Military history



The Legacy of the Second World War

The war was over, but the return of peace to the peoples who had fought it would prove patchy and erratic. In some places the war had touched – Greece, Palestine, Indonesia, Indo-China, China itself – peace was scarcely to return at all. In Greece, where the ELAS guerrillas, despite their defeat by the British in Athens at Christmas 1944, retained bases in the northern mountains, their communist leaders resolved in February 1946 to resume the civil war. The war dragged on until August 1949, at cruel cost to the rural population, 700,000 of whom fled to the cities and towns under government control; many families were bereft of their children, who had been kidnapped in thousands to be raised as future guerrilla fighters across the border in states under communist control.

In Palestine the British sponsors of the Jewish National Home, who were also the territory’s rulers under a League of Nations (then United Nations) Mandate, soon found themselves in conflict with the Zionist settlers. Fearful of damaging relations with the native Arabs, the British refused to raise the limit they had set on further Jewish immigration, fixed at 75,000 in 1939, even when Washington petitioned London to allow 100,000 survivors of the concentration camps to be given refuge. Haganah, the semi-official Zionist militia, was shortly driven to side with the radical Jewish terrorist organisations against the Mandate government. In October 1945 Haganah initiated a sabotage campaign, setting off 500 explosions, and by the spring of 1946, when 80,000 British troops were deployed in Palestine, the territory trembled on the brink of open insurrection, which threatened to become a communal war should the Palestinian Arabs judge that the British intended to permit large-scale Jewish immigration or abandon the Mandate.

In Indonesia and Indo-China the British also found themselves caught between the fires of a local nationalism and an alien presence. In Indonesia, as the Dutch East Indies were shortly to be called, the Javanese set upon their former masters when the internees were released from prison camp, and it took the deployment of the whole of the 5th Indian Division in nineteen days of fighting in November 1945 to restore order. The Indian sepoys and their British officers were assisted by Japanese troops, whom Major-General E. C. Mansbridge released from captivity, rearmed and kept under control as long as the struggles against the Japanese-trained Indonesian army lasted.

Released Japanese prisoners were also used by the commander of the 17th Indian Division when it was sent to reoccupy southern Indo-China in September 1945. The embryo Viet Minh party and the army of Ho Chi Minh had taken power in the vacuum left by Japan’s surrender. In the north, which the great powers had agreed at Potsdam should temporarily be garrisoned by Chinese nationalist forces, the arriving Chinese general established a coexistence with Ho Chi Minh. In the south the British conceived it their duty under the Potsdam directive to wrest control of the civil administration from the Viet Minh, and they found they needed the help of rearmed Japanese soldiers to do so. In October a division of French troops arrived, led by Leclerc, the Gaullist hero who had liberated Paris in August 1944. His title to re-establish French authority was disputed, but he did so none the less, at the cost of beginning the ‘war of the ricefields’ which, in one form and another, was to drag on for the next thirty years.

In China the war between communists and nationalists, first begun in the 1920s, had only been interrupted by the Second World War. Both sides deployed large armies: Mao Zedong had nearly half a million men under arms, Chiang Kai-shek over 2 million. In 1937 they had agreed a truce, to hold as long as both were engaged in war against the Japanese invader. The defeat of Japan brought to China 50,000 American Marines and General George C. Marshall, the wartime chief of staff, with a mission to prolong the truce. In January 1946 an extension of the truce was indeed agreed; but its basis was unstable. Chiang Kai-shek’s principal concern was to re-establish his position in Manchuria, overrun the previous August by the Russians, who were busy stripping the province (the richest in China) of its industrial plant, which they claimed was due to them as war reparations from Japan. Chiang lacked the power to check the depredations; but he was determined to see that the Russians, who had agreed to evacuate Manchuria by 1 February 1946, should not allow Mao Zedong’s troops to succeed them as occupiers. While the truce was being negotiated, therefore, he was busily transferring units from his area of control in the south of China into Manchuria, even though these troop movements inevitably provoked local clashes with Mao’s soldiers. Despite the best efforts of the American mediators, sporadic clashes were destined to swell into outright conflict and by July 1946 into full-scale civil war. An American attempt to bring hostilities to a close by denying the nationalists military aid merely enhanced the chances of the communists, who returned to the offensive when General Marshall was recalled by President Truman in January 1947. They were shortly to carry the war to the valley of the Yellow River as well as Manchuria, reviving the agony which had left 50 million Chinese homeless and 2 million orphaned as result of Japanese occupation.

