1944; FDR and the Year That Change History by Jay Winik. Simon & Schuster, 2016, paper.


Jay Winik’s book is a general narrative of World War II. He has included stories both prior to and following 1944. This includes several important issues with which FDR dealt throughout the war but were decided in 1944.


By 1944, Roosevelt was showing symptoms of the heart disease that would eventually kill him. And the stress and strain of conducting a war very likely contributed to his death on 12 April 1945, weeks before the German surrender.


Winik follows closely the long story of our knowing, but ignoring the fate of Eastern European Jewry. It must be remembered that the “refugee problem” could, for the most part, not be solved until after the defeat of Adolf Hitler’s Germany. Pressed to do something about the desperate plight of the Jews, Roosevelt’s and his generals’ response was to bring an end to the war as soon as possible.


There were oral testimonies of the conditions in the camps but no visual evidence until the war was over. Would it have been different had the informants whose stories Winik tells had videos and photographs as their evidence?


Winik follows the escape narratives of several men who got to Switzerland and reported the situation to U.S. embassy officials. Their reports then landed on a desk in Henry Stimson’s War Department where they sat. It was not so much that these reports were disbelieved; rather taking action on the information competed with other military and political priorities. The Roosevelt Administration was, in 1944, planning a cross-channel invasion and a massive air offensive to destroy Germany’s production of armaments and particularly aircraft. The North African and Italian campaigns hoped to free the Mediterranean from German control and also split up the German-Italian alliance. Where did an effort to rescue Germany’s prison populations fit into the larger goal of unconditional surrender?


Consider this quandary. Hungarian Jews had been relatively safe under the dictatorship of Miklos Horthy. But in March 1944, the Wehrmacht and the SS occupied Hungary and were making plans for the transport of 750,000 Hungarian Jews to labor camps in Poland and elsewhere. Adolf Eichmann was part of that planning. Joel Brand, a rescue worker from Romania, passed on an offer by Eichmann that would allow one million Hungarian Jews to leave the county in return for receiving 10,000 trucks. The proposal stipulated that those trucks could only be used on the Eastern Front, that is, against the Russians. The SS was apparently co-operating; Heinrich Himmler was hoping to create a split between the Soviets and Anglo-Americans. It was not an acceptable bargain, and sadly a good portion of Hungarian Jewry perished.


What finally got FDR to act on the refugee issue? Henry Morgenthau, Jr., a German-American Jew, long-term friend, and Roosevelt’s Secretary of the Treasury, lobbied for Roosevelt to act on the considerable information that he had received about the perils to European Jewish life. Also in November 1943 a group of Senators, led by Guy Gillette of Iowa, threatened to introduce a resolution urging action. To head that off, FDR issued an executive order creating a War Refugee Board. It did good work on many small rescue projects, but the author feels that the big opportunity was missed.


A good example of our quandary was the proposal that we bomb the railroads leading to Auschwitz and the gas chambers there and elsewhere. By 1944 our bombers could reach Auschwitz from Italian airports. American bombers had recently destroyed an oil refinery near Auschwitz. The proposal, however, was not taken up. The American Army Air Corp had its own set of objectives and was reluctant to change them due to outside pressure. Also pin-point bombing runs of the kind involved required considerable planning and intelligence, and they risked the lives of American pilots, a scarce war resource.


The ‘cold war’ that followed WWII shaped the ways that stories about the War were told. By the late ‘40s, the two superpowers were competing for domination of Eastern and Central Europe. Hence the Russian contribution to defeating the Nazis was minimized. There was a revival of that historiography when the two superpowers began finding ways to get along.


Perhaps this cold war milieu is best understood by the various accounts of the Warsaw uprising in August 1944. For sixty-three days the Polish resistance fought the German occupation forces. One story has it that the Polish resistance wanted to take credit for having “liberated” their capital by themselves, and hence commenced the street fighting before the Russian army, on the other side of the Vistula River, was in any position to come to their aid.


A second story suffers from the chill of the cold war: the Russians purposefully left the Polish resistance to be destroyed by the Germans, as well as most of the physical city. It turns out that there were two Polish governments in exile, one in London, and one under the thumb of the Russians. Winik largely sides with the anti-Russian account.

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