I recently had a chance to read a very good book: William Hitchcock’s 2008 opus The Bitter Road to Freedom: The Human Cost of Allied Victory in World War II Europe. It made me think about the war in ways I rarely do, and I recommend it to all my readers out there. An online forum invited me to comment on it, and I thought that I’d share my remarks with you:
The 20th century should have made us all fall out of love with war as a way to solve our political problems. It’s not a pretty picture: two global conflicts–“world wars”–that killed millions and injured many, many millions more; smaller contests–“regional wars” like Vietnam and Korea, Arab-Israeli and Iran-Iraq–that made up in intensity what they lacked in geographical scope; the invention of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons that, at any given moment, might account for all the fortunate souls those earlier conflicts missed. What a mess! If ever there was a century that deserved a “good riddance,” it was the twentieth. If ever there was an era that should have made us swear off war forever, this was the one.
Of course, we didn’t, and frankly, one of the reasons we didn’t was World War II, the “good war.” Even today, the most convinced pacifist can have a difficult time answering a simple question from an undergraduate: What about World War II? The crusade against Hitler–as we still like to describe it–seems to be the very epitome of St. Augustine’s “just war.” The prewar era had been an ugly time, with dictators in jackboots strutting across the European and world stage and spouting hatred. William Butler Yeats put it best: “the worst,” he wrote, “are full of passionate intensity.” Hitler was one of “the worst.” He started the conflict–a true “war of choice”–out of a mélange of militarist and racist ideologies. The Allies had no choice but to crush him and they did so in style, not just beating Germany, but destroying it.
Let’s not be simpletons, however. Any decent historian knows that the good war, as good as it was in theory, wasn’t all that good in execution. The Axis gave themselves a permanent seat in the Hall of Shame with their sadistic behavior, murdering civilians wholesale and attempting, in the case of the Jews, to exterminate an entire people. There’s a reason that the war gave us the word “genocide,” after all. In laying their enemies low, however, the Allies, too, seemed sometimes to have misplaced their moral compass. They reigned down death and destruction on the guilty and the innocent alike. However evil Hitler’s Reich might have been, it is still difficult, or at least it should be, to contemplate the death of tens of thousands of women and children in Allied fire-bombing raids. The atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, with Japan already on its last defensive legs, may well have been necessary in the strictly military sense. Even so, it is disturbing, if only for reasons of good taste, to hear anyone willing to defend them too enthusiastically. Even Studs Terkel, the author and oral historian who coined the notion of the “good war,” had the decency to put the phrase in quotation marks. While the outcome of the conflict was infinitely preferable to a victory for Hitler or the Japanese militarists, the war itself was a disaster for Europe, for the world, and indeed, for the entire human race
For all these reasons, I welcome the publication of William Hitchcock’s The Bitter Road to Freedom. It tackles the part of the war that has received relatively little attention up to now: the liberation of Europe in the last year of the war and beyond. Usually presented as a glossy travelogue of liberated capitals, military parades, and delirious crowds screaming themselves hoarse with happiness, liberation appears here in very different terms, stripped of the “heroic register” (p. 367) with which historians have invested it. The Allied invasion of Normandy featured heroic fighting on Omaha Beach and wrested a toe-hold on the continent from tenacious German resistance. It also rained down bombs on French towns, homes, and civilians alike–a bloody campaign of mass destruction that targeted a “friendly” country, not an enemy. The victorious Allied armies then rolled through Belgium and freed it from German occupation. Belgium usually features in the history books as one of the West European lands that had essentially been spared the horrors of war. It wasn’t spared the rigors of liberation, however. Those “victors” were in reality an army of strapping young men freed from the constraints of home and family and operating under what we today call the “50-mile rule.” One of the results was a venereal disease epidemic of truly epic proportions. And, oh yes, the Germans came back. The Ardennes offensive in December 1944 (the “battle of the Bulge” to Americans) featured a German attempt to slash through U.S. defenses in Belgium and get back to Antwerp. In the course of the fighting, eastern Belgium learned all about the “horrors of war” and the problems of having a firepower-intensive force like the U.S. army operating on friendly soil. The population of the neighboring Netherlands had to wait for its liberation, as Allied forces barely got across the border before the hardening of the front. With the Germans stripping the land of everything they could carry out, however, the result was the Hongerwinter of 1944-45–the starvation winter–in which tens of thousands of Dutch civilians died in what had been one of the most intensively cultivated lands on the planet before 1940.
It is the discussion of the Allied arrival in Germany, however, that gives this book its edge. More next week.
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