The Allies brought to trial over 5000 of the Japanese who had waged the Pacific War and the ‘China Incident’ and executed 900 of them, in most cases for their mistreatment of Allied prisoners of war. At the Tokyo trial of major war criminals, however, twenty-five of Japan’s leaders were arraigned for general war crimes and seven were condemned to death; they included Tojo and Koiso (his successor as Prime Minister) and might have included Konoye, had he not evaded arrest by taking poison. The Tokyo trial was inspired by the much larger and more widely publicised Nuremberg Tribunal, before which the Nazi leaders were tried between November 1945 and October 1946. There were twenty-one defendants at Nuremberg, one defendant (Bormann) tried in absentia and five corporate accused – the Reich Cabinet, the Leadership Corps of the Nazi Party, the SS/SD, the Gestapo and the General Staff. Of the individual defendants, who were charged with one, other or all of (a) crimes against peace, (b) war crimes, (c) crimes against humanity, two were acquitted, eight sentenced to terms of imprisonment varying from life to ten years and eleven condemned to death. The last included Goering, who managed to acquire poison and commit suicide on the eve of his execution; Kaltenbrunner of the SS (Himmler having committed suicide on capture); three governors of the occupied territories and the administrator of the forced labour regimes, Frank, Rosenberg, Seyss-Inquart and Sauckel; the two generals from Hitler’s operations staff, Keitel and Jodl, whose endorsement of the ‘Commando Order’ of 1942 directing raiders in uniform to be murdered ensured their condemnation; Ribbentrop; Frick, the author of the Nuremberg decrees against the Jews; and Streicher, Nazism’s principal mouthpiece of anti-Semitism. At a series of subsequent trials of lesser war criminals, another twenty-four were executed, largely for the perpetration of atrocities, thirty-five were acquitted and 114 imprisoned. Numbers of other war criminals were also later arrested, tried and sentenced by national courts in the countries where they had committed their offences.

The legal philosophy of the Nuremberg system continues to be debated by academic lawyers; but both at the time of the trials and thereafter the natural justice of the proceedings and of the verdicts has been universally accepted by the citizens of the states against which Germany and Japan waged war. Some 50 million people are estimated to have died as a result of the Second World War; it is in the nature of war-making that an exact figure can never be established. By far the most grievous suffering among the combatant states was borne by the Soviet Union, which lost at least 7 million men in battle and a further 7 million civilians; most of the latter, Ukrainians and White Russians in the majority, died as a result of deprivation, reprisal and forced labour. In relative terms, Poland suffered worst among the combatant countries; about 20 per cent of her pre-war population, some 6 million, did not survive. About half of the war’s Polish victims were Jewish, and Jews also figured large in the death tolls of other eastern European countries, including the Baltic states, Hungary and Romania. Civil and guerrilla war accounted for the deaths of a quarter of a million Greeks and a million Yugoslavs. The number of casualties, military and civilian, were far higher in eastern than in western Europe – an index of the intensity and ferocity of war-making where Germans fought and oppressed Slavs. In three European countries, however, France, Italy and the Netherlands, casualties were heavy. Before June 1940 and after November 1942 the French army lost 200,000 dead; 400,000 civilians were killed in air raids or concentration camps. Italy lost over 330,000 of whom half were civilians, and 200,000 Dutch citizens, all but 10,000 of them civilians, died as a result of bombing or deportation.

