Monday, June 20, 2011

War and Remembrance: The Casualties of World War II

The War of the World
Holocaust: The Nazi Persecution and Murder of the Jews

An article appeared recently in the New York Review of Books by Timothy Snyder: A New Approach to the Holocaust. Snyder reviews the findings of several books, most notably, Peter Longerich’s Holocaust: The Nazi Persecution and Murder of the Jews. Snyder points out Longerich’s view that Germany’s march to the “final solution” is not as direct and simple as generally assumed. The distinctions raised are mainly of interest to history buffs or professionals. What is of interest here is that the narrative reminds us that what we refer to as the “final solution” was only the beginning of what Hitler had in mind as “the final solution.”

We shall also turn for information to Niall Ferguson’s history of the twentieth century: War of the World. While Snyder and Longerich are mostly concerned with Nazi politics and personalities, Ferguson’s concern is broader. He strives to provide an answer for why the twentieth century was so violent. He drifts into questions of what might be called biopsychology in order to explain humanity’s seemingly limitless capability for violence and murder. Ferguson’s book has been discussed previously here.

All authors would agree that Hitler’s goal was always to control central Europe and to defeat Russia. The victories to the West, particularly in France, had an element of revenge involved, but there was also a strategic interest in protecting one’s back as the turn eastward was made. A controlled population behind also allowed the extraction of skilled workers for factories in Germany, thus freeing up more men for the military.

Hitler’s goals in waging war to the East may not be fully appreciated by all. In Ferguson’s words:

“Inferior races would be killed or expelled in order to make room for German colonists who would go forth and multiply. The aim was nothing less than to redraw the ethnic map of Europe, turning what had once been the fantasies of racial theorists into a horrific reality.”

The invasion of Poland and the eventual invasion of the Soviet Union were not to be wars of conquest, but rather wars of annihilation. People deemed not sufficiently German were intended to disappear, except for those who would be needed for slave labor. There were different versions of “Plan East.” Snyder indicates that the Nazis expected a quick victory that would leave the USSR vanquished in a matter of weeks. There would then be

“....a Hunger Plan that would divert foodstuffs to Germany and starve some thirty million people in the succeeding months; a Generalplan Ost for the deportation, assimilation, enslavement, or murder of the remaining population in the succeeding years; and a Final Solution, now generally depicted as the deportation of Jews eastward beyond the lands conquered by Germany in the war.”

The Poles, Russians and others would be sorted into those who would be racially acceptable, and those who would be kept as slaves. The rest were to die—some sooner, and some later. The notion of deportation seemed to mean release in Siberia where presumably most, including the Jews, would be left to die.

Snyder says that at the onset of the war with Russia there was no formulated plan to kill all the Jews. They were to share their demise with tens of millions of others. Based on Longerich’s work, the fate of the Jews appears like an evolving response to changing events rather than a master plan imposed from Berlin.

Snyder suggests that it was the political style of the Nazi’s to hint at desired solutions, but allow subordinates to actually make fateful decisions as a way of forming a bond of guilt.

“The political style of Hitler and other Nazi leaders was to issue general guidelines and to expect subordinates to find the ways to realize them. This meant that participants in Nazi crimes, both before and during the war, acted as creative conformists.”

The political and military leaders in Poland and captured lands to the East were told to “Germanify” the lands, with Himmler having the lead authority in this area. What this term meant was not very clear, but it certainly gave them authority to address the resident Jewish populations. The response in some areas was to form ghettos and convert the able-bodied into workers. In other areas mass killings were begun, mostly by shooting. Meanwhile, Jews were continuing to be shipped eastward in preparation for an ultimate destination after victory. But the victory never came and the number of Jews kept increasing. Some efficient response would have to be made. It would be Himmler who would take the lead.

“Killing was not the original technique of the Final Solution, but it was the technique whose efficacy Himmler proved. Longerich’s magnificent biography of Himmler reveals him navigating among different policies of destruction, finding the ways to match Hitler’s immediate needs with Germany’s practical possibilities.”

