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The Americans and the Holocaust

LAURENCE REES: To what extent could Roosevelt, and should Roosevelt, have done more to help the Jews of Europe; for example, should he actually in the summer of 1944 have moved to try and bomb Auschwitz?

ROBERT DALLEK: The issue of the Holocaust has grown and grown and grown as if it were the premier issue during World War Two, which of course it wasn’t. And, indeed, this is demonstrated by the fact that the very term Holocaust does not come into existence until after they discovered what went on in the camps of 1945. So did we know what was happening? Yes and no. There was in fact a poll, I believe, in 1944 asking Americans if they believed that the Nazis were systematically killing Jews in concentration camps?  And something like 60 or 63 percent of the public doubted it. There was this feeling we had been taken in by British propaganda in World War One about Germans throwing babies up in the air and being caught on bayonets, and we’re not going to be taken in again, you see. So there was that memory of World War One which made people sceptical.

But as it became evident after the war the extent to which there was such a monstrous campaign of destruction of European Jewry, it created the feeling that those who were responsible for policy during the war were negligent and inattentive. And, in a way they were, it wasn’t their highest priority, this was not something that they were going to focus on all that much. In fact, Roosevelt is very leery of this idea that he should push very hard on the question of rescuing Jews from the Nazis. In fact, what you see during World War Two is that whenever Franklin Roosevelt has a photograph taken of him with a religious figure, that is a priest or a minister or a rabbi, the photograph always has all three. It’s ecumenical. He doesn’t want to be identified with one religion or the other, he wants to be seen as open, above the battle, giving equal treatment to all these religious groups. Also what one has to keep in mind is that there was a significant degree of anti-Semitism in the United States during World War Two, and a number of leading Jews were very apprehensive about pushing too hard on this issue of rescuing Jews because they were afraid that it would intensify anti-Semitism.

What it speaks to is this whole question of judgement. People look back on this and they say, well, you know, they should have known. And, in a sense, there can be a certain acceptable criticism that they didn’t look at it as intensely and with as much focus on it as they should have. There’s a wonderful book written by a scholar named Deborah Lipstadt called ‘Beyond Belief’, in which she describes how there is evidence and knowledge about the Holocaust during World War Two but it’s buried, not purposely, but because it’s crowded out by the other news of the war, and it’s pushed to the back pages of the American newspapers. It’s not front and centre, it’s something which is secondary, and, in a sense, Roosevelt is very much a reflection of that kind of thing as well.

So should they have bombed Auschwitz? If they had would it have made that big a difference? There’s no question they could have rescued more Jews, there’s no question about it. How many more, who knows? Could they have stopped the Holocaust? Absolutely not. The Nazis at the end of the war were so intent; Hitler was so intent on exterminating the Jews that even when he needed slave labour he insisted on the camps and he insisted on the extermination programme being continued because of the depths of his paranoia about the Jewish conspiracy and about world Jewry as a extraordinary power. What is amazing to me is that people in Germany could have swallowed this idea that Jews had this kind of power - this minority in the world. Were they influential or were they successful? Sure. Did they have the power to change German history, to change world history? It’s just a demonstration of the paranoid madness which gripped that country and that Hitler was able to enthrall them with. And, of course, he was usually successful in the beginning of the war, and it just heightened his authority and heightened his ability to control people.