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Central European History from Antiquity to the 20th Century

Facts and Fancy of the Second World War

Although almost seventy years have passed since the Second War‘s conclusion, misapprehensions and inaccuracies – intended or not – retain an eerie popularity. Norman Davies (No Simple Victory, Penguin Books 2006 – ISBN 978-0-14-311409-3) has written on the wilful misconceptions that are the consequences of political correctness and national myth-making. He notes that:

Over sixty years have passed since the end of the Second World War. And most people would assume that the broad outlines of that terrible conflict had been established long ago. Innumerable books have been published on the subject. Thousands of films have been screened, portraying every aspect of military events and civilian ordeals. Countless memoirs of participants’ great and small have been collected. Hundreds of major monuments and scores of museums have been created to keep up the memory of the war alive. One might think that there is nothing new to add. At least one is tempted to think that way until one starts to examine what actually is said, and what is not said. [Emphases in original]

When Professor Davis set out to visit the various galas, celebrations and festivities that commemorated the Sixtieth Anniversary of the End of the War in 2005, he chanced upon mysterious perceptions …

… the new United States World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., bore, as its main inscription: “World War II 1941 – 1945”. The monument failed to inform the visitor that the United States did have allies, and seems to conclude that the United States fought and won the war alone, and in five years instead of seven …

… the British celebrations somehow forgot to invite delegations from, among many other former colonial allies, Canada, South Africa, India, New Zealand or Australia, all of whom had participated in the war on the side of Great Britain…

… the Russian celebration on Red Square in Moscow forgot to mention, among other little sins, that the Soviet Union in the six years between 1940 and 1945 invaded and annexed the three Baltic republics Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania not only once but twice, in the process deporting and/or murdering land owners and intelligentsia. In addition, nobody thought it prudent to recall that the Soviet Union, allied with Germany in 1939, had invaded Poland and Finland only weeks later…

and that

… none of these celebrations recalled the sufferings of the non-Jewish victims of the Fascist, Nazi and Communist regimes, nor the fate of the millions who were misplaced by the war or forcibly ejected from their homelands: over ten million Germans, five millions Ukrainians and about the same number of Poles, and millions of Byelorussians and Caucasian minorities. The Soviet Union in particular

… relocated national groups, uprooting millions in the process. In the immediate pre-war period they had forcibly removed some 500,000 Poles from the western borders and resettled them in closed districts on the Chinese frontier in Kazakhstan.

In 1939-41 massive deportations took place from all the lands annexed by the USSR; and, once the Great Patriotic War started, strategic deportations began with an order to remove all Finns from the vicinity of Leningrad. Later in 1941, a long-standing plan (first mooted in 1915) was activated to deport the entire population of the Autonomous German Republic of the Volga. Some 2.5 million Germans were either sent to the labour armies or to Kazakhstan to join the exiled Poles. Within a decade over half of them were dead. The forced deportation and resettlement of seven Muslim nations in 1943-4 was especially brutal.

Mindful of the spectre of selective memory, Professor Davies subsequently felt the need to take a few precautions before discussing the war:

As a prelude to various talks and lectures on the Second World War, therefore, I have often chosen to raise some of these problems by presenting the audience with four or five simple questions:

  • Can you name the five biggest battles of the war in Europe? Or, better still, the ten biggest battles?
  • Can you name the main political ideologies that were contending for supremacy during the war in Europe?
  • Can you name the largest concentration camp that was operating in Europe in the years 1939- 1945?
  • Can you name the European nationality (or ethnic group) which lost the largest number of civilians during the war?
  • Can you name the vessel that was sunk with record loss of life in the war’s largest maritime disaster?

These have usually been followed by a deathly silence, and then a hubbub of guesses and queries. Quelling the hubbub, I then offer my audience an opinion:”Until we have established the correct answer to basic factual matters,” I say, “we are not properly equipped to pass judgement on the wider issues.”

That nations cling to the chimera of glory and tend to forget failure is altogether human in its fallibility. In the same league, perhaps, is man’s perpetual underestimation of the amount of knowledge required before becoming able to judge on a subject. Perhaps ignorance may be bliss, as in Orwell’s 1984. Paul Fussell, historian and veteran of World War II, who was wounded 1945 in France, found numerous reasons to mistrust the victors’ polished platitudes and observed so many occasions of intentional misrepresentation in the treatment of the Second World War in American media that he felt compelled to conclude that “the Allied part of the war of 1939-45 has been sanitized and romanticized beyond recognition by the sentimental, the loony patriotic, the ignorant and the bloodthirsty.”

Naturally, such groups derive their redactional liberty from the fact that their side won the war and hence is able to evade moral ambiguity. Nearly everybody agrees that the industrial killing of Jews, or Gypsies, with cyanide was a crime nearly without precedent in history, but so were other inventions of the twentieth century: area-bombing civilians with conventional explosives as in, say, Dresden or Tokyo, or with nuclear fire as in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. If the war had been lost, who could have explained the moral propriety of these undertakings?

Hence, here the answers to the questions posed above:

FIVE BATTLES, FATALITIES IN PARENTHESES: [1] OPERATION TYPHOON, THE BATTLE FOR MOSCOW 1941/1942 (1,582,000) [2] CASE BLUE, THE BATTLE FOR STALINGRAD 1942-1943 (973,000) [3] THE SIEGE OF LENINGRAD 1941-1944 (900,000) (4) OPERATION BARBAROSSA, THE BATTLE FOR KIEW 1941 (657,000) [5] OPERATION BAGRATION, SOVIET OFFENSIVE 1944 (450,000)

IDEOLOGIES: FASCISM, NATIONAL SOCIALISM, COMMUNISM, LIBERAL DEMOCRACY

BIGGEST CONCENTRATION CAMP: VORKUTA, USSR

LOSSES BY NATION/ETHNICITY: SEE DIAGRAM BELOW

MARITIME CATASTROPHE: GERMAN OCEAN LINER ‘WILHELM GUSTLOFF‘, TORPEDOED BY RUSSIAN SUBMARINE IN MARCH 1945, APPROXIMATELY 8000 FATALITIES

[SOURCES: DAVIES, ID., P.25 FF, DIAGRAM P.366]

SOME INTERESTING FACTS: BIGGEST EUROPEAN ARMY IN 1932 AFTER FRANCE: BELGIUM, 26 DIVISIONS – MOST TANKS IN 1940: FRANCE, OVER 3,000.

Losses / Casualties Diagram:

(© John Vincent Palatine 2015/18)

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1 Comment

  1. Richard Stokes

    In terms of the super-battlefield, D-Day deserves to be included because it involved all the soldiers that were landed safely (one million?) plus all the constant naval and air support, and should not be limited to just the troops exposed to direct combat in the first few waves.
    And even Norman Davies gets it wrong by neglecting the Rezhev campaigns on the Eastern front.

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