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…
… 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.”
What are your answers to these five questions? Read Part II …
(© John Vincent Palatine 2015/18)