Books in Review

The Myth of Rescue

Copyright (c) 1998 First Things 80 (February 1998): 42-48.

Accomplices to Genocide?

The Myth of Rescue: Why the Democracies Could Not Have Saved More Jews from the Nazis. By William D. Rubinstein. Routledge. 267 pp. $25.

Matthew Berke

There is now a large and growing body of Holocaust scholarship that blames the democracies--especially Britain and the United States--for not preventing or limiting the destruction of European Jewry. The Allies, it is said, should have removed immigration barriers to enable Jews to escape Hitler's Final Solution; they should have bombed the extermination facilities at Auschwitz; they should have ransomed or negotiated for Jewish lives. Historian David Wyman set the tone of current scholarly discussion when he described the democracies as "passive accomplices" to the Holocaust. Thanks largely to documentary films on the subject, the assumption of Allied culpability has moved beyond the academic arena into the broader public consciousness.

William D. Rubinstein's new book, The Myth of Rescue, is a comprehensive attack on such interpretations. According to Rubinstein,

No Jew who perished in the Nazi Holocaust could have been saved by any action which the Allies could have taken at the time, given what was actually known about the Holocaust, what was actually proposed at the time, and what was realistically possible. If there are any exceptions at all to this statement, their numbers may be measured in the dozens or hundreds rather than in some higher figure. All of the many studies which criticize the Allies (and the Jewish communities of the democracies) for having failed to rescue Jews during the Holocaust are inaccurate and misleading, their arguments illogical and ahistorical. . . . Hitler, the Nazis, and their accomplices--and only they--bear full and total responsibility for the Holocaust.

Many of Rubinstein's arguments have been made before, by, among others, the late Lucy Dawidowicz, the eminent Holocaust historian to whom this volume is dedicated. But The Myth of Rescue presses the case further, marshals more evidence, and engages more objections than anyone else has. It is, in short, an important and courageous book, though not an unflawed one. The author seems to want go beyond simply exculpating the democracies from the worst allegations and insinuations of the "passive accomplice" school--a much-needed corrective--and to present their behavior as virtually exemplary--a less tenable project. Thus a certain tendency to hyperbole: e.g., No Jews could have been saved by any additional Allied action, and all historical accounts denying this are illogical and ahistorical. Taken with this caveat, however, The Myth of Rescue is an indispensable work, even if it is not in all respects definitive.

Rubinstein is concerned with two largely separate issues: judgment of Western immigration policy toward Jewish refugees before the war, and the Allies' alleged failure to rescue Jews from Hitler's Final Solution during the war. The refugee question, Rubinstein stresses, applies almost exclusively to the Jews of Germany (and, by extension, of Austria and western Czechoslovakia, which were incorporated into the Greater Reich by annexation in 1938). They were at least free to seek sanctuary abroad in the prewar years, when the Nazis' Jewish policy consisted merely of persecution and expulsion. Western refugee policy was largely irrelevant, however, to the plight of the great mass of Holocaust victims, i.e., those Jews who were trapped in countries occupied by Germany during the war, when the Nazis implemented their Final Solution of imprisonment and extermination. (Hitler's personal obsession with the Jews and his singular role in pushing the Holocaust is a recurrent theme throughout the book.)

Contrary to the popular image, Rubinstein says, Western refugee policy was, all things considered, both "remarkably generous" and notably "successful." By Rubinstein's accounting, 72 percent of Germany's half-million Jews successfully emigrated during the years leading up to World War II, including 83 percent of German Jewish children and youth. (Other historians have cited lower figures.) There would have been 100 percent emigration, he says, had it not been for the unexpected outbreak of hostilities in September 1939. The United States was particularly helpful, taking in 161,000 German Jews, 35 percent of all its immigrants between 1933 and 1942. Most of these refugees arrived after Kristallnacht, a nationwide pogrom in Germany in November 1938; over the next two years, Rubinstein says, more than half of all immigrants to the U.S. (52 percent) were Jews fleeing the Reich. Britain, on the whole, had a similarly creditable record. In addition, both the United States and Britain pressured third countries to accept many other refugees. Though no single country was willing to accept an unlimited number of refugees, collectively the free nations did take in those seeking sanctuary.

