Total War in Eastern Europe

The Holocaust was undoubtedly the greatest crime in history, the deliberate attempt to annihilate the Jewish people with the murder of 6 million Jews.  But as Jews we tend to overlook the context that it was part of an even larger crime, the total war inflicted on the populations of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union by the German Nazi forces.  The largest land invasion in history occurred on June 22, 1941, when Hitler gave the order to commence Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union by ca. 3 million German soldiers.  They were given orders to be totally ruthless in killing soldiers and civilians.

This was another phase of WWII when Hitler broke the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact and threw all Germany’s armed might against his main adversary, Stalin.  Stalin was amazingly taken by surprise, notwithstanding many warnings, and the Red Army was at first unprepared for this onslaught.  Hitler estimated 6 weeks for the three main German armies (north, center and south) to achieve their objectives, and at first their usual tactic of blitzkrieg (lightening war) worked very successfully.  They achieved about 2/3 of their strategic depth in a month.

But the Soviets had in fact engineered many defensive structures before their main cities, and the German Army North was held up outside Leningrad (St. Petersburg), the German Army Center was held up at Stalingrad and the German Army South was held up first at Kiev and then Sevastopol and finally when they reached the Soviet oil fields they found them on fire.  The Germans were not used to slow, hard, slogging warfare, and the Soviets had 7 times the reserves the Germans had available and 4 times the war production. Furthermore, with the incredibly long supply lines and lack of fuel, it was predictable that the German armies would eventually come to a standstill, as they did just before Moscow, Leningrad and Stalingrad.   

Then two major things happened, the Russian winter caught the German Army without winter clothing and the Soviets defeated the German Army at Stalingrad in Aug, 1943 (the Germans lost ca. 750,000 men, killed or captured).  Almost simultaneously the Allies invaded and took Sicily in July 1943.  Feeling the threat from the south to be greater than that from the east, Hitler quickly withdrew his strategic reserves from Russia and sent them to occupy Italy before the Allies could. 

The Germans still managed a last major attack in the east sending nearly 3,000 new tanks into battle in Operation Citadel, in an attempt to encircle Soviet forces at Kursk in July 1943.  But, the Russians had over 5,000 tanks that were much more maneuverable than the heavy over-engineered German tanks (Tiger and Panzer).  The Russians concentrated their forces against the smaller German pincer and then out-maneuvered the German tanks on the open ground in the largest tank battle in history.  Over 2 million men were involved in this titanic battle.

The defeat of the German Army at Kursk, without strategic reserves, left the terrain from there to Berlin almost open for the Soviet forces under Gen. Zhukov.  The last major battle in Europe was in May, 1945, at the last significant German defensive line at the Selow Heights, 45 km east of Berlin, that was undermanned by mostly Volksturm volunteers and was quite easily over-run by Soviet Forces.  The rest is history, and the Holocaust was part of that monstrous bloody war, in which an estimated 15 million died on the Eastern Front and a total of ca. 70 million people died!

PS. This was written for the anniversary of the end of WWII on May 8, 1945


Is History an Evolution?

Albert Jacob, a physician from Dundee and long-time resident of Beer Sheva, recently gave a talk in our informal series of lectures.  His topic was “The long road to WWII,” and he gave an excellent and informative summary of European history, showing how various forces played a role in the wars and events.  He directly compared the course of human history to the kind of evolutionary tree showing the connections between biological species based on various criteria, such as morphology or genetics.  Although I had no objection to the gist of his talk, I objected to comparing history to biological evolution.

There is a branch of history devoted to theories of how history occurred called historiography.  And there are some theories that have been advanced, such as Marxism, in which various classes, the workers, the bourgeoisie and the aristocrats, compete for economic power.  There is also the concept of human social evolution, from village, to town to city, to state, in which human groups, such as tribes or national groups compete for scarce resources, such as land and water.  I believe one can explain a lot about history by considering the development of nationalism, as subject groups sought to overthrow Empires that subjugated them and obtain self-determination.  Thus the rise and fall of empires, from the Roman to the British have certain similarities.  In fact WWI can be understood as the process of dismantling several empires, the Austro-Hungarian, the German, the Turkish and the Russian, and WWII can be considered a continuation of this process, leading to the final rejection of German imperialism and the downfall of the remaining French and British Empires.  Although it must be more complex than that.

Since we could not agree then and there, Albert and I decided to discuss this matter in a civilized manner over tea.  Our discussion was wide-ranging and interesting.  Without going into further detail, I think we can summarize our conclusions in the following way.  It depends how you define evolution.  As a biomedical scientist I define “evolution” as having specific mechanisms, those defined by Darwin as “natural selection” and “survival of the fittest” and then also the genetic basis, that Darwin knew nothing about during his time.  In other words, evolution implies a well-defined underlying mechanism going from a primitive to a more complex state. But, Albert attributed his view largely to his training as a General Practitioner and his approach to treating the patient as an individual, rather than as an attachment to a disease. Albert understands “evolution” according to his medical viewpoint as a process of development, which is a dictionary synonym for evolution.  I still disagreed with his direct comparison of history to biological evolution, but it depends how you understand and define the term.

