Reflections on the 70th Anniversary of VE Day: The Price of Victory

Synopsis

In commemoration of the 70th anniversary of VE Day, I discuss the immensity of the victory that was achieved over the Germans, the cost of that victory, and the German perspective and experience in facing utter defeat. I conclude with some thoughts on the future of Europe, and the need for continued vigilance in the face of re-emergent nationalistic movements.

The History

Seventy years ago today, representatives of the German High Command signed the Instrument of Surrender document, by which all German forces were to lay down their arms and surrener unconditionally to the Allies. This day (and on May 9th in Russia owing to time zone differences) has since been commemorated as VE day, celebrating victory in the European Theatre of the Second World War, and the final, complete defeat of Nazi Germany.

The Victory

VE day commemorates one of the greatest military victories in modern history. For some four years during the period 1940-1944, most of continental Europe was under the direct or indirect control of Nazi Germany. This brutal regime was responsible for the murder of millions of Jews, Gypsies, Russians, Poles, and others who fell under its rule, and the enslavement of millions more on its farms and in its war factories. Freedoms were quashed, human rights ignored, and basic human dignity abandoned on an immense scale. Goods, resources, and treasures of all sorts were looted, stolen, seized, and stripped from all over Europe to feed the German war machine, and to maintain the living standards of the German people (particularly the Nazi elite).

The defeat of this monstrously evil regime is a task of which all those who contributed ought to be indescribably proud. Though the Allies were themselves not blameless in their conduct, and the Stalinist regime in Russia was in at least some ways quite as bad as the Nazis against whom they fought, nonetheless it must be said that the defeat of the Nazi regime is an unequivocally good outcome, one worthy of our jubilant celebration.

The Cost

Whist celebrating the achievement, however, we must not lose sight of the immense cost of the victory. The Germans were an exceedingly formidable enemy, not at all like the bumbling, goose-stepping, Hitler-heiling buffoons who cannot aim a rifle, as they are so often depicted in Hollywood films. The German army was, arguably, the most proficient fighting force in the world at the time. The German soldiers were well-trained, tightly disciplined, and led by an extremely competent and professional General Staff. The German military was equipped with some of the finest and most advanced military hardware in the world at the time, including (by the end of the war), the first jet aircraft, assault rifles, and the exceptionally well armed and armoured Tiger tanks. Though there often were not enough of the latest equipment to go around, the fact remains that the German military was an exceptionally competent force: it fielded well-built aircraft manned by skilled pilots, modern tanks commanded by officers well trained to exercise initiative in combat situations, and was comprised of soldiers who, until the very end, fought fiercely and ably for their Fatherland. British historian Max Hastings has said of the German army: “there’s no doubt that man for man, the German army was the greatest fighting force of the second world war”.

The immense difficulty of the task of defeating this formidable force is illustrated by the casualties suffered by the Allies in doing so. Nearly one million soldiers from the western allies, including France, the United States, and Britain and its Empire, died in the fight against the Germans. As staggering as this number is, it is dwarfed by the mammoth losses suffered by the Soviet military, which are estimated at around 11 million killed. In total, around 12.5 million allied soldiers died in the fight against the Germans and their allies in the European theatre, in addition to perhaps 25 or 30 million civilians.

The toll was not only heavy in terms of human lives. The British Empire, United States, and Soviet Union all had to devote over one half of their entire national output for a period of some four years to the war effort, representing a titanic commitment of resources. Years of ground fighting, aerial bombardment, resource shortages, and other wartime-induced hardships and damage left the continent in ruins, with aerial or ground combat taking place in the modern-day nations of: Poland, Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Belgium, France, Britain, Italy, Albania, Libya, Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia, Greece, Kosovo, Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Russia, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Austria, and Germany. Many of the great capitals of Europe were badly damaged by bombing or ground combat, including London, Rome, Athens, Belgrade, Budapest, Leningrad, Warsaw, Vienna, and Berlin – Paris was luckily mostly spared. The immense cost at which the victory over the Germans came is something that must never be forgotten.

The German Perspective

It is important and valuable, I think, to pause in our recollections for a moment to consider, as is seldom done in Allied nations, the German perspective on VE Day. Hitler had promised the German people a new beginning. He promised an end to the humiliation suffered following the First World War, a restoration of their lost territories, and the establishment of a strong, proud, respected German Reich which would be a home for all the Germans throughout Europe. They were promised a Volksgemeinschaft, a national community established to promote the welfare of all German people, operating in a spirit of brotherhood and mutual commitment. They were promised the establishment of a New Order in Europe, a continent unified under the hegemony of Germany, which at last would finally achieve the pre-eminence and the expansion room for German settlers that it deserved. It was the dawning of a new golden age for Germany, the beginning of the Thousand Year Reich.

