Inmates of a concentration camp after their liberation (photo by Margaret Bourke-White)

Could the Allies Have Stopped the Holocaust?

Revisiting an old historical debate

Beginning in April 1944, the US 15th Army Air Force, based in Italy, launched yet another in a routine series of aerial reconnaissance missions over German-occupied Poland. These flights found and photographed a sprawling industrial park at a place called Monowitz, which was subsequently targeted for bombing. But on several of those photo-recon missions, they also unintentionally documented the vast complex of death known as Auschwitz-Birkenau and even snapped photos of the Holocaust as it unfolded; the high-flying planes actually saw victims being marched from cattle cars to the gas chambers.

US Army Air Force photo of Auschwitz-Birkenau, 1944

History records that nothing much became of those photos. The infamous death camp was part of a huge industrial network that had been constructed to make use of slave labor from the camp, and many of those factories, especially the Monowitz oil plants, would be duly targeted. But the photos themselves ended up being treated like so much military paperwork; they would sit, forgotten, in the archives until being discovered by a researcher in the 1970s.

The Holocaust was carried out with very little interference from the Allies. We did not bomb the infamous freight cars, we did not take down the barbed wire with precision strikes. No commandos parachuted in to take out guards and liberate captives. The entire machinery of death was carried out exactly the way it was intended: quietly, in the background, behind the cloak of war.

But what if history had unfolded a different way? What if the massive Allied air forces had targeted the infrastructure that supported the Holocaust, impeding its progress, thereby saving lives? Or at least tried to take out the gas chambers that allowed the SS to carry out genocide at industrial levels?

The Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial: Saving the Jews of Europe was not among his accomplishments

It is a question that is still hotly debated today. Truly it is one of history’s most tragic what-if scenarios. Could we have prevented the catastrophe? Could we have stopped the nightmare?

Sadly, tragically, the answer has to be no. The reasons for this are many.

The Holocaust began in earnest in the summer of 1941, when German SS troops, operating in newly-occupied Soviet territory, carried out mass executions. At first these consisted of mass murders by SS men shooting their victims with rifles and pistols, allowing the bodies to fall into freshly-dug mass graves. This, however, was a troublesome method of mass murder and was eventually stopped. Not for any reason of humanity or mercy, of course; mostly it was because the executioners complained about the exhausting, dirty, dismal nature of the work. All those rifle shots made their shoulders sore.

Alternative methods were tried out, but the most effective proved to be the use of “gas vans”. These were large moving-style vans in which the cargo area was sealed up airtight, filled with people and then filled with exhaust from the truck’s engine. They would simply load up the trucks, go for a drive, then return with everyone dead. Yet even this was insufficient for the aims of the Nazis, for they wished to not only murder Europe’s millions-strong Jewish population but vast regions of Eastern Europe as well in order to make it viable for German colonization. They therefore switched to the use of death camps like Auschwitz-Birkenau (along with others less-well remembered) that use big, fixed installations with gas chambers and huge crematoria to burn the heaps of corpses produced.

Suspected gas vans found at the Chelmno death camp after the war

The entire process took many years to develop. The Allies were awere early on that the Germans were engaging in what we now call genocide, with many reports having been snuck out of places like Poland. However, the intelligence, from a military standpoint, was sketchy and imprecise. Where exactly were the killings taking place? Who was carrying them out? When would future massacres happen? There was just no way to know.

In fact, when the Allies discovered Auschwitz-Birkenau in mid-1944, it was already too late. By then the vast majority of the victims of the Holocaust were dead and gone. The Soviet Red Army was, indeed, approaching the complex on its long drive to Berlin, so that soon the camp shut down. By the end of the year aerial spy photos showed the camp being dismantled and blown up.

The Allies had no knowledge of German rail timetables, no way to stop the trains or even delay them. Europe’s rail network was huge; it would have been impossible to identify and stop the “death trains” bringing victims to the camps. In fact, even the significance of Auschwitz would not be recognized until after the war was over; observers assumed it was a work camp. The Nazis didn’t lose control of the air until the middle of 1944, which would have been the earliest an air campaign directed at Final Solution could have been conducted; but as mentioned earlier, by then it was already too late.

A map of Nazi concentration and death camps

In addition to severe military limitations, the Allies faced a lack of imagination. It was simply impossible to conceive of a program so massive, so complex and so impossibly evil as the Holocaust as executed by the Nazis. It employed hundreds of thousands of soldiers and workers, a vast transportation network, plus a huge and intricate economic system involving the pillaging of victims and employment of slave labor to help pay for it all. So huge was the effort that some within the Nazi regime complained about the resources it consumed; those efforts, they believed, should have been focused on winning the war first.

There were dark political motives at play as well. It has been argued that Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill resisted emphasizing the Holocaust because they didn’t want to make the war about “saving the Jews.” And in truth, knowing the cultural views of the time, it is hard to deny they made the right choice. Would ordinary people have been quite as willing to risk their lives to “rescue” Europe’s Jews, who had been subject to discrimination in Allied nations as well as in Nazi Germany? Would the Nazis not have been able to exploit that widespread anti-Semitism to undermine morale?

Despite it all, there was, in fact, one way the Allies could have saved countless lives from the nightmare of the Holocaust. Not by trying to stop it after it had started, but by providing shelter to its victims before it began. It is often forgotten here, but in the six years between the coming to power of the Nazis in Germany in 1933 and the beginning of World War II in 1939, huge numbers of Jews attempted to flee Germany but were turned away by Western nations like Britain, the United States and Canada.

Today, it is hard to imagine a refugee fleeing war-torn Sudan, say, or the killing fields of Syria, making it to LaGuardia Airport and then being sent straight back to the battle zones. Yet that is exactly what happened to thousands of Jews who tried to flee the growing oppression of Nazi Germany. They were turned away by the thousands from the shores of the West who, mired in the Great Depression and their own anti-Semitism, had no interest in taking them in. The Nazis would have been more than happy to dispose of Europe’s Jews in this way; there were even halfhearted plans to create a Jewish state on the African island of Madagascar. But it was not to be. We sent them back, and for the most part they died.

Refugees aboard the SS St. Louis, packed with Jewish refugees and turned away from the US, Canada and other countries; many would later die in the Holocaust

That was the true failure of the Allied “rescue effort”. Not in withholding military forces during the war, but in closing their hearts to mercy before it even began. It is hard to imagine how many lives might have been saved; lives, memories, histories, dreams, loves, tears … all of it instead would go up in flames and be lost forever.

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