(photo credit: REUTERS)
While it might seem that everything has already been said about World War II and the Holocaust, there is an important point that does not receive nearly enough attention: this war, which killed 60 million people, was preventable. Humanity could have been spared the terrible suffering and trauma of the war.
From the beginning it was clear that Hitler’s goal was to conquer the world. After the Allies defeated Germany in WWI 20 years earlier, they dictated the conditions of Germany’s surrender and restricted its rearming in the Versailles Treaty of 1919. If the Allies had not hesitated and delayed when Hitler’s intentions became clear, and instead had been willing to shoulder the burden of a new war against Germany, Hitler could have been stopped at a far lower price in lives and resources than was ultimately paid.
From the moment Hitler came to power, his intentions were clear, and they became clearer and clearer as time progressed. No sophisticated military intelligence was necessary to predict his goals, or to understand that the events associated with his rule weren’t sporadic or localized.See the latest opinion pieces on our Opinion & Blogs Facebook page
Already in 1933 Germany withdrew from the Conference for the Reduction and Limitation of Armaments and cunningly defied the Versailles Treaty regarding military training and arms production. In 1935 Hitler publicly announced the nullification of the Versailles Treaty and the enlargement of Germany’s army and arms production. In 1936 Hitler sent German troops to invade the demilitarized Rhineland, thus breaching the Locarno Treaty of 1925, and entered into a military alliance with Mussolini. The Allies choose to ignore Hitler’s violations, as well as his 1938 annexation of Austria, the “Anschluss.”
At the end of that year, in the Munich Agreement Hitler demanded to annex “only” the Sudetenland, and promised not to attack Czechoslovakia. The allies betrayed Czechoslovakia and gave in to his demand, and British prime minister Neville Chamberlain waved the agreement in the air and announced the achievement of “peace for our time.” Half a year later Hitler conquered all of Czechoslovakia, took control over Slovakia and forced the Lithuanians to give up the port city of Klaipeda.
The Allies foresaw that Hitler would conquer Poland, but didn’t declare a preventive war against him. They were deterred by the trauma of 16 million dead in WWI, and pacifist ideologies across Europe were calling to avoid war at any cost. Leaders stuck to a “policy of appeasement” which was in actuality a policy of betrayal of the helpless nations being crushed under Hitler’s tanks. At the same time, US president Franklin D. Roosevelt specifically chose to emphasize the right of every nation to self-determination.
Only with Hitler’s September 1939 invasion of Poland did Britain and France declare war. Nevertheless, Germany quickly conquered Poland, and afterwards Denmark and Norway, invaded France via Holland, Belgium and Luxemburg.
By 1941 it had conquered Greece and Yugoslavia. The same year Hitler attacked Russia in Operation Barbarossa and conquered a large part of it. Until then, the US ignored the war in Europe and concentrated on the war against Japan. Only at the end of that year did the US decide to enter the war in Europe.
From the moment Hitler came to power, he made no attempt to conceal his metaphysical hatred for the Jews and his intention to wipe them out. Very few in the Jewish community took his threats seriously, even while it was still possible to escape.
Even when news leaked out about the methodical annihilation in the death camps, there were those who chose to deny it, or to hope that “it won’t happen to me.” Appeals to the Allies to help stop the machine of destruction fell on deaf ears or were met with denial.
What caused the Allies to hesitate in declaring war on Hitler in the early stages, when it was obvious what his next steps would be? Wasn’t it clear to them that if he achieved his goals then eventually they would have to fight him? So why didn’t they take action? We can call this the “denial syndrome” which is a psychological phenomenon and part of human nature. When there is a far-off danger which is getting closer, and to deal with it requires great resources and sacrifice, people choose to use all their mental powers to ignore it or to find an alternative, “softer” and less threatening interpretation.
Unintentionally, the future is jeopardized by this unwillingness to act responsibly in the present.
This absurd trait contradicts the basic human survival instinct, which drives us to prepare for danger in order to stay alive. Yet this phenomenon repeats itself throughout history. When “the writing on the wall” says that danger is at our doorstep, the human race refuses to read it, and instead enlists its intelligence to create an “alternative story” which won’t require it to take drastic steps.
In the end, the price for this self-delusion is very high, and then mankind tries to justify itself and soothe its conscience by saying that events were impossible to predict, and that all we have now is the advantage of hindsight. In the case of World War II, the price for this denial was indeed terrible.
An ancient tradition tells us that when Alexander the Great conquered the world, his teacher Aristotle said to him: “Now you have won ‘the small war,’ however you won’t be considered valiant until you win ‘the great war’ against the evil inclination!” So we see that long ago it was clear that it is easier to win a great, difficult and painful war than to successfully deal with human nature, that is, to control and utilize it rather than being enslaved by it. Seventy years after the victory over Hitler, can we finally learn this critical lesson? The author of this article is the rosh yeshiva of the Meir Harel Hesder Yeshiva in Modi’in, as well as its branches in Ofakim and Kiriyat Ono, and a colonel (ret.) in the IDF.