‘Bombing Auschwitz” has become a metaphorical catchphrase for the moral test that the Free World failed during World War II — and then failed all over again during several other genocides that blighted the post-Holocaust world ever since. Had the Allies bombed the gas chambers and crematoria — or at least the railway lines leading to Auschwitz — the Nazi killing machine would have been interrupted. Many Jews likely would have survived. And the Allies would have delivered an unmistakable message that preventing mass murder was a vision they wished for the world that survived.
The recent missile strike against Syrian chemical weapons sites, launched by today’s Allies—the United States, Great Britain and France—has been criticized for reasons that are disturbingly similar to the arguments made against bombing Auschwitz in 1944. They were wrong then, and they’re wrong now.
In the days leading up to the missile strike, nay-sayers warned that military intervention could result in a clash with Russia. The United States and Russia are on the same side in the fight against ISIS in Syria; U.S.-Russia tensions could undermine the war effort.
A similar argument was made by Roosevelt administration officials in 1944, in response to appeals to bomb the Auschwitz death camp. They said bombing was “impracticable” because it would require a “considerable diversion” of planes needed for the war effort. That claim was disingenuous; U.S. planes were, in fact, already flying over the camp as they bombed German oil factories less than five miles from the gas chambers.
It’s clear, too, that in the most recent case, fears of a clash with Russia were baseless. The Allied missile attack on the Syrian chemical weapons centers proceeded without any Russian response. The war against ISIS has not been undermined.
A second argument concerns possible civilian casualties. In its response to the missile strikes, Amnesty International USA focused on the danger that Syrian civilians might be inadvertently harmed. “People already living in fear of losing their lives in unlawful attacks must not be further punished for the alleged violations of the Syrian government,” Amnesty declared.
It’s disappointing that Amnesty International tried to paper over the well-documented Syrian use of chemical weapons to slaughter civilians as merely “alleged violations.” And it’s troubling that Amnesty seems less concerned about the actual daily murder of Syrian civilians than the theoretical risk to a small number of civilians in the process of eliminating the murder weapons.
The question of civilian casualties also has been raised in contemporary discussions about the failure to bomb Auschwitz. In 1944, that was not an issue: the U.S. excuse was that its planes were too far from the camp, not fear of harming prisoners. But today’s defenders of the Roosevelt administration sometimes argue that it would have been wrong to bomb Auschwitz because some of the Jewish prisoners might have been killed in the process.
The logic of that position is scandalous. It would mean that the possible danger to a relatively small number of prisoners from Allied bombs should have outweighed the certain gassing of 12,000 Jews in Auschwitz every day.
In any event, the American military, then and now, has proven itself capable of carrying out precision strikes. The action in Syria was designed to minimize civilian casualties and was successful in that respect. Similarly, in August 1944, U.S. planes targeted a V-2 rocket factory in the Nazi concentration camp of Buchenwald, destroying the munitions site while sparing the adjacent prisoners barracks.
A third criticism of the strike on Syria is that it won’t completely solve the problem. A staff historian at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, Rebecca Erbelding, tweeted in response to the Allied action: “There are viable ways that the U.S. can aid those being persecuted under an evil regime. Bombing isn’t one of them.”
Yet recent history shows that using military force to interrupt mass murder is a very viable way to aid the persecuted. President Bill Clinton used bombing to put an end to atrocities in the Balkans. President Barack Obama used it to preempt Muammar Kaddafi’s plan to carry out “a massacre that would have reverberated across the region and stained the conscience of the world.” Obama also took military action to end the ISIS siege of thousands of Yazidi civilians in Iraq.
Allied military officials said last week’s missile strikes have set back Syrian chemical weapons capabilities “for years.” Destroying weapons used by an evil regime to persecute people sounds like a pretty good way to aid the persecuted. Equally important, every day that Assad is distracted by the anticipation of another Allied attack is a day that he cannot focus on murdering his own people.
Of course, an even more effective way to aid the persecuted is to eliminate their persecutor. Imagine how many Syrians would have been spared persecution if the Allies had overthrown Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad early on. Imagine how many Syrians would not have been gassed to death if President Obama had fulfilled his 2013 promise to prevent Assad from using chemical weapons. Even now, at this late date, the ouster of Assad would save many lives and spare many others from becoming refugees.
“Bombing Auschwitz” has become a moral obligation for every generation, because, sadly, every generation finds itself confronted with genocide or other atrocities somewhere in the world. The idea of saving lives by bombing genocidal dictators or their weapons sites is not just a history lesson. It is a military strategy for a better world.
Rafael Medoff is founding director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies. Thane Rosenbaum is a distinguished fellow at New York University Law School, where he directs the Forum on Law, Culture & Society.