The Epic Madness of World War II

August 22, 2012 Topics: EthicsHistory

The Epic Madness of World War II

Mini Teaser: Antony Beevor’s The Second World War plunges the reader into the heart of darkness by rendering an intensely personal narrative of a war that stretched across several continents over nearly a decade.

by Author(s): Evan Thomas

HITLER’S BLIND self-regard was exceeded only by Stalin’s. The Kremlin dictator cynically allied with his avowed archenemy. He even accommodated Hitler’s anti-Semitism. On May 3, 1939, troops of the NKVD, the Kremlin’s secret police, surrounded the commissariat of foreign affairs. “Purge the ministry of Jews,” Stalin ordered. “Clean out the ‘synagogue.’” Then he remained in complete denial as Hitler prepared to turn on Russia by massing an army of 140 divisions along its border. The Russian dictator believed the Germans’ protestations that they were just relocating troops beyond the range of British bombers. Warnings of more sinister motivations were dismissed by Stalin as angliiskaya provokatsia, provocations planted by English spies. Truth tellers were shot for spreading “disinformation.” Stalin’s appeasement of Hitler was so complete that in June 1941, trains bearing food and fuel from Russia to Germany passed trains carrying German troops to invade Russia.

The Red Army was ill prepared for the German onslaught. Stalin had purged most of its best generals. Huddled in the Kremlin as the Wehrmacht stormed eastward in the summer of 1941, Stalin seemed to despair. “Lenin founded our state,” he was known to say, “and we’ve fucked it up.”

He was saved by the vastness of the motherland and the stubbornness of its people. German army officers were depressed by Russia’s endless flatness and the willingness of her soldiers to fight back. German intelligence reckoned on two hundred enemy divisions and encountered 360. Obsolete Russian warplanes rammed the German planes head-on. The Russians found that women made good snipers; they resisted cold better and had steadier hands. (The female snipers often had to do double duty as “campaign wives” for their commanders.)

Not all Russians volunteered. The People’s Levy, a mass conscription, was thrown into murderous attacks, literally acting, in the Russian phrase, as “meat for cannon.” One survey of a thousand hospitalized soldiers found that almost half had shot themselves in the left hand or forearm to avoid frontline combat. Confessing to self-inflicted wounds, they were sent to “punishment companies” to walk through minefields.

The ghastliest sideshow on the eastern front was Leningrad, a city of 2.5 million, four hundred thousand of them children. Hitler intended to pave over the city and give the land to Finland. First, he would starve it out. During the 880-day siege of Leningrad, roughly a million civilians died of hunger and disease—more than the toll of all American and British soldiers killed in World War II.

Hitler’s generals faced a logistical quandary: How to feed the Wehrmacht’s three million men and six hundred thousand horses? The perversely social Darwinian answer was to save food by starving the Russians. Under the “Hunger Plan,” Russian POWS would not be fed but rather “turned out to pasture,” like cows. Two-thirds of the three million Russian POWS died on forced marches across a frozen and burned land. The Germans didn’t want their trains “infected” by a “foul-smelling” mass.

The German invasion was meant to be a war of extermination. Hitler wanted to get rid of thirty million Soviet citizens, leaving just enough to be slaves in a German “Garden of Eden.” In the meantime, Russian women were rounded up and placed into official brothels. This was awkward; by German law, sex with untermenschen (subhumans) was forbidden. Still, rules had to be bent to maintain discipline over the troops and control venereal disease. The plight of the Ukrainians, abused first by Russians and then by Germans, is especially pitiable. Some Christian Orthodox Ukrainians, seeing the black crosses on German armored vehicles, prayed that the Germans had come to deliver them from godless Bolshevism.

The Germans arrived at the gates of Moscow along with the Russian winter. With temperatures falling to thirty degrees below centigrade, the number of soldiers lost to frostbite in the Wehrmacht—which lacked proper winter coats—exceeded the number wounded by Soviet fire. The Germans took to sawing off the legs of frozen comrades and melting the limbs before a fire, the better to pull off and reuse their boots.

Now it was Hitler’s turn to go into denial. He simply disbelieved reports of new Russian armies and ordered his troops to stand and die, which they did, holding ground so that German soldiers could perish in even greater numbers over the next two years in abattoirs like Stalingrad.

