Armageddon is a mosaic composed of hundreds of brightly colored fragments, each one a story told by an eye-witness. Most of the fragments occupy less than a page. The mosaic is a panorama of the last eight months of World War II in Europe, between September 1944 and May 1945. These were the months in which British and American armies in the West and Russian armies in the East fought their way across the frontiers of Germany and finally defeated German armies on German soil. The panorama is remarkable in many ways. The toll of death and destruction and misery during these eight months was unequaled by any similar period in the long history of human misfortunes, wars, and persecutions. The German armies fought with extraordinary skill and bravery to defend their shrinking territory, long after any realistic hope of victory had disappeared. The invading armies, in spite of profound political and cultural differences, succeeded in working together until their job was done. Each of these aspects of the panorama is illuminated by personal experiences described in the individual fragments.
The eyewitnesses are divided more or less evenly between soldiers and civilians, between males and females, between Germans, Russians, Poles, Jews, Britons, and Americans. Hastings interviewed most of them personally during the year 2002, when he traveled to their countries and met them in their homes, most of them by then old people recalling events that happened when they were in their teens or twenties. Hastings is well aware that memories recalled after fifty-eight years are unreliable. As he says, these memories are not history. They are the raw material out of which history may grow. They provide a useful corrective to official histories based on written documents, which may be equally unreliable. They give us direct access to the human face of war, the face that the official histories usually ignore.
To interview German and Russian witnesses, Hastings used interpreters whose help he gratefully acknowledges. The interpreters not only translated but also helped him to find witnesses with good stories to tell, and these witnesses then led him to others among their friends and acquaintances. Two groups of witnesses that he found in this way were Russian women who had been girl-soldiers in the Red Army, and German women who had been refugees escaping from East Prussia when the Red Army overran their homeland. The Russians describe a tough but in many ways joyful atmosphere of comradeship and shared hardship on the road to victory. The Germans describe a nightmare of death and destruction as they made their way as exiles from a lost paradise. It is not surprising that the best witnesses are usually female, since women live longer than men in all countries, and especially in Russia.
In addition to the recent interviews, Hastings also includes in his account interviews that he recorded long ago as raw material for his other historical books, Bomber Command, a history of the British strategic bombing of Germany published in 1979, and Overlord, a history of the invasion of France by British and American armies published in 1984. The earlier interviews are mostly with senior commanders and politicians who were no longer alive when Armageddon was written. Hastings also includes quotations from letters and documents that he found in Russian archives and in various other archives that recently became accessible to historians.
The older interviews and letters provide a striking contrast to the newer interviews. The older sources show us war as seen by commanders and planners, a succession of operations following one another in a logical sequence like the moves in a game of strategy. The new interviews show us war as seen by foot soldiers and civilian victims, a succession of murderous assaults that occur randomly and unpredictably, without any intelligible pattern. Both views of war are valid, and both are necessary components of any history that attempts to be truthful. Hastings keeps the two views in balance and blends them skillfully as he builds his mosaic. Where the two views conflict, he tends to give greater credence to the foot soldier than to the general.
My own limited experience of World War II leads me to share Hastings’s bias in favor of foot soldiers. I belong to the same generation as Hastings’s foot soldier witnesses. I was lucky not to be a foot soldier. I was a civilian living in London at various times when German bombers were flying overhead. From time to time a bomb would fall and demolish a couple of houses. Our antiaircraft guns made a lot of noise but I never saw them hit an airplane. I remember thinking that the German kids overhead were probably as bewildered as I was. The nearest I came to being hurt was in January 1944, when a bomb fell on our street and broke our windows. This happened while the German army in Russia was fighting monstrous battles to hold its ground against the Soviet winter offensive. The fate of the world was being decided in Russia.
Hitler was evidently out of touch with reality, sending his precious airplanes to London to break our windows instead of sending them to Russia where they were desperately needed. The most vivid impression that remains to me from those times is a feeling of irrelevance. The little game that I was witnessing in London was wholly irrelevant to the serious war that we were supposed to be fighting. My memory fits well with the picture of the war that Hastings shows us. The serious and purposeful fighting is done by a small fraction of the people involved. Most of the people, most of the time, are irrelevant. Irrelevant or not, they still suffer the consequences.
