Should the Allies have bombed Auschwitz? A still-incendiary question

As Holocaust Remembrance Day is marked, two historians stake out passionate, opposite positions on the causes and consequences of inaction

Mitch Ginsburg is the former Times of Israel military correspondent.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Berlin on August 27, 2009, examining a US military aerial photo of Auschwitz-Birkenau (photo credit: AP/Rainer Jensen, pool)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Berlin on August 27, 2009, examining a US military aerial photo of Auschwitz-Birkenau (photo credit: AP/Rainer Jensen, pool)

The question of why the Allies didn’t bomb Auschwitz – central to the Zionist narrative and an issue that the Israeli Air Force has taken under its wing, posting in army bases across the country the photos of its silvery fighter planes flying over the grassy death camp in 2003 -– received radically different responses this year at a conference held ahead of Holocaust Remembrance Day, marked in Israel on Wednesday-Thursday.

Opposing positions, tracing the contours though not the full breadth of a swirling argument, were staked out by professor emeritus Alex Groth of UC Davis and professor emeritus Yehuda Bauer of the Hebrew University.

Groth contended that the absence of Allied action against the death camps was part of a larger body of circumstantial evidence indicating that Winston Churchill and Franklin Delano Roosevelt were anti-Semites eager to “thin out” the Jews; Bauer asserted that not only was the bombing of the death camps militarily unfeasible during the crucial years of the Germans’ industrial annihilation, but that, even today, “we are all bystanders,” guilty of inaction in the face of genocide and, therefore, hardly in a position to point a finger at the Allies.

The Times of Israel spoke with both scholars and listened to their addresses, given in March at Jerusalem’s Menachem Begin Heritage Center and co-organized by the Israel Council on Foreign Relations and the California-based InFaith Community Foundation.

Israeli F-15s over Auschwitz-Birkenau (photo credit: IAF/ Flickr)
Israeli F-15s over Auschwitz-Birkenau (photo credit: IAF/ Flickr)

Groth, a survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto who managed to live out the war years on Polish soil, made an assertion seldom heard in Israel, where Winston Churchill is perceived chiefly as a supporter of the Zionist cause and as the voice of morality in the face of Adolf Hitler’s initially unchecked evil. “There is circumstantial evidence for collusion in the Holocaust between Winston Churchill and Franklin Delano Roosevelt on one side and Hitler on the other side,” he told the Times of Israel. “That is, that they were knowing accomplices to this, that they furthered this by policies, which they adopted and pursued throughout the war.”

Gentlemanly Jew-hatred?

The “smoking gun,” from his perspective, is the December 17, 1942 Joint Declaration delivered in the British House of Commons on behalf of 11 allied nations, including the United States and the United Kingdom. British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden took the floor and declared that “the German authorities, not content with denying to persons of Jewish race in all the territories over which their barbarous rule has been extended, the most elementary human rights, are now carrying into effect Hitler’s oft-repeated intention to exterminate the Jewish people in Europe.

“From all the occupied countries Jews are being transported, in conditions of appalling horror and brutality, to Eastern Europe. In Poland, which has been made the principal Nazi slaughter-house, the ghettos established by the German invaders are being systematically emptied of all Jews except a few highly skilled workers required for war industries. None of those taken away are ever heard of again.”

That statement, accurately depicting the plight of the Jews, Groth said, “was preceded by silence and followed by silence,” leading him to the “inescapable conclusion that there was a willful, knowing collusion between these two great statesmen” and the Third Reich.

The silence was not complete. In September 1942, amid the deportation of the Jews of France, Churchill told the House of Commons that the Germans’ “brutal persecutions” in “every land into which their armies have broken” had been worsened by “the most bestial, the most squalid and the most senseless of all their offences, namely, the mass deportation of Jews from France, with the pitiful horrors attendant upon the calculated and final scattering of families,” according to Martin Gilbert’s account in “Churchill and the Jews: A Lifelong Friendship.”

