Winston Churchill’s memoirs created the myth that he was an omnipotent leader during World War II. While writing them he received exclusive permission to study government documents, which would then remain classified for another 25 years. Until the end of the 20th century, the myth was perpetuated by Churchill’s official biographer, Martin Gilbert – a British Jew. He was knighted for his monumental work. Like Churchill, he received a special privilege: exclusive access to Churchilll’s private archive until he completed the biography in 1995.
Gilbert created the myth about Churchill’s special relationship to the Jews: The only person in his government who understood the historical significance of the Holocaust. In a 2007 review of Gilbert’s book “Churchill and the Jews: A Lifelong Friendship,” Isaac Herzog wrote in Haaretz that “Churchill is revealed to be a staunch supporter of the Zionist vision and an avowed friend of the Jewish people, from the beginning of his public life until his dying day.”
But since the opening of the British archives about World War II, in 1970, and of Churchill’s personal archives in 1995, several studies have been published that shattered the myth. In his 2004 book “In Command of History: Churchill Fighting and Writing the Second World War,” Prof. David Reynolds exposed Churchill’s rewriting of history in his memoirs.
Churchill’s status persisted thanks to his May 1940 decision to continue fighting against Hitler. Today, though, it is clear that his main contribution to the war was that he instilled the British people with the hope and confidence that they could continue to fight, and that this was preferable to becoming Hitler’s slaves. However, he might have decided otherwise had he believed that Hitler would be satisfied with the occupation of Eastern Europe and allow England to retain its navy and empire.
Another myth nurtured by Gilbert is the story about Churchill’s willingness to bomb the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp. In the summer of 1944, two Jews succeeded in escaping from the camp and wrote a long report in which they stated that about 1.5 million Jews had already been murdered in Auschwitz. Chaim Weizmann and Moshe Shertok (Sharett) met with British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden and asked him to bomb the camp. Eden brought their request to Churchill, who responded with an order to obtain whatever possible from the Royal Air Force. Four days later he wrote, “There is no doubt this is the most horrible crime ever committed in the whole history of the world.” (He had first used that sentence after the murder of the Armenians by the Turks in 1915.)
In fact, British intelligence had provided reports about the Nazi atrocities in Eastern Europe in real time. Back in August 1941, Churchill reported in a BBC public broadcast about the massacres being perpetrated by the Germans against tens of thousands of people in Europe and Russia. Churchill did not specify at the time what he already knew – that most of the victims were Jews. Throughout the war, he never referred publicly to the murder of Jews.
The British knew about the establishment of the Auschwitz camp by 1940 – first as a concentration camp and, from 1942, as an extermination camp (Birkenau). Twice, the British cabinet discussed proposals to bomb the camp, in 1941 and 1943, at the request of Gen. Wladyslaw Sikorski – head of the Polish government in exile, which was based in London. The proposals were rejected due to the limited range of the aircraft. But Auschwitz came into range in 1944 after the Allies conquered Italy. In addition, the Auschwitz camp was only 7 kilometers (4 miles) from a major target of the Allied air forces: the I.G. Farben chemical plant.
For several decades, people wondered why Churchill didn’t follow up on the project, as he did with other, much less crucial issues. Those coming to his defense explained that he was too busy – for example, with the invasion of France – and that during his absence from London in the summer months, anti-Semitic bureaucrats torpedoed the project. But in August 1944, from his headquarters in London, Churchill organized an airlift in order to parachute supplies and weapons to the Polish rebels in Warsaw. En route, the planes almost passed directly over Auschwitz. But officials in London lied to Zionist officials, telling them that their planes did not have sufficient range to reach the camp.
The answer to the riddle was found with the opening of Churchill’s private archive in 1995. They contained two identical letters signed by him – both dated July 13, 1944. The letters were sent to the head of the Church of England, the Archbishop of Canterbury; and to Lord Melchett (Alfred Mond), an Anglo-Jewish tycoon and personal friend. After repeating that the Holocaust was “one of the greatest and most horrible crimes ever committed,” he rejected the bombing project, explaining that “the principal hope of terminating it must remain the speedy victory of the Allied Nations.”
It was an opaque and vague response, like that of the other Western leaders who were fully aware that, of all the peoples under Nazi occupation, only the Jews were under a death sentence.
Gilbert’s handling of the subject is puzzling. He explained Churchill’s rejection with the fact that, several days after Eden’s request, London received reports that the deportation of Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz had been halted and, therefore, Churchill’s empathetic order became redundant.
But in the summer of 1944, no one believed that the furnaces at the camp had stopped operating. Moreover, in Gilbert’s own 1981 book “Auschwitz and the Allies,” he presented a detailed inventory of the transports that continued to bring Jews to Auschwitz until early November 1944.
After the war, the Zionists and most of the Jewish people believed that the Holocaust justified their demand to establish a Jewish state in Palestine. Churchill disagreed. In his view, the Jewish refugees should return to their homes in Europe. On August 1, 1946, less than a month after a pogrom against Jews who tried to return to their homes in Kielce, Poland, Churchill argued in the House of Commons that the idea that the Jewish problem could be solved by transferring the Jews of Europe en masse to Palestine was too “silly” to occupy their time.
In 1953, the Yad Vashem Law officially declared the institution as Israel’s official Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority. Isn’t one of its missions to ensure that the memories are true?
The writer is a professor emeritus of the Department of General History at Bar-Ilan University, Ramat Gan.
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