A hypothetical situation first: a sadistic murderer tosses a baby into the river and walks away laughing. What do you think of him? Don’t tell me, I know.
Yet walking by was another man who stopped to watch the thrashing baby – and did nothing to save him, even though he could have done so easily. What’s your verdict on that passer-by? An accomplice? I’d say. As bad as the murderer? Well, not exactly. But almost.
The moral of this hypothetical story can be extrapolated to a book on history, as proved by Dan Stone’s work The Holocaust: An Unfinished History. The publisher timed the launch well: the book came out last week, on the anniversary of the eponymous tragedy.
Prof. Stone sets his stall early: “Although the persecution of the Jews that led to the Holocaust was a German project – a point which cannot be overemphasised – it chimed with the programs of many European fascist and authoritarian regimes. Without the willing participation of so many collaborators across Europe, the Germans would have found it much harder to kill so many Jews.”
All true. The percentage of Jews killed in a country was directly proportional to the local enthusiasm for such an outcome.
Thus over 90 per cent of all Jews were killed throughout the occupied parts of the Soviet Union, 96 per cent in the Baltic republics. And the denizens of Lvov, the capital of Ukrainian Galicia, brutally murdered 10,000 Jews in the couple of days of the interregnum, when the Soviets had already left the city, but the Nazis hadn’t yet moved in.
Yet France lost less than a quarter of her Jewish community. A third of the Czech and Serbian Jews survived the war. In Holland and Belgium, a quarter survived – which is astonishing, considering those countries’ terrain and population density. Denmark managed to save practically all her Jews. But in Poland, 98 per cent of the Jews were murdered.
All this is widely known, at least among those who want to know. Yet the accusing finger usually points at the countries either occupied by Germany or allied with her. But what about the anti-Hitler coalition, made up primarily of the Soviet Union, Britain and the US?
They don’t quite qualify as the first hypothetical man mentioned above. But they fit the moral portrait of the second man like a suede glove.
The Nazis started the Second World War on 1 September, 1939, by attacking Poland from the west. Their Soviet allies joined in on 17 September, by moving in from the east. A few days later Poland capitulated, and a new border was formed between the two predator states.
Jews began to suffer atrocities in the German zone immediately. Many tried to flee into the Soviet zone – only to be turned back by the Soviet border guards who had been ordered to treat them as potential spies. Occasionally the soldiers even fired on the Jews, thereby saying in no uncertain terms that they weren’t welcome.
Germany attacked the Soviet Union on 22 June, 1941. On 2 July the Kremlin issued a directive on the “evacuation of the population and material assets”. Even horses merited a mention. Jews didn’t – this though the Soviets knew their lot would be dire.
To be fair, it took the Germans less than a fortnight to occupy the areas with the largest Jewish populations, mainly in the Ukraine, Byelorussia and Lithuania. Clearly, the rapidly retreating Soviets couldn’t evacuate millions of civilians, although saving a few thousand children could have been possible, given the will to do so. Yet the will wasn’t there.
What would have been easy though was simply to warn the Jews of the mortal danger awaiting them. Many of them could have saved themselves had they known, by hiding in cellars, fleeing into forests, joining partisan units (how they were treated there is a different story – I told it in this space on 16 May, 2015).
Yet only on 24 August did Soviet radio mention the unfolding tragedy in passing. By that time, the whole western part of the Soviet Union had already been occupied. On 6 December, 1942, the Soviet foreign ministry issued a memorandum about the murder of 52,000 Jews at Kiev’s Baby Yar.
And only on 19 December, 1942, did the Soviet government officially warn the Jews that they were all slated for extermination. By that time there was hardly anyone left to warn: only 250,000 of the four million inhabiting the occupied areas were still alive, just.
Stalin’s partners in the coalition, Britain and America, have no right to claim the high moral ground either. The Atlantic allies could have saved millions of Jews – and chose not to.
For about a year on either side of 1 September, 1939, Hitler’s cherished notion of a Judenfrei Europe didn’t necessarily include total extermination. The idea was to force Jews to emigrate somewhere, anywhere: to the USA, USSR, Madagascar, South America, Palestine – Hitler didn’t care. Initially the Nazis were even prepared to provide ships and some foreign currency to make Jews go.
Yet to Hitler’s surprise no country was willing to provide a refuge for the Jews – not even the Soviet Union, whose regime Hitler perceived as Jewish. And not even the USA to which Goebbels routinely referred as “the Jewnited States of America” (the lad did have a way with words).
Moreover, when some countries, notably Argentina and Brazil suffering from labour shortage, were willing to accept the Jews, the US blocked that initiative. At the same time, Britain contravened her own 1917 Balfour Declaration by practically stopping Jewish emigration to Palestine.
That something like that was going to transpire was already predictable in July, 1938, when, three years after the Nuremberg Laws were passed, representatives of 32 countries met at Evian-les-Bains, France, to discuss the problem of Jewish refugees.
The US representative Myron C. Taylor led the way by stating categorically that America was neither going to change her immigration quotas nor expected other countries to do so, for no country should assume the heavy financial burden of mass immigration.
The British delegate, Lord Winterton, explained that the British Isles were overpopulated as it was, which might have been the case. Yet he failed to mention the colonies, where there was no shortage of space. More to the point, he said nothing about Palestine where, according to the Balfour Declaration, Britain had undertaken to create “a national home for the Jewish people.”
Privately the delegates agreed they had no desire to welcome “the human refuse of Europe”. Of the 32 participating countries, only the Dominican Republic was ready to accept 100,000 Jews but, having discussed the issue with the Americans, withdrew the offer. The Nazi press gloated: no one wanted the Jews.
Hitler got the message. Since no one would stand up for the Jews, then even their mass murder, while pilloried publicly, would privately be treated with indifference or perhaps even sympathy. Only then, at the Wannsee Conference in January, 1942, did the Final Solution take its monstrous shape.
During the war, saving the Jews wasn’t just low on the Allies’ list of priorities – it wasn’t on the list at all. Thus in 1944, when the British and the Americans were fully aware of the scale of the catastrophe, they refused to bomb the railway leading to Auschwitz – even though the USAF was bombing the chemical plant just five miles away.
Getting back to the beginning, German and other murderers were the sadist who tossed the baby into the river. But the rest of us should suppress those smug smiles of moral ascendancy. We are that second man, one who refused to extend a helping hand.
As bad as the first man? No, not quite. But almost.