This year marks the 75th anniversary of a non-event with a significant impact in history: the bombing of Auschwitz. It is by now an article of faith within some segments of the Jewish community that the Allies could have, and should have done so—and did not because of indifference to Jewish suffering animated by ingrained anti-Semitism. As Benjamin Netanyahu declared at the death camp in 1998: “All that was needed was to bomb the train tracks. The Allies bombed the targets nearby. The pilots only had to nudge their cross-hairs.”
According to this train of thought, demolishing the crematoria was a feasible undertaking that could have been carried out at minimal cost by Allied aircraft already bombing military targets. What was the problem in stopping off to drop a few extra bombs on the gas chambers? The simplest explanation for neglecting such an opportunity is that a decision had been made, at the highest levels, to leave the Jews to their fate. This thesis has been forcefully articulated by the historian David Wyman in “Why Auschwitz Was Never Bombed,” an influential essay that appeared in Commentary magazine in 1978 and was later incorporated into his widely read 1984 book The Abandonment of the Jews. Wyman argued that not bombing Auschwitz epitomized the larger moral failure on the part of the Allies to address the plight of the Jews.
This view, framed by chroniclers whose focus was the politics of rescue, went relatively uncontested for some time and took root as conventional wisdom. Not until a few years later did research emerge, notably by aviation and military historians as well as scholars of the Holocaust, that appeared to challenge these assumptions. Most notably, in a series of essays collected in 2000 as The Bombing of Auschwitz: Should the Allies Have Attempted It?, they contended that air raids would have been inaccurate at high-levels and ineffective at lower ones; that bombing would have involved significant risk to the airmen from strong German defenses while inflicting minimal damage on the crematoria that were in good part underground; that the railroads were difficult targets which in any case could have been repaired swiftly; that bombs would likely kill more Jewish prisoners in the adjacent barracks than do any serious damage to the gas chambers; that bombing proponents ignored the complexities of intelligence-gathering, bad weather and long-distance flights over hostile enemy territory as well as the necessary sorties by mass formations over several weeks required for any effective operation; that even if partial success were achieved the SS would have found other means of realizing their lethal goals; that a commitment to such extensive raids would constitute a diversion from the war effort which would feed aspersions that the Allies were fighting a “Jewish war”— a staple of Nazi propaganda—and that the surest way to save Europe’s remaining Jews was to achieve victory as quickly as possible.
The debate hinged on a matter of perception. From a military viewpoint, the question was: could this seriously be considered? From a moral viewpoint, the question was: how could it not? Elie Wiesel spoke with great passion about how elated Jewish prisoners were at the news that the Allies were bombing the Buna-Monowitz factory complex at Auschwitz, even at the risk of their own death. But it was the Allied victory over the German armies on the ground that ultimately liberated the camp and saved his life.
Over the last 40 years a considerable literature on the subject of rescue has emerged with a sub-set of texts on the bombing of Auschwitz. The historian Henry Feingold describes the controversy as “a dialogue of the deaf. ” The question is whether the lens is wide or narrow. From a contemporary vantage point, saving the Jews should have been a pivotal component of the Allies’ aims. But for the leaders conducting the war effort, it was peripheral. The Americans, the British, the Russians were fighting to save themselves. In doing so, they saved the seventh million. And it is from this perspective, that we must try to apprehend their choices about the war, made under the press of conflicting needs and fateful events. We know what was going to happen as the war unfolded; they didn’t.
The argument for bombing as a means of rescuing Jews faces the dilemma of being counter-factual. It is unknowable how many prisoners would have been saved by air raids—and how many might have been killed by them.
Another question might be: Why Auschwitz? Why is the Museum of Jewish Heritage about to open an exhibition devoted to this camp alone? By the time the Allies were even in a position to embark on a raid, 5 million of the 6 million Jews slaughtered in the Holocaust had already been liquidated, 80 percent of them elsewhere. Notorious sites such as Dachau and Buchenwald lasted longer, as did the slave-labor facilities where thousands were worked to death; sites such as Treblinka, Sobibor and Belzec were exclusively death camps.
But it was Auschwitz, which covered 16 square miles and served multiple purposes, that was the killing field for a million Jews together with 100,000 other prisoners. It was the longest-lasting of the death camps, not shutting its gas chambers till November 1944 nor being liberated by the Russians until January 1945. In time, it became the face of the Holocaust itself.
To strike a blow against Auschwitz was a symbol of defiance against the Nazi genocide. Failure to rally the world to such an endeavor was seen as a sign of impotence on the part of Jewish wartime leadership and an act of betrayal by the Allies. Implicit in this judgment was the belief that “we” might have acted differently. The Holocaust historian Deborah Lipstadt calls such thinking a symptom of “ ‘presentism’—the application of contemporary or other inappropriate standards to the past.” Lipstadt observes that debate about such historic events as the failure to bomb Auschwitz “often is actually a debate about an array of contemporary political, religious and ideological issues.”
