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Second thoughts about the morality of WW II and both sides

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Adam Kirsch is a senior editor with The New Republic. I recall reading his stuff before and remember that a lot of it was thought provoking. This review of WW II histories is no less thought provoking. The NY Times piece offers this set of seldom seen images of that horrible time that I brushed so close to in France during May and June 1940. Kirsch’s ending is most evocative for me:

After all, the present is always lived in ambiguity. To those who fought World War II, it was plain enough that Allied bombs were killing huge numbers of German civilians, that Churchill was fighting to preserve imperialism as well as democracy, and that the bulk of the dying in Europe was being done by the Red Army at the service of Stalin. It is only in retrospect that we begin to simplify experience into myth — because we need stories to live by, because we want to honor our ancestors and our country instead of doubting them. In this way, a necessary but terrible war is simplified into a “good war,” and we start to feel shy or guilty at any reminder of the moral compromises and outright betrayals that are inseparable from every combat. The best history writing reverses this process, restoring complexity to our sense of the past. Indeed, its most important lesson may be that the awareness of ambiguity must not lead to detachment and paralysis — or to pacifism and isolationism, as Nicholson Baker and Pat Buchanan would have it.

On the contrary, the more we learn about the history of World War II, the stronger the case becomes that it was the irresolution and military weakness of the democracies that allowed Nazi Germany to provoke a world war, with all the ensuing horrors and moral compromises that these recent books expose. The fact that we can still be instructed by the war, that we are still proud of our forefathers’ virtues and pained by their sufferings and sins, is the best proof that World War II is still living history — just as the Civil War is still alive, long after the last veteran was laid to rest.

My own Lilliputian view is that the world conflict known to us as WW II really began in Manchuria, now  a major part of northeast China, in September 1931. Generals of Japan’s Kwantung Army, which occupied parts  of southern Manchuria, decided for their own nationalistic reasons to undertake invasion and near war against China, which seemed a conquerable power at that time. It’s notable that Japan’s war in China lasted about 14 years and was followed by open civil war in China between the Kuomintang of Chiang-Kai-Shek and Mao’s Communist forces, which ended in October 1949.

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Written by BobG in Dalian & Vancouver

2011/05/27 at 19:02

Why did world democracies fail to help the Republican forces during the Spanish Civil War 1936-39?

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Here’s some pithy historical analysis, which must have resonated for George Orwell!

A Call to Arms

Oct 16th 2008

From The Economist print edition
We Saw Spain Die: Foreign Correspondents in the Spanish Civil War
By Paul Preston


Constable; 436 pages; £20

Buy it at


“IN SPAIN two vast world forces are testing each other out: if Franco conquers, Europe will be black or Europe will go to war as soon as Hitler and Mussolini are ready.” That was the correct prediction in 1936 of Louis Fischer, an American journalist so convinced of the dangers of Franco’s fascist rebellion that he joined the International Brigades to take up arms on behalf of the Republican government.

Fischer was hardly alone in his devotion to the Republican cause: in an excellent account of the foreign reporting of Spain’s three years of savage fratricide, Paul Preston cites an impressive list, from America’s egotistic Ernest Hemingway to Britain’s self-effacing Henry Buckley. By contrast, enthusiasts for Franco’s rebels were few (Mr Preston singles out William P. Carney of the New York Times for special, scornful mention). As Mr Preston explains, foreign correspondents were given relatively free rein by the Republicans’ press office, with easy access to the front lines. On the Francoist side they were often threatened with prison and execution.

So why did the reporting of so many pro-Republic correspondents not persuade outside powers, notably Britain, America and France, to lift their arms embargo on the hard-pressed Republicans? A prime reason was the fact that the Republicans were backed, more in materiel than men, by Stalin’s Russia: an antipathy to communism was, it seems, a good enough excuse to overlook the presence in Franco’s forces of German and Italian troops. Outside opinion was also offended by the anticlericalism of the Republican side, with its attacks on priests and vandalism of monasteries. Some of these attacks were horrible enough; others were exaggerated by Francoist sympathisers. Mr Preston notes that Carney invented many of his stories, which pro-Catholic editors at the New York Times printed despite the anguish of Herbert Matthews, its more objective correspondent on the Republican side.

Mr Preston’s own preference for the Republican cause is obvious, but it does not deter him from detailing the spying for their governments of several pro-Republic correspondents. He devotes a fascinating chapter to Russia’s Mikhail Koltsov, a Pravda correspondent for whom Republican Spain was an inspiring antidote to the terror of his homeland—and whose loyalty to Stalin was rewarded by torture and execution. Fischer, writing mainly for the Nation, was not a spy, but he was so well-connected in both Europe and America that his advice was welcomed by American and Soviet politicians alike.

