Martin Gilbert: Should the Allies Have Bombed Auschwitz?

Roundup: Talking About History

Martin Gilbert, in the London Times (1-27-05):

SHOULD WE have, could we have, bombed Auschwitz? Some believe that if the Allies had acted some of the horrors could have been prevented. On the 60th anniversary it is worth examining the historical evidence. Apart from anything, it reveals the identity of an overlooked heroine.

From the summer of 1942 until the spring of 1944 more than a million Jews were deported to Auschwitz, where they were either murdered or kept as slave labourers.

Deliberate German deception kept the secret of Auschwitz's location and purpose hermetically sealed for almost two years. For the deportees, it was "the unknown destination", "somewhere in the East", or "somewhere in Poland".

Throughout that time, Auschwitz lay beyond the range of Allied bombers. It was first overflown by an Allied reconnaisance aircraft on April 4, 1944. The South African pilot later showed me his logbook. His mission was to photograph the synthetic oil plant at Monowitz, three miles east of the gas chambers of which he, and those who sent him, knew nothing. By coincidence, three days later two Slovak Jewish prisoners, Alfred Wetzler and Rudolph Vrba, escaped and brought the news that the "unknown destination" was Auschwitz, and that up to a million Jewish deportees had been murdered or incarcerated there.

Even as Vrba and Wetzler were presenting their report to the Jewish leaders in the Slovak capital, Bratislava, the SS began the first deportations from Hungary to Auschwitz, dependent for their speed and efficiency on Hungarian police and railway workers. The intended gassing of more than half a million Hungarian Jews began at Auschwitz on May 17. Among those who witnessed it were two Jewish prisoners, Arnost Rosin and Czeslaw Mordowicz, who escaped from Auschwitz on May 27. They too reached Bratislava.

From Bratislava, a summary of the information from the four escapees reached Washington on June 18. It was examined by the War Refugee Board, whose brief was to help Jews wherever it could. The telegram asked for the bombing of the railway lines leading from Hungary to Auschwitz. But the head of the War Refugee Board, John W. Pehle, did not see bombing as a priority. He told John J. McCloy, the Under-Secretary for War, that the board was not, "at this point at least", requesting the War Department to take any action other than to "explore" it. In turning down the request, McCloy wrote that it could "only be executed by diversion of considerable air support essential to the success of our forces now engaged in decisive operations". Thirty-five years later, McCloy told me that his worry was that once a request from the Jews was accepted, all sorts of other captive peoples -he specifically mentioned the Greeks -would ask for similar diversion of Allied air resources, then fully stretched by the D-Day landings three weeks earlier.

On June 24, two days before McCloy's negative response, the escapees' reports reached the Jewish and Allied representatives in Switzerland. "Now we know exactly what happened, and where it has happened," wrote Richard Lichtheim, the senior representative in Switzerland of the Jewish Agency, to his superiors in Jerusalem.

The reports made clear, he noted, that Jews had been sent to Auschwitz not only from Poland but also from Germany, France, Belgium, Greece and elsewhere, and that they had been murdered there.

One of the British agents in Switzerland, Elizabeth Wiskemann -later a distinguished historian of interwar Europe -supported the dispatch of a telegram from Lichtheim to the Foreign Office in London, giving full details of the hitherto "unknown destination" and making six requests.

The first request was to give the facts the "widest publicity". The second was to warn the Hungarian Government that its members would be held responsible for the fate of the Jews being deported from Hungary. The third that reprisals be carried out against Germans being held in Allied hands. The fourth request was for the "bombing of railway lines" from Hungary to Auschwitz, and the fifth for the precision bombing of the death camp installations. The final request was for the target bombing of all collaborating Hungarian and German agencies in Budapest. The telegram gave the names and addresses of 70 Hungarian and German individuals who were stated to be most directly involved in sending Jews from Hungary to Auschwitz.

On Wiskemann's inspiration, this telegram was sent uncyphered, to enable Hungarian Intelligence to read it. They did so, and took it at once to the Hungarian Regent, Admiral Horthy, and his Prime Minister, Dome Sztojay.

The request for bombing was followed six days later, on July 2, by an entirely unconnected and unusually heavy American bombing raid on Budapest. The target was the city's marshalling yards, but many bombs fell in error on government buildings -some mentioned in the telegram.

This seemingly rapid response to the Swiss appeal caused consternation in Budapest. On July 4, Admiral Horthy summoned the senior German official in Budapest, SS General Edmund Veesemayer, and demanded an immediate end to the deportations. Veesenmayer hesitated. Two days later, the Prime Minister repeated the demand. Lacking the military power to force the Hungarian police and railway workers to continue the deportations, Veesenmayer ordered that they end. The last deportation from Hungary took place that day and with it the last major forced removal of Jews to Auschwitz. A chance American bombing raid had stopped the deportations: 380,000 Hungarian Jews had been murdered there.

Also on July 6, a further request for bombing reached London, brought by Chaim Weizmann, head of the Jewish Agency. The next day, Anthony Eden, the Foreign Secretary, put it before Winston Churchill, who responded: "Get anything out of the air force you can, and invoke me if necessary." Eden passed on Churchill's request to the Air Ministry at once, noting: "I very much hope that it will be possible to do something. I have the authority of the Prime Minister to say that he agrees."

But bombing was no longer needed. The deportations to Auschwitz from Hungary had ceased. The 150,000 Hungarian Jews who had escaped deportation by only a few days now had another priority: international protection inside the city from further German or Hungarian Fascist assault. This protection was provided by the neutral embassies in the city: the Swiss, the Portuguese, the Spanish and the Swedish. At the request of the War Refugee Board, the Swedish government sent Raoul Wallenberg to Budapest to take part in this protective work. He reached the city three days after the halt of the deportations to Auschwitz. This rescue effort, of which he became a central part, was coordinated by the Vatican representative in Budapest, Cardinal Angelo Rotta. In recent years, Wallenberg and the other diplomats have all received recognition for their work. Now, Wiskemann, a Briton, deserves hers, as we commemorate the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.

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