Monday, September 24, 2018

Shadow pasts

William D Rubinstein's controversial “The Myth of Rescue” argues that the Western Allies couldn't have saved more Jews from the Nazis than they actually did. Rubinstein is a history professor and former president of the Jewish Historical Society of England.

The book is based on two premises. One is that counterfactual history writing is always wrong, or at least meaningless. Even if people decades later can come up with some ingenious scheme to save Jews from the Holocaust, this meant nothing *at the time* if nobody proposed such a plan or had knowledge that could lead them to propose it. Thus, it took considerable time even for Jewish organizations to propose the bombing of Auschwitz. The incredibly detailed photos of the death camp published in many books were unknown during the war itself, not being discovered until 1978. No technology existed to magnify them as much as is possible today.

The second premise is that the Holocaust was caused by the psychotic anti-Semitic monomania of one man – Adolf Hitler – who was also the absolute ruler of Greater Germany and (for a while) most of Europe. Literally *nothing* could persuade Hitler to stop or even scale down the mass killing of the Jews. (Rubinstein doesn't say so, but this implies that he views the Holocaust as unique.) After the war had begun, and even more after the Endlösung had been ordered, the Jews under German control weren't “refugees” but de facto prisoners. This made it extremely hard or downright impossible to rescue them while Nazi rule lasted. The Nazi German “satellite states” such as Hungary or Romania could be persuaded to save “their” Jews after it became clear that the Allies would win the war, but only if the Nazis decided not to interfere. Alas, in Hungary they *did* interfere, overthrowing Admiral Horthy (who had ordered the cessation of the deportations to Auschwitz). Only the chaos after Horthy's deposition made it possible for Raoul Wallenberg and others to save at least some Jews from SS death marches, Arrow Cross pogromists, and the like. In areas where the Nazis were firmly in control, essentially nothing could be done to save the victims of the Holocaust.

Not only does Rubinstein reject contrafactuals, he argues at some length that virtually all rescue proposals, both those actually made at the time and those thought up later, were doomed to failure. Bombing Auschwitz would have killed many Jewish inmates, and was probably impossible for various logistical reasons anyway. Also, the proposals were made too late. Bombing the Kosice-Presov railway line wouldn't have stopped the deportations to Auschwitz, since many other railway lines were used for the purpose. Even if all railways had been bombed, the Nazis could have disposed of the Jews by other means (used both before and after the deportations to Auschwitz), including mass shootings, starvation and overwork. Indeed, the Nazis *would* have done so, given Hitler's sociopathic obsession with killing as many Jews as possible before the inevitable fall of the Third Reich.

But what about the restrictive immigration policy of Britain and the United States prior to the war? Rubinstein doesn't deny that open borders would have saved many Jews from the future Holocaust, but probably not as many as people imagine. Most Jews from East Europe wouldn't have emigrated – they didn't emigrate when the borders *were* virtually open, and few Jews foresaw that East Europe would be occupied by the Nazis within a few years, let alone the Endlösung. Also, most Jews lived on Soviet territory and obviously couldn't leave even if they wanted to. The author believes that some positive aspects of immigration policy haven't been sufficiently emphasized, for instance that no Jews fleeing Nazi-occupied territory were forced to turn back (except perhaps by Switzerland in some cases). This doesn't mean they were always treated fairly: the British discouraged immigration to Palestine, and many Jews ended up in internment camps around the world, but at least they weren't sent back to die. As for Palestine, an independent Jewish state there might indeed have saved some Jews from the Holocaust, provided it was created before the war started, but once again the number would be smaller than many imagine since most Jews *opposed* Zionism before the war – indeed, it was precisely the enormity of the Holocaust which made Zionism near-hegemonic among Jews *after* the war. Also, an independent Israel would have been a prime target for Nazi Germany, given Hitler's unique hatred for the Jewish people. The Nazis waged war in North Africa, within striking distance from Jerusalem...

In the end, there was only one way to save the Jews from the extermination camps: to actually win the war against Nazi Germany. Rubinstein makes the observation that the supposedly passive and anti-Semitic Western leaders were working overtime to achieve *this* objective!

Right or wrong, “The Myth of Rescue” should be read by all serious students of the Holocaust and World War II.

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