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Abusing the Holocaust

The overused analogy misdirects American policy.

The Holocaust has become one of the central historical analogies for thinking about U.S. foreign policy in the post-Cold War world. Discussions of U.S.-Israeli relations and debates about humanitarian intervention are invariably couched in the rhetoric of the Holocaust. According to Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen, the Holocaust analogy is now so widely accepted that it has become today’s equivalent of the “Munich analogy.” The most recent example of this is Richard Perle and David Frum’s claim in their new book that we face either “victory or holocaust” in the War on Terror.

Among most Americans, the received wisdom about the Holocaust is that the United States and the rest of the civilized world turned away Jews seeking to escape Nazi Germany before World War II and then sat idly by while the Third Reich murdered six million of them. In effect, the Jews were callously abandoned in their moment of peril although there was ample opportunity before and during the war to save them. In light of this reprehensible indifference, the United States shares some responsibility for the Holocaust, and it must “never again” watch passively as large numbers of people are slaughtered because of their race, ethnicity, or religion.

The rhetoric of recent presidents shows how accepted the Holocaust analogy is in American political life. “Out of our memory of the Holocaust,” Jimmy Carter enjoined, “we must forge an unshakable oath with all civilized people that never again will the world stand silent, never again will the world fail to act in time to prevent this terrible crime of genocide.” At the groundbreaking for the U.S. Holocaust Museum, George H.W. Bush admonished the audience, “Here we will learn that each of us bears responsibility for our actions and for our failure to act. Here we will learn that we must intervene when we see evil arise.” Finally, at the inauguration of the Holocaust Museum, Bill Clinton concurred: “For those of us here today representing the nations of the West, we must live forever with this knowledge: Even as our fragmentary awareness of crimes grew into indisputable facts, far too little was done.” The deeply held belief that the United States should never again behave like it did in response to the Holocaust has two concrete policy implications. To begin with, policymakers invariably insist that the United States should unequivocally support the state of Israel. Richard Nixon, who was no philo-Semite, admitted in 1994, “No American President will let Israel go down the tubes [because] Israel is a haven for millions whose families endured incredible suffering during the Holocaust.” “The Holocaust underlined, in the starkest terms, the moral basis for Israel’s founding,” Sen. John McCain (R–Ariz.) recently wrote in Reader’s Digest. “In standing by Israel, we are merely being true to ourselves. If we ever turned our backs on Israel, we would be abandoning the principles that built our nation.”Moreover, it is an article of faith among American elites that the United States has a moral responsibility to stop virtually any mass killing, especially genocides. For example, Congressman Steve Solarz (D-NY) and Brookings Institution analyst Michael O’Hanlon write, “We cannot bring back to life the victims of the Holocaust and the other genocides that have been among the cardinal characteristics of the century in which we live. But if we can resolve to prevent future genocides and mass killings when possible, the sacrifices and sufferings of those who lost their lives in the gas chambers of Nazi-occupied Europe and the killing fields of Cambodia and Rwanda will not have been entirely in vain.” In a recent Washington Post interview the architect of the Bush administration’s war on Iraq, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, cited the international community’s failure to act in the face of Nazi extermination of the Jews as a compelling reason why the United States had to depose Saddam Hussein. This rationale has become even more important now, one suspects, as it appears that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction or meaningful links to al-Qaeda.

There is no question that historical analogies are frequently used by policymakers to deal with contemporary issues. Sometimes they provide useful guidance; other times they serve merely as a rationalization to mobilize support for policies that would otherwise be hard to sell to the public. Unfortunately, the lessons of the past are often misunderstood and misapplied, resulting in faulty policy outcomes. In the 1960s, for example, the ubiquitous Munich analogy—that the Allies’ failure to stand up to Hitler over Czechoslovakia in 1938 caused the Second World War—helped steer the United States into the disastrous Vietnam War. Hence, we should be wary of historical analogies and examine them carefully to make sure that they are based on sound history and are used wisely by policymakers.

