the holocaust could have been ended quickly if people had cared
trigger warning – genocide, religion, violence
i want to begin this example with a few clarifications to ensure nobody gets the wrong idea here. the holocaust is a historical truth. many millions of people, mostly jews, were killed in one of the most brutal acts of hatred committed in recent history. this is not an attempt in any way to absolve the nazi movement of its guilt surrounding the holocaust or its generalized antisemitism. to be clear, the holocaust happened and if you doubt that, it is not because you are a critical student of history. it is because you are antisemitic and you should seriously reevaluate your life and become a better person. i should also make it very clear that i am a scholar, not a child of holocaust survivors. i write and teach from the perspective of awareness, education and enlightenment, not from experience, neither first-hand nor inherited. those whose families have been directly impacted by the holocaust have voices that must be listened to. sadly, their voices are nowhere near loud enough to inform the world of what happened so it is important that those of us who study history and wish to avoid another holocaust in the future join the discussion and amplify our disgust for the hatred and violence that spawned the mechanical extermination of millions in the twentieth century.
first, let’s review basic facts about the period typically understood to be the second world war, from the middle of the 1930s to the middle of the 1940s. with the rise of power of the national socialist (nazi) party in germany, there was an increase in active antisemitism. this began with laws restricting activities for jews and certain other members of society the general german population didn’t like. it progressed to become physical violence, eventually systematic extermination. the part that is often forgotten is that this was not a specifically german occurrence. it was germany where this became an active attempt to eliminate an entire race but that doesn’t by any stretch of the imagination mean that antisemitism was present only in germany.
there are many examples of similar ideas stretching both east and west from germany during that period. the united states and canada famously refused entry to a huge population of jews seeking to escape from the rise of fascism in europe, especially germany and austria, long before the mass-killings began. that is only one small portion of the issue, however. it was common for the general public in the united kingdom, ireland and france to treat the jewish population as undesirable and even after the war to talk about the jews as a group “getting what they deserve”. systematic persecution of jews was the norm in russia and the slavic and baltic states for centuries before the war began and, during the soviet era, many people theorize that as many jews were killed in the eastern bloc as during the wars in the first half of the century. while there are no hard numbers on how much of the jewish population was killed (either directly or by the discriminatory policies of the governments) by either the tsars or the soviets, we can presume the number is sufficiently high to be shocking.
in countries like italy and spain where fascism took stronger hold, perhaps stronger even than in germany, restricted only by the much weaker militaries in those countries from being a real threat to the rest of the world, as germany became, deportations to the death camps was accomplished with a minimum of resistance and few provided any assistance to those being sent to their deaths. in the netherlands, yugoslavia and various other smaller countries scattered throughout europe, governments cooperated in the deportation of jews and other “undesirable” populations to be exterminated. some of these governments were so strongly supportive of the nazi mission that they were written and spoken of in official german government documents as being more willing to help than even those in the german military.
perhaps most troubling among western nations, as has become more obvious in the last half-century, the vatican was in a position to negotiate with the german government throughout the war and it is clear that the pope (pius xii) and his advisors were certainly aware of what was happening in german camps yet decided to do absolutely nothing either to stop it from happening or to warn jewish populations throughout europe. with such a powerful voice to reach out in the name of a church preaching compassion and love, whose founding teacher and most early members were in fact jewish, this speaks volumes about the desires of those throughout the western world regarding the jews. it would be lovely to imagine the world has changed significantly since then but, if you have never visited a synagogue in a major city, i invite you to do that. you will encounter at most of them a level of intense security and vigilance that no other religious buildings, even obvious terrorist targets like national cathedrals and historic locations, have ever possessed. the jews are certainly not the only persecuted group in the modern age but it certainly appears that antisemitism like that of the nazi period is still just as present today as it has ever been.
so what does that mean in terms of actual prevention? many people now admit that there was far more awareness of what was happening in the camps than was originally spoken of in the aftermath of the war. sadly, most of those scholars have excused people for their inaction, saying little could have been done to stop the genocide without defeating germany first and that it was accomplished as quickly as possible, sadly resulting in millions dead before it was done. this is a staggering skewing of the facts and i ask you to look seriously at what was happening throughout europe at the time. what, then, could have been done by people to fight against german plans to exterminate the world jewish population?
let’s start with religion. most of europe is, if not in faith, at least in culture christian, much of that roman catholic. while the catholic church has often been a voice for ethics and good in the world, in this case it was certainly not acting that way. had the pope at the time decided to take action, much would have been different. for example, most of the people working to enslave and execute jews were roman catholics, often practicing but certainly at least passively believers. a declaration from the holy see that all people participating in genocide were to be excommunicated (kicked out of the church) would have drastically lowered compliance among these people and, if not stopping the process, slowed it to the point where far less would have died. beyond that, simply making the general public not simply aware that this was occurring but that it was morally and religiously condemned would have stopped many collaborators from their actions assisting with the roundups and deportations. perhaps the most significant action the church could have taken was to instruct all church followers, from parish priests, monasteries and convents to the general lay population, to do all they could to shelter jewish populations and resist the german plan. if this had been done, few would have defied a direct order from the highest authority in the church. again, it wouldn’t have eliminated the camps but would have significantly reduced its success. people have often said things like “even if it had been slower, they still intended to kill them all” but this is an argument without merit. we know, as we knew then, that germany would eventually be defeated. slowing down the process was not simply a matter of delaying an eventual fate but reducing the total number of people enslaved and killed.
other than religion, it is clear that nearly all jews who survived the nazi death machine owed their lives to non-jews who risked everything to help them. whether they were sheltered in secret or, in many cases, taken in as children and hidden as members of non-jewish families, these people were fighting not just against the german government and army but popular opinion and often their own governments’ wishes. had the general public wished to end persecution of the jews, either before the war or while it was ongoing, it would have been a simple matter of demanding an end to racist policies. while governments can often ignore minority demands, elected officials are usually quickly impacted by overwhelming public opinion and demands for change. there was no mass outrage nor was there thought by most people to be anything wrong with the systematic oppression of an entire race. the minority that protected and saved the few jews who managed to survive were completely on their own, often forming webs of resistance groups but doing that without governmental or popular support.
could the holocaust have been prevented? absolutely. a rejection by the general public and the church of antisemitic policies before the war would have completely prevented the killing and likely the rise of nazism altogether. a blanket acceptance by countries including america, canada, the united kingdom, ireland and russia of jewish refugees from german territory would have dramatically reduced the potential population to be eliminated, possibly making the whole idea impossible to begin as it would only have been such a small portion of the total left in german lands. it would definitely have made it far less significant as an event, reducing the total number killed perhaps by an order of magnitude or more.
could it have been stopped once it was started? it depends what is meant by stopped. it could have been slowed down to the point that it was far less successful, that many fewer people were killed, through the intervention of governments whose citizens demanded action. through the voice of a church that was completely silent, collaborating with the nazi agenda by its inaction, a similar result could have been achieved. both together may have been enough to eliminate any possible way to continue the killing. if it continued, it would have been a far smaller number.
of course, this has been a thought experiment. it’s not a “what if” scenario but it’s an exploration of why something happened and how it could happen again in the future, if we don’t learn from history and desire a different outcome. it is primarily through asking the question “if this one thing had been different, how would history have unfolded” that the past can be most deeply studied.