Seventy years ago this week, the United States and its allies issued a declaration confirming that the Germans were carrying out the mass murder of European Jewry. But the landmark announcement was made only after it was watered down for political reasons--and even then, one major international power refused to sign.
During 1941-1942, the British and American governments received increasingly detailed reports about machine-gun massacres of tens of thousands of European Jews by the Nazis in occupied Russia. One eyewitness account described freshly-covered mass graves “heaving like the sea” from the movement of victims who were not yet dead.
But Allied officials assumed the killings were random wartime atrocities rather than part of an organized Nazi strategy.
These assumptions began to change with the arrival of two reports from Europe in the summer of 1942.
A report smuggled from Poland in June disclosed that the Germans had “embarked on the physical extermination of the Jewish population on Polish soil,” and had already murdered an estimated 700,000 Polish Jews.
In August, a telegram from the World Jewish Congress representative in Geneva, Gerhart Riegner, reported that the Germans intended "to exterminate all Jews from German and German-controlled areas in Europe after they have been concentrated in the east (presumably Poland).”
The State Department refused Riegner’s request to pass his telegram to American Jewish leaders, citing what one official called “the fantastic nature of the allegation and the impossibility of our being of any assistance.”
There were, in fact, many ways the U.S. could have been of assistance--but it would have meant taking steps the Roosevelt administration was unwilling to consider, such as admitting more refugees or urging the British to open the doors of Palestine.
Three long months later, the accumulation of evidence forced Undersecretary of State Sumner Welles to acknowledge that “there is no exaggeration. These documents [from Riegner and others] are evidently correct.”
At the same time, Members of the British Parliament, British Jewish organizations, and the Archbishop of Canterbury were pressing the Churchill government to respond and, as a top Foreign Office official put it, “unless we can make them some kind of gesture they will cause a lot of trouble.”
To alleviate this pressure, London reluctantly suggested to Washington that the Allies issue a joint statement.
The State Department at first resisted the proposal, fearing that “the various Governments of the United Nations [as the Allies were informally known] would expose themselves to increased pressure from all sides to do something more specific in order to aid these people.”
The Roosevelt administration eventually went along with the statement, but only after watering down some of the language. For example, the proposed phrase “reports from Europe which leave no doubt” (that mass murder was underway) was whittled down to just “numerous reports from Europe.”
The final version, released on December 17, 1942, was signed by the United States, Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and the governments-in-exile of eight German-occupied countries. Pope Pius XII declined to sign because--the papal secretary explained--the Vatican preferred to condemn war crimes in general rather than single out any particular atrocities.
The declaration condemned the Nazis’ “bestial policy of cold-blooded extermination." That acknowledgement was important. But the statement proposed no steps to rescue Jews from Hitler. The idea of including an offer of asylum for Jewish refugees had been left out of the statement because, as one British official explained, it would mean making an offer “which would dog our footsteps forever”--in other words, some refugees might actually take them up on it.
In our own time, too, the American government has sometimes found political reasons to resist acknowledging genocide. The Bush administration for a long time resisted calling the killings in Darfur genocide. Using the term would increase demands for U.S. intervention. Only after strong pressure from human rights groups, and the adoption by both houses of Congress of resolutions condemning it as genocide, did the Bush administration finally agree, in September 2004, to use that term.
Likewise, President Obama, when he was a candidate in 2008, promised he would acknowledge that the Turks committed genocide against the Armenians. But since becoming president, Mr. Obama has preferred to avoid angering Turkey--so each year, when he issues a statement on the day that Armenians commemorate the slaughter, he refers to it by the Armenian term "Meds Yeghem," instead of "genocide."
Despite the passage of seventy years, despite the great increase in public awareness of the Holocaust, and despite the recurrence of mass murder in our own time--political considerations still sometimes hamper the fight against genocide.