The Myth of Rescue: Why the Democracies Could Not Have Saved More Jews From the Nazis
by William D. Rubinstein
Routledge. 267 pp. $25.00
Until about ten years ago, William Rubinstein, an American-born and -educated historian who now teaches at the University of Aberystwyth-Wales, believed that the Western democracies fighting Hitler “did nothing” to save European Jewry from the Nazis and “were highly culpable for this failure.” He subsequently changed his mind. Rubinstein now attempts to show that no matter what the democracies did or might have done, it would have made little difference to the plight of Europe’s Jews.
Rubinstein’s rethinking began, he tells us, following a conversation with a local Jewish politician in Australia, where he himself lived for many years. What other intellectual processes led him to reconsider his earlier views he never makes clear. To judge by the notes to this book, he has not labored in archives to discover new facts that might buttress any such reassessment; he seems to be familiar with the secondary literature, but only to the extent that it is in English—and much of it is not. Rubinstein simply appears to be a man of absolutes: either the Western democracies did nothing at all to help the Jews—his former position—or, as he maintains today, they behaved in an exemplary way; either a great many Jews could have been saved, or none.
Whatever accounts for Rubinstein’s change of mind, his new views have already won him a number of advocates, not only in Britain—where there is little sympathy these days for Jews who, as it is said, are forever complaining that not enough was done for them during World War II—but also in the United States, where the book has been praised by notable authorities like Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. as a “commanding work of historical criticism.” It is, however, anything but.
Rubinstein advances a number of theses in The Myth of Rescue, devoting a chapter to each. He argues, among other things, that an overwhelming majority, if not all, of the Jews trying to escape from areas under the control of Nazi Germany up to the outbreak of World War II could have done so—in other words, that the doors of the democracies were not closed; that once the war got under way, no plan to rescue European Jewry in any numbers could have succeeded; and that contrary to the findings of a number of historians, the Allies could not have bombed Auschwitz, thus sparing a great many Jews from the gas chambers. For reasons that I hope will become clear as we proceed, I shall deal with these arguments in reverse chronological order.
On the last point, Rubinstein repeats an old canard—namely, that the existence of Auschwitz was unknown in the West until the summer of 1944; this contention has been authoritatively refuted at least 100 times by now. But in any case, he insists, nothing of a military nature could have been done against the camp because technical means for such a mission were not available. This point may be correct as far as it goes—Rubinstein cites a number of military historians to support it—but that is not very far at all. The truth remains that the Allies gave no priority to developing the capacity to put Auschwitz out of action, so it is hardly surprising that no such mission could have been carried out.
To be sure, a strike against Auschwitz or any of the other concentration camps would necessarily have come too late to save many; by the end of 1942, the great majority of Polish and Ukrainian Jews and a large number in Belorussia had already been sent to their deaths. But some of the ghettos in which Jews were then imprisoned—Lodz, for example—were still intact, and the Jews of Hungary, Italy, and Greece had not yet been deported to Auschwitz. If only a tiny fraction of the vast sums and resources devoted to the war effort had been diverted to the task of destroying the rail lines leading to the death camps or hitting the extermination facilities themselves, untold numbers might have been saved.
As for the possibility of rescuing some of Europe’s Jews by various nonmilitary means—greater publicity as to the facts of the mass murder, continual pressure on the Axis satellites who were eagerly collaborating with the Nazis, bribing officials in occupied Europe to act in behalf of their Jewish populations—Rubinstein is convinced that such measures were doomed to fail and therefore should not have been tried. He seems to believe that up to the very end, Nazi Europe was a rigidly controlled zone run by an omnipotent Gestapo. But this was simply not the case, especially after the tide of the war had turned. In a fascinating memoir published recently in Germany, Gad Beck, a Jewish survivor, describes how, as late as 1943-44, Jews were being smuggled out of Berlin to neutral countries for cash—the going rate was 5,000 to 6,000 marks. Those who lacked such sums perished.
If this kind of activity occurred in the very heart of the Third Reich, how much greater were the chances to spirit Jews successfully out of outlying territories where the Nazi grip was far less secure. If the various Jewish emissaries operating in such places as Constantinople and Switzerland had had more money at their disposal, or if American Jewish organizations had come up with sizable sums in 1943 rather than two or three years later, there cannot be the slightest doubt, though Rubinstein adamantly disputes it, that a great many Jewish lives might have been saved.
But it is in dealing with Allied refugee policies in the prewar years that Rubinstein’s analysis descends from being plainly wrong to positively absurd. Thus, he characterizes the immigration policies of the Western democracies in the 1930’s as liberal, even generous. There was no real problem, he asserts; everyone who wanted to find a haven could. As for the many historians who disagree with him on this point, they, he suggests, are guilty of falsification.
