America's knowledge of Hitler's actions against Jews. Pre-WWII

Before Americans stumbled on the first concentration camps near the end of WWII, did anyone know about them? Suspect them?

What was our knowledge of the Nazi’s treatment of Jews and undesirables before going to war? How much of a motivation to declare war was it, if any? Was it ever mentioned in any pro-war speech or anything like that? Or was it all “Remember Pearl Harbor!”?

What was the extent of the average American’s knowledge on what was going on in Europe? What about the rest of Europe–did they know what Hitler was doing in his country to Jews? Or was the extent of their knowledge simply, “He’s invading other countries”

Depends. Remember, the original concentration camps were just prisons (albeit extremely harsh ones). It wasn’t until the war begin in Europe that extermination camps were set up for the sole purpose of killing as many people as possible.

It was hard to get independent information about what was going on in the Extermination camps. Reports came from allied sources and were mistrusted or disbelieved. In World War I, all sorts of Germany atrocities were claimed, and most were pure fiction. Due to the enormity of what was going on in the camps, a lot of it was passed off as anti-German propaganda (even after we started fighting the Germans).

Antisemitism also played a part; the reports were dismissed as Jewish propaganda.

As for the general discrimination against Jews in Germany prior to the war, again, antisemitism was a factor. There had been pogroms against Jews for hundreds of years and no mainstream politician in the US ever seriously proposed, say, attacking Russia because of the them. This was seen as more of the same, and Germany’s business, not our own (some German Jews were indignant when outsiders offered to help – it was a German problem, not one to be solved by others).

We went to war with Germany because they declared war on us. The German policy may have been a speaking point for Jewish groups, but the general public didn’t care about it.

One history that addresses this question is Haskel Lookstein’s Were We Our Brothers’ Keepers?: The Public Response of American Jews to the Holocaust, 1938-1944.

I read this about twenty years ago and don’t remember the details too clearly, but one thing the author documents is that there was at least one well-attended anti-Fascist/pro-Zionist fundraiser held in Madison Square Garden in that era, in which the ongoing crimes of the Nazi regime, including testaments of wholesale murder in some camps, were publicized for all to hear. Did the event’s organizers know the full scope and horrors of the Holocaust in progress, with a breakdown of exactly what was happening in each camp? No, but enough eyewitness and survivors’ accounts were out there at that time, for anyone who wanted to know the truth, to conclude that the Nazi regime was committing crimes against humanity.

The thrust of the book, though, is the [now shocking] degree to which even America’s Jewish community’s response to the Holocaust was one of relative complacency. There was perhaps too much faith placed in Roosevelt and our Allies, whose primary concern was [understandably enough] to win the war and not end or retard the horrors of the Nazi camp system per se. But given the eastern locations of most of those camps and the limits of paratroops’ effectiveness (as in Operation Market Garden), I doubt those camps could’ve been liberated (and their victims evacuated to the U.K.) prior to the rollback of German armies on both fronts, anyway.

What prompted my question was a scene from Saving Private Ryan. It’s the scene where the squad meets up with the bulk of the 101st, after seeing the crashed Glider with the steel reinforced floor and the dead General Officer inside. About the same time as they are digging through the bag of dog tags looking for a Ryan and poking fun at all the names…

One of the Jewish guys on the squad is standing by the long line of German POWs. As they are walking by, he is rubbing it in that he’s Jewish. He’s flaunting his Star of David emblem and taunting them by exclaiming “Jewwwwwwwwden”…

I wasn’t sure if he would really have known about the atrocities Germans pulled on Jews, being an average American and all. I was wondering what the extent of his knowledge would have been at that point in the war. Certainly he didn’t know the Germans had thousands upon thousands of Jews captive in death camps awaiting the gas. But the movie implies he would have been somewhat aware of the Germans extreme hatred toward Jews. Is that accurate?

Of course he did. Nazi Germany’s official antisemitism was very well known. The laws and round-ups of Jews were no secret and Hitler’s writings were published. Also Chaplin’s movie, The Great Dictator, was a very widely seen so it was even made known in popular media.

On the concentration camps specifically, no. The final solution did not finally officially get decided on until 1942. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Final_Solution

There were non-camp related mass killings on the Eastern Front in '41+, but getting reliable (non-propaganda) info out of the area would have been problematic, from the Western Allied point of view.

There was also this: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Night_of_Broken_Glass , which also tarnished Germany’s image in the eyes of some.

There were Jewish immigrants (into the US) during the late thirties and early forties who related their anectdotal experiences. Also, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SS_St_Louis .

However, few people/politicains gathered the stories together to create a bigger picture, like a prosecuter might when preparing for a case.

It’s possible there might have been a little willfull ignorance here, as to actually face the situation head on (and try to come up with workable solutions) was obviously not going to be a trivial or easy thing. To force Germany to give up persecuting Jews in '38 was probably going to require some military force. How many of your own countryman’s lives are you willing to spend to fix injustice in another country?

Well, Germany declared war on the USA on December 11, 1941, saving FDR from the task of trying to figure out how to convince Congress of the idea of a war in Europe to run simultaneous with a war in the Pacific.

Hitler was later to have been quoted as saying “Doh!”

I couldn’t find one, but I may have missed one. I have been looking here: Presidential Speeches | Miller Center

Not much. A lot of average Americans were trying to deal with the tail ends of the depression, and many felt that Europe’s problems weren’t the US’s.

I think as far as the sheer scope of the program goes, it caught everyone by surprise. Even some of the German citizens themselves were not aware of the magnitude/multitude of the camps.

Wow! Thanks!

I’d just add: in fact, the term “concentration camp” changed its meaning because of the extermination camps the Nazi regime set up; the German authorities called them concentration camps as a kind of euphemism, to hide their real purpose. Before the last days of World War II, as the Allies began discovering what was really going on, the term wasn’t considered particularly negative. In fact it was even used for the internment camps Japanese Americans were confined in.