‘Haaretz’ undermines a foundational myth: FDR abandoned Europe’s Jews

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Sunday’s Ha’aretz ran a very important piece by Tom Segev reporting on the distinguished Israeli historian of the Holocaust Yehuda Bauer’s about-face about whether there was anything the Roosevelt Administration could have done aside from winning the war to prevent the Holocaust and minimize the loss of Jewish lives.  

As I argued in a piece a few years ago (The Myth of Abandonment: The Use and Abuse of the Holocaust Analogy), the conventional wisdom has become that the United States and the rest of the international community were guilty of grave indifference to European Jewry’s plight and should have realized even before the war what Hitler had in store for the Jews and acted more decisively to rescue them.  Once the war began, so this argument goes, the Allies should have launched direct strikes on the Nazi death camps and the rail-lines leading to them to stop the killing.   The fact that the United States did none of these things is prima facie evidence that Roosevelt “abandoned” the Jews in their hour of grave peril. 

Segev has done great work in his own right as an historian in his book The Seventh Million in showing how the memory of the Holocaust has been used to construct a modern Israeli identity that encompasses both religious and non-religious Jews.  Such politicized history serves current agendas more than historical truth.

Here as a journalist he reports that one of the leading historians of the Holocaust, who once shared the conventional wisdom, now after a life-time of professional reflection regards the idea that the Allies could have done anything other than win the war, which is what President Roosevelt pursued energetically, as a myth.  Money grafs: 

Contrary to conventional wisdom, Bauer states that there was no possibility of saving a significant number of Jews by bringing them into the Land of Israel, because there was no way of extracting them from occupied Europe. Further examination led Bauer to conclude also that there was no real opportunity to destroy Nazi annihilation mechanisms by aerial bombings, except at the cost of the lives of many Jews. [H]ad the Allies bombed the gas chambers, the annihilation would have continued via other means, including the “death marches.” In this context, Bauer notes that some 50 percent of Jewish war victims were not murdered in the death camps.

The fiction about the United States and its allies survives not because there is compelling historical evidence for it but rather because it advances various political agendas in Israel and the United States. 

Bauer’s turn-around matters because the Israeli Right  —  from Begin to Bibi — is stuck in 1938, and the weight of politicized Holocaust history blinds them to the fact that they have a partner in peace in Mahmoud Abbas and leads them to blow out of all proportion the threat they face from an as yet non-existent Iranian nuclear weapon.  

Among American Jews,  the Holocaust  has become the secular Genesis story that melds together the otherwise disparate tribes of modern American Judaism by reemphasizing their peril in the diaspora and adding to it the supposed indifference of the Gentiles to their plight.  The lesson is clear:  They can only count on themselves and Israel.

Segev’s account of Bauer’s reassessment should put in stark relief the difference between real history (conclusions based on evidence) and politicized history (to advance current agendas) and hopefully prevent the misinterpretation of an historical tragedy from contributing to contemporary political folly in both countries. 

About Michael Desch

Michael Desch is Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science at the University of Notre Dame. He was the founding Director of the Scowcroft Institute of International Affairs and the first holder of the Robert M. Gates Chair in Intelligence and National Security Decision-Making at the George Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University from 2004 through 2008.

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