1944: FDR and the Year That Changed History

Jay Winik

  • Review
By – November 11, 2015

Jay Winik, whom the Bal­ti­more Sun called one of our nation’s lead­ing pub­lic his­to­ri­ans,” is known for his cre­ative approach to his­to­ry. His jux­ta­po­si­tion of Pres­i­dent Roosevelt’s wartime lead­er­ship along­side the evo­lu­tion of Hitler’s Final Solu­tion in 1944: FDR and the Year That Changed His­to­ry will only rein­force his stature as a writer of pop­u­lar his­to­ry. Includ­ed in this riv­et­ing his­to­ry are vignettes of those who sought to rouse the Allies into action dur­ing the trag­ic years between 1942 and 1945, when the tragedy of the Holo­caust was unfold­ing: the Ger­man indus­tri­al­ist Eduard Schulte, Ger­hart Reign­er (author of the Reign­er cable), the activist Rab­bi Stephen Wise, the Pol­ish agent Jan Kars­ki, escapees from Auschwitz Vrba and Wet­zler, and Roosevelt’s cab­i­net sec­re­tary Hen­ry Mor­gen­thau, among the oth­ers who attempt­ed to inter­vene in behalf of the Hun­gar­i­an Jews who in 1944 were being gassed on a dai­ly basis in Auschwitz.

Cen­tral to the account is Pres­i­dent Roo­sevelt. Winik’s descrip­tion of the president’s fail­ing health, result­ing in his death in April, 1945, is com­pre­hen­sive. Polit­i­cal­ly, Winik describes Roosevelt’s dif­fi­cult deci­sions to invade North Africa, Sici­ly, and sub­se­quent­ly, despite wors­en­ing health, orches­trat­ing D‑Day. Winik cred­its Roo­sevelt as not only a great wartime leader but also a pres­i­dent who was able to ral­ly the Amer­i­can peo­ple to sup­port his wartime poli­cies as he explained each step of his strat­e­gy in Fire­side Chats to his radio audi­ence. Although Winik char­ac­ter­izes Roo­sevelt as a larg­er-than-life wartime leader who had the abil­i­ty to resolve some of the wars most dif­fi­cult strate­gic prob­lems, he hes­i­tat­ed when it came to address­ing the issue of the mass mur­der of the Jews and, despite a pre­pon­der­ance of reli­able intel­li­gence about the ongo­ing geno­cide, nev­er gave it sig­nif­i­cant urgency. Roo­sevelt saw Allied mil­i­tary vic­to­ry as the most effi­cient means to save Jew­ish lives and to craft a post­war struc­ture for peace. Winik argues that Roo­sevelt could no doubt have roused the Amer­i­can pub­lic to fol­low him, should he have cho­sen to make the war one of human lib­er­a­tion,” mak­ing it a pri­or­i­ty to end the unimag­in­able Nazi cru­el­ties, which would include the bomb­ing of Auschwitz, thus destroy­ing the Nazi infra­struc­ture of death. His deci­sion not to take more sus­tained action was among his most fate­ful deci­sions, if not failures.

As good as 1944 is, it is not with­out a num­ber of short­com­ings. Writ­ing about Hitler’s seizure of pow­er and sus­pen­sion of the basic rights of the Ger­man peo­ple with the pas­sage of the Enabling Act, Winik neglects to men­tion the Reich­stag Fire , which pro­vid­ed Hitler with the oppor­tu­ni­ty to sus­pend the writ of habeus cor­pus and cre­ate a dic­ta­tor­ship. In his dis­cus­sion of why the Allies did not bomb Auschwitz, Winik neglects to men­tion the endem­ic anti-Semi­tism in our coun­try respon­si­ble for the administration’s fear that bomb­ing Auschwitz it would be inter­pret­ed as spe­cial pro­tec­tion for the Jews. There is also the mat­ter of the silence” of Pius XII: although the Vat­i­can is not the main object of Winik’s his­to­ry, he does not raise the ques­tion as to whether FDR may have urged the Vat­i­can to use its moral lever­age in behalf of the Jews.

Jack Fis­chel is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of his­to­ry at Millersville Uni­ver­si­ty, Millersville, PA and author of The Holo­caust (Green­wood Press) and His­tor­i­cal Dic­tio­nary of the Holo­caust (Row­man and Littlefield).

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