Adolph Hitler addressed a cheering Reichstag on January 30, 1939, and offered a prophecy: He warned that if there were to be another war, it would end with the annihilation of European Jewry. The massacres that accompanied Germany’s war on Poland later that year, followed by Germany’s invasion of Western Europe in 1940 and the Soviet Union in 1941, made this seem like more than just empty words: Hitler meant to make his prophecy come true. But even this grotesque promise to exterminate European Jewry did not capture the full scope of what Hitler had in mind and what he nearly achieved: the murder of the 500,000 Jews in Africa and Asia who almost become targets for annihilation as well.
We don’t read about this chapter in history because, thankfully, it never happened. And there is one man more than any other who is responsible for this fact, a man who is often maligned for not having done enough to save Jews from the inferno of the Holocaust: Franklin D. Roosevelt. It was his foresight and willingness to take a political risk that saved the Jews of North Africa and the future State of Israel.
By the spring of 1941, these Jews were facing a grim reality as a confluence of bad omens seemed to point to an impending German attack and massacre.
SS officer Walter Rauff had been a major operative in the German assault on Eastern European Jews. A high-ranking official in the infamous Einsatzgruppen — SS men following the German army eastward across Eastern Europe — Rauff had been integral to the process that was to murder 1.5 million Jews. Rauff’s specific role with the Einsatzgruppen was the development of mobile gas vans, trucks into which civilian Jewish populations were sealed and then exposed to the carbon monoxide exhaust from the trucks’ engines, resulting in a painful and certain death. With the success of Hitler’s North Africa commander, Erwin Rommel, in the Battle of Tobruk, and the momentum swinging toward the Nazis, Rauff and his SS subordinates were assigned to the Africa campaign with the express purpose of annihilating conquered civilian Jewish populations.
A recent article in a Yad Vashem journal by two German historians, Klaus-Michael Mallmann and Martin Cuppers, provides a chilling insight into these efforts. They explain in detail how Rauff and his SS cohorts increasingly became part of Rommel’s operation as it came closer to the Suez Canal. After success at Tobruk and then against the British fortress at Marsa Matrouh in Egyptian territory just a few days later, Hitler’s plan to have his military converge on Palestine from the north and south seemed imminent. Mallmann and Cuppers note that Hitler fully appreciated the consequences of his plan and foresaw that, with its success, as he was recorded saying in October 1941, “the attempt to establish a Jewish state will end in failure.”
The local Arab population had been waging a long campaign against the Jews in the former Ottoman Empire and now against the mandated territories of Iraq, Syria and Palestine, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of Jews in scattered pogroms. While certainly not all the local Arab population was committed to the extermination of Jews in western Asia, a considerable number of people did hope for this eventuality. Their collaboration in murdering Jews would have been comparable with assistance given the Germans by local populations in several European countries. The Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin el-Husseini, galvanized anti-Jewish sentiment among Arabs. Husseini congratulated Hitler after his 1933 victory in the German elections, and in the subsequent decade he increased his contacts with him, actually taking refuge in Berlin after the war began. While in Germany, Husseini met with Hitler, Eichmann and Eichmann’s subordinates in an effort to implement their shared vision of a Palestine denuded of Jews. The Grand Mufti, in a statement issued after meeting with top German officials, noted that “Germany was the only country in the world that did not limit itself to struggling against Jews solely on its own soil, but had also declared an uncompromising war on world Jewry. In this struggle of Germany against international Jewry, the Arabs felt a very close bond of solidarity with Germany.”
The other point of danger for Palestine’s Jews was the British evacuation plan in the event of a Nazi occupation. After Tobruk, the British interests in Palestine were clearly threatened, and in anticipation of a possible German takeover, an evacuation contingency was made that contemplated travel by road to Basra in Iraq from Palestine. One of the expected problems was that the local Jewish population might also follow the British and in so doing, clog roads and become obstacles to a fluid evacuation process. The British had encountered similar problems during the evacuation at Dunkirk and were committed to avoiding a recurrence in Palestine. Consequently, the British formulated a plan to ration fuel and licenses and then confiscate cars so that the local Jewish population, under the dual threat of a German SS corps and a hostile local Arab population, would not be able to flee.
Confounding the problem for the Jews of Palestine was American public opinion, which, after the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, and the ensuing declaration of war against the United States by Germany, was decidedly in favor of dealing with Japan first.
Nevertheless, Roosevelt, sensing that German control over an industrial Europe would pose far greater danger to the United States in the long run than anything that Japan could accomplish in the Pacific, adopted a “Germany first” policy: a farsighted plan to defeat the enemy that had not actually attacked us.
This policy was not politically attractive. It was, after all, Japan that had inflicted horrible carnage on U.S. Navy ships and crews at Pearl Harbor and had advanced with great success across Southeast Asia, capturing and brutally murdering many American soldiers.
The public, consequently, wanted Japan to be dealt with first, not Germany, a purely theoretical enemy with whom there was no active military engagement at the time. Commenting on Roosevelt’s “Germany first” policy, former secretary of defense and former secretary of energy James Schlesinger has observed that contemporary polls showed that the loss by the Democrats of 44 seats in the 1942 midterm congressional elections was attributed to “frustration and fury at Roosevelt’s ‘Germany first’ strategy, which translated into failure to punish Japan more aggressively for Pearl Harbor.”
