Rosemary Sullivan, The Betrayal of Anne Frank: A Cold Case Investigation (London: William Collins, 2022)

ANNE Frank, author of the famous diary about life in hiding in wartime Amsterdam, was arrested on 4 August 1944, almost eighty years ago. There is voluminous background literature, but one question has remained unanswered: exactly who betrayed the eight Jewish people who had hidden for over two years in the Annex to Prinsengracht 263 in the Jordaan district, where Otto Frank had his pectin and spice businesses? And does it matter?

The Canadian author Rosemary Sullivan makes a convincing argument that indeed it does. The architects of the post-war international order thought they had established sufficient means to prevent a repetition of fascist repression, but this was far too complacent as the recent rise of right-wing populism has shown. Fascism is again on the march. Sullivan uses an Office of Strategic Services analysis from 1943 that explains the rhetorical violence ‒ assignment of blame, identification of so-called enemies and traitors, and political confusion ‒ used by fascist ideologues and agitators. (Incidentally, these were the successful tactics of the Brexit campaign in one of the world’s most democratic nations.) Widely circulated fake news and an alternative vocabulary are dangerous characteristics of our time in which authoritarianism is increasingly admired, liberal democracy denigrated.

Two Dutch inquiries had already looked at the Annex raid: one as part of an immediate post-war investigation; another in 1963‒1964 after the identity of the SD (Sicherheitsdienst) arresting officer had been finally confirmed. The five-year exercise that ended in 2020 involving two hundred people was of a very different order in terms of resources and the benefits of modern technology. The latter included new methods in forensic criminology and, most important of all, computerised databases. These were massive and interconnected (for example, residents; arrests; statements; and Dutch Nazis and informants known as V(ertrouwen)-persons) so that an enquiry could link names, places, events and dates. The process alone is a staggering achievement in terms of historical research. But, of course, interpretation ultimately comes down to human judgement.

It is on those grounds that the research team’s finding has been challenged and the Dutch publisher of the book has halted further impressions, a signally tame reaction. A central figure in the investigation was a retired FBI detective Vince Pankoke who applied rigorous police method to what appeared to be a cold case: knowledge, means and motive. A multitude of suspects was whittled down to four and the probable guilty party is named as Arnold van den Bergh. He was a successful notary who had belonged to the Jewish Council and had business links with Nazis. It is argued that he had access to lists of hiding places used for food distribution, the right connections among the occupiers, and a desperate desire to protect his family.

Otto Frank was the only one of the onderduikers (those in hiding) at the Annex to survive transport eastwards in 1944‒1945. The rest of his family died at Bergen-Belsen. On his return home he was given a note, of which his copy marked Abschrift survives, naming the supplier of a list of addresses (but no names) to the occupiers as Van den Bergh. Otto and those helpers closest to him kept this information a secret, possibly because he did not want to implicate a fellow Jew doing exactly what he was trying to achieve: save his family. Similarly, for many years he obscured the name of Karl Josef Silberbauer, the Austrian arresting officer. His involvement as well as the Dutch police indicated an unusual interest from someone senior in the occupying hierarchy. Immediately after the war anti-Semitism took the form of suggesting that Anne’s diary was a forgery simply designed to make money and Otto did not want to add fuel to the fire.

The Annex investigation legitimately identified the most likely suspect, but did not prove it beyond doubt. It is possible that someone else set up Van den Bergh but the subtleties involved in such a framing and the possible motive have not emerged from the investigators’ exhaustive processes.

The methodology is fascinating in itself and possibly a model for other cold cases of historical significance. The archival material was widely dispersed, but it is heartening to read about the near-total degree of co-operation experienced; except from one arm of the convoluted organisation of the Anne Frank legacy (Anne Frank Fonds in Basel) that may have had commercial concerns. Most of the potential interviewees approached, many of them grandchildren of those involved in the mid-1940s, proved helpful.

This investigation had important spin-offs. First, the very nature of research is serendipitous. In an American archive Pankoke found kopgeld receipts recording payments made to informants. Not only did these provide investigatory leads, but they added to an understanding of life in wartime Holland. Second, reading the evidence accumulated by the investigators a very clear picture of the suffering of the occupied population in general becomes apparent. Sullivan points out that people lost trust in the institutions (such as the police) that should have protected them and then many mislaid their individual moral compasses.

Holland lost 10% of its population during the war and the occupation was particularly harsh, culminating in the widespread hunger of the winter of 1944‒1945. Of all western Europe under Nazi occupation the suffering of the Dutch Jewish population was the most severe. There seems to have been no shortage of collaborators, informers and thuggish opportunists. Sullivan’s book hints at fragmentation (pillarisation or verzuiling) and lack of social cohesion as possible explanations for this.

Otto Frank emerges from this book as a strong character whose motives seem to have been grounded in the best of intentions. His staff protected him and his family and a few friends devotedly and at great risk for months. He lived a purposeful life until his death in 1980 with remarkable courage. He was in fact German and had fought in World War One. Admirably and significantly, he had no time for accusations of collective guilt even though he had every reason to succumb to it as an easy way to cope with his personal misfortune.

On the day of the Annex arrests Silberbauer threw aside Anne Frank’s diary rather than confiscating it. This turned out to be highly significant as it was retrieved and kept for her return. Not only is it a literary landmark as a real-time record by a victim rather than a retrospective account by a survivor; but the fame of the diary has indirectly unlocked a mass of information that might otherwise have remained obscure.

What started as a deductive exercise to identify a guilty party changed into the exposure of a long-term, well-kept secret. And this turned on the discovery of a copy of a note whose significance had been discounted; preserved in a private collection, but not entered into the official record of the 1960s investigation.

On such chance events can the recording of historical truth depend.