Did rampant anti-Semitism among Army officers affect the Holocaust? 

Rotten at the Top

After 10 years of research, Virginia Commonwealth University professor Joseph W. Bendersky has disclosed what he contends was deep-seated anti-Semitism among officers of the U.S. Army from 1900 through World War II.

His book, "Jewish Threat: Anti-Semitic Politics of the U.S. Army," (Basic Books 2000), details his findings and argues that anti-Semitism in the Army's upper levels affected how the United States dealt with the Holocaust.

Style recently spoke with Bendersky, director of VCU's graduate studies in history, about his book.

Style: I understand that you didn't intend to write a book on this subject — that your research began with an accidental discovery. What happened?

Bendersky: Well I was actually working in my field of specialization, which is German history, and I was writing a book on an entirely different subject and researching it in the National Archives about 12 years ago. … I came across a U.S. military intelligence file by accident. And I opened it up, and it had in it the most extraordinary anti-Semitic documents. Initially, I thought it was something that the U.S. military intelligence had merely collected. … The further I looked, though, I realized that this was written in part by the State Department, and some of the other files were actually written by American military intelligence officers in the early 1920s. …

I couldn't conceive that this kind of anti-Semitism, which is of a very extreme and racial variety, could have been as widespread as it turned out to be. … And then over the next several years, the research continued to mount, and the story continued to grow thematically and chronologically.

Style: It's one thing to uncover the anti-Semitic opinions and activities in the military during the 1920s. How do you then connect that to how the United States dealt with the Holocaust?

Bendersky: That was one of the issues that I originally did not intend to take up. I thought when I started my book I would just do background to it. Unfortunately, the documentation led me right into this question of the American response to the Holocaust. And I think that my book adds a whole new dimension to this now, and answers quite a few questions, and provides the evidence for those answers.

Style: What does it tell us that we didn't know before?

Bendersky: A good deal. One, I don't believe that anywhere in the literature, or even in the public mind, are there indications of how politically engaged sections of the Army were with the Jewish question in the first half of the 20th century.

It also helps to provide some of the evidence with regard to the dispute over whether or not the American response to the Holocaust, or lack thereof, was motivated in part by anti-Semitism. I think the evidence is pretty strong — especially with regard to the Army, now — that anti-Semitism and concern about Jews really did play an important role in the decision-making in a variety of areas, such as relief, rescue, and even after the Holocaust [when] dealing with Holocaust survivors.

Style: Tell me a little about the Army itself during this time — the 1920s, that is. The military is said to be the great equalizer.

Bendersky: Today the Army might be looked upon as the great equalizer, and in fact [is] much more diverse and tolerant than many institutions in American society. But the Army that I dealt with — and my book concentrates primarily on the old officer corps — before World War II it was just the opposite. The old Army officer corps was limited in size, usually 14,000, 16,000 officers, and pretty homogeneous. … For the most part they were old-line WASPs, some Catholics. But definitely Northern Europeans. And they had a strong racial identity.

I mean, this is an Army, remember, that remains segregated until World War II, and in fact saw themselves as what I call racial sentinels whose obligation it was to protect the racial purity of America against inferior immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe. These officers played a very active role in passage of the racial, restrictive immigration laws of the 1920s. It was totally different than the Army that begins to emerge in World War II.

Style: How about the Army officers who were in no way anti-Semitic? What kind of influence did they have on the officers who were?

Bendersky: Well … only as far as I can tell, limited. Throughout this entire period, there clearly were officers who were not anti-Semitic — or for whom anti-Semitism might be just some sort of general prejudice, rather than something that would motivate them to political activity or to some type of racial study of supposedly inferior Jews. But I was only able to actually identify a handful of specific examples of that case.

Style: You say U.S. soldiers who freed Holocaust survivors from camps were initially sympathetic but eventually turned on them. How did that happen?

Bendersky: Well I wouldn't phrase it that way — turned on them. But correct: When the camps were open everyone was shocked, including all the soldiers who did it, at this barbarism. But the longer that these soldiers had to deal with these Holocaust survivors, many of whom were traumatized and couldn't care for themselves, … within as quick as a few months, the behavior of these Holocaust survivors who were traumatized tended to reinforce the anti-Semitic stereotypes that many of these officers had long held. Such as, Jews are filthy, Jews are lazy, Jews are cowardly, they're an inferior race.

And unfortunately, a lot of that general attitude was being reflected in the thinking, the behavior of Gen. [George] Patton, who was in charge of that section of Germany where most of the Holocaust survivors resided.

Style: Aside from historical knowledge, what lessons do you want readers take from your book?

Bendersky: Well I think historical [lessons are] quite important. … But I also think it tells us in a broader sense something about prejudice itself, and the susceptibility to it.

Here we have not extremists or men from the masses or from the streets, we have highly educated elites. Men who went through West Point. Men who were educated at Harvard, Columbia. Individuals who otherwise held high positions of responsibility and performed their duties admirably. And yet they were susceptible to the most extreme forms of anti-Semitism which are normally only associated with extremists, you see at the fringes of the political spectrum. ….

The other thing that I found most disturbing over the long haul was that as I traced the lives of several of these top generals, right into retirement in the 1970s and '80s, until they died, that despite all the experiences of the war and the Holocaust, their ideas about Jews did not change. And to me, this indicated how difficult it is to alter or eradicate that kind of prejudice once it is so deeply embedded in institutional culture or in the minds of these individuals. To me, that tells us something about the nature of prejudice itself, and its

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