May 8, 2020 marks the seventy-fifth anniversary of Germany’s unconditional surrender, ending the European phase of World War II. As we face an ongoing corona-virus pandemic likened metaphorically to a war, the opening toll of which has been far more serious than either Pearl Harbor or 9/11, we must not fail to draw lessons from an earlier generation’s heroic struggle against radical evil.
The Allies’ titanic six-year-long fight, led by Great Britain and the U.S.A., against the Axis aggressors, Nazi Germany and fascist Italy and their henchmen (and against Japan in Asia and the Pacific) was the most destructive conflagration in world history. It cost mankind over 60 million deaths, military and civilian—a number constantly being revised upward by historians–, including over 6 million Jews, murdered by the German Nazis in their drive to impose a world-wide 1,000-Year Aryan Reich on an enslaved humanity.
The war lasted 2,174 days, costing an average 23,000 lives a day, or 15 people killed a minute, for six long years. Its cost, estimated at over $1.5 trillion in then-current dollars, is in reality incalculable.
In this global war of annihilation, civilian deaths far outweighed military. Of a total of some 70 million combatants, 17 million were killed. Often forgotten in the West, the Soviet Union in fact bore the brunt of Hitler’s aggression, suffering a total of some 21.5 million deaths between June 1941 (when Hitler abrogated the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Non-Aggression Pact he had made with Stalin) and the war’s end four years later. A total of 6 million Germans died, with three million soldiers dying on the Eastern front (three of every four Wehrmacht deaths in all sectors).
France, occupied after May,1940, lost a total of 600,000 people, Italy (knocked out after the Sicily and Salerno landings in 1943 but occupied from Rome north by he Germans until 1945) suffered 800,000 casualties. (Japan lost a total of 2 million, bled by its invasion of China in 1937, the U.S. Pacific “island–hopping” campaign, massive firebombings after 1944 and, finally, by two atomic bombs, which ended the Pacific war in August, 1945,)
These staggering numbers must never be forgotten. British armed forces suffered 244,000 killed, with the Commonwealth and Imperial allies accounting for another 100,000 (Canada 37,000). The United States, a late entrant after Pearl Harbor, on December 7, 1941, lost 300,000 servicemen (this for a country whose armed forces in 1940 stood at 269,000, 17th smallest in the world, after Romania—but which by war’s end, four years later, stood at 16 million men [and women]). Poland, her antiquated but valiant army decimated by the German Blitzkrieg in September-October 1939, and under German occupation for six years, had the highest per capita death rate in the war, losing 15% of her population (over 6 million of whom, 50%, were Jews). (Jewish soldiers, it should also be noted, volunteering and drafted, and largely in the U.S., British and Russian armies, as well as from the Palestinian Yishuv, or settlement, totalled ca.1 million, together constituting the single highest percentage of any of the ethnic groups included in the Allied countries.)
And added to the direct military and civilian casualties were the long-term indirect societal chaos and breakdown wrought by hundreds of millions of refugees, forced and slave laborers, and massive population transfers (including 14.16 million Volksdeutsch, ethnic Germans forcibly expelled from Soviet-occupied territories at war’s end, of whom1.71 million died). The widespread bombing and destruction of cities, villages, factories, roads, rail-lines, bridges, harbors, airfields, dams, mines, the disruption of agriculture leading to malnutrition and starvation, the millions of tons of shipping sunk, wrought suffering, death, and desolation across Western and Eastern Europe .
WWII involved all of the “traditional” elements of warfare which have characterized human aggression, and the need to counter it, from time immemorial. To these constants, 1939-45 added many nova, new and deadly departures. Some—like aircraft and tanks, submarines and machine guns (and gas, so terrible it went unused in WWII, save by the Germans in the death-camps)—had already been initiated in World War One. (Indeed, already in 1914-18 e advent of mass, industrialized warfare had witnessed a total of 20 million, still largely military, deaths).
Now there appeared aircraft carriers, long-distance heavy bombers, radar, radio communications, sonar, napalm, proximity fuses, primitive code-breaking computers (Britain’s best-kept secret, the Bletchley Park “bombes” which broke Berlin’s Enigma code, were said to have shortened the war by two years). Germany pioneered with much advanced weaponry–the 60-ton Tiger tank and Me262 jet and Me163 Komet rocket-propelled fighter-planes, and the VI and V2 Vergeltungswaffen, “revenge weapons”, the first ballistic missiles in the history of warfare, terror-weapons fired in their thousands at Britain in 1945. Thankfully, these innovations were too few and appeared too late to be decisive.
Another novum, rooted in the Industrial and nineteenth-century technological-productive revolutions adoption of standardized, interchangeable parts and assembly-line division of labor, was a quantitative leap in productive capacity, so great as to constitute a qualitative transformation. The U.S. above all, but not only the U.S., produced prodigious numbers of tanks, trucks, ships, aircraft, rifles, machine-guns, artillery pieces, bombs, and billions of rounds of shells and ammunition.
American private industrialists rose to the occasion. Henry and Edsel Ford were archetypal–converting automotive to aircraft production and building the mile-long Willow Run, Detroit factory, which cranked out, day and night, tens of thousands of four-engine B24 bombers. German submarine warfare in the Atlantic, which at one point threatened Britain’s crucial supply lines from the U.S., was finally defeated by May, 1943, in part through the use of radar, sonar, and coordinated aircraft and destroyer tactics, but also by the remarkable ability to mass-produce freighters (Henry Kaiser’s “Liberty” ships, 2,710 built between 1941 and 1945, or three every two days) at a rate far higher than the German’ ability to sink them.
