Thanks for sharing this very interesting article. I do not know the New
York Sun, but in Belgium, it is still problematic to publish such things in
a respectfully newspaper.
... Soviet commanders wasted lives in a way that no American general would
even have considered ...
English commanders did, too. ( in WW II, South-Afrika, India, etc... but
especially in WW I - in Flanders Fields. In WW I, French commanders
followed this example)
]Namens Lucyna Artymiuk
Verzonden: woensdag 5 september 2007 11:42
Onderwerp: [Kresy-Siberia] Clash Of Evils
Clash Of Evils
By ADAM KIRSCH
September 5, 2007
To the historian of Poland, the history of all Europe looks different.
Ordinarily, Eastern Europe is thought to begin somewhere around Prague, with
everything beyond relegated to mystery and backwardness. Half a century
behind the Iron Curtain only deepened the traditional estrangement, making
it seem natural to regard countries with very different identities as part
of a monolithic Eastern Bloc. People who instinctively recognize the
difference between the Germans and the Dutch feel no need to understand the
difference between Ukrainians and Poles, or between Serbs and Croats - until
they start to kill one another, whereupon they become examples of "age-old,"
unchangeable hatreds. This state of affairs has been decried over and over
again by writers such as Milan Kundera, who once protested the way "a
Western country like Czechoslovakia has been part of a certain history, a
certain civilization, for a thousand years and now, suddenly, it has been
torn from its history and rechristened 'The East.'"
The career of Norman Davies, the popular and sometimes controversial British
historian, has been devoted to hammering home that same point, for the
benefit of readers who think of "the West" as beginning in California and
extending to about the Elbe. Mr. Davies made his reputation as the leading
English-language historian of Poland. His survey of Polish history, "God's
Playground" (1982), is the standard work on the subject, and is very popular
in Poland itself, where it was first distributed clandestinely by Samizdat
in the early 1980s. Over the last decade, Mr. Davies has branched out,
producing wideranging, synethetic books on big subjects: "The Isles" (1999)
dealt with the history of Great Britain and Ireland, "Europe: A History"
(1996) took on the whole continent.
But the outsider's perspective that he developed as a scholar of Poland is
always in evidence. The very fact that Mr. Davies' history of Britain is not
a history of Britain, but a history of "The Isles," suggests how he uses the
facts of geography to unsettle the myths of history. Ireland, Wales,
Scotland and England are no more Britain, Mr. Davies argues, than Poland and
the Czech Republic are "the East." To understand history correctly, we must
first rid of ourselves of such illusions, even comforting and comfortable
"No Simple Victory" (Viking, 490 pages, $30), Mr. Davies's new book, is the
latest installment in his project of illusion-demolition. This is a
revisionist history of World War II, designed to shake the complacency of
British and American readers who are accustomed to thinking of it as "the
good war." It is not that Mr. Davies has uncovered any important new facts,
or even launched any shocking reinterpretations. His purpose, rather, is to
remind the world of two truths that, while well-established, he believes are
not sufficiently reckoned with.
The first is that, in military terms, World War II in Europe was
predominantly a war between Germany and the Soviet Union; the contributions
of Britain and America, while crucial, were not of the same order. The
second is that, when Nazism and Communism fought over control of Eastern
Europe, there was little moral difference between them. The Soviet Union was
one of the Allies, but it had less in common with Anglo-American democracy
than it did with Nazi tyranny.
The first of these points is inarguable, and indeed unargued. By any
reckoning - soldiers killed, battles fought, territory lost, suffering
inflicted on civilians - the eastern front of World War II was much more
terrible than the fronts later opened by the Anglo-Americans in North
Africa, Italy, and France. Mr. Davies offers several possible metrics, all
of which tell the same story. Soviet military deaths in 1939-45 were
approximately 11 million; British and American deaths in Europe were about
144,000 for each country. (Mr. Davies does not count Allied casualties in
the Pacific theater.) In other words, for every American who died in the
fighting in Europe, about 76 Russians died.
If you consider civilian casualties, the disproportion is much starker,
since neither Britain nor America was ever invaded by the enemy. Some 60,000
Britons died in German bombing raids, and even this figure is too large to
be comprehended: How can you imagine so many terrifying deaths? Yet the
British civilian death toll must be set against the Soviet toll of roughly
18 million - a figure that includes Jews, Poles, Byelorussians, and many
other ethnicities in addition to Russians. For each British civilian, in
other words, some 300 civilians from the Soviet Union died.
And that is not to begin to consider all the other categories of suffering
Mr. Davies enumerates, in a series of short entries: deportations,
executions, slave labor, starvation, concentration camps - even
child-stealing. There is, for instance, the unspeakable story of the SS
Lebensborn or "Fountain of Life" organization, which kidnapped
Nordic-looking Polish children and brought them to Germany to "improve" the
racial stock. Those who were deemed insufficiently Aryan were abandoned or
killed; the rest were assigned to German families and given new names. Tens
of thousands of German citizens now in their 60s must have started life as
the children of Polish mothers - each one has a story too deep for tears.
