The Holocaust Memorial in Berlin is a place of great solemnity. The designers have created a place of mourning, memory and warning which looks back to remember - and alerts all who see it of the dangers of extremism and human potential for evil. Underneath the memorial is a museum which along with documenting many of these crimes against humanity contains all the known names of Jews murdered by the Nazis. It was here I came across Primo Levi's disturbing book The Drowned and The Saved, which are the reflections of an Auschwitz survivor seeking to process his experiences and cope with his memories. I also noticed that they stocked Martin Gilbert's book, "Auschwitz and The Allies", which presents the history of the holocaust, not from within the camps -but from the perspective of the Allies. Crucially, it sets out to answer the contentious question of what the Allies knew about the Nazi attempt to exterminate all the Jews in their Empire, when they knew it, and how they responded.
Before looking at the main argument I need to add a note: I found this a very difficult book to read. However, this was not because it was haunting and unsettling like the Primo Levi book, which repeatedly woke me in the early hours with disturbing images, the sound of distant screams and a lingering sense of the presence of evil. No; this book was hard to read for precisely the opposite reason, in that it was cold, analytical history in which the processes, numbers and methods of genocide are discussed as objectively as if they were GDP, or balance of payments deficit figures. Reading of times and dates of train-loads of people disembarking and being either "tattooed and sent to the barracks" or "gassed" in great numbers initially creates the correct response in the reader of horror, revulsion and disbelief. After nearly four hundred pages, and over a million people later, it is ghastly to find oneself no longer being shocked and nauseous, but merely accepting the facts as 'significant'.
Gilbert's treatment of The Allies response to the German slaughter of The Jews is scholarly and even-handed. His position is that The Allies failed to do enough to protect the Jews, and could - indeed should have done much, much more during the course of WWII to save lives where this was possible. However, he is also at great pains to point out that The Allies hands were tied by a combination of a terrible lack of information, the privations of war, complex international relations, disbelief, disorganisation, as well as sense that directly rescuing The Jews was a lower priority for politicians than defeating Hitler and rescuing Europe as a whole. Gilbert's estimation is that even if the Allies had done everything they could and should have done, they could not have stopped the slaughter at Auschwitz until it was almost over.
Detailed working through archives from Allied government papers and those from Jewish and Zionist pressure groups shows that the Holocaust was a hugely well kept secret for much of the war. While the deportations of countless victims from France, Germany, Belgium - and everywhere the Nazi's ruled at the height of the power in 1941; no-one knew where they were taken. The common belief was that they were being used as slave labour somewhere in the East of the Nazi Empire. Some camps such as Treblinka came to international attention comparatively early on, but the worst place of all, Auschwitz/Berkenau remained unknown for most of the war. Interestingly the naivety of western governments which characterised their dealings with Hitler in 1938, continued in their under-estimation of the evils of Nazism in 1941-4. This naivety was shared by all including many of the Jewish groups.
Secondly, Gilbert describes the way that the holocaust got underway with its extreme brutality and efficiency at the lowest point in the war from an Allied military perspective. In 1941, Britain was emerging from The Blitz and The Battle of Britain as a broken and beleaguered country struggling for survival against an Empire which stretched from Calais to the Russian border. Germany had a full conquest of The Soviet Union in its sights from that point onwards, and the Wehrmacht would soon be pushing deep into Soviet territory. At this stage, even if Britain and the European governments in exile in London could have done little but posture.
Thirdly, the truth about Auschwitz was still only filtering through the West in 1944 by way of three or four escapees from the camp who managed to reach Allied lines and deliver verbal reports which stood up to scrutiny. They were however, too often considered to be simply too ghastly to be true.
Fourthly, Auschwitz and its associated supply lines and communication systems were too far into enemy territory for Britain to do anything about in terms of direct military intervention. Gilbert demonstrates that until the fall of Italy and the placement of American bombers with long range fighter escorts there; even the oil-producing facilities adjacent to the death camps were beyond the range of the RAF. Only as Auschwitz was in its last stages of operation did the USAF have potential to interrupt its operations.