Rubinstein’s main ace, triumphantly produced time and again in the book, on its dust jacket, and in his publisher’s promotional material, is the “fact” that fully 72 percent of German Jews succeeded in escaping from Nazi Germany before the war broke out. He also lists the prominent figures who made their way to safety in the United States, including the novelist Thomas Mann and the historian Hans Kohn. So lax and magnanimous was American refugee policy, he contends, that even “radicals” and “troublemakers” like Hannah Arendt and Theodor Adorno were let in.
But Rubinstein’s 72 percent is far from the truth; the real figure can be found most recently in Saul Friedländer’s Nazi Germany and the Jews, which examines the issue comprehensively. Rubinstein includes in his calculation thousands who did not in fact escape but were deported by the Germans to a no-man’s-land in the East. He also includes tens of thousands who did manage to flee but ended up in extermination camps because they were trapped in countries subsequently occupied by the Nazis, having been barred from entering sanctuaries like the United States. As for Thomas Mann, he was not Jewish (as Rubinstein acknowledges) and his Nobel-laureate status made him a rather exceptional case, to say the least. Hans Kohn, on the other hand, was Jewish; but he hailed not from Germany but from Czechoslovakia, which he left not in the 1930’s but in the 1920’s. Neither Arendt nor Adorno was known to American authorities as a radical or troublemaker in the late 1930’s; in fact, it is most unlikely that more than a half-dozen Americans would have known of either one’s existence at that time.
One longstanding bone of historical contention has to do with Great Britain’s restrictions on entry to Palestine, another crucial refuge for Jews. Rubinstein acknowledges that this particular door was largely closed, but he claims that this never greatly affected how many Jews left Germany. Even the British White Paper of 1939, which virtually ended Jewish immigration into Palestine, was not of salient significance, he maintains. A more controlling fact was that there were few Zionists in Germany in the interwar years, and that the pull of Zionism barely increased even after Hitler came to power. The point, Rubinstein concludes, is that not many Jews were interested in departing to that dangerous part of the world.
This entire line of argument is nothing but a red herring. In those years, people were simply desperate to get out. Non-Zionists went to Palestine just as Zionists emigrated to faraway places like Shanghai, the Dominican Republic, or wherever else they could find sanctuary.
In The Myth of Rescue, Rubinstein is treating a period that, for better or worse, some of us know not merely through the secondary sources cited in his book but through bitter experience. Virtually every German Jew of my generation left behind family and friends who subsequently perished because a visa or a stamp was missing from their passport. Rubinstein, born after the war, is lucky never to have been among those trying to cross borders illegally only to be turned back by the police, a phenomenon which he mistakenly believes never occurred anywhere except on the Swiss frontier. (He finds extenuating reasons for Switzerland’s conduct, too.) Nor did he have to stand in the unending queues in front of the American and other consulates in Berlin waiting to be told that his turn would come next year, if ever. The plain fact is that hundreds of thousands of European Jews would have emigrated in 1938-39 at the very latest if the gates had been open a little wider, and if the restrictive immigration provisions of the democracies had been less severe.
William Rubinstein’s willful ignorance and his lack of judgment in connection with the most painful period in modern Jewish history would be bad enough if his were an isolated case. Unfortunately, it is not. His book takes its place in a new genre that has sprouted during the last decade, propagating a variety of often contradictory views about World War II but sharing a common denominator: arguments that are flatly and often outrageously wrong.
Thus, we have historians who maintain that Hitler was a weak dictator led astray by bureaucrats; others who argue that he was blinded by his anti-Communism; and still others who assert that modernity itself was the root cause of the European disaster. We have had works accusing the Zionist leadership in Palestine of committing treason against the Jewish people, and others arguing that only ultra-Orthodox Jews engaged in serious attempts at rescue. Rubinstein’s publisher declares in its promotional material that The Myth of Rescue will appeal to readers of Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners1 Though neither author should be pleased by this statement, it is true that Goldhagen’s best-seller is, in its own way, part and parcel of the new trend of staking out unsustainable claims in a preposterous way.
What is behind this strange phenomenon? Certainly there is room for legitimate disagreement on many questions connected with World War II; but much of what is now being written goes well beyond the perimeters of elementary common sense. Could we have here a simple instance of the desire to be original at almost any cost? In some cases, indeed, this may be the motive force, but in others the authors seem to be deeply convinced of the new truths they have discovered. Is the problem, again, simply one of shoddy research? Here, too, the explanation holds in some cases but not in others. And then there are those who approach their task with preconceived notions and proceed like lawyers looking for any ammunition at hand to prove their brief.
There appear, in fact, to be almost unlimited reasons why people get things wrong. But why the Holocaust in particular, a subject which should be approached in a spirit of utmost caution, should attract so much charlatanism, I cannot explain. It is a matter of great and growing concern.
1 For a discussion of this book, see Robert S. Wistrich’s “Helping Hitler” in the July 1996 COMMENTARY.