Michael Tracey, gadfly of the commentariat, friend of Glenn Greenwald, and survivor of "unwarranted physical contact" from U.S. Representative Maxine Waters, recently published a lengthy essay on World War II on his Substack. It's not anything new or revelatory and so I'm not going to address most of it. Any readers of this blog familiar with Tracey's work generally won't be surprised. I do, however, want to discuss his allegation that "US entry into World War II did not prevent the Holocaust, and there is substantial reason to believe it was a factor in accelerating the most lethal phase of the Holocaust."
This is a combination of one quite obvious statement and one quite wrong one. Of course U.S. entry into the war did not prevent the Holocaust because both things happened and the former event (U.S. entry) demonstrably did not prevent the latter event (the Holocaust -- for the most part [see below]). Perhaps Tracey meant to say "U.S. entry into the war was not intended to prevent the Holocaust," in which case it's also not a very debatable point. Few historians believe this was the American intention.
The latter point though is a real howler, so it's worth refuting it here because, for whatever reason, Tracey has a large number of readers.
We'd have to start with "the most lethal phase of the Holocaust." Luckily, the data we have on Jewish fatalities during the war are granular enough that we can identify 1942 as the year during which the most Jews died. According to Hilberg, more than half of all the Jews who were killed during the war were killed in 1942; during that year, therefore, there went from being more Jews alive than dead in Europe in January to there being fewer alive than dead in December. Moreover, a scientific article published in 2019 not only correctly identified Aktion Reinhard -- the campaign to murder Poland's Jews -- as the largest "campaign" of the Holocaust but also showed that a single 100-day period (covering August to October) accounted for approximately 1.5 million of the 1.7 million deaths from Aktion Reinhard.
So that's the most lethal phase, clearly. Tracey in fact acknowledges this point -- even links to the Science Advances article linked to in the previous paragraph.
So what role did the United States' entry into the war have on Aktion Reinhard? This is, in fact, not a question that Tracey seeks to answer. Rather, he begins with a discussion of Christian Gerlach's landmark 1998 essay on the Wannsee Conference. To be fair to Tracey, he cites several sources in his article and he doesn't rely on pikers; Gerlach is a rather big gun. But Tracey does not portray Gerlach's position accurately. Central to Gerlach's essay is the matter of when it was decided to exterminate very specific groups of Jews: German Jews; and Jews from outside the Soviet Union and Poland. Tracey does not acknowledge or perhaps understand this distinction. Therefore, when he quotes Gerlach's line about "systematic planning for the destruction of the Jews throughout Europe," he does not realize Gerlach's intent underlying the phrase "Jews throughout Europe" as not including Soviet or Polish Jews, whose fate had already been decided.
Again, to be fair to Tracey, he acknowledges that mass murder of Jews had already been taking place before Pearl Harbor. But he doesn't say where (the Soviet Union) or by what means (mass shootings performed by the Einsatzgruppen and police units) -- indeed the term Einsatzgruppen doesn't appear in the article at all.
Nor does the phrase "Aktion Reinhard," which is highly significant because this after all is the "most lethal phase" to which Tracey refers, whether he is aware of it or not. And most importantly, the planning of Aktion Reinhard was already under way when Pearl Harbor happened: construction on Belzec had begun more than a month earlier. Is there any evidence to suggest that construction of Belzec was accelerated by Pearl Harbor or even that the establishment of camps at Sobibor and Treblinka was thus affected? There is not, nor does any source used by Tracey make that claim. Gerlach claims only that German Jews being deported from the Reich would eventually be sent to death camps because of a decision contingent on Pearl Harbor. But the vast majority of the Jews killed in the Reinhard camps were Polish Jews, not German.
Tracey continues to compound this very basic error. He quotes from Brendan Simms's Hitler's American Gamble that "a primary motivation and context for Hitler's war of annihilation against western and central European Jewry was his relationship with the United States" (emphasis mine), again failing to see the significance of the geographical limitation of this decision and that it did not include Soviet or Polish Jews, whose fates had already been sealed by Pearl Harbor. Tracey continues the same error with his excerpt from Klaus Schmider's Hitler's Fatal Miscalculation. His first quote from Friedlaender's Years of Extermination fails to acknowledge that the specific context, again, of the killing of German Jews (Friedlaender discusses Aktion Reinhard some fifty pages earlier); his quotes from Rafecas are about the very pages from Friedlaender dealing with German Jews being deported.
Tracey's use of Richard Evans's Third Reich at War is odd in that the excerpt he uses doesn't discuss a change in extermination policy at all relative to Aktion Reinhard -- only an escalation in propaganda accompanying Barbarossa and its effect on radicalization in the Einsatzgruppen's activities. Nor does his citation from the work of Adam Tooze. In the end, it is really only Tobias Jersak, among the authors cited by Tracey, who supports his viewpoint -- to an extent. But Tracey's citation here is not wholly representative of Jersak's view. Jersak writes a few pages before the quotation Tracey provides, "It is clear from developments in the autumn of 1941 that the ‘final solution’ as we understand it in retrospect, i.e. the systematic murder of the European Jews, did not originate in a single decision or a single order" (p. 324).
(Note: I have not addressed Tracey's use of the work of Laurence Rees and John Toland. Rees's work is not academic history. Toland's work is far too old to be considered here given its publication before the opening of Soviet archives, which have given us a much clearer picture of the evolution of Nazi policy vis-a-vis Jews.)
So what does that leave us with? Tracey reiterates his chief point regarding the Holocaust: "There is a robust body of evidence that suggests escalation of US involvement in the war, followed by official US entry, may well have been factors in the acceleration of the most lethal phase of the Holocaust." But is there a "robust body of evidence"? None of the authors Tracey writes draws a straight line between Pearl Harbor (or Lend Lease or the Atlantic Charter) and Aktion Reinhard. They all, in fact, acknowledge its separate existence before the events of the summer or fall of 1941. Therefore, Tracey has in fact failed to prove his chief point made in his essay about the Final Solution.
Does Tracey want to argue that U.S. entry into the war sealed the fate of German Jews or of Jews from central and western Europe? Even though there would still be historians who disagreed, he'd be on much more solid grant if he made that argument. But he doesn't. In his desire to paint the worst possible picture of the effects of U.S. involvement in World War II, he pushes too far and fails.