- The Second World War
- Little, Brown and Company, 880 pp.
Days of Infamy
At the crack of dawn on August 21, 1942, a German Army officer with the remarkable name of Hyazinth Graf Strachwitz proved that history really does repeat itself. Strachwitz’ exploit is one of many fascinating episodes in Antony Beevor’s apocalyptic saga, The Second World War.
As the sun came up on August 21, Strachwitz led his tank unit of the 16th Panzer Division over the Don River, in the deepest incursion made by Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union. In a rapid dash across the sunbaked steppe, Strachwitz and his troops reached the outskirts of Stalingrad, the capture of which was declared by the German high command as being decisive to winning the war. Stalingrad’s fall would sever the Soviet Union’s supply routes to its oil fields in the Caucasus.
Twenty-eight years before, in September 1914, Strachwitz had led a patrol of German horse cavalry within sight of the Eifel Tower during the Battle of the Marne. In that earlier invasion, the German General Staff aimed to achieve success by capturing Paris and destroying the French Army in a single bold stroke.
Neither Paris in 1914 nor Stalingrad in 1942 fell. The Germans gambled twice and lost twice. In both wars, the Germans mounted high-stakes offensives to win a quick, “home before the leaves fall” victory. In both cases, they stumbled into a two-front war of attrition they could never win.
Beevor skillfully integrates memorable details of personal experience onto the broad canvas of world-wide conflict. Beevor’s insights into the human dimension of war were amply displayed in his previous books on pivotal campaigns like Stalingrad and D-Day. In the present work, he presents a comprehensive and intelligible examination of the war in all of the major theaters of operation. Grand strategy, the clash of armies, air squadrons and naval task forces and the harsh realities of individual life in wartime are seamlessly joined in a work of breath-taking scope.
Yet, Beevor’s The Second World War is most notable for its unsparing assessment of the genocidal character of the entire conflict. Hitler’s Final Solution was not a separate campaign of mass murder, parallel to the fighting on the battlefronts. Instead, the Nazi assault on the Jews was characteristic of the depraved nature of the entire war. Daring commando raids and tank attacks were the stuff of movie newsreels. The “real” war was prosecuted with civilian-targeted aerial bombardments, starvation as a weapon, orgies of rape and torture and other government-sanctioned acts of mass homicide.
The Second World War, as Beevor fittingly reminds us, “with its global ramifications, was the greatest man-made disaster in history. The statistics of the dead – whether sixty or seventy million – are far beyond our comprehension.”
What is also difficult to grasp is the extent to which political ideology had infiltrated and corrupted the minds and hearts of people, whole nations as well as individuals. Comparison with the conduct of the First World War is very illuminating. The fighting between 1914 and 1918 had occasioned huge loss of life on the battlefields. But only isolated acts of genocide occurred such as the murderous onslaught of the Turks on Armenia.
The Germans during the First World War did not subject the tens of thousands of Russians they captured in 1914-15 to the horrors inflicted upon Soviet prisoners by the Waffen SS and some of the Wehrmacht units in Russia. Beevor estimates that “more than two million Soviet prisoners died from starvation, disease and exposure” by the end of 1941. Their minds warped by Hitler’s Aryan mythology, German soldiers in 1941-42 abused their Russian captives, never thinking that the tide of war might turn against them.
“Cruelty had become addictive,” Beevor writes, “in those who had total control over beings they had been taught to despise and hate.”
During the Second World War, the rate and scale of atrocities escalated along with the growing sophistication of government-directed propaganda and surveillance of citizens. The Nazi regime was the worst offender in both endeavors, as Beevor notes, trapping “the whole population of the country as accomplices, willing or not, in its own crimes, and its own insanity.”
Two examples of culpable behavior by Allied forces, however, reveal the global extent of the war’s malign nature.
The “Bomber Offensive” unleashed against Germany by the British in 1941 had its origin in the understandable desire to avoid the huge casualties of World War I battles like the Somme and Ypres. By destroying the industrial capacity of the enemy, wars could be won with a minimum of effort and casualties. At least that was the theory. The fact that the Germans had tried and failed to do the same thing to Britain during the “Blitz” of 1940-41 only made the British more determined to succeed.
History was soon repeating itself, with role reversal thrown into the mix. This time, it was the German fighter pilots defending and the RAF, joined in 1942 by the US 8th Air Force, dropping the bombs. German war production continued to rise despite the relentless aerial attacks, just as the output of British factories had soared during the Blitz.
At the beginning of the war, British pilots were told that targeting civilian populations was illegal. But the stress of war and the need to hit back at Hitler’s Reich led to a systematic campaign of area bombing that increasingly used incendiary bombs to torch cities. In a massive attack on Hamburg, 40,000 people were burned alive or died of smoke inhalation on July 27, 1943. This figure, the product of a single night of terror, was roughly equal to the total of the British civilian deaths during the eight month ordeal of the Blitz, October 1940 to May 1941.
