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.