The worst form of violence during World War II, of course, was the
Holocaust. In the past, Mr. Davies's treatment of the Holocaust has been
criticized by some historians as so Polono-centric as to be false to the
realities of Jewish experience. I do not know enough about Mr. Davies's
previous writing on this subject to take a side in the debate, though there
are powerful voices on both sides. (Mr. Davies's book on Europe was
criticized on this score by Theodore K. Rabb, and passionately defended by
In "No Simple War," his treatment of the Holocaust is generally
straightforward and unobjectionable. Yet he evidently still feels bruised by
past criticism and cannot refrain from marring the book with obnoxious,
defensive asides. He takes a potshot at the "socalled 'Holocaust enforcers,'
who try to insist not merely that the Holocaust was a reality but also that
it was attended by a variety of ancillary realities of a less convincing
kind" - a thoroughly obscure remark that suggests but does not explain some
animus on Mr. Davies's part. One would like to know which "ancillary
realities" Mr. Davies thinks it necessary to deny, and why.
Elsewhere, under the rubric "Survivors," he goes out of his way to cite
Norman Finkelstein, who has "bitterly denounced organizations which purport
to be helping survivors but in fact may be acting from motives of financial
gain or political interest." This ominous sentence is not only dubious on
its own, it is utterly irrelevant to the history of World War II, and once
again leaves the reader feeling that the Jewish response to the Holocaust
evokes some obscure hostility in Mr. Davies
One might speculate that, as a Polish historian, he is frustrated by the way
the Nazi persecution of the Jews is so much better known than the Soviet
persecution of the Poles. For Mr. Davies's second major contention is that
Nazi barbarism, which the world is accustomed to hearing about, must be set
alongside the Stalinist barbarism that Allied propaganda assiduously
concealed. "All sound moral judgments," he writes, "operate on the basis
that the standards applied to one side of a relationship must be applied to
all sides. It is not acceptable that certain acts by an ill-favored party be
condemned as 'foul murder' if similar acts by a more favored party be
somehow excused or overlooked."
It follows that Mr. Davies argues against what he calls the "Allied Scheme
of History," which portrays the alliance of the Soviets and the
Anglo-Americans as a unified "anti-Fascist" struggle. Americans, especially,
are inclined to this view, since our memory of World War II usually begins
at Pearl Harbor, six months after Hitler invaded Russia and turned the
Soviet Union into an enemy. But as Mr. Davies reminds us, the first act of
the war was the joint invasion of Poland by Hitler and Stalin, and for two
years thereafter, the totalitarian dictators worked in tandem to achieve
their goals. Early in 1940, in fact, Britain and France considered sending
an expeditionary force to Finland to fight the Soviet invasion.
After Operation Barbarossa - the code name for the German invasion of
Russia - the Soviet Union officially became one of the Allies. But the evil
of Stalin's regime, while it was decently forgotten in the West, did not
diminish in wartime. On the contrary, the Red Army was in some ways the
natural culmination of the communist experiment, which had already
militarized society and treated human lives as means to an end.
After Stalin's own incompetence prevented the Red Army from anticipating the
German invasion, the Soviet Union could only compensate for huge initial
losses by treating its soldiers as cannon fodder, overwhelming the Germans
with sheer numbers. Soviet commanders wasted lives in a way that no American
general would even have considered. It was necessary to deploy "blocking
regiments" behind the front lines, expressly tasked with shooting any
comrade who tried to retreat.
Worse, because totally irrational, the Soviet state continued to destroy its
own people even when the war was at its height. During the first year of the
invasion, the Red Army issued 800,000 death sentences to its own soldiers.
Every unit had its commissar, who had to countersign all military orders,
and who could condemn anyone to death for an impolitic word. No wonder that,
as Mr. Davies writes, "the front-line zone of maximum physical danger"
became for the Red Army troops "a zone of psychological liberation, even of
gay abandon, which no doubt contributed to the willingness of the 'Ivans' to
rush to their deaths with a hurrah on their lips."
Clearly, no one who reads "No Simple Victory" will ever again be tempted to
refer to World War II as a "good war." Yet if Mr. Davies's goal is to
chasten his Anglo-American readers, it is not clear that his book really
serves his purpose. On the contrary, the war records of America and the
United Kingdom emerge as honorable and glorious, next to the clash of evils
that was the war on the Eastern front. Not that even the Anglo-American war
was free from moral ambiguities. The "area bombing" of German cities, we now
know, was of very limited military value, but it inflicted huge suffering on
German civilians, some 650,000 of whom were killed. By leaving out the
Pacific theater of the war, Mr. Davies avoids addressing some of the hardest
American memories - including the dropping of the atomic bomb and the
outright racism of our propaganda against the Japanese. But all in all, "No
Simple Victory" leaves the reader glad to belong to a country where World
War II can be called, if not a good war, at least a decent one.
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