Editor’s Note: This article was originally published by Real Clear Wire on January 19, 2024 and is crossposted here with permission.
At the dawn of 2024, the United States is embroiled in a heated discussion over what constitutes antisemitism. In the wake of the Oct. 7 terrorist attacks launched by Hamas against targets in Israel, and the subsequent retaliatory military actions Israel has undertaken, protests in cities, on college campuses, and in the halls of Congress have ranged from peaceful to blatantly antisemitic, with chants, vandalism, and threats of violence.
Perhaps just as troubling, these events come as recent surveys have found that 20% of Gen Z Americans believe the Holocaust is a myth (another 30% neither agreed nor disagreed). An earlier survey found that over 60% of the same generational cohort did not know that 6 million Jews were murdered during World War II. Such reports are both disturbing and are a warning to the American public about deficiencies in remembering a pivotal event of the 20th century.
Concerns that Americans would forget the Holocaust or come to doubt it were first addressed by the man who led the Allied armies to victory in the Second World War: Dwight Eisenhower. A Midwesterner by birth who made the military his career, Ike was untainted by early 20th-century antisemitism that was prevalent in the halls of power.
Unlike many of his fellow officers, he did not view Jews, whether immigrants or native born, as fundamentally anti-American. Nor did his Protestantism include religious antisemitism. Indeed, he came to have several Jewish friends, was shocked by Kristallnacht, and warmed instantly to his assignment as Supreme Allied Commander to end the Nazi threat.
In April 1945, Eisenhower came face to face with the Holocaust. While visiting a former salt mine turned depository for items looted by the Germans, Ike learned of a camp nearby that his men had liberated a few days before. Joined by Gens. Omar Bradley and George Patton, Ike arrived at Ohrdruf, a subcamp of the nearby Buchenwald network. Refusing to leave for several hours, Ike met with former prisoners, toured every building, and soaked in the “hell camp.”
Though he had known of the Nazi labor camp system, Eisenhower was shocked after seeing one in person and realizing what that system actually was. He recognized that this was what his men were fighting against, that liberation was more than just freeing territory – it was about the very survival of civilization itself against a barbarism few had thought existed in the heart of modern Europe.
In the wake of Eisenhower’s visit, and the subsequent discovery of other camps much larger and deadlier than Ohrdruf, Eisenhower issued a series of orders. The camps were to be documented, photographed, and filmed. Survivors were to be cared for and interviewed. He also instructed all forces under his command to visit liberated camps as they moved to the front and ordered German civilians from nearby communities to help bury the dead, care for the living, and see what had been done in their name.
But Ike did even more than that.
He also called for and facilitated delegations comprising members of Congress, the British Parliament, newspaper editors, and other public opinion and civic leaders to see the camps in person. Eisenhower wanted to show the world that the camps were not some propaganda gimmick but a very real evil. He repeatedly said that such eyewitness accounts were necessary to ensure that in the future, no one would be able to claim such horrors had not existed. He foresaw the very conditions we now encounter today.
Eisenhower’s call to bear witness and to never forget the Holocaust is a reminder of the importance of historical knowledge and perspective. To argue that the world today is more complex than it was during Ike’s time, as either general or president, is ahistorical. While there are points of policy that necessitate contentious debate at times, there are events and movements that should only be seen as evil. Attempting to dismiss antisemitism endangers not just civility but our common humanity. Ike would want us to remember that, too.
Photo by Olivier Rault — Adobe Stock — Asset ID#: 24649718