The second world war, perhaps the most written about event in history, is so important because it defines much of what we see in the world today in terms of discourse on political matters. The problem of course is that we have always had a very imbalanced education on the war, with mainstream historians afraid to tackle some of the pertinent questions that should intrigue them, but instead it repels them. It is, perhaps for some, tasteless to ask questions such as “why do we say 20 million Russians died on the eastern front, when Stalin himself claimed 5 million at the Potsdam conference?”, or “why did it take the Polish authorities so long to admit that the gas chamber at the Auschwitz museum was in fact built in 1949?” – of course, many reading even this now will begin to feel uneasy at what is to follow, but fear not, for you will see no denial of truths or bias toward one side or another. What you will see are comparable situations put into a different light, one which reflects the truth in a way not put forward by conformist historians or the fact-light documentaries on the History channel.
Take two events that occurred during WWII: the deaths of inmates at Auschwitz caused by the Germans, and the deaths of Germans during the bombing of Dresden caused by the British.
Auschwitz was primarily a labour camp due to its close proximity to factories and other production complexes, to which many (mainly Jewish) prisoners of the German Reich were sent. Some were put to work and those deemed unsuitable were put to death – many also died of disease and malnutrition. The plaque initially erected by the Communists after the war at the Auschwitz museum claimed ‘4 million Jews’ lost their lives here. This figure was later revised to 1.2 million by the Polish authorities. However, when the various leaders and officers involved with the operations at Auschwitz were tried in Poland after the war, the judge, when reading out his verdict and sentence claimed that these men were being sentenced to death by hanging for their roles in ‘the deaths of 300,000 people’. Considering time proximity to the event, as well as the fact the statement was made by a servant of the law in a court of law, the 300,000 figure is, although not certain, perhaps the most accurate based on available evidence. Whatever the number, what happened at Auschwitz was a great human tragedy – many innocent people, whether they were Jewish or German or Polish, died.
The allied bombing of Dresden occurred between the 13th-15th February 1945. 722 heavy bombers of the RAF and 527 of the USAAF dropped about 4,000 tonnes of explosives on the capital of Saxony, destroying over 6 sq/km of the city centre. Initial estimates of the death toll by the German government at the time claimed half a million had lost their lives – something we know to be false. The actual figure is about 40,000, although some on the allied side will claim 20,000 or 25,000 for whatever reasons they may have. The bombings were not targeted at factories of war material production or troops, but were an act of indiscriminate bombing of civilians in an attempt to force Germany into surrendering the war. This terror-bombing tactic is often blamed on Sir Arthur “Bomber” Harris, who as Air Chief Marshall abandoned strategic bombing in 1942 in favour of area bombing, however these were orders given to him by Winston Churchill himself after the latter had drunkenly convinced his cabinet to agree to such tactics. Dresden is another example of a human tragedy, where thousands of people – the vast majority of whom were innocent civilians not enemy soldiers – died.
One is considered a war crime, the other is not.
Perhaps it is because history is written by the victor, as Churchill himself claimed, but it seems from an impartial perspective that the way in which these events are taught and relayed is rather unfair. The real crime of both of these events is not genocide or crimes against peace, but the crime of killing innocent people – words like ‘genocide’ were invented to justify some crimes over others as we can clearly see, whereas in actual fact both the killings at Auschwitz and the deaths Dresden were both criminal acts, where innocent people were deliberately targeted. So if one regards Adolf Hitler as a war criminal for the events that took place at Auschwitz (if we accept the questionable evidence that he gave the order), then one must also hold Winston Churchill in the same regard for the events that took place in Dresden. Perhaps the only difference is the way in which they are remembered.
There are really no winners in a war such as WWII. When ‘total war’ is waged like that, both sides follow each other to the lowest common denominator of criminality and immorality, causing the innocent people to suffer the most. If we really wish to learn from the war and finally, as a continent, put it behind us, then we must at least take a more balanced view. By inflating the suffering of one group over that of another, or glorifying one crime whilst condemning the next, we are simply spiralling into baseless hypocrisy that ends in resentment, anger and confusion – vaguely the same conditions that took hold of Wiemar Germany prior to the NSDAP coming to power.
To understand and move on from history it is necessary to ask the difficult, often distasteful questions and listen to the cold, hard truths.