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Baker’s Abuse of History

May 6, 2011

But I still think the pacifists of World War II were right, in fact, the more I learn about the war, the more I understand that the pacifists were the only ones, during a time of catastrophic violence, who repeatedly put forward proposals that had any chance of saving a threatened people. They weren’t naïve they weren’t unrealistic – they were psychologically astute realists.

Who was in trouble in Europe? Jews were, of course.

Thus does Nicholson Baker begin his argument (subscription required) that it was the fault of the United States and Britain for failing to save the Jews through negotiating an armistice with Hitler, believing an evacuation of the Jews was worth whatever other consequences of the peace an armistice entailed. In attempting to demolish the myth of the “good war,” Nicholson buys into that myth’s core arguments.

1. That WWII and associated actions of the Western allies were about, should have been about, and could have stopped the Holocaust.

2. That the Western Allies could have determined the course of WWII on their own.

Baker makes his case for the psychological and realist bona fides of pacifists with this thesis:

The Holocaust, was, among many other things, the biggest hostage taking crisis of all time. Hostage-taking was Hitler’s preferred method from the beginning. In 1923, he led a group of ultranationalists into a beer hall in Munich and, waving a gun, held government officials prisoner. 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 hostage and often executed in reprisal for local partisan activity.

Let’s review some basic facts here. Firstly, of the roughly 26 million who died in Europe during WWII, 6 million were Jews. Of those, roughly 5 million came from territories of the Eastern Front of the War. Until September 1939, 5/6ths of the victims of the Holocaust were not Germany’s “hostages” to begin with. When Germany invaded Poland and split it with the Soviet Union in September of 1939, Hitler had 1.83 million of these 5 million living under his grip. In other words, the hostages of the Holocaust that the US could have bargained for prior to June 1941 were only about 1/3rd of the victims of the Holocaust, when you add Jews in German-occupied Poland 1939-1941 with those victims in Western Europe. This should already make you pretty skeptical that an armistice on the Western Front anytime before June 1941 would have prevented the Holocaust.

Of course, the Allies didn’t negotiate, because the Allies were not fighting the war to save the Jews. This is ugly, but it is true. Britain from 1939 on, was fighting to save itself. The situation is obviously very different for America, which was never in immediate threat of occupation, but what exactly could Britain or the United States have given up before the US entry into WWII that would have stopped the war itself and saved most of the Jewish victims of the Holocaust?


Suppose Britain made peace with Germany. Suppose, even further, that Hitler agreed to let the United States evacuate every single Jewish person under German occupation, saving 2 million Jewish lives. Would that have stopped WWII? Would that have prevented the Holocaust, or even the vast majority of the deaths which occurred during World War II? Baker speaks of of Allied Strategic bombing and its enormous human costs at length – in both this piece and Human Smoke – as if they were more than a fraction of the casualties incurred during WWII on the Western Front.

“We’ve got to fight Hitlerism” sounds good, because Hitler was so self-evidently horrible. But what fighting Hitlerism meant in practice was, largely, the five-year-long Churchillian experiment of undermining German “morale” by dropping magnesium firebombs and 2,000-pound blockbusters on various city centers.

600,000 Germans died from strategic bombing in WWII. I, and most military historians, would agree with Baker that the strategic bombing campaign failed to accomplish any serious military objectives, either against German production or morale. However, confusing strategic bombing for World War II is ridiculous. 600,000 is an enormous number, but the Battle of Kiev extinguished more lives than that in three months, let alone five years.

Operation Barbarossa, not the Western Allies, and the battle for the Eastern, not the Western front, is where the real story of both the Holocaust and the much larger tragedy of WWII takes place. Baker, despite his aspirations for historical revisionism, couches his argument thoroughly with a narrow, Atlantic-centric view of WWII history that renders most of his arguments about saving lives in WWII fundamentally implausible. Would a British and American armistice with Hitler have prevented most of the deaths in the Holocaust, or WWII?