In my view, the widely accepted Holocaust analogy is based on a misreading of history and its “never again” obligations have not always served U.S. interests. It is premised on the historical claim that the international community—particularly democracies like the United States and Great Britain and moral leaders like the Pope—knowingly stood by while millions of Jews were systematically persecuted and then murdered by the Third Reich and its allies. “The Nazis were the murderers, but we were all too passive accomplices,” argues historian David Wyman, who maintains that a “substantial commitment to rescue could have saved several hundred thousand [Jews] and done so without compromising the war effort.” This interpretation of what happened is widely accepted among politicians and pundits in the United States and abroad. Thus, historian Peter Novick, a critic of this view, nevertheless concludes, “No lesson of the Holocaust is pressed more often and more forcefully than ‘the crime of indifference.’”

The West’s indifference, it is argued, manifested itself in six failures. First, due largely to anti-Semitism, the United States, Britain, and many other countries imposed such tight immigration quotas that few Jews were able to escape Nazi Germany before the war began. The second failure of the international community was that once the war began, plans to rescue the beleaguered Jews of occupied Europe were not vigorously pursued. The international community’s third failure, according to this school of thought, was its unwillingness to use the Allies’ substantial military capability to destroy the infrastructure of the Holocaust through bombing the transportation, killing, and incineration facilities of the Nazi death-camp system. The fourth failure was the tardiness of the United States in establishing the War Refugee Board to coordinate efforts to save embattled Jews throughout Europe during the war. The international community’s fifth alleged failure was its unwillingness to pursue opportunities to negotiate with the Nazis or their allies for the release of Jews during the war. The final, and for some most ethically reprehensible, failure was the silence of many moral leaders around the world who supposedly knew about, but did not publicly condemn, the Holocaust.

Critics argue that these failures not only resulted in the needless deaths of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of innocent Jews but were also animated not by ignorance or legitimate strategic concerns but rather by baser motives such as anti-Semitism. These failures thus represent a significant moral lapse on the part of the international community. In the words of Arthur Koestler: “As long as you don’t feel … ashamed of being alive while others are being put to death, you will remain what you are, an accomplice by omission.” The moral lesson of the Holocaust, which makes the analogy particularly powerful in contemporary policy debates, is that those who stand by and do nothing are silent accomplices to genocide. Never again, many Americans are convinced, should the United States stand idly by while innocents are killed merely because of their religion, race, or ethnicity. However, the Holocaust analogy and its never-again obligation are based on a misreading of what the United States and the rest of the international community did and could have done to save Europe’s Jews before and during the Second World War. The work of leading scholars such as Raul Hilberg, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Tom Segev, Benny Morris, and Peter Novick provides reasons to question various aspects of this conventional wisdom. After an exhaustive assessment of the literature on the Holocaust, historian William Rubinstein concludes in his book The Myth of Rescue, “No Jew who perished during the Nazi Holocaust could have been saved by any action which the Allies could have taken at the time, given what was actually known about the Holocaust, what was actually proposed at the time and what was realistically possible.” This is a sweeping conclusion and one that no doubt could be challenged in some of its particulars. But on balance, there is enough truth in it to undermine the Holocaust analogy and call into question the obligation that many contemporary policymakers and pundits feel to support the state of Israel unreservedly and intervene indiscriminately in humanitarian crises around the world.

Upon closer consideration, each of the six “failures” that Wyman and others offer as evidence that the international community was complicit in the Holocaust through indifference, turn out to be far less clear cut.

To begin with, it is true that the United States and many other allied countries had immigration quotas before the war that were the result in part of discreditable motives. But much of the contemporary moral outrage about America’s inter-war immigration policies is based on the assumption that American officials knew in the 1930s what we know now: that German persecution of the Jews would end in the Holocaust. Using 20/20 hindsight, it is easy to see a straight line running from the Nuremberg Laws through Kristallnacht to Auschwitz. But at the time, few imagined what Hitler had in store for Europe’s Jews. Moreover, we tend to forget that America’s immigration quotas were not explicitly designed to keep out German Jews but rather were directed at Eastern and Southern Europeans and Asians. Indeed, Germany had one of the largest quotas during the 1930s, and most applicants for immigration visas in Germany were Jews.