So inexhaustible was American agricultural and industrial production that the US also convoyed supplies, materiel, uniforms and raw and processed food, to her Allies—American Grant and Sherman tanks, rushed to the desert and driven by British drivers, defeated Rommel at El Alamein in 1943, the Red Air Force prized Bell P39 Airacobra fighters, with their tank-busting nose cannon, used to great effect against German armor, and the Red Army would ride to Berlin victory in April 1945 in over 300,000 Studebaker and Dodge trucks.
But it took time for a coordinated industrial policy to be developed, for industrial plant to be cranked up, scarce labor (now including women) to be found, and for the American army, organized by Roosevelt’s brilliant Chief of Staff, General George C. Marshall, to be built, supplied adequately, trained, transported and blooded (the Kasserine Pass defeat) in the 1943 North African ”Torch” campaign.
Til then, Great Britain, led by the indomitable Churchill, had stood alone; thereafter, the tide began to turn: El Alamein, Sicily (1943), Rome, the American build-up of forces in England, and then—the true turning point of the war–the great triumph of the Red Army over the Germans at Stalingrad, December, 1942-January 1943. There Marshall Zhukov’s “Uranus” counter-attack and envelopment shattered and destroyed the Sixth Army under General Paulus (who ignored Hitler’s order to fight to the death)–200,000 Germans were lost, 93,000 (and Paulus) surrendered. The inexorable Soviet march to Berlin had begun.
And on June 6, 1944 the final death-knell for Hitler was sounded when 140,000 America, British, Canadian and other Allied troops landed in Normandy. Twelve hundred ships, 12,000 aircraft, 400 cargo ships, 4,000 landing craft, and 23,000 airborne paratroopers overwhelmed the German defenders—by day’s end on June 6, 156,000 men were ashore, by 14 June 400,000, by 17 July over 1 million. Finally, the longed-for Second Front, the strategic stroke which guaranteed German defeat by forcing Berlin (again, as in 1914-18) into an unwinnable two-front war, had been achieved.
Despite fanatical German resistance, and several temporary setbacks, within less than a year, Paris would fall, Allied forces led by Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower would cross the Rhine and, in April, 1945 meet up with the Russians at Torgau, in Saxony. After Hitler, on April 30, committed suicide, Berlin–in a final titanic battle causing over 350,000 Russian casualties–would fall to the Red Army, and the hammer-and-sickle flag would flutter triumphantly over the Reichstag’s ruins.
(In the Pacific Theater, after successful island-hopping campaigns and the beginning of the reconquest of the Philippines, in February, 1945 US Marines took Iwo Jima, only 750 miles from Tokyo, and then in April, in the biggest amphibious landings of WWII (larger even than Normandy) Okinawa was conquered (90,000 of 100,000 Japanese defenders died, along with 7,000 US soldiers). Preparing for 1 million casualties in the planned invasion of Japan, these bases sustained the massive bombing of Japan, including the terror fire-bombing of Tokyo on 9 March which killed 83,000. And then, facing the gruesome prospect of massive suicidal Japanese defense of the mainland, the new President, Harry Truman, took the decision to use the newly-developed atomic bombs (Hiroshima on August fourth, and Nagasaki on the ninth), with Emperor Hirohito finally announcing unconditional surrender on 15 August, 1945.)
British Churchillian determination, Allied air and naval power, U.S. manpower and industrial strength, Soviet endurance and suffering, Hitler’s many strategic and tactical mistakes (above all, invading Russia, but not least his Nazi expenditure of resources and manpower and materiel on the Holocaust), and Japan’s refusal to attack Russia after 1941, thus preventing a second front from affecting Russia—all contributed to Germany’s defeat. Yet it was, nevertheless, a close call, and it might well have gone differently–if Hitler had won the Battle of Britain in 1940 and implemented, successfully, Operation Sealion, the planned invasion of an isolated and weakened England; if he had won at Stalingrad, in December, 1943, or at the Battle of the Bulge in December, 1944 (or if Japan, in addition to seven American battleships, had also caught (one of its goals) America’s three aircraft carriers in dock at Pearl Harbor in 1941, instead of their being away at sea, on maneuvers).
“If”, as the saying goes, “is half of life” and while Victory has many fathers, Defeat is often an orphan. The Allies won because they were the Allies, because they were free peoples and their shared values enabled them, despite tensions, to work well together; because (as Victor David Hanson points out) their combined demographic and industrial resources far outweighed the Axis’; because, finally, as the fine World War II historian Andrew Roberts put it, Hitler was a Nazi.
(Had he not been a Nazi, he could have rallied Russia’s oppressed people against Stalin, instead of treating, and alienating, them as Slavic subhumans, and he could have used Jewish atomic scientists to build his atom bomb, instead, his exterminatory anti-Semitism forced them, mirabile dictu, to the West, where they built it. Then again, of course, had Hitler not been a Nazi, there probably would have been no World War II.)
As we today campaign against the ravages of the Covid-19 virus, we should draw strength from remembering the courage, grit, and staying power of our Allied forbears, now sadly almost all gone. Eighty-one years ago they faced up to despair and defeated a degree of sheer evil and devastation so massive and sustainedly overwhelming as to make the current level of decimation, while not exactly child’s play, seem of a secondary order. We can and should take heart from their heroic example—if we can live up to, and imitate, their heroism and steadfastness, the democratic order they bequeathed to us will endure, and the material well-being achieved after World War Ii and the Cold War, will surely, even if slowly, be restored.
(Prof. Krantz, a historian, is Director of the Canadian Institute for
Jewish Research and Editor of its Israfax and Daily Briefing publications.)