The sacrifice made by the German people in fulfilment of this dream was immense. About 5.3 million German soldiers were killed in the war, and when several million civilian deaths from famine, disease, war crimes, and allied bombing are added, the total death toll amounted to roughly 10% of the pre-war population of Greater Germany. Notwithstanding the many promises made to them, ultimately this sacrifice was all in vain. By the conclusion of hostilities, the German state had been completely destroyed, its leadership killed or captured, its government ceased to exist and the entirety of its territory occupied by its enemies. Almost all major German cities lay in ruins, devastated by years of allied bombing which left tens of millions homeless. In addition, millions of German women were raped by Soviet soldiers as they fought their way through Germany’s Eastern provinces, while some 30 million Germans from the East were forced to leave their homes, the terriroties in which they had lived to be transferred to other countries.

Perhaps never before in modern history has a large, modern state been so overwhelmingly and completely defeated, subdued, and destroyed. There is even a word to describe this victory by total destruction of the enemy state: debellation. The unconditional nature of the German surrender left them with no negotiating power at all. German independence was not properly restored until 1955, and even then the allies retained certain special rights over Germany until the Treaty on the Final Settlement with Respect to Germany was signed in 1991.

By the end of the war, the spirit of the German people had been completely crushed. Their dreams and everything they had worked for twelve years to build, destroyed. They now faced a legacy of shame for the monstrous crimes they committed, a shame which continues to haunt the German people to this day.

The Legacy

Today, seventy years later, Europe is a very different place. Its cities have been rebuilt, Governments re-established, and freedoms restored, and in many places even established for the first time. The German dream of a united Europe is at long last being achieved, though in a very different form. For all its faults, the European Union represents a fundamental shift in European politics and society, a putting aside of the old national rivalries which have been the cause of so much suffering and death. Now the nations of Europe are coming together in a spirit of cooperation and friendship to work together for the common good.

We must also recognise the continued threats to peace and freedom that still lurk within many European nations. In times of uncertainty and difficulty, such as recently occurred following the global financial crises, we tend to observe a rise in nationalistic xenophobia, a turning inwards and away from the ideals of European community and brotherhood. The recent rise in anti-Semitic attacks and other incidents in France, Germany, and elsewhere is a particularly disturbing manifestation of this.

As we celebrate this anniversary of VE Day, therefore, we rejoice at the victory that was achieved, mourn at the immense cost at which this victory came, and reflect on how we can work towards a better, fairer, kinder future, one in which the horror and barbarity experienced by Europe during five long years of war will not be repeated.

Lest We Forget.

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70 Years after Auschwitz: Reflections on the Holocaust

Introduction

Seventy years ago, on the 27th of January 1945, elements of the 332nd Rifle Division of the Red Army liberated the concentration and extermination camps at Auschwitz. This date is now commemorated as International Holocaust Remembrance Day, in remembrance of the six million Jews murdered by Nazi Germany and its allies during the Second World War.

The word ‘holocaust’ derives from the Greek holókauston, and refers to a religious sacrifice in which the offering is completely burnt. The word was used for centuries to refer to great massacres, and in the decades following the World War II it become the term preferred by English-speaking scholars to refer to the genocide of the Jewish people by Nazi Germany. The Hebrew term for the event is Shoah, which means ‘catastrophe’, a term I think is probably more fitting, however in this article I shall adhere to convention and use the word ‘holocaust’ to refer specifically to the genocide of the Jewish peoples of Europe during World War II.

In this short piece I cannot possibly do justice to an event of such monumental importance and scope, and so I will not try do to so. Instead, I shall restrict myself to sharing some thoughts and observations regarding specific aspects of the Holocaust that I find especially important and interesting.

Uniqueness

The Holocaust, in my view, was a singular and distinct historical event. There have of course been many other genocides and atrocities both before and since, but the Holocaust possessed certain features which I think make it unique. In particular, the Holocaust was distinct from other genocides in the organised, mechanised, systematic manner in which the killings were carried out. In the words of German historian Eberhard Jäckel:

“Never before had a state with the authority of its responsible leader decided and announced that a specific human group, including its aged, its women and its children and infants, would be killed as quickly as possible, and then carried through this resolution using every possible means of state power.”

The Holocaust was such an immense logistical and organisational undertaking that essentially every branch of the German state apparatus participated to one degree or other: records of Jewish identity were supplied by the Interior Ministry and local churches, the Post Office delivered deportation and other administrative orders, the Finance Ministry was responsible for confiscating Jewish property and the Reichsbank for laundering stolen money and valuables, universities expelled Jewish students and academics, government-operated railways transported millions of prisoners to concentration and extermination camps, while German companies tested drugs on concentration camp prisoners, bid for contracts to build the crematoria, and provided technologies such as punch card machines and Zyklon-B used in the extermination process. The Holocaust was truly an undertaking which spanned the breadth and depth of the Reich’s state apparatus – it was a national endeavour.