It is also important to keep in mind that, despite these quotas, over 160,000 Jews came to the United States during the 1930s, more than to any other country in the world. In the critical period after Kristallnacht in 1938 through the beginning of the war in the West in 1940, Jews constituted over half of all immigrants to the United States. This calls into question how much of a role anti-Semitism, which was admittedly widespread in American society and the U.S. government, really played in U.S. immigration policy.Moreover, as Rubinstein notes, 72 percent of German Jews did manage to get out of Germany prior to September 1, 1939. The problem is that most of them, thinking that the troubles in Germany would soon blow over, did not go much further than the countries bordering Germany, as John V.H. Dippel chronicles in his book Bound Upon a Wheel of Fire: Why So Many Jews Made the Tragic Decision to Remain in Nazi Germany. Unfortunately, these countries were rapidly occupied by the Third Reich in the early stages of the war, and Jews there had little chance to escape.

At least five factors account for the lack of urgency among large numbers of European Jews about fleeing Europe. First, among many European Jews, Russia, rather than Germany, was historically regarded as the seat of violent anti-Semitism, and it was hard for them to recognize their peril in the Third Reich until quite late. Second, given the economic crisis of the 1930s, few Jews regarded the United States as the land of opportunity, and they were loath to give up their established positions in Europe to start from scratch in the New World. Third, for the Jews of Soviet-occupied territory, Communist censorship, in line with the Nazi-Soviet alliance, hid evidence of what was happening in Germany and Nazi-occupied Europe until it was too late to relocate. Fourth, many Jews believed that their ancestors had survived anti-Semitism in the past by co-operation and subservience rather than resistance or flight, and this tradition made them hesitant to leave Nazi Germany. Finally, Zionism—the belief that the Jews needed a homeland in Palestine—was only a fringe movement among European Jews before World War II, and few Jews were eager to go to Palestine before the war began. British quotas on Jewish immigrants to Palestine thus probably were not a major factor in the reluctance of European Jews to go there, a fact widely acknowledged by the leaders of the Jewish community in Palestine. In short, the inter-war immigration quotas, while morally reprehensible, did not play as large a role in preventing European Jews from escaping Germany before the Second World War as critics charge. Of course, if even a handful of Jews died because of overly restrictive immigration quotas, that represents a serious moral failing. However, the only obligation that imposes on the United States is that it be more lenient in its refugee policy in the future.

Nor is it fair to argue that the international community failed because it did not actively make plans to rescue the Jews once it became obvious what Hitler had in store for them. While there is some debate about when the Nazis began to plan for a Final Solution to the Jewish question, the best evidence suggests that they did not decide on extermination until late 1941. Credible reports of the Nazis’ mass murder of the Jews reached the West only in late 1942, well after the war had begun. In other words, it was not clear until the middle of the war what was happening to the Jews of Europe. Moreover, none of the critics have been able to point to a rescue plan that had any chance of success short of the Allies winning the war. Thus, the international community can hardly be faulted for not launching a rescue effort before its members knew for certain one was necessary and if none was then possible.

No other Allied failure is more often criticized than the decision not to try to halt the killing by bombing death camps like Auschwitz. For many, this is the strongest indictment of Allied wartime behavior. Bombing Auschwitz was discussed during the war within the American government, but it was ultimately rejected in favor of concentrating on winning the war. While it is arguable how many Allied resources would have been diverted from the war effort by air strikes on Auschwitz and other killing centers, it seems clear that bombing would have done little to halt the Final Solution.

It is important to recall that since 80 percent of Jews who would die in the Holocaust had already been killed by spring 1944 when the Allies finally had air bases close enough to regularly strike targets in Central Europe, even the most optimistic proponents of bombing the death camps count the lives it could have saved in the hundreds of thousands, not millions—certainly a consequential number, but a small percentage of the total loss.

