New Documentary Asks Why Auschwitz Wasn't Bombed

Roundup: Talking About History

Paul B. Miller, assistant professor of history at McDaniel College, in the Chronicle of Higher Education (subscribers only) (Feb. 13, 2004):

When does a research project transcend the limits of what the academic establishment considers "legitimate" scholarship? At what point do tenure committees decide that a particular undertaking is "unacceptable"? As an assistant professor of history who has just completed work on a documentary film about an event that did not actually happen -- the bombing of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp -- I've thought a lot about those issues lately.

In fall 1996, fresh out of graduate school and battling to secure a precious academic posting, I found myself immersed in editing an article for Holocaust and Genocide Studies on a controversy over the nonbombing. Soon I was familiarizing myself with the issue: Could the Allies, from a military standpoint, have destroyed the Auschwitz killing facilities? Would doing so have saved Jewish lives? If so, why didn't the Allies bomb the camp? In the mid-1980s, the historian David S. Wyman argued that "could have" considerations of military capability were not the issue; the unwillingness of political leaders to undertake any such bombing was. But many scholars still prefer hypothesizing about bomber precision and target defenses to discussing the more pertinent issue of political will.

The article I was editing, by the independent scholar Stuart Erdheim, did not make that mistake. And his enthusiasm for producing a nuanced film about what did not happen proved infectious.

Last spring we completed They Looked Away. Directed by Erdheim and narrated by Mike Wallace, the film is now struggling to find its audience. As executive producer, I've found that, despite the archival research and interviews we conducted, many people, including academics, are wary of its merit. When there is such good scholarship about what did occur, they ask, why do we need a film about what did not?...

They Looked Away does not focus on how history might have turned out had the Allies bombed Auschwitz. What source can prove a counterfactual? Some innocent people almost certainly would have been killed, but some would have been saved, not because the Nazis would have stopped killing Jews, but because their highly evolved and efficient system for doing so would have been disrupted. All that we filmmakers could say was: Every Holocaust survivor we spoke to wished then, and still wishes today, that the Allies had bombed the camp....

But the entire debate over bombing Auschwitz has been obscured by smoke -- the smoke of those who would have us believe that this was not a missed opportunity, but an opportunity that never existed. As we look back on World War II -- indeed, looking back on the whole 20th century -- Auschwitz simply looms too large for us to avoid asking why nothing was done about it.

They Looked Away attempts to resolve the issue through comparative history, the meeting point of counterfactual inquiry and good historical methodology. If the Allies could accurately bomb the V-1 weapons plant at Buchenwald and not hurt the inmates in the adjacent concentration camp, why not target bombs at Birkenau? If they could destroy a narrow submarine in heavily defended Toulon harbor, or pinpoint a plant in the Ploesti oil fields, could they not have done the same for four large crematoria with protruding smokestacks?

To answer those questions, we interviewed hitherto silent sources. World War II photographic interpreters insisted that they could easily have picked out the crematoria on the maps available. Former pilots and bombardiers whom we asked to analyze the layout and defenses of Birkenau and compare them with their actual missions all concluded that a raid was possible, and that its chances for success would have been high. The perils of using testimony given half a century after the fact could be the topic of an article by itself. Here, the point is simply that, until now, a debate has raged with little consultation of expert witnesses. Why?

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John Steffen - 5/5/2005

I wonder if it wasn't just denial - looking back on it now from hindsight, we can see how things like Auschwitz can happen. Back then, people probably still didn't believe that it was happening. Even though there was evidence to the contrary. From what I understand, many people attributed the stories that were coming out of Germany then to war propaganda. One of the discredited war propaganda stories of World War I involved the accusation that the Germans were taking people and making soap out of them. That proved to be false. I suppose lots of people viewed the stories coming out of Germany during WWII the same way and didn't want to get burned again. But later it was found out to be terribly true. My belief is that most people back then probably didn't want to believe that it was happening, or that people, even the enemy, would be capable of such barbarity. Not really any conspiracy of silence.