The Western victors suffered proportionately and absolutely much less than any of the major allies. The British armed forces lost 244,000 men. Their Commonwealth and imperial comrades-in-arms suffered another 100,000 fatal casualties (Australia 23,000, Canada 37,000, India 24,000, New Zealand 10,000, South Africa 6000). About 60,000 British civilians were killed by bombing, half of them in London. The Americans suffered no direct civilian casualties, although a Japanese balloon bomb killed a woman and five children of a Sunday School class picnicking in Oregon on 5 May 1945; their military casualties, which contrast with 1.2 million Japanese battle deaths, were 292,000, including 36,000 from the navy and 19,000 from the Marine Corps.

Germany, which had begun the war and fought it almost to Hitler’s ‘five minutes past midnight’, paid a terrible price for war guilt. Materially her cities and towns stood up to bombing more stoutly than the flimsy Japanese population centres. Nevertheless, Berlin, Hamburg, Cologne and Dresden had effectively been reduced to rubble by 1945, and many smaller places had been brutally damaged.

When the cultural losses of the Second World War are reviewed, most can be seen to have occurred on German territory. Forethought had assured the preservation of the Great European libraries and art collections; the treasures of the Kaiser Wilhelm collection had been stored in the Berlin Zoo flak tower, and the pictures from the British National Gallery had spent the war in caves in Wales. Architectural treasures, by their nature, could not be protected. Fortunately, the course of the fighting, except in Italy, spared most of Europe’s most beautiful creations. Berlin was devastated, but it was largely a nineteenth-century city; much of London’s pre-eighteenth-century fabric was burnt in the Blitz; classical Leningrad suffered under bombardment and delights like Tsarkoe Selo (now, thankfully, completely restored) were burnt to the ground; baroque Dresden was burnt out; the Old City of Warsaw destroyed block by block (again miraculously re-created since 1945 by reference to the paintings of Bernado Belotto); the Old City of Vienna badly damaged in the fighting of 1945; Budapest on both banks of the Danube ravaged; the centre of Renaissance Rotterdam incinerated; William the Conqueror’s medieval Caen laid flat. Yet historic Paris, Rome, Athens, Florence, Venice, Bruges, Amsterdam, Oxford, Cambridge, Edinburgh and almost all the other great European temples of architecture remained untouched.

In Germany, by contrast, not only the large but also the small historic cities suffered fearful destruction, including Potsdam, the Versailles of the Prussian kings, Jülich, Freiburg-im-Breisgau, Heilbronn, Ulm, Freudenstadt, Würzburg and Bayreuth, the centre of the Wagner festival. In the west the twenty-eight towns which make up the industrial centre of the Ruhr and its environs all came under heavy attack: Stuttgart, the capital of south Germany, was bombed out; and Breslau, the largest German city in the east, was effectively destroyed during its defence against the Russian advance in the spring of 1945.

The German people paid a greater human than material price for initiating and sustaining war against their neighbours between 1939 and 1945. Over 4 million German servicemen died at the hands of the enemy, and 593,000 civilians under air attack. Although more women than men were killed by Allied bombing – a ratio of 60:40 – the numbers of women in the Federal Republic in 1960 still exceeded those of men by a ratio of 126:100. The male-female disproportion among the ‘lost generation’ was not as severe as in the Soviet Union, where women outnumbered men by a third after the war; but not even in Russia did the population undergo the horrors of forced migration which defeat visited on the Germans in 1945.

The uprooting of the Germans from the east comprised two phases, both tragic in their effect: the first was a panic flight from the Red Army; the second a deliberate expulsion of populations from regions of settlement where Germans had lived for generations, in some places for a thousand years. The flight of January 1945 was an episode of human suffering almost without parallel in the Second World War – outside the concentration camps. Terrified at the thought of what the Red Army would do to the first Germans it encountered on home territory, the population of East Prussia, already swollen by refugees from the areas of German settlement in Poland and the Baltic states displaced by the Bagration offensive, left home en masse and, in bitter winter weather, trekked to the Baltic coast. Some 450,000 were evacuated from the port of Pillau during January; 900,000 others walked along the forty-mile causeway to Danzig or crossed the frozen lagoon of the Frisches Haff to reach the waiting ships – one of which, torpedoed by a Russian submarine with 8000 aboard, became a tomb for the largest number of victims ever drowned in a maritime disaster. The Wehrmacht put up a fight of almost demented bravery to cover the rescue of refugees; Richard von Weizsäcker, son of the state secretary of Hitler’s Foreign Ministry and Ex-President of the Federal German Republic, won the Iron Cross First Class in the battle of the Frisches Haff.

