On December 8, 1941, Franklin Delano Roosevelt declared: “Yesterday, December 7,
1941 – (is) a date which will live in infamy.” Of course he was talking about
the Japanese surprise attack on the American fleet at Pearl Harbor, the attack
that catapulted the United States into the Second World War 70 years
Catapulted is right, because beforehand, the clear majority of
Americans did not want to see their husbands, fathers and sons embroiled in
another war on a distant continent. Only after war reached America’s farthest
shore, did American begin a concerted effort to fight not only the Japanese, but
the Nazis and their European partners, as well.
As momentous as the
attack on Pearl Harbor was, December 7, 1941 was also the date of another event
of no less consequence for mankind. The first transports set out for the first
extermination camp, Chelmno, which began its murderous operations the following
day, December 8.
Over the course of the next three-and- a-half years, the
Nazis would murder some three million Jews in a handful of extermination camps,
most infamous among them Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Another three million Jews
were murdered in a wide variety of venues, first and foremost in the killing
fields of Eastern Europe by shooting – a process that had actually begun several
months before Chelmno went into operation. December 7, however, marks the start
of the unprecedented industrialized mass murder of innocent human beings at a
complex designed solely for that purpose.
The American entry into the
war, as students of history and political science know, is really the beginning
of America embracing its role as a great world power. It is true that Nazi
Germany was defeated primarily on the ground by Soviet forces in a long, drawn
out and extremely deadly war. Indeed in retrospect, it may be argued that the
downfall of Nazi Germany was already sealed when the German military failed to
defeat the Soviet Union decisively before the onset of the Russian winter in
1941. Germany simply did not have the wherewithal for a long protracted war,
especially in the face of Russian winters.
NEVERTHELESS, AMERICA’S role
in the defeat of Nazi Germany was crucial. To a very large degree, it was
American supplies that allowed the Soviets to fight for four long years, and
certainly after the D-Day invasion of June 1944, the American fighting man made
a considerable contribution to the fall of Nazi Germany. The reluctant entry of
the Americans into the war on December 7, 1941, to say the least, greatly
hastened the destruction of Hitler’s regime.
outcome of the attack at Pearl Harbor was the dawn of the age of nuclear
weapons. The first nuclear weapon was not deployed against Nazi Germany, rather
the Americans deployed it against Japan in Hiroshima and Nagasaki after Hitler’s
regime had already crumbled.
The use of the most devastating weapon in
history brought about a swift end to the other half of the bloodiest conflict
ever, the war in the Pacific. In its wake, the world now would face issues of
nuclear arms proliferation and escalation, nuclear arms deterrence, and still
true today, the very real fear that such weapons in the wrong hands could wreak
new and unimaginable destruction.
In the immediate postwar period,
American power, bolstered with nuclear might, gained additional ground. Whereas
Europe was devastated by the fighting America was strengthened, overcoming the
Great Depression and coming out of the war with vastly increased industrial
While Europe embarked on a painful process of recovery
after 1945 (made easier by American aid) America embarked on an extraordinary
period of prosperity.
SO DECEMBER 7, 1941 lives in infamy for the
surprise attack of the Japanese on the United States, but it also marks as a
watershed event in modern history.
The start of systematic industrialized
mass murder in Chelmno is less well known, but has no less importance for
mankind. In the Chelmno extermination camp the Nazis murdered over 150,000
people, almost all of them Jews. The murder method was asphyxiation in gas vans
– group after group, after group.
As is now well known, before being
murdered in the extermination camps, Jews were shorn of their hair, fleeced of
their valuables and robbed of their clothing and any other possessions they had
brought with them. None of this material was meant to go to waste, and much of
its found its way back into Nazi Germany where many ordinary citizens benefited
The idea that in the name of an ideology a regime could plan and
carry out the despoliation and murder of an entire people, using the most modern
means available and doing so in a “rational,” “dispassionate” way, continues to
The murder of the Jews, and especially the use of
modern means to do so, may well mark the beginning of a retreat (now well
advanced) from the notion that technological progress is always by definition
for the greater good. It certainly underscores the idea that advances in science
and technology should not occur in a moral vacuum.
technological know-how outstrips our ability to understand its implications or
when people willfully ignore those implications, the door to nefarious acts and
even radical evil opens.
The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the
advent of murder in the first extermination camp, Chelmno, are historical
signposts that need to be marked and remembered. The first for its great impact
on the course of human affairs and role in the ultimate defeat of the consummate
evil embodied by the Nazis, and the latter as a ghastly warning of what can
happen when technologically advanced barbarians, imbued with an ideology of
hate, have the unfettered freedom to act.
After 70 years, the
significance and caveat of December 7 remain as compelling as ever.The
writer is director of the Yad Vashem Libraries, author of
Holocaust, Texts and Contexts, (Vallentine Mitchell, 2005). His study on
Hungarian Jewish Forced Laborers on the Eastern Front will soon be published by
Yad Vashem and University of Nebraska Press.