One weakness of Mr Preston’s book is his concentration on the English-language press (Koltsov apart, non-Anglophone journalists are mentioned mainly in passing). Another is an overlong chapter on the dispute between Hemingway and John Dos Passos on the disappearance of Dos Passos’s friend, José Robles. But these are small criticisms. The author paints a marvellous portrait of the world of the war correspondent: the risk to life; the temptations to infidelity (Hemingway’s affair with Martha Gellhorn was hardly exceptional); and, in the days before satellite phones, the constant struggle to get the story out.

The story was tragic, not just as a prologue to the second world war but also because it condemned Spain to decades of dictatorship. Implicit in this book is the thought that, if the correspondents had been listened to, the outcome could have been different. As Mr Buckley later wrote, the outside world cared more for Spain’s art works, spirited to safety in Geneva, than for its thousands of refugees.

We Saw Spain Die: Foreign Correspondents in the Spanish Civil War.

By Paul Preston.
Constable; 436 pages; £20

Written by BobG in Dalian & Vancouver

2009/11/10 at 07:44

Hitlerism and German military were defeated by Stalin’s political leadership, Soviet Armed forces and the massive scale of Russian resources, mostly!

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Every time I read and hear about WW II from the Western perspective, I feel the real story of who won it, or how it was won, or what truly beat Hitlerism, is not really in the discussion.

These days I am reading “Life and Fate“, the epic tale of war on the Eastern Front written by Valery Grossman, an extraordinary Russian journalist who was truly embedded with the Soviet forces before, during and after the battle of Stalingrad, in a way that Western jounalists today rarely experience. The story he tells is one of the true barbarism of the war fought against Hitler’s armed forces. No other story by Stephen Ambrose or Cornelius Ryan is comparable for the breadth and depth of human suffering depicted by Grossman.

So it is useful serendipity today that the Web sphere offers a review of books now being published in the US about the epic war in the East. Here is an excerpt from that review:

The German invasion of the Soviet Union began on June 22, 1941. It involved three million men: 152 divisions in three army groups, 3,350 tanks, 2,000 airplanes, 7,000 pieces of artillery, 600,000 motorized vehicles, and 625,000 horses. The initial efforts matched such numbers. In three weeks, Army Group Centre advanced 400 miles and captured the whole of Belorussia. Russian armies lost nearly 5,000 tanks, nearly 10,000 artillery pieces, and 1,700 planes. The victories at Bialystok and Minsk were each comparable to the German victory over the combined French and British armies in May 1940.

German plans called for the destruction of the Red Army west of the Dnieper and Dvina Rivers–to prevent it from escaping into the hinterland of Russia–and the capture of Smolensk, the land bridge to Moscow. All went well, though the distances and the minimal Soviet infrastructure quickly caused trouble with the strategic schedule as the panzer divisions awaited the slow infantry and supplies. And Smolensk held out for 63 days.

Still, the German leadership was suffused with a sense of complete victory. Eleven days after the invasion began, the army chief of staff, Franz Halder, made a famous entry in his diary: “I am therefore not exaggerating when I say that the campaign against Russia was won in 14 days.” This isn’t the mad logic that it might seem in retrospect. The General Staff’s rule of thumb was that a nation could produce two divisions (30,000 soldiers) for each million of its population. The Soviet Union prewar population was 190 million, and so should have produced an army of six million soldiers in 384 divisions. By September, Soviet dead and prisoners exceeded four million. In the first six months of fighting, the German army achieved 12–repeat, 12–great encirclements on a par with the victories at Sedan in 1871 and the Ardennes in 1940.

If Barbarossa had been a war game, all would have been over. Yet the Russians didn’t play by quite the same rules. On August 11, Halder would write:

Overall, it is clearer and clearer that we have underestimated the Russian colossus, which had prepared itself for war with an utter lack of restraint which is characteristic of the totalitarian state. This is as true in the area of organization as it is of the economy, the area of transport and communications, but above all to pure military power. At the start of the war, we reckoned on some 200 enemy divisions. Now we have already counted 360. These divisions are definitely not armed and equipped in our sense, and tactically they are in many ways badly led. But they are there.

THE GERMANS DIDN’T HAVE A WAY to win the war if the Russians were willing to keep fighting.

The fighting in Western Europe was a bloody and tough slog, but how many times worse would it have been if by the fall of 1943 the Soviet armed forces hadn’t forced the German military into full scale retreat on a vast front, especially after the battle of Kursk. And the blood letting in the East hadn’t ended. Apparently there were hundreds of thousands of Soviet military casualties during the phases of the preparation and final battle for Berlin.

Considering the way in which Allied generals and their political masters conducted the war in the West after the Battle of the Bulge, it is fair to say that they couldn’t contemplate epic and savage battles on the scale that Stalin ordered and didn’t flinch from including Stalingrad, Leningrad, and the Kursk offensive.

I just found another review of a Grossman book and another about the soldiers of the Red Army. Fascinating perspectives and explanations about Stalin’s evil manipulation of Russian soldiery and their barbaric behaviour before and during the final defeat of the German military machine.

Written by BobG in Dalian & Vancouver

2008/02/11 at 14:19