Their main contention is that doing so could have saved some of Hungary’s 740,000 Jews who had survived to that point. Even this more limited goal would have been hopeless, however. The transportation of the Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz and their subsequent murder took place very quickly between May 15 and July 9, 1944, so the window for Allied action was very small. Since there were redundant rail links between Budapest and Auschwitz, and the Germans had become quite adept at repairing bomb-damaged track during earlier bombing campaigns, the Allies could not have slowed the killing much by disrupting the Nazis’ transportation system. Bombing the gas chambers and crematoria within Auschwitz itself was not a solution either. Despite having general intelligence about the activities of the camp by the summer of 1944, the Allies lacked specific intelligence about exactly which buildings were integral parts of the killing machine. Even if the Allies had that specific information, U.S. heavy bombers (B-24s) did not have the accuracy to destroy small targets like the gas chambers and crematoria without also hitting the surrounding barracks where most of the inmates were housed. The more accurate medium (B-25) and light (P-38) bombers did not have sufficient range to hit targets in Central Europe.

Finally, even if the Allies had been able totally to disrupt the railroads and destroy the killing apparatus in the camps, it probably would have done little to save the Hungarian Jews, inasmuch as the Nazis could have just shot them in Hungary, as they did with over a million Jews in Poland and the Soviet Union early in the war. Keep in mind the gruesome fact that the Nazis killed 33,000 Jews in open-air shootings in a matter of a few days at Babi Yar in September 1941.

Critics argue that during its short existence in the last years of the war, the U.S. War Refugee Board (WRB) saved nearly 450,000 Jews from Romania and Hungary. Given that belief, it is understandable that they would condemn Allied leaders for not establishing something like it earlier. But it is simply a myth that the WRB saved these Jews. In fact, the survival of nearly 300,000 Jews in Old Romania had more to do with the changing fortunes of war and Romanian nationalism than the activities of the WRB. The Board also played a minimal role in the survival of 150,000 Jews in Hungary, which was mostly the result of Admiral Miklós Horthy’s efforts to pursue a separate peace with the Allies. In sum, criticism of the Allies for not establishing this body earlier can only be made by overstating the Board’s real effectiveness in saving those European Jews who survived.

Similarly, there is little reason to think that the Allies ever passed up any real chances for negotiating with the Nazis for the release of large numbers of Jews at any point once the war began. After all, Hitler was determined to exterminate the Jews of Europe. He went to enormous lengths to achieve that end, even when it worked at cross-purposes with the rest of the war effort. Why would he have agreed to let any Jews go given this fanaticism? Indeed, there is no evidence that he would have countenanced any deal to trade Jews for trucks or anything else. Hence, criticizing the Allies for not pursuing some of these supposed opportunities is unreasonable.Finally, critics like John Cornwell and Daniel Goldhagen think that Pius XII and other Roman Catholic leaders could have spoken out against the systematic killing of Europe’s Jews but did not because of anti-Semitism. But it is not true that the Holy See never spoke out: Pius XI’s encyclical Mit Brennender Sorge was a clear and powerful, if ultimately ineffectual, pre-war attack on National Socialism’s racist agenda. His successor, Pius XII, the target of much postwar criticism for his alleged indifference, actually dabbled in an abortive German military coup plot early in the war at great risk to himself and the Church. He later authorized the sheltering of Italian Jews in Church buildings. Critics provide scant evidence that Pius XII was motivated by anti-Semtism in his conduct during the war. The obliqueness of his public condemnations of Nazi atrocities was due to the fact that he was by training a diplomat, and like any diplomat from a weak country he was cautious about he said. As Josef Stalin aptly asked: “The Pope! How many divisions has he got?”

More overt opposition to the Final Solution would not have been costless for the Holy See, and those efforts that the Church made to flex its moral muscles were largely ineffective. Critics ignore the fact that in addition to 6 million Jews, the Nazis exterminated 3.3 million Soviet prisoners of war, 3 million Polish civilians, and at least 10 million Russian non-combatants, not to mention scores of others. Thus, Hitler had no compunction about killing gentiles, including large numbers of Polish Catholic clergy and laity; Pius XII could not have spoken out without risk to millions of Catholics in Europe. The evidence from the Netherlands, where the local Catholic clergy spoke out against the deportation of the Jews and the Nazis retaliated by deporting Jewish converts to Catholicism, suggests that the Church’s intercession would not have saved Jews either.

