“You know this is a Protestant country, and the Catholics and Jews are here under sufferance.”
Franklin Delano Roosevelt, (1944)
Introduction: In the end neither the death camps nor the rail lines feeding them, nor any other part of the Final Solution’s machinery of death were ordered bombed by President Roosevelt. Was this a result of indifference related to antisemitism, or might there be another, as described by the administrations and its defenders today, a war-related reason against bombing Auschwitz?
Roosevelt signing the declaration of war against Germany, December 11, 1941 (Wikipedia)
Was FDR an antisemite? While we can never know another’s thoughts and unspoken prejudices, some of his actions as president fall outside the mold. Roosevelt deviated from stereotype by including relatively many Jews in his administration (Jews represented 3% of the population, but 15% of his top appointees). Since even his critics point to an abundance of political “caution” as explanation for not finding a way around the anti-Jewish 1924 Immigration Restriction Act, when it came to obstruction of his New Deal he had no hesitation in open defiance of congressional authority.
Roosevelt’s mother is described as antisemitic, but being “antisemitic” was itself, “common during the era.” Which makes his “liberalism,” at least towards some Jews, that much more noteworthy. As president he appointed his friend and neighbor from home Henry Morgenthau Treasury Secretary; he nominated his friend Felix Frankfurter to be a justice of the Supreme Court. So whatever his private attitudes, in public he was seen as a “philosemite by Jews and non-Jews alike. To his political detractors he was referred to as “Rosenfeld,” the New Deal was called the “Jew Deal.”
Even so, when met with what he considered defiance he was not above reminding even Morgenthau, ‘You know this is a Protestant country, and the Catholics and Jews are here under sufferance. [Its] up to you to go along with anything I want.’
So how understand his reticence regarding the fate of European Jewry facing certain murder? He certainly was not above circumventing “the Law” when it suited. When Congress stood between him and passage of his New Deal legislation he stacked the Supreme Court with men sympathetic to his policies. Unprecedented, but he got his New Deal! Had he owned the issue of European Jewry he could as easily have gotten around the 1924 racist legislation. Instead, he insisted, "I do not think we can do other than strictly comply with the present immigration laws." Why defiance for the one, and compliance for the other? If he could take the political risk facing down intolerance and ridicule in opening his administration to Jews, surely he could have allowed a few bombs to fall on the gas chambers, the rail lines feeding Jews to the crematoria?
The demand that the death camp and rail lines be bombed seems first to have been raised in May, 1944. Administration justification for rejection has to be considered in context to the president’s overall conduct of the war. If, for example, he felt the war’s outcome in doubt then a credible argument might be made against “diverting military resources” from more strategic targets and supportive of his strategy of “rescue through victory.”
What was the state of the war in May, 1944? With the bulk of Hitler’s Wehrmacht bogged down in Russia, on 4 June the Allies captured Rome and two days later landed on Normandy. And within weeks, in a desperate effort to stave off complete military disaster, on 20 July, 1944 officers of the German high command launched Operation Walküre, the failed attempt to assassinate Hitler.
With the Wehrmacht engaged in a two-front war, its general staff in disarray, the Allies closing from all sides, and Allied air power dominant across the continent, Roosevelt said no to Auschwitz.
“Between January and June 1944, Allied fighters swept the skies clear of German warplanes and took a heavy toll in pilots. As a result, by June 1944 the enemy lacked both the aircraft and the airmen to mount more than a token resistance to Allied plans.”
Allied aircraft were virtually unchallenged over the nearby and militarily important IG Farben industrial complex at Birkenau. What sense the excuse that dropping a few bombs on the Auschwitz death camp as Allied aircraft passed over the gas chambers en route to the industrial targets would have constituted a “diversion” of forces, or posed an increased risk to aircraft?
Recent writings in this Series: