By Al Shams
Jay Winik’s “1944: FDR and the Year That Changed History” examines in great detail the major events that occurred in that pivotal year of World War II and how President Franklin D. Roosevelt dealt with these events and the unfolding Holocaust.
The book provides a view from FDR’s vantage point, including relations among the Allied leaders: FDR, Churchill and Stalin.
Winik also devotes many pages to the events leading up to 1944.
About half the book examines the Holocaust — its origins, its scope, its impact on the war, what was known and what could have been done.
It is clear from “1944” that the Allies were aware of the final solution, what was occurring in the concentration camps and the fate of 750,000 Hungarian Jews. They had received much creditable information from a variety of sources, and detailed information reached London and Washington.
In early 1944, Churchill was in favor of bombing the camps, but the British did not have the resources for such raids.
Some military historians say Auschwitz was beyond the range of U.S. bombers, but raids were conducted on rubber factories a few miles from the camp. New evidence reveals that the Allies did bomb the camp by mistake. When that occurred, the inmates stood in the open cheering, while the Nazis scurried for cover like scared rats.
Inmates later said they would have willingly run the risk of dying in a raid just to see the Germans run for cover or be killed.
The Allies could have diverted some aircraft for that purpose, and the raids would have upset the Nazis’ timetable. The inmates could have dispersed into the woods, creating some havoc.
Winik offers some discussion that Budapest could have been bombed to delay the transport process, but that plan was not implemented.
Winik and I agree that FDR was a great wartime leader who did much to save Western civilization. He was a man of great intellect, insight and perseverance. He was instrumental in creating the War Refugee Board, which saved more than 200,000 Jewish lives.
But the key question remains: Being such a compassionate person, knowing of the Jewish plight, why didn’t he do more?
Winik offers no definitive reasons, but we can speculate about what was on FDR’s mind during 1944:
- Enormous manpower and resources were dedicated to D-Day. It was essential that the invasion be successful; a failure was intolerable.
- People within the Roosevelt administration, especially the State Department, were deeply opposed to immigration of Jewish refugees.
- The war could easily have been lost.
- Germany was working on an atomic bomb, wonder weapons, long-range rockets and biological warfare, although it was later learned that Hitler regarded nuclear physics as “Jewish science” and did not see a military value to the research.
- The Russian occupation of Eastern Europe was a growing concern.
- FDR was seeking re-election while in poor health.
- Many felt that a rapid conclusion to the European war was the best way to aid the Jews.
- Allied war deaths were escalating rapidly.
- The United States was almost alone in fighting Japan, and losses were escalating in the Pacific.
We should remember that no major decision is reached in a vacuum; there are always many considerations to weigh. Events were moving fast, and the full implications were visible only in hindsight.
In my opinion, as a person familiar with the Allied bombing effort, raids could and should have been launched against Auschwitz or other camps. Many of the camps were within range, especially Auschwitz.
The diversion of military resources would have been modest. I believe that 10 bombers could have done material damage to camp facilities and would have caused some disarray among the Germans. Long-range fighter aircraft could have provided support, and it is unlikely that the Germans had anti-aircraft defenses for the camps.
For the novice as well as a seasoned historian, “1944” is a fascinating read.
1944: FDR and the Year That Changed History
By Jay Winik
Simon & Schuster, 656 pages, $35
This chronology should help those without a good grasp of the history before and through 1944.
- 1933 — Adolf Hitler is elected chancellor of Germany in January. Franklin Roosevelt becomes U.S. president in March. Anti-Semitic actions begin in Germany.
- 1936 — Germany begins to rearm, occupies the Rhineland and supports Fascist forces in the Spanish Civil War.
- 1938 — Germany annexes Austria. Chamberlain secures “peace in our time” with Hitler at Munich. German troops occupy all of Czechoslovakia.
- 1939 — Britain and France warn Hitler to cease all aggression or face war. On Sept. 1, Germany invades Poland. Britain and France declare war. Poland is overrun in one month.
- 1940 — Germany invades Western Europe in the spring. By June, Belgium, Holland, Denmark, Norway and most of France are occupied. The British army in Europe is destroyed. Winston Churchill becomes prime minister. German air raids over Britain begin. Britain fights alone. Roosevelt and Churchill form a friendship.
- 1941 — Britain wins the aerial Battle of Britain to survive. In June, Hitler invades Russia; by November, German forces are 30 miles from Moscow. The Russian army loses more than 1 million men in six months. On Dec. 7, Japan attacks the U.S. fleet at Pearl Harbor. The United States enters the war.
- 1942 — On Jan. 1, the war could be described as the bad guys are on our 10-yard line, trying to secure a total victory. The Philippines, Dutch East Indies, Guam, Wake and Singapore are lost to Japan early in the year. In July, the United States scores a stunning naval victory over Japan at Midway. Japanese power has passed its peak. Small U.S. offensive operations begin in the Pacific. In November, U.S. troops invade North Africa, forcing the German Afrika Korps to fight on two fronts. By December, German forces have bogged down at Stalingrad, and German power has passed its peak.
- 1943 — Germany is decisively defeated at Stalingrad and loses more than 250,000 men and 25 percent of all German military equipment. By June, North Africa is cleared of all Axis forces. The Allies invade Sicily. In October, Italy switches to the Allies’ side. In April, Jewish patriots arise in the Warsaw Ghetto and fight the Nazis for more than six weeks. The U.S. island-hopping campaign begins to secure bases and put Japan within bomber range. British and American planes begin long-range bombing of Germany. The Germans suffer huge losses on the Eastern Front as the Russians take the offensive, which they maintain through the war’s end.
- 1944 — The Allies start the year with enormous momentum and the ball on the Axis 35-yard line. The United States and Britain regularly conduct 1,000-airplane bombing raids over Germany. Planning for D-Day begins. Germany occupies Hungary and begins to deport the Hungarian Jewish community (750,000 people) to Auschwitz. The Russians drive westward, destroying much of the German army. Roosevelt shows clear signs of great fatigue and illness as he campaigns for a fourth term. Free Polish forces arise against the Nazis but are not aided by nearby Russian forces, so they are crushed. The fate of postwar Poland is clear. D-Day is a huge success. The Germans suffer huge losses in France after D-Day. In July, some German officers try to kill Hitler. Erwin Rommel, once Hitler’s favorite general, takes part in a coup and is later forced to commit suicide. Paris is liberated. The U.S. Pacific campaign secures Guam, Saipan and the Philippines. The bulk of the Japanese navy is sunk at Leyte Gulf. Roosevelt wins a fourth term. France, Belgium and Holland are mostly liberated. Hitler launches the last desperate offensive in the West (the Battle of the Bulge) in late December. After some initial success, the Germans suffer huge losses. Virtually all of the Hungarian Jewish community is destroyed by year’s end.
- Jan. 1, 1945 — Nazi Germany is doomed. The Allies have the ball on the 8-yard line, and the Germans have a third-string defense on the field.