Two leading Israeli Holocaust scholars have rejected Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s assertion that new research shows the Allies could have saved four million Jews from the Holocaust if they had bombed Nazi death camps from 1942 but chose not to act.
“This is utter nonsense. There is absolutely no truth in this,” said Yehuda Bauer, one of Israel’s most eminent scholars of the Nazi genocide of European Jewry.
Rejecting Netanyahu’s claim that the Allies could have repeatedly bombed Nazi concentration camps or at least railway tracks leading to them — and thus halted or slowed the pace of the killing, Bauer said the combined Anglo-American air forces were incapable of reaching any destination east of Berlin and the Elbe river until early 1944.
“The reason for that is simple: The Anglo-American bombers had no fighter escort that could reach those distances,” the historian and Israel Prize laureate said. “There was no possibility whatsoever of reaching the places where Jews were being killed until [early] 1944.”
The P-51 Mustang, a joint US-UK product, did have enough range to accompany bombers to Western Poland. But the first Mustangs were only operational in November 1943, and there were only enough of them for such an operation starting February 1944, said Bauer, who serves as academic adviser to Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial and museum.
In a speech Sunday at Yad Vashem on the eve of Holocaust Remembrance Day, Netanyahu had charged that the Allied powers knew about the unfolding Holocaust in 1942, by which point two million Jews had been killed, and chose not to act promptly to stop the genocide that ultimately killed some six million Jews and millions of others.
“If the powers in 1942 had acted against the death camps — and all that was needed was repeated bombing of the camps — had they acted then, they could have saved four million Jews and millions of other people,” Netanyahu said during Israel’s central Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony. “The powers knew, and they did not act.”
He cited recently released United Nations War Crimes Commission documents that show the Allies were aware of the scope of the Holocaust in 1942 — ostensibly two years earlier than previously assumed — and said that fact took on “a terrible significance.”
But Bauer rejected the notion that the UK, the US or the Soviet Union could have done anything to save the Jews. “Even if they had the (fighter) escort necessary for the bombers to reach the areas where the Jews were killed, what would they have bombed? The concentration camps? They would have killed all the Jews there. There was absolutely no way by air bombing to save Jews,” he said.
The Nazis were determined to exterminate the Jews, and would have continued to pursue that goal even if the gas chambers had been destroyed, Bauer also argued. By the end of 1943, all Nazi death camps but one — Auschwitz-Birkenau — had been closed for one reason or another. Half of the nearly six million Jews killed during the Holocaust were not gassed in concentration camps but rather killed on ditches or shot in raids on villages, Bauer pointed out.
Toward the end of October 1944, the Nazis stopped gassing people in Auschwitz because of the advancing Red Army. “And yet,” Bauer said, “until the end of the war hundreds of thousands of Jews were killed by the Germans with no gas. They didn’t need gas. It was more convenient for them, but they would have continued killing even had the concentration camps been destroyed,” he said.
“They could not have been saved,” Bauer went on. “There were no Anglo-American troops on the ground in Europe at the time, and the Soviets were fighting for their lives. Even if someone had wanted to save the Jews, and that’s of course doubtful, they couldn’t have.”
The Allies only truly grasped the scope of the horrors of Auschwitz in June 1944, when a report of two escapees reached Washington. The failure to plan a bombing campaign at that point, while most likely futile, is a moral stain on the allied powers, Bauer said. “They might not have saved a single human live, but they would have made a statement that they care.”
Moshe Zimmermann, the former director of Hebrew University’s Richard Koebner Minerva Center for German History, also rejected Netanyahu’s assertions about ostensible Allied unwillingness to save the Jews.
“The powers fighting against Nazi Germany assumed that they have to concentrate on winning the war, and assumed that this was the most efficient way also to stop the murder of the Jews,” Zimmermann said.
It is often argued that bombing Auschwitz might have been a more successful way of slowing the pace of the systematic annihilation of Jews and Roma, but military historians have long asserted that airstrikes were impossible before the summer of 1943 — as Bauer explained — and that the bombed railways would in any case have been repaired quickly.
Bauer, 91, also contested Netanyahu’s complaint that the world was silent about the Holocaust, citing a December 17, 1942, declaration in which the Allied powers acknowledged that Adolf Hitler was carrying out his “oft-repeated intention to exterminate the Jewish people in Europe” and vowed to “insure that those responsible for these crimes shall not escape retribution.”
Bauer further took issue with the claim that two million Jews had been killed by 1942. This is an oft-cited but entirely unsubstantiated guess, he said, arguing that it is impossible to know exactly how many Jews had been murdered at the time.
While hesitant to interpret the intentions behind the prime minister’s remarks this week, Bauer said Netanyahu is “not a fool” but a very intelligent, well-read man with a keen interest in history, and said it was surprising that he would make such claims. “He’s falling into these traps again and again,” Bauer continued, citing the prime minister’s October 2015 speech accusing the Palestinian mufti of having persuaded Hitler to exterminate the Jews in 1941.
“First the mufti and now this statement, and I’m sure Netanyahu is going to continue to make idiotic statements,” Bauer fumed.
According to Zimmermann, the Allies could have helped save the Jews by opening the gates to Jewish immigration — but only before World War II. “When the war started it was too late,” he said. “This is a thought Netanyahu would not embrace. First of all, because then one has to ask about the US policy toward the Jews of Europe until December 1941, and because Netanyahu himself did not learn the lesson and leads a very restrictive policy against refugees.”
Bauer said the newly released UN documents, cited by Netanyahu as constituting new evidence that the world knew about the Holocaust earlier than previously assumed, are not in fact revelatory.
“There is absolutely nothing new in this at all,” he said, adding that the material they contain, from the UN War Crimes Commission, was cited at the 1946 Nuremberg Trials.
While the new study Netanyahu referred to this week refers to UN archival material that had not been used until now, the systematic murder of Jews was known in 1942, Zimmermann said.
“Netanyahu just proved to be as ignorant as he was when he blamed the mufti for instigating Hitler to start the Final Solution,” said Zimmermann, asserting that Netanyahu’s “intention was not only to accuse the Allies for collaborating with the Third Reich, but to use this conclusion in order to justify his paranoid policy of, ‘We are up against the whole world, which does not care about us and hates us.’”