On the other hand, Gilbert shows that The Allies - although severely restricted in their ability to respond still did not respond adequately to the crisis. This is demonstrated in several ways:
The first is that from the start there was an wholly inadequate response to the persecution of Europe's Jews even before the full-facts of the evils being inflicted upon them were known. There was a reluctance from all the Allied nations (and beyond) to receive great numbers of those known to be fleeing persecution, ghetto-isation and harassment in the early stages of the war. The reasons for this were many, and The British had particular concerns. On one hand they were struggling to feed and house their own population, were imposing rationing, enduring The Blitz and plunging into enormous debt to fight the war against improbable odds. On the other side of the coin, most fleeing Jews indicated a desire to enter Palestine; which The British were controlling. This would in turn have led to an Arab revolt in the Middle East, and the loss of key Allies at a time when Rommel's forces were surging Eastwards across North Africa with Egypt and then Palestine itself apparently within his grasp. Nevertheless, despite the difficulties involved, the diplomatic wrangling over visas for a few hundred people here, or a thousand there; seem disturbingly petty in the light of the events unfolding across Nazi Europe.
Secondly, as the full extent of the evils of Nazi oppression did become known, by late 1944 The Allies faced the choice of diverting their war effort into humanitarian relief; or pressing on with their undiluted effort to win the war; not by negotiation but the complete demolition of Nazism. In every case, the Allies chose to pursue the war effort. This is probably the most controversial element of the historical assessment of the Allied tactics. The House of Commons denunciations of atrocities and minute's silence for victims was well-intentioned and heartfelt (more by Churchill than Eden, it seems); but in terms of bombing targets, the supply-lines of oil and petrochemicals was consistently a priority over disrupting the flow of people to their slaughter-houses. This was despite the fact that one USAF bombing route passed directly over Auschwitz/Berkenau/Monowitz to higher priority targets. Gilbert is anxious to point out that the opportunities for the Allies to save lives in this way were severely limited by lack of military intelligence and technical ability. Even if the Allies had committed to bombing the camps out of business, they would only have been able to spare a relatively small percentage of the whole - and at the cost of prolonging the war in other areas. Himmler's attempt to "ransom" vast numbers of Jews to the Western Allies for military equipment which could be used against The Soviets (The Brand scheme), was especially perplexing. It could have saved half a million people from the gas chambers; but at what cost? It could have shattered the Alliance, boosted the Nazi-regime's attempts to survive and prolonged the War.
Of particular significance is the liquidation of Hungarian Jewry. This came very late in the course of the conflict due to Hungarian reluctance to embrace German anti-Semitism despite their alliance. However once full German occupation and control was established, the by-now-familiar pattern of the capture, deportation and murder of the Jewish population went ahead. This could have - should have been - interrupted by Allied bombing from captured Italian airbases as by this stage the great secret of the Nazi killing machine at Auschwitz had reached the Allies, and they had bombing fleets within range of potential targets. Gilbert says that the evidence suggests that politicians like Churchill were in favour of such action but were repeatedly rebuffed by military planners who were unwilling to mount the kind of risky operation for Auschwitz's Jews which they managed to support the Warsaw Uprising.
It is perhaps impossible to imagine the pressure which decision makers were under in this period. As those like Eden who opposed direct action to assist the Jews during the conflict repeatedly said; the only real liberation for the Jewish people of Europe is the complete defeat of Nazism, and nothing should be allowed to divert effort from that sole aim. Ultimately reading Gilbert's "Auschwitz and The Allies" leaves the reader with a great deal of understanding of why those decisions were made; coupled with a profound sense of disappointment that the few genuine opportunities which there were in the final stages of the war to save lives, mitigate evil and disrupt the slaughter were not taken.
Martin Gilbert's detailed research, is well-presented and is rewarding reading. The trail he uncovers is far kinder to The Allies than I had expected. Prior to reading this book I was aware of the 'Allied failure' to use bombing to prevent The Holocaust, and so was expecting to read a damning indictment of Allied inaction perhaps coupled to a lurking anti-Semitism. What emerges from the evidence is a far more complex picture in which the full force of Nazi evil was operational at Auschwitz for years before anyone in London or Washington knew anything about it; and by the time they were in a position to act or fail; it was already too late for most of Europe's Jewish people.