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Book about 1944 provides insights into current events

1944: FDR and the Year That Changed History

By Jay Winik

Simon & Schuster

639 pages, $35

By Edward Cuddihy

Sometimes a story does not have to be new. It does not have to contain startling revelations or striking conclusions overlooked by other authors. No exclusives. No cliché hype.

Sometime it is, simply put, just a story that is so important, so vital to the understanding of a civilization and its dreadful conflicts that it must be retold periodically in a fresh voice for a new generation, lest it be forgotten. or worse, it be denied as a fiction.

The latter is the rationale for Jay Winik’s “1944: FDR and The Year That Changed History.”

The book jacket contains a photo of an aging and pensive President Franklin Roosevelt. Even the generation born to the children of the 1940s knows 1944 marked a turning point in World War II. Some will add that hard bargaining by distrustful allies Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin that year would define the international landscape for the rest of the 20th century.

To be sure, those are elements of this work, but they serve almost as a backdrop for Winik’s real story. This brilliantly constructed book recounts in careful detail the bestial and diabolical tale of the Third Reich’s sinisterly named “Final Solution.”

It is the story of how a bunch of organized and demented thugs, led by the most evil yet masterful demagogue of the 20th century, carried out the methodical murder of at least 6 million men, women and children – infants, the aged, the pregnant, the strong, the infirm, all non-combatants – slaughtered in the most cruel and inhumane fashion simply because they were Jews.

It is the story of men and women stripped of their human dignity, robbed of their hope and made witness to the murder of their loved ones, and the story of a world that either could not or would not come to their rescue.

Winik’s picture is not pretty. There is no happy ending or high-minded sermonic moral. If this story were not true, it would be too horrible to imagine.

Best-selling author Winik has made his reputation focusing on what fellow historian H.W. Brands calls the “historic moment.” Winik is a masterful storyteller in the best tradition of non-academic historians. But unlike some lesser practitioners in this genre, his research is thorough and meticulous. This book contains more than 60 pages of endnotes.

Winik has chosen a curious format for this work. He has woven into a single fabric the threads of a dying president who clings to life only through sheer willpower, a nation struggling with its allies to exterminate the malignancy of German Nazism, and Adolf Hitler’s inner circle, mesmerized by the twisted notion of eradicating every Jew from the European continent.

This, plus the actual military campaigns, is almost too big a story to tell in one 600-page volume. And Winik, for all his considerable talent, is not always successful. There are times when he shifts abruptly from thread to thread, leaving the reader to wonder if it is June 1943 or 1944, or even 1942.

There is a North African campaign, summits in Cairo and Tehran, a German thrust into Russia, FDR’s Lend-Lease triumph, the Allied invasion of Sicily and the Italian peninsula, the D-Day landings at Normandy, the Russian counterattack from the East, a fourth presidential election, meetings at Yalta and Montreal. And they are not always in sequence.

But always in clear focus is the book’s main thrust: the trains rumbling from capitals all over Europe toward Auschwitz in rural Poland. They came from France, from Italy, the Low Countries, Germany, Austria, Poland, the eastern bloc, the Baltic and finally from Hungary. The trains, mostly cattle cars, were packed so tightly with human beings that many would succumb to the elements, hunger, thirst or disease before reaching their destination. Even most who did make it through the iron gate at Auschwitz would perish soon after.

How much of the specific methodology of Auschwitz and Birkenau can be traced directly to Hitler and how much originated with his twisted henchman, the failed chicken farmer Heinrich Himmler, will never be known for sure. But we do know Hitler never tired of his incendiary tirades against Europe’s Jews, and that Germany and Austria never tired of cheering them.

Winik documents how word of the atrocity at Auschwitz was leaked to the West by a German industrialist at great risk to his life and then confirmed by two escaped prisoners. He recounts how their revelations were received by an unbelieving world, a cynical U.S. State Department and a preoccupied White House and 10 Downing Street.

To his credit, Winik does not villify a dying president who was fighting wars in Europe and the Pacific, while holding off political opponents at home. Nor does he excuse him. At one point, he quotes a colleague, Doris Kearns Goodwin, who laments that FDR on the Jewish question was “vague” and “noncommittal.”

He does point blame at State Department functionaries, several by name, who at best considered the “Jewish Question” a hindrance to the total war effort and at worst saw it as a distraction.

But in the final analysis, Winik refers to Roosevelt’s “missed opportunity,” there for the taking. He argues Roosevelt missed his “Emancipation Proclamation moment” when he failed to take action early, and when he took only tepid action once the Holocaust became general knowledge inside the American and British governments. Without judgment, Winik describes Roosevelt’s apparent inaction as one of history’s “interminable conundrums.”

Given the vagaries of publishing cycles, it likely is serendipitous, but the author speaks volumes to today’s political scene. The book serves as a reminder of the dangers of demagoguery and the ease with which people blindly follow the demagogic path to its destructive end. It serves to alert a new generation to the danger of leaving the job of governing to the other guy.

Further, it is a stark reminder of the risk of demonizing a whole people for the deeds, or even the perceived deeds, of a few, especially when frustration and anger demand a scapegoat.

Jews who could have escaped Germany or Nazi-occupied countries were denied visas when their numbers became too high, and most paid with their lives. Boatloads of Jews were turned away from neutral countries and from America. One poll said 15 percent of Americans in 1941 considered Jews fleeing for their lives – even the women and children – “an immediate danger” to our country. In retrospect, how foolish and sad. Six million Jews perished.

This is a very disturbing book. It shows the human race at its basest, most brutal self on the one hand, while on the other hand, it shows the world’s last best hope at its finest. The author is unable to reconcile the two.

Winik celebrates the triumph of the Allies over Nazism and Fascism, and he honors the sacrifice of one of our nation’s greatest presidents, but the agony of the gas chambers and putrid smell of the crematoriums are never far off.

This book may enlighten a generation raised to be politically correct. It may help to mute a minority which chooses to believe the holocaust is a fiction in the face of all fact. It may help convince a generation that even free men and women do not have the luxury to choose comfortable falsehood over the hard or distasteful truth.

Yes, this is a highly disturbing book. Sometime we need disturbing.

Edward Cuddihy is a retired Buffalo News managing editor.