Monday, March 08, 2010

Facing the Holocaust: German Genocide and American Racial Politics in the 1940s and 1950s

I am a coauthor of an updated version of the college American history textbook, currently titled "American Dreams & Reality: A Retelling of the American Story." Below I describe American reactions to the liberation of Nazi death camps in 1945.

During World War II, the American public knew that under Adolf Hitler, Germany exterminated Jews and other supposed racial inferiors. Not until the end of the war could Americans imagine the scope of the Nazi genocide. The George Gallup polling organization in November 1944 asked, “Do you believe that the Germans have murdered many people in concentration camps?” While 76 percent of respondents believed that mass murder had occurred in the Nazi empire, Americans badly underestimated how many victims died as a result of the German race war against Jews, Poles and other groups the Third Reich deemed inferior. According to the poll, 36 percent of those who believed people had been killed in concentration camps placed the number of victims at 100,000 or less. Slightly more than 50 percent placed the death toll at one million or less, while only 16 percent guessed the number to be two to six million.

It would be years before Americans perceived the Holocaust as an act of violence primarily against Jews. More victims in the Western concentration camps were non-Jewish than in eastern camps like Auschwitz that had been liberated by Soviet troops. American soldiers, however, received a shocking lesson in the dangers of racism and intolerance. They could not anticipate the hellish landscape that greeted them as they advanced into the heart of Germany. On April 12, 1945, in Gotha, Germany, the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, and two other top officers, Gen. Omar Bradley and Gen. George S. Patton, toured the Ohrdruf Concentration Camp. “The smell of death overwhelmed us even before we passed through the stockade,” Bradley later recalled. “More than 3,200 naked, emaciated bodies had been flung into shallow graves. Others lay in the streets where they had fallen. Lice crawled over the yellow skin of their sharp, bony frames.”

Guides took the generals past torture instruments, buildings loaded with corpses, and to a butcher’s block where Nazi soldiers smashed inmates’ teeth in order to steal the gold fillings. The famously tough Gen. Patton became nauseous and had to break from the tour group. Shaken, Eisenhower ordered American soldiers in the region to view the remains of Ohrdruf. “We are told that the American soldier does not know what he is fighting for. Now, at least, he will know what he is fighting against.” Other soldiers liberating concentration camps across Germany had similar reactions to that of their commanding officers. “[The prisoners] were so thin they didn’t have anything – didn’t have buttocks to lie on; there wasn’t any flesh on their arms to rest their skulls on,” said William Lovelady, commander of a Third Armored Division task force liberating Nordhausen.

The starving camp survivors seemed maddened by their years of torture and abuse. GIs experienced both pity and disgust when they interacted with the inmates. Samuel Glasshow, an officer who helped liberate the Woebbelin camp, recalled his horror at inmates’ reactions when offered food. “We walked inside and saw these skinny people still living,” he later said, “and one of my enlisted men who walked in with me realized they were starving and we had nothing but candy bars, which we got in a ration, and one of my men gave the candy bar to one of these people who grabbed it and ran away and gulped so fast that he became unconscious and probably choked on it before someone took it away from him. These Jewish people and these Polish people were like animals, they were so degraded, and there was no goodness, no kindness, nothing of that nature, there was no sharing. If they got a piece of something to eat, they grabbed it and ran away in a corner and fought off anyone who came near them.”

Some camp victims wreaked vengeance on their former tormentors while others sat in an apathetic, exhausted stupor. Still, many gathered mysterious sources of strength and overwhelmed American GIs with gratitude. Captain J.D. Pletcher later noted the range of reactions from survivors at the Gunskirchen camp. “As we entered the camp, the living skeletons still able to walk crowded around us and, though we wanted to drive deeper into the place, the milling, pressing crowd wouldn’t let us,” he said. “It is not an exaggeration to say that almost every inmate was insane with hunger. Just the sight of an American brought cheers, groans and shrieks. People crowded around to touch an American, to touch the jeep, to kiss our arms – perhaps to make sure that it was true. The people who couldn’t walk crawled out toward our jeep. Those who couldn’t even crawl propped themselves up on an elbow, and somehow, through all their pain and suffering revealed through their eyes the gratitude, the joy they felt at the arrival of Americans.”

Black, brown and Anglo soldiers brought face-to-face with the horrors of Nazi genocide returned to America as changed men. The concentration camps, after all, represented the logical conclusion of racist thought popular not just in Germany, but also in America and Great Britain before the war. Nazis gave racism a bad name. Even though American culture still includes deep elements of bigotry, a perceptible change in American attitudes toward race took place after the war. More Northern whites, at least, seemed ready to support the African American campaign for desegregation in the South. Anti-Semitism, widely shared among even educated Americans, clearly declined partly as a reaction to the Nazi death camps.

Asked in August 1945 by the U.S. Army’s Yank magazine, “What changes would you like to see made in post-war America?” a majority agreed that they wanted, “above everything else [the] . . . wiping out [of ] racial and religious prejudice.” In a series of surveys conducted by the American Jewish Committee between 1946 and 1951, the number of Americans reporting that they had overheard anti-Jewish remarks during the previous year declined from 64 percent to 16 percent. The AJC also asked American Gentiles if there were “any nationality, religious or racial groups in this country that are a threat to America.” In 1946, 18 percent named Jews. By 1954, the number was down to one percent.

In addition to shock over the crimes of the anti-Semitic Nazi regime, another factor that pushed anti-Semitism from the mainstream to the American fringe was that by 1950, 75 percent of Jews in America had been born in the United States. Jewish celebrities, such as Bess Meyerson, who won the “Miss America” beauty pageant in 1945, and Detroit Tiger Hank Greenberg, who blasted a ninth-inning grand slam homer to capture the World Series for his team the same year, won legions of Gentile admirers in the post-war years.

“A remarkable metamorphosis occurred in the United States in the two decades following the end of World War II,” historian Leonard Dinnerstein concluded. “After more than half a century of increasing animosity toward the Jews, antisemitism in the United States suddenly began to decline . . . Laypersons and scholars both acknowledged the change by 1955. Look magazine believed that Hitler had made anti-Semitism disreputable, cracks about Jews that used to be taken for granted were fewer in number, and for Jews antisemitism in America was downgraded from a problem to an irritant.” A new America was born inside the gates of Nazi death camps. The diminishing of American anti-Semitism would be only one of a legion of convulsive changes that would rock America in the 15 years from 1945 to 1960.

If anti-Semitism declined after the war, the struggle against anti-black and anti-Latino discrimination and the struggle to end sexism proved more intractable. Nevertheless, the 1950s proved to be a revolutionary decade in terms of race, gender and sexual politics, the media, and entertainment. Millions of black and Mexican American veterans returned home from the war doubly determined not to accept a return to a status quo of racial violence, segregation, low wages and dilapidated schools. Millions of women who worked in factories to replace their soldier husbands and boyfriends would no longer accept domestic confinement as housewives. Stereotypically portrayed as a sleepy, conservative, introspective time, the 1950s saw the rise of the protest movements, the redefinitions of family and morality, and the media culture more often associated with the 1960s counterculture.


Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

1 comment:

walkinthewoods said...

Very enlightening. Thank you.