In the years of the Second World War, American leaders were aware of the plan of the Germans to exterminate all the Jews in Europe, yet they did not act to save them. The attitude in society and the state of the economy in the years leading up to the war made for conditions that did not make saving them likely.
Most Germans despised the Weimar Republic, which held control of Germany at the time they signed the Versailles Treaty. This treaty crippled Germany after they lost The First Great War. The proud Germans saw this republic as weak. Adolph Hitler, an Austrian born man of German lineage, claimed that the only true Germans were Aryans and that the Jewish influence in the Weimar Republic was the reason for their weakness. He published a famous propaganda novel entitled Mein Kampf, which helped to catapult him and his political party, the National Socialist German Workers Party, into power. (Barber)
Hitler’s political position was simple: Germans were always right and the Jews were to blame for everything. After the outbreak of war by all the major powers of the world, Germany immediately turned a major part of their concern towards the extermination of the entire Jewish race.
It began with the Einsatzgrupen, a special mobile unit of who moved behind frontline troops in the attacks on Russia and Poland, whose sole purpose was to round up the local Jewish families and kill them. They dug massive graves intended for entire Jewish communities. Their victims were lined up, stripped naked and shot. One reporter observed that not every shot was fatal and the poor civilians were made to suffer in the pits till they were sufficiently buried alive by their own brethren. The first sweep of this unit between January and December of 1941 yielded about 500,000 Jewish deaths. The second rampage, which ranged from the fall of 1941 through 1942, took 900,000 Jewish lives. (Wyman)
Even with such massive extermination the German leaders were unsatisfied and demanded a more efficient and permanent answer to the problem. The directive to exterminate all the Jews in Europe was issued on July 31, 1941. In December of that year, a law banning Jews from leaving any German territories was put into effect. Then finally, on January 20, 1942, Reinhard Heydrich came up with what was termed “the final solution to the of the Jewish question.” He proposed a plan to erect six camps built for killing large numbers of people. The Germans built six such camps in the two years to follow, Belzec, Majdanek, Treblinka, Sobibor, Auschwitz, and Chelmno. Chelmno was the first of the camps to be built. It used large trucks into which they crammed as many Jews as possible who choked on the trucks own exhaust fumes. Most of the other camps had permanent gas chambers, which killed by the fumes of a stationary engine. Although Auschwitz used Zyklon B, a type of hydrogen cyanide. These venues of death were host to over 3 million Jews who lost their lives. (Wyman)
The conditions in the camps were so terrible that they drove the poor Jews who lived through it into madness. One such survivor published his experiences in a book entitled Night. Elie Weisel, the book’s author, reports of conditions so horrible that he lost his faith and his sense of humanity. Weisel and his whole family are shipped to Auschwitz in railcars previously used to transport cattle. They were packed in so tight that many died on the journey. The weak were separated and killed immediately upon entering the camps. This often meant most women and all children. Weisel witnessed a pile where they were burning babies. The strong men who survived were put to work, Elie in an electrical-fitting factory. They were under the constant threat of “selections” in which the weak and sick were weeded out and put into the gas chambers. The prisoners got their only solace from their faith, Zionism, and the comfort of their fellow prisoners. However, long exposure to camp life often left some concerned only for their personal survival and became cruel and inhuman to the other Jews in the camp. (Weisel)
How could the United States not respond to such horrible conditions? There were many factors that contributed to the decision not to help the quickly fading Jewish race. Germany blocked its borders to keep Jews from escaping and this problem was compounded by the fact that America had greatly reduced the number of immigrants they were allowing through their borders. During the Great Depression, Americans did not want foreigners coming in and competing for jobs. This fear created a total anti-alien attitude throughout society, which blended into anti-Semitism.
In the years leading up to the war, the United States was in the midst of a depression. These internal struggles were another contributing factor to the US position not to act. The president had also decided to take a position of neutrality concerning the conflict abroad. Action against these camps would have been an act of war, which would have pulled the US into a conflict of which they did not want to be a part.
Economic prosperity during the years of the war did not lessen the American’s xenophobia. Everyone feared that the depression would return after the conflict subsided and did not want foreign competition from the fleeing refugees. Veterans’ organizations such as the VWF (Veterans of Foreign Wars) wanted to ensure that there would be a job for every returning soldier. Even many members of congress were against refugee immigration and several bills were passed to lower quotas. (Wyman)
Anti-Semitism also ran high in the United States in the decade leading up to the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Over a hundred anti-Semitic organizations were distributing hate propaganda. When the war started, leaders of these organizations such as William Dudley Pelley, who received 15 years for sedition, were punished after the United States entered the war. This did not stop the publications, which were now distributed in secret. Also, many gangs of teenagers began vandalizing Jewish cemeteries and Synagogues with swastikas and other hate slogans.
It was attitudes and conditions such as these which held the US government from acting in favor of the dying masses. It was not for lack of knowledge that US refused to act. The New York Times, The Seattle Times, and the Boston Globe were all running stories of the horror in Europe. Roosevelt gave an address to the effect that he felt sorrow for these peoples and planned to hold the criminals responsible but made no plans for action.
At last, the War Refugee Board was formed to attempt to save some of the Jews. Most say that this was an action taken too late, that if it had been created a year earlier, it would have been much more effective. All in all, the Board was responsible for saving 200,000 lives.
Being in the war did not further convince the US of their supposed obligation to help the Jews in the camps. They focused their efforts on the fighting and paid no attention to the genocide happening in the camps in Poland. When the decision was finally made to bomb Auschwitz in 1945, it was because the camp was used as a production center of synthetic oil and rubber.
Anti-Alien, anti-Semitic, and restrictionist attitudes were all factors that contributed to the United States’ decision not to act in the face of such horrible murderous activity in Europe. All these factors combined with the American policy of neutrality and the weakened state of the economy made the US an unlikely source of salvation.