Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Pius XII and FDR Do The Right Thing

Alternative History

Alternative histories have an annoying tendency to say "X happened instead of Y, therefore rainbows, puppies and unicorns." A few people, like S.M. Stirling in his Drakian novels, dare to imagine much darker alternative histories. His thesis was "what if history turned out in the worst possible way?" I suspect a lot of alternative histories would have ended up a good deal less rosy than we like to imagine.

A favorite rainbows, puppies and unicorns theme is that we could have done more to avert the Holocaust. Like perhaps bombing the rail lines to the camps. Because the Nazis would have trucked hot meals to the Jews stranded in boxcars while they fixed the rails. In What If? 2, Robert Katz contributes a chapter called Pius XII Protests The Holocaust. He pictures a papal denunciation as strengthening the anti-Nazi underground and inspiring revolts among Jewish ghettos and concentration camps, and as he envisions it, "some of the uprisings succeed." He argues that up to 90 per cent of the people killed in the Holocaust would have survived. Much of this is pure pipe dream. If a ghetto or concentration camp in Nazi controlled territory had "successfully" revolted, what then? Where would they have gotten food? Where would they have gotten ammunition, anti-tank weapons, anti-aircraft weapons? Where would the escaped prisoners have gone? What was to prevent the Nazis from simply bombing any center of resistance into powder, or using poison gas? An outcome like the one below is at least equally likely.

Alternate World War II

June 1942: Pius XII is alarmed at the horror stories coming from the Reich, and angry at the Nazi retaliation against the bishops of Holland. The bishops had denounced the roundup of Dutch Jews, and in retaliation for their opposition, the Nazis had ordered the arrest of Dutch Catholics of Jewish origin. After agonized weighing of the costs of speaking out versus silence, Pius XII issues a heated denunciation of Germany's treatment of the Jews. He stops short of exhorting German Catholics not to serve in the army, a call that would have been certain to fail, and also of exhorting German Catholics to oppose the regime, another measure that would certainly have failed, as well as being suicidal to anyone who heeded it.

Hitler exploded. He wanted the Vatican bombed; then, after cooler heads explained the situation, he demanded that Mussolini have the Pope arrested. Mussolini wavered and stalled, and Hitler, furious at the delay, ordered Otto Skorzeny's commando team to kidnap the Pope and bring him to Germany.

Meanwhile, a major in the Ministry of Propaganda was the only one to see potential in the situation. After hacking his way upward through several echelons of red tape, he finally presented his idea to Goebbels. Goebbels didn't believe the situation could be exploited in a decisive way, but it could be exploited, and the major had offered a good way to make the best of a bad situation. Goebbels finally sold Hitler on a propaganda campaign. He persuaded Hitler to hold off on striking at the Pope for a few months to see how the propaganda campaign succeeded.

Basically the plan was to exploit the theme that Pius had confirmed what Germany was saying all along: that the war was all about the Jews. Radio broadcasts aimed at England and occupied territories poured out the message. Broadcasts in Bavaria, Austria, and occupied Catholic countries hammered away on the theme that Catholics had been betrayed by their own Pope. Meanwhile the Nazis began cultivating contacts with anti-Semitic groups in the occupied countries. Many had already been eagerly collaborating. Some of these groups had contacts in England who began agitating there. Most people, of course, saw through the Nazi ploy, but people already disposed to anti-Semitism now had a rationale for cooperating or at least sympathizing with the Nazis. Sporadic attacks on Jewish targets became more frequent, even if the former occupants had already been deported. Local mobs "broke in" to concentration camps to attack inmates. Attacks on Jews in England became more common. Pro-German British politicians, most of them out of office since the war began, began publicly questioning why England was shedding its own blood to protect the Jews.

In the United States, Franklin D. Roosevelt, emboldened by the Pope's denunciation, mentioned the Jews among the victims of Nazi aggression in a radio broadcast. German sympathizers had a field day. Anti-Semitism had always been rife among the upper crust of society and soon there was quiet but pervasive talk that Roosevelt was mismanaging the war effort on behalf of Jewish interests. After all, hadn't Japan attacked Pearl Harbor? So why was Roosevelt fixated on Europe? The Ku Klux Klan, which had been in low profile because of its pre-war association with a number of pro-German groups, began to come out from under rocks in the South and Midwest, spreading the message that Americans were being sent to die for the Jews in Europe while the real menace was in non-white Asia. They also began murmuring that the Germans understood race issues better than the U.S. government. Attacks on Jews began to increase. So did attacks on Asians, with scant distinction being made between Japanese and other Asians.