It seems possible that a million Germans died in the flight from the east in the early months of 1945, either from exposure or mistreatment. In the winter of 1945 most of the remaining Germans of eastern Europe – who lived in Silesia, the Czech Sudetenland, Pomerania and elsewhere, numbering some 14 million altogether – were systematically collected and transported westward, largely into the British zone of occupation in Germany. The transportees who arrived were destitute and often in the last stages of deprivation. Of those who failed to complete this terrible journey, it is calculated that 250,000 died in the course of the expulsion from Czechoslovakia, 1.25 million from Poland and 600,000 from elsewhere in eastern Europe. By 1946 the historic German population of Europe east of the Elbe had been reduced from 17 million to 2,600,000.

The expulsions, often conducted with criminal brutality, were not illegal under the settlement the victors had agreed between themselves at the Potsdam Conference of July 1945. Article 13 of its protocol stated that the ‘transfer to Germany of Germans remaining in Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary will have to be undertaken’; at Potsdam, moreover, the Western Allies agreed to a realignment of the German frontier, giving half of East Prussia to Poland (the other half went to the Soviet Union), together with Silesia and Pomerania. These readjustments, balanced by the enforced cession by Poland of its eastern province to Russia, had the cartographic effect of moving Poland a hundred miles westward; demographically, they ensured that post-war Poland would be wholly Polish, at the expense of displacing the German populations of its new western borderlands.

The Potsdam agreement, to a far greater extent than that of Yalta, determined the future of European government in the post-war years. The concessions made to the Soviet Union by Britain and the United States at Yalta have been widely condemned by Western politicians and polemicists in the aftermath as a ‘betrayal’, particularly of the anti-communist Poles. As Roosevelt and Churchill recognised at the time, the Red Army’s victorious advance into Poland made Stalin’s plans for the most important country in eastern Europe a fait accompli. It ensured that the ‘London Poles’ would have no effective role in the post-war Warsaw administration, which would be dominated by the communist puppet ‘Lublin committee’. Potsdam took post-war arrangements far further than that. By endorsing the resettlement westward of eastern Europe’s Germans – both those of the borderlands of Deutschstum in Poland and Czechoslovakia and the more scattered settlements of German commercial, agricultural and intellectual enterprise in the Slav and Baltic states – it returned ethnic frontiers in Europe largely to those that had prevailed at the creation of Charlemagne’s empire at the beginning of the ninth century, solved at a stroke the largest of the ‘minority problems’, and ensured Soviet domination of central and eastern Europe for two generations to come.

The Soviet Union’s subsequent refusal to co-operate in the staging of free elections throughout the zones of occupation in post-1945 Germany had the additional effect of consolidating the ‘Iron Curtain’ between communist and non-communist Europe identified by Winston Churchill in his Fulton speech in 1946. The post-war settlement of 1918, by creating self-governing ‘successor states’ out of the tsarist, Hohenzollern and Habsburg empires which had dominated the eastern half of the continent before 1914, greatly diversified its political complexion. Potsdam ruthlessly simplified it. Post-1945 Europe west of the Elbe was to remain a polity of democratic states; east of the Elbe it was to relapse into autocracy, conforming to a single political system dictated and dominated by Stalinist Russia.

