In April 1944 two prisoners, Rudolf Vrba and Alfred Wetzler, managed to escape from Auschwitz. And the information they gave to the Allies – together with intelligence gained from two other prisoners who escaped shortly afterwards – formed the basis for a report on the workings of Auschwitz that became known as the Auschwitz Protocols.
This was the first absolute and conclusive proof the Allies received that mass murder was taking place at Auschwitz. Limited information about the camp had reached the West before this date, but the Auschwitz Protocols removed any reasonable doubt about the scale and nature of the crime, and the Western media were quick to report the news. On 18 June the BBC broadcast a radio story about Auschwitz, and on 20 June the New York Times carried a report which explicitly mentioned the ‘gas chambers’ at Auschwitz/Birkenau.
So the question now was simple – what were the Allies going to do about Auschwitz? In June 1944, the American War Refugee Board sent a plea to the US Assistant Secretary of War, John McCloy, asking that the Allies bomb the railway lines to Auschwitz. This request had been originally received by the War Refugee Board from Jacob Rosenheim of the Agudas Israel World Organization.
On 26 June, McCloy rejected the idea. He claimed it was impractical and that, in any case, it would mean that bombers currently engaged in ‘decisive operations’ would have to be re-deployed.i
A second request now arrived, forwarded on to the American government by the War Refugee Board from the World Jewish Congress in Geneva. This one explicitly called for the bombing of the gas chambers at Auschwitz. This plea was also rejected by John McCloy on 4 July.
An insight into the thinking of the officials working within Mr McCloy’s office at this time can be gained from the wording of an inter-office memo written by Colonel Gerhardt, a member of the War Office Staff. Gerhardt wrote to McCloy, about the proposals to bomb Auschwitz, ‘I know you told me to ‘kill’ this…’ii – words which suggest there was not much serious consideration given to the idea of attacking the camp.
Around the same time the idea of bombing Auschwitz was also suggested to the British government. Churchill wanted the Royal Air Force to consider the idea, but the Secretary of State for Air, Sir Archibald Sinclair, suggested that the Americans should be asked to look at the operation, primarily because they were the ones who specialized in daylight precision bombing.iii When General Spaatz, of the United States Army Air Force, visited the British Air Ministry, he said that aerial reconnaissance of the camp might be an idea, but the suggestion came to nothing.
Thus the decision was taken not to bomb Auschwitz. Indeed, the evidence shows that the idea was never even seriously considered by either the British or the Americans. It’s this evidence that creates the impression that the Allied governments didn’t really ‘care’ about the fate of the Jews and that has helped make this such a controversial issue ever since.
Whole books have been written in recent years arguing about the practicalities of bombing Auschwitz. And whilst it seems that there is a general expert consensus that there would have been little point in bombing the railway lines to Auschwitz – the Nazis would just have diverted the transports to another track or found alternative means of getting the Jews to the camp – there is no such consensus on the practical question of whether the camp itself could have successfully been bombed or not.
At the time, Sir Archibald Sinclair raised the possibility of dropping weapons into Auschwitz/Birkenau to spark a revolt – but such an operation would have had little chance of success since Auschwitz/Birkenau was protected by a network of electric fences and guard towers. Moreover, the camp was in the middle of a secure ‘Auschwitz Zone of Interest’ stretching for miles in each direction. So the idea that emaciated and disorientated prisoners could have somehow fought their way out seems unlikely in the extreme.
But, of course, what the focus on the question ‘why didn’t the Allies bomb Auschwitz’ masks is the broader question of ‘why wasn’t more done to help the Jews?’ For the truth is that the Western Allies did not move with any enthusiasm to take in large numbers of persecuted Jews.
‘Roosevelt is very wary of the idea that he should push very hard on the question of rescuing Jews from the Nazis,’ says Professor Robert Dallek. ‘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. 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 judgment. 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 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.’
It’s this background that makes the focus on the question of bombing Auschwitz so understandable. Because even if any attempt to attack the camp would have been fraught with difficulties and might have saved no lives, what it would have demonstrated was the extent to which the Allies cared about the fate of Jews. As Professor Norbert Frei puts it, had such a mission taken place, it ‘might make us think about the Western Allies probably even more honourably than we do.’
i Michael J. Neufeld and Michael Berenbaum (eds.), The Bombing of Auschwitz, St Martin’s Press, New York, 2000, p. 67
ii Ibid., p. 68
iii See Laurence Rees, Auschwitz: The Nazis and the ‘Final Solution’, BBC Books, 2005, pp. 307-308
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