The history of World War II teaches us several lessons that are still valid today. First is the immense importance of the Geneva Conventions on humane treatment of prisoners in mitigating the human costs of war. All through Hastings’s narrative, we see a stark contrast between two kinds of war, the war in the West following the Geneva rules and the war in the East fought without rules. A large number of witnesses of the western war, German as well as British and American, owe their lives to the Geneva conventions. In the western war, soldiers fought hard as long as fighting made sense, and surrendered when fighting did not make sense, with a good chance of being treated decently as prisoners of war. Many of the prisoners on both sides were killed in the heat of battle before reaching prison camps, but most of them survived. Those who reached the prison camps were treated in a civilized fashion, with some supervision by delegates of the International Red Cross. They were neither starved nor tortured.
At the same time, on the eastern side of the war, brutality was the rule and the International Red Cross had no voice. Civilians were routinely raped and murdered, and prisoners of war were starved. Soldiers were expected to fight to the death, and most of them did, since they had little hope of survival as prisoners. It is not possible to calculate the numbers of lives saved in the West and lost in the East by following and not following the Geneva rules. The numbers certainly amount to hundreds of thousands in the West and millions in the East. Americans who are trying today to weaken or evade the Geneva rules are acting shortsightedly as well as immorally.
A second important lesson of World War II is the fact that German soldiers consistently fought better than Britons or Americans. Whenever they were fighting against equal numbers, the Germans always won, a fact recognized by the Allied generals, who always planned to achieve numerical superiority before attacking. This was the main reason why the Allied advance into Germany was slow. If the Allied soldiers had been able to fight like Germans, the war would probably have been over in 1944 and millions of lives would have been saved.
Hastings explains the superiority of German soldiers as a consequence of the difference between a professional army and a citizen army. The Germans were professionals, brought up in a society that glorified soldiering, and toughened by years of fighting in Russia. The British and American soldiers were mostly amateurs, civilians who happened to be in uniform, brought up in societies that glorified freedom and material comfort, and lacking experience of warfare. The difference between the German and Allied armies was similar to the difference between Southern and Northern armies in the American Civil War. The Southern soldiers fought better and the Southern generals were more brilliant. The Northern soldiers won in the end because there were more of them and they had greater industrial resources, just as the Allies did in World War II. The leaders of the Old South romanticized war and led their society to destruction, just as the leaders of Germany did eighty years later.
Hastings says we should take pride in the fact that our soldiers did not fight as well as Germans. To fight like Germans, they would have had to think like Germans, glorifying war and following their leaders blindly. The Germans have a word, Soldatentum, which means the pursuit of soldiering considered as a spiritual vocation. Fortunately, the word cannot be translated into English. The literal translation is soldierliness, but the word “soldierliness” in English does not convey the tone of solemnity that Soldatentum conveys in German. We should consider ourselves lucky that Soldatentum is not embedded in our culture as it was embedded in the culture of Germany in 1944. The Germans who survived World War II are also lucky, since the devastation of their country finally convinced them that Soldatentum was a false god.
The third lesson of World War II is the value of international alliances. Inter- national alliances are slow and cumbersome and unromantic. Leaders of international alliances cannot move quickly. They must make compromises and accept delays in order to achieve consensus. They cannot make brilliant and disastrous decisions as Hitler did. They cannot lead their people to destruction. To fight a war within the constraints of an international alliance is a good protection against fatal mistakes and follies. Eisenhower was an ideal person to lead an international alliance. He was a mediocre strategist and an excellent diplomat. He had no interest in military glory. His priorities were to hold the alliance together and to win the war with the minimum number of casualties. Unlike the brilliant German generals who were his opponents, he demanded as little as possible from his soldiers. He preferred to end the war with live soldiers rather than with dead heroes.
Eisenhower won the war by going slow and avoiding big mistakes. The most important decision that he made during the period covered by Armageddon was to send a personal message informing Stalin that his armies would not try to take Berlin. The message was sent in March 1945, without consulting the political authorities in Washington and London. Eisenhower knew that several of his subordinate generals wanted passionately to march in triumph through Berlin. He knew that the attempt to do so might result either in a bloody battle with the Germans or in a disastrous clash with the Russians. He knew that many political leaders in Washington and London would give strong support to a grab for Berlin. He took personal responsibility for a decision that would be politically unpopular at home but would save the alliance with Russia and incidentally save the lives of his soldiers.
