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Why Didn’t the Allies Bomb Auschwitz?

One possible answer to Pope Francis’s question.
“The great powers had photographs of the railway routes that the trains took to… Auschwitz,” Pope Francis remarked last week.

“Tell me,” he asked, “why didn’t they bomb them?”

The pontiff’s question is not merely a matter of historical curiosity. It raises issues of morality, diplomacy, and American foreign policy with profound implications for our own times.

The reason the Allies had photos of the railways leading to Auschwitz is that throughout the spring of 1944, Allied planes conducted surveillance of the area in preparation for bombing German oil factories, some of which were less than five miles from the gas chambers and crematoria.

Yet when Jewish organizations asked the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration to bomb the railway lines or the death camp itself, U.S. officials replied that such an operation was not feasible because it would require “diverting” planes from the battlefield. That was false; those oil factories were very much a part of the battlefield.

Ironically, the administration did repeatedly divert military resources or change military plans for other non-military objectives – just not for the Jews. For example, an Air Force plan to bomb the Japanese city of Kyoto was blocked by Secretary of War Henry Stimson because he admired the city’s artistic treasures. Assistant Secretary of War McCloy diverted American bombers from striking the German city of Rothenburg in order to spare its famous medieval architecture. Allied ships were diverted to bring thousands of Muslims on a religious pilgrimage to Mecca in 1943 – at the same time U.S. officials were saying no ships were available to take Jewish refugees out of Europe.

The Roosevelt administration opposed calls by Jewish groups to create a government agency to rescue Jewish refugees – but it established a government agency “for the protection and salvage of artistic and historic monuments in Europe.” (That episode was chronicled in the recent George Clooney film, “Monuments Men.”) General George Patton even diverted U.S. troops to rescue 150 of the prized Lipizzaner dancing horses in Austria, in April 1945.

Along these same lines, Pope Francis might ask Vatican historians about Allied policy concerning the bombing of Rome. In the summer of 1943, the Allied High Command was anxious to bomb Rome, since it was, as the New York Times put it, “a railway and communications center for Germany and Italian war material.” But Roosevelt feared Catholic voters would blame him if religious sites were damaged or if many civilians were harmed, so a slew of changes and restrictions were imposed on the military.

Leaflets were dropped on the city the day before the attack, warning that bombing was imminent, thus surrendering the advantage of surprise. The bombing was carried out in broad daylight, increasing the danger to the pilots’ lives, in order to make it easier to avoid religious shrines. The bombing crews were given maps showing religious and cultural buildings to be avoided, with the words “Must Not Be Harmed” stamped in large red letters. The bombardiers were ordered to refrain from dropping bombs if there was “any doubt” as to where the bombs would land.


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