The imposition of Stalinism east of the Elbe after 1945 solved ‘the German problem’, which had transfixed Europe since 1870. It did not solve the problem of how to establish a lasting peace, either in Europe or in the wider world. The United Nations, which the United States, Britain and the Soviet Union had agreed to establish as a more effective successor to the League of Nations at Tehran in 1943, and which came into being at San Francisco in April 1945, was intended to be an instrument of international peace-keeping, with its own general staff commanding forces contributed by the member states under the authority of its Security Council (comprising representatives of Britain, the United States, the Soviet Union, France and China as permanent members). The Soviet Union’s opposition to the establishment of the general staff, and its subsequent use of its veto to block peace-keeping resolutions, quickly emasculated the Security Council’s authority. Stalin’s foreign policy, which may be interpreted either as a resumption of Bolshevik commitment to the fomentation of revolution in the capitalist world or, more realistically, as an effort to entrench the Soviet victory of 1945 by keeping the anti-communist states of western Europe under threat of military attack, did not directly challenge the United Nations’ role. His sponsorship of an anti-democratic coup in Czechoslovakia and his institution of the Berlin blockade in 1948 apart, in the post-war years he took no step which directly threatened the stability of Europe as constituted at Yalta and Potsdam. His challenge to the Western position in the world was to be laid elsewhere – in the Philippines, in Malaya and, above all, in Korea, where he was to endorse an aggression by the communist north against the non-communist south in June 1950.

The Soviet Union, indeed, demobilised its military forces in Europe as quickly, if not as completely, as did the United States and Britain theirs after August 1945. By 1947 the size of the Red Army had been reduced by two-thirds; the remaining force sufficed to outnumber the occupation forces of the Americans and the British many times – the British Army of the Rhine numbered only five divisions in 1948, the American army in Bavaria only one – but, though its continuing preponderance was to drive the North Americans and Western Europeans into a North Atlantic alliance in 1949, the disparity did not tempt the Soviet leadership to risk extending its power west of the Elbe.

There are many explanations for this. One is that Soviet foreign policy, for all its coarseness and brutality, was directed by a distinct legalism, which constrained Russia to the spheres of influence defined at Yalta and Potsdam. Another is that the American monopoly of nuclear weapons, persisting in its strict form until 1949 but effectively for a decade thereafter, deterred the Soviet Union from foreign policy adventures. A third, and contestably the most convincing, is that the trauma of the war had extinguished the will of the Soviet people and their leadership to repeat the experience.

The legacy of the First World War was to persuade the victors, though not the vanquished, that the costs of war exceeded its rewards. The legacy of the Second World War, it may be argued, was to convince victors and vanquished alike of the same thing. ‘Every man a soldier’, the principle by which the advanced states had organised their armies, and in large measure their societies, since the French Revolution, achieved its culmination in 1939-45 and, in so doing, inflicted on the countries which had lived by it a tide of suffering so severe as to banish the concept of war-making from their political philosophies. The United States, least damaged and most amply rewarded by the war – which left it in 1945 industrially more productive than the rest of the world put together – would be able to muster sufficient national consent to fight two costly, if small, wars in Asia, in Korea and Vietnam. Britain, which had also come through the war relatively unscathed in terms of human if not material loss, would preserve the will to fight a succession of small colonial wars, as France, another country comparatively untouched by severe loss of life, would do as well. By contrast, the Soviet Union, for all the fierce face it showed its putative enemies in the post-war era, eschewed confrontations which put its soldiers at direct risk; its recent venture into Afghanistan, costing a quarter of the number of lives lost by the United States in Vietnam, appears to reinforce, not vitiate, that judgement. Not a single German soldier, despite the Federal Republic’s resumption of conscription in 1956, has been killed by enemy action since May 1945, and the likelihood of such a death grows more, not less, remote. Japan, the most reckless of the war-makers of 1939-45, is today bound by a constitution which outlaws recourse to force as an instrument of national policy in any circumstances whatsoever. No statesman of the Second World War was foolish enough to claim, as those of the First had done, that it was being fought as ‘a war to end all wars’. That, nevertheless, may have been its abiding effect.

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