If there is a holy grail for pacifists—an argument that would prove, once and for all, that war is simply never a good answer—it is the case that not fighting Hitler would have done more to stop the Holocaust than fighting him. After all, even people who call themselves pacifists today often make an exception for Hitler—him, they’d fight.
But not Nicholson Baker.
In a controversial essay in the May issue of Harper’s that has sparked a spirited debate among historians, Baker, an accomplished novelist, attempted to make that case: that avoiding war with Hitler would have saved more Jews than fighting him. He used bits of arguments many historians might actually agree with: such as, the Allied powers did practically nothing to directly save Jews, and perhaps even made their situation worse by refusing refugees.
But then he went further, arguing that pacifists—some of them prominent rabbis—put forward the best alternative to save Jews, like using them as bargaining chips. “During the war pacifists were at the core of the effort to save Jews,” Baker told The Jewish Week in an interview. “It’s troubling to see their arguments ignored without properly examining them.”
He said he was prompted to write the essay in response to the occasionally harsh reviews of his nonfiction book, “Human Smoke” (2008), which suggested that the U.S. and Britain were in part responsible for the Second World War. He also wanted to counter the current vogue, among liberals especially, for humanitarian intervention—which was the pretext for President Obama’s bombing of Libya, and an idea that often invokes the Holocaust.
“What I did in that book was take us up to the edge of the cliff and stop,” Baker said, noting that “Human Smoke” arranged selected memos and news clips leading up to America’s entry in the war—on Dec. 8, 1941, the day after the Pearl Harbor attacks—all of it suggesting that a peaceful resolution could have been possible. “The Harper’s essay attempts to go further, and see what the pacifists were saying.”
For instance, he highlighted wartime pacifists like Abraham Kaufman, a Jewish executive in America’s War Resisters League, who lobbied U.S. officials to negotiate with Hitler. He suggested offering an armistice in exchange for Jewish refugees. The Jewish Peace Fellowship, a pacifist organization led by such prominent American rabbis as Abraham Cronbach and Arthur Lelyveld, made similar proposals.
Baker argued that pacifists’ logic was far from naïve—“they weren’t unrealistic,” he writes, “they were psychologically astute realists.” After all, he writes that Hitler had used Jews as hostages before, releasing thousands of German Jewish prisoners detained during Kristallnacht in exchange for a large ransom from the Jewish community.
And Nazis even showed a willingness to export Jews, rather than kill them. There were the Kindertransports, for instance, which were often organized by pacifists and helped save 10,000 Jewish children by negotiating their safe passage out of German lands. Then there was the War Resisters International, which negotiated the release of Jewish and other political prisoners from Dachau and Buchenwald.
Given these precedents, Baker asks, why didn’t the Allies at least attempt to negotiate with Hitler to save Jews? “We should have tried,” he writes. “If the armistice plan failed, then it failed. We could have always resumed the battle,” he continues, adding: “Not trying leaves us culpable.”
Many historians disagree.
Timothy Snyder, a leading historian of the Holocaust at Yale, said that first and foremost, the responsibility of the Holocaust lies squarely with the Nazis. “I think it’s important that anytime we have these discussions we remember that the final responsibility rests with Hitler and with the Germans, rather than the people who resisted Hitler.”
Snyder conceded that pacifists did, at least theoretically, have a point—“that without a war, nothing like the Holocaust could have happened.” Much of the recent Holocaust scholarship, for instance, emphasizes that the Final Solution—the plan to murder Jews wholesale—was only hatched well after the war had begun.
But Snyder stressed that, practically speaking, there was no way that governments would have let Hitler do whatever he wanted so long as he did not harm Jews, or any other groups for that matter. “Hitler intended the whole time to eliminate Jews wherever German power touched,” Snyder said. “That this led to murder rather than deportation was very likely because it was very unlikely that everyone would just allow Hitler to do what he wanted to do.”
Other historians took issue with Baker’s use of the latest Holocaust research. David Engel, a Holocaust historian at New York University, for instance, said that while it’s true that the full plan to murder all Jews developed well into the war—as late as the Wannsee Conference, on December 8, 1941—that was still before Germany was at war with the United States, on December 11. In other words, even if the United States stayed out of the war, Jews would have been killed en masse anyway.
Furthermore, the Nazis’ alternative plans for Jews were hardly preferable. Engel wrote in an email that if Germany had not been at war with France and Britain in 1940, “one can ask whether … Germany would have pursued a ‘solution to the Jewish question’ along different lines, such as the Madagascar Plan. … In any case,” he added, “the Madagascar Plan envisioned conditions for Jews that were supposed to lead to widespread death in any event.”
