The thought seems outrageous: that pracifism, a principled objection to America’s entrance into World War II, would have saved more Jews than fighting Hitler and defeating Nazism altogether. But that is the argument that Nicolson Baker, the novelist and author of the 2008 pacifist’s interpretation of the war, Human Smoke, makes in his month’s Harper’s. And his case is compelling.
Of course, pacifism as a means to end the Holocaust seems blasphemous on the surface. We in America are instilled with the idea from birth that only an Allied military victory could have ended Nazi atrocities–against the Jews, and everyone else. But Baker’s essay suggests it was, in fact, the pacifists, and in America, many of them rabbis, who were making the earliest and strongest case to save Jews. They were the ones who helped arraged the Kindertransport that saved 10,000 Jewish children; they were the ones who organized the release of Jews from Dachau and Buchenwald; they were the ones who hid Jewish children in southern France.
As for the Allied war-sympathizers–which is to say, most Americans, left or right–it was not until Pearl Harbor that entering the war was even seriously considered. And as for saving Jews before or during the Holocaust, we know the Allied effort was, at best, checkered. The Allied forces did nothing to liberate Jews from the death camps until the war ended; and during Hitler’s rise, Allied governements did nothing but try to staunch the flow of incoming Jewish refugees.
Baker’s main point, though, is that American pacificist were not indifferent to Hitler. On the contrary, they pressed for ruthless negotiations with Hitler, using the Jews as their essential bargaining chip. The key was to take Hitler up on his own past offers of using the Jews as ransom against going to war. "Hostage taking was Hitler’s preferred method from the beginning," Baker writes. "In 1938, after Kristallnacht, he imprisoned thousands of Jews, releasing them only after the Jewish community paid a huge ransom. In occupied France, Holland, Norway, and Yugoslavia, Jews were held hastage and often executed in reprisal for local partisan activity."
But FDR and his administration was unwilling to enter negotiations at all with Hitler. It was either for or against. Pearl Harbor made everyone turn to the latter, but some of the pacifist literature gives one pause: Vera Brittan, an English novelist and wartime pacifist, wrote in 1942 that "Nazism thrives, as we see repeatedly, on every policy which provokes resistance, such as bombing, blockade, and threats of ‘retribution.’"
Of course, war came to America. We entered then won. But ever since we have been trying to figure out how to make all the discomfiting evidence of indifference to the Holocaust fit into the overridering notion that it was a "good war," that it was just. For a longtime, we have known that our intentions in entering the war were anything but, or at least far from, pure.
But we still know precious little about the pacifists–how just their cause was, whatever its futitilty. Baker’s case is not without flaws, to be sure; after all, if pacificists claimed that Jews were the bargaining chip, or else they’d enter the war, then they must have been serious war as an option. Otherwise, Hitler would have called their bluff. But given the steely realism of their positions, it’s clear that, if anything else, the pacifists cannot be called lily-livered. They cared that people were being killed mindlessly, and above all, that they were Jews.