Remembering World War II: Revisionists Get It Wrong

by Victor Davis Hanson

National Review Online

As the world commemorated the 60th anniversary of the end of the European Theater of World War II, revisionism was the norm. In the last few years, new books and articles have argued for a complete rethinking of the war. The only consistent theme in this various second-guessing was a diminution of the American contribution and suspicion of our very motives.

Indeed, most recent op-eds commemorating V-E day either blamed the United States for Hamburg or for the Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, or for our supposed failure to credit the Russians for their sacrifices.

It is true that the Russians paid a horrendous price. Perhaps two out of every three soldiers of the Wehrmacht fell on the Eastern Front. We in the West must always remember that such a tragic sacrifice allowed Hitler to be defeated with far less American British, Canadian, and Australian dead.

That being said, the Anglo-Americans waged a global war well beyond the capability of the Soviet Union. They invaded North Africa, took Sicily, and landed in Italy, in addition to fighting a massive land war in central Europe. We had fewer casualties than did the Russians because we fought more wisely, were better equipped, and were not surprised to the same degree by a treacherous former ally that we had supplied.

The Soviets invaded the defeated Japanese only in the last days of the war; the Anglo-Americans alone took on two fronts simultaneously. Submarine warfare, attacking the Japanese and German surface fleets, conducting strategic bombing over Berlin and Tokyo, and sending tons of supplies to Allied forces — all this was beyond the capability of the Red Army. More important, Stalin had been an ally of Hitler until the Nazi invasion of 1941, and had unleashed the Red Army to destroy the freedom of Finland and to carve up Poland.

Do we ever read these days that when the Luftwaffe bombed Britain, Russia was sending the Nazis fuel and iron ore? When Germany invaded Russia, however, Britain sent food and supplies.

Yes, World War II started to free Eastern Europe from fascist totalitarianism, and ended up ensuring that it would be enslaved by Soviet totalitarianism. But Roosevelt and Churchill were faced with an inescapable reality in 1945 that to keep the Russians out of Eastern Europe they would have had to restart the war against their former ally that possessed it — a conflict that might well have gone nuclear in two or three years. The latter had been in great part armed and supplied for four years by their own taxpaying democratic citizenries. The Red Army was near home in Eastern Europe; the American 3rd Army was 5,000 miles from the United States.

Of course, we bombed German civilian centers. But in a total war when 10,000 a day were being gassed in the death camps, and Nazi armies in the Balkans, Russia, and Western Europe were routinely murdering thousands a week and engaged in breakneck efforts to create ballistic missiles, sophisticated jets, and worse weapons, there were very few options in stopping such a monstrous regime. This was an age, remember, before computer guidance, GPS targeting systems, and laser-guided bombs.

When the lumbering and often unescorted bombers started out against Europe and Japan, the Axis infrastructure of death — rails, highways, communications, warehouses, and decentralized production — was intact. When the bombers finished their horrific work, the economies of both Axis powers were near ruin. Armies that were systematically murdering millions of innocents in forgotten places like Yugoslavia, Poland, the Philippines, Korea, and China were running out of fuel, ammunition, and food.

Revisionism holds a strange attraction for the winners of World War II. American textbooks discuss World War II as if a Patton, Le May, or Nimitz did not exist, as if the war was essentially the Japanese internment and Hiroshima. That blinkered and politically correct focus explains why so many Americans under 30 are simply ignorant about the nature and course of World War II itself. Similarly, the British have monthly debates on the immorality of their bombing Hamburg and Dresden.

In dire contrast, even the post-Soviet Russian government will not speak of the Stalin-Hitler non-aggression pact, the absorption of the Baltic states, the murder of millions of German citizens in April through June 1945 in Eastern Europe, and the mass execution of Polish officers. If we were to listen to the Chinese, World War II was about the gallant work of Mao’s partisans, who in fact used the war to gain power, and then went on to kill 50 million of their own citizens — about the same number lost in all of World War II. Japan likewise has never come to terms with the millions of Asian civilians its armies butchered or its systematic brutality waged against American POWs.

The truth is that the supposedly biased West discusses the contribution of others far more than our former enemies — or Russian and Chinese allies — credit the British or Americans.

The German novelist Gunter Grass — who served in theWehrmacht — recently lectured in the New York Times about postwar “power blocs,” in terms that suggested the Soviets and the Americans had been morally equivalent. German problems of reunification, he tells us, were mostly due to a capitalist West, not a Communist East that caused them.

