What if World War II in the Pacific had not ended with the atomic bombs and Soviet entry into the war in August of 1945? If the Manhattan Project to build atomic weaponry had failed, and if that failure had necessitated an American invasion of Japan’s Home Islands in 1946, what level of destruction would have been visited upon Japan, and at what cost to the invading Americans?
Alternative histories can be an intriguing way to highlight the contingencies of world events in a way that captivates readers. Peter Van Buren’sHooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan, both intrigues and captivates. Hooper’s War imagines a world in which Americans did have to launch an amphibious invasion of Japan in 1946, and that invasion is as bloody and as awful as students of history might expect.
Recall here the all-too-real bloodbaths on Iwo Jima and Okinawa in 1945. Recall as well the devastating firebombing raids led by General Curtis LeMay against Tokyo and numerous other cities that killed hundreds of thousands of Japanese. Now imagine if these had persisted into 1946, taking Kyoto, a most sacred place to the Japanese, with them.
The historian John Dower wrote convincingly of how the U.S. war against Japan was different in kind from its war against Nazi Germany. For Dower, the U.S./Japan war was a “war without mercy,” a war where each side demonized the other as culturally and racially inferior. Such attitudes produced the most vicious fighting and bred atrocities on both sides. Japanese warrior fanaticism, moreover, led to suicidal attacks, the Kamikazes, that sunk or damaged so many American ships.
Nothing good can come from prolonging such a war, and in Van Buren’s retelling, atrocities and tragedies occur with a frequency one would expect of a war driven by racial hatreds and profound cultural misunderstandings. Nevertheless, in the darkness he provides a ray of hope as Lieutenant Nate Hooper, the main character, becomes separated from his unit and has to deal on an intimately human level with a Japanese sergeant. I don’t think I give away much by stating their relationship doesn’t end well for all — such is the reality of a war driven by hatred. The horror of war goes deep, Van Buren shows us, but so too does the potential for mitigating and ultimately for overcoming it.
Some readers of Bracing Views will recall that Van Buren formerly worked for the U.S. State Department. His first book, “We Meant Well,” is that rare thing: an honest retelling of the failures of America’s reconstruction efforts in Iraq to which he was both witness and participant. He brings his experiences of war and diplomacy to bear in this, his latest book, enriched by the years he spent working in Japan with the State Department.
Hooper’s War is for anyone interested in World War II in the Pacific, for anyone with a yen for imaginative “what-if” histories, or indeed for anyone who enjoys a good story well-told.
Full disclosure: Peter Van Buren sent me an advanced copy of Hooper’s War, to which I contributed a well-deserved commendatory blurb.
In my latest article for TomDispatch.com, I investigate what an “America first” foreign policy actually means in practice. What follows is an extract from the article in which I consider whether the U.S. military has morphed from a deterrent force (at least in its own eyes) to a doomsday machine. This idea is inspired in part by an article that Dennis Showalter, a fine historian and an even better friend, wrote back in 2000 about the German military prior to World War I. Excerpt follows:
Deterring Our Way to Doomsday
Who put America’s oil under all those Middle Eastern deserts? That was the question antiwar demonstrators asked with a certain grim humor before the invasion of Iraq. In Trump’s oft-stated opinion, the U.S. should indeed have just taken Iraq’s oil after the 2003 invasion. If nothing else, he said plainly what many Americans believed, and what various multinational oil companies were essentially seeking to do.
Consider here the plight of President Jimmy Carter.Nearly 40 years ago, Carter urged Americans to scale back their appetites, start conserving energy, and free themselves from a crippling dependency on foreign oil and the unbridled consumption of material goods. After critics termed it his “malaise” speech, Carter did an about-face, boosting military spending and establishing the Carter Doctrine to protect Persian Gulf oil as a vital U.S. national interest. The American people responded by electing Ronald Reagan anyway. As Americans continue to enjoy a consumption-driven lifestyle that gobbles up roughly 25% of the world’s production of fossil fuels (while representing only 3% of the world’s population), the smart money in the White House is working feverishly to open ever more fuel taps globally. Trillions of dollars are at stake.