He added: “This tragedy fills me with astonishment as well as with indignation, and it illustrates as nothing else can the utter degradation of the Nazi nature and theme and the degradation of all who lend themselves to its unnatural and perverted passions.” He paused, Gilbert noted, and continued: “When the hour of liberation strikes in Europe, as strike it will, it will also be the hour of retribution.”

Churchill advocated for the November 1943 Moscow Declaration, which promised to pursue those who had perpetrated “atrocities, massacres and cold-blooded mass executions” to the “uttermost ends of the earth.” And in July 1944, as the last of Hungary’s Jews were being rushed to the gas chambers, he wrote to the Archbishop of Canterbury: “I fear we are the witnesses of one of the greatest and most horrible crimes ever committed in the whole history of the world.”

Groth, though, asserted that Churchill was malevolently fixated on Jews prior to the war and deliberately forgetful about their plight during and after the war.

In Churchill’s six-volume history of the war, which won the Nobel Prize for Literature and was written between 1948 and1953 – after the Nuremberg Trials – there was “not one word” about the Holocaust, Groth said; no mention at all, besides in the endnotes, of the extermination or annihilation of European Jewry. He called the omission “an unbelievable statement on the part of Churchill.”

Winston Churchill speaking in January 1939 (photo credit: AP Photo/ Staff/ Putnam)
Winston Churchill speaking in January 1939 (photo credit: AP Photo/ Staff/ Putnam)

The first sprouts of Churchill’s antipathy, Groth said, poked through the surface in February 1920. At the time, the 46-year-old secretary of war began a column in the Illustrated Sunday Herald with this pungent lede: “Some people like Jews and some do not; but no thoughtful man can doubt the fact that they are beyond all question the most formidable and the most remarkable race which has ever appeared in the world.”

After celebrating the Jewish gift of Scripture – “We owe to the Jews in the Christian revelation a system of ethics which, even if it were entirely separated from the supernatural, would be incomparably the most precious possession of mankind, worth in fact the fruits of all other wisdom and learning put together. On that system and by that faith there has been built out of the wreck of the Roman Empire the whole of our existing civilization” – Churchill proceeded to delineate the three species of Jew: national, international, and Zionist.

The national Jews, he wrote, “play an honorable and useful part in the national life” of a state, with “some rising to the command of armies, others winning the Victoria Cross for valour.”

The Zionist idea “presents to the Jew a national idea of a commanding character” and is “in harmony with the truest interests of the British Empire.”

But the international Jew – a sort best kept in check by Zionism – is part of a “sinister confederacy” of predominantly God-less Jews, engaged in a “world-wide conspiracy for the overthrow of civilization and for the reconstitution of society on the basis of arrested development, of envious malevolence, and impossible equality,” Churchill wrote.

Neither Churchill nor Roosevelt earmarked any money for the liberation of Jews — Prof. Alex Groth

“This band of extraordinary personalities from the underworld of the great cities of Europe and America” – representing the root of every subversive movement during the 19th century and having played a detrimental role in the French Revolution, he wrote – “have gripped the Russian people by the hair of their heads and have become practically the undisputed masters of that enormous empire.”

In short, Churchill suggested, “The gospel of Christ and the gospel of Antichrist” may have been “destined to originate among the same people; and that this mystic and mysterious race had been chosen for the supreme manifestations, both of the divine and the diabolical.”

He was, at the time, Gilbert wrote, influenced by the “Protocols of the Elder of Zion,” which had been sent to him several weeks prior.

Churchill’s chief biographer, however, wrote that throughout the war years, “amid all the pressing concerns of the war on land, at sea and in the air, and the desperate struggle to find the means to challenge the continuing Nazi domination of Europe, Churchill always made time to deal with Jewish issues.”

