937, witnessed the German invasion in September 1939 and fled the country with the embassy staff via Romania and France. From March 1941 to 1943 he continued as U.S. ambassador to the Polish, Czechoslovakian and several other governments in exile in London.
The American Legation in Hungary was headed from August 1, 1933, to March 17, 1941, by John Flournoy Montgomery (1878-1954). Montgomery was from Missouri and had established himself as a successful businessman in the dairy industry. Just like Drexel Biddle, he was rewarded for his generous support during the election campaigns for the Democratic Party. The position in Budapest remained Montgomery’s first and only diplomatic post. In March 1941 he was succeeded by Herbert C. Pell Jr. (1884-1961), who had been an influential politician of the Democratic Party in New York in the 1920s and 1930s and Vice Chairman of the Democratic National Campaign Committee for the re-election of President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1936. Pell had been rewarded for his services with the position of American Envoy to Portugal in 1937. After his transfer to Hungary, he served in Budapest until Hungary declared war on the United States on December 13, 1941.
In Romania, the career official Leland B. Harrison (1883-1951) took up the Bucharest post in July 1935. Harrison had joined the U.S. Foreign Service after graduating from Harvard law school. He had been Assistant Secretary of State in the State Department since 1922 and then served as Minister to Sweden and Uruguay. In October 1937, he was succeeded by Franklin Mott Gunther (1885-1941), a career official, who headed the Legation until the Romanian declaration of war on December 12, 1941. Gunther had previously held only one foreign post in Egypt at the end of the 1920s.
The American Legation in Bulgaria was officiated from 1937 until July 1939 by the career diplomat Ray Atherton (1883-1960), who, similar to Gunther, previously had held only one short foreign appointment as Chargé d’Affairs in Greece (1923/24). In April 1940, he was succeeded by George H. Earle III (1890-1974), a wealthy Pennsylvania businessman who had supported Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1932 election campaign and had been rewarded with the position of American Minister to Austria in 1933-1934. From 1935 to 1937, he served as Governor of Pennsylvania, ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate in 1938, and then served as American Minister to Bulgaria from 1940 until the Bulgarian declaration of war on December 13, 1941.
Additional reports with special emphasis on the situation of the Jews included in the selection from the State Department files were written by Embassy Counselor North Winship (1885-1968) from Warsaw, Consul General Irving N. Linnell (1881-1954) from Prague and the Secretary of the Legation in Bucharest, Frederick P. Hibbard (1885-?).
After the German occupation of Czechoslovakia and Poland and the closure of the Embassies, some reports on developments in these countries were submitted from the American Embassy in Berlin, and after the declaration of war between Germany and the United States on December 11, 1941, reports on the Central and Eastern European countries were submitted by the American Embassies in Istanbul and Bern.
Many of the United States Envoys, Ministers and Ambassadors were from the same age group, born in the 1870s and 1880s, and experienced in the business world and American politics. By appointing trusted friends as ambassadors to the states of Central and Eastern Europe, President Franklin D. Roosevelt at least partly circumvented the bureaucracy of the State Department. What the “political appointees” may have lacked in familiarity with international relations or the political and social situation on-site, they made up for with their enthusiasm to engage in social activities, build networks and observe and report as meticulously as possible. They were hampered, however, by their lack of knowledge of the national languages, which in turn fostered proximity to polyglot local elites. The lingering glamor of the bygone world of old Europe left its mark, most notably in the case of Montgomery and – to a lesser extent – on his predecessor Herbert Pell in Budapest. Montgomery developed a close relationship with the Hungarian regent Admiral Miklós Horthy and actively tried to promote a positive image of Hungary and its government in the United States.
In the reporting on anti-Semitism and the persecution of Jews, there is no substantial difference between career officials and political appointees. From all five countries, a steady stream of detailed reports and appraisals reached the State Department – and in many cases President Roosevelt – as long as this was possible under wartime conditions: from Czechoslovakia and Poland until the fall of 1939, from Bulgaria, Romania, and Hungary until the end of 1941. State or legislative measures, public events, demonstrations and acts of violence, reports in the local press and background information based on personal contacts up to the respective heads of state, journalists, but also to leading representatives of Jewish organizations, were presented in detail and often within hours after the events took place.
Possible or – in the case of Montgomery in Budapest proven – personal anti-Semitic attitudes are not reflected in the reports, but almost all of the diplomats did not question the existence of a „Jewish problem“ in Central and Eastern Europe. Here they adopted language patterns of the governments and other official institutions of their host countries. The diplomats reported neutrally on quotas for Jews at the universities, in the civil service or the free professions, and they did not question the officially propagated increased emigration as the solution of the „Jewish problem.“
However, any kind of physical violence was criticized. In January 1941, Franklin Gunther closed his horrifying description of a massacre in the slaughterhouse of Bucharest with the outcry that it “makes one sick at heart to be accredited to a country where such things can happen.“
The American diplomats assigned a certain significance to the German role model for the respective national anti-Semitic forces, especially in Bulgaria.