What concerned Jewish leadership and the Allies in terms of rescue in the midst of World War II was an immediate decision. The window for bombing was narrow, six months in the summer and fall of 1944. Auschwitz was out of the range of Allied bombers until the U.S 15th Air Force established full operations at its base in Foggia in Southern Italy in the spring of 1944. The deportation to Auschwitz of Hungary’s Jews—the last significant Jewish community in occupied Europe—began on May 15, 1944, and lasted through July 8. The Allies learned of the Hungarian deportations and their lethal destination in late June. At about the same time they were given the Vrba-Wetzler report detailing the murderous functions of Auschwitz and its location—which had been smuggled out of Poland by two Jewish escapees earlier that spring—together with further corroboration from Slovakian Jewish sources.
This news came in the midst of the Normandy invasion. In the run-up to D-Day, the Allies fought a desperate battle for air-superiority, a near-run thing, which was not achieved till the last moment before the landings. It was followed by a concentration of air power to keep the Wehrmacht from reinforcing its troops in Normandy. At the same time, the 15th Air Force was pounding the Ploesti oil fields in Rumania which would deprive the Nazis of critical fuel, immobilizing their tanks and significantly degrading their air capabilities. It wasn’t until July-August that American heavy bombers were able to conduct raids against synthetic oil targets in Silesia, which would have brought them in general range of Auschwitz.
If this were the case, why not simply peel off a few bombers to knock out the gas chambers? Critics make much of the fact that the Buna-Monowitz complex at Auschwitz was accidentally bombed in September. But the air war did not work this way. As the historian and Air Force archivist James Kitchens has pointed out, bombing Auschwitz was a complex operation involving photo reconnaissance, navigational challenges and repeated sorties by coordinated bomber attacks that would have taken several weeks to mount. Moreover, American planes faced a sophisticated radar system as they flew inland from the Adriatic, aggressive resistance from German fighters, heavy guns at Buna and the hazards of bad weather.
As for light resistance, the military historian Williamson Murray observes that the U.S. Air Force had up till then sustained 30 percent losses of its pilots; the British toll was worse, losing almost half of its airmen in the war. And what would this have accomplished in terms of destroying the crematoria that were largely underground? American bomber crews reported that in a raid on railway facilities in Berlin in late April 1944, only one in five combat wings got its bombs within five miles of the target. With such a degree of inaccuracy, Kitchens estimates that, given the proximity of the barracks to the gas chambers, at least 25 percent of the bombs dropped in densely populated housing areas with no air raid protection, could have killed as many as 2,000-3,000 prisoners. It should be observed that a similar raid on the armaments factory at Buchenwald, made under far more favorable conditions, resulted in 1,750 casualties, more than 300 of them fatal.
Critics contend that the Americans could have used B-25 medium bombers, but the B-25’s required swarms of fighters for protection, which would have eliminated the element of surprise. Wyman asserts that this problem could have been solved by utilizing British Mosquito bombers which could achieve the elements of stealth and precision. While, in theory, an intriguing idea, in fact the all-wooden Mosquitos had no defensive armament and relied solely on speed and guile. They succeeded in cross-Channel raids, such as the attack on Amiens prison, but the idea that they could fly more than 600 miles in radio silence, make a coordinated precision attack on the gas chambers and return home safely, in Kitchens’ words, “beggars belief.” Richard Levy, who has written and lectured on the bombing of Auschwitz, argues further that the Mosquitos lacked sufficient range to bomb Auschwitz and that Wyman’s other operational solutions, B-25 Mitchell medium bombers at moderate altitudes and P-38 Lightnings were “seriously flawed.”
But let us posit for a moment that the bombing of Auschwitz could somehow have been carried out, inflicting sufficient damage on the crematoria and creating enough chaos to allow for a prisoner breakout. What might have happened?
Based on the rebellions at Sobibor and Treblinka, only a small number escaped; the rest were slaughtered. And since both were exclusively extermination camps, the prisoners had little to lose. Moreover, the risings at both sites were planned. Bombing Auschwitz would have taken not only the enemy by surprise, but the inmates as well. Those who managed to make it outside the gates would have been hunted down by a willing Polish population which accounted for ferreting out more than 200,000 Jews during the Nazi occupation. The reprisals would have been massive and indiscriminate. The gas chambers would likely have been repaired in short order with the use of Jewish slave labor. And in the interim the S.S. would have innovated various alternatives to liquidate their Jewish prey.
It is doubtful that a temporary setback at the crematoria would have prevented the Nazis from carrying out their goal of extermination. And even assuming the unlikely prospect that the tracks leading to Auschwitz could have been bombed successfully, they too would have been quickly repaired. Richard Overy, the pre-eminent authority on the aerial war, writes that despite the bombing of Germany, its armament production actually increased until late in the war. There is no reason to believe the Germans would not have applied the same dedication and efficiency to get the crematoria up and running in short order.
As the historian of Hitler’s Germany, Gerhard Weinberg, writes: “The idea that men who were dedicated to the killing program… were likely to be halted in their tracks by a few line cuts on the railway or the blowing up of a gas chamber is preposterous.”
(This is the first in a two-part series. The second will address the question of bombing Auschwitz from the perspective of the Allied leaders, the rescuers and the perpetrators.)