A February 5, 2015 photo of a statue commemorating the 1945 Yalta Conference between Churchill, left, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, center, and Joseph Stalin (photo credit: AP Photo/ Alexander Polegenko)
A February 5, 2015 photo of a statue commemorating the 1945 Yalta Conference between Churchill, left, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, center, and Joseph Stalin (photo credit: AP Photo/ Alexander Polegenko)

Gilbert cites the 793 illegal immigrants aboard the Darien, who were allowed to remain in Palestine in February 1942 thanks to Churchill’s direct intervention; his insistence that Vichy laws in Algeria be repealed once the Vichy authorities had been ejected; and the demand that Spain, in the spring of 1943, open the Franco-Spanish border along the Pyrenees to escaping Jews.

Sadly the Polish Government in Exile’s request that British bombers drop alongside the bombs leaflets stating that the air attacks on Germany were reprisals for the treatment of Poles and Jews was dismissed out of hand by Chief of the Air Staff Sir Charles Portal, who warned, according to Gilbert’s account, that any such raids “avowedly conducted on account of the Jews would be an asset to enemy propaganda.”

“Churchill,” Gilbert wrote, unconvincingly, “had no power to overrule his air chief on operational matters.”

Groth said that the gentlemanly Jew-hatred common to both Churchill and FDR led to a policy of “willful blindness.” Neither leader, he asserted, earmarked any money for the liberation of Jews; FDR spent some $50 billion of discretionary Land-Lease funds, equivalent to nearly three-quarters of a trillion dollars in today’s money, on aid to 38 different countries, some of which, like Brazil, had not yet entered the war, but “for Jews there was not a dollar to be found.” And neither invested much effort in the pursuit of information or the encouragement of even the most simple sabotage, including, say, mines along the tracks or other plans to slow the industrial murder.

A February/March 1945 photo of the tracks leading to the  death camp (photo credit: AP Photo/ Stanislaw Mucha)
A February/March 1945 photo of the tracks leading to the death camp (photo credit: AP/Stanislaw Mucha)

Groth, in fact, believes that Joseph Goebbels, a close associate of Hitler’s, accurately read the prevailing sentiment among Allied leaders. “The question of Jewish persecution in Europe is being given top news priority by the English and the Americans,” the Nazi propaganda minister wrote in his diary on December 13, 1942. “At bottom, however, I believe both the English and the Americans are happy that we are exterminating the Jewish riff-raff.”

This sentiment, and not war priorities or aerial distances, is what prevented the bombing of Auschwitz, Groth said. The accepted notion, he added, is that Auschwitz came within Allied reach only upon conquest of the airbase in Foggia, Italy, in November 1943 and that concrete proof of the genocide was presented only toward summer 1944, as the feverish deportation and annihilation of Hungarian Jewry slowed to a halt. “That is one of the most major misstatements,” he said.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt on January 30, 1932, while serving as Governor of New York state (photo credit: AP Photo)
Franklin Delano Roosevelt on January 30, 1932, while serving as governor of New York state (photo credit: AP)

Instead, Groth contended that the distance from Lowestoft Air Base in southeast England to Auschwitz was well within Allied reach from November 1942, when the US delivered its first squadrons of B-24 bombers to British soil. And in fact, the B-24 range was 2,100 miles; the flight distance from Lowestoft to Auschwitz and back, according to, is 1,538 miles.

Bauer rejected this claim out of hand and sought to situate the genocide – a word not yet coined at the time – into the larger picture of a world war, in which the Allies prevailed, but not because victory was foretold.

Almost nothing could have been done?

His thesis – that thousands of Jews could have been saved late in the war but not millions – starts with knowledge. The process of knowing, he has written, comes in stages: first, the information has to be disseminated; then, it has to be believed; then, it has to be internalized; and finally, if it warrants action, it may be acted upon.

The United States in, say, November 1940, when the Warsaw Ghetto was shut to the world, was isolationist, unfriendly to Jews, and emerging from the worst economic crisis in its history, Bauer wrote in the Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs. In the Oval Office, President Roosevelt, he wrote, “saw in all Jewish issues a side show” and would likely have subscribed to the notion “that antisemitism” – a word he insists on writing without the hyphen and the capital – “was to dislike Jews more than is normal.”

