First published in the Jerusalem Post, December 7, 2011
On December 8, 1941, Franklin Delano Roosevelt declared: “Yesterday, December 7, 1941 – (is) a date which will live in infamy.” Of course he was talking about the Japanese surprise attack on the American fleet at Pearl Harbor, the attack that catapulted the United States into the Second World War 70 years ago.
Catapulted is right, because beforehand, the clear majority of Americans did not want to see their husbands, fathers and sons embroiled in another war on a distant continent. Only after war reached America’s farthest shore, did American begin a concerted effort to fight not only the Japanese, but the Nazis and their European partners, as well.
As momentous as the attack on Pearl Harbor was, December 7, 1941 was also the date of another event of no less consequence for mankind. The first transports set out for the first extermination camp, Chelmno, which began its murderous operations the following day, December 8.
Over the course of the next three-and- a-half years, the Nazis would murder some three million Jews in a handful of extermination camps, most infamous among them Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Another three million Jews were murdered in a wide variety of venues, first and foremost in the killing fields of Eastern Europe by shooting – a process that had actually begun several months before Chelmno went into operation. December 7, however, marks the start of the unprecedented industrialized mass murder of innocent human beings at a complex designed solely for that purpose.
The American entry into the war, as students of history and political science know, is really the beginning of America embracing its role as a great world power. It is true that Nazi Germany was defeated primarily on the ground by Soviet forces in a long, drawn out and extremely deadly war. Indeed in retrospect, it may be argued that the downfall of Nazi Germany was already sealed when the German military failed to defeat the Soviet Union decisively before the onset of the Russian winter in 1941. Germany simply did not have the wherewithal for a long protracted war, especially in the face of Russian winters.
Nevertheless, America's role in the defeat of Nazi Germany was crucial. To a very large degree, it was American supplies that allowed the Soviets to fight for four long years, and certainly after the D-Day invasion of June 1944, the American fighting man made a considerable contribution to the fall of Nazi Germany. The reluctant entry of the Americans into the war on December 7, 1941, to say the least, greatly hastened the destruction of Hitler’s regime.
Significantly, another outcome of the attack at Pearl Harbor was the dawn of the age of nuclear weapons. The first nuclear weapon was not deployed against Nazi Germany, rather the Americans deployed it against Japan in Hiroshima and Nagasaki after Hitler’s regime had already crumbled.
The use of the most devastating weapon in history brought about a swift end to the other half of the bloodiest conflict ever, the war in the Pacific. In its wake, the world now would face issues of nuclear arms proliferation and escalation, nuclear arms deterrence, and still true today, the very real fear that such weapons in the wrong hands could wreak new and unimaginable destruction.
In the immediate postwar period, American power, bolstered with nuclear might, gained additional ground. Whereas Europe was devastated by the fighting America was strengthened, overcoming the Great Depressionand coming out of the war with vastly increased industrial capabilities.
While Europe embarked on a painful process of recovery after 1945 (made easier by American aid) America embarked on an extraordinary period of prosperity.
So December 7, 1941 lives in infamy for the surprise attack of the Japanese on the United States, but it also marks as a watershed event in modern history.
The start of systematic industrialized mass murder in Chelmno is less well known, but has no less importance for mankind. In the Chelmno extermination camp the Nazis murdered over 150,000 people, almost all of them Jews. The murder method was asphyxiation in gas vans – group after group, after group.
As is now well known, before being murdered in the extermination camps, Jews were shorn of their hair, fleeced of their valuables and robbed of their clothing and any other possessions they had brought with them. None of this material was meant to go to waste, and much of its found its way back into Nazi Germany where many ordinary citizens benefited from it.
The idea that in the name of an ideology a regime could plan and carry out the despoliation and murder of an entire people, using the most modern means available and doing so in a “rational,” “dispassionate” way, continues to reverberate profoundly.
The murder of the Jews, and especially the use of modern means to do so, may well mark the beginning of a retreat (now well advanced) from the notion that technological progress is always by definition for the greater good. It certainly underscores the idea that advances in science and technology should not occur in a moral vacuum.
Especially when technological know-how outstrips our ability to understand its implications or when people willfully ignore those implications, the door to nefarious acts and even radical evil opens.
The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the advent of murder in the first extermination camp, Chelmno, are historical signposts that need to be marked and remembered. The first for its great impact on the course of human affairs and role in the ultimate defeat of the consummate evil embodied by the Nazis, and the latter as a ghastly warning of what can happen when technologically advanced barbarians, imbued with an ideology of hate, have the unfettered freedom to act.
After 70 years, the significance and caveat of December 7 remain as compelling as ever.
The writer is director of the Yad Vashem Libraries, author of Approaching the Holocaust, Texts and Contexts, (Vallentine Mitchell, 2005). His study on Hungarian Jewish Forced Laborers on the Eastern Front will soon be published by Yad Vashem and University of Nebraska Press.