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.

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11 Responses

  1. Geoff Megargee

    Hm. I’m gonna call you on this one, Rob, for two reasons.

    First, I have understood for some time that the Germans did not sacrifice any shipments of men or materiel for the sake of sending Jews to their deaths. The one exception of which I’m aware was in the autumn of 1941, when they sent Jews to Riga at a time when the Wehrmacht was screaming for every bullet and gallon of fuel on the eastern front. The army complained, and the shipments stopped. Otherwise, the rail network was quite capable of handling the shipments that the Germans wanted to make and could make, both of Jews and of military cargo. Yes, for example, the Nazis shipped Jews from Hungary to Auschwitz in the summer of 1944, but were those lines positioned to carry any important military shipments? Did the Germans even have any assets that they wanted to ship from one front to another? Would the rail lines behind those fronts have been capable of carrying the additional trains? Now, admittedly, I don’t know where I heard or read that shipments of Jews did not interfere with shipments of arms — my bad — but I will need a good deal of convincing to believe that this was a problem.

    My second, broader assertion is that the idea that the Holocaust was a distraction from the war effort misses the point entirely. Killing the Jews was, for the Nazis, not a distraction from the war: it was a part of the war. It was one of the main reasons why they were fighting the war. They kept it up for as long as they could hold any ground on which to do it. It was their raison d’etre, their historical mission. To the extent that they made any compromises in fighting the war, *that’s* why they did it.

  2. Robert Kapanjie

    Some comments:

    Ironically Hitler’s personal train was named Amerika. Where was America and the allies in relation to the holocaust—nowhere they would have made a difference.It would only take a few bombs to knock out the rail links to Auschwitz and stop the deliveries of those unfortunates to the gas chambers. It was argued that it was too far to send the planes and that the airforce was needed else where to prosecute the war. But I believe we bombed a nearby chemical factory, and a few more miles to the rail lines would not be too difficult.
    The Nazi’s were fighting two wars , against the allies and against the Jews. Even in the last 6 months when everyone knew the war war was lost, yet it continued against the Jews until the last day. As far as I am concerned this inaction of the United States will forever remain a stain on an otherwise proud military honor.
    Finally, apparently General George McCllelan was absent that day at West Point when the lecture on the concentration of force was given. Also the German occupation of Hungary ( Buda pest) occurred on March 19, 1944, Overlord June 6, 1944

  3. Rob Citino

    Thanks, Robert. Agreed with virtually every word you wrote. I would point out that the occupation of Hungary did indeed take place in March 1944, as you note, but that the transport of the Jews to the camps began in mid May and was still ongoing at the time of the Overlord landings. –RC

    • Jean Lopez

      Dear Michael
      Who will prove that the trains used for the deportation of the Jews were missing AT THE SAME MOMENT on the front ? For instance, you speak about Operation Typhoon AND the deportation of (german) Jews to the East. But, if you read carefully Logistik im Russlandfeldzug (Klaus A.F Schüler), you will see that the problem for the germans was the interruption of the lines at Smolensk not the numbers of cars and locs. The german Jews were settled in the western part of Bielorussia, between the 1939 frontier and Minsk. The cars transporting the Jews would habe been useless for Thyphoon, i.e. EAST of Smolensk. You thesis needs to be supported by precise facts and numbers. JL for the french magazine Guerres&Histoire.

      • Rob Citino

        Thanks, Jean. I agree with the need for precision. Just for the record, it’s not my thesis–I’m just discussing a recent manuscript I read. I’m not at all sure we can blame the defeat of Operation Typhoon on this cause. –RC

  4. Geoff Megargee

    A quick reply to Mr. Kapanjie:

    It is certainly true that we could have reached the rail lines leading to Auschwitz. It’s also true that you can knock out a rail line with a few bombs. I would just point out three things: First, there were several rail lines running from Hungary to Auschwitz. Second, although you can knock out a rail line fairly easily, you can also repair one very easily. A single track can be repaired in day. So *keeping* the rail lines closed requires a sustained effort. And third, does anyone doubt that, if the Germans had not been able to get the Jews to Auschwitz, they would simply have shot them?

    I believe that bombing Auschwitz or the rail lines would have been an important symbolic act, but I don’t believe it would have had much practical effect. For more on this debate, see Michael J. Neufeld and Michael Berenbaum, eds., The Bombing of Auschwitz: Should the Allies Have Attempted It?

  5. tony tramonte

    I agree with Geoff Megargee – the Nazis used resources to ship and kill the Jews because that was a war goal – so doing that was not a diversion. Besides rail usage of course, there was manpower usage of guards, killers, etc. who killed have been used on the war front or the home front. I also believe that the US could have bombed rail lines, marshaling yards, bridges, fuel depots, etc. In attacking the weak points of German aircraft manufacturing, they were able to come up with plans to attack for example, ball bearing plants.

    And if the Nazis had simply shot the Jews in place, I think that ultimately less Jews would have been killed. So anything that disrupts the industrial killing would have been good, in my view.

  6. Rob Citino

    All good points, Geoff. Having the shipping capacity for 10 panzer divisions only means something if you have the Panzer divisions. Your second point is equally correct–the Holocaust was not a “diversion.” It was a war aim. –RC

  7. Dan Barone

    It will forever be sad that nothing more was done about the Holocaust when the information on hand made it obvious what was occurring.

    Unfortunately, bombing railroads at a considerable distance would have done little to stop the Holocaust and may have possibly extended the war. The 8th Air Force lost over 30,000 men in approx a 3 year period. 1 of 3 men did not return. Imagine what the casualties would have been; both servicemen and Jewish civilians; had we focused on targets in Eastern Europe and inadvertently extended the war?

  8. Geoff Megargee

    I’ve just had a look at Alfred C. Mierzejewski’s book, The Most Valuable Asset of the Reich: A History of the German National Railway, vol. 2, 1933-1945. There is a wealth of good detail in there, but the upshot is that our best estimate is that it took about 2,000 trains to take the Jews to their deaths. That compares to tens of thousands of trains used to transport the Wehrmacht or carry coal. There were a couple of times when the “special trains” were suspended for short periods because the Wehrmacht had priority, but in general, the Reichsbahn and the Ostbahn were able to handle the additional traffic with no problem whatsoever.


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