Of course, many of the Jewish refugees who emigrated to countries other than Britain or the United States ended up in the gas chambers anyway, having relocated to nations that were eventually conquered and occupied by Germany. This fact, for Rubinstein, is cause for sorrow, but not for moral outrage against the democracies. To blame them for evil design or cruel indifference assumes they could see then what we now see only with hindsight. No one in the 1930s knew that genocide was in the near future; there were dark forebodings and a handful of prophetic utterances, but as a widely recognized public fact capable of shaping policy it simply was not seen.

Even to the extent that Nazi evil was appreciated, no one in the 1930s knew with certainty that there would be another world war, and, if there were, which countries would be overrun by German arms. If Britain and the United States refused to accept all Jewish applicants for immigration in the 1930s, this refusal was hardly done with the understanding that resettlement in, say, the Netherlands or France represented a death sentence. Dutch neutrality had been respected by Germany in World War I, for instance, and that country was regarded as a congenial environment by many German Jews. As for France, Rubinstein stresses that no one at the beginning of the war thought that the French--with a standing army of 1.5 million and an alliance with Britain--would be vanquished in a mere six weeks, much less that within two years ninety thousand Jews would be deported for extermination. Not even Palestine would have guaranteed Jewish safety, since Rommel's Afrika Corps came within a hair of sweeping Britain out of the Near East altogether. (Had there been a larger Jewish population in Palestine, Rubinstein notes, Hitler might have been tempted to divert resources from the Russian front in order to destroy them.) The significant fact, repeated many times in The Myth of Rescue, is that the democracies (with Switzerland as a possible exception) never returned Jewish refugees to Reich-dominated territory once the Final Solution had begun.

On the basis of this evidence (and there is quite a bit more than what is sketched above), Rubinstein effectively discredits the charge that the democracies were in any sense accomplices to genocide. Unfortunately, for some reason, he consistently seems to minimize public or governmental pettiness and bigotry that tarnished a relatively decent record. In discussing the level of American anti-Semitism, for instance, Rubinstein cites opinion polls from the late thirties which demonstrate that public opinion was overwhelmingly anti-Nazi; but his discussion of anti-Semitism as a marginal phenomenon does not ring true to most people's memory of the time, or to the statistics he himself uses to demonstrate its marginality. In 1938-39, for instance, 12 percent of Americans polled said that they would participate in anti-Semitic campaigns should they arise in the United States; at the same time Rubinstein says that "core" anti-Semitism was probably between 5 and 12 percent. Wouldn't one assume a base figure of 12 rather than 5? Might not the difference have been significant for the generosity or stinginess of refugee policy?

Rubinstein acknowledges that "many individual cases of bureaucratic pettifoggery and narrow-mindedness strongly suggestive of anti-Semitism can doubtless be found." But the implications of this are never developed. Lucy Dawidowicz (in an essay that originally appeared in This World, the predecessor of First Things) observed that U.S. government officials in charge of refugee matters applied quota restrictions "in a more mean-spirited manner than the law required. . . . Had those regulations been more generously interpreted, it is now generally agreed, some additional tens of thousands of refugees could have been admitted to the United States even under the then existing laws. They would have been lives saved, lives subtracted from the awesome statistic of six million murdered Jews." This observation does not imply a wholesale indictment of the U.S. government or the American people. But surely there is justification for some criticism, and decrying missed opportunities cannot simply be discounted as "illogical and ahistorical" because there was insufficient knowledge about the ultimate nature of Nazi intentions (as if their immediate violence were not bad enough or well-known at the time).

The most devastating accusations against the democracies, however, concern not refugees before the war but captive people being extermined during the war. The Allies, it is said, "did nothing" during the frenzy of murder that began in the summer of 1941. This criticism is often vague or takes the form of innuendo, since even the harshest critics recognize that the slaughterhouse of Eastern Europe was far beyond the reach of any Allied force.