Hastings in his penultimate chapter, “The Earth Will Shake as We Leave the Scene,” describes how the war in the east ended. The title of the chapter is a quote from Josef Goebbels, spoken shortly before he committed suicide. Stalin launched his final offensive against Berlin in April 1945 and lost 350,000 men in three weeks. The Germans lost about a third as many before they were overrun. The British and Americans stopped at the Elbe River and came home alive.
I remember a conversation with my father in 1940, when France had dropped out of World War II and England was fighting alone against Germany. I was depressed and despondent, but my father was disgustingly cheerful. I said the situation was hopeless, there was no way we could win the war, and we had only the choice between surrendering and continuing to fight forever. My father said, don’t worry, just hang on, and things will turn out all right in the end. He said, all we have to do is to behave halfway decently, and the whole world will come to our side. I did not believe him, but of course he was right. We did behave halfway decently, and within two years the whole world came to our side. Instead of carrying the fate of the world on our shoulders, we became minor players in a grand alliance. The alliance took away our freedom of action, but allowed us to achieve our objectives at a reasonable cost.
The war that is now raging in Iraq illustrates once again the value of international alliances. If the decision to go to war had been in the hands of an international alliance, the war would probably never have started. If it had started by deliberate decision of an international authority, it would have been a war of limited objectives like the first Gulf War of 1991. It would have left a functioning government in Baghdad responsible for maintaining peace and security. The United States would have avoided the disastrous mistakes that are always more likely to occur when actions are taken hastily and unilaterally.
A fourth lesson of World War II is the moral ambiguity of war even when it is fought for a good cause. Armageddon is full of examples of moral ambiguity, both at the level of individual soldiers and at the level of governments. No matter whether their cause is just or unjust, individual soldiers in the heat of battle frequently kill prisoners of war or innocent bystanders. Women are raped, goods are stolen, and homes are destroyed. Horror stories are more horrible in the East but also occur in the West. Those who commit crimes are not always German. War is inherently immoral, and everyone who engages in war is doing things which under normal circumstances would be considered criminal. One of Hastings’s witnesses was a private in an American infantry division during the German offensive in the Ardennes in December 1944. Speaking of German prisoners, he says, “If they wore the black uniforms of the SS, they were shot.” He did not know that all German tank crews had black uniforms, whether they belonged to SS or to regular army units.
At the level of governments, there are two egregious examples of moral ambiguity, the betrayal of Poland and the strategic bombing of German cities. Poland was a moral problem for the Allies from the beginning of the war to the end. At the beginning, Britain and France declared war on Germany when Hitler invaded Poland, but took no military action in the West while Poland was overrun. Stalin had signed an agreement with Hitler to divide Poland between Germany and Russia. Britain and France were legally and morally obliged to defend Poland, but gave the Poles no help. During the years between 1941 and 1944, when Poland was occupied by Germany, airplanes with Polish crews were flying from bases in Britain to drop supplies and weapons to resistance fighters in Poland. These “special operations” to Poland suffered terrible losses, averaging 12 percent per operation. They were suicide missions for the crews that flew them. They provided minimal help to the resistance.
When the resistance fighters rose in revolt against the Germans in Warsaw in August 1944, the Allies again did nothing to help, and the Germans crushed the revolt mercilessly. Hastings found few witnesses of the catastrophe in Warsaw, since hardly any of the resistance fighters survived. Soon after that, Soviet troops occupied Poland and installed their own puppet government, with enforcement provided by the Soviet secret police. The final act of betrayal was the Yalta agreement of February 1945, in which Roosevelt and Churchill agreed, in effect, to let Stalin do what he wished with Poland. Britain and America were faced with an insoluble moral dilemma. To defeat Hitler, they needed to maintain the alliance with Stalin. To maintain the alliance, they needed to abandon Poland.
The moral issues raised by the strategic bombing of German cities are less clear-cut. The main question is whether the bombing of cities was morally justified as a military operation helping to win the war. Hastings devotes a long chapter, “Firestorms: War in the Sky,” to the bombing campaign, with testimony from many witnesses who were flying in the bombers and others who were among the bombed. He lets the witnesses speak for themselves. They do not have much to say about the moral issues. The bomber crewmen still believe what they were told by their commanders, that the bombing was morally justified since it made a major contribution to winning the war. German civilian witnesses still mostly consider themselves victims of an evil and misdirected vengeance. Prisoners and slave laborers in Germany welcomed the bombing as a promise of their approaching liberation. Since I was myself a witness, serving as a civilian analyst at the headquarters of the Royal Air Force Bomber Command from which the British part of the campaign was directed, I add my testimony here to the others.
