Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Horrors of world war II

I have read a fair bit about World War II and seen some excellent documentaries. Nevertheless, some of the facts and figures about the human costs of the war, mentioned in two books reviewed by the Economist, came as a revelation:

  • 70 m deaths of which two-thirds were non-combatants
  • 15 m Chinese deaths and 27 m Soviet deaths ( I was aware of the latter but not the former)
  • Red army soldiers chopped of the legs of dead Germans. They wanted the boots which could be had only after the legs had been defrosted
  • Outside Leningrad, scene of one of the epic battles of the war, amputated limbs were stolen from hospitals and corpses from mass graves to be used as sources of food
  • In Leningrad city itself, 2000 people were arrested for cannibalism; children were at risk of being eaten by their parents
  • The Japanese threw thousands of prisoners into burning papers and killed locals for meat
  • The Soviet army, fighting its way to Berlin, raped an estimated 2 m women and girls.
In sheer scale of brutality, World War II has few parallels in history.

I liked the reviewer's criticism of one of the book's praise of the fighting qualities of Soviet, Japanese and German soldiers compared to those of the allies:

Mr Hastings’s repeated admiration for the fighting qualities of German, Japanese and Soviet soldiers compared with British and American forces is especially trying. Germany and Japan were militarised societies that glorified war and conquest, held human life to be cheap and regarded obedience to the state as the highest virtue. Russian soldiers were inured to the harsh brutalities of Soviet rule and driven on by the knowledge that they were fighting “a war of annihilation” against an implacable enemy. If they wavered, they knew they would be shot by NKVD enforcers. More than 300,000 were killed pour encourager les autres.

The majority of the civilian soldiers of the Western democracies, by contrast, just wanted to survive and return to normal life as soon as possible. That also meant that American and British generals had to eschew the dashing aggression of their Russian and German counterparts, who could squander lives with impunity.

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