By early April, 1945, US soldiers in Europe were horrified by scenes that had hitherto been semi-dismissed as “rumors.”
Death Camps and Corpses
For a few years, there had been undercurrent rumors that the Germans had embarked on wholesale internment and extermination of millions of people: Catholics, gypsies, homosexuals, political dissidents – but mostly the Jews of central and eastern Europe. The mere thought was so horrific that it couldn’t possibly be true.
But it was.
As WWII was nearing its conclusion in Europe, a battered and desperate Germany, barely clinging to its own rubble, began a systematic destruction of the evidence of its barbarity and crimes against humanity. It would soon become known as The Holocaust.
Those German officers and soldiers in charge of scores of concentration, work and death camps (as they would interchangeably be called) hurriedly destroyed whatever they could – including survivors. Some were sent to the furnaces. Some emaciated souls were thrown into hastily dug pits and machine gunned, loose ground tossed over the corpses. Some were force-marched for miles, with hundreds collapsing along the road and left to die of exposure and exhaustion. Dead and dying bodies littered the road.
It was beyond unthinkable. It was beyond unimaginable. It demanded attention at the highest level.
Ohrdruf was considered a “feeder” camp for the extermination ovens at Buchenwald, a small town in Germany, only a few miles from the picturesque town of Weimar. Here, in quickly constructed barracks, thousands of men, women and children were wasting away of starvation and disease before being sent to the “final solution.”
Ordered to evacuate and destroy all evidence, German soldiers pushed tens of thousands of human near-skeletons on foot for more than five miles.
According to statistics gleaned and assimilated at the end of the War, there were some 40,000 camps throughout Germany, Austria, Poland, Czechoslovakia and other regions of central and eastern Europe, usually tucked into isolated areas, miles from town. Some were small; some were enormous – cities unto themselves.
General Ike: Part I
As evidence mounted beyond all description, US officers were summoned to witness – and more importantly, provide emergency aid. The horror of the situation was at such a level, that General Dwight Eisenhower, along with General George Patton and General Omar Bradley, came to see for themselves. As the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces, Ike outranked everyone and had the immediate ear of everyone who counted.
Recognizing the unquestioned historical (if not moral and perhaps eternal) importance of the scenes of such sadistic atrocity, he summoned the newspaper reporters and photographers to document the unspeakable carnage – and personally demanded that it make all the front pages of the United States newspapers. He posed with his fellow generals and soldiers at the worst scenes.
“Old Blood and Guts,” General Patton, not known to be squeamish, admitted to being sick to his stomach when he entered one of the barracks and inhaled the stench of rotten, decayed filth. Ike spent several hours in Ohrdruf in near disbelief. But seeing was believing, and Ike’s report to General Marshall was unsparing in detail and reaction.
But coincidental to the headlines uncovering the overwhelming evidence of the Holocaust, there was another headline that took precedence above all others: the sudden death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt on April 12, 1945. As Supreme Commander, Eisenhower’s responsibilities were naturally diverted, but his subordinates were all instructed to go and bear witness. And aid.
He also cabled General Marshall to send the most prominent newspaper, magazine and newsreel photographers and journalists to the concentration camps along with contingents of Congressmen and Senators. Those horrible scenes, well documented and attested to at the highest level, would be part of the various “crimes against humanity” trials in Nuremberg, Germany.
General Walker’s Edict
Ike is usually credited with insisting that the townspeople living near the various concentration camps be forced to witness for themselves what they had long been denying – or turning a blind eye.
According to General Patton, Ike was not the one who issued that directive; it was General Walton Walker (likely with Ike’s support), who insisted that German citizens bear their own witness and responsibility to the atrocities committed by their own countrymen and sanctioned by their own Nazi government.
Scores of German men and women and even children were marched to various camps to witness, to bury, and to assume moral responsibility.
General Ike: Part II
General Eisenhower was truly horrified by what he had seen, and in a moment of perhaps supreme wisdom and/or supreme prescience, he wrote in his report – and included verbatim in his wartime memoir “Crusade in Europe,” he wanted to be in a position “to give first-hand evidence of these things, if ever in the future, there develops a tendency to charge these allegations merely to propaganda.”
In 1945, Dwight Eisenhower was one of the most famous people in the world. He also enjoyed a stellar reputation for integrity. His testimony carried enormous weight, and he knew it. In seven years he would be elected President of the United States.
In 1978, nearly a decade after Ike’s death, and after he had served for two terms as U.S. President, a commission was formed to create a memorial dedicated to “teaching” the Holocaust (as it came to be called) to future generations. Located in the heart of Washington, DC., The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum features a center plaza called Eisenhower Plaza; and Ike’s quote regarding the deeply troubling tendency to “charge the allegations to propaganda” is prominently displayed.
Today, there are charges that those allegations are fictions. Or manipulated. That the Holocaust did not exist.
Today, there are many people who believe it was a fake story with doctored photography.
Perhaps Ike could sense the depravity of human nature and its unfathomable consequences.
May his integrity and his unswerving testimony always carry the balance of weight.
Eisenhower, Dwight D. – Crusade In Europe – Doubleday & Co., 1948