Brief Peace

I am watching a series on the History Channel entitled “Impossible Peace,” which poses the question, why was the period of peace between WWI and WWII so brief, only 27 years?  One would have thought given the terrible toll on life and destruction in WWI that humankind would have learned a lesson and done anything possible to avoid another such world war.  But, on the contrary, the masses of people and the various nations seemed primed to continue the even more terrible bloodshed and destruction.

What were the reasons for the brief interlude of peace:

  1. The destruction of several major Empires, the Austro-Hungarian, German, Russian and Turkish Empires, resulted in the break-up into many new nations, such as Austria, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Turkey, Iraq and others, that were unable to maintain stable governments and economies.
  2. While The USA owed ca. 6 billion dollars to the European countries (UK, France and Germany) before WWI, at the end of the War they owed the US 10 billion dollars.
  3. After WWI the Allies in the Treaty of Versailles imposed an indemnity on Germany to pay reparations of 33 billion dollars.  Although there was a conference held in 1920 to reduce this financial burden, it never happened.  This was because the French and British owed so much to the Americans they needed the money from Germany, and the US got into the 1929 market crash and the great depression and also demanded payment.
  4. All the countries involved made fiscal mistakes that exacerbated the financial crisis.  The American Congress passed the Smoot-Hawley Act of 1930, signed by Pres. Herbert Hoover, that imposed tariffs and restricted foreign imports, that only made the European crisis worse.  The British suddenly abandoned the gold standard in 1931, that restricted the availability of credit.  The Germans made things worse for themselves by simply printing money to pay for the reparations, that caused the hyper-inflation that ruined their economy.
  5. During all these economic and governmental crises, the tendency was for peoples to go to the extreme and to seek leaders who confidently offered them simplistic solutions.  Thus the rise of Communism in Russia (Stalin), Fascism in Italy (Mussolini) and Spain (Franco) and Nazism in Germany (Hitler), all authoritarian regimes.
  6. Britain had its worst general strike in 1926, including the miner’s march on London.  But, they were too civilized to actually mount an anti-monarchical revolution.  In the USA, the appearance of jazz, women’s liberation and prohibition, led to the rise of gangsters controlling several cities (such as Capone in Chicago), but they never needed to take over the government.  In France, people simply drank more wine, and American tourists and artists flocked there because of the devaluation of the Franc and the easy-going way of life.
  7. There was a strong feeling among many Germans that they should have won WWI, and they only lost because they were stabbed in the  back by the Jews who controlled international finance.  The turn to hyper-nationalism was an attempt by an arrogant society to makeup for the loss by ridding themselves of all Jews and stealing their capital.  However, it did not work, because even though they murdered nearly all the Jews of Europe and stole most of the capital of the conquered peoples and countries, they still lost WWII.
  8. One should not discount the role of tribal hatred and the desire for territorial aggrandisement in the 1920’s-30’s.  The French and the Germans hated each other, the Germans hated everyone else, especially the Jews, the Hungarians and the Romanians hated each other, and the Poles and the Russians and so on.  The Japanese considered the Chinese as inferior and invaded in 1932 and set up a puppet colony in Manchuria called Manchuoko. From there they invaded China proper and inflicted terrible civilian casualties, especially massacring at least 100,000 in Nanking in 1938.
  9. One could regard WWII as a continuation of WWI, that essentially destroyed the remaining Empires, those of Britain and France. Although they ended up controlling more territory after WWI than before, they did not have the finances or the manpower to retain these territories, so the process of losing their empires was one of the outcomes of WWI that continued in WWII.
  10. Britain and France intended to carve up the Turkish Empire according to the secret Sykes-Picot Treaty, and keep the areas in their own Empires,  France was given a Mandate over Syria and Britain over Palestine and Mesopotamia (Iraq) to establish self-determination.  But, France put down an uprising in Syria in 1925 by bombing Damascus, and Britain used extreme measures in Palestine, as well as Ireland, China and elsewhere.  Only 3 years after the end of WWII, Britain lost India and Palestine, and then Iraq.  France eventually lost control of North Africa (Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia) and the Levant (Lebanon and Syria).
  11. Although Pres. Wilson was instrumental in the establishment of the League of Nations in 1920, the US Congress in a fit of isolationism refused to join it.  Consequently the absence of the US from the League of Nations robbed it of US influence at a vital time.

These are some of the reasons the peace interlude was so brief. After WWII the Allies had learnt the fiscal lessons of WWI by not demanding impossible reparations from Germany and not imposing tariffs and economic repayments from allies. On the contrary, the US Marshall Plan sought to rebuild West Germany, in a democratic image.  So far WWII has not been followed by WWIII, even though the Cold War came close (Korea, Vietnam, etc).  Now we just have local wars, such as Congo, Iraq, Yemen, Syria and Muslim terrorism.  Maybe we have finally learnt our lesson.  But, there are people out there with guns and armies, such as Iran, that still want to destroy us.