Small wonder that, on becoming president, Trump acted quickly to speed the building of new pipelines delayed or nixed by President Obama while ripping up environmental protections related to fossil fuel production. Accelerated domestic production, along with cooperation from the Saudis — Trump’s recent Muslim bans carefully skipped targeting the one country that provided 15 of the 19 terrorists in the 9/11 attacks — should keep fuel flowing, profits growing, and world sea levels rising.
One data point here: The U.S. military alone guzzles more fossil fuel than the entire country of Sweden. When it comes to energy consumption, our armed forces are truly second to none.
With its massive oil reserves, the Middle East remains a hotbed in the world’s ongoing resource wars, as well as its religious and ethnic conflicts, exacerbated by terrorism and the destabilizing attacks of the U.S. military. Under the circumstances, when it comes to future global disaster, it’s not that hard to imagine that today’s Middle East could serve as the equivalent of the Balkans of World War I infamy.
If Gavrilo Princip, a Serbian “Black Hand” terrorist operating in a war-torn and much-disputed region, could set the world aflame in 1914, why not an ISIS terrorist just over a century later? Consider the many fault lines today in that region and the forces involved, including Russia, Turkey, Iran, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United States, all ostensibly working together to combat terrorism even as they position themselves to maximize their own advantage and take down one another. Under such circumstances, a political temblor followed by a geo-political earthquake seems unbearably possible. And if not an ISIS temblor followed by major quake in the Middle East, there’s no shortage of other possible global fault lines in an increasingly edgy world — from saber-rattling contests with North Korea to jousting over Chinese-built artificial islands in the South China Sea.
As an historian, I’ve spent much time studying the twentieth-century German military. In the years leading up to World War I, Germany was emerging as the superpower of its day, yet paradoxically it imagined itself as increasingly hemmed in by enemies, a nation surrounded and oppressed. Its leaders especially feared a surging Russia. This fear drove them to launch a preemptive war against that country. (Admittedly, they attacked France first in 1914, but that’s another story.) That incredibly risky and costly war, sparked in the Balkans, failed disastrously and yet it would only be repeated on an even more horrific level 25 years later. The result: tens of millions of dead across the planet and a total defeat that finally put an end to German designs for global dominance. The German military, praised as the “world’s best” by its leaders and sold to its people as a deterrent force, morphed during those two world wars into a doomsday machine that bled the country white, while ensuring the destruction of significant swaths of the planet.
Today, the U.S. military similarly praises itself as the “world’s best,” even as it imagines itself surrounded by powerful threats (China, Russia, a nuclear North Korea, and global terrorism, to start a list). Sold to the American people during the Cold War as a deterrent force, a pillar of stability against communist domino-tippers, that military has by now morphed into a potential tipping force all its own.
Recall here that the Trump administration has reaffirmed America’s quest for overwhelming nuclear supremacy. It has called for a “new approach” to North Korea and its nuclear weapons program. (Whatever that may mean, it’s not a reference to diplomacy.) Even as nuclear buildups and brinksmanship loom, Washington continues to spread weaponry — it’s the greatest arms merchant of the twenty-first century by a wide mark — and chaos around the planet, spinning its efforts as a “war on terror” and selling them as the only way to “win.”
In May 1945, when the curtain fell on Germany’s last gasp for global dominance, the world was fortunately still innocent of nuclear weapons. It’s different now. Today’s planet is, if anything, over-endowed with potential doomsday machines — from those nukes to the greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming.
That’s why it’s vitally important to recognize that President Trump’s “America-first” policies are anything but isolationist in the old twentieth century meaning of the term; that his talk of finally winning again is a recipe for prolonging wars guaranteed to create more chaos and more failed states in the Greater Middle East and possibly beyond; and that an already dangerous Cold War policy of “deterrence,” whether against conventional or nuclear attacks, may now have become a machine for perpetual war that could, given Trump’s bellicosity, explode into some version of doomsday.
Or, to put the matter another way, consider this question: Is North Korea’s Kim Jong-un the only unstable leader with unhinged nuclear ambitions currently at work on the world stage?
I recently read “Armor and Blood” by Dennis Showalter. It’s about the Battle of Kursk in July of 1943, the massive, last-ditch offensive by the Nazis on the Eastern Front, and how the Soviet Army was able to stymy it, seize the initiative, and take the offensive for good. As Showalter notes, the Nazi offensive at Kursk in 1943 was much like the Ludendorff Offensives in the Spring of 1918 near the end of World War I. They were offensives of desperation. As General Ludendorff said in 1918, first we’ll punch a hole in the enemy’s lines, and then we’ll see. Tactical zeal (and wishful thinking) took the place of careful strategic calculation.
