Bomb Auschwitz? Why Not?
The debate on whether the Allies should have attempted to bomb the Auschwitz death camp during WWII is historiographically fascinating, but it's a bottomless pit: we'll throw in everything we know about the death camps, about what the Allies knew about the death camps, about what the Allies talked about doing about the death camps, about the tools of war, about the industrial infrastructure of Germany and Poland, about Roosevelt and Truman's attitudes towards Jews, Germans and the military, about the military's attitudes towards the Jews and Roosevelt and Truman; eventually we'll talk about IBM and the Bush family ties to Nazism and for fun maybe we'll talk about Werner von Braun for a change or perhaps we'll just rehash the discussion of Mel Gibson's father, or maybe one of the"they weren't really death camps" people will show up again, and that'll pretty much be the end of rational discussion. I've seen it before.
In the end, those who think the bombing should have happened will be convinced the nay-sayers are nitpicking and amoral, not to mention unimaginative; those who think the bombing would have been counterproductive will be sure that the pro-bombers are obsessed, impractical and overimaginative conspiracy theorists. The debate will be selective but highly mobile, careening from one half-articulated argument to an out-of-context fact to a"logical but ahistorical" conclusion, through a few ad hominems, and eventually all will either drift away or collapse in exhaustion. The winner will be the one who has the energy and tenacity to keep typing the longest about the most detailed material, and that usually isn't the person with the best arguments or even most normal perspective. Nobody's mind will change, at least not among the participants; observers, those who aren't partisan lurkers, will sway with the prevailing winds and probably leave agreeing with whomever they last read. I've seen it before.
In the end, this is probably one of the most counterproductive counterfactual arguments, because there's really no plausible scenario in which the Allies could have saved more than a few tens of thousands out of the millions killed: the Nazi Germans were masters of industry and adaptation, and they would have found other ways to kill who they wanted killed, to force labor out of those they enslaved, to purify themselves and taint history with their purity. This was industrialized murder, and there are so many ways to kill. So the argument really isn't about turning points in history.
The argument is about morality. We have a hole in our hearts, we humans, because the Holocaust happened, and because of all the other slaughters and genocides and atrocities. We can't make it go away. We can't seem to stop them, and it's not clear how hard we're trying. Those who argue that the bombing wouldn't have helped are trying, at some level, to assuage themselves by justifying inaction. Those who argue the bombing would have helped are trying, at some level, to assuage themselves by directing rage outward. Perhaps. I know the debate isn't really about Auschwitz: counterfactuals are about the present, not the past.
In the end, I come down in the middle, and I walk away. I don't think the bombings would have been the salvation of many. Not directly, anyway. But even minimal, sporadic attacks on the infrastructure of the Holocaust would have been a powerful moral statement (perhaps even a rallying point for the Allies, if we're really playing counterfactuals), and then, perhaps, we could have spent the energy talking about the present in the present, instead of waiting a half-century to address questions that have no answers.
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Richard Henry Morgan - 3/31/2004
Jonathan has outlined some important points. Counterfactual history is about the present, more than the past. And the decision whether to bomb the gas chambers and crematoria of Auschwitz is about morality -- about competing conceptions of morality that on the one hand call for clean hands, and on the other call for responsibility (one must do something ...).
Interestingly, the ethic of responsibility here comes up against the barrier of law -- a barrier often enough ignored in times of war. The gas chambers and crematoria were not military targets as defined by law (and neither were the camps themselves), and any civilian deaths that might occur incident to their destruction by bombing would be war crimes, as defined by law (not to mention the moral implications). And yet, the ethic of responsibility would seem to pull us in that direction. Better, from a legal and moral point of view, a marginally effective attack on rail lines, or on chemical facilities. There survives the urge to have done something. People might have been saved by simply making the machinery of death less efficient.
Oscar Chamberlain - 3/31/2004
Should we have tried. . .? That's a question that does, indeed, return to haunt us. I am sure you are right that the difficulties we have today in reacting to atrocities is one factor in our periodic return to the question of bombing Auschwitz.
There is one difference in the World War II situation, however. We were already at war with Germany.
Deciding whether to bomb Aushwitz was a question of effectiveness, logistics, and morality.
Deciding to do so would not have entangled us in a new conflict of uncertain dimensions as, say, a U.S. mission to Rawanda would have done. It is the question of whether to enter new conflicts that makes the US, and other nations, reluctant to act.