At Bomber Command headquarters, I was responsible for collecting and analyzing information about bomber losses. Our losses were tremendous, more than 40,000 highly trained airmen killed. Until the last few months of the war, a crewman had only one chance in four of surviving to the end of his tour of thirty operations. Many of the survivors signed on for a second tour, in which their chances of survival were not much better. The total economic cost of Bomber Command, including the production of airplanes and fuel and bombs, the training of crews, and the conduct of operations, was about one quarter of the entire British war effort. It was my judgment at the time, and remains so today, that the cost of Bomber Command in men and resources was far greater than its military effectiveness. From a military standpoint, we were hurting ourselves more than we were hurting the Germans. It cost us far more to attack German cities than it cost the Germans to defend them. The German night-fighter force, which was the most effective part of the defense and caused most of our losses, was minuscule compared with Bomber Command.
There is overwhelming evidence that the bombing of cities strengthened rather than weakened the determination of the Germans to fight the war to the bitter end. The notion that bombing would cause a breakdown of civilian morale turned out to be a fantasy. And the notion that bombing would cause a breakdown of weapons production was also a fantasy. After a devastating attack on a factory, the Germans were able to repair the machinery and resume full production in an average time of six weeks. We could not hope to attack the important factories frequently enough to keep them out of action. We learned after the war that, in spite of the bombing, German weapons production increased steadily up to September 1944. In the last few months of the war, bombing of oil refineries caused the German armies to run out of oil, but they never ran out of weapons. Putting together what I saw at Bomber Command with the testimony of Hastings’s witnesses, I conclude that the contribution of the bombing of cities to military victory was too small to provide any moral justification for the bombing.
Unfortunately, the official statements of the British government always claimed that the bombing was militarily effective and therefore morally justified. As a result of their ideolog-ical commitment to bombing as a war-winning strategy, the leaders of the government were deluding themselves and also deluding the British public. Hastings says that in the last phase of the war “the moral cost of killing German civilians in unprecedented numbers outweighed any possible strategic advantage.” I would make a stronger statement. I would say that quite apart from moral considerations, the military cost of killing German civilians outweighed any possible strategic advantage.
The strategic thinking of all the participants in World War II was dominated by their experiences in World War I. Memories of World War I were handed down from the parents to the children of that generation. Paradoxically, the winners and losers of World War I derived opposite conclusions from their experiences. The winners, Britain and America and France, looked back on World War I as an unmitigated horror. Their strategies in World War II were driven by the imperative that the horrors of World War I must not be repeated. For Britain and America, the key to victory was to be strategic bombing. For France, the key was a defensive strategy based on the Maginot Line. But the losers, Germany and Russia, looked back on World War I as a heroic struggle which they could have won if they had had more competent and resolute political leadership. Their strategies in World War II were driven by the idea that they could fight World War I over again and this time do it right. The key to victory was a great army organized to carry out enormous offensive operations, like the German offensive that almost overran Paris and the Russian offensive that almost overran East Prussia in 1914, but this time with better training and better equipment so that there would be no “almost.” This strategy succeeded for the Germans in France in 1940 and for the Russians in East Prussia in 1945.
Hastings’s book describes how these different strategies partially succeeded and partially came to grief in the bloody finale of World War II. While the British and American armies were cautiously moving into Germany, the Germans and Russians were fighting World War I over again, launching large-scale offensives and counter-offensives, accepting huge losses on both sides, as the Red Army fought its way from the Vistula to the Elbe. Two huge Russian armies raced one another to be the first to march in triumph through Berlin. The price that this race cost in dead and wounded was willingly paid. Meanwhile, the Americans and British failed to defeat Germany with bombing, but succeeded in avoiding the catastrophic carnage of World War I.
One of the notorious examples of the tragic waste of human life in World War I was the death of Henry Moseley, a brilliant young physicist who made a great discovery in 1913 and then died as a volunteer soldier at Gallipoli in 1915. The British government made a deliberate decision in World War II not to allow scientific talent to be wasted. As a result of this decision, I was given a safe job as a statistician at Bomber Command, while my contemporaries who flew in the bombers mostly died. I owe my survival directly to Henry Moseley and to the British strategy of minimizing the losses of scientists. If the authorities had not clung so stubbornly to their belief in the effectiveness of strategic bombing, they could have saved not only me but the others too.