In 1918 as well as in 1943, the German military was given free rein to pursue a military solution when there wasn’t one to be had. Germany simply didn’t have the military means for the strategic end they sought to achieve. In 1918, Ludendorff believed he could defeat the Entente forces (the French, British, and other allies, to include the rapidly arriving Americans) on the Western Front, but his offensives only served to weaken his own army, ensuring its exhaustion and defeat by that November. In 1943, Hitler gambled he could defeat the Soviet Army at Kursk, but his massive offensive only weakened his own army, ensuring its exhaustion and eventual defeat in the spring of 1945. Both times, more military action only precipitated defeat and disaster.
Is the United States the inheritor of this Germanic bias? Instead of punching a hole, the U.S. military speaks of “surges.” It surged in Iraq in 2007. It surged in Afghanistan in 2010-11. But after each “surge,” the situation in those countries was basically the same – and, over time, grew worse.
Of course, U.S. “surges,” in each case involving roughly 30,000 additional troops, were in scale dwarfed by the German offensives in 1918 and 1943, involving millions of men and the movement of entire armies. But scale is less important than process. In each case, “victory” was staked on more military action, in part because both Germans and Americans believed themselves to be in the possession of “the finest fighting forces in the history of the world.” Neither, of course, would admit that they were fighting on foreign soil, that the enemy had agency too, and that the longer the fighting continued, the weaker they grew as the enemy grew stronger. So, in the name of “victory” the German and American “surges” played themselves out, and nothing changed strategically – there were no victories to be had.
The Germans, of course, drove themselves to utter collapse, both in 1918 and especially in 1945, after which they could no longer fool themselves as to the success of their “surges.” A superpower with enormous resources, the United States is not yet on the verge of collapse. But enormous budgetary deficits, driven in part by endless wars and a plethora of imperial commitments and overseas bases, are gradually eating away at the sinews of American strength, even as militarism eats away at the marrow of democracy.
After their utter defeat in 1945, the Germans learned to avoid endless war and the seductions of militarism. The question is: Will it require a total collapse of the American Empire before its leaders learn the same lesson?
I recently read Blood Red Snow: The Memoirs of a German Soldier, by Günter Koschorrek, which focuses mainly on combat on the Eastern Front between the Germans and Soviets during World War II. As Dan White has noted, military history sometimes degenerates into war porn – exciting tales of derring-do that save the day and end in citations and medals. Real war isn’t like that. Real war is horror, a horror that Koschorrek quickly came to know as a very young man.
Writing about his first weeks of combat, Koschorrek notes “how impatiently we waited for the opportunity to fight at the front! Now, after exactly three weeks in combat, no one talks of heroism or enthusiasm any more. On the contrary, the only wish is to get out of this death trap alive.”
Koschorrek’s first wound in combat is a minor one, which does not qualify him for evacuation from the front. He writes:
I feel the disappointment—a hope has been dashed. And then I think how quickly human feelings and attitudes can change. It is only a matter of weeks since I was dreaming of glory and heroism and was so full of élan that I was almost bursting. Now I long for a Heimatschuss—because it appears to me to be the only way that I can, with any sort of honor, say goodbye to this soul-destroying environment …
Koschorrek, a machine-gunner, quickly became a hardened veteran of the war. When he sees friends killed in combat, he writes of a “sort of madness” that came over him, the desire for “bloody revenge.” He writes:
Revenge and retaliation! That inflammatory clarion call for revenge! That’s the way all war leaders want their soldiers to be. Remorseless, and with hatred and retaliation in their hearts, men can win battles, and quite ordinary soldiers can be converted into celebrities. Fear is converted into hatred, anger and calls for retribution. In this way you are motivated to fight on—even decorated with medals as a hero.
As the war drags on and Nazi Germany begins to lose, Koschorrek writes of “deserters and dissenters” within the ranks. “They are called traitors to the fatherland,” he notes, but Koschorrek concludes with an important insight: “Nobody can be himself during a war—we all belong to the people and the state.”