Believe this!

During WWII the following casualties (deaths) are estimated:

  • Total casualties: 75 million people, including ca. 25 million military and ca. 50 million civilians
  • Soviet Union (Russia): ca. 26 million, including ca. 11 million military and ca. 15 million civilians
  • China: ca. 19 million,  3.5 million military and ca. 15.5 million civilians
  • Germany and Austria: ca. 9 million, ca. 2 million military and ca. 7 million civilians
  • Poland: ca. 6 million,  250,000 military and ca. 5.75 million civilians
  • Japan: ca. 3 million, ca. 2.3 million military and ca. 0.7 million civilians
  • Yugoslavia: ca. 1 million, ca. 400,000 military and ca. 600,000 civilians
  • France: ca. 600,000, 210,00 military and ca. 390,000 civilians
  • Italy: ca. 500,000, ca. 350,000 military and ca. 150,000 civilians
  • Philippines: ca. 460,000, ca. 60,000 military and ca. 400,000 civilians
  • Gt. Britain and colonies: ca. 450,000, ca. 384,000 military and ca. 66,000 civilians
  • United States: ca. 430,000, ca. 407,000 military and ca. 12,000 civilians
  • Many other counties lost up to 400,000 casualties

Note: that Jewish citizens of each country are included in these totals.

According to the same source, deaths of Jews in the Holocaust are estimated between a lower figure of 4.9 million and an upper figure of 5.9 million people.   It is usual to round the figure off to ca. 6 million.  Given the general level of casualties and the specific declared intention of Nazi Germany to exterminate all Jews, why is it so difficult for so many people to accept this figure.  Do they not believe the figures given above for other countries??  Or is it just that they remain anti-Semites?

It should be noted that Jews fought in most armies, including ca. 300,000 in the Army of the Soviet Union.  Also, as a percentage of the total, the loss to the Jewish people was staggering, ca. 55% of all Jews in Continental Europe and ca. 40% of all Jews worldwide.  No other single nation or people suffered such losses.

(The source is Wikipedia,, and original sources cited within; I have rounded all figures and estimated the average)

Foreign WWII Movies

I have recently seen three movies about WWII each from a different European country, Norway,  Holland and Poland.  Each of these tells a story about WWII that was hitherto not well-known and that in a way glorifies the role of these countries in the War.

The movie from Norway is entitled “The Twelth Man” and tells the true story of Jan Baalsrud who together with a group of 11 other British-trained Norwegian commandos attempts to infiltrate into occupied Norway to carry out sabotage against the Germans.  Things go wrong from the start, their contact does not arrive and they are betrayed to the Germans, who ambush their boat.  In order to prevent the Germans capturing their supplies they blow up the boat, and the rest are captured, but only Baalsrud escapes and although wounded in the leg manages to swim in freezing cold water across the fjord.  He is found by a local couple who hide him and treat his wound and pass him on to the resistance, who arrange a series of contacts for him to cross the width of Norway to reach neutral Sweden.  His men are tortured and executed by the Germans. But, the leading Nazi Gestapo officer in charge eventually realizes one has escaped, and the rest of the movie consists of the race between Baalsrud to reach Sweden and the SS officer’s attempt to prevent him.  This becomes a national cause and many risk their lives to ensure that Baalsrud reaches Sweden.  This is seen as a blow to the prestige and credibility of the German forces.

The movie from Holland is “The Resistance Banker.” and also tells a true story of Wally van Hall and his brother Gijsberg, who were both bankers, and in 1942 in German-occupied Amsterdam were asked to help find funds to support the resistance.  They realize that the problem is greater than just funds and they initiate an underground banking system that parallels that of the official bank. Under the noses of the Germans and their Dutch collaborators, they pull off an amazing subterfuge, whereby they not only start a secret banking system, but keep accurate notes of all money transfers, fake the printing of millions of guilders of shares, support the railway men in their extended strike against the Germans and provide funds for the resistance to buy weapons.  The Gestapo are of course after them and eventually through capturing some individuals they find out who is the mysterious individual who is somehow funding the resistance against them.  This is an excellent movie, with real life suffering, suspense and heroes.

The story of the Polish pilots who flew for the RAF during WWII is told in the movie “Hurricanes,” being the name of the British fighter plane the pilots flew in their attacks on the invading Luftwaffe.  At first, the British are perhaps understandably suspicious of these Polish pilots, who arrived from Europe after the Fall of Poland and France.  It takes several stages of development before they realize that it is not merely bravado when they say they don’t need to be “trained” by the British.  The Poles are in fact more experienced than the British pilots.  Over time, the Poles amassed the highest score of German planes downed in the Battle of Britain by any squadron in the RAF.  A majority of the Polish pilots who flew in the RAF were killed while fighting, and they helped thwart the invasion of Britain that Hitler had carefully planned.  Their role was undervalued and under-appreciated.  Unfortunately, many of the survivors were returned to Poland after the War in an agreement with Stalin, where most of them were imprisoned and murdered.