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Oh, What a Lovely War!

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Werner Bischof/Magnum Photos
Children playing among the ruins in Freiburg, Germany, 1945
In a certain sense, the ideas are villains and the people their hapless victims.
—Mary McCarthy

“How empty, how sickish, how senseless everything suddenly seems the moment the war is over!” Edmund Wilson—who had opposed US involvement in World War II—said after a visit to England in 1945. If London looked grim, the appearance of Berlin, Cologne, Warsaw, Stalingrad, Tokyo, Hiroshima, and hundreds of other places, both in Europe and Asia, defied description. Just in Germany, where British planes attacked by night and American planes by day, the Allies dropped nearly two million tons of bombs, leaving cities and towns reduced to smoldering ruins reeking of death. There were 31.1 cubic meters of rubble for every person in Cologne and 42.8 cubic meters for every inhabitant of Dresden. “The first thing,” Ian Buruma writes in Year Zero: A History of 1945, “that struck many visitors in the early months after the war was the eerie silence.”

The buildings that remained standing often had some of their floors caved in and their windows blown out from the explosions. There were no more sidewalks since piles of debris lay where houses once stood. The survivors searched through the ruins for anyone still alive and for something to eat. At night, because electricity and gas no longer worked, people groped about with flashlights and candles, sticking to the middle of the street to avoid collapsing walls, leaking water pipes, and the twisted wreckage of civilian and military vehicles.

When the German officers were signing their surrender on May 8, 1945, Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel told the Russians that he was horrified by the extent of the destruction wrought on Berlin, whereupon a Russian officer asked Keitel whether he had been equally horrified when on his orders thousands of Soviet villages and towns were obliterated and millions of people, including many children, were buried under the ruins. Keitel shrugged his shoulders and said nothing.

The numbers of dead in German cities were staggering, but they were equally ghastly elsewhere. Some 43,000 died in London during the Blitz, 100,000 in Tokyo in 1945, and over 200,000 perished in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. “I’ve lost everything. Everything!” people were heard to say. Many of them had lost not only their possessions but also their families, their homes, and their countries. With anywhere from 50 million to 70 million dead in World War II, a great majority of them civilians, the scale of human misery was so vast and so widespread that comparisons are useless and misleading, since rounded-off figures, which are often nothing more than educated guesses, convey the horror on an abstract level, while concealing the fates of individual human beings. A number like 50,000,001 would be far more terrifying to see, since that one additional man, woman, or child would restore reality to the 50 million others.

As is well known, there was an immense outpouring of joy on the day Germany capitulated, not just in the countries that had won the war, but also among millions of occupied people who were now free. In Paris, a US bomber pilot thrilled the crowd by flying his plane through the gap under the Eiffel Tower. Cities that were either completely blacked out during the war, or like New York had known “dim-outs” and then “brownouts,” were flooded with light while 500,000 people celebrated in the streets.

I’m old enough to remember May 9, 1945, in Belgrade and the jubilation as the news came over the radio. Even old women I had never seen smile and men who had lost an arm or a leg in the war were beaming and chatting amiably outside of buildings pockmarked with bullets. The liberators everywhere were greeted with flowers and kisses. I got a ride in a Russian tank, and so did some girls in my neighborhood. The common reaction was that we’ve survived, though in many families there was someone dead or missing and no idea whether he or she was alive. Buruma’s father, who had been conscripted by the Nazis in Holland to work in a factory in Berlin, was also not heard from in the confusion of the final months of the war, and my father, whom we would not see for ten years, was, unknown to us, in Milan after being freed from a Gestapo prison by the arrival of American troops.

“Scenes Worthy of Dante,” the Times headline said after the concentration camps were liberated and the photographs of the piles of corpses and of the survivors, who themselves didn’t look much better than the corpses, were first published. In London, moviegoers unable to stomach atrocity newsreels tried to walk out of a movie theater only to be blocked by British soldiers who told them to go back and face it. No one yet had any idea how many Jews were put to death by the Nazis or that some 60 million people had perished in the war. On top of that, there were eight million uprooted people in Germany, three million more in other parts of Europe, six and a half million Japanese stranded in Asia and the Pacific, a million Korean workers still in Japan, and countless POWs wherever the war was fought.

If the scale of human misery was unimaginable in 1945, it is not easier to grasp today. Perhaps the reason we never learn from history is that we are incapable of picturing the reality of war and its aftermath, for fear that if we did, we would stop believing both in God and in our fellow human beings.

