Fighting the 2nd World War All Over Again

by Maskil on 3 Sep 2009

Cover of "Forged in fury"

Cover of Forged in fury

Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds was released just in time for the 70th anniversary of the start of the 2nd World War on 1 September 2009.

Most of us will understand that this is pure fiction; that this is simply not how it was. Some, though, will believe that there must be some basis in fact here (the principle of “where there’s smoke there’s fire”). Some may even see it as a form of Jewish cinematic revenge fantasy regarding WW2. From that point of view, it could be considered a dangerous piece of escapist fiction, likely to be misused by those who want to blur the distinction between aggressors and victims.

(This is not to say that Jewish retribution or revenge did not take place at all. Michael Elkins’ searing Forged in Fury gives an insight into one clandestine unit that did exactly that.)

Having said all that, there would be no point in my suggesting you don’t watch Inglourious Basterds. What I would suggest, however, is that once you’ve indulged in the orgy of bloodletting, counterbalance it by making the effort to attend a screening of Broken Promise (or even the 2008 Daniel Craig movie Defiance). (Broken Promise is based on the true story of Jewish partisan Martin Friedman/Petrasek.) Better yet, arrange a screening of the movie at your synagogue or JCC. Introduce material from the Jewish Partisan Educational Foundation to gain a real understanding of Jewish resistance in Hitler’s Europe.

Jewish victimhood during WWII was both fact and (understandable) mindset. The Zionist leader Vladimir Jabotinsky attempted to “reframe” this mindset and give the Jewish people as a whole the status of a combatant or participant in the conflict, rather than just a powerless victim of it, e.g. through his books The Jewish War Front and The war and the Jew. Had his life not tragically ended in 1940, he may well have changed that perception.

Thus, while Jewish servicemen and women from many nations took part in the struggle against Hitler’s Europe as part of their countries’ armed forces (in numbers far exceeding their proportion of the population), the Allies did not permit a specifically Jewish contribution to the war effort. (Hitler, for his part, had no such misgivings and saw WWII to a large extent as a war of Aryan against Jew.)

While various conquered European nations were permitted governments in exile and armies or legions in exile, the Jews alone were denied this privilege. (The Jewish Brigade Group, when eventually established, was part of the British Army, and was formed too late to play its intended role in the conflict.)

It is one of the supreme ironies of history that the Jewish people’s hour of greatest weakness – during the Holocaust – was also its hour of greatest strength. While the genocide was taking place, there were almost certainly more Jewish servicemen and women in uniform than at any other time in our history (estimated at around 1.5 million).

Rewriting history

With the notable exception of statesmen such as Jabotinsky, the response of Jewish leadership to the conflict and the Holocaust can best be described as a failure of imagination. Even Ben-Gurion (with his call for the Yishuv to “fight the war as if there was no White Paper and fight the White Paper as if there was no war”) effectively narrowed and limited the range of possible responses to Hitler. With the benefit of (some) hindsight, it’s possible to say that this approach didn’t meet the need for a comprehensive (“big picture”) strategy to save the Jews of Europe, which should have included calls for the following:

  • Establishment of a government in exile for the disenfranchised Jews of occupied Europe
  • Establishment of a Jewish Legion along the lines of the Free French Forces and Free Polish Army (for Jewish refugees and others unable to serve in their own countries’ armed forces)
  • A far greater effort to call attention to the genocide taking place in Europe
  • Military and other action to prevent the mass murder wherever possible
  • Action to rescue or facilitate the rescue of Jewish refugees from Europe
  • Pressure on Allied governments to grant visas to Jewish refugees and otherwise provide destinations for those who managed to escape
  • Repeated calls for retribution against those taking part in genocide
  • Unrestricted immigration of Jews to Palestine (the intended Jewish National Home) for the duration of the conflict
  • Establishment of a provisional Jewish State in at least part of Western Palestine well before the end of the conflict

What is shocking is not that none of these objectives was achieved, but rather that there was no widespread, consistent call for any of them to happen (neither on the part of Jewish leadership nor that of the Allies).

One of the unacknowledged “Big Lies” of WWII was that the way to save the Jews of Europe was to defeat Hitler. While they ultimately could not have been saved without Germany’s defeat, that defeat alone could not save them. By the time Hitler’s bunker had been overrun, it was too late for the vast majority of those caught in the jaws of history. In little more than 5 years, 2,000 years of Jewish existence and civilisation in Europe had simply ceased to exist.

Inglourious Basterds has nothing to say about that monumental evil and those few who tried to prevent it.

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