War witnesses the death of individuality in the name of a collective: the people, the state. More frightening is the death of individual conscience, as even the worst war crimes are excused in the name of “defending” the state.
As the Soviets close in and begin to invade Germany proper, Koschorrek encounters the aftermath of horrific reprisals committed by the Soviet invaders on the German people. In one case, he notes how ordinary German villagers “were surprised in their sleep by the Soviets and couldn’t escape. The [Nazi] party bigwigs, however, were all able to get away in time.”
When the war is finally over, Koschorrek was able to evade capture by the Soviets and transportation to Siberia as a POW. He writes of trading his war medals (such as the Iron Cross) and ribbons for cigarettes, noting how American soldiers lusted after German war memorabilia. Koschorrek’s medals and ribbons—marks of valor he wanted so keenly at war’s start—became by war’s end nothing but barter for smokes.
His last words reflect the hard-won wisdom of a man who fought as part of a war of annihilation on the Eastern Front:
when will people realize that it is possible for any of us to be manipulated by domineering and power-crazed individuals who know how to motivate the masses in order to misuse them for their own ends? While they keep well out of the way [of war], in safety, they have no hesitation in brutally sacrificing their people in the name of patriotism. Will mankind ever stand together against them?
Koschorrek, a frontline combat soldier, can be faulted for not being more critical of Nazi ideology and its megalomaniacal designs. He has little to say about Nazi war atrocities. His account is focused on combat and comrades, in the thick of the fighting, where the desire to stay alive is all-consuming.
It’s a book to be read carefully by anyone who thinks war is glorious.
My dad was in the Army in World War II. He was a dental technician in an armored headquarters group and never went overseas. But many of his friends did go overseas and saw combat. What follows are some excerpts from letters sent to my dad.
Bill Zerby was attached to the 781 Tank Battalion, 7th Army, in France and Germany. In December 1944, just before the Battle of the Bulge, Zerby wrote to my dad that:
“Here we have plenty of mud and rain and 24 hours a day the field artillery lays down a barrage with everything they have. The outfit is making out pretty well so far. One good thing these boys don’t believe in taking prisoners…. We all live in houses and have lanterns for lights. Everything is blacked out at 5 P.M. till dawn.”
I’d like to repeat Zerby’s 3rd sentence: One good thing these boys don’t believe in taking prisoners.
The fight against the Nazis was tough, and it wasn’t just the Germans who violated the Geneva Convention and its rules about taking prisoners. War, in short, should never be sugarcoated.
At the end of March 1945, Zerby wrote to my dad again, a letter that contained this telling sentence:
“Bookbinder [a fellow soldier] sure got a break [by not going overseas] but he better hope he don’t get sent to Germany. It seems they don’t like the Heb’s [Jews].”
By this point, Allied troops were beginning to liberate German concentration camps, and beginning as well to realize the murderous hatred the Nazis had for the Jewish people.
On a lighter note, Zerby regales my dad with the following story:
“The place where we live now is a large estate that belongs to a German big shot. He got chased out and we moved in. He has a wine cellar that runs all over town—all underground passages, and the dates on some of the casks run back to 1755. Well some of the wine was really good. The boys made a tour of the place and took all the best drinks for their own use. Yes, I was in on it too. Now we are tired of it and don’t take anymore. Of course it’s bolted up now but that don’t mean anything.”
In another letter, Zerby writes about American soldiers hunting for deer. Yes, American troops knew how to have a good time. Wine, venison, and women. After all, who knew from day to day if you’d live to see home again?
At the end of 1945, Zerby writes again to my dad that “I am now a proud civilian and no more lousy Army life.” And to my dad’s mention of a few of their friends from the battalion, Zerby writes with painful honesty: “I don’t remember many of those guys anymore. A hell of a lot of them got bumped off also last winter [in action in France and Germany]. I guess we were just lucky.”
Another of my dad’s friends was Corporal Ed C. Sarna, who was assigned to a headquarters battery in Divisional Artillery. He wrote to my dad in December 1944 that:
“To date, I have seen a number of [German V-1] buzz bombs at a very close range. A little in regards to Germany. If Hitler decided to fight until we hit Berlin, I can sincerely feel that the destruction will wipe Germany right off the map. At our present place – there isn’t a place found to be livable. Our forces are really doing a good job of it.”