In other religiously-based genocides throughout history (including Jewish pogroms of centuries past), members of the target group were usually able to escape death by conversion (or pretending to convert), but this was not the case during the Holocaust. Anyone with at least three Jewish grandparents who had not converted before 1871 was to be executed, irrespective of their professed religious beliefs. This policy reflected Nazi ideologies concerning the importance of maintaining the purity of the Aryan race, and that the contaminating element of Jewish identity was not primarily social or ideological but biological.

Another unique feature of the Holocaust was the use of extermination camps. As far as I have been able to determine, this is the only time in history where facilities have been established specifically for the mass execution of an entire class of people (as distinct from killing selected persons for religious, entertainment, or judicial purposes). The use of gas chambers for mass murder was definitely a German innovation, one which came after extensive experimentation with different methods of most easily and efficiently killing large groups of people. Other methods that were trialled included shooting, lethal injections, and gas vans, before eventually the Germans settled on the method of extermination by gas chambers, which was found to be capable of dealing with large number of victims quickly, and also placed less of a psychological strain on the perpetrating SS soldiers then did methods like mass shootings.

The Germans rapidly developed a precise and orderly system for conducting mass executions. Jews were rounded up at the point of origin, loaded onto goods trains, and transported to the extermination camps, under the guise that they were to be ‘resettled’. Once at the camps, those seemed fit to work were used for slave labour, while the rest were sent directly to the gas chambers for immediate execution. Prisoners were told to undress for showering and delousing, their clothes and other valuables systematically collected and catalogued for later resale. Even gold teeth were extracted from the corpses to be melted down. After entering the gas chambers the prisoners were locked in, and the poison gas (Zyklon-B was used at Auschwitz) was introduced into the chamber. After about twenty minutes the last of the thumping and screaming – easily audible outside the chamber – died out, and the chamber was opened and the corpses removed and cremated by members of the Sonderkommando, Jewish prisoners forced to work for the Germans before they too were eventually killed. About three million Jews were killed in eight extermination camps in circumstances much like this, including about one million at Auschwitz itself.

The organised, bureaucratic way in which the Holocaust was carried out was quite remarkable and historically unprecedented. During the Wannsee Conference in January 1942, Adolf Eichmann presented a list specifying the number of Jews in every country in Europe, including neutral countries not under Germany’s control. This list is taken as clear evidence that the Nazis planned to eventually extend the Holocaust throughout all of Europe. In this document, Estonia was already listed as Judenfrei (free of Jews), thanks to the actions of the Einsatzgrupppen, who moved in swiftly after the German occupation began. The Einsatzgruppen were special death squads deployed in Eastern Europe, and were responsible for killing perhaps one million Jews. They kept detailed records of their massacres which they provided their superiors to keep track of the progress that was being made towards annihilating all Jews. One such document, called the Jäger Report, survived the war, and contains daily tallies of the number of Jews killed in Lithuania during late 1941. With deadly precision, it shows an end tally of 136,421 Jews murdered, including 46,403 men, 55,556 women, and 34,464 children.

The Germans also kept detailed records concerning the number of arrivals at extermination camps. The Höfle Telegram records 23,611 arrivals at four camps in the two weeks before 21 December 1942. Likewise, the Korherr Report of January 1943 contains detailed information concerning the decline in Jewish populations throughout Europe over the first decade of Nazi rule. Many other such documents existed, but were destroyed in the dying days of the war in an attempt to hide the scale of the atrocities from the occupying Allies forces. Nevertheless, the documentation which does survive clearly portrays the organised, systematic way in which the German state apparatus was directed towards murderous ends, to a degree not found in other genocides.

Another key feature of the Holocaust was its immense scale. Numbers alone cannot do justice to the magnitude of the tragedy, but nonetheless they are useful for providing some context. In 1938, there were roughly 9.5 million Jews in Europe (including Russia). Of those, roughly 8 million lived in Germany, allies of Germany, or regions later occupied by Germany, with most of the remaining 1.5 million living in the UK or parts of Russia that remained unoccupied. The total death toll of the Holocaust, according to Lucy Dawidowicz’s figures (which I consider to be the most complete and accurate), is close to 6 million exactly. This means that the Nazis killed about 75% of all Jews under their control, and about 66% of all the Jews in Europe. Undoubtedly had the war continued for longer, the percentages would have been higher still. It is also important to note that today there are around 14 million Jews in the world (mostly living in either Israel or the USA), compared to perhaps 16 million in 1938, meaning that the world Jewish population has still not recovered from the Holocaust. Owing both to the Holocaust and post-war emigration to the US and Israel, the Jewish population of Europe has fallen from its pre-war high to about 1.5 million today. Many Jewish communities, particularly in Eastern Europe, were completely eradicated, never to be revived. This level of destruction has seldom been achieved in such a short space of time.