Robert Shapiro, a Holocaust historian at Brooklyn College, said that Baker neglects the fact that pacifism was largely an American and British phenomenon. Pacifists could make their case more easily because they were not attacked by Germany, whereas Russia was. “How would pacifism have dealt with the German invasion of the Soviets?” he said.
Shapiro also doubted Baker’s implication that the Final Solution was hatched amid Germany’s growing sense of defeat. On the contrary, he said, when the mass killings began in earnest, in mid-1941, Germany still felt optimistic. “The death camps and mass shootings began before Germans felt they were losing,” he said.
As for whether the Allied leaders—Roosevelt and Churchill in particular—could have made the case that the war was being fought to end the persecution of innocents, Jews or otherwise, Shapiro, like other historians, said few would have bought it.
Up until Pearl Harbor was attacked the majority of Americans were isolationists, and many others were anti-Semitic. So to expect Roosevelt to appeal to his citizens’ goodwill was unrealistic. “Anyone that argues pacifism is the way to go, in messianic times, maybe,” Shapiro said, “but not in the real world.”
Still, many agree that Baker got one thing right: the Allies did precious little to save Jews during the war. “Certainly Roosevelt could have done more to rescue Jews.” said James Glass, a Holocaust historian at the University of Maryland at College Park. “Even bombing Auschwitz would have saved lives,” he said. “But that’s a whole other issue than pacifism and negotiating with Hitler.”
Anyway, Glass said, negotiating with Hitler had been tried for years, only to see him perpetually disregard the results. Not only did Hitler violate his non-aggression pact with Stalin, he was duplicitous with Britain’s prime minister Neville Chamberlain, who repeatedly tried to find resolutions through diplomacy rather than war. “I don’t think [Baker] ever brought up Chamberlain, who did negotiate with Hitler,” Glass said.
In one notorious example, Chamberlain thought the deal he negotiated with Hitler over the Sudetenland in 1938 would avert war altogether—“peace for our time,” Chamberlain infamously promised cheering crowds upon his return to London. Chamberlain essentially bargained away large swaths of Czechoslovakia in exchange for Hitler’s assurance that he would neither invade the rest of the country nor fight Britain.
Within five months, Hitler of course did invade Czechoslovakia. Only later did historians discover Hitler’s own regard for that deal with Chamberlain. The day after it was signed, Hitler’s foreign minister worried that Hitler tied Germany’s hands, to which Hitler replied: “Oh, don’t take it so seriously. That piece of paper is of no further significance whatever.”
The idea that Hitler was willing to use victims as collateral is also misleading, several historians said. For instance, Hitler released German Jews amid the famed “Rosenstrasse protests,” in which the Christian wives of over a thousand Jewish men protested their husband’s arrest for alleged deportation, in 1943. But historians argued that their release was merely to avert a public relations disaster, and was only possible because those husbands were men of high status—not the hated masses of poor Jews in the east.
And while it is true that some Nazi officials, including Heinrich Himmler, tried late in the war to use Jews as a bargaining chip against further Allied aggression, it rested on the notion that war was an option. In other words, such proposals made the pacifist argument moot, since pacifists rejected war as an option altogether.
Even some who consider themselves pacifists find Baker’s argument difficult to accept. Murray Polner, a journalist and member of the Jewish Peace Fellowship, which still provides assistance to conscientious objectors, said that the Holocaust was the single exception to his outright rejection of war. “It’s the hardest question of all,” he said. “And I’m not sure there’s an answer. The Nazis may be the single greatest exception.”
Adam Hochschild, author of a widely praised new book on British pacifism during the First World War, “To End All Wars,” said he read Baker’s essay with interest. “I’m not a complete pacifist, but I’d say I’m more like an 80 percent pacifist,” Hochschild said. “And I found [Baker’s] essay partly convincing. But I think I would have fought. I think I think I would put [the Second World War] in the category of wars worth fighting.”
When various objections to his essay were put to him, Baker had ready defenses. To those who said that you cannot negotiate with someone who is fundamentally untrustworthy, he responded in the interview that, on the contrary, “you negotiate with your enemies; you deal with your friends.” And while he knew Chamberlain had tried to negotiate, he found him a poor diplomat, one who only wanted to buy time rather than truly avert war.
But his fundamental beliefs remained the same: given the massive death of the Second World War—an estimated 60 million killed in all—“you have to ask if the war experiment was a terrible failure.” And he said that he still found the pacifists he wrote about noble figures. “They understood who was in jeopardy right then, the Jews of Europe. They got it,” he said, adding, “There isn’t an easy interpretation of the war. We’re all humbled by it.”