Grass advances the odd idea that Germany was not liberated from American hegemony (“unconditional subservience”) until Mr. Schroeder’s recent anti-Bush campaign distanced the Germans from the United States. To read this ahistorical sophistry of Grass is to forget recent European and Russian complicity in arming Saddam, their forging of sweetheart oil deals with the Baathist dictatorship, and the disturbing German anti-Semitic rhetoric that followed Schroeder’s antics. Unmentioned are the billions of American dollars and years of vigilance that kept the Red Army out of Western Germany, or the paradox that the United States is ready to leave Germany on a moment’s notice — which might explain the efforts of the Schroeder government to keep our troops there.

There is a pattern here. Western elites — the beneficiaries of 60 years of peace and prosperity achieved by the sacrifices to defeat fascism and Communism — are unhappy in their late middle age, and show little gratitude for, or any idea about, what gave them such latitude. If they cannot find perfection in history, they see no good at all. So leisured American academics tell us that Iwo Jima was unnecessary, if not a racist campaign, that Hiroshima had little military value but instead was a strategic ploy to impress Stalin, and that the GI was racist, undisciplined, and reliant only on money and material largess.

There are two disturbing things about the current revisionism that transcend the human need to question orthodoxy. The first is the sheer hypocrisy of it all. Whatever mistakes and lapses committed by the Allies, they pale in comparison to the savagery of the Axis or the Communists. Post-facto critics never tell us what they would have done instead — lay off the German cities and send more ground troops into a pristine Third Reich; don’t bomb, but invade, an untouched Japan in 1946; keep out of WWII entirely; or in its aftermath invade the Soviet Union?

Lost also is any sense of small gratitude. A West German intellectual like Grass does not inform us that he was always free to migrate to East Germany to live in socialist splendor rather than remain unhappy in capitalist “subservience” in an American-protected West Germany — or that some readers of the New York Times who opposed Hitler might not enjoy lectures about their moral failings from someone who once fought for him. Such revisionists never ask whether they could have written so freely in the Third Reich, Tojo’s Japan, Mussolini’s Italy, Soviet Russia, Communist Eastern Europe — or today in such egalitarian utopias as China, Cuba, or Venezuela.

Second, revisionism requires knowledge of orthodoxy. One cannot dismiss Iwo Jima as an unnecessary sideshow or allege that Dresden was simple blood rage until one understands the tactical and strategic dilemmas of the age — the hope that wounded and lost B-29s might be saved by emergency fields on Iwo, or that the Russians wanted immediate help from the Allied air command to take the pressure off the eastern front in February 1945.

But again, most Americans never learned the standard narrative of War II — only what was wrong about it. Whereas it is salutary that an American 17-year-old knows something of the Japanese relocation ordered by liberals such as Earl Warren and FDR, or of the creation and the dropping of the atomic bomb by successive Democratic administrations, they might wish to examine what went on in Nanking, Baatan, Wake Island, Guadalcanal, Manila, or Manchuria — atrocities that their sensitive teachers are probably clueless about as well.

After all, this was a week in which thousands of the once-enslaved Dutch in Maastricht were protesting the visit of a president of the nation that once liberated their fathers, while thousands of neo-Nazis were back in the streets of Berlin. A Swedish EU official recently blamed the Second World War on “nationalistic pride and greed, and…international rivalry for wealth and power” — the new mantra that Hitler was merely confused or perhaps had some “issues” with his neighbors. Perhaps her own opportunistic nation that once profited (“greed”?) from the Third Reich itself was not somehow complicit in fueling the Holocaust.

How odd that Swedes and Spaniards who were either neutrals or pro-Nazi during World War II now so often lecture the United States not just about present morality but about the World War II past as well.

If there were any justice in the world, we would have the ability to transport our most severe critics across time and space to plop them down on Omaha Beach or put them in an overloaded B-29 taking off from Tinian, with the crew on amphetamines to keep awake for their 15-hour mission over Tokyo.

But alas, we cannot. Instead, the beneficiaries of those who sacrificed now ankle-bite their dead betters. Even more strangely, they have somehow convinced us that in their politically-correct hindsight, they could have done much better in World War II.

Yet from every indication of their own behavior over the last 30 years, we suspect that the generation who came of age in the 1960s would have not just have done far worse but failed entirely.

©2005 Victor Davis Hanson

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