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

Other Brits are more grimly bloody-minded than insouciantly dashing. The RAF’s Sir Arthur Harris was determined to bomb Germany into submission. He believed he could break the morale of the German population by relentless night bombing, and he regarded anyone who doubted him as a fainthearted gentleman. Pilots and airmen who broke down under the strain (2,989 of them) were labeled LMF, “Lacking in Moral Fibre.” In the summer of 1943, “Bomber Harris” devised Operation Gomorrah to burn Hamburg. Incendiary bombs created a chimney or volcano of heat, sucking hurricane-force winds to spread the fire. At seventeen thousand feet, the aircrews could smell the burning flesh. Over three nights in February 1945, Harris’s bombers, aided by American bombers, leveled Dresden. “The fact that this baroque jewel on the Elbe was one of the great architectural and artistic treasures of Europe did not concern him for a moment,” writes Beevor. In addition to seeking to impress Stalin with Allied air power, “Harris was also keen to attack Dresden simply because it remained one of the few major cities which had not yet been flattened.”

Harris’s strategy failed. The German people remained stoic, and their leaders refused to give up, in part because they feared being hanged as war criminals. (“Hitler’s greatest fear was not execution, but of being captured and taken back to Moscow in a cage.”) Invasion and absolute victory were the only answer to Hitler’s Götterdämmerung. The endgame, as played by the Red Army in Beevor’s telling, is appalling.

“Russian solders were raping every German female from eight to eighty,” observed Soviet war correspondent Natalya Gesse, a friend of the Soviet nuclear scientist Andrei Sakharov. “It was an army of rapists. Not only because they were crazed with lust, this was also a form of vengeance.” Beevor writes: “Altogether on German territory some two million women and girls are thought to have been raped.” East Prussia saw the worst of it. When the Red Army arrived at a hunting lodge that had belonged to the Prussian royal family and been used by Reich Marshal Hermann Göring, a Russian soldier used black paint to write khuy, the Russian word for “prick,” across a nude of Aphrodite by Rubens. The Russians did liberate Auschwitz, where the Germans were trying to cover up the evidence but left 328,820 men’s suits, 836,255 women’s coats and dresses, and several tons of human hair (good for making warm clothes for the German army).

I have dwelled on Beevor’s recounting of the European war, but he is equally devastating in his description of the war in the Pacific. The cruelties were no less gruesome. U.S. Air Force commander General Curtis LeMay was an even more efficient fire bomber than “Bomber Harris,” incinerating one hundred thousand residents in Tokyo in one night in March 1945. For sheer sadism and beastliness, the Japanese may take the prize. In New Guinea and Borneo, they ate their prisoners. “The practice of treating prisoners as ‘human cattle’ had not come about from a collapse of discipline,” writes Beevor. “It was usually directed by officers.” Because the subject was deemed too upsetting for the families of soldiers who died in the Pacific War, the Allies suppressed the evidence of cannibalism at the war-crime trials in Tokyo in 1946. (Another statistic that didn’t make the American papers: over ten days after the arrival of U.S. troops at Yokohama on August 30, 1945, there were 1,336 cases of rape reported in the city and surrounding region.)

In all the poor judgment, not to say madness, that went into World War II, the Japanese hold a special place. There is considerable evidence that many in the Japanese leadership knew they were going to lose if they attacked the United States. But fatalistic and obsessed with national honor, they dropped their bombs on Pearl Harbor anyway.

Evan Thomas is the author of Sea of Thunder and The War Lovers. His biography of President Eisenhower, Ike’s Bluff: President Eisenhower’s Secret Battle to Save the World, will be published in September by Little, Brown and Co.

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