“Patton”, with George C. Scott playing the general, remains one of my favorite films. George Patton came across as an extraordinary difficult man, and a military genius. He undoubtedly was both. Some of his more embarrassing moments were displayed in the film, such as the time he decided to treat soldier suffering from battlefield fatigue or PTSD by slapping them around, an event that had a very negative effect on his military career.
But the film (as I recall) ignored another negative aspect of Patton – his apparent virulent antisemitism. Do you know about that? Perhaps not.
Patton was put in charge of the Displaced Persons Camps after the war. President Truman engaged Earl Harrison, dean of the University of Pennsylvania law school, to tour the camps. In his diary (Patton was a meticulous diary keeper), Patton wrote “Harrison and his ilk believe that the Displaced Person is a human being, which he is not, and this applies particularly to Jews, who are lower than animals.” He also wrote that if the Jews were not kept under military guard in the DP camps, “they would not stay in the camps, would spread over the country like locusts, and would eventually have to be rounded up after a good number of them had been shot and quite a few Germans murdered and pillaged”.
In addition to evidencing antisemitism, Patton was also accused of being a little to comfortable with Nazis. He admired Erwin Rommel (the Desert Fox) and wanted to socialize with him after the war, he claimed that most Nazis were not evil, but just bureaucrats, he was given control of the military occupation of Bavaria and was fired by President Eisenhower for putting so many ex-Nazis on the payroll (he claimed they were the only ones who knew what they were doing). Shortly after he was dismissed, Patton was killed in Germany, in an automobile accident.
The other day, I came across a book written by Gen. Patton’s grandson, Benjamin Patton, called “Growing Up Patton: Reflections on Heroes, History, and Family Wisdom”. It was the story of Benjamin’s grandfather (whom he never met), father (another General George Patton, who served in Vietnam among other places, and who was in some ways similar to his father, and some ways not), and mother. It’s an interesting book, mixing family history, the author’s memories, correspondence, and discussions not only of father, mother and grandfather, but a number of others (members of the military, and religious advisers) who influenced the three. Benjamin is clearly ambiguous about his family members, not failing to point out their shortcomings, including a large section on Patton’s feelings about Rommel and his placing Nazis in the Bavarian administration. But what did not get mentioned? The antisemitism, of course. Verboten territory? Too embarrassing? Not important? I don’t know.
The quotes referenced above come from Richard Cohen’s column in the Washington Post on September 29, 2014, where he discusses Bill O’Reilly’s book “Killing Patton”. Cohen, like me, wonders why, with all of the criticism of Patton, O’Reilly too left out references to his antisemitism.
Perhaps it is coincidental that both Benjamin Patton and Bill O’Reilly both omitted references to Patton’s feelings about Jews. But perhaps it is not coincidental. Perhaps it says something profound about non-Jewish America today. I think it does. But what?