And some there be which have no memorial,
who are perished as though they had never been.
We are remembering today the beginning of World War II for the United States, with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii on December 7, 1941, “A date which will live in infamy”, as FDR put it.. Followed by its final termination four years later in the Pacific, World War II was the most destructive conflagration in the history of the world, then and since.
While many people think it began in 1939, with Hitler’s invasion of Poland, it in fact began many years before, with Japan’s aggression in 1931 (Manchuria) and 1937 (China). And while the fighting and bloodshed finally ended in 1945 (in Europe with the Allies on the Elbe, the fall of Berlin to the Red Army, and in the Pacific, in August, after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and Tokyo’s final, formal surrender on the battleship USS Missouri in Tokyo Harbor, in September), the war’s consequences, with and after the Cold War, are with us still.
The titanic struggle between the Allies, led by Great Britain and the US after the defeat of France and (as is often forgotten), by China in Asia, and the Axis, led by Germany and Japan (with Mussolini’s fascist Italy a subordinate player) would cost humanity well over 60,000,000 military and civilian deaths. These included over 6 million Jews, exterminated by the German Nazis as an integral part of their racial plan to impose an “Aryan” 1,000-Year Reich on first Europe and then the world).
While all the figures given here are approximate, and some vary according to the source, across WWII civilian casualties far exceeded military. Of some 70 million combatants on all sides, about 17 million were killed. The Soviet Union suffered the most civilian deaths, more than 21.5 million; China ca.15 million; Germany 4 million, Japan 2 million; Poland, with the highest per capita death rate, over 6 million dead (50% Jews), equal to 15% of the population.
France lost 600,000, the United Kingdom 65,000, Italy 800,000. Belgium, Holland Greece and Yugoslavia,; the Scandinavian countries; Finland, Romania, and Hungary (German allies); Bulgaria and Albania and others—all suffered grievous civilian (and in some cases military) casualties.
Ca. 8 million Soviets (including partisans) and 3 million Germans, died on the Eastern front. British armed forces lost 380,000 men, Commonwealth and Imperial allies over 100,000 [Canada, 37,000], the USA 300,000 servicemen. And over 1 ½ million Jews fought in all the Allied armies.
And millions more people suffered as refugees, forced laborers, oppressed and exploited or sacrificing, populations, in population transfers, and so on. The cost of the massive destruction of cities, roads, rail-lines, buildings, churches, industrial plants, harbors, bridges, dams, and of the millions of tons of shipping destroyed (true of China, Philippines and other Pacific theater countries as well) is estimated at over $1.5 trillion, probably a very low figure.
The numbers of dead, military and civilian, are staggering and unimaginable (and far outweighed, it should be noted, by those wounded, physically and emotionally). World War II, counting only from 1939 (and not from the beginnings of Japanese aggression in Asia in 1931) lasted 2,174 days; deaths averaged 23,000 lives a day, 15 people were killed [many brutally and senselessly murdered] a minute, for six long years. * Each death was in its own way a tragedy—multiply each by 60 million to begin to get a sense of the unimaginable human cost of this catastrophe. Europe still has not recovered from the demographic ravages of 1939-1945.
Why did Hitler lose? There are of course many intersecting reasons—Churchill’s leadership and the resilience of Great Britain’s then Empire, with its Commonwealth reinforcements (including Canada); Roosevelt’s pre-December 7, 1941 Lend-Lease aid; Germany’s two-front war after June, 1941, radicalized after the Allied landings in No. Africa and then Italy after November, 1942 and in Normandy in June, 1944 (four of every five Germans who died in combat in WWII died on the Eastern front).
The lack of cooperation between Germany and Japan was a key factor; Allied victory by late 1943 in the Battle of the Atlantic (aided by the breaking of the Germans’ Enigma code), the key role of America’s immense industrial power and production (including large-scale transfers of war materièl to the Soviet Union), and the massive Allied strategic bombing campaign against Germany, were other elements. The flight of Jewish and German emigré nuclear physicists to Britain and the U.S. precluded rapid German development if an atomic bomb, and the obstinate endurance, courage and sacrifice of millions of ordinary Russian soldiers and civilians (see Vasily Grossman’s great Stalingrad novel, Life and Fate), reinforced by superb (and plentiful) equipment like the T34 tank, Stormovik attack-fighter, and Katyusha rocket artillery, also played key roles.
But as Andrew Roberts concludes in his magisterial The Storm of War. A New History of the Second World War, while stressing Hitler’s misplaced confidence in his own will and military genius and the German racialists’ disinterest in rallying “inferior” conquered peoples, “The real reason why Hitler lost the Second World War was exactly the same one that caused him to unleash it in the first place: he was a Nazi.”*
And so the Age of Global War, which began in fire, smoke and terror in China, Poland and Pearl Harbor ended in triumph in Berlin and Tokyo Harbor four years later, with the dropping of the first atomic bombs and the beginning of the Cold War.
Let us never forget the heroes, civilian and military, who, in their millions, made the ultimate sacrifice that we might be free.
*Andrew Roberts, Storm of War (New York, Harper Collins, 2011), pp.579; 608.
(Prof. Krantz is Director & President of the Canadian Institute for Jewish Research, Editor of the Daily Isranet Briefing and the Israfax quarterly, and a Professor of History at Liberal Arts College, Concordia University.)