To Bear Witness to Evil
Dwight Eisenhower understood why we must preserve memories of atrocities—a duty still painfully with us today.
THE HOLOCAUST—THE TARGETED EXTERMINATION of Jews by Nazi Germany during World War II—is such a canonical fact in Western history that we rarely think about the way its reality entered our cultural consciousness. Jason Lantzer, a historian at Butler University in Indiana, seeks to fill some of that gap in his new book Dwight Eisenhower and the Holocaust—and along the way highlights some issues that are regrettably relevant today.
While Nazi Germany’s persecution of Jews was hardly a secret to anyone in the United States or Europe (certainly not after the Kristallnacht pogrom of November 1938), the progression, full scope, and the sadistic depravity of those crimes were not known during the war—and in any case, stopping the slaughter of Jews was not the highest priority for Allied leadership, including President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill.
Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander charged by Roosevelt with launching the invasion of Nazi-occupied Europe, had his close encounter with the horrific reality of what happened in the German concentration camps on April 12, 1945—coincidentally, the day that Roosevelt, on the other side of the Atlantic, died. At Gen. George Patton’s suggestion, Eisenhower that day visited Ohrdruf, a small camp that existed as a satellite of Buchenwald. Ohrdruf did not represent the worst of the camps; it was not an outright extermination camp like Auschwitz but a “work camp” in which the victims were mostly killed by being overworked and underfed, by illness, exhaustion, or starvation—though prisoners who could no longer be of any use as laborers were shot in the head, and those who attempted to escape were hanged with piano wire. (Lantzer notes, in a detail that uncannily echoes the workings of another, modern-day group with an agenda of exterminating Jews, that the prisoners’ main task as laborers was “to dig underground tunnels and complexes for the Nazis.”)
Eight days earlier, on April 4, Ohrdruf became the first concentration camp liberated by American soldiers. It was the first time Americans saw the horribly emaciated survivors, and the first time they saw the piled-up corpses of Holocaust victims, many of them half-burned in the Germans’ hasty attempt to destroy the evidence of their crimes before fleeing. Eisenhower was deeply shaken by what he saw. He looked at the bodies; along with Gen. Patton and Gen. Omar Bradley, he also watched freed prisoners demonstrate the torture techniques used at the camp. Their reactions ranged, Lantzer writes, “from shock to incomprehension”—and, in Patton’s case, to vomiting.
After two hours some of his aides tried to get him to leave. Ike replied: “Don’t bother me. I have to get this.” . . . As one of Patton’s aides remembered it, Eisenhower was left in a state of contemplation after visiting the camp. “The evidence of inhuman treatment, starvation, beating, and killing of these prisoners . . . by the Germans was beyond the American mind to comprehend,” Ike said. To Bradley, who could not fathom what he saw at Ohrdruf, Eisenhower said “I can’t understand the bestiality of the German people. What would compel them to do anything like that?”
But Eisenhower wanted to do more than contemplate. For one thing, he was intent on making sure as many American soldiers as possible saw the horror he had witnessed.
Before leaving the camp, Ike told the men, “I want every American unit not actually in the front lines to see this place. We are told that the American solider does not know what he is fighting for. Now, at least, he will know what he is fighting against.”
He also wanted the German civilians living in the vicinity of the camp to see what had been done in their name and with their tacit connivance. He ordered the mayor of nearby Gotha to bring the townsfolk to see the camp and help clean up the grounds and bury the dead. The mayor and his wife were so shaken that they hanged themselves shortly afterward, leaving a note that said, “We didn’t know! But we knew.” Eisenhower’s reaction to the news was harsh; he saw the suicide as evidence of still-present moral sense, not of tragedy and trauma. “Maybe there’s some hope after all,” he reportedly told John Eisenhower, who visited his father soon after the latter’s visit to Ohrdruf.
Eisenhower was also keenly concerned with documenting the reality of Nazi crimes. A passage from his letter to Gen. George C. Marshall, the Army chief of staff, is now displayed at the start of the permanent exhibit at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.:
I made the visit deliberately in order 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.”
The same theme, Lantzer points out, appears in Eisenhower’s 1948 memoir Crusade in Europe, which includes an account of his visit to his “first horror camp”—Ohrdruf.
The rest of Lanzter’s fascinating and engaging book—published by an academic press but commendably readable and accessible for a lay audience—is an examination of ways in which Eisenhower’s experience as a witness to the Holocaust, and more generally his fight against Nazi Germany, influenced his thinking and his policies in subsequent years, and particularly during his presidency. Those experiences, writes Lantzer, made Ike a “devoted anti-totalitarian” with regard to the Communist as well as Nazi variety of totalitarianism; it also gave him a strong conviction that America must be a “‘moral force’ in the world” and made him see the Cold War in terms of “forces of good and evil.” (Of course, nothing is ever that simple: Lantzer acknowledges that Cold War exigencies also required troubling compromises such as “Operation Paperclip,” which brought German scientists and engineers—including former members of the Nazi Party—to the United States to work in American weapons programs.) Eisenhower’s encounters with the horrors of Nazism also influenced, Lantzer believes, his opposition to racism in America and his support for the state of Israel.
EISENHOWER AND THE HOLOCAUST DEALS PRIMARILY with the events of almost eight decades ago, yet it touches on many issues that are startlingly pertinent to our own time, from collective responsibility for crimes committed by authoritarian and totalitarian regimes to the pernicious role of anti-immigrant biases in abandoning the victims of such regimes to a terrible fate. But one theme is particularly central and particularly topical: the need to confront and document atrocities, and to preempt and counteract the temptation to write off those atrocities as “propaganda” or exaggeration.
The most obvious and recent parallel is the October 7 attack on Israel by Hamas terrorists, the largest coordinated attack since World War II that primarily targeted Jews. Attempts to deny or downplay the atrocities are unfolding daily before our eyes. A film crew working under Eisenhower’s command shot an hour-long documentary, Nazi Concentration Camps, which was shown as evidence at the Nuremberg Trials. (Oddly, Lantzer’s book does not mention this film, which includes a reel on Ohrdruf featuring “Ike” himself.) In our own time, journalists and other selected audiences have watched screenings of nearly an hour of gruesome footage taken by the Israeli Defense Force from the Hamas terrorists’ own cameras, as well as victims’ cell phones and dashboard cameras. Even severe critics of Israel have been stunned by this footage—not that there’s any shortage of conspiracy theorists claiming it was faked by bloodthirsty Zionists.
And one can point to other examples from recent memory, from Russian war crimes in Bucha and other Ukrainian towns to the massacres and rapes of Bosnian Muslims by the Serbian regime of Slobodan Milošević.
But Lantzer does not himself suggest any modern analogies or explicitly lay out any relevant lessons. He instead simply tells a compelling story of confronting and preserving evidence of horrific crimes, and leaves us to draw our own conclusions about the need for beholding evil and never forgetting it.