“It was only in the summer of 1942, Longerich maintains, that mass killing was finally understood as the realization of the Final Solution, rather than as an extensively violent preliminary to some later program of slave labor and deportation to the lands of a conquered USSR.”

The exact path to the eventual “final solution” can be left to the historians to argue over. Ferguson’s interests are more relevant to understanding what happened during that period and what it implies for humanity. The industrialized killing of millions of Jews is certainly horrific and incomprehensible today. But is that more troubling than the ease with which individuals became capable of killing other individuals, or the spontaneous ethnic cleansing operations that occurred throughout the Eastern front?

Ferguson relates the story of a German battalion that was given the task of murdering Jews in a Polish town. They were given the choice of participating or not. Most chose to take part. This was at a time before the Germans learned certain efficiencies. These soldiers spent seventeen hours one day putting bullets in the heads of individual Jews—seventeen hours getting sprayed by blood, bone chips, and chunks of brain. But they were able to do it.

Ferguson provides tales of Poles deciding to murder their neighboring Jews even before the Germans arrived. He tells tales of Poles being killed by Ukrainians by such barbarous means that the mind shudders, wanting to disbelieve.

Ferguson’s account can be viewed as a history of ethnic violence. There was violence on a macro scale where Germans invaded Poland and the USSR with a license to kill any or all they encountered. The Russians swept back across the conquered territory and into Germany intent on returning the favor. On the micro scale, neighbor turned against neighbor as stronger groups tried to murder weaker groups. This ethnic violence did not abate until after the war when the allied occupational forces ushered scattered peoples back within national boundaries.

One can get a feeling for the wholesale slaughter that occurred from the casualty figures. The difference between conventional war and war of “annihilation” becomes obvious.

Germany swept across France and was ultimately pushed back. In the process, France lost 1.35% of its population, with 568,000 military and civilian deaths. The same thing happened in the USSR, but the equivalent casualty figures are 13.7% and 26.6 million killed (15.9 million civilians). Individual republics fared even worse.

Armenia    13.6%
Belarus      25.3%
Latvia        13.7%
Russia       12.7%
Ukraine     16.3%

It is not surprising that Poland suffered enormous casualties with 16.1-16.7% of its population killed.

It is particularly disturbing to note that civilian deaths far outnumbered military deaths in this war. That cannot be interpreted as a sign of progress for humanity. In many cases those deaths were of the traditional kind expected in warfare. However, a number of moral dilemmas appeared as new killing opportunities presented themselves, and humanity should not be proud of the choices it made.

How does one rank evil? Clearly, German soldiers marching civilians into gas chambers for execution is very evil. How does that compare with sending young men in planes to drop incendiary devices on Japanese civilians living in paper and wood homes? One bombing raid on Tokyo is said to have killed as many as 100,000 people, mostly civilians. Is there a moral equivalence here? In both cases soldiers were merely following orders, and in both cases the result was the killing of civilians in pursuit of some strategic goal. Robert S. McNamara participated in the planning of those bombing missions. He stated that if we had lost the war, we would definitely have been deemed guilty of war crimes. One supposes that many Nazis had that same thought.

Curtis Lemay was responsible for those bombing missions over Japan. He is also the same person who advocated a preemptive nuclear strike against the USSR that he expected would kill millions of civilians. At what point does someone like Lemay become the moral equivalent of Himmler?

War is a terrible thing. It forces humans to behave terribly, but does it also allow humans to behave terribly? Ferguson fears it may involve quite a bit of the latter supposition. The extensive violence of one ethnic group against another, may suggest vestiges of mankind’s thousands of generations as a hunter-gatherer where any encroachment of “the other” would be seen as an existential threat.

Whatever the source of these violent tendencies, it is not clear that any fundamental change has occurred. It would be difficult to conclude that the circumstances that triggered the violence of the twentieth century could not be reproduced in the twenty-first.

Perhaps keeping fresh our remembrance of this era will help us to avoid repeating past mistakes.

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