Auschwitz and the Allies
by Martin Gilbert
Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 368 pp., $15.95
The Terrible Secret: Suppression of the Truth about Hitler’s “Final Solution”
by Walter Laqueur
Little, Brown, 262 pp., $12.95
“Le soleil ni la mort ne peuvent se regarder fixement“—”It is impossible to stare continuously at the sun or at death.” This quotation from La Rochefoucauld has struck more than one writer about the Final Solution as appropriate. It is a merciful remark, and the literature about both the Jewish and the non-Jewish response to the Endlösung has become very much more thoughtful and merciful over the last ten years. The agonizing public quarrel over the failure of the Judenräte, the Nazisponsored Jewish administrations, to resist persecution and deportation in the European ghettos, even when the elders understood what deportation really meant, has receded into the past. The Polish nation is no longer accused of collective anti-Semitism, even of active complicity in the Holocaust, during the Nazi occupation, and there is a much wider realization of how much the Polish underground and the exile government in London did both to hinder and to publicize the fate of the Jews—Walter Laqueur observes in his book that they showed more concern than the British or American governments of the time.
Even the failure of London, Washington, and Moscow to undertake any vigorous action to halt the deportations and exterminations, once they had reluctantly accepted that organized genocide was taking place, is seen to have at least some plausible excuses. Both books under review have been provided with subtitles or blurbs that play up the “searing indictment” angle. In reality, both are remarkably restrained and judicious works.
There was not much the Allies could have done. But, after all, they did not even do that residue. Martin Gilbert’s book contains some terrible photographs, and they are not the pictures of naked corpses and “selections” for the gas chamber. They are air photographs taken during, 1944 by Allied reconnaissance raiders seeking more targets in the synthetic rubber and oil industries of Upper Silesia. Again and again, in these months, the air-force intelligence experts in England studied runs of photographs taken over Monowitz, the new industrial complex under construction on the out-skirts of the town of Auschwitz. Monowitz was worked by slave labor from the concentration camp, and the hutments of their encampment on the site—known as “Auschwitz III”—are clear on picture after picture. But this is not all. As the airmen switched off their cameras, many of their runs had taken them over the vast enclosures a mile or so to the west with their row upon row of huts, their internal partitions, their curious railway siding leading into the enclosed area and ending between two symmetrical blocks of permanent buildings.
For decades, these photographs and prints have lain unvisited in the archives. Monowitz was what interested the photographic interpreters at the time. They had no idea what the place at the margin of the target area was, and it did not even rouse their speculation. It was, in fact, Birkenau, the main Auschwitz camp, containing the central death installation of the Holocaust which, as these aircraft passed overhead …