Europe at War 1939-1945: No Simple Victory
By Norman Davies
Macmillan | London | 2006 | £25 | ISBN 0-333-69285-3 |544pp
More than 60 years have passed since the Second World War ended in Europe. Surely this is time enough to dispel myths and to establish a grand synthesis of “the Good War”, as Studs Terkel entitled his famous oral history. Yet despite the abundance of documents, history texts, movies and novels, the distinguished British historian Norman Davies finds that most notions of the war are based on “dubious historical assumptions”.
When pressed, most people’s knowledge of the war in Europe is highlighted in Steven Spielberg’s brilliant films Saving Private Ryan and Schindler’s List: the heroism of the “greatest generation” and the unspeakable depravity of the Holocaust. But terrible as these are, they leave most of what happened between 1939 and 1945 in darkness.
For example, what was the biggest battle of the war? Most Americans and British would probably say Operation Overlord, the invasion of Normandy. Indeed, it was big — about 132,000 men died in six weeks. But in Operation Barbarossa, Hitler’s blitzkrieg towards Moscow, which lasted about six months, 1,582,000 died. If you could do sums in human suffering, the Eastern Front would easily win.
Or in which theatre did the armies fight the hardest? In terms of millions of man-months at war, it was also the Eastern Front. All told, the campaigns in North Africa, Italy and the Western Front absorbed 25.9 million man-months. The figure for the Eastern Front was 406 million.
Even the question of who won the war is hardly clear-cut. Nazi Germany undoubtedly lost. But if the liberal democracies were fighting to bring the light of democracy and freedom to Europe, it is hard to say that they triumphed. Eastern Europe disappeared behind an Iron Curtain erected by America and Britain’s erstwhile ally, the Soviet Union. Despite the despicable nature of the regime and its paranoiac and bloodthirsty rule, the USSR “fought the final phase of the war as the strongest power in Europe”, with millions of people shackled to Communist regimes for more than 40 years. Astonishingly, the allies who had planned D-Day so meticulously failed to nail down what they meant by “spheres of influence”.
Bubble-bursting conclusions like this keep tumbling out of the pages of Davies’s book. He concludes that it was the Soviet Union which defeated the Nazi war machine, with the British and Americans providing little more than “a sound supporting role” in the European theatre. Lest he seem a revisionist leftist or left-over Stalinist or a cranky anti-American, he is not. As an Oxford don who made his reputation with God’s Playground, a fine history of Poland, he simply wants a history stripped of nationalistic bias. Europe at War is the latest installment in his efforts to emphasise the importance of the “peripheries” in contemporary history.
Davies’s survey opens with the apparently simple issue of when the war began. A new memorial in Washington DC, which was built for the sixtieth anniversary of its conclusion, bears the words “World War Two, 1941-45”. The Poles, the British, the Norwegians, the French, the Dutch, the Belgians and the Danes, amongst others, feel differently. Michael Caine, the British actor, is said to have withdrawn his children from an American school when they told him that the war began in 1941.
A balanced viewpoint matters. Unless the United States, the world’s dominant power at the moment, acknowledges the sufferings and contributions made by other countries in the past, it is sure to misjudge their motives and reactions in the present. After reading Europe at War, the American reaction to 9/11 immediately springs to mind. Davies points out that the human and material losses sustained by the Poles in 1944 Warsaw Rising were 60 times as great as New York suffered on 11 September 2001 – “a World Trade Center disaster every day for two months”. Some European countries endured suffering for which there are no words – and no Hollywood movies. Britain’s civilian losses amounted to 0.1 per cent of its population. This was lamentable, but how can it be compared to 18 per cent in Poland and 25 per cent in Byelorussia?
In his iconoclastic way, Davies pricks the bubble of complacent historians by constantly raising the twin issues of proportionality and criminality. The first is directed at his Western colleagues: “the largest space and the greatest emphasis [should] be given to the biggest and most decisive events”. It would be odd, he suggests, for a history of the War to focus on the campaign in Luxembourg. Similarly, a history of the War which devotes 50 pages to D-Day and 5 lines to the crucial Battle of Kursk, in which Hitler’s forces were finally whipped and forced to retreat, is simply not objective.
Criminality is an issue for historians who want to depict World War II as “The Good War”, principally in Russia, but also in the liberal democracies. Stalin was every bit as evil as Hitler. While the Nazis built Auschwitz, where 450,000 are believed to have perished, the Soviet concentration camps were far more numerous and far bigger. The Dalstroy, in northeastern Siberia, is estimated to have devoured 3 million lives over about three decades. German treatment of its 5.2 million Soviet POWs was merciless, with most of them dying within a few months of capture. But about half of the 4.5 million German POWs held by the Soviets perished. Survivors did not return home until 1953. With Stalin as an ally, it is hard to characterize the conflict as a “good war”.
Furthermore, the liberal democracies, for all their insistence on high ideals, had a record which was far from spotless. Davies has a particular contempt for the carpet bombing of cities in Germany and elsewhere, in which tens of thousands of civilians were incinerated “for no known military purpose”. Thousands of soldiers were also forcibly repatriated by the Allies to the Soviets and shot immediately or sent to Siberia.
Apart from serving as a provocative icebreaker in conversations, Europe at War is a bottomless source of anecdotes and movie scenarios. In some respects an unconventional author (his short history of Poland opens with the present and concludes with the beginning), Davies divides his latest book into chapters on military action, diplomacy, stories of soldiers and stories of civilians. The latter are illuminating, gut-wrenching and sometimes entertaining. I had never, for instance, heard of Pearl Witherington, a young British woman in occupied France who ran a network of 1,500 agents and saboteurs. She was awarded an MBE for civil distinction, because only men were given Military Crosses. She declined, saying, “I have done nothing civil”.
Michael Cook is Editor of MercatorNet.