Responsibility

There is, I think, a fairly widespread belief that the Holocaust was perpetrated by a small minority of fanatical Nazis, with most ordinary Germans either being kept ignorant of what was happening, or being forcibly compelled by the Nazi hierarchy to carry out murderous actions. The idea, I think, is that evil deeds are done by evil people, and that therefore the lesson of the Holocaust is to keep evil people out of positions of power and influence. I believe this view is essentially false, and that the truth of the matter is much more complex, and also much more frightening.

It is difficult to know how much the average German knew about the Holocaust during the years in which it was being carried out. Certainly many of the details, including the existence of gas chambers, was kept secret. However, various sources of evidence point towards the conclusion that knowledge of what was being done to the Jews, in broad terms, was quite widespread. Given the scale of the undertaking and the involvement of so many state agencies and other groups, as well as the sheer number of camps that existed throughout Germany, makes it very hard to see how knowledge of what was occurring could have been kept secret. In his famous war diary entitled Mein Widerstand, a minor official named Friedrich Kellner recorded how he heard of a massacre of Polish Jews from a soldier on vacation from the front, illustrating the sort of means by which ordinary Germans could obtain such information. On this subject, historian Peter Longerich has said that “general information concerning the mass murder of Jews was widespread in the German population.” And to the degree that they were aware of what was occurring, the reaction of most Germans was, on the whole, that of indifference, or as Ian Kershaw put it so eloquently: “the road to Auschwitz was built by hate, but paved with indifference”. Other scholars have argued that ‘passive complicity’ may be a more appropriate description, highlighting the widespread participation with various aspects of the Holocaust by German civil, military, and corporate bodies, and also the widespread underpinning of moderate anti-Semitism.

In his classic work The 12-Year Reich, historian Richard Grungerber writes:

“In the entire history of the Third Reich no single body – civic, academic or even religious – ever made use of such opportunities as it had for publicly protesting against the regime’s inhumanity. The feasibility of protests of this nature was demonstrated… by Cardinal Galen’s denunciation of euthanasia from the pulpit, which evoked a sufficiently strong resonance to halt the regime’s ‘mercy killing’ programme. But euthanasia victims were flesh of German flesh, and those effected ranged through all classes of society. Some Jews too had self sacrificing and devoted friends… but ‘the righteous among Gentiles’ were individuals, representative only of themselves; as far as the great majority were concerned, Jewish suffering affected beings in another galaxy rather than inhabitants of the same planet as themselves.”

Grungerber here refers to the German forced euthanasia program Aktion T4, which met with such substantial opposition from within the bureaucracy and the churches that Hitler officially cancelled the program in August 1941 (though killings did continue in much greater secrecy until the end of the war). In contrast, no formal protests or organised opposition of this sort took place with respect to the regime’s treatment of the Jews. The sole exception was the Rosenstrasse protest of March 1943, in which a group of German women publicly protested against the deportation of their Jewish husbands, and succeeded in having them released. If only this sort of opposition had been more sustained and widespread, the death toll of the Holocaust of may have been far lower. Alas, as historian Saul Friedländer writes:

“Not one social group, not one religious community, not one scholarly institution or professional association in Germany and throughout Europe declared its solidarity with the Jews.”

Thousands of personnel in the Germany Army actively participated in massacres of Jews (as well as Poles and Soviet prisoners of war) on the Eastern Front. Most Wehrmacht soldiers were not Nazi party members, but ordinary Germans from all walks of life. Such behaviour was encouraged from the highest levels of the Wehrmacht, as for instance in the infamous Severity Order of October 1941, in which Field Marshal Walther von Reichenau declared:

“The most important objective of this campaign against the Jewish-Bolshevik system is the complete destruction of its sources of power and the extermination of the Asiatic influence in European civilization… In this eastern theatre, the soldier is not only a man fighting in accordance with the rules of the art of war, but also the ruthless standard bearer of a national conception… For this reason the soldier must learn fully to appreciate the necessity for the severe but just retribution that must be meted out to the subhuman species of Jewry.”

