The Bombing of Auschwitz Question: Hindsighted and Inaccurate History

February 16, 2020 by Professor Bill Rubinstein
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The article by Jonathan S. Tobin which appeared on J-Wire on 22 January 2020, “Why the Bombing of Auschwitz Argument Still Matters,” is highly misleading and inaccurate, and the reasons for this ought to be set out.

Professor Bill Rubinstein

I have written extensively on the subject, especially in a well-known book published in 1997, The Myth of Rescue: Why the Democracies Could Not Have Saved More Jews From the Nazis, and appeared on the recent BBC documentary on this very controversial subject mentioned by Mr. Tobin.

The first and most important point to be made about the question of bombing Auschwitz is that no one, anywhere, proposed bombing Auschwitz, or any other extermination or concentration camp, until May 1944 – that is, nearly five years after the Second World War had begun, and over two years after the so-called Wannsee Conference of January 1942.  In May 1944, Rabbi Michael Dov Ber Weissmandel (1904-57), who had jumped from an Auschwitz-bound train and made his way to Bratislava, sent a telegram to Switzerland’s Jewish leaders urging the bombing of the railway lines between Kosice and Presov in Slovakia leading to Auschwitz and also urging the bombing of Auschwitz itself.

No suggestion or proposal to bomb Auschwitz, the railway lines leading to it, or any other extermination or concentration camp, was made before that date, in any of the many proposals for rescue which were drawn up in the English-speaking world. In my book, I quoted all of the many proposals for the rescue of Jews, all of which, I might note, were totally useless. No proposal was made by anyone during the War for the bombing of the German concentration camps such as Dachau and Buchenwald, which, while not extermination camps, were terrible places, which were in operation prior to the War and whose locations were known to the Allies. No Jewish or anti-Nazi group anywhere proposed bombing these camps. It would, moreover, have been logistically impossible to have bombed Auschwitz prior to December 1943, when Foggia Airfield in Italy fell into Allied hands. Before that, Allied planes simply could not have reached the extermination camps, all of which were located in Poland.

Trains went from Budapest then north through Kosice and Presov and then crossed into Poland and went west to Auschwitz

When Weissmandel proposed the bombing of Auschwitz, his suggestion was not only not greeted as a life-saving panacea, but was almost unanimously rejected on the grounds that it was likely to kill Jews without stopping the killing process. Although Tobin mentions the hostility of John J. McCloy, arguably an antisemite, he fails to note the much more surprising opposition to bombing made by two groups,  David Ben-Gurion and the Jewish Agency in Palestine, and by the U.S. War Refugee Board, the only official body established (by President Roosevelt in January 1944) specifically to rescue Jews. The Executive Board of the Jewish Agency (the governing body of the Yishuv, headed by David Ben-Gurion) met on 11 June 1944 specifically to discuss the bombing of Auschwitz proposal. After a wide-ranging discussion, its conclusion was summarized by Ben-Gurion: “The view of the Board is that we should not ask the Allies to bomb where there are Jews.”  There has been a debate among Israeli historians as to whether Ben-Gurion ever changed his mind, but there is no evidence that he did.

The head of the U.S. War Refugee Board, John Pehle (whose wife was Jewish) specifically rejected as “unfeasible” the bombing of Auschwitz until he changed his view in November 1944, after the killings there had all but stopped. It should also be noted that these proposals, sadly, coincided with the preparations for the D-Day landings, with D-Day itself (6 June 1944), and then with the liberation of France, on which the fate of the War depended, and no one, realistically, was going to ask the Allies to divert resources from the central aim of liberating Europe. It should also be noted that the gas chambers at Auschwitz were the size of tennis courts, and could almost certainly not have been successfully bombed with the pin-point accuracy required with the aerial technology available in 1944.

The strategy pursued by the Allies, of winning the War as quickly as possible and thus saving the Jews who could be saved, was the only realistic strategy available to them, as tragic as this seems in hindsight. Had the atom bomb been developed slightly earlier – it was first tested in July 1944, after Germany had surrendered – it could have been dropped on Berlin and ended the War and the Holocaust in a fraction of a second, but this was too late.

Bill Rubinstein held Chairs of History at Deakin University and at the University of Wales, and is currently an Adjunct Professor at Monash University.


3 Responses to “The Bombing of Auschwitz Question: Hindsighted and Inaccurate History”
  1. Peter Wertheim says:

    The issue of bombing Auschwitz-Birkenau first attracted wide public attention in May 1978 with the publication in Commentary of the article “Why Auschwitz Was Never Bombed,” by historian David S. Wyman. Since then, several studies have explored the question of whether the Allies had the requisite knowledge and technical capability to bomb the killing facilities at Auschwitz-Birkenau and/or the rail lines and have concluded that it would have been extremely difficult and risky, and that the chances of achieving effective results would have been small. For example, James H. Kitchens, “The Bombing of Auschwitz Re-examined”, in The Journal of Military History, LVIII, April 1994, pp.233–266.

    For an excellent read not only on the question of bombing the railway tracks but also on the more general question of what the Allies knew about Auschwitz and when they knew it, see Martin Gilbert, Auschwitz and the Allies, New York, Holt, Rinehart, 1981.

  2. Liat Kirby says:

    Jonathan Tobin actually referred to most matters discussed here in his article. In the case of the obvious problem posed of killing Jews imprisoned at Auschwitz if bombing it, he went on to say that so many of them were to die anyway (which seems a brutal thing to refer to, but is in fact the truth) while the thousands destined for Auschwitz that would keep rolling in day after day in the cattle trucks by rail could possibly have been saved.
    Chuchill, during World War II, had a similar hard decision to make: knowing ahead of time about the imminent bombing of Coventry by the Luftwaffe, he allowed it to go ahead so that England’s capacity to gain such knowledge for the future would remain intact, thus perhaps saving many more lives in the future.

    That no proposals were made by the Allies to bomb Auschwitz in good time, or any other Nazi concentration camp, may well be the case, however, the moral imperative to do so still remains.

  3. Eion Isaac says:

    But the Railway Lines even the Deportations could have been disrupted if the Polish Resistance gave arms to the Jews and their sappers blew up the railway lines allowing Jews to flee into the forests .
    The Nazi Army was heavily in Russia and armies were moving to capture Stalingrad and the Oil Fields in Baku .
    Mass uprising in Poland Czechoslovakia and France were possible -Heydrich was killed in Prague May 1941 .
    The hate of Jewish people was so great no one would do it .
    True the barbarity of the Nazis created tremendously fear – that is undeniable .
    That is why Stalin imposed counter fear in the Russian Army – .
    In Czechoslovakia there were listed 100 Righteous Gentiles and in Prague and Paris the Architecture was much more valuable than National Resistance or saving the Jews .

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