Beevor describes the Hamburg inferno with visceral intensity:
The mass of incendiaries raining down in a tighter pattern than usual on the eastern side of the city accelerated the conglomeration of individual fires into one gigantic furnace. This created a chimney or volcano of heat which shot into the sky and sucked in hurricane force winds at ground level. This fanned the roaring flames still further. At 17,000 feet, the air crews could smell roasting flesh.
Hamburg was a legitimate target, having important war industries. The raid, cynically code-named Operation Gomorrah by Arthur Harris, the commander of the RAF bomber squadrons, made no attempt to directly or accurately attack these targets. The mission was aimed to shatter the morale of Germany’s civilian population. Yet Operation Gomorrah and the raids that followed achieved little of strategic value for the Allied war effort. The collateral damage that they did to the ethical position of the Allied cause was incalculable, leading in due course to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, also “legitimate” targets.
While the British and American air commands prosecuted their relentless assault on Nazi Germany, their Soviet ally was moving in for the kill from the east. The Soviet assault on Berlin and German provinces like East Prussia was the culmination of a military campaign where compassion and regard for the “honors of war” were totally lacking from the moment that Hitler’s armies attacked the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941.
Outrage at the criminal behavior of the German invaders was an important, and perhaps understandable, motive for revenge among Red Army troops as they smashed their way toward Berlin in April 1945. But the extreme sadism of the vengeful Soviet troops is deeply unsettling. In but a short interval, many men who had fought heroically in defense of Mother Russia became in the words of a Soviet war correspondent “an army of rapists.”
As the Soviet offensive pushed toward Berlin, gang-rapes of German women and girls, from “eight to eighty,” the gleeful massacres of columns of refugees in East Prussia who were ground-up under the tracks of T34 tanks and other unspeakable acts of cruelty reached epidemic proportions. The same treatment was inflicted on the population of the Nazi puppet state of Hungary. Incredibly, Beevor has uncovered instances where Russian women, who had been sent to Germany as forced laborers, were just as roughly handled by their “liberators” from the First Ukrainian Front.
Beevor argues that underlying social factors set the stage for the lapse of Red Army soldiers into abysmal barbarism. He notes that the repressive moral code in the Soviet Union, which sought to “de-individualize the individual,” had created simmering currents of resentment. This deep-seated anger had been exacerbated by the savage discipline inflicted on Soviet troops, thousands of whom were executed on grounds of desertion or abandoning equipment. Aware of this growing ill-will, Soviet officers and commisars encouraged their soldiers to vent their rage upon the helpless German, Hungarian — and Russian — women who fell into their hands. In this way, the Soviet system would be preserved from what one Red Army general described as the “unhealthy, negative moods” of its own people.
To focus on the “unhealthy, negative” aspects of the Allied forces may seem like rewriting history to allow the Germans and the equally inhuman Japanese in the Pacific and China campaigns to evade the onus of their deeds. That is not Beevor’s intention – nor of this review. Rather, it is an expression of disappointment and incomprehension that the defenders of a noble cause should have succumbed to acts that were clearly wrong.
The dubious ethical position of the Allies was further compromised with the coming of peace. During the concluding weeks of the war, both the Anglo-Americans and the Soviets competed to secure the services of the many scientists and technocrats who had served the Nazi regime with heartless and lethal professionalism. American OSS agents played a starring role in this secret mission, code-named Operation Paperclip.
“I feel that I am in paradise,” Dr. Helmuth Vetter had said as he was given access to a steady stream of human specimens to experiment upon in the IG Farben lab at Auschwitz.
It was a comment characteristic of the doctors and scientists who signed on to the Nazi cause. Vetter was shot by the Allies after the war. But the war crimes and Nazi past of Wernher von Braun, who had used slave labor to build V2 rockets for the Nazis, was quietly overlooked.
What can one say when practitioners of what Winston Churchill called “perverted science” dodged the firing squad bullets they deserved to help the Allies build far-deadlier weapons? Does it not follow that by recruiting these Nazi-tainted scientists, the Allies joined the German people “as accomplices, willing or not” in Hitler’s crimes and insanity?
The scale of the tragedy that took place between September 1, 1939 and September 2, 1945 may defeat our attempts to answer such questions. But it is vital that we try.
Beevor, in writing this vast, disturbing book certainly demonstrates the courage of his convictions. He reminds us that the innumerable acts of cruelty and inhumanity during the course of those terrible years were countered by incredible deeds of bravery and self-sacrifice. So, too, a heart-felt reading of The Second World War can be a redemptive act on our part, leading to a more humane world, where Auschwitz will never be repeated, but never forgotten either.
It is in this light that Beevor quotes the heroic Russian war correspondent, Vasily Grossman, who served at Stalingrad and was the first to write about the hell of Treblinka.
“It is the writer’s duty to tell this terrible truth,” Grossman said, “and it is the civilian duty to learn it.”