The Holocaust Historiography Project

Book review

An Exercise in Futility

  • The Bombing of Auschwitz: Should the Allies Have Attempted It? edited by Michael J. Neufeld and Michael Berenbaum. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000. Hardcover. 350 pp. Bibliography, index, illustrations.

Samuel Crowell

Given the belief that Auschwitz was a unique slaughterhouse in which a million, or several millions, were gassed and burned, the question of whether the Allies could have done something to stop the supposed slaughter there is a natural one. In fact, aerial attacks on the alleged gas chambers of Auschwitz were proposed during the war, when several Jewish agencies tried to prod the United States and Britain to intervene militarily during the evacuation of 400,000 Hungarian Jews in 1944.

Following the war, interest in the question of the Allied failure to bomb Auschwitz receded, although it was still common enough for Arthur R. Butz to mention in his Hoax of the Twentieth Century (1977), along with his correct speculation that the Allies must have taken aerial photographs of the Auschwitz complex. In the following year, David Wyman wrote an article pressing the case for the Allies' dereliction in failing to bomb the “gas chambers and crematoria,” an argument he would recapitulate in his 1984 book The Abandonment of the Jews. (We should note that “gas chambers and crematoria” are always discussed in tandem by Holocaust historians, evidence for the latter being considered sufficient proof of the former.) In 1979, when Brugioni and Poirier discovered the long-forgotten aerial photos of Auschwitz-Birkenau, they were seized upon, enabling Elie Wiesel to claim, “The world knew and kept silent … nothing was done to stop or delay the process. Not one bomb was dropped on the railway tracks to the death camps” (p. x)

The present book, derived from a symposium held at the occasion of the opening of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum 1993, is basically a meditation on Wiesel’s accusation of Allied inaction. The book comprises fifteen contributions which take up about two-thirds of its length, detailed notes, an extensive appendix of contemporary telegrams and cables, but only an edited version of the famous Vrba-Wetzler report.

A number of the articles are of an impressionistic nature. Gerhard Weinberg, the American professor who first proclaimed the bogus Hitler Diaries genuine, offers little except his opinion that the Nazis were “nasty people” who fundamentally enjoyed slaughtering Jews and who would have found a way to do so even if the gas chambers and crematoria had been bombed: to argue otherwise is “preposterous” (p. 25). Henry L. Feingold suggests in his piece that the proper route would have been to bomb the German cities in retaliation: after all, the cities were being destroyed anyway, so why not simply justify the practice by referencing Auschwitz? It is difficult to take such casual arguments seriously.

Richard Breitman, who is remarkable among orthodox historians of the Holocaust for his industry in consulting the archives on some occasions, contributes a marginally off-topic article about the ULTRA decodes. While his description of the results of the British effort that broke the German “Enigma” codes fails to address the book’s central premise, he does mention that the British were unable to make a connection between the transports being sent to Auschwitz and mass killings. Breitman goes on to say: “More suggestive was a later (November, 1942) message that Auschwitz urgently needed six hundred gas masks to equip its new guards, but that, too, was only one little piece of a picture” (p. 29). Such a large number of gas masks would not have been necessary for any kind of gassing, fumigation or otherwise. On the other hand, the decode fits in nicely with other evidence developed over the past few years that indicates that Auschwitz and sites in occupied Poland were concerned about poison gas attacks at that time, and even before the crematoria were completed.

Several of the rest of the articles are of a highly technical nature. For example, the article by Frederick Kitchens, an Air Force expert, revels in the vocabulary of tactical bombing, describing the crematoria as “relatively soft targets of brick construction” (p. 86). Later Kitchens describes the prospective mission: a “dauntingly complex objective consisting of five widely spaced buildings (four at Birkenau, one over a mile away at Auschwitz I) which had to be identified and attacked in concert with little loiter time and no release error” (p. 90). Evidently, Kitchens was not informed that the base camp crematorium had been decommissioned the previous year, then turned into a bomb shelter. Other contributions go over similar details, and there are several diagrams showing the layout of the camp, the position of the Birkenau crematoria, and differently shaded circles and boxes to show the extent of damage to be expected around them.

Given the wealth of detail from an air force perspective, one would have expected a corresponding analysis of the passive ground defense at Auschwitz. Yet there is no discussion of the civil defense fixtures, including gastight doors, with which the basements of the crematoria were equipped. Perhaps the authors did not want to contend with the paradox that, of all the structures in Auschwitz, the spaces they designate as “gas chambers” were in fact the best designed to withstand aerial bombardment. Meanwhile, while the authors are meticulous in estimating the collateral damage of a bombing raid in terms of prisoner casualties, none of them seems concerned that bombing the crematoria would also have involved the destruction of the sewage treatment plant as well as the Central Sauna. One is left with the absurd idea of a bombing raid that would destroy all of the hygienic facilities in an over-crowded camp, which would inevitably have engendered terrible epidemics.

