Churchill and the Holocaust

Churchill and the Holocaust

The Gates of Auschwitz, with the slogan "Arbeit Macht Frei." (Wikimedia Commons)
The gates of Auschwitz, with the slo­gan “Arbeit Macht Frei.” (Wiki­me­dia Commons)

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.

Aerial photograph of Auschwitz, December 1944.
Aer­i­al pho­to­graph of Auschwitz, Decem­ber 1944.

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.”

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