The measures taken after 1933 in the Reich – from the first boycotts of Jewish businesses and the exclusion of Jewish university students and civil servants to the Nuremberg racial laws of 1935, to the November pogrom of 1938, and the expulsion and ghettoization of Jews during wartime – showcased lines of action, which at different times and in various intensities were adopted in Central and Eastern Europe as well. However, the reports made clear that the difference in timing and intensity was determined by domestic political factors: the instrumentalization of hatred of Jews in economic and military crises, anti-Semitism as a welcomed link between otherwise opposing political forces, envy of actual or assumed economic successes and the influence of Jews in public life, as well as economic opportunities for non-Jews to enrich themselves on Jewish property.
The nationalistic dimensions of anti-minority policies and long-term ideals of ethnically homogenous nation-states were less clearly recognized by the diplomats. Still, assurances by the respective governments, for example in Romania in 1941, that they deplored acts of anti-Semitic violence in their countries, the diplomats found noncredible.
The attitudes of the respective populations were analyzed less intensively than in the American reports from the „Third Reich,“ but the existence of a sort of universal anti-Semitism in the Central and Eastern European countries was usually disputed: The diplomats emphasized that there were certain social classes or population groups in certain regions, which were also responsible for increasing acts of violence during the early war years.
Since all American diplomats had to leave their posts at the end of 1941, the deportation of Jews in collaboration with the Germans in the second half of the war and the political and public reaction to them are not recorded in first-hand reports.
The American diplomats described and analyzed in their reports from Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria anti-Semitic attitudes and policies of their host countries but respected diplomatic protocol and the official U.S. directive of non-intervention in internal affairs and abstained from policy recommendations for the State Department. Based on a variety of sources including personal observations, the reports sketch an increasingly bleak picture of Jewish life in Central and Eastern Europe without foreseeing the horrors of the second half of the Second World War.
 George F. Kennan, Memoirs 1925-1950, Boston 1967, p. 92-93. – I want to thank FZH-research assistants Hannah Rentschler and Jana Matthies for their help with this project.
 National Archives II, Record Group 59: General Records of the Department of State (NA, RG 59): 860C.4016/360, Robert F. Kelley, Chief, Division of Eastern European Affairs, to Mrs. Rose Weitzmann, Chicago, IL, November 30, 1931. Mrs. Weitzmann had requested that the President „use his good offices to alleviate the condition of the Jewish population of Poland and Austria.”
 Richard Breitman and Allan J. Lichtman, FDR and the Jews, Cambridge: Belknap, 2013; Bat-Ami Zucker, American Refugee Policy in the 1930s, in: Frank Caestecker and Bob Moore (eds.), Refugees from Nazi Germany and the Liberal European States, New York 2010, p. 151-168; Theodore S. Hamerow, Why we watched: Europe, America, and the Holocaust, New York 2008.
 Robert P. Schulzinger, The Making of the Diplomatic Mind: The Training, Outlook, and Style of U. S. Foreign Service Officers, 1908-1939, Middletown 1975; Waldo H. Heinrichs Jr., Bureaucracy, Professionalism in the Development of American Career Diplomacy, in: John Braeman and Robert H. Bremner and David Brody (eds.), Twentieth-Century American Foreign Policy, Columbus, OH1971, p. 119-206; Warren Frederick Ilchman, Professional Diplomacy in the United States, 1779-1939: A Study in Administrative History, Chicago 1961; William Barnes and John Heath Morgan, The Foreign Service of the United States: Origins, Development, and Functions, Washington, D.C. 1961. The difference in protocol between ambassadors, envoys and ministers was of no importance for their reporting.
 Lloyd P. Gartner, Roumania, America, and World Jewry: Consul Peixotto in Bucharest, 1870–1876, in: American Jewish Historical Quarterly 58, 1968, p. 25-116.
 NA, RG 59: 860C Poland, 860F Czechoslovakia, 864 Hungary, 871 Romania, 874 Bulgaria. The sub-signature 4016 contains documents dealing explicitly with anti-Semitism and the persecution of Jews. Some of these documents are also printed in the „Foreign Relations of the United States“ (FRUS) series. The volumes covering the relations with Europe between 1939 and 1945 were published Washington, D.C. 1956-1967 and are available online: http://digicoll.library.wisc.edu/FRUS/ (Last viewed: 10.08.2019).
 There is no comprehensive account of the U.S. diplomats in Central and Eastern Europe in the interwar years. David Mayers, FDR's Ambassadors and the Diplomacy of Crisis: From the Rise of Hitler to the End of World War II, Cambridge 2013, covers only the European U.S. ambassadors in Germany, Italy, France, Great Britain, and the USSR.