The Allies wanted to make sure the Germans knew they had been well and truly beaten in this war, so as to prevent the myth that emerged after World War I that the German Army had not been defeated in the field.
This was a sentiment seconded by Corporal Paul Vella, 5th Depot Repair Squadron, Maintenance Division. He wrote to my dad in March 1945 that “You’re right, Julie, the Germans are getting the shit kicked out of them and the quicker it’s over the better I like it. I sure would like to see the states after a couple of years of being away from it.”
Corporal Vella also jokingly mentioned the “Soldier’s Prayer” in his letter: Please, Dear God, distribute the bullets like you do the pay and give officers first dibs. Yes, there’s some grim humor shared in the front lines.
There’s nothing really that special about these letters to my dad – and that’s their value. They are the typical sentiments of American dogfaces in Europe in World War II. Men who saw the destruction of Germany and the deaths of their friends. They had no illusions about war, and they didn’t spout patriotic platitudes. They just wanted the war to be over so they could get back to living their “real” lives.
As one soldier put it to my dad in 1945, “I sure hope that I’ll get my discharge soon, I’ve got plans to complete, my girl is getting tired of waiting so long.”
August 6, 1945. Hiroshima. A Japanese city roughly the size of Houston. Incinerated by the first atomic bomb. Three days later, Nagasaki. Japanese surrender followed. It seemed the bombs had been worth it, saving countless American (and Japanese) lives, seeing that a major invasion of the Japanese home islands was no longer needed. But was the A-bomb truly decisive in convincing the Japanese to surrender?
President Truman’s decision to use atomic bombs against Japan is perhaps the most analyzed, and, in the United States, most controversial decision made during World War II. The controversy usually creates more heat than light, with hardliners posed on mutually opposed sides. The traditional interpretation is that Truman used the A-bombs to convince a recalcitrant Japanese Emperor that the war was truly lost. A quick Japanese surrender appeared to justify Truman’s choice. It also saved tens of thousands of Allied lives in the Pacific (while killing approximately 250K Japanese). This thesis is best summed up in Paul Fussell’s famous essay, “Thank God for the Atomic Bomb.”
Even before Hiroshima, however, a small number of scientists argued that the A-bomb should not be used against Japan without a prior demonstration in a remote and uninhabited location. Later, as the horrible nature of radiation casualties became clearer to the American people, and as the Soviet Union developed its own arsenal of atomic weapons, threatening the United States with nuclear Armageddon, Americans began to reexamine Truman’s decision in the context of the Cold War and the nuclear arms race. Gar Alperovitz’s revisionist view that Truman was practicing “atomic diplomacy” won its share of advocates in the 1960s. (Alperovitz expanded upon this thesis in the 1990s.) Other historians suggested that racism and motives of revenge played a significant role in shaping the U.S. decision. This debate reached its boiling point in the early 1990s, as the Smithsonian’s attempt to create a “revisionist” display to mark the bomb’s 50th anniversary became a lightning rod in the “culture wars” between a Democratic administration and a resurgent Republican Congress.
Were the atomic bombs necessary to get the Japanese to surrender? Would other, more humane, options have worked, such as a demonstration to the Japanese of the bomb’s power? We’ll never know with certainty the answer to such questions. Perhaps if the U.S. had been more explicit in their negotiations with Japan that “unconditional surrender” did not mean the end of Japan’s Emperor, the Japanese may have surrendered earlier, before the A-bomb was fully ready. Then again, U.S. flexibility could have been interpreted by Japanese hardliners as a sign of American weakness or war fatigue.
Unwilling to risk appearing weak or weary, U.S. leaders dropped the A-bomb to shock the Japanese into surrendering. Together with Stalin’s entry into the war against Japan, these shocks were sufficient to convince the Japanese emperor “to bear the unbearable,” in this case total capitulation, a national disgrace.
A longer war in the Pacific — if only a matter of weeks — would indeed have meant higher casualties among the Allies, since the Japanese were prepared to mount large-scale Kamikaze attacks. Certainly, the Allies were unwilling to risk losing men when they had a bomb available that promised results. The mentality seems to have been: We developed it. We have it. Let’s use it. Anything to get this war over with as quickly as possible.
