Churchill and the Holocaust
In the January 2009 issue of Commentary, Hillel Halkin penned an interesting piece, “The Jewish State & Its Arabs,” which resulted in a flurry of reader comment on the Commentary website.
One reader had the impression that Churchill “overreacted” to the 1944 assassination of Lord Moyne by members of the Jewish Lehi (Stern Gang). Another wrote something I just could not let pass without rejoinder:
…had Churchill given an order to bomb Auschwitz, rather than simply recommend that it be bombed, it would have been bombed. He did not do so, presumably, because he was loath to quarrel with his general staff and did not wish to stand accused of risking British pilots and air crews in order to save Jewish lives that had no military value.
To the Editor of Commentary:
Churchill was no more “overreacting” to the assassination of Lord Moyne by the Stern Gang than he was able to assure the bombing of Auschwitz. Churchill deplored terrorism regardless of its source; and, while he quarreled with his general staff frequently, he did not have plenary authority over the U.S. Army Air Force—the responsible agency for bombing in the Auschwitz sector.
1) From Churchill by Himself, World Politics chapter, page 442, Winston S. Churchill in the House of Commons, 17 November 1944 (source: Sir Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill, VII: 1052):
If our dreams for Zionism are to end in the smoke of assassins’ pistols, and our labours for its future to produce only a new set of gangsters worthy of Nazi Germany, many like myself will have to reconsider the position we have maintained so consistently and so long in the past. If there is to be any hope of a peaceful and successful future for Zionism, these wicked activities must cease, and those responsible for them must be destroyed root and branch.
Editor’s note: Churchill was a friend of Jews, but not an uncritical friend. Outraged when his friend Lord Moyne (Walter Guinness), the Minister Resident in Cairo, was shot with his driver by members of the terrorist Stern Gang on 5 November 1944, Churchill suggested the Colonial Secretary, Oliver Stanley, should impress upon Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann “that it was incumbent on the Jewish Agency to do all in their power to suppress these terrorist activities.”
2) From Martin Gilbert, “Churchill and the Holocaust,” United States Holocaust Museum, Washington, 1993 International Churchill Conference:
Five prisoners escaped from Auschwitz in order to bring news to the West of what was happening to the Jews there. Four were Jews. One was a Polish Catholic medical student. The moment their information reached the West, the moment the “unknown destination” was revealed as Auschwitz, and the truth of the gas chambers there made clear, there was a tremendous and understandable outcry. (The first thing that has always struck me is: what would have happened if these escapees had made their way West in 1943 or even at the end of 1942?) The impact of their report on the Jewish and non-Jewish world was dramatic, and traumatic….
On 6 July 1944, in a meeting with Anthony Eden, Weizmann and Shertok made five urgent and desperate suggestions [the fifth of which was] “that the railway line leading from Budapest to Birkenau, and the death camp at Birkenau and other places, should be bombed.”
When Churchill was shown this request by Eden, he did something I’ve not seen on any other document submitted to Churchill for his approval: He wrote on it what he wanted done.
Normally, he would have said, “Bring this up to War Cabinet on Wednesday,” or, “Let us discuss this with the Air Ministry.” Instead, he wrote to Eden on the morning of 7 July: “Is there any reason to raise this matter with the Cabinet? Get anything out of the Air Force you can, and invoke me if necessary.”
I have never seen a minute of Churchill’s giving that sort of immediate authority to carry out a request….I suppose it is a great tragedy that all this had not taken place on 7 July 1943 or on 7 October 1942. For when all is said and done, by 7 July 1944 it was too late to save all but a final 100,000.
There is a vast subtext, of which I have written in my book, Auschwitz and the Allies. The British officials did not know on 9 July that the deportations had ceased, so they had to deal with the Prime Minister’s request on the assumption that it still had some validity, and in the course of dealing with it, some of them revealed considerable distaste for carrying out any such instruction.
It is interesting, however, to note that when the request was put to the American Air Force Commander, General Ira C. Eaker, when he visited the Air Ministry a few days later, he gave it his full support. He regarded it as something that the American daylight bombers could and should do. But as you also know, from the letter which is put up in the Museum, when the request reached Washington—indeed, on the five separate occasions when the request reached Washington—it was turned down. On the second occasion that it reached the Assistant Secretary of War, John J. McCloy, he told his assistant to kill it; and it was then effectively killed. The debate about bombing those particular lines continued for more than a month after the lines were no longer in use.
I spoke to a number of those who would have been involved in bombing the lines, as Churchill had wished, and even bombing the camp installations, had the deportations not stopped. One thing which greatly heartened me, from my perspective, from my window as a Jew, was that all the pilots and air crew I spoke to, who would have had to do the work, were emphatic that they would have done it, and were ashamed and angry that they had not been asked to do it.
I even found the young man who had taken that aerial photograph of the camp which is displayed in the Museum, a South African photo reconnaissance pilot. He was in extreme distress at the thought that, on the four separate occasions when he flew over the camp with his camera, he had no idea what it was he was flying over. He flew only an unarmed plane, but as he said to me very touchingly, “Had I known, I could at least have tipped my wing to show the people there that someone knew they were there.”
Churchill had no doubt that a terrible crime had been committed. As he wrote to Anthony Eden on the day that the escapees’ account of the truth about Auschwitz and the “unknown destination” reached him:
“There is no doubt that this is probably the greatest and most horrible crime ever committed in the whole history of the world, and it has been done by scientific machinery by nominally civilised men in the name of a great State and one of the leading races of Europe. It is quite clear that all concerned in this crime who may fall into our hands, including the people who only obeyed orders by carrying out the butcheries, should be put to death after their association with the murders has been proved. Declarations should be made in public, so that everyone connected with it will be hunted down and put to death.”