As I mentioned in my last post, recently I have been doing some reading on the Second World War. Before I began this study, I thought I knew at least something about the fundamentals of the war, such as the rise of the Third Reich, the invasion of Poland, the German conquest of France, and the invasion of the Soviet Union. And yes, I did know about these things. But one thing I did not really understand or appreciate is the sheer enormity and dimension of that war, and, in particular, the war fought between Germany and Russia. Really, when I began to think about it, the Second World War seems to be two separate but still related conflicts: the war between Germany and Russia and the war between the United States and Japan. The Western front, the war between Germany, Britain, France and the United States, with North Africa and Italy thrown in, although still quite devastating for those countries involved, is really nothing compared to what happened on the Eastern front. Likewise, the U.S. war with Japan also was a different sort of conflict, mostly consisting of great naval battles and ending with the use of atomic weapons, hence ushering in a new and revolutionary era of warfare.
The Eastern Front, the war between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, was the greatest conflict in all of human history. Germany invaded the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941. It was the largest military front ever, stretching over 1,500 miles. By the end of the war, in May 1945, with the Red Army occupying the devastated German capital, Berlin, the number of casualties over those four years are staggering: for the Soviets, the estimates are 7-10 million soldiers killed, another 5 million captured (over 3 million died in captivity), and with an additional 15-20 million civilian deaths. The Germans, in turn, lost over 4 million soldiers killed, over 3 million captured, as well as millions of civilians killed by the advancing Red Army towards the end of the war. The largest population movement in human history occurred in the last year of the war, with around 15 million ethnic German fleeing westward from what was once Prussia in Eastern Germany to escape the Red Army. As far the wounded, physically and psychologically, the number are in the tens of millions. The devastation and destruction to buildings and basic infrastructure of the combat areas is also beyond calculation.
I became interested in all this the recently when I saw a great movie on the Battle of Stalingrad. The movie, Stalingrad, was made in Germany in the mid 1990’s and presents the battle from the perspective of the German soldier. We don’t get too many films in the West which portray the war from the perspective of the Germans. This is probably due to the fact that we really do not want to humanize the average soldier of the Wehrmacht, since we need to continue to demonize them in order to justify our own tremendous losses and the devastation we experienced, and inflicted. Still, I think it is important to try to understand how the average German soldier at the time experienced the war, especially in such hopeless battles as Stalingrad. Most of the men who fought were conscripts, and had spent most of their young lives completely indoctrinated into Nazi propaganda. Most thought they were fighting a just cause, because they had been told so countless times in their closed society. They were controlled by a very effective propaganda machine. Such propaganda included portraying the Slavic peoples of Russia as Untermenchen (sub-humans) who deserved to be eliminated or enslaved by the Germanic peoples. How bitter a realization it must have been to those young German soldiers as they were being marched off to their deaths in Soviet POW camps after the battle. They must have realized, cold and starving and wounded and certain of an inevitable death, how wrongly they had been lied to by their government. They must have realized how deeply they had been manipulated by a regime bent of conquest and inconsiderate of human life. Of the 90,000 German soldiers captured in Stalingrad, only 5,000 ever returned home. The rest perished somewhere the endless steppes of Russia.
Now, I really do not feel a whole of sympathy for the German soldier. War is war and these things happen. Germany did start the war and so suffered the just consequences. Still, the enormity of the Eastern front, and the Battle of Stalingrad, are hard to grasp. As I live in my comfortable existence in modern day America, the deprivations suffered from both populations, Soviet and German, are beyond comprehension. For instance, the siege of Leningrad lasted over two years. In the end, with desperation mounting, the starving residents of the beleaguered city turned to cannibalism to survive, and by cannibalism I mean groups of people actually hunted down others to eat them. I actually heard one eyewitness say how they preferred to hunt down children, because their flesh was tender. Berlin, one of the great capitals of the world, was utterly destroyed. Probably over two million German women were raped by the conquering Soviet troops in the early months of 1945. The German people would have also starved if it had not been for aid from the West after the war. And these are only a few of the catastrophes of that conflict. Such are the horrors of war.
And the ferocity of the fighting is also beyond comprehension. We become upset in this country when some servicemen are killed. And rightly so, we should not underestimate such things. Every life matters. But the life expectancy for the Russian soldier during the battle of Stalingrad was 24 hours. The life expectancy for the German soldier during the Eastern campaign was 11 days. Even at the end of the war, with only two weeks until the surrender of Berlin, the Red Army lost nearly 300,000 men killed taking the city. This carnage happened in only a two week period. Such casualties are completely foreign to us in our modern world.
And yet these things could happen again. If one thing in life is certain, new wars will arise. If so, they must be fought. What I despise are the people who advocate warfare in a casual way, such as the Neo-Conservative chicken hawks in the U.S (Dick Cheney, Bill Kristol, George W. Bush, Mitt Romney, among others), without really taking into account the complete devastation that wars can create. When you fight a war, you need to fight to win and destroy your enemy. You need to understand what spilling blood, what killing and being killed means. And this, as Russia so well demonstrated, requires massive sacrifices. It requires a ruthlessness beyond what most modern people are aware. Today some people want war but they do not want the sacrifice, they want to watch our invasion of Iraq on television and chant “USA” as if it were some sort of sporting event. They want to analyze a war from the comfort of their armchair or their television studio. They want an army of volunteer, paid soldiers to do their fighting for them. Now they, the Neo-Conservatives, talk casually of war with Iran. I don’t know what to make of it all (a nuclear armed Iran would not be a good thing, and is real threat), except to say, be careful for what you wish for, and be prepared for what you may unleash. Those German soldiers in Stalingrad never expected to suffer such a miserable fate so far, far away from their homes and families.