on 8 June 2005
Just recently, Ariel Sharon stood at Auschwitz and said that millions of Jews had been murdered and that the world had stood by and done nothing. This of course was a typical politician with typically simplistic statements. This excellent book, written by distinguished (and Jewish) historian Sir Martin Gilbert, presents a much more complex picture.
The Nazi extermination of European Jewry was shrouded in secrecy (alleged "resettlement", extermination camps in distant Poland). The programme was already well under way when in 1942, Jewish Agency representatives in Switzerland put two and two together (massive deportations and news of experiments with gas chambers). This was initially largely ignored by the Allies, because extermination on such a scale seemed just too incredible, and because the Jews were said to exaggerate everything. However, eyewitness accounts corroborated the terrible things going on, at about the time the minor camps - Treblinka, Sobibór, Belzec - were running down their operations.
The most amazing thing of all, and a tribute to the Germans' secrecy, is that the biggest and worst of the extermination camps, Auschwitz-Birkenau, retained its secret until mid-1944. The existence of a camp at Auschwitz was known from the beginning, but the Allies thought it was a labour camp (because of the factories attached to it). They also thought that Birkenau was an entirely separate labour camp elsewhere.
And when the secret was discovered, then what? The Allies had a limited ability to do anything. Reprisals against German civilians (e.g., by bombing) for the murder of Jews were considered unwise, because this could have led to counter-reprisals against Allied POWs. The camps were for much of the war at extreme range for Allied bombers.
Especially tragic is the tale of the Hungarian Jews. Admiral Horthy, ruler of Hungary, had resisted Nazi attempts to deport the Jews for extermination, and the Nazis were able to start only in mid-1944, with the defeat of the Nazis less than a year away. Jewish Agency demands that the railway lines be bombed (they eventually were in range of Allied aircraft operating from Italy) were met with the arguments of the difficulty and uncertainty of such an operation, and that resources should not be diverted from the ultimate salvation of the Jews - the defeat of Nazi Germany. Churchill was keen to disrupt the murder schedule and passed the problem to the Royal Air Force, which passed it to the US Air Force, which did nothing. Eventually, Allied threats to try the Hungarians as war criminals stopped the shipments, but only after a substantial proportion of Hungary's Jews had been slaughtered.
And Auschwitz kept on with its deadly work until the Russians were almost at the gates, at which point the SS sought to destroy the evidence by demolishing the place
Sir Martin tells the sorry tale in a reasoned, dispassionate way, never attributing blame and letting the various elements of a complex story speak for themselves. It is not a straightforward story, in which blame can be attributed - except to the depraved monsters who, in contravention of all logic and humanity, were set on mass murder, even at the cost of taking resources from their own desperate and failing war effort. Confronted with a crime of unimaginable proportions, the Allies fumbled the ball, because they really didn't know what to do, how to do it, or who should do it, whatever "it" was. Edmund Burke said that, "all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing". The good men did something - they defeated Nazi Germany. Whether this was enough and whether something more could have been done to save more of the Jews of Europe is something we shall never know.