 On the special role of the U.S. mission in Riga, which functioned in the 1920s almost like an academic research institute, see: Michael Hughes, The Virtues of Specialization: British and American Diplomatic Reporting on Russia, 1921-39, in: Diplomacy and Statecraft 11, no. 2, 2000, p. 79-104; Claudia Breuer, Die ‚Russische Sektion’ in Riga: Amerikanische diplomatische Berichterstattung über die Sowjetunion 1922-1933/40, Stuttgart 1995.
 On Carr, see: https://history.state.gov/departmenthistory/people/carr-wilbur-john (Last viewed: 10.08.2019). Kennan’s favorable comments on Carr’s tenure in Prague, in: Kennan, Memoirs, p. 89-90.
 On Cudahy, see: https://history.state.gov/departmenthistory/people/cudahy-john-clarence (Last viewed: 10.08.2019); on Biddle, see: https://history.state.gov/departmenthistory/people/biddle-anthony-joseph-drexel-jr (Last viewed: 10.08.2019); Philip V. Cannistraro, ed., Poland and the Coming of the Second World War: The Diplomatic Papers of A. J. Drexel Biddle, United States Ambassador to Poland, 1937-1939, Columbus, OH 1976.
 On Montgomery, see: https://history.state.gov/departmenthistory/people/montgomery-john-flournoy (Last viewed: 10.08.2019); Tibor Frank (ed.), Discussing Hitler: Advisers of U.S. Diplomacy in Central Europe, 1934-1941, Budapest 2003; on Pell, see: https://history.state.gov/departmenthistory/people/pell-herbert-claiborne (Last viewed: 10.08.2019); Michael Steward Blayney, Democracy’s Aristocrat: The Life of Herbert C. Pell, Lanham, MD 1986; Leonard Baker, Brahmin in Revolt: A Biography of Herbert C. Pell, Garden City, NY 1972.
 On Harrison, see: https://history.state.gov/departmenthistory/people/harrison-leland (Last viewed: 10.08.2019); on Gunther, see: https://history.state.gov/departmenthistory/people/gunther-franklin-mott (Last viewed: 10.08.2019). Gunther died at Bucharest on December 22, 1941.
 On Atherton, see: https://history.state.gov/departmenthistory/people/atherton-ray (Last viewed: 10.08.2019); on Earle, see: https://history.state.gov/departmenthistory/people/earle-george-howard (Last viewed: 10.08.2019).
 Tibor Frank, Diplomatic Images of Admiral Horthy: The American Perception of Interwar Hungary, 1919-1941, in: idem, Ethnicity, Propaganda, Myth-Making: Studies on Hungarian Connections to Britain and America, 1848-1945, Budapest 1999, p. 233-251; Tibor Frank, Unlikely Friendship: U.S. Minister John F. Montgomery and Hungary’s Regent Miklós Horthy, ibid., p. 252-264. After the war, Montgomery published the monograph: Hungary, the Unwilling Satellite, New York, 1947.
 For a broad overview of anti-Semitism in Europe and the Holocaust, see most recently Götz Aly, Europa gegen die Juden 1880-1945, Frankfurt am Main 2017; Christian Gerlach, The Extermination of the European Jews, Cambridge 2016. See further case studies on individual countries in: Frank Bajohr and Andrea Löw (eds.), The Holocaust and European Societies: Social Processes and Social Dynamics, London 2017; Hans-Christian Petersen and Samuel Salzborn (eds.), Antisemitism in Eastern Europe: History and Present in Comparison, Frankfurt am Main 2010; Dittmar Dahlmann and Anke Hilbrenner (eds.), Zwischen großen Erwartungen und bösem Erwachen: Juden, Politik und Antisemitismus in Ost- und Südosteuropa 1918-1945, Paderborn 2007. See also: Die Verfolgung und Ermordung der europäischen Juden durch das nationalsozialistische Deutschland 1933-1945, vol. 3: Deutsches Reich und Protektorat , September 1939 – September 1941, ed. by Andrea Löw, Munich 2012; vol. 4: Polen, September 1939 – Juli 1941, ed. by Klaus-Peter Friedrich, Munich 2011; vol. 9: Polen: Generalgouvernement, August 1941 – 1945, ed. by Klaus-Peter Friedrich, Munich 2014; vol. 13: Slowakei, Rumänien, Bulgarien, ed. by Barbara Hutzelmann, Mariana Hausleitner and Souzana Hazan, Berlin 2018.
 Franklin Mott Gunther, (Telegram), Bucharest, January 30, 1941, p. 2, National Archives II, RG 59, Records of the U. S. Department of State relating to internal affairs of Romania 1910-1944, Wilmington, Del. 1981 (Microfilm): Doc. 871.4016/253, also printed in: FRUS 1941, vol. II, p. 860.