That mentality was not humane, but it was human. Truman had a weapon that promised decisiveness, so he used it. The attack on Hiroshima was basically business as usual, especially when you consider the earlier firebombing raids led by General Curtis LeMay. Indeed, such “conventional” firebombing raids continued after Hiroshima and Nagasaki until the Japanese finally sent a clear signal of surrender.
Of course, an event as momentous, as horrific, as Hiroshima took on extra meaning after the war, given the nuclear arms race, the Cold War and a climate represented by the telling acronym of MAD (mutually assured destruction). U.S. decisionmakers like Truman were portrayed as callous, as racist, as war criminals. Yet in the context of 1945, it’s difficult to see any other U.S. president making a different decision, especially given Japan’s apparent reluctance to surrender and their proven fanaticism at Iwo Jima, Okinawa and elsewhere.
As Andrew Rotter notes in Hiroshima: The World’s Bomb (2008),World War II witnessed the weakening, if not erasure, of distinctions between combatants and non-combatants, notably during LeMay’s firebombing of Tokyo in March 1945 but in many other raids as well (Rotterdam and Coventry and Hamburg and Dresden, among so many others). In his book, Rotter supports the American belief that Japan would fight even more fanatically for their home islands than they did at Iwo Jima and Okinawa, two horrendous battles in 1945 that preceded the bomb. But he argues that Truman and Secretary of War Henry Stimson engaged in “self-deception” when they envisioned that the effects of the atomic bomb could be limited to “a purely military” target.
A quarter of a million Japanese died at Hiroshima and Nagasaki and in the years and decades following. They died horrible deaths. And their deaths serve as a warning to us all of the awful nature of war and the terrible destructiveness of nuclear weapons.
Hans Bethe worked on the bomb during the Manhattan Project. A decent, humane, and thoughtful man, he nevertheless worked hard to create a weapon of mass destruction. His words of reflection have always stayed with me. They come in Jon Else’s powerful documentary, “The Day After Trinity: J. Robert Oppenheimer and the Atomic Bomb.”
Here is what Bethe said (edited slightly):
The first reaction we [scientists] had [after Hiroshima] was one of fulfillment. Now it has been done. The second reaction was one of shock and awe: What have we done? What have we done. The third reaction was it should never be done again.
It should never be done again: Just typing those words here from memory sends chills up my spine.
Let us hope it is never done again. Let us hope a nuclear weapon is never used again. For that way madness lies.
In 2006, I presented the following talk on Jewish resistance to the Holocaust. It’s a dangerous myth, and sadly a common one, that Jewish people did not resist the Nazis in meaningful or effective ways. From this myth stems a far more insidious one: that Jewish people were somehow complicit in the murderous campaigns against them. I gave this paper to counter these dangerous myths.
The Nazis exterminated nearly six million Jews during World War II. Those who claim that Jews went meekly like sheep to the slaughter ignore the many instances of remarkable courage in the face of this staggering crime against humanity. In reality, Jewish resistance took many forms. That it often proved futile reflects the poignant vulnerability of Jews rather than any lack of bravery or courage.
Resistance can be divided into two general categories: passive and active. Passive resistance took the form of cultural and spiritual endurance and assertiveness. Jews confined to ghettos like Warsaw continued to practice their culture and religion despite prohibitions; they organized symphonies, drama clubs, schools, and other voluntary and educational associations; they also risked their lives by trading across ghetto walls despite threats of torture and execution.
Passive resistance drew on a long and esteemed Jewish tradition of outlasting the persecutor. Initially believing that the Nazis and their various European sympathizers and lackeys wanted to put Jews in their place, not in their graves, Jewish leaders sought to endure discriminatory laws, pogroms, and deportations, hoping for an eventual relaxation of anti-Semitic policies or perhaps even the defeat of their oppressors on the battlefield.
Thus Jewish resistance remained largely non-violent until 1943, in part because the Germans succeeded in deceiving the Jews. They were helped in this by the fact that their predecessors—the German soldiers of World War I—had generally behaved decently, treating Jewish non-combatants humanely. Jews in Poland and the East initially expected similar behavior from Nazi invaders. Even after it became apparent to Jews that Nazi soldiers and especially police were intent on human butchery on a scale previously unimaginable, Jewish cultures that embraced sanctity and sheer joy of life found it difficult to comprehend a Nazi culture built on hate and murderous brutality, especially one that continued to worship civilized icons like Goethe and Beethoven. Many Jews put their faith in God, hoping for the best, preparing for the worst, yet daring not at first to think the unthinkable.
