May 8, 2022, the seventy-seventh anniversary of Germany’s unconditional surrender, marks the end 0f the European phase of World War II. The anniversary was celebrated in the Western capitols, and in Ukraine, where President
Volodymyr Zelensky noted that, with the February 24th Russian invasion, “Again! Evil has returned! Again!”.
(In Moscow, which celebrates the anniversary on May 9th, Vladimir Putin, reviewing thousands of troops, armor, and nuclear-capable missiles, vowed to persist in his “special military operation”—a war now in its third month–against supposed U.S./NATO-backed Ukrainian expansion and “neo-Nazi aggression”.)
The over two years’ toll of the COVID 19 pandemic has taken ca.15 million lives globally, and almost a million in the U.S. alone. Still, even these figures pale to insignificance when compared with the total devastation of World War II, some sixty million or more deaths, military and civilian, across the six years of total war, ending finally with the fall of Berlin and the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The Allies’ titanic fight against the Axis aggressors, Nazi Germany and fascist Italy and their henchmen (and against Japan in Asia and the Pacific) was led after France dropped out in 1940, by Great Britain, then after 1941 by the Soviet Union joined by the U.S.A. This was the most destructive conflagration in world history. It cost mankind over 3% of the total world population—a number constantly being revised upward by historians–, including over 6 million Jews murdered by the German Nazis in their drive to impose a world-wide 1,000-Year Aryan Reich on an enslaved humanity.
Of a total of some 70 million combatants, 17 million were killed. The war lasted 2,174 days, costing an average 23,000 lives a day, or 15 people killed a minute, for six long years. Its cost, estimated in then-current dollars at over $1.5 trillion, is, in reality, incalculable.
In this global war of annihilation, civilian deaths far outweighed military. Often forgotten in the West, the Soviet Union’s 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Non-Aggression Pact made the war possible. Yet the Soviets, in fact, bore the brunt of Hitler’s aggression, suffering a total of a now-estimated 27 million deaths between June 1941 (when Hitler abrogated the 1939 Non-Aggression Pact he had made with Stalin). A total of over 6 million Germans died, with three million soldiers dying on the Eastern front (three of every four Wehrmacht war deaths in all sectors).
France, occupied after May, 1940, lost 600,000 people; Italy (knocked out after the Sicily and Salerno landings in 1943 but occupied from Rome north by the Germans until 1945) suffered 800,000 casualties. (Japan lost a total of 2 million, bled by its invasion of China in 1937, the U.S. Pacific “island–hopping” campaign, massive mainland firebombings after 1944 and, finally, by two atomic bombs, which ended the Pacific war in August, 1945.) Chinese deaths in the struggle against over a million occupying Japanese army troops totaled some 15 million soldiers and civilians.)
The toll of British armed forces killed totaled 244,000, with the Commonwealth and Imperial allies accounting for another 100,000 (Canada 37,000). The United States, a late entrant after Pearl Harbor, on December 7, 1941, lost 300,000 servicemen; (this for a country whose armed forces in 1940 stood at 269,000, its Army the 17th smallest in the world, after Romania—but by war’s end, four years later, U.S. forces stood at 16 million men and women).
Jewish soldiers, it should also be noted, volunteering and drafted, largely in the U.S., British, and Russian, but in other Allied armies as well, including the Palestinian Yishuv, or Jewish-Zionist settlement, totaled ca.1 million. Together, they constituted the single highest percentage of any of the ethnic groups included in the Allied countries.
And added to the direct military and civilian casualties were the long-term indirect societal chaos and breakdown wrought by hundreds of millions of refugees, forced and slave laborers, and massive population transfers. The widespread bombing and destruction of cities, villages, factories, roads, rail-lines, rivers, bridges, harbors, airfields, dams, mines, the millions of tons of shipping sunk and materiel lost, and the disruption of agriculture and production, led to malnutrition and starvation, wrought suffering, death, and desolation across Western and Eastern Europe (and Asia, China, and Japan).
World War II added many nova, new and deadly departures, to the traditional elements of warfare. Some—like aircraft and tanks, submarines, and machine guns (and gas, so terrible it went unused in WWII, save by the Germans in the death-camps)—had already been initiated in World War One. (Indeed, 1914-18 had already witnessed mass, industrialized warfare, resulting in 20 million deaths, still, however, largely military.)
World War II brought aircraft carriers, long-distance heavy bombers, radar, radio communications, sonar, napalm, proximity fuses, and primitive code-breaking computers. (Britain’s best-kept secret, the Bletchley Park “bombes”, broke Berlin’s Enigma code, and were said to have shortened the war by two years).
The line between military and civilian fronts broke down–Germany had begun the bombing of civilian targets with Guernica, during the Spanish Civil War. Later, the VI and V2 Vergeltungswaffen, “revenge weapons”, the first ballistic missiles in the history of warfare, were terror-weapons fired in their thousands at Britain in 1945. And, of course, Germany also “pioneered” the industrial mass killing of civilians, principally Jews but other Untermenschen as well, at Auschwitz-Birkenau and the network of concentration- and death-camps.
The perfection of Industrial production, using standardized, interchangeable parts and assembly-line division of labor, permitted a quantitative leap in productive capacity, so great as to constitute a qualitative transformation. The U.S. above all, but not only the U.S., produced prodigious numbers of tanks, trucks, ships, aircraft, rifles, machine-guns, artillery pieces, rockets, bombs, and billions of rounds of shells and ammunition.