As far as I have been able to determine, German soldiers were seldom if ever punished for refusing to execute civilians or other participate in genocide. Indeed, I am not aware of any cases of any significant group of soldiers refusing to engage in genocidal activities, or of voicing significant opposition to them. From what I have read, many such operations were carried out by volunteers, and there was generally no difficulty in finding men willing to participate. Explicit compulsion and threat of punishment were simply not necessary.

Supporting the narrative that heinous crimes are committed by evil people is the belief that we, being good people, would never do such a thing. We look at ourselves, we look at our family and friends, we look at those in our community, and for the most part we do not think of them as truly evil people. As such we imagine that the Nazis and any Germans who supported them must have been unbelievably heinous and immoral, as only such an innate inner badness could explain their actions. Of course, most ordinary Germans in the lead-up to the war would have never thought it possible that something like that Holocaust would happen in their enlightened, developed country, and would undoubtedly have been mortally offended had one advanced the proposition that they would do nothing to stop a mass slaughter of civilians. We like to think we are different. Are we really?

Uncomfortably for our self-perceptions, there is considerable evidence concerning the immense power of peer pressure, social normalisation, and obedience to authority in leading people to act in ways which they would in different circumstances denounce as heinous. In his famous experiment, Milgram found that two-thirds of his subjects were willing to administer apparently lethal electrical shocks to others, merely because they were instructed to do so by an experimenter wearing a white lab coat. The Stanford Prison Experiment, Ash Conformity experiments, and The Third Wave experiment, though not without problems, also offer insights into the psychological processes at work in compelling otherwise good people to do horrific things.

The main defence of many Nazi officials and commanders at the Nuremburg Trials was that they had only been following orders (“Befehl ist Befehl“). Although undoubtedly an (unsuccessful) attempt to save themselves from execution, the use of this defence also seems to me to reflect the genuine motivation behind many of these actions – namely that they had been ordered, and it was the job of the soldier and bureaucrat to follow orders. It is also clear, however, that many went beyond the strict ‘call of duty’ in this sense, as there are many documented cases of local civilians participating in or even pre-empting German massacres of Jews, and also of various lower party officials and local administrations vying with each other in developing their own more ruthless anti-Semitic policies. The initiative for the Holocaust came not only from the hatred of those at the top, but also from the longstanding antipathy and crass opportunism of those at the bottom of the Nazi hierarchy.

Allied Responses

Too often we forget a crucial aspect of the Holocaust, namely the (as I regard it) totally inadequate response by Allied and neutral nations to news concerning Nazi persecution of the Jews. Particularly deplorable, in my view, was the Évian Conference, convened by Roosevelt in 1938 to discuss what was to be done regarding the increasing number of Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi persecution. It is interesting to note Hitler’s personal reaction to the conference:

“I can only hope and expect that the other world, which has such deep sympathy for these criminals [Jews], will at least be generous enough to convert this sympathy into practical aid. We, on our part, are ready to put all these criminals at the disposal of these countries, for all I care, even on luxury ships.”

This statement parallels other plans and policies of the Nazi regime (e.g. the Madagascar Plan to deport the Jews to the island of Madagascar) to expel the Jews from Europe an resettle them wherever they would be accepted. It is clear from these plans and statements that Hitler really did not care less what happened to the Jews – he just wanted them out of the way. As such, it seems clear to me that the prospects for some arrangement being made were potentially quite good, if only the other nations of the world were willing to help. Apparently thinking along similar lines, an American observer at the conference wrote:

“It is heartbreaking to think of the …desperate human beings … waiting in suspense for what happens at Evian. But the question they underline is not simply humanitarian … it is a test of civilization.”

By my reckoning, civilization failed that test. Virtually all nations present, including the British Empire and the United States, refused to agree to any significant increase in the number of refugees they would accept. The Australian delegate T. W. White said “as we have no real racial problem, we are not desirous of importing one”, echoing the casual anti-Semitic sentiment that was prevalent at the time through most of the Western World.

The failure of the rest of the world to aid Jewish refugees is highlighted by the case of the MS St. Louis, an ocean liner filled with over 900 Jewish refugees which was successively denied entry to Cuba, the United States, and Canada, before finally being forced to return to Europe. Eventually the UK agreed to take 288 of the passengers, with the remainder settled in France, Belgium, and the Netherlands, an estimated 250 of whom were subsequently killed in the Holocaust.

Another conference was held in Bermuda between the UK and the US in 1943 concerning the question of Jewish refugees in occupied Europe. Once again, there was no change in policy: the US refused to increase its immigration quotas, and the UK refused to rescind its ban on Jewish refugees being allowed to enter British Palestine.