Here is Baker’s narrative of the Holocaust:

Meanwhile, Hitler’s anti-Semitism had reached a final stage of Gotterdammerungian psychosis. As boxcars of war-wounded, frostbitten German soldiers returned from the Russian front, and as it became obvious to everyone that the United States was entering the war, Hitler, his arm tremor now evident to his associates, made an unprecedented number of vitriolic threats to European Jewry in close succession – some in speeches, and some in private meetings…

The shift, Friedlander writes, came in late 1941, occasioned by the event that transformed a pan-European war into a world war: “the entry of the United States into the conflict.” As Stackelberg puts it: “Although the ‘Final Solution,’ the the decision to kill all the Jews under German control, was planned well in advance, its full implementation may have been delayed until the U.S. entered the war. Now the Jews under German control had lost their potential value as hostages.”

Yet, in Friedlander’s other works, he argues Germany had already decided in 1941 that it would help Japan, abstain from signing a separate peace, and had reconciled themselves to a war with Japan. Furthermore, if we look at the two works by Stackelberg in which that quote appears, we see further context is necessary. From Stackelberg:

[Goebbels’ diary] describe the very up-beat mood of German leaders following the Japanese attack on the US. Despite some apprehensions about what US entry into the war might bring, Goebbels confirms that the German leadership expected the US to have its hands full in Asia, forcing a curtailment of US aid to Britain and the Soviet Union. The news of the Japanese attack was particularly welcome, as it came shortly after the Germans suffered some unexpected reversals in the campaign to capture Moscow before the onset of winter. Operation Barbarossa, predicated on the assumption that the Red Army would be defeated within four months, had failed to achieve its objectives. The news that Germany had gained a powerful new ally gave Hitler and his paladins a much needed lift in morale. Hitler regarded the Japanese attack as a vindication of his policy, aimed at preventing a Japanese-American understanding. He also admired the Japanese method of launching the war without warning.

Only then does the quote about the Jews’ “hostage value” appear. Rather than something the United States forced Hitler into, the “hostage value” of the Jews was a temporary expediency to keep America out of the war until conditions were more favorable for Germany. This is confusing a tactic Hitler used with his actual strategy. The Holocaust was not a hostage-taking operation, and its phase of extermination did not begin in December 1941. The entry of Japan into the war was not a setback to an imaginary German hostage taking strategy, it was a boon and a relief to Hitler, who was disappointed by Japan’s failure to enter the war against the USSR, and eager to have American energies distracted on some other front, since Lend-Lease was already underway.

Baker presents the failure of Operation Barbarossa as an aside to American entry into WWII in the causal genesis of the Holocaust, rather than the main event. Quite simply, Hitler’s plan to deportation of Jews into some remote realm in Northern Russia was impossible in 1941, something Friedlander also makes clear in his works. The decision to exterminate the Jews was only made possible by Operation Barbarossa, and the timing of that extermination made possible with its failure, clear by Fall 1941. As another work by Stackelberg where his quotation on the hostage value of the Jews appears, we see that the Holocaust was already initiating during the late summer and early fall of 1941, when the majority of Jews who would die during the Holocaust were coming under Nazi rule for the first time. Baker argues that the initiation of operations at Kolo, the liquidation of the Lublin Ghetto to Belzec, where they would be gassed, fits into the common stereotypes of the Holocaust. But, as Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands emphasizes, and Stackelberg also shows, the first phase of German mass killing against Jews was done with bullets, not gas, and it began before America’s entry into the war:

Hitler’s decision to invade the Soviet Union even before the end of the war with Britain led to a further escalation of Nazi policies against Jews. Hitler’s decision was reached in December 1940 after the failure of the Battle of Britain and the refusal of the British to submit to German terms. The war against the Soviet Union was planned from the start to be waged as a war of extermination against Soviet Jews. Specially trained SS death squads, the notorious Einsatzgruppen, were to follow on the heels of the front-line Wehrmacht troops… While the first death squads targeted only men, by the end of July 1941, they were killing women and children as well. In one such action by an SS Sonderkommando at Babi Yar… 33,771 Jews were shot and buried in mass graves in the bloodiest two-day massacre of the war. Approximately half a million Soviet Jews fell victim to the Einsatzgruppen by the end of the year.