The sad truth is that there was little the Allies could have done to stop the Holocaust, short of winning the war. “Nothing can be done to save these helpless unfortunates,” Assistant Secretary of State Adolph Berle concluded, “except through invasion of Europe, the defeat of the German arms and the breaking of German power.” This fact was widely recognized by Jewish leaders at the time as well. Rabbi Stephen Wise, a leading figure in the American Jewish community in the 1930s and 1940s, acknowledged, “The salvation of our people and all peoples who would be free can only come under God through a victory speedy and complete of the United Nations.” Since the Allies focused on winning the war, and the United States in particular chose to win in Europe first, there is little reason for Americans today to feel guilty about the Holocaust. Nazi Germany and her allies alone bear full responsibility for the Holocaust and for the murder of millions of other innocent victims.

Given the fact that the Holocaust analogy is based on faulty history, it is not surprising that the policy implications drawn from it are also frequently wrong-headed. For example, our commitment to the state of Israel, based in part on redeeming our perceived indifference to the Holocaust, has hurt our standing with the Arab and Muslim states of the world. During the Eisenhower administration, the United States was viewed as an honest broker in Middle East. Today that is no longer the case, and this has complicated, and at times even undermined, U.S. policies in the region. It has also put the United States in the morally precarious position of righting a significant historical wrong against the Jews by abetting a lesser one against the Palestinians. The international community was willing to make this trade-off for Israel within its pre-1967 borders, but because of the Holocaust analogy the United States has increasingly found itself committed to support Israel outside of the borders of the UN mandate, further undermining its position in the Middle East and elsewhere. President Gerald Ford nicely summarized the United States’ dilemma:

For the past twenty-five years, the philosophical underpinning of U.S. policy toward Israel had been our conviction—and certainly my own—that if we gave Israel an ample supply of economic aid and weapons, she would feel strong and confident, more flexible and more willing to discuss a lasting peace. Every American President since Harry Truman had willingly supplied arms and funds to the Jewish state. The Israelis were stronger militarily than all their Arab neighbors combined, yet peace was no closer than it had ever been. So I began to question the rationale for our policy…. I made it clear that there was ‘a substantial relationship at the present time between our national security interests and those of Israel.’ Then I added, pointedly: ‘But in the final analysis, we have to judge what is in our national interest above any and all other considerations.’

It has proven difficult, however, for the United States to think clearly about its national interests in the Middle East since its policies toward Israel are animated in part by historical guilt and moral obligation.

If the U.S. commitment to the state of Israel has complicated American foreign policy, it has also muddied U.S. domestic politics. The belief that we must atone for our inaction during the Holocaust makes the U.S. commitment to the state of Israel so sensitive that there is a tendency to question the motives of anyone critical of the Jewish state and its policies. President Truman recounted the bitter partisan battles over the establishment of the state of Israel:

I do not think that I ever had as much pressure and propaganda aimed at the White House as I had in this instance [the partition of Palestine U.N. vote]. The persistence of a few of the extreme Zionist leaders—accentuated by political motives and engaging in political threats—disturbed and annoyed me.

