Almost from the moment that Gen. Douglas MacArthur accepted the surrender of Japan on Sept. 2, 1945, aboard the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay, historians have fought over the significance and meaning of the myriad events that made up the biggest war in human history. In North America, the Second World War was known as “the good war” because it had revived the economy, defeated Hitler and rolled back fascism. But that aura was soon tarnished by the war’s darker legacies: the nuclear age and the arms race, totalitarianism in Eastern Europe and the Cold War. It is still seen as a relatively good war, as wars go, but the battle for history continues over some of the conflict’s key chapters. Some examples:
THE ALLIED BOMBING OF CIVILIANS:
In Canada, the television series The Valour and the Horror, broadcast on the CBC in 1992, ignited a fierce national debate over several aspects of the country’s role in the Second World War. Veterans attacked the series in newspaper ads and letterwriting campaigns, charging that it dishonored Canadian servicemen. Historians denounced the program in hearings before the Senate Subcommittee on Veterans Affairs, claiming inaccuracies.
The second instalment of the three-part series, Death by Moonlight: Bomber Command, was singled out for the harshest criticisms. It focuses on the youth, bravery and horrifying working conditions of the Canadian airmen who flew bombing missions over Germany. But it also portrays them as tools in a vindictive campaign of terror directed at German civilians by Air Marshal Arthur (Bomber) Harris, commanderin-chief of the RAF Bomber Command. His strategy was to break German morale and hamper war produc-
tion by “de-housing” civilians in industrial cities.
The film suggests that the result was both strategically ineffective and morally repugnant. In a new book, The Battle for History, British historian John Keegan supports one of the film’s arguments, writing that Harris’s strategy “did not work.”
Production in many German industries actually rose until the final months of the war. In an interview with Maclean’s, Brian McKenna, director of The
Valour and the Horror, cited a 1994 book that he
But part of that text has already come under attack in another book, The Valour and the Horror Revisited, a collection of essays by five historians. Co-editor David Bercuson, a University of Calgary historian, claims that The Crucible of War is seriously flawed regarding the impact of the bombing on German morale because its authors failed to conduct archival research in Germany. “No professional historian questions that Bomber Command targeted civilians with area bombing,” declares Bercuson. “What the film leaves out is that the Nazis used area bombing first, the Allied campaign skewed the German war effort, and the cities targeted were major producers of munitions.”
THE ATOMIC BOMBS:
n exhibit scheduled to open in May at the Smithsonian i Institution in Washington about the use of atomic weapons against Japan sparked a furor in the United States with strong echoes of the Canadian controversy over The Valour and the Horror. The
says vindicates his series—The Crucible of War, 1939-1945: The Official History of the Royal Canadian Air Force, Volume III, published by the University of Toronto Press and the department of defence. Smithsonian exhibit was originally to have featured documents that questioned the necessity of dropping the bombs and horrific photographs of civilians who died from the blast and radiation sickness. But after five revisions, the exhibit was radically scaled back because of pressure from the American Legion and congressmen.
The acrimony stems from an issue that historians have failed to resolve in 50 years of debate.
President Harry Truman wrote that his decision to drop an atomic bomb on Hiroshima on Aug. 6,1945, and a second one on Nagasaki three days later, prevented half-a-million American casualties because it pre-empted a dreaded invasion of Japan scheduled for that November. But even the president’s top officials had their doubts. “The use of this barbarous weapon at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no material success in our war against Japan,” Admiral William Leahy, the wartime chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, wrote in 1950. “In being the first to use it, we had adopted an ethical standard common to the barbarians of the Dark Ages.”
Leahy and some historians insist that Japan would have surrendered without the grotesque destruction of the atomic bombs. With 60 per cent of its cities levelled by conventional bombing and a sea blockade cutting off its supplies, Japan was on its knees. As well, the Soviet Union was preparing to declare war on the enemy in mid-August. American historian Gar Alperovitz argues that Truman’s real motive for dropping the bombs was to intimidate the Soviets—and make them more manageable in postwar Europe.
The latest and most respected research on the subject is featured in an article in the January-February issue of Foreign Affairs by Stanford University historian Barton Bernstein. He writes that modifying a demand for unconditional surrender, awaiting the Soviet entry into the war and continu-1 ing conventional bombing probably? could have ended the war before an invasion. The second bomb was certainly unnecessary, he adds, because the3
Japanese emperor had already secretly decided to overrule his country’s fanatical military leaders and seek peace. While Bernstein acknowledges that intimidating the Soviets was seen as a bonus, the underlying rationale for dropping the bombs was that “there were few moral restraints left in what had become virtually a total war.”
^■JB^hile the controversy over the atomic bomb is
^F^r acknowledged even in mainstream American history textbooks, a festering issue that rarely rates a mention is the extent of Allied intelligence about the Nazi genocide that killed nearly six million Jews, and why the death camps were not made military targets. According to historian Walter Laqueur, author of The Terrible Secret, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt likely knew by the fall of 1942 through intelligence reports that one million Jews had already been killed by the Nazis.
By May, 1944, Allied commanders had irrefutable proof of the Nazi death camps: aerial reconnaissance photos of Auschwitz, the largest of the five extermination camps, where almost two million Jews perished. Over the next six months, 400,000 Hungarian Jews died at Auschwitz. But while the Allies bombed factories around Auschwitz, they did nothing to disrupt the camp itself. At one point, Laqueur says, Churchill argued for bombing the death camps but he was overruled by the military. “It was a civilian target, and Jews were a low priority,” declares Laqueur. “They wanted to inflict as much damage as possible on military targets.” Laqueur maintains, though not all historians agree, that bombing some component of the camps’ operations, or even publicizing their existence, would have forced the Nazis to slow down the “final solution” and perhaps have saved hundreds of thousands of lives.
GERMANY, THE EYE OF THE STORM:
1 ith the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the end of the Cold War and the elimination of official censorship in the former East Germany, previously suppressed evidence has come to light cataloguing injustices suffered by the German populace—as well as crimes committed by them. A recent documentary, for example, gathered material showing that soldiers in the Red Army raped an estimated two million German women.
But equally disturbing to many Germans are new revelations of the complicity of millions of their countrymen in the Holocaust. The latest controversy revolves around the Wehrmacht, the German regular army. For much of the postwar period, the popular image of the Wehrmacht propagated by German politicians, film-makers and authors has been that its rank and file consisted of honorable soldiers who remained aloof from Nazi atrocities.
But that version of history has been exposed as myth in an exhibit that opened in Hamburg in March, and an accompanying book with contributions from 40 historians. Titled War of Extermination: Crimes of the Wehrmacht, 19411944, it employs documents, letters and soldiers’ snapshots to establish the army’s “systematic co-operation” with Hitler’s SS. The conclusion: the Wehrmacht was responsible for the deaths of an estimated 1.1 million Jewish civilians on the eastern front. Much of the material was suppressed by the Allies after 1945 because of Cold War politics. “A German army in NATO was considered an essential part of the armory against the new Soviet threat,” says exhibit director Hannes Heer. “It would have been an impossibility if the military were discredited.”
The recent discoveries constitute a shattering statement of collective guilt, given that roughly 10 million German men served in the Wehrmacht. And in what seems like a replay of the recent controversies over the war in North America, German veterans have criticized the show as distorted and exaggerated. The outcry is only the latest example of the powerful, and sometimes painful, role historians can play as arbiters of guilt and innocence in war.
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