I have just finished reading an interesting and disturbingly timely book. Why We Watched: Europe, America, and the Holocaust, by Theodore S. Hamerow, a history professor at the University of Wisconsin, chronicles and analyzes a story too rarely told: why the USA and Western European democracies exerted so little effort to prevent Hitler’s genocide of the Jews of Europe.
Hamerow gives full credit to the supreme efforts made by the allies in the war to defeat Hitlerism – once the allies belatedly recognized that their appeasement and isolationism would not avert the danger of further territorial aggression.
But he focuses on the numerous instances when the US and Britain failed to take available steps to assist Hitler’s victims. The public silence about the death camps. The repeated failure to offer wholesale welcome to refugees. And, above all, the refusal to divert even limited military resources to disrupting the railroad networks supplying the death camps.
In the final analysis, there were three reasons why the West only watched the Holocaust.
First, the legacy of the isolationism that tainted all Western political parties in the inter-war period. This left the West with a residual sense that what Hitler did to his own people was his own business.
Second, a near-universal toxic mixture of anti-Semitism and fear of anti-Semitism. This was the context for any discussion of doing more to help the Jews of Europe. Anti-Semites before the war treated Hitler’s racist policies as an internal matter. Once the war started, any discussion of explicitly helping the Jews was treated as a distraction from the supreme effort to win the war. And the staunchest anti-fascist political leaders worried that any effort at aiding Jews would stir up anti-Semitic feelings in the citizenry – the feelings that Hitler and Goebbels constantly tried to fuel – that the war was for the benefit of the Jews. A macabre balance was maintained between hatred of Jews and fear of anti-Semites as the gas chambers did their work.
And third, a failure of the imagination necessary to appreciate the depth of Hitler’s evil and the seriousness of his commitment to the “final solution”. Western leaders restrained themselves from even talking openly about the death camps. They worried that many citizens would regard such talk as ridiculous exaggerations akin to WWI baby-killing atrocity tales from the “Rape of Belgium”, and thereby discredit themselves as preposterous propagandists. In fact, many western political leaders harbored their own doubts about whether the death camp reports were not in part lobbying pressure tactics directed at increasing Jewish immigration. Western foreign-policy “realists” certainly felt that Hitler’s Jew-hatred could not be stronger than his will to win the war; as a political leader, surely he would put national survival over Jewish extinction. Few could believe that, by the time Hitler could be stopped, the Jews of Europe might be a cause irretrievably lost.
Hamerow attributes the largest role to anti-Semitism and the reciprocal fear of anti-Semitism. But the interaction of all three factors enabled the ultimate sad outcome, an outcome so dismal that even now we refuse to acknowledge it: the near-total success of Hitler’s plan to rid Europe of Jews. The Germans murdered two-thirds of the Jews within their reach, and the majority of the rest left Europe as soon as possible. Most of those who fled came to the US and Israel.
Which brings us to the present day. Again, we see a nation seeking to control its region and dominate its neighbors. We see this nation in the hands of militant fanatical ideologues and apocalyptic tyrants. We hear in their own words their hatred of the Jews and their commitment to destroy them.
And now we see them devoting all their efforts to achieving a level of nuclear armament that will put their neighbors under their control, and put extinction of the hated Jews within easy military reach.
Once again, the factors which enabled Hitler’s Germany are at work to enable Ahmadinejad’s Iran.
The counsels of isolationism tell us to stay out of the fight, to maintain even-handed detachment, to avoid antagonizing enemies or reassuring allies. Indeed, we seek to have neither enemies to oppose nor friends to support (see below, “Obama’s Isolationism Unveiled“).
And anti-Semitism stalks the world more fiercely and openly even than in the 1930’s. Islamism has revived The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, feeding resentment of the Jews as all-powerful world puppet-masters. Once again, Jews are cautioned not to wear openly Jewish clothing or hats on the streets of cosmopolitan, urbane, post-modern, multicultural Europe, for fear of mob attack. Meanwhile, Democratic elder statesman advise Israel, “for its own good”, to avoid antagonizing the world with its bad behavior, or risk a rise of…anti-Semitism!…in Gaza and the West Bank!
And, above all, we have the pernicious influence of foreign-policy realists who reassure us that Iran couldn’t possibly mean what it says about eradicating Israel. That’s just rhetoric, big talk. They must know that they couldn’t possibly use nuclear weapons even if they get them. After all, they wouldn’t want to risk the casualties from an Israeli or US second-strike. They’re not crazy, you know!
The ultimate failure of imagination, as we saw on 9/11, is to refuse to believe people when they say they want to murder us.
Will we, once again, sit and watch? Despite the present excitement about “talks” and toothless sanctions, it appears that the world is dithering while Iran arms itself with first-strike weapons of annihilation.