After Armageddon was written, another book by a witness of the German tragedy was published in English, The End by Hans Nossack. Nossack was a famous German writer who was living in Hamburg during World War II. The city was destroyed in July 1943 by massive incendiary attacks, culminating in a firestorm similar to the one that destroyed Dresden in 1945. The destruction of Hamburg was the most successful of all the operations of the British Bomber Command. Nossack was taking a holiday in a village near Hamburg when it happened. After the firestorm, Nossack walked through the city and recorded what he saw. His book was written in November 1943 and published in German as part of a longer work with the title Interview mit dem Tode (Interview with Death) in 1948. The English version is elegantly translated by Joel Agee, and illustrated with photographs taken after the catastrophe in 1943 by Erich Andres. Agee has added a foreword describing the history of the book and the translation. The book is a work of art, distilling into sixty-three short pages the German experience of total destruction, just as John Hersey’s Hiro-shima distilled the Jap- anese experience three years later. It is unfortunate that the publication of Agee’s translation was delayed by thirty years.
The End was written only four months after the events that it describes, before the Allied invasion of France and long before the end of the war. It gives authentic testimony, un-tainted by knowledge of later events, of the effect of strategic bombing on a civilian population. It describes briefly the physical horrors of the clean-up after the bombing:
People said that the corpses, or whatever one wants to call the remains of dead people, were burned on the spot or destroyed in the cellars with flamethrowers. But actually, it was worse. The flies were so thick that the men couldn’t get into the cellars, they kept slipping on maggots the size of fingers, and the flames had to clear the way for them to reach those who had perished in flames.
Rats and flies were the lords of the city. Insolent and fat, the rats disported themselves on the streets.
But Nossack was not so much concerned with physical horrors as with the state of mind of the survivors. According to his testimony, the survivors mostly returned to live in the cellars of their ruined homes and started as soon as possible to resume their accustomed routines. They preferred to live in caves among friends rather than in houses among strangers. The struggle to survive kept them busy and gave them little time for grieving. Since they had lost everything, all they had left was each other. They shared what little they had, and worked together to bring the city back to life.
Concerning the question whether the bombing increased or decreased the loyalty of citizens to the government, Nossack has this to say:
It would be a mistake, however, to speak of latent unrest and rebellion at the time. Not only the enemies but also our own authorities miscalculated in this respect. Everything went on very quietly and with a definite concern for order, and the State took its bearings from this order that had arisen out of the circumstances. Wherever the State sought to impose regulations of its own, people just got upset and angry…. Today the State credits itself with having exercised “restraint,” but that is ridiculous. Others say we were much too apathetic at the time to be capable of revolt. That is not true either. In those days everyone said what was on his mind, and no feeling was further from people than fear.
Nossack’s conclusion is that the bombing decreased the respect of citizens for the State but increased their loyalty to the community.
Concerning the question whether the bombing was criminal, Nossack says:
I have not heard a single person curse the enemies or blame them for the destruction. When the newspapers published epithets like “pirates of the air” and “criminal arsonists,” we had no ears for that. A much deeper insight forbade us to think of an enemy who was supposed to have caused all this; for us, he, too, was at most an instrument of unknowable forces that sought to annihilate us. I have not met even a single person who comforted himself with the thought of revenge. On the contrary, what was commonly said or thought was: Why should the others be destroyed as well?
Nossack expresses his own astonishment that people accepted their fate with stoic spirit, as if the destruction were not the work of human hands but of an impersonal destiny.
The End gives us an intimate picture of Armageddon as it was experienced by an individual German. The German tradition in life and literature is intensely philosophical. More than other people, Germans isolate themselves from reality by spinning cocoons of philosophy around unpleasant facts. Nossack describes himself walking through the ruins of Hamburg like a disembodied spirit, detached from the things and people that he is observing. He writes:
We walked through the world like dead men who no longer care about the petty miseries of the living…. If after hours of searching you met a person, it would only be someone else wandering in a dream through the eternal wasteland. We would pass each other with a shy look and speak even more softly than before.
Perhaps this habit of philosophical detachment helps to explain why the German armies fought so professionally to the bitter end in 1945, when every day that they prolonged the fighting only increased the suffering of their own people as well as the suffering of the others.
‘The Bitter End’ October 20, 2005