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The ruins of Dresden, bombed by Allied forces in February 1945.
The ruins of Dresden, bombed by Allied forces in February 1945. (AP File Photo)

How good was the Good War?

On May 8, 1945, the war against Hitler’s Third Reich was won — and some of the victors’ most cherished myths were born

‘‘NO ENGLISH SOLDIER who rode with the tanks into liberated Belgium or saw the German murder camps at Dachau or Buchenwald could doubt that the war had been a noble crusade.’’ Forty years ago the historian A.J.P. Taylor eloquently expressed what has become a universal belief. Other wars are looked back on with horror for their futile slaughter, but the conflict that ended in Europe in May 1945 is today seen as what Studs Terkel called his famous oral history of it: ‘‘The Good War.’’

In one way it will always remain so. A revisionist case, that defeating Hitler was a mistake, would be not only perverse and offensive, but simply absurd. And yet we have all been sustained since V-E Day, 60 years ago today, by what Giovanni Giolitti, the Italian prime minister of a century ago, once called ‘‘beautiful national legends.’’ By ‘‘we’’ I mean the countries that ended the war on the winning side (the Germans and Japanese have some national legends of their own).

Some of these legends are more obvious than others. The French suffered a catastrophic defeat in 1940, and the compromises many Frenchmen made with their conquerors thereafter ranged from the pitiful to the wicked. More Frenchmen collaborated than resisted, and during the course of the war more Frenchmen bore arms on the Axis than on the Allied side. Against those grim truths, Charles de Gaulle consciously and brilliantly constructed a nourishing myth of Free France and Resistance that helped heal wounds and rebuild the country.

Other myths about the war have grown up less deliberately. For Americans, the first national legend concerns the very definition of World War II. In recent decades it has come more and more to mean the war against Hitler’s Germany. But for the American people at the time, ‘‘the war’’ meant the Pacific war. That was where the first and last American blood was spilled, where America was engaged in combat the longest, and where Americans for most of the time watched the war unfold.

Funnily enough, when President Bush says that the war on terror, like World War II, began with a surprise attack on America, he is echoing that original perception. To say that the war started with the bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941 (which is what he means) will come as a surprise to Europeans and especially the Poles, who have an idea it began on Sept. 1, 1939, when the Wehrmacht invaded their country. And yet Bush is harking back unconsciously to the days when the war for America meant ‘‘The Sands of Iwo Jima,’’ rather than ‘‘Saving Private Ryan’’ and ‘‘Band of Brothers.’’

The reason for the subtle shift in American perception is easy to see. If a purely evil regime ever existed, it was the Third Reich, and if any war ever had a moral purpose it must have been the war fought to end its mad persecution. By contrast the morality of the Pacific war was much less clear-cut. To be sure, Japan launched that surprise attack, and Japanese troops behaved horribly to American, British, and Australian POWs and much worse to the Asian peoples they conquered. Still, the Marines scarcely pretended to take prisoners (even when the Japanese wanted to surrender), while the score for Pearl Harbor was more than settled at Hiroshima.

Apart from the way it was fought, that war was pretty much a traditional contest for imperial hegemony. The Philippines did not belong to Japan by right, nor to America. And while the Third Reich practiced a kind of evil different in kind even from Japanese atrocities, the Germans were never demonized and dehumanized in American propaganda and popular culture as the Japanese were a difference grimly reflected in the way Japanese-Americans were interned but German-Americans were not.

. . .

For my own country the first nourishing myth is that ‘‘we won the war.’’ It’s true that only the British, along with their Commonwealth and Empire, took part in the war from its start in September 1939 to its end in August 1945; true too that British defiance of Hitler in the year from June 1940 to June 1941 was absolutely crucial. But the British, as they knew even at the time, could only play a negative partby not surrendering. They could not defeat Hitler on their own, but had to wait for him to bring about his own doom, by invading Russia in June 1941 and declaring war on the United States (rather than the other way round, be it remembered) in December.

Even then, others did the fighting. The best description of how Hitler was defeated was Stalin’s. The old monster said that England provided the time, America provided the money, and Russia provided the blood.