The Battle of Midway, which ended on June 7, 1942, half a world away from Palestine, was to have a significant impact on its future by giving Roosevelt some wriggle room in implementing his unpopular “Germany first” policy. At Midway, an undersized American naval force defeated a larger Japanese force with the resulting destruction of four Japanese aircraft carriers, along with its planes and personnel. The Japanese advance in the South Pacific, which had continued with almost uninterrupted military success for half a year, had now been stopped. The naval and air superiority that Japan had enjoyed in a theater where land combat occurred on islands separated by hundreds of miles of water was now over. American forces had achieved a major victory in what some have called one of the most significant naval battles in history.
Just after Midway, while Winston Churchill was visiting Roosevelt in the United States, the disaster at Tobruk occurred. Roosevelt was given a note describing the debacle, which he read and gave to Churchill. Churchill viewed the loss at Tobruk as the most decisive defeat the British had suffered in World War II, and his reaction on reading the note did not conceal his feelings. “What can we do to help?” Roosevelt asked. Churchill had a basic demand: Send tanks and guns to our forces in North Africa.
Then under secretary of war for procurement, Robert P. Patterson, has, in an unpublished manuscript, described how, on the president’s direction, he diverted 300 Sherman tanks from the production line and had them sent, along with 100 of the latest self-propelled field guns, to the Suez for delivery to British forces. When one of the four ships carrying them was torpedoed and sunk, another ship carrying replacement weaponry was immediately dispatched. It arrived safely.
The weaponry shipped by the United States was to make a huge difference. In the series of battles in October and November of 1942 that constitute the turning point Battle of El Alamein, Rommel and his Afrika Korps were decisively defeated, ending any hope of advancing to Suez and beyond. The superior firepower of the Sherman tanks and American artillery were critical in this battle. While all historical accounts have recognized their importance, the recently published diaries of Rommel confirm it. Rommel notes the unexpected superior range and force of the British artillery, as well as the Sherman tanks, of whose origins he appears unaware. What was particularly devastating for Rommel and his Afrika Corps was the superior range of the Shermans. Rommel ruefully observed that British tanks other than the Shermans would engage his Panzers and then once the location of his Panzer tanks was given away by their return fire, the Sherman tanks would engage them, but at a range the Panzers could not reach. The worst-case scenario for a tank battle from Rommel’s perspective had materialized. American weaponry played a key role in the ensuing German defeat.
Churchill’s and Roosevelt’s reactions to success at El Alamein reflected the realities of their domestic politics.
In a November 11, 1942, address to Parliament, Churchill advised its members and the British public that the Americans, and Roosevelt in particular, had played a decisive role by providing the material to win the battle. “Nothing could have exceeded the kindness and delicacy of our American friends,” Churchill reported. “All these tanks and high-velocity guns played a recognizable part, indeed an important part, in General Alexander’s battle.”
Roosevelt, on the other hand, was far more circumspect in terms of the role of the United States in the success at El Alamein. In addressing a news conference that touched on the victory at EI Alamein, he was asked about the extent to which the British were equipped with weaponry from the United States. His answer: “I didn’t know, except I would say to a minor degree. In other words, a great deal less than half. I couldn’t give you the exact percentage. Of course, Britain has some of our planes and some of our tanks, but we mustn’t get the idea that they were equipped with American equipment. It makes a nice headline, but unfortunately it isn’t true.”
It is a startling insight into the extent of public upset over Roosevelt’s “Germany first” policy that while our ally was giving generous credit to the United States for a major victory against a common foe, Roosevelt had to downplay America’s role in that victory. While it was true that the 300 Sherman tanks were less than half the total available to the British, their number did not reflect their importance in the battle.
After the German defeat at El Alamein, the German threat to the Suez Canal and western Asia was gone. Rauff, instead of proceeding east to Suez and then to Palestine, retreated west to Tunisia. With further Allied advances in Africa, all German military and Rauff and his contingent left Africa and returned to Germany. The pernicious evacuation plan that the British had contemplated in Palestine was, of course, never implemented, and the nearly 500,000 Jews living in Palestine and in the mandated territories were spared the onslaught that would have materialized if El Alamein had turned into another Tobruk.
Had El Alamein turned out differently, the industrial superiority of the United States, the Soviet Union and Great Britain would undoubtedly have led to the defeat of Germany, anyway, but after a longer and even more costly war. The world map at that point would surely have looked different: Soviet forces may well have occupied more of Central Europe in this more protracted war.
In western Asia, the effect of a trained SS force operating closely with militants in the local Arab population would not have augured well for the Jews of Palestine. Had the annihilation plan been even moderately successful, there would not have been available the force necessary to fight in the 1947–48 War for Independence, and the State of Israel would not exist, exactly as Hitler had predicted would be the case with Germany’s military success in the region.
The plan to murder the Jews of North Africa and Western Asia demonstrated vividly how the German plan for the annihilation of Jewry was not confined to the boundaries of Europe. Had the German military succeeded in breaking through the British lines at El Alamein, there would have been a far greater slaughter of Jews. It is undoubtedly true that Roosevelt’s farsighted but unpopular “Germany first” policy, given life by the success at Midway, played a major role in precluding the kind of German military success necessary for this dramatic extension of the Holocaust.
Robert M. Morgenthau is the former district attorney for New York County, and the former U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York. He is of counsel to Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz. His father, Henry Morgenthau Jr., was Secretary of the Treasury under Roosevelt from 1934-1945.
Frank Tuerkheimer is professor of law at the University of Wisconsin and visiting professor of law at the New York Law School.