The killing of the Holocaust began with the invasion of the Soviet Union, and even if Britain had submitted to armistice, this would only have delayed the invasion of the Soviet Union, not stopped it altogether. Germany wanted Lebensraum, and ultimately the conquest of the east, the extermination of its Slavic and Jewish populations, and its settlement by Germany, had been a key aspect of Hitler’s ideology for years. The Germans had already started preparing gas chambers in October, not because that was the decision to begin the Holocaust, which began, in practice, with the less-remembered shooting campaigns in the Eastern Front, but as a continuation of a decision already made. The loss of hostage value of the Jews in the West and pre-1941 Nazi conquests was the consequence of American entry into the war, but not a cause of the Holocaust itself.

Germany was glad America entered the war, and the use of the minority of Jewish victims of the Holocaust which lived in pre-1941 Germany was a mere tactic to influence the timing of the war. Germany could not have handed over, before Barbarossa or the American entry afterward, the “hostages” who would represent the majority of Jewish deaths during WWII that it did not actually possess, and such a decision to forgo Western involvement in WWII would have required, by German calculations, forgoing any aid to the USSR or the opening of a Second Front the USSR desired in historical reality.

In other words, Baker and the pacifists plan to save the Jews would only have saved a minority of the Jews, about 2 million lives – 1.83 million of those only if Germany agreed to evacuate the Jews in Poland occupied pre-Barbarossa, which is unclear. Compare this to the 27 million Soviets who would die on the Eastern Front. Without American aid and with a stronger chance of military success, it is likely that even a delayed German war against the USSR would have killed more human beings, including the other half of the Soviet Jews who escaped the Holocaust. Baker’s plan trades Western Jews for Eastern Jews and dozens of millions of Soviet lives on top of the 27 million who would, at some point or another, probably died regardless of what the Western Allies did.

A sudden end to the war, otherwise we are lost. This, then, was the context for Abraham Kaufman’s June 16, 1942 alk at the Union Methodist Church. First worry about the saving of lives, his logic went – everything else is secondary. In.. Knowing what we know now, wouldn’t we all have stood and said what Kaufman said?

No, because signing an armistice that would allow Germany to conquer the Soviet Union would not have saved as many lives as it would have condemned, and would have left Western Europe, and potentially Britain under varying degrees of vassalage to Nazi Germany. It also would have done nothing to save the Jews of the Soviet Union, or the rest of the dozens of millions who would die on the Eastern Front in the quest for German lebensraum. The Germans were not going to stop fighting the Soviets, whatever pacifists thought. The Germans were going to exterminate them, and the Jews in Soviet lands too. The idea that Hitler would have wasted military resources or enacted a cease-fire to evacuate Jews from occupied Eastern Europe is fanciful. The pacifists Baker quotes all float the idea of an armistice, but neither their quoted remarks nor Baker’s piece provide any compelling proof the US and British pacifists and governments he discusses could have stopped the war on the Eastern Front. Every concession by the Western Allies in an armistice would have further eroded the Soviet position and led to even more lives being lost there, in the main theater of the war – both Jewish and Gentile alike.

I can agree with Baker that strategic bombing was a completely counterproductive policy, relative to the resources invested in it and the humanitarian disasters it wrought. I can agree with Baker that the refusal to consider a conditional surrender, or engage with the anti-Nazi resistance in Germany, was a strategic and moral oversight on the Western Allies’ part. What I cannot agree with is the prospect this would have saved lives:

By 1944, Hitler’s health was failing. He was evil, but he wasn’t immortal. Whether or not the German opposition, in the sudden stillness of a conditional armistice [ed – on the Western Front, because Stalin would not have gone along with this!] would have been able to remove him from power, he would eventually be dead and gone. And some of his millions of victims… would have lived.

Only to be replaced, most likely, by others in the East. More could have died in WWII. Baker does not want to acknowledge it, but there the facts are. If Hitler had his way, or even other Germans had their way, the war in the East would have likely continued. Prolonging his rule in any way would have condemning others in the East to die, and even if the conservative opposition got in power, war on the East would have continued, with perhaps a less genocidal content than before – although doubtless the atrocities the USSR committed in its march westward would have continued.