Not only did it take the Western Allies nearly three years after the German attack on Russia seriously to engage the German army in Normandy, but even then most of the fighting was still on the other side of Europe. In the campaign from D-Day to V-E Day, something like 110,000 American soldiers were killed, as well as about half as many from the combined British-Canadian armies. That sounds formidable, and indeed is by today’s standards, until you remember that in the same 11-month period more than half a million Russians were killed on the Eastern Front. Leaving aside the respective Allied casualties, to see how the war was won you need only compare two figures. In all the western campaigns of the war against French, British, Americans, and troops of many other lands, some 200,000 German soldiers died. Four million Germans died on the Eastern Front.

Behind this lies an awkward truth, one we didn’t learn in the cheerful war comics and books of my boyhood in the 1950s, but on which all serious military historians are now agreed. From the beginning to the end of that war, whenever the British Army met the Wehrmacht on anything like equal terms, the Germans always prevailed. And that pretty much goes for the US Army too, from their first disastrous encounter with the Germans, at Kasserine Pass in North Africa, in early 1943. American and British commanders always took good care thereafter that they had an overwhelming superiority in men and especially in weaponry before engaging the enemy.

That is not a cause for shame. The British were haunted by memories of the Great War and its vast carnage. As much to the point, Great Britain and the United States were democracies. Their soldiers were not brutalized peasants, or even an ‘‘army of mercenaries,’’ as A.E. Housman called the 1914 British regular army. As the British military historian Max Hastings puts it in his excellent recent book ‘‘Armageddon: The Battle for Germany, 1944-45’’ (Pan), they were citizens in uniform, and they could not be treated as German or Russian soldiers were.

For that fighting spirit of the Germans had another side to it. Hitler ruled by glamour and terror; his soldiers were driven by fear as well as zeal. In a war during which no British soldier, and only one GI, was shot for cowardice, at least 15,000 German servicemen were executed for dereliction of duty.

And that went for the Russians even more so. A heroic Russian narrative of the war, and the memory of the tens of millions of Russian dead, is still potent and plays a part in the sinister nostalgia for Stalin resurfacing in Russia but Russian heroism also has to be qualified.

We now know that in the first winter of the war on the Eastern Front in 1941-42, more than 8,000 Russian soldiers died not in action but shot by their own army for cowardice or desertion. During the battle of Stalingrad alone, another 12,000 men of the Red Army were put to death pour encourager les autres. This was a regime fighting a desperate war that could nevertheless put to death well over a full infantry division of its own men. On the other hand, the Russians relaxed at the end of the war, with Stalin’s encouragement, by indulging in the greatest act of gang rape in history against millions of women in Hungary, Austria, and eastern Germany.

. . .

For the Western Allies, the ‘‘good war’’ was compromised in other ways, particularly by the bombing campaign that reduced the cities of Germany to rubble. Here is another somber comparison, between the 300,000 British servicemen killed in the war and the 600,000 German civilians killed by Allied mainly British bombing. At the time consciences were numbed the war had to be won, and ‘‘they had it coming’’ but it is not now easy to look back with pride on the scores of thousands of women and children incinerated in Hamburg in July 1943 or Dresden in February 1945.

Nor on the other moral compromises at the war’s end. Great Britain did not go to war to save the Jews from Hitler’s torment (and did not succeed) but to protect the freedom and integrity of Poland, an aim that Churchill, with Roosevelt’s encouragement, abandoned at Yalta. Worse still was the forcible repatriation of prisoners to torture and death in Russia and Yugoslavia. And yet all this was not simply conspiracy or betrayal: The Iron Curtain, with half of Europe under Soviet rule, was a painful but logical consequence of the way the West had let Russia do most of the fighting.

Was it ‘‘a noble crusade’’? For the liberation of western Europe, maybe so. Was it a just war? That tricky theological concept has to be weighed against very many injustices. Was it a good war? The phrase itself is dubious. No, there are no good wars, but there are necessary wars, and this was surely one.

Geoffrey Wheatcroft is an English journalist and author. His most recent book is ‘‘The Strange Death of Tory England.’’

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