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May 10, 2005

The Allies' tainted triumph

WW2 plaque.jpgV-E Day - the day on which the Allies remember their victory over Nazi Germany during World War II - fell on Mother's Day this year, so the 60th anniversary celebrations seemed somewhat muted. In that regard, British historian Niall Ferguson reminds us in this LA Times op-ed that, despite the courage of the Allied forces in ridding the world of the monstrous Axis powers, we should not forget the moral compromises that were part of the price of winning the war:

Most historians today would give the lion's share of the credit for the Allied victory to the Soviet Union. It was, after all, the Soviets who suffered the largest number of wartime casualties (about 25 million). That reflected in large measure the appalling barbarity with which the Germans waged the war on the Eastern Front. Yet it also reflected the indifference of Stalin's totalitarian regime to the lives and rights of its own citizens. It might have been expected that in the crisis of war, Stalin would suspend the terror that had characterized his regime in the 1930s. On the contrary. The lowest estimates for the period (1942-1945) indicate that 7 million Soviet citizens lost their lives via political executions, deportations or death in the gulag system. All of this reminds us that to defeat an enemy they routinely denounced as barbaric, the Western powers made common cause with an ally that was morally little better.
At Potsdam and in the subsequent Nuremberg trials the victors also struck splendidly sanctimonious poses. The leaders of Germany and Japan had "set in motion evils which [left] no home in the world untouched." Yet the Soviet Union had been on Hitler's side in 1939, something the Baltic states invaded by Stalin have not forgotten.

As for the rest of Central and Eastern Europe, it suffered a similar fate in 1945. Britain had gone to war with Germany ostensibly to prevent Poland from being overrun by Germany, as Czechoslovakia had been. Yet within a few years of the war's end, the whole of Eastern and Central Europe up to the River Elbe was firmly under Stalin's iron fist.

While noting that the Allied bombing campaigns restricted German's ability to mobilize its war economy, diverted key German resources from the Eastern Front and ended the war with Japan, Mr. Ferguson notes that the campaigns also raise serious moral questions:

[T]he destruction caused by the British and American air forces in their bombing campaigns against civilian populations in Germany and Japan is hardly something we can look back on with pride. Hamburg was destroyed in a firestorm code-named Operation Gomorrah; about 45,000 people died. Similar numbers perished when Dresden was bombed. Tokyo was literally incinerated in a raid that killed between 83,000 and 100,000 people, maybe more.

Such bombing was precisely what the U.S. State Department had denounced as "unwarranted and contrary to principles of law and humanity" in 1937, when the Japanese bombed Chinese cities. And it was precisely what Neville Chamberlain, Winston Churchill's predecessor as prime minister, had dismissed as "mere terrorism," to which "His Majesty's government [would] never resort."

After the war, the charges against the Japanese leaders who stood trial included "the wholesale destruction of human lives, not alone on the field of battle, but in the homes, hospitals, and orphanages, in factories and fields." Yet this had been the very essence of the Allied policy of strategic bombing.

Mr. Ferguson is no half-baked historian who fails to recognize the moral superiority of the Allied cause during WWII, so he concludes in the following measured manner:

None of this is intended to detract from the valor of the millions of Allied service personnel who lost or risked their lives in World War II. Nor is it to deny that the war had to be fought to rid the world of two of the most evil empires in all history. There is a moral difference between Auschwitz and Hiroshima. The Axis cities would never have been bombed if the Axis powers had not launched their war of aggression. And the Axis powers would have killed even more innocent people had it not been for the determination of the Allied powers to prevail.

Nevertheless, we would do well, this V-E Day, to face some harsh realities about the nature of the Allied victory, if only to remind ourselves about the nature of all wars. To win World War II, we joined forces with a despot who was every bit as brutal a tyrant as Hitler; we adopted tactics that we ourselves had said were depraved; and we left too many of those we set out to liberate firmly in the grip of totalitarianism.

Hat tip to Professor Bainbridge for the link to Mr. Ferguson's piece.

Also, Deutsche Welle has this outstanding collection of photo essays that show then-and-now pictures of World War II.

Posted by Tom at May 10, 2005 5:27 AM |


Great article.

Posted by: TP at May 10, 2005 9:43 AM

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