Here and there, Americans began resisting the draft unless they could be promised that they would fight Japan instead of Germany (That was an empty gesture, since volunteering for the Marines all but guaranteed duty in the Pacific and anyone in any other service could easily volunteer for Pacific duty as well.) Matters came to a head in the late summer of 1942 when a mother in Georgia refused to permit her son to be drafted. A standoff ensued with the family barricaded in their home and local law enforcement outside.

As the confrontation made the newspapers, Major General George Patton from nearby Fort Benning decided to take the matter in hand. Acting without orders, he took a platoon of soldiers and went to get the reluctant draftee by force. The exact course of events remains unclear, but it appears that Patton, a sergeant-major, and three enlisted men confronted the mother on her front porch, along with the sheriff and two deputies. Patton admired the woman for standing up to authority and shared her disdain for fighting for the Jews, but considered her boy beneath contempt for not accepting his duty and hiding behind his mother's apron strings. As a heated discussion dragged on, Patton lost patience and ordered his sergeant-major to seize the woman's shotgun. The gun discharged, wounding a corporal. Patton whipped out his pistol and shot the woman between the eyes, whereupon the sheriff immediately did the same to Patton. The sergeant-major attempted to react, but was killed by a deputy. The enlisted men opened fire on the lawmen, but a fusillade from neighbors watching the spectacle cut the soldiers down. The three lawmen also died; whether from military or civilian fire has never been determined. The remaining soldiers, reluctant to fire on civilians, retreated, leaving a dozen dead and as many more wounded.

The fact that southern lawmen and civilians had been killed in an altercation with the U.S. Army caused a tidal wave of outrage across the Deep South. There were still people alive who remembered the Civil War, far more who remembered Reconstruction, and millions who remembered the exaggerated horror stories of Reconstruction. Rumors swept through the South that black soldiers had killed and raped civilians during the fight - completely false, it turned out. Patton, a southerner, of all people, had the sense to take only white soldiers along, and in any case, blacks were mostly relegated to menial military tasks at that time. Military commanders throughout the South prudently closed their post gates and restricted troops to garrison, but even so, racial violence flared at many posts. Civilian suppliers to the armed forces began finding truck tires slashed, shipments seized, roads barricaded and warehouses burned. Drivers were shot at. By September, the military had to provide armed escorts to rail and truck shipments, and frequently had to clear barricades and repair sabotaged rail lines. Protest marches occurred in more and more cities, with protesters chanting "Hell, no, we won't go." Legislatures in twenty states passed resolutions condemning Roosevelt and calling for his impeachment. Not only did Southern states lash back, but Western states accused Roosevelt of neglecting the threat of Japanese attack. In Congress, bills of impeachment were introduced against President Roosevelt. None looked likely to pass, but Roosevelt's ability to govern was deeply undermined. He was openly accused of treason in the press.

In November, 1942, Operation Torch began with landings in Morocco and Algeria. The troops, disturbed by the unrest at home, uncertain about why they were fighting, and led by confused and hesitant officers, put up a lackluster fight, even against the weak French defenses. The landings in Morocco were successful, but the Algerian landings bogged down. Hitler, seeing a golden opportunity, launched a two pronged attack. One prong was an intensive propaganda campaign in France stressing the perfidy of the British and Americans in attacking French troops in Africa. He also promised to release French prisoners of war if they agreed to fight to defend French holdings in North Africa. The more practical prong was to order Rommel to send troops west to support the French. The German "offer" of assistance was "accepted" by the Vichy regime. Rommel dug in on a defensive line to hold the British in Libya and sent a third of his forces to Algeria, where they arrived a week later. The stalled American beachhead at Algiers was encircled by German forces and the American breakout at Oran was easily contained. The Germans pushed on to the border of Morocco and dug in.

