Everyone knows that World War II was a holocaust—a fire that consumed millions of people across the globe, not only soldiers, but millions upon millions of civilians.
And of course, it was also a Holocaust—an attempted genocide of the Jewish people, one that came perilously close to success. Any attempt to analyze World War II in strictly “military” or “strategic” terms is missing a crucial point: this war was different. To make that statement is not an attempt to justify anything and everything that the Allies did in the course of the war. It is merely to state the obvious. The German war was more than a Griff nach der Weltmacht, a “grab for world power.” It was an attempt to do something awful: exterminate an entire ethnic group, solely for the crime of existing. A lot of people don’t like to hear me say that, if my mailbag is an accurate reflection of their sentiment, but that only makes me want to say it more often. World War II in Europe is inseparable from the Holocaust.
I recently had occasion to think about the degree to which those two events are intertwined when I read a doctoral dissertation, a manuscript that will almost certainly become a book in the near future. The notion that the Germans wasted resources on the Holocaust that they sorely needed to prosecute the military conflict is a truism. Scholars talk about it all the time. But up to now, there haven’t been many studies that attempted to prove the link. The one I read did just that by concentrating on a crucial area of German logistics. The lifeline of the Wehrmacht’s multiple-front war was the European rail network, the same system that supported the killing of Jews during the Holocaust. The work I read asked a few fundamental questions: how many trains did the Reichsbahn need to ship Jewish victims to the death camps? How many German divisions, how many tanks, how many thousands of tons of supplies could those same trains have carried?
The answer to all of these questions? A hell of a lot. Now, certainly, we have to make distinctions: supplying a field army is a non-stop, everyday commitment of hundreds of thousands of tons of cargo. Shipping helpless victims to their death is a one-way ride. But even accounting for that crucial difference, this war saw numerous moments in which the Wehrmacht could have used trains for troops, tanks, and ammunition that were instead carrying old men, women, and children to the death camps. The manuscript that I read identified four specific crisis points: Operation Typhoon in the fall of 1941, the climactic German drive on Moscow, taking place at the same time as the first large-scale Jewish deportations; Operation Blue, the Stalingrad campaign in 1942, linked with Operation Reinhard, the mass deportation of Jews from all over Europe to a series of newly established death camps in the East; the Kursk campaign, fought out at the very moment that the Germans were liquidating the Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto; and the 1944 Overlord/Normandy campaign, taking place at the very moment of the German invasion of Hungary, the deposition of Admiral Miklós Horthy’s regime, and the destruction of the last surviving Jewish community of any real size in Europe.
The Soviet defeat of Operation Blue, for example, acquires a new light when we consider that in the course of 1942, the Germans were deep in the process of shipping some two million Jews via rail to the camps. Likewise, the logistical requirements for the extermination of Hungarian Jewry in 1944 were massive. Occurring as it did during simultaneous military crises in East and West, it rendered the Germans far less able to respond to threats in Normandy and Byelorussia in anything resembling a timely fashion.
Now, let’s be honest: it will never be easy to prove that the devotion of railcars to the Holocaust lost the battle of Kursk in 1943 or led to the destruction of Army Group Center in 1944. But let us also remember that immortal principle of war that the U.S. Army calls “concentration of force.” You identify your main enemy, you gather your strength in a single-minded fashion, and you crush it. Anything else is a diversion. A distraction. A waste. I like to think I have a pretty good understanding of war’s infinite variation, the way it resists rules or prescriptions or detailed instruction manuals. Even so, I believe in concentration of force. It’s just common sense.
In that light, think about the summer of 1944. The Soviets have just crushed an entire army group of yours in the East. The Anglo-Americans have landed in Normandy and, after some tough fighting, have broken out of your bridgehead and smashed your main force in the West. This is what we call “an emergency.”
Clearly, it is a time for stirring slogans. Rally round the flag! Every man for the Fatherland! Victory or death! Ein Volk steht auf!
Instead, in this moment of destiny for Germany, you decide to cry “Death to the Jews!”
Hannah Arendt once famously wrote that the Holocaust proved the banality—the ordinary nature—of evil. She may be right, but perhaps we need to rethink it: sometimes evil isn’t merely “ordinary.” Sometimes it is absolutely illogical.