BACK IN the fatherland, Hitler’s toadies were grappling with more logistics. What to do about the “Jewish problem”? The Nazis had hoped to push the fifteen million Jews of Europe eastward, across the Urals, to forage or starve with the thirty-odd million uprooted Slavs. But with the Russian line holding at Moscow and the ghettos and concentration camps filling in Prussia and Poland, a disposal problem loomed.

Hitler had hinted strongly at the “final solution.” In 1939, on the sixth anniversary of his taking power, he predicted, “If international Jewry inside and outside Europe should succeed in plunging the nations once more into a world war, the result will be not the Bolshevization of the earth and therefore the victory of Jewry, but the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe.” Beevor writes: “Breathtaking confusion of cause and effect lay at the heart of Hitler’s obsessive network of lies and self-deception.”

Yet Hitler himself shied from seeing the literal consequences of his demonic logic. Fearful of being held responsible for genocide, he was also squeamish about the details. “His desire to keep violence abstract was a significant psychological paradox in one who had done more than almost anyone else in history to promote it,” observes Beevor.

German efficiency does not describe Hitler’s Reich. A chaotic overlapping bureaucracy of death competed to please the Führer and fulfill his “prophesy.”

At first, the killing was haphazard and piecemeal. Heinrich Himmler, Hitler’s chief executioner as commander of the dreaded SS, initially regarded genocide as the “Bolshevik method,” at once “un-German” and “impossible.” For a brief time, he thought of shipping the Jews someplace far away, like Madagascar. As the Wehrmacht drove eastward, Einsatzgruppen death squads, roughly three thousand men of the SS, began shooting male Jews and driving women and children into the swamps. (The SS was an intellectual elite; most Einsatzgruppen commanders had doctorates from Germany’s great old universities.) These clever men figured out how to stack bodies in open graves to waste fewer bullets (this was known as “the sardine method”). Cruder SS thugs enjoyed burning the beards of rabbis. Soon the SS was killing Jewish women and children, too, so that no one would be left alive to seek revenge.

But slaughter by guns and explosives was messy and inefficient. Over the course of late 1941 and early 1942, the “Shoah by bullets” gave way to the “Shoah by gas”—industrialized murder.

The Germans had practiced with euthanasia on “degenerates,” “useless mouths” and “lives unworthy of life.” Beginning in July 1939, under a program set up by Hitler’s personal physician, parents began sending off lame or mentally disturbed children to be “better cared for” than at home. The children did not come back; “Died from ‘pneumonia’” was the explanation. Many were gassed. In Poland, the Nazis began experimenting with sealed trucks and exhaust fumes. At Auschwitz, an insecticide called Zyklon B was used for the first time in an improvised gas chamber.

Himmler himself came to observe. He was concerned for the “spiritual welfare” of the executioners who were getting stomachaches and nightmares from shooting Jews. Gas was tidier. Himmler also recommended sing-alongs for the guards. He did not neglect music for the doomed inmates. When he came to inspect Auschwitz in the summer of 1942, the camp orchestra of Jewish musicians played the triumphal march from Verdi’s Aida. The Nazis had a sick sense of humor: supplies of Zyklon B were delivered in vans marked with the Red Cross.

Beevor notes that some have claimed that the production-line method of Auschwitz was “influenced by” Henry Ford, the American car magnate who had in turn borrowed the efficiencies of Chicago slaughterhouses. Ford was a virulent anti-Semite; Hitler hung his portrait on the wall of his office in Munich. But Beevor cautions that no real evidence has emerged that Ford production lines were in fact copied by the extermination camps.

DESPITE SHOWING the oppressive and almost indiscriminate depravity of war, Beevor does not fall into the trap of moral equivalence. Churchill and FDR were right; World War II was a battle of light against darkness, freedom against tyranny. That does not, however, mean that the Allies were free of moral opprobrium or that their commanders were not sometimes pigheaded butchers.

Beevor’s fellow Britons come across as obtuse, sometimes charmingly so. British soldiers evacuated from Dunkirk, where their wounds filled with maggots, are speechless at the sight of cricketers dressed in white, playing away on green fields as the hospital trains chug by. Shot down in a dogfight over southern England, a Pole flying with the RAF parachutes into an exclusive tennis club. Someone signs him in as a guest, finds a spare set of flannels and hands him a racquet so he can join in the tournament.

Pullquote: Beevor’s contribution is to show convincingly how World War II, which Americans have come to regard as “the Good War,” was an epically stupid war, not to mention degrading and dehumanizing beyond belief.Image: Essay Types: Book Review