And FDR, in that respect, was “normal.” [So, too, was Richard Law, the senior British representative at the Anglo-American April 19, 1943, Bermuda Conference, convened in the wake of the December 1942 Allied Declaration. Law, Bauer noted, wrote to his boss, foreign secretary Anthony Eden, “Sorry to bother you about Jews. I know what a bore it is.”]

Yet even had FDR and Churchill fully grasped the unprecedented, industrial murder of the Jews – a Nazi goal that was “pre-figured by ideology, but not pre-planned” – there was almost nothing that could have been done, according to Bauer.

Yes, Bauer allowed in an interview, the B-17 and, later, the B-24, had the range to fly from southeast England to Poland, but the Allies didn’t yet have the long-distance fighter planes to accompany those bombers. Without the Mustang P-51, which was introduced in late 1943, “They would have been shot down like ducks,” he said.

In February 1943 the United States began bombing Germany. It did not bomb east of Berlin until October. By then, he noted, Treblinka, Bełżec, Sobibor, and Chełmno were no longer in operation. Birkenau, however, continued to operate.

The message that Israel, had it been founded, could have stopped the Nazi genocide with its aircraft is a total delusion — Prof. Yehuda Bauer

In November, after the Allied invasion of Sicily, US forces reached Foggia airfield and made it operational again. By that point, information from the Polish underground had reached the leaders of the Allied nations. Jan Karski, a Polish underground operative, who had been smuggled into the Warsaw Ghetto and seen what he believed was Belzec concentration camp, was given an audience with the president in July. During their 80-minute conversation, Karski later told Claude Lanzmann, the president did not ask a single question about the Jews, beyond Karski’s initial statement about having seen an extermination camp, but did inquire about the role of horses in Poland’s agrarian economy.

In the spring of 1944, concrete information was delivered from Auschwitz-Birkenau, depicting the murder machine. The Jewish escapees’ reports were taken down in April-May and delivered to Switzerland in June. From that point on, the Allies should have acted, Bauer said.

The tracks, had they been bombed, would likely have been fixed within 48 hours, he said. The bombers of that period could not zero in on the four gas chambers of Birkenau; to the best of his knowledge, there is not a single instance of successful pinpoint bombing in the entirety of the war. Instead, they would have had to carpet bomb. And in order to penetrate the gas chamber buildings, they would have had to deliver 500-pound bombs. On August 2, American Air Force Commander at Foggia, Carl J. Spaatz, an American of German heritage, sent a message to Washington asking to do just that.

The failure to authorize such a bombing, Bauer said, was “a moral failure of the first degree,” but not a military one. The fight against Nazi Germany was not simply over territory, he told the conference, but “for a world where this cannot happen,” and therefore striking the heart of the evil was a moral imperative.

And yet, even if the Allies would have bombed, he argued, it would not have saved the Jews.

By July 9, the deportations to Auschwitz had come to a halt. From then until November 1944, when the industrial murder was stopped, some 80,000 Jews were killed in the camp. But from that point on, till the end of the war, roughly 400,000 more were shot and ground to their deaths in forced marches. Throughout the Holocaust, Bauer said, half of the 5.6 million Jewish victims were killed without gas. They were starved, exposed to disease, shot. The killing of Jews was a Nazi priority, he said, and only military defeat could finally bring it to a halt.

For this reason, he said, the IAF display and the propagation of the message that Israel then, had it been founded, could have stopped the Nazi genocide with its aircraft, “is a stupid demonstration” and “a total delusion.”

Instead, Bauer suggested that the message should focus not on the alleged Jew-hatred of the Allies’ leaders and their inadequate response to the genocide of the Jews, but rather on the way we stand by in the face of genocides and genocidal events happening all over the place. “We click our tongues over tea and coffee with cake and get really excited,” he said, “but the idea that the world was silent is totally wrong.”

As Bauer told the German Bundestag in 1998, we should add three more commandments to the ten: “Thou shalt never be a perpetrator. Thou shalt never be a victim. And thou shalt never, but never, be a bystander. And I said that because I know that we all are bystanders.”

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