In December 1942, the Polish government-in-exile issued a report to the Allied government entitled “The Mass Extermination of Jews in German Occupied Poland”, in which they outlined evidence concerning the treatment of Jews in occupied Poland. There is much debate concerning exactly how much the allies knew, when they knew it, and what they could reasonably have done – for instance the debate in 1944 about the possibility of bombing the camp or railway yards at Auschwitz (which was decided in the negative). Although the question is a complex one, my impression of the matter is that the Allies took the matter far less seriously than they ought, and put far less than their maximum efforts into helping the Jewish peoples of Europe. Historian David S. Wyman wrote extensively about plausible additional actions the Allies could have taken in his book The Abandonment of the Jews.

None of this is intended to deny the brave actions of many men and women who risked their lives in various ways to shelter Jews and otherwise save them from deportation or execution. Many such persons are remembered by the Israeli state today as being among the ‘Righteous Among the Nations’. Unfortunately, there were far too few such brave individuals. To many Jews at the time, at must have seemed, as it is written, “surely there is not a righteous man upon earth.”

Conclusions

I think most people draw very much the wrong conclusions from the events of the Holocaust. The message of the Holocaust, in my view, is not that it was a crime so heinous that only a group so uniquely evil and depraved as the Nazis could have committed it. We cannot forget that many high-ranking Nazis were, at least on the surface, decent men who loved their families – indeed, many SS officers brought their families to live with them at the concentration camps.

The true message of the Holocaust, I think is how an underlying long-standing antipathy towards a particular identifiable group can, under the right circumstances, be seized upon and radicalised by a sufficiently motivated and well-organised minority group. It shows us how powerful the words and personality of a charismatic leader can be, and how powerful are social pressures to conform, to obey authority, to keep one’s head down and not make a fuss. Had we lived in that time, with the social pressures as they were and without the benefit of hindsight, I believe that most of us would have acted just as most Germans did – we would have done nothing. Indeed, are there not great calamities and injustices occurring around the world right now to which we react in much the same way?

The events of the Holocaust are, of course, grounded in a specific time and place in history. Nevertheless, I also think that these events exemplify certain primordial characteristics of human psychology – the tendency to conform, to obey authority, to care only for our own, to despise those who are different – of which we should always remain aware and wary. More than anything else, I think the Holocaust illustrates the potentially disastrous consequences of apathy, and the need to be constantly vigilant concerning the suffering of others. In the beautiful words of John Donne:

“No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.”

If we are to prevent atrocities such as the Holocaust from occurring again, I think it is vitally important to be aware of the true history of these events, and not to sanitise them into simplistic narratives about a wicked few duping and coercing an entire nation to do their evil bidding. If we falsely see the Holocaust as an outcome solely of the Nazi’s unusual depravity and moral shortcomings of mid-20th century Germany, we miss the much broader lessons concerning human nature which this event has to show us, and we likewise ignore the possibility that the same human nature could once again, under the right circumstances, give rise to similarly horrific crimes. As Karl Jaspers said of the Holocaust, in words far more eloquent than mine:

“That which has happened is a warning. To forget it is guilt. It must be continually remembered. It was possible for this to happen, and it remains possible for it to happen again – at any minute.”

70 Years On: Why D-Day still Matters

Synopsis
I discuss the historical background behind the Normandy Landings, why there are important, what impact they had on history, and why it is important they be commemorated.

Historical Overview
Today marks the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings, which took place on the 6th of June 1944. The term “D-Day” is a generic military term which simply refers to the day on which an operation will be initiated, and is used for the purpose of secrecy and convenience. So, for example, military planners can lay out the sequence of objectives of an operation as occurring on D-Day, D+1, D+2, etc, without needing to refer to specific calendar dates which may be subject to change. Although still used in a generic sense, the term “D-Day” has now become strongly linked to the Allied invasion of German occupied France in 1944.

During the period of late 1939 and through to mid 1941, the Germans conducted a series of highly-successful military campaigns using a strategy which has come to be known as Blitzkrieg, or “Lightning War”. In this period, the Germans successfully defeated and occupied Poland, Denmark, Norway, Belgium, Luxembourg, Holland, France, Yugoslavia, and Greece. In addition, the states of Hungary, Romania, Italy, Bulgaria, and Finland were allied to the Germans. Spain, though officially neutral, was under the control of Franco, a fascist dictator whom Hitler had assisted in coming to power in the Spanish Civil War. Likewise Sweden, though also neutral, was fairly willing to accommodate Nazi demands for resources and other cooperation. Taken together, therefore, the from roughly the period of mid 1941 to mid-late 1944, almost all of Continental Europe was essentially under either direct or indirect German control, in what was known as “Occupied Europe”.

