Bush’s slipup on Auschwitz

by Jeff Fleischer

(BuzzFlash, January 20, 2008)


While on a visit to Israel last week, President Bush toured the Holocaust memorial at Yad Vashem. During the tour, he was by all accounts respectful and appropriately moved, tearing up a couple times, placing a wreath on the ashes of Holocaust victims and speaking eloquently about what he witnessed.

Then, in one sentence, he blew it.

While looking at an aerial photo of the Nazi death camp Auschwitz, the president of the United States actually said, “We should have bombed it.” By doing so, he joined a chorus that has long pushed this ridiculous conspiracy theory — one that defies both logic and history, and one that deserves to be put to rest.

“We were talking about the often-discussed ‘Could the United States have done more by bombing the train tracks?'” Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told reporters. “And so we were just talking about the various explanations that had been given about why that might not have been done.

“It was an exhibit about the train tracks. And so we were just talking about the various explanations because, you know, there are three or four different explanations about why the United States chose not to try to bomb the train tracks.”

The central flaw of the pro-bombing argument — and it says something about the general thought processes of those who advance it — is its alleged logic works entirely backward.

Essentially, it presupposes that the reason the Nazis killed massive numbers of Jews and other prisoners was because Auschwitz and the other death camps existed. Of course, that’s an incredibly flawed argument. In reality, the camps were only one of many ways the Nazis committed their murders and, without those camps, they would have only used a different method.

For example, on the Eastern front, the Nazis deployed Einsatzgruppen, mobile death squads charged with killing all Jews, Roma and communists they encountered. Starting with the 1939 invasion of Poland — even before Auschwitz was built — these four squads began a killing spree that ultimately claimed between 1 million and 1.5 million people, often by rounding them up, executing dozens of them at a time and leaving the bodies in mass graves. The Nazis also routinely used pogroms, assassinations, and mass executions to carry out their genocidal plans.

In other words, the death camps were a way of streamlining mass killing already taking place, not the driving force behind it. By bombing the tracks to the camps, the Allies would have only left prisoners in transit trapped in overcrowded cattle cars to suffocate or starve to death — or be executed by the armed Nazis transporting them. Bombing the camps themselves, of course, would have killed the majority of prisoners. In a twisted way, camps such as Auschwitz actually allowed a tiny fraction of prisoners to survive the Holocaust by working as slaves in the work camps. Forced labor made some prisoners temporarily valuable to the regime, but — as he repeatedly made clear — Hitler’s “final solution” to the so-called Jewish question would have gone forward without that option.

Elie Wiesel — Auschwitz survivor, Nobel Laureate and author of the rightly acclaimed memoir Night — is among those who have pushed publicly for the bombing of tracks or camps. “We were not afraid. And yet, if a bomb had fallen on the blocks, it alone would have claimed hundreds of victims on the spot,” he famously wrote. “But we were no longer afraid of death; at any rate, not of that death.” That perspective is obviously understandable. But it is the stories of survivors such as Wiesel, Otto Frank, Eugene Hollander, and many others — stories that would have been lost in the bombings — that told the truth about what happened in the Holocaust. The world is also clearly better for the contributions made in the past six decades by those men and many other survivors.

On top of all that, it’s worth noting that bombing the tracks would have doubled as a tactical mistake. By the time the Allies learned of what was happening in Auschwitz and other camps, Germany had perfected its infrastructure-building capacity to a point where laying (or re-laying) track took only a matter of hours. At the same time, air power was a risky proposition for the Allies. More than 50,000 U.S. air personnel died in battle, but nearly as many died in training and non-combat missions. Risking more casualties on a plan that would, at best, only slow transport while track was rebuilt — when those planes could be better used to win battles against the Nazis — would be strategic folly.

And revisionist histories about what the Allies knew aside, many early reports of the camps were considered gossip, Soviet anti-German propaganda, or simply too outlandish to be real at the time. It wasn’t until April 1944, when camp escapees Rudolph Vrba and Alfred Wetzler were able to give eyewitness accounts that the Allies had verified reports (even then, troops and commanders were consistently shocked by what they actually witnessed when liberating the camps).

Less than two months after Vrba and Wetzler told of their experiences, the Allies launched the D-Day invasion and began the Western Front push that ultimately merged with the Soviet offensive to defeat Hitler and his regime. On July 24, Soviet troops liberated the concentration camp at Majdanek. As Germany needed more troops on the front lines, the death camps lost personnel; Auschwitz’s gas chamber was last used in October 1944, seven months before the V-E Day.

In mid-1942 when the Nazis began mass extermination in camps, Germany could plausibly expect to win its two-front war and complete its genocide. Only the complete defeat of Hitler and his regime could end the Holocaust, and it was to this effort that the Allies rightly devoted most of their resources. Bombing train tracks would have solved nothing, and would likely have led to the death of more prisoners.

A self-described “war president” should know better.

Tags: , , , , , ,