In 1994 and 1995, the District was roiled by a dispute over a National Air and Space Museum exhibit. Slated to accompany the display of the Enola Gay—the plane that dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima 50 years earlier—the exhibit raised the ire of veterans’ groups and politicians alike. They charged the museum’s show with an anti-nuclear, anti-veteran bias, setting off a protracted controversy that ultimately led to the ouster of museum director Martin Harwit and to the museum’s decision to display the plane by itself, without commentary.

At that very same moment, another controversial World War II project was working its way through the Air and Space hierarchy: a study of whether the Allied powers should have bombed Auschwitz or the railroad tracks that led to it, to save Jews from the gas chambers.

A year before the Enola Gay controversy erupted, the museum had co-sponsored a conference on the Auschwitz question with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. After the conference, the organizers considered compiling a book-length examination of the subject.

But in the wake of the Enola Gay controversy, Air and Space officials decided that Air and Space curator Michael J. Neufeld should pursue the project with onetime Holocaust Museum official Michael Berenbaum—on his own time.

Now, seven years after the conference, Neufeld and Berenbaum have at last published The Bombing of Auschwitz: Should the Allies Have Attempted It?, which they co-edited. The book adds substantial new historical essays, original documents, and reconnaissance images to what the conference revealed in 1993.

“One heart of the debate is technical—it’s about the ranges of airplanes and the kinds of bombs used,” Neufeld says. “What I wanted to do with the book was to expand the limits of this narrow debate by looking at the intelligence situation—specifically, what did the Allied powers really know about Auschwitz—and to turn the telescope around and ask why exactly we are interested in this subject.”

As The Bombing of Auschwitz makes clear, the debate has raged for years—and not always quietly. David S. Wyman was the first to propose—in a 1978 Commentary magazine article—that the Allies could have feasibly bombed Auschwitz or its rail links during the summer and fall of 1944. No scholar stepped forward to decisively refute Wyman’s thesis for more than a decade, Neufeld says. That changed in 1994, when Air Force historian James H. Kitchens published a counterthesis, focusing mainly on technical issues. Partisans on both sides proceeded to fire salvos at each other from the pages of military-history journals.

Neufeld—a 12-year veteran of Air and Space and a specialist in both German history and World War II-era rocketry—played the honest broker while editing the book. But he has since concluded—given the current evidence, anyway—that bombing the railway tracks probably would not have worked, because the Nazis, in their determination to commit genocide, would have found a way around such a temporary setback. Bombing Auschwitz itself strikes Neufeld as more plausible—Allied planes did indeed bomb sites nearby in 1944—but doing so would have risked the deaths of inmates.

“Though bombing was a natural thing for the underground resistance to seek, it was really not a feasible option,” Neufeld says. “I think all the scenarios Wyman presented are too hypothetical. They ask the Air Force to have changed the way they operated and to possess foresight they didn’t have. It stands on a series of what-ifs. It’s a perfectly legitimate viewpoint—it’s just hypothetical.”

Wyman, meanwhile, refused to allow the editors to reprint his writings. There’s only one matter that both sides seem to agree on, says Neufeld: “We have to take this story as an example of the need to pay attention to these horrible catastrophes and to do something about them.” —Louis Jacobson