Next month we will note the 71st anniversary of the liberation of some of the more infamous Concentration Camps in Germany by the U.S. and British armed forces. On entering the camps, they found emaciated and disease-ridden inmates of those camps, but also survivors and dead transferees from Auschwitz. The Germans had taken them from Auschwitz just prior to the Soviet liberation of that death camp. Even in the waning days of a losing war, every effort was made to kill every Jew.
It is generally accepted that approximately 1.1 million Jews were murdered at Auschwitz . Since Allied bombers were visible from Auschwitz, the question has periodically been raised as to whether the Allies, and in particular, the United States, should have bombed Auschwitz to reduce its effectiveness as a killing center. The answer is that while such bombings could have been undertaken, they would have been extremely costly in terms of U.S. military personnel, have killed thousands of Jews in the process and in the end, not have reduced the number of Jews murdered in the Holocaust. The Germans were singularly adept at finding alternate methods of implementing their Final Solution to the Jewish Question.
First, it should be noted that the question of bombing Auschwitz or the rail lines leading to Auschwitz did not surface until the spring of 1944 when it became evident that the large Jewish community of Hungary was now targeted by the Germans for annihilation. Up to then, the 750,000 Jews of Hungary had not been subject to organized killings because Hungary was a German ally and not under German administration.
Two escapees from Auschwitz, Rudolf Vrba and Alfred Wetzler, fully aware of the horrid purpose of Auschwitz, memorized as best they could the physical details of the entire Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp and reported it to the Slovak underground in April of 1944. For a variety of reasons not attributable to any agency of the United States, their report did not reach the War Refugee Board in Washington, the United States agency with the responsibility of saving Jewish lives, until June 24 and the British Foreign Office until July 4. By then, over half of Hungarian Jewry had already been sent to Auschwitz and almost all of them murdered.
The issue of bombing concentration camps had come up before the Jewish Agency in Palestine, the entity that was to become the government of the State of Israel four years later. At a June 11, 1944 meeting of the Agency, David Ben-Gurion, its leader, concluded that the Agency’s view was not to bomb places where there were Jews. Although that later changed, this formal position adopted by the Jewish Agency is a barometer of the difficult question such bombing posed. Leon Kubowitzki, head of the Rescue Department of the World Jewish Congress, wrote to the War Refugee Board on July 1, 1944, opposing proposals to bomb Auschwitz on the ground that any such bombing would kill Jews and give the Germans an enormous propaganda advantage. Thus, even though there were advocates for the bombing of Auschwitz in the early summer of 1944, this was not an open and shut question. On the merits, the question should not have been resolved in favor of bombing.
1. Low-Level Bombing: Enormous Military Cost
In general, U.S. losses in the war were underreported. Unlike today when the press is regularly embedded with military operations, during the Second World War, the reverse was the case. The military understated its losses and sometimes concealed them entirely. For example, the sinking of the Rhona, a troop ship hit by a radio-controlled bomb on Thanksgiving, 1943, resulted in the death of 1,015 American troops. This was not reported at the time and it was decades before the families of those killed were made aware of how their loved ones died. Losses of aircraft were also staggering and in general, kept from the public.
A specific example of the costs of bombing was afforded less than a year before the Auschwitz question became a theoretical option. In September 1943, the United States Army Air Force (USAAF) had attacked the Romanian oil fields in Ploesti with a horrendous loss of personnel and aircraft. Of the 177 planes that left Benghazi, 53 were destroyed and another 58 returned damaged. Hundreds of airmen were lost. What did these losses accomplish? The Germans were able to rebuild what was destroyed and return to the pre-bombing level of oil production within three months. While almost half of the Ploesti route was over the Mediterranean (flown at 18,000 feet) and therefore safe from anti-aircraft fire, the Auschwitz bombers would have been based in Italy and most of their route to and from Auschwitz would have been over territory under German control, thus increasing the risk of anti-aircraft fire and consequent losses.
After the Ploesti disaster, the USAAF never again tried using heavy bombers at low altitude levels. B-25s, P-38s or the British Mosquito low-flying planes (with no defensive armament, requiring accompanying fighter aircraft) theoretically could have been used. The route from northern Italy to Auschwitz was far more taxing that the route to Ploesti. It required travel through valleys in the Alps and Carpathian mountains, most of which was territory controlled by Axis powers, significantly cutting down the likelihood of surprise and requiring additional fuel. Because of the need for added fuel, some the aircraft could have carried only one bomb. Once at Auschwitz, these low flying aircraft would have been exposed to the 79 anti-aircraft guns defending the I.G. Farben works at the Monowitz facility, just four miles away, as well as small-arms fire from Auschwitz personnel. And then the hazardous return flight.
After Ploesti, no credible military official would have supported the same method of air attack but under conditions far riskier and far less likely to succeed.
2. High-Altitude Bombing: Killing Jews
Obviously, the most casualty averse alternative would have been a high-flying bomber. These were used to bomb the I. G. Farben synthetic fuel and rubber plant at Monowitz just a few miles from Auschwitz. B-17s and B-24s cruised at 15,000 thousand to 30,000 thousand feet and traveled just under 200 miles per hour. It should be clear, however, that these missions were not undertaken without heavy losses. Eighth Air Force summaries of combat losses show that 10,631 missions flown by B-17s and B-24s, counting each aircraft as one mission, resulted in 4,145 losses.