“What bothered me most,” recalled former president Ford, “was the claim by some of those leaders [of the American Jewish community] that inasmuch as I was suggesting the possibility of a reassessment of our policy toward Israel, I must be anti-Israeli or even anti-Semitic.” Many in the current Bush administration reportedly have concluded that George H.W. Bush’s defeat in 1992 was the result of Jewish-American opposition galvanized by his hard line against Israeli settlements under the Shamir government. American support for the Jewish state has become an issue in many national elections in the United States, and almost all American politicians are sensitive to how their stance on Israel affects their electoral prospects.Despite their overwhelming embrace, the Holocaust analogy and its never-again lessons have not necessarily been good for members of the American Jewish community either. Novick makes a compelling argument that it is a mistake for Jews to make the Holocaust central to modern Jewish-American identity. It perpetuates a victim mentality, detracts from the many positive aspects of the Jewish experience in the 20th century, and stifles debate about issues important to Jews such as Israeli foreign and domestic policies. Of course, there is no reason for American Jews to forget the Holocaust. But as Leon Wieseltier recently noted in the New Republic, “Hitler is Dead,” and therefore not all of the problems facing Jews around the world can be usefully framed in terms of the Holocaust.To be sure, not all American Jews have embraced the position of unqualified support for Israeli policies, but they remain in the minority. Some, such as former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who were perceived to have taken anti-Israeli stances, have been attacked ad hominem. The vitriol heaped upon New York University historian Tony Judt in response to his recent article in the New York Review of Books advocating a one-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is further evidence of what happens to members of the tribe who leave the reservation.The Holocaust analogy has also distorted U.S. foreign policy in other areas of the world. For example, the obligations it imposed played a part in leading the United States to intervene twice in the Balkans. It is not clear, however, that these interventions have produced stable outcomes in either Bosnia or Kosovo. Tragically, in Bosnia the international community’s never-again rhetoric led Muslims to believe they would be protected in safe areas like Srebrenica. Unfortunately this may have lulled about 7,000 Muslim men and boys into a false sense of security and discouraged them from getting out of harm’s way before it was too late. NATO’s intervention in Kosovo was also motivated and justified with frequent references to never allowing another Holocaust. Some analysts now believe that this well-intentioned intervention may in fact have accelerated, rather than halted, ethnic cleansing. As Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen argues: “If the United States and the West are going to intervene, the decision has to be based on a realistic appraisal of the situation and what is best for the [victims]—not a pathetically tardy response to Nazism.”

Finally, frequent invocation of the Holocaust analogy and the never-again obligation raises expectations that the United States can and will intervene any time large numbers of people are killed. When it does not, this breeds cynicism about the United States’s commitment to the protection of human rights. For example, that the United States and the rest of the international community did not intervene in Rwanda, where nearly 800,000 people were killed in genocidal violence, while we did in Bosnia and Kosovo, where the loss of life was much less (250,000 and 10,000 respectively), led many to suspect that the key difference was the color of the victims’ skin. But racism does not explain why America intervened in the Balkans but not in Rwanda. The United States did intervene in Africa to stop a major humanitarian crisis in Somalia in the early 1990s with disastrous consequences. This, not racism, made us wary of intervening in Rwanda. Also, the United States and its NATO allies had military forces and bases close to the former Yugoslavia, which made intervention there feasible. Rwanda, in contrast, was far away from NATO forces and bases, and so intervention would have been much more difficult. However, such pragmatic considerations do not carry much weight with many people today who have embraced the Holocaust analogy’s lessons and assume that failure to act must be due to indifference or worse.

Do not misunderstand: I believe that we should study the Holocaust and seek to learn lessons from it to guide contemporary policy. But the widely embraced Holocaust analogy is based on faulty history and the moral obligations derived from it have not always advanced American interests.

Europe’s Jews were not abandoned to Hitler’s tender mercies. The claim that pre-war immigration quotas were the main reason Jews did not escape Nazi Germany is overdrawn. In fact, more than 70 percent of Germany’s Jews managed to escape the Third Reich before World War II began. Unfortunately, most European Jews did not leave the continent before the war broke out, either because they did not live under Nazi rule or because they thought that the troubles in Germany would soon pass. Once the war began and the Final Solution was implemented in the latter half of 1941, the United States and its allies did not sit idly by while nearly six million Jews perished. The only way to stop the Holocaust was for the United States and its allies to win the war, which is exactly what they did. Given those facts, there is little reason for Americans to feel a sense of guilt about the Holocaust.

Furthermore, the Holocaust analogy has not contributed to sound American foreign policy. While there are good reasons why the United States should help Israel defend itself within its UN-mandated borders, the Holocaust analogy’s demand for unquestioning American support for all the policies of the Jewish state undermines U.S. national interests in the Middle East. The United States also has an obligation to do what it can to prevent or mitigate grave humanitarian crises. However, it should act not out of a sense of guilt about the past, but rather from common human decency tempered by a sober assessment of what can reasonably be accomplished in each case and what best serves America’s national interest.


Michael C. Desch is a professor and the Director of the University of Kentucky’s Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce and was a participant in the 2003 “March of Remembrance and Hope,” a Holocaust education program in Poland. This article is drawn from a forthcoming study of the use and abuse of the Holocaust analogy in U.S. foreign policy.