The anti-Nazi resistance was led by Germans who generally supported fascism, or some kind of conservative revolutionary ideology, or a more conventional German nationalism rooted in the previous, Prussia-dominated German states, but none were friends of the Soviet Union. Even if they cased the Holocaust, they would not have been agreeable leftists, but anti-communist rightists. In all likelihood, their separate peace with the West would have bought more energy or time for fighting the Soviet Union.

There are plenty of moral cases to be made against the triumphalism regarding World War II. Western victory came at the price of a new form of totalitarian domination in the East, for example. Strategic bombing was a waste of lives and resources, to be sure. But ultimately, WWII was not about 9 million Jews in Europe, it was, at least in Europe, about the fate of a continent. Armistice on the Western front would have just meant more tragedy on the East, and possibly a stronger Germany to confront the West. It might even have meant a Britain conquered by Germany. It certainly would have meant the rest of the 20th century would be dominated by some form of communism or fascism. Prosecuting WWII ensured democracy would survive on at least some corner of Europe, and that America would not face a Eurasia wholly dominated by some kind of totalitarian malady when the dust settled. Certainly armistice was not a viable option for Britain, which could have done nothing to save most of the Jews, but could at least try to save its own self-government. America had slightly more influence, but could not have stopped the Eastern Front and its horrors, but could help shorten them and ensure that Western Europe had some democracies left in it.

The ugly reality is that war is that, contrary to Jessie Hughan, who Baker quotes, wrote not “an ineffective and inhuman means to any end, however just.” War is certainly an effective means to inhuman ends, and because of that, it is an effective, but not perfect, means to just ends to counter the inhuman ones. If the Allies forswore war, inhumanity would have thrived in some other theater of the war they renounced. Measured against the utopian standards of the pacifists during WWII, who never could have saved more than a few million in a war that killed dozens of millions, and only then at the price of condemning millions more to death and prolonged life in the horrors of two totalitarian regimes at war, war is certainly ineffective. Measured against the entirely just goals of preserving the survival and interests of the country leaders are responsible for, its record is far better than Baker would have us believe.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. May 9, 2011 10:29 am

    I think you’re right on the weaknesses and flaws of Baker’s argument. (btw note a typo worth correcting: “immoral” in one of the Baker quotes referring to Hitler should be “immortal”)

    One point: R. Evans in The Third Reich at War emphasizes repeatedly that the mass killings of Jews and others on the Eastern Front were foreshadowed by Nazi actions in Poland:

    “Almost everything that was to happen in the invasion of the Soviet Union…was already happening in the invasion of Poland nearly two years before [albeit on a somewhat smaller scale]. From the very beginning, SS Security Service Task Forces entered the country, rounding up the politically undesirable and shooting them or sending them off to concentration camps, massacring Jews, arresting local men and sending them off to Germany as forced laborers, and engaging in a systematic policy of ethnic cleansing and brutally executed population transfers.” (p.102) He makes this point often enough that he has an index entry for the occupation of Poland “as proving-ground for [the] Nazi new racial order”. Hans Frank set up the Warsaw Ghetto in May 1940 and its inhabitants were probably beginning to die of malnutrition not too long after that. That doesn’t sound much like a policy of keeping Jews alive as ‘hostages’. I would doubt that many historians are taking Baker’s argument seriously.

  2. May 9, 2011 10:37 am

    p.s. On the Warsaw Ghetto, I should have read more before typing: not completed and sealed off until November 1940 (Evans, p.61). But the main point stands.

  3. May 10, 2011 6:17 pm

    Thanks for spotting that typo and the additional information from Evans. I’m not worried about historians taking Baker seriously so much as the wider audience, whose decisions about military intervention Baker is hoping to influence (given other parts of his piece and its front-page billing in Harper’s). I also have developed something of an irritation towards moralizing based on WWII that completely ignores the main theater of the European war, which Baker’s piece only perpetuates despite its contrarian take.

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