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  • Churchill and Auschwitz:End of Debate?
  • Michael J. Cohen (bio)

In 1940, Winston Churchill performed a unique service, when by his iron will he alone determined that Britain would continue unaided in the war against the Germans. This service, not only to the British people but to Western democracy as a whole, has assured him a worthy place in the pantheon of great British prime ministers and world statesmen. No one who visits the Churchill family estate at Chartwell can leave without a deep sense of the man's greatness and of the high esteem in which his contemporaries held him.

However, during my own studies of the Palestine Mandate and of the rise of the State of Israel, the same question cropped up, time after time: Why did Churchill's high declarations produce such meager results? Nowhere was this more blatant, or literally more fatal for the Jews, than in the case of the Holocaust and, in particular, with regard to the Jewish Agency's proposal to bomb the Auschwitz/Birkenau death camp.

In 1985, I published my Churchill and the Jews.1 It was accorded a mixed reception. My reservations about and criticism of a man who became an icon in his own lifetime, and in a 2002 BBC national poll was elected as "the greatest ever Englishman," earned me some withering reviews.2 I sent a copy of the book to a colleague, one of England's most prominent (knighted) historians, who had consulted me over British policy on Palestine. After reading it he revealed to me that during World War II, he had worked under and had come to admire Churchill.3 He told me that he could not find any fault with my facts but asked me, sadly: "Michael, but why did you have to do this to such a great man?" I replied that I had "done it" because these were facts that I had uncovered during my research, and I had tried to present them as fairly as possible. I believed that the story needed to be told, fairly, if only because, in any case, it would inevitably come out sooner or later.

In 2002, my publisher asked me if I would like to reissue the book in paperback.4 He did not allow me to change any of the original text (which was to be scanned for the new edition), but he invited me to study all the relevant literature that had been published since 1985 and to write a concluding chapter or afterword. My task was to check [End Page 127] if any of the research done since 1985 had uncovered any new evidence that would require me to revise or retract any of the theses that I put forward then. This would be all the more challenging because Churchill's private archives—which had been closed in 1985 to all historians but Churchill's official biographer, Sir Martin Gilbert—had since been opened to the public in the early 1990s, following Gilbert's completion of the magnum opus.

Perhaps the most controversial and certainly the most sensitive of all the issues that I dealt with is Churchill's reaction to the Jewish Agency's request of July 1944 that the Allies bomb the Auschwitz/Birkenau death camp. My "sin" had been to challenge the conventional wisdom that had exonerated Churchill personally from all responsibility for Britain's (and the Allies') failure to make any attempts either to rescue the Jews incarcerated in Hitler's death camps or at least to sabotage the machinery of mass murder.

It is not my intention here to rehearse the whole debate once more but, rather, to suggest a new and in my opinion definitive explanation of Churchill's position on this issue. My new thesis is based upon a letter that I discovered in Churchill's private archives while researching for the paperback edition of my book.

The Historical Significance of the Holocaust

In the 1980s, the general consensus on Churchill's "unique understanding of the historical significance of the Holocaust"—which my own work did not apparently weaken—was based essentially upon the works of Bernard Wasserstein (1979) and Sir Martin Gilbert (1981...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-3273
Print ISSN
0276-1114
Pages
pp. 127-140
Launched on MUSE
2006-04-06
Open Access
No
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