I mention all this because I think it is important to understand the backdrop against which the D-Day landings took place. In a very short period of time, the Germans had brought almost all of Europe to its knees. The mighty French army, lead by Pétain , hero of the First World War, was defeated in a mere six weeks. Though the Germans were later to face defeats against the Soviets, and also against the Western Allies (that is, Britain and the USA) in North Africa and Italy, taking the war back to the mainland in the west once again represented an enormous undertaking, not merely in terms of manpower and logistics, but also in terms of psychology. The courage and commitment of the men and women who made this invasion possible, therefore, cannot easily be overestimated.

Almost immediately after Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union, in June 1941, Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin had been pressuring the Western Allies to open a “second front” in Western Europe. Some moves were made in this direction with the 1942 Torch landings in North Africa, and with the invasion of southern Italy in 1943, but neither of these campaigns represented the substantial commitment that Stalin wanted. He wanted a “real” second front, one which would pose a significant threat to Germany, and force the Germans to redirect substantial forces away from the Eastern Front. This, most fundamentally, was the purpose of the Normandy Landings: to open up a second front that would take significant pressure off the Soviet Union, and force Germany into a true two-front war, thereby draining its resources and bringing the war to an end as quickly as possible.

The Scale of the Landings

The D-Day landings remain to this day the largest amphibious military assault in history. About 160,000 Allied troops crossed the channel on D-Day itself, transported and escorted by some 5000 ships and landing craft. The landings were also accompanied by a massive bombing campaign of military targets all across the French coast, and also airborne landing of some 24,000 troops behind enemy lines to assist in securing the initial bridgeheads. Planning for the massive operation began over a year beforehand, and in addition to a very large buildup of ships, tanks, and troops in Southern Britain, preparations also included an elaborate campaign of deception designed to mislead the Germans as to the intended target of the operation. This deception proved to be so successful that, even many hours after the landings had begun, Hitler remained convinced that the attacks on Normandy were only a diversion, and that the real invasion would take place in the Pas de Calais, where the distance across the English Channel is shortest. By the end of June, some 900,000 Allied troops had been landed in France, a remarkable achievement.

What if D-Day had Failed?

Although today it seems, with the benefit of hindsight, that D-Day was an inevitable success, at the time this was by no means clear, and the operation was considered to be incredibly risky. Had any number of factors turned out differently, such as poor weather, German intelligence gaining better information about the time and place of the landings, or if Hitler had freed up the Panzer reserves earlier to counterattack the beachheads, the allies could very well have been driven back into the sea. Eisenhower even penned a brief message, never used, to be read in the event that the landings were a failure. Had this occurred, it would have been a massive blow to Allied morale, and a huge boon to that of the Germans. Given the immense scale of the operation and the resources involved, the Allies would likely have been unable to launch a second attempt until early 1945 at the earliest. The Allied high command structure would likely have been shaken up (e.g. it is quite plausible that Eisenhower, Supreme Allied Commander responsible for the Normandy Landings, would have resigned), and possibly (though in my view somewhat less likely) the Americans would have decided to refocus their energies and manpower on first defeating the Japanese in the Pacific.

Perhaps most importantly, huge numbers of German troops, tanks, aircraft, and other supplies would have been freed up for transfer to the Eastern Front to fight against the Soviet Union. To give some sense of the magnitude of this, during early 1942, when the threat of invasion was lowest, the Germans maintained only 32 divisions in Western Europe. This was gradually increased in the lead up to and immediate aftermath of the Normandy Landings, reaching a peak of 79 German divisions in Western Europe by January 1945. This means that, if in the aftermath of a failed D-Day landing the Germans had been able to reduce troop levels in Western Europe to early 1942 levels, some 45 additional divisions would have been available for deployment on the Eastern Front, increasing German forces by about one third.

This substantial increase in German strength would also have been augmented by rising German production of tanks, aircraft, and munitions, which, in spite of losing ground in the East and coming under increasingly heavy attack in the Strategic Bombing Offensive, still actually peaked in August of 1944. As an illustration, the Soviet Union produced 24,000 tanks in 1942 and 29,000 in 1944, a fairly similar number. Germany, by contrast, increased tank production from a mere 6,000 in 1942 to 19,000 in 1944. Similarly, while the Soviets produced 10,000 fighter aircraft in 1942 compared to 5,500 by the Germans, in 1944 the balance had reversed, with 18,000 produced by the Soviets compared to 26,000 by the Germans. Thus, if D-Day had failed and the Germans been able to maintain these higher production levels their strength on the Eastern Front would have been substantially increased, thereby permitting the war to be prolonged considerably, and perhaps even shifting the balance in the Germans’ favour.