The threat of diseases at the camp is, however, treated by Stuart G. Erdheim. It is his claim that had the crematoria been destroyed by bombardment, the Germans would have been unable to burn great numbers of corpses in ditches “due to the problems posed by humidity as well as the threat of disease. It was for these very reasons, in fact, that Himmler had ordered the crematoria built in the first place” (p. 355). Thus Erdheim’s position might seem to be that the Nazis were committed to killing the prisoners in Auschwitz, but were hesitant to burn their bodies in ditches, for fear that this would lead to epidemics which would, no doubt, kill the prisoners at Auschwitz.

In general, the “technical” analyses all share two basic problems. First, there seems to be no clear appreciation of the actual capacities of the “gas chambers” or the crematoria, let alone the capacities as they were envisioned by the Allies in 1944. Most of the authors, quoting testimonies or postwar novels, dogmatically describe how the “gas chambers and crematoria” could destroy a thousand or ten thousand persons per day. But that calculation is irrelevant to the counterfactual scenarios they devise, because it is clear from the primary source material in the back of the book that the figure being tossed around in 1944 was sixty thousand per day.

That a killing rate of sixty thousand per day was even believed possible in 1944 is important to reconstructing the mindset of the Jewish groups and of American and British officials, from which one should be able to derive some conclusions about their concern, or lack of concern, for what was transpiring at Auschwitz. Yet so incredible a death rate should also have led the authors to attempt to establish the actual capacities of their assumed “gas chambers.” If they had done so they would have found that the spaces they envisioned bombing had no extraordinary features. In effect, a basic analysis of the gassing claim, if it did not lead the authors to a revisionist perspective, would at least have led them to acknowledge that any closed space with a secure enough door would suffice, which means that bombing the “gas chambers” would have been utterly pointless.

The second basic problem concerns cremation. The underlying assumption appears to be that the Nazis were eager to carry out mass gas exterminations, but only if they could destroy all evidence of the crime. This idea suggests that the crematoria had some kind of magical ability to destroy the evidence of mass murder, and without such machines the mass murder would not have gone forward. This notion ignores the standard claim that several million Holocaust victims were killed with no expensive cremation facilities to dispose of their remains. Furthermore, since most of the authors endorse the idea of cremation pits at Auschwitz capable of destroying the remains of thousands on a daily basis, and must, according to the traditional view, endorse the idea for other locations, it is hard to see why the destruction of cremation facilities would be vital. We may leave aside the fact that bombing the crematoria would have, at the very least, provided the Nazis with a surfeit of bomb craters ready made for cremation. Still, it seems to us that the proper point of departure for any researcher attempting to evaluate the feasibility of a bombing run on the crematoria would have been to investigate the actual capacities of such a structure. If such is done, and realistic cremation rates selected, the point of bombing the crematoria is rendered moot.

Aside from the primary documentation provided in the back, there is on balance little to recommend The Bombing of Auschwitz. The technical articles, ranging over all the contingencies involved in the proposed bombing of the “gas chambers and crematoria,” are fatally flawed by the ignorance of the authors about the very objects they envision destroying, which renders the rest of their highly learned commentary of little if any value. The impressionistic pieces, on the other hand, simply repeat well-known, but by now rather trite, moral judgments. There is, however, one pleasant surprise: Deborah Lipstadt, in an overview revised for this release, declares that the use of the Holocaust for political purposes, including the question of the Allied failure to bomb Auschwitz, is “ahistorical” — which fairly well sums up the nature of this flawed book.

About the reviewer

Samuel Crowell is the pen name of an American writer who describes himself as a “moderate revisionist.” At the University of California (Berkeley) he studied philosophy, foreign languages (including German, Polish, Russian, and Hungarian), and history, including Russian, German,and German-Jewish history. He continued his study of history at Columbia University. For six years he worked as a college teacher.

Bibliographic information
Author: Samuel Crowell (reviewer)
Title: An exercise in futility
Source: The Journal for Historical Review
Date: March/April 2001
Issue: Volume 20 number 2
Location: page 38
ISSN: 0195-6752
Attribution: “Reprinted from The Journal of Historical Review, PO Box 2739, Newport Beach, CA 92659, USA.”
Please send a copy of all reprints to the Editor.