What if the Allies had bombed Auschwitz? That’s the counterfactual Mark Grimsley poses in his brief, but intriguing piece for World War II magazine (article at BTOSA). As he admits, “most ‘what if’ scenarios begin with a plausible rewrite of a historical event. The bombing of Auschwitz does not have this characteristic.” A strike on the death camps was not seriously discussed at high levels, much less considered a viable option.
It was certainly possible to launch such an attack:
The Auschwitz complex was well within range of the U.S. Fifteenth Air Force, based at Foggia, Italy … By the summer of 1944, escapees from Birkenau had supplied the Allies with detailed, accurate information about the facility. The crematoria and gas chambers could be readily identified in aerial photographs.
Owing to political considerations and the diversion of “considerable air support” that targeting the camps would require, a raid was never launched. Debate has raged for thirty years whether or not it was a moral imperative to attack the camps, but simply put, it was absolutely within Allied strategic air capabilities.
Grimsley’s most compelling argument is that of symbolism. Those who argue against the necessity of bombing the camps say that it would have been merely symbolic, and would not have helped to halt the mass killings (part of Grimsley’s scenario in fact has Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Höss continuing the killings machine-gunning the remaining prisoners en masse). But in many ways, even a symbolic strike would have sent a powerful message. And the Allies had hardly never engaged in symbolic acts:
FDR ordered the April 1942 Doolittle Raid–a pinprick attack on Tokyo by 16 B-25 medium bombers–primarily to raise the American public’s morale. Churchill ordered his commanders to make air drops in support of the 1944 Warsaw Uprising, an expensive diversion of effort that, as the commanders foresaw, gave scant assistance to the embattled Polish Home Army but underscored British political support of the Polish government-in-exile.
Perhaps just a gesture, even if relatively ineffective, would have sent a powerful message to both prisoners and their guards: we care. And we take this seriously (then the possibility of a real German fight to the death has to be considered). But as a template for future conflicts around the world, the failure to act must be seen as an extension of “never again.”
Words alone will not do the job. Now, as always, it is a time for action. Symbolism exists for a reason. If the United States is to continue as the beacon of light; of hope and freedom to the world, then let’s show we mean what we say.