To this must also be added the “Wunderwaffe”, or ‘superweapons’ that German scientists and engineers were developing and beginning to deploy in late 1944 and early 1945. These weapons included the V-1 flying bomb and V-2 rockets used to attack British cities, jet aircraft much faster than any of the propeller-driven machines possessed by the Allies, super-heavy tanks like the Tiger II virtually impenetrable to the guns of any Allied tank, the Elektroboot U-boats capable of operating fully-submerged, and the Sturmgewehr 44, the world’s first assault rifle which offered much higher rates of fire. None of these weapons were fielded in sufficient numbers to have any appreciable effect on the outcome of the war, but if the D-Day landings had failed and the war been prolonged, it is quite possible these weapons could have begun to have a significant effect.

As a result of all these factors, it is my belief that if the D-Day landings had failed, there is a small chance that Germany would have been able to win the war, or at least come to some sort of peace agreement with the Soviets after fighting them to a stalemate. More likely, I think, is that the Soviet Union would have been able to defeat Germany even without the second front, though with the continued assistance of the Allied aerial bombing campaign and also provision of materials and manufactured goods from America. This, however, would have lengthened the war considerably, probably by at least a year, and perhaps more if the German production increases and Wunderwaffe had a sufficiently large impact. The consequences of this prolongation of the war would have been enormous. The Soviet Union would likely have suffered several million more deaths, with the Germans also suffering perhaps one or two million more as well. In addition, it must not be forgotten that the Nazis were pushed back and defeated before they had completed their genocidal campaign against the Jews, such that by war’s end several hundred thousand Jews were still alive in each of Hungary and Romania, with hundreds of thousands more scattered throughout other occupied countries. If the Germans had an additional year or more to continue implementing their Endlösung, the Holocaust could have claimed many hundreds of thousands more victims.

A failure at D-Day would also have drastically changed the face of postwar Europe. At the very least, the Soviets would likely have occupied all of Germany and Austria, and quite possibly also some or all of France, Greece, and the Low Countries. This would have had enormous and unpredictable consequences for the development of Cold War politics, and also on the postwar social and economic development of Europe. Quite possibly the Cold War would not have ended in the same way as it did (for one thing there would have likely been no Berlin Wall, for Stalin probably would not have allowed the Western Allies into Berlin at all), and likely the European Union would not exist in anything like the form we know it today. Although the overall balance of consequences is impossible to assess, it seems highly likely to me that having most or all of Continental Europe dominated by the Soviet Union would not have been a desirable outcome, either for Europe itself or for the world at large.

Remembering the Past

In concluding this piece, I want to make a few remarks. First, I want to emphasize just how important the D-Day Landings were in shaping the outcome of World War Two, and hence also in effecting the progress of history ever since. The courage, boldness, and resolve of those who planned and supported the operation, and most especially of the Allied troops actually involved in the landings, is worthy of our greatest respect and esteem, something to be remembered for the rest of time. Their actions, as I have outlined above, likely saved millions of lives, and also helped to prevent tens of millions of people falling under the grip of Communism. What a truly amazing achievement.

Second, I want to emphasize something that I think is often overlooked in these discussions of D-Day, at least in the West, which is that, as important as the D-Day landings were, they should nonetheless still be considered to be essentially a ‘second act’, so to speak, to the main scene of the action in the Eastern Front. It is estimated that perhaps 70% of all German military manpower over the course of the war was directed to the Eastern Front. The sacrifice of the Soviet people was immense: total civilian and military losses in the war against Germany totaled about 27 million people, about 13% of the total population. The Western Allies, in comparison, lost only perhaps one million people in the fight against Germany. Thus, the importance of D-Day must always, in my view, be understood in the light of the enormous sacrifice by the Soviet Union in defeating the Nazis.

Third, I want to mention a point that I read in a number of articles that I read on the issue, which is that this will likely be the last major commemoration of the D-Day landings at which a significant number of veterans will be present. The landings were 70 years ago now, meaning even the youngest veterans are approaching 90 years of age. The Normandy Veterans Association, whose numbers have been rapidly dwindling in recent years, is set to disband in November this year. Within only a few decades, there will no longer be any World War Two veterans left alive. It will be up to us, therefore, children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren of the generation who fought in the war, to remember their great sacrifice and courage.

Although this is slightly tangential to D-Day per se, I particularly worry about this with respect to the Holocaust. How will the memory of this most awful crime be kept alive in a real, visceral, meaningful way without living survivors to tell of it? I think it can be done, but doing so requires that we learn history, think about it, ponder what it means, consider how the actions and decisions of those in the past shapes the present and will continue to shape the future. It is in order to keep these memories alive, so that deeds of great valour and awful crimes alike, will not be forgotten and perhaps can even be learned from, that we commemorate anniversaries such as today.

Lest We Forget.