When Jewish communities and individuals recognized the unthinkable—that the Nazis and their various European fellow travelers wanted to exterminate systematically all Jews in Europe—active and armed resistance increased. Active resistance included acts of industrial sabotage in munitions factories or isolated bombings of known gathering spots of Nazis. One must recognize, however, the near utter futility of Jews “winning” pitched battles against their killers. The Nazis had machine guns, dogs, usually superior numbers, and could call on tanks, artillery, and similar weapons of industrialized modern warfare. Facing them were Jewish resisters, often unarmed, some at best having pistols or rifles with limited ammunition, perhaps supplemented by a few precious hand grenades. Such unequal odds often made the final result tragically predictable, yet many Jews decided it was better to die fighting than to face extermination in a death camp.
When it became apparent that they were being deported to Treblinka to be gassed, Warsaw Jews at first refused to assemble, then led a ghetto uprising in April 1943 whose ferocity surprised the Germans. More than 2000 German soldiers supported by armored cars, machine guns, flamethrowers, and unlimited ammunition faced approximately 750 Jews with little to no military training. The SS General in command, Jürgen Stroop, had estimated he would need two days to suppress the uprising. In fact, he needed a full month as Jews armed mainly with pistols, homemade grenades, and Molotov cocktails fought franticly and ferociously from street to street, bunker to bunker. The Warsaw ghetto uprising was only the most famous example of nearly 60 other armed uprisings in Jewish ghettos.
Resistance was less common in death camps like Chelmno, Sobibor, and Treblinka, mainly because there was not enough time for networks of resistance to form. Resistance requires leaders, organization, and weapons. These elements cannot be improvised and acted upon in a few hours or even days: they require months of planning and training. Despite nearly insurmountable difficulties, however, Jews did lead revolts at all three of these death camps as well as at Auschwitz-Birkenau and 18 forced-labor camps.
Jews also participated actively in resistance networks in Poland, the Soviet Union, France, and other countries. Their plight was difficult in the extreme, since anti-Semitism within these networks often required Jews to hide their ethnicity. In some cells of the Polish resistance, Jews were killed outright. Many Soviet partisans distrusted and exploited Jews; nevertheless, between 20,000 and 30,000 Jews fought as partisans in the USSR against Nazi invaders. In France, Jews made up less than one percent of the population yet 15 to 20 percent of the French underground. In 1944, nearly 2000 Jewish resisters in France united to form the Organisation Juive de Combat (Jewish Fighting Organization), which supported Allied military operations by attacking railway lines and German military installations and factories.
Impressive as it was, Jewish resistance was always hamstrung for several reasons. In general, Jews lacked combat experience since many countries forbade Jewish citizens from serving in the military. Like Soviet prisoners-of-war (POWs) captured by the Nazis, many Jews, especially those confined in ghettos, were weakened by disease and deliberate starvation. Under these conditions, trained Soviet soldiers died with hardly a murmur of protest, so it is hardly surprising that Jewish families who had never been exposed to the hardships of war would similarly succumb.
The Nazis succeeded in creating a Hobbesian state of nature in which people were so focused on surviving from hour to hour that their struggles consumed virtually all their energy and attention. Dissension within Jewish communities also inhibited resistance, with older Jews and members of Judenräte (Jewish councils) tending to support a policy of limited cooperation with the Nazis, hoping that by contributing to the German war effort, they might thereby preserve the so-called productive elements of Jewish communities.
More controversially, Jewish resistance was hampered by weak and irresolute international support. Fearing that Nazi propaganda would exploit pro-Jewish statements as proof that a Jewish-Bolshevist conspiracy was behind the war, Western leaders refrained from condemning Nazi actions. Official Catholic and Protestant statements were equally tentative and tepid. Irresolute and sporadic support unintentionally played into the hands of Nazi plans for Jewish extermination.
Observant Jews were people of God’s law, the Torah, who put their faith in God, with Jewish culture in general tending to disavow militant actions. Confronted by murderous killing squads possessing all the tools of industrialized mass warfare, Jews nevertheless resisted courageously, both passively and actively. That their resistance often ended tragically does not mean that it failed.