Oh, What a Lovely War!

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…

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