Sunday, January 27, 2013

Hastings - All Hell Let Loose

Either I wasn’t listening in America history in high school or my teachers were telling a different story about WWII than I just read in Max Hastings’ All Hell Let Loose: The World at War 1939-1945 (2011). Hailed “unquestionably the best single-volume history of the war ever written,” it integrated many personal stories told or written by those who survived or in some cases died during the war years. It also told a story much more complex than I had ever known and much more influential in its impact on the relations between so many countries throughout the 20th century.

It took a while to get through the 748 pages but it was well worth it. One of the most overwhelming messages about WWII is the incredible, and differential, sacrifice required of some countries over others during the exhaustingly long period of the war. I had always known that America was reluctant to enter the war until dragged in by Japan’s assault on Pearl Harbor. I had not realized that, even after engaging, it sacrificed far fewer of its soldiers to the conflict. Of the estimated 60 million people to die through WWII, 2.69 million Japanese, 6.9 million German, 6 million Jews, 27 million Russian, 15 million Chinese, and on down to the 449,00 British and 418,500 Americans would perish through combat, death camps, starvation, or as bystanders to combat. Any death is tragic but the proportion who paid among the Russians and Chinese resulted in bitter feelings among the Allied governments and led to compromises in territorial allocation after the war that would create many of the political complications of the 20th century and beyond.

The British were the most vilified of all the groups involved in the war (interesting in the context of the currently popular dramatic series, “Downton Abbey”). The British Channel protected them from the direct assaults that had to be endured by other countries throughout continental Europe. The British were also perceived by other military forces to be incompetent, arrogant, bunglers who cared more about their own egos than they did about the welfare of those they were supposed to protect. They were especially negligent in relation to their former colony, India, subjecting Indians to racism and harsh treatment even as they engaged in military service alongside their former oppressors. America fared better but was still characterized as too accommodating, ignoring alarming evidence about Hitler’s rise, and sometimes seeking the glory of visible conquest rather than defending the dug-out trenches of Europe. Ultimately, the Americans were crucial in winning the war through the sheer might of their industrial machine, even though a number of strategic errors on their part likely prolonged the war or resulted in needless sacrifice of lives.

The history books and public opinion are, of course, most critical of Germany and secondarily of Japan. Both committed atrocities against their own people while maiming, raping, and killing any of those who would oppose them. Unfortunately, the Allies in some cases followed suit as WWII came to a close and civilians were rendered vulnerable to the overwhelming power of the military forces that would come to free them from the oppression of Nazism and Fascism.

Hitler’s response to the “Jewish Problem” stands today as the most obscene example of genocide in all of history. Pity that there were many others throughout the world whose prejudice emboldened Hitler’s fanatical final solution. And pity that guilt and remorse about the complicity that so many felt after WWII led to partitioning of lands that would create ongoing conflict throughout Europe, the Middle East and Africa. Particularly devastating was the establishment of Israel on the ancestral lands of Palestine, an act that set up one of the longest standing and divisive issues between the Western and Arab worlds.

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Todzilla said...
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