With men in defeated and occupied countries either absent or demoralized, the Allied soldiers who arrived as liberators, wearing nice uniforms and handing out luxury items like Hershey bars and cigarettes, were greeted by young girls and some older women the way the Beatles, as Buruma says, were treated twenty years later when they first became popular. Here are a few statistics:

Reading contemporary accounts and comments in the press, one might get the impression that the summer of ’45 was one long orgy indulged in by foreign servicemen and local women, out of greed, or lust, or loneliness. The impression appears to be confirmed by statistics: five times more women were hospitalized in Paris for sexually transmitted diseases (aka VD) in 1945 than in 1939. In Holland more than seven thousand illegitimate babies were born in 1946, three times the number in 1939….
The fact is that many women and men were simply looking for warmth, companionship, love, even marriage. Much as the early months of liberation offered the chance for wild abandon, people also longed for a return to normality. It should not be forgotten that the 277,000 legitimate Dutch births in 1946 constituted the highest figure in the recorded history of the nation.

Relief workers were shocked at the feverish sexual activity in DP camps—the low moral standards and unrestrained debauchery among the survivors of death camps, and the number of babies born to them every month the following year. The relief workers did not understand their all-consuming want of affection and need to prove to themselves that they were still alive. Buruma reports a story about hundreds of starving, horribly emaciated, newly liberated women in Bergen-Belsen receiving, owing to some British army screw-up, not food and medicine, which they badly needed, but a shipment of large quantities of lipstick. It most certainly lifted their spirits. At last someone had done something to make them look like women again. They hobbled around, barely able to walk, wearing nothing but a threadbare blanket over their shoulders, but with their lips painted scarlet.

In defeated countries, women also sold themselves, because there was no other way to keep themselves and their families alive. I remember being more hungry after the war than during it. I’d come home from school and ask my mother what there was to eat and she’d burst into tears. Of course, there was a black market. Even during the siege of Berlin, I was told, if you could pay with gold or diamonds, you could dine on fois gras and French champagne in your private bomb crater.

It was like that after the war too. People searched their homes for something valuable to barter—a silk dress made in Paris, grandma’s wedding plates and silverware, an old oil painting, preferably with some naked ladies—and then sought some shady character or a yokel rumored to have cash, hoping to come home with a slab of bacon or a chicken. Often, these fellows were not interested in what you had to trade—or if the woman happened to be attractive, they suggested a roll in the hay to help them make up their mind. An American reporter observed the following scene on a marshy plot of land near Hamburg: an elderly German man in a business suit was seen clubbing a duck to death with his cane. In parts of Asia it was even worse. Parents offered their babies for sale.

The prospect of famine and pandemics was quite real not just in defeated nations, but in the recently occupied ones. In Japan, where the population had already been starving well before the war ended, government authorities “were advising people how to prepare meals from acorns, grain husks, sawdust (for pancakes), snails, grasshoppers, and rats.” Germany had to find a way not only to feed its citizens and returning soldiers, but to deal with ten million ethnic Germans who were expelled after the war from their native lands in Eastern Europe with the full approval of the Allied governments. Understandably, there was little sympathy among the victors. Russians had fresh memories of millions of their own prisoners being deliberately starved by the German army, and the thought of cutting British rations and spending more tax dollars in Washington to feed former enemies was not popular.

Still, something urgently had to be done. “Hungry people are fertile fields for the philosophies of the anti-Christ and for those who would make God of the omnipotent state,” a Democratic congressman from Pennsylvania warned Congress. Against all expectations, the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) was formed to help victims of German and Japanese aggression and undeniably saved millions from starvation, including me.

Buruma wrote Year Zero, he tells us, to look back in time and understand the world of his father and his generation, how millions emerged from this catastrophe and restored their societies and countries to normalcy, believing as they did that a new and better world could be created from the ashes of the old with the collapse of Nazism and fascism. Before that could take place, however, there were scores to settle with the occupiers and collaborators by people bent on revenge:

In Czechoslovakia in the summer of 1945, near the town of Budweis (Česke Budějovice), best known for its fine beer, was a concentration camp with a sign nailed to its main gate which read: “An Eye for an Eye, a Tooth for a Tooth.” The camp was now under Czech control. It was filled with German prisoners, most of them civilians. The Czech commandant, a young man with a savage reputation, made the Germans work twelve hours a day on minimal rations, then woke them in the middle of the night and ordered them to the Appelplatz where they were made to sing, crawl, beat each other, dance, or any other torment that amused the Czech guards.
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