Somewhat closer to reality, Allied governments and military leaders have been blamed for not bombing the rail lines leading to the death camps or the extermination facilities themselves. The railroad argument, however, turns out on close inspection to be another nonargument with no credence among serious scholars: attacking the transportation system would have been useless and dangerous, since the Germans were very skilled at rerouting their trains and restoring damaged tracks and bridges. As for arguments that the Allies could have bombed the extermination facilities at Auschwitz, Rubinstein reminds his readers that Auschwitz, located in southwestern Poland, was beyond the reach of Allied bombers until airfields in Italy were acquired in December 1943. By this time the great mass of Holocaust victims had already been killed. Had the Auschwitz-Birkenau complex been destroyed, it is true, there would have been at least a chance to save hundreds of thousands of European Jews not yet exterminated. But, as Rubinstein points out, only a chance: Even after Auschwitz stopped functioning in November 1944, the Nazis still practiced mass murder by death marches, shooting, and starvation.

The main reason that Auschwitz was never bombed, according to Rubinstein, is that no one proposed it until the spring of 1944, and then only tentatively. For very understandable reasons having nothing to do with cowardice, sloth, or anti-Semitism, there was never a unified, unambivalent lobby for such action. Some Jewish leaders and groups said it should be done, while others said no. The U.S. War Refugee Board, for instance, which was extremely sensitive to the urgings of the American Jewish community, specifically rejected such a possibility until November 1944 (well after such an operation would have been relevant).

The reasons for such reticence are not hard to understand. Civilian and military leaders, whether in government or the Jewish community, did not want Allied bombers to be responsible for slaughtering concentration camp prisoners. It is true that Jews already there were slated for death anyway and a successful raid might have saved the multitudes behind them. But given the inaccuracy of bombing in that time, there was an understandable fear that an attack on Auschwitz would kill large numbers of Jews but fail to destroy the gas chambers and crematoria. Borrowing from military historians, Rubinstein presents a full technical and logistical refutation of those who have argued the easy feasibility of bombing Auschwitz. The clinching aspect of this argument, however, is not so much technical as political: viewed in its actual historical context, the case for bombing Auschwitz was made too late, too tentatively, by too few.

The rest of The Myth of Rescue is taken up with a discussion of various other rescue proposals, including ransom payments, commando raids, and threats of reprisal. It is difficult to do justice to Rubinstein's analyses on these and other topics. In general, it seems, the proposals, if not utterly impossible, were at least improbable, and the best ideas appear to have emerged in hindsight. At minimum, Rubinstein effectively demolishes the notion that there were a variety of likely rescue plans available to Allied leaders, but which for nefarious reasons were not tried.

Rubinstein does not attempt a psychological or sociological explanation for the tendency to implicate

the democracies in the Holocaust. Doubtless, this trend has some connection to the broader historiography of victimhood, which reflexively vilifies Western Civilization; and the internal politics of the Jewish community has generated a certain amount of finger-pointing. But there are, I think, additional--more substantive--reasons. The sense of rage and guilt over the Holocaust (a phenomenon not confined to Jews) simply cannot find an adequate expression or means of resolution. The death of Hitler, the destruction of the Nazi regime, the punishment of various war criminals--it all feels anticlimactic and unsatisfying. Despite the constant stream of books and articles on the subject, we are still very far from understanding and coming to terms with this explosion of evil that Winston Churchill saw early on as "probably the most horrible single crime in the whole history of the world."

That there should be an overflow of wrath among students of the Holocaust is in some sense natural. This does not mean, however, that all scandalous accusations should be nurtured. There is, for instance, something terribly unsavory in the animus called forth against the two great philo-Semitic leaders, Roosevelt and Churchill, who prodded their reluctant nations into preparedness, organized unprecedented industrial mobilizations, then planned and prosecuted the war to a successful conclusion. Whatever we finally make of Hitler and the Holocaust, we must always recall Emil Fackenheim's famous dictum about granting no posthumous victories to Hitler. Surely, included within this imperative is to abstain from poisoning our faith in Western democratic institutions, which, while flawed and guilty in many respects, do not deserve the calumny poured upon them in many recent Holocaust histories. We hardly honor the martyred millions by bearing false witness against our culture and civilization. William Rubinstein's powerful brief against such excesses will, one hopes, be instrumental in restoring intellectual rigor and responsibility to the continuing discussion on this aspect of the Holocaust.

Matthew Berke is Managing Editor of First Things.