Within a week the British saw their universe crumble. With the Germans safely holding Algeria, Gibraltar became just another rock, its strategic usefulness reduced to near zero. It could still prevent hostile naval forces from entering the Mediterranean, but so could the Luftwaffe, now solidly based in Algeria. Malta became just another island, which Hitler decided could be allowed to wither. Montgomery's forces still held Egypt and the Suez canal, but they were isolated. Without Gibraltar, the Suez Canal became merely a roundabout back door. To resupply Montgomery, the British had the choice of either diverting ships from an Indian Ocean already stretched dangerously thin, or sending ships all the way around Africa. The Mediterranean was Germany's Mare Nostrum, or maybe Unser Meer. Hitler offered Britain an olive branch: an armistice. They could even keep Malta and Gibraltar. Even though Spain's Franco was a fellow Fascist, it served him right for sitting on the fence.

Although Germany was also at war with the United States, most of the action so far had been naval. Nothing had really gone beyond the point of no return. With Britain wavering, it was fairly easy to get the U.S. wavering as well, then leverage the two sides into an armistice. Hitler was also able to sell the U.S. and Britain on the possibility of devoting their full efforts to the war in the Pacific. True, it meant betraying the Japanese, but the Nazis had little love for the non-Aryan Japanese anyway. With many British blaming the U.S. for the debacle (aided subtly by the Germans), Anglo-American relations sank to their lowest ebb in a century. They were about to get a whole lot worse.

After seeing how quickly the American and British will to fight withered, the Japanese began to see possible opportunities. So far there had not been any major U.S. offensive actions. There was, of course, that messy business at Pearl Harbor to deal with, and the Japanese understood full well how and why the Americans were enraged. Japanese diplomats in neutral posts like Turkey, Switzerland, and Spain, even Russia, began gingerly probing for an honorable way to end hostilities. In this case the truth served the Japanese well; the attack was not intended as a sneak attack, but was the result of an unfortunate delay in the delivery of a declaration of war. The Japanese were prepared to apologize, pay hefty reparations to the United States and to the families of Pearl Harbor casualties, and punish those responsible for the attack, in return for a cessation of hostilities. Anyway, the Doolittle Raid and the Battle of Midway were payback. They even offered to return the Philippines to American control and agree not to threaten U.S. interests in the Pacific. In return, since American interests were guaranteed, the Japanese got a free hand in Asia. Most Americans rationalized that they had always preferred the efficient and disciplined Japanese to the backward, corrupt and moribund Chinese government anyway. The British were bitter over losing the U.S. as an ally in the Pacific, and thereby permanently losing Hong Kong, Singapore, and Malaya, and U.S.-British relations turned sour for a long time to come. U.S. isolationists, however, pointed to the German-Japanese War as yet another example of the folly of becoming involved overseas. Vice President John Nance Garner, as narrow and parochial a politician as America has ever had, unseated Roosevelt at the 1944 Democratic Convention and was elected in November.


At this point we get out of the realm of first-order counterfactuals. One school of thought holds that Germany, freed of any need to defend the West, throws its full might against Russia, and wins, or at least pushes Soviet forces beyond the Urals, as in the novel Fatherland. Another holds that Russia had just too much manpower and would have eventually prevailed. With no British-American military presence on the Continent, they may well have conquered all of Europe. Either way we have a history much worse than what actually happened. And of course, in neither scenario is there anything to stop the Holocaust; indeed, there is nothing to stop the Nazis from leisurely mopping up all of the Jews.

It's often said that "truth is the first casualty of war." Context-free truth certainly is. One can only imagine how well U.S. resolve would have held up in World War II with today's media. By New Year's Day, 1942, the blogosphere would have been crawling with theories about how FDR allowed the Japanese to attack, failed to warn the military, or even staged a false-flag attack. One of the latest bits of faux outrage is that the U.S. "covered up" the Katyn massacre of Polish troops by the Russians. Keeping quiet about the massacre was one thing. Enabling pro-Nazis to argue that we should have really been fighting the Soviet Union would have been a far worse violation of the truth. Denouncing Nazi oppression of the Jews might have preserved a truth at the cost of a vastly larger lie. Simply dumping information, fully aware that it will be used deceptively, is not "telling the truth."