American private industrialists rose to the occasion. Henry and Edsel Ford cranked out tens of thousands of four-engine B24 bombers in the mile-long Willow Run Detroit factory. German submarine warfare in the Atlantic, threatening Britain’s crucial supply lines from the U.S., was finally defeated by May, 1943, through the use of radar, sonar, and coordinated aircraft and destroyer tactics. The remarkable ability to mass-produce freighters also helped. (Henry Kaiser’s yards built 2,710 “Liberty” between 1941 and 1945, or three every two days, a rate far higher than the Germans’ ability to sink them.)
America, which had four aircraft carriers (one in the Atlantic, three at Pearl Harbor) on December 7, 1941, had by war’s end over 155 (24 heavy Essex-class ships of 27,100 tons, carrying 90-100 fighters, dive- and torpedo-bombers, and 131 light and escort carriers.)
American agricultural and industrial production was inexhaustible, conveying equipment, supplies, materiel, uniforms, and raw and processed food, to her European and Asian allies Allies—Flying Tiger P-40s aided Chiang Kai Shek, while American Grant and Sherman tanks, rushed to the desert and driven by British drivers, defeated Rommel at El Alamein in 1943.
The Red Air Force prized Bell P39 Airacobra fighters’ tank-busting nose cannon, and Ivan, the Red Army’s equivalent of the G.I., ate from tins of American SPAM and rode to victory in Berlin in over 300,000 Studebaker and Dodge trucks.
Until the November 1942 El Alamein victory in North Africa, Great Britain, led by the indomitable Churchill had, with Commonwealth and Imperial support, stood alone.
Thereafter, the tide began to turn: the Allied North African” Torch” campaign, Sicily (1943), Rome, and the American build-up of forces in England. And then—the true turning point of the war–the great triumph of the Red Army over the Germans at Stalingrad, December, 1942-January 1943. The Germans’ Sixth Army under General Paulus was shattered–200,000 Germans were lost, 93,000 (and Paulus, who ignored Hitler’s final fight-to-the-death order) surrendered. The inexorable Soviet march to Berlin had begun.
And on June 6, 1944 the final death-knell for Hitler was sounded when 140,000 America, British, Canadian and other Allied troops landed in Normandy. Twelve hundred ships, 400 cargo ships, 12,000 aircraft, 4,000 landing craft, and 23,000 airborne paratroopers—the greatest invading armada in the history of war–outmaneuvered and overwhelmed the German defenders.
By day’s end on June 6, 156,000 men were ashore, by 14 June 400,000, by 17 July over 1 million. Finally, the longed-for Second Front, the strategic stroke which guaranteed German defeat by forcing Berlin (again, as in 1914-18) into an unwinnable two-front war, had been achieved.
After Hitler, on April 30, 1945 committed suicide, Berlin—under massive Soviet artillery barrages, in a final titanic battle entailing over 350,000 Russian casualties–would fall to the Red Army, and the hammer-and-sickle flag would flutter triumphantly over the Reichstag’s ruins.
British Churchillian determination, Allied air, and naval power, U.S. industrial strength, Soviet manpower, endurance and suffering, Hitler’s many strategic and tactical mistakes (above all, invading Russia, but not least his Nazi expenditure of precious resources and manpower and materiel on the Holocaust) –all contributed to Germany’s defeat
Yet it was, nevertheless, a close call, and it might well have gone differently—if Hitler had won the Battle of Britain in 1940 and implemented, successfully, Operation Sealion, the planned invasion of an isolated and weakened England; if he had won at El Alamein, or Stalingrad, in December, 1943, or at the Battle of the Bulge in December, 1944.
As the saying goes, “‘If’ is half of ‘life’. The Allies won because they were the Allies, free peoples whose shared values and goals enabled them, despite tensions, to plan and fight well together; because (as Victor David Hanson points out) their combined demographic and industrial resources far outweighed the Axis’; because, finally, as Andrew Roberts succinctly puts it, Hitler was a Nazi.
(Had he not been a Nazi, he could have rallied Russia’s oppressed people against Stalin, instead of treating, and alienating, them as Slavic subhumans, and he could have used German Jewish atomic scientists to build his atom bomb, instead of forcing them through his exterminatory antisemitism, to flee to the West where, mirabile dictu, they build the bomb for the U.S. Then again, of course, had Hitler not been a Nazi, there probably never would have been a World War II.)
Today we are facing the stark nightmare reality that missteps in the Russia-precipitated Ukraine conflict–there are already thousands of deaths, military and civilian, widespread destruction, and millions of Ukrainian refugees–could lead to either World War III or nuclear warfare, or both. Here, we can only hope that our current Western leaders, above all the faltering U.S. President, will emulate their Allied forebears’ steady hands, and bring the Ukrainian crisis to a positive, rapid, and minimally destructive conclusion.
And let us hope, too, that today’s deep political and cultural divisions can be overcome, and democratic rights and freedoms will be not only protected but augmented. Let us pray that the legacy of freedom and liberty bequeathed to us by our World War II forbears, the leaders and ordinary heroes who persevered unto victory, may long endure.
(Prof. Krantz, a historian, is Director of the Canadian Institute for Jewish Research and Editor of its Israfax and Daily Briefing publications.)