If an Auschwitz bombing mission were to assume the risk of a 40 percent loss, would it have been worth that risk? While perhaps the appropriate vehicle for bombing large facilities such as those at Monowitz, the Auschwitz operation was to have been far more surgical: bomb the gas chambers and the crematoria. While some of the gas chambers were grouped together, not all were. It was simply unrealistic to expect these bombers to hit targets with the precision necessary to avoid massive casualties to the 135,000 Jews estimated by Rudolf Hoess, the commandant at Auschwitz, to be at Auschwitz in the summer of 1944.
In fact, inaccuracy was a virtual statistical certainty. The USAAF’s own calculations on high-flying bomber accuracy noted that at 15,000 feet, more than half the bombs dropped would have fallen more than 500 feet from the target. Thus it is not a surprise that in August 1944, when the USAAF conducted a high-flying bomber raid with B-17s on the V-2 guidance works and armament factory adjoining the Buchenwald concentration camp, almost 1,000 Buchenwald inmates were killed or seriously wounded. The deaths at Auschwitz would have been far greater and probably numbered in the tens of thousands. It is no wonder that the initial reaction of so many leaders of Jewish organizations opposed the bombing of Auschwitz.
3. Alternate Methods of Murder
While most of the Hungarian Jews to be killed at Auschwitz had been killed by the time the Auschwitz bombing question arose, it cannot be assumed that even if the bombing had been undertaken and successfully destroyed Auschwitz as a mass murder facility, that the lives of those Jews murdered at Auschwitz between July 1944 and when it was closed as a killing machine in November 1944 would have been saved. (Tragically, local anti-Semites killed a very large percentage of the Jews of Budapest who escaped deportation to Auschwitz.) The Germans were far too committed to the annihilation of European Jewry to have simply stopped organized killing. In fact, their plan to murder Jews extended beyond Europe. With the initial success of the German military in North Africa, the plan to murder Jews was extended to the Jews of North Africa and Palestine. Most of these killings were averted by the defeat of the Germans at El Alamein, leading to their withdrawal from North Africa.
The whole idea of murdering Hungary’s Jews should be seen in the larger context. In the spring of 1944, when the Germans turned their attention to the Jews of Hungary, the Germans were anticipating an Allied invasion from the Atlantic, portending a ground army moving towards Germany from the west In fact, by the time the Vrba/Wetzler report reached the War Refugee Board, the Allied landing at Normandy had already happened. Simultaneously, since the battle of Stalingrad in late 1942, the Germans had been retreating on their eastern front and by early 1944 the Russians were getting close to Germany itself. Indeed, the plan to murder Hungarian Jewry entailed killing the Jews in eastern Hungary first so that they would not escape death by virtue of Soviet military advances into and occupation of eastern Hungary. Despite unmistakably clear and objective evidence that it was to lose the war, Germany continued its other war, the war to kill Europe’s Jews. The destruction of the killing facility at Auschwitz would not have dented the continuation of this war.
When Adolf Eichmann was no longer able to send Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz, he undertook an alternative method of murder. A forced march from Budapest to Hungary’s border with Austria during a brutally cold November, with the customary shooting of those unable to continue, caused the death of thousands of Hungarian Jews. Similarly, as already mentioned, when Auschwitz faced liberation by the Soviets, the Germans, not content to permit those who had survived to be saved, sent thousands of surviving Auschwitz Jews, under brutal conditions, to other concentration camps temporarily immune from Allied advances. (This included sending Anne Frank and her sister Margot to Bergen-Belsen.). Thus, on January 17, 1945, just 10 days before the liberation of Auschwitz – more than seven months after the successful Normandy invasion – the Germans were not ready to end the Holocaust. Fifty-eight thousand prisoners, 20,000 from Auschwitz itself and the rest from sub-camps, were marched by foot on the roads west of Auschwitz. As per standard practice, those too weak to continue were shot. It is estimated that more than a quarter of these 58,000 were murdered on the marches, many died later.
With respect to those deported to and killed at Auschwitz during the last five months of its operation, it is simply naïve to assume that the Germans would have let them survive in the cities and towns from where they were taken and where they were confined. The Einsatzgruppen had already shot more than one million Jews in the earlier phase of the Holocaust and there is every reason to believe that the Germans would once again have resorted to bullets if the Zyklon B alternative were unavailable. It was also common, during the last days of the war, for Germans to force Jews into buildings and then set the buildings on fire, shooting anyone trying to escape the inferno.
Testimony at the Eichmann trial revealed that Eichmann said that as the person in charge of the Final Solution, he was conducting his own war and the objective of that war was to kill every last Jew in Europe. Eichmann was not alone in this endeavor. The war against the Jews was to continue literally until Germany’s complete surrender. Until that point, no Jewish life was to be spared.
Robert M. Morgenthau is of counsel to Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz, a former district attorney for New York County and former United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York. Frank Tuerkheimer is emeritus professor of law at the University of Wisconsin, of counsel to Godfrey & Kahn and a former federal prosecutor.