Some time ago I decided to write a book about the damaging and deluded cult of national victory which has done this country so much damage since 1945. No doubt it will receive the usual mixture of abuse and silence which most of my books receive. But I shall write it anyway, as it seems to me to be a truth urgently in need of being expressed, especially as we shall soon be marking the 70th anniversary of the end of the supposedly ‘Good’ Second World War. It is now possible to have more-or-less grown-up attitudes towards the First World War, whose last remaining justification – that it was ‘The War to End All Wars’ - crumbled into dust and spiders’ webs in September 1939. But the 1939-45 conflict is still wreathed in delusions, delusions often employed to try to justify modern wars which are alleged to have comparably ‘good’ aims.
The belief in its goodness is in fact ludicrous. Our main ally (rejected at the beginning with lofty scorn, embraced later with desperate, insincere enthusiasm) was one of the most murderous tyrants in human history, whose slave empire we helped him to extend and consolidate, and to whom we afterwards handed thousands of victims, to whom we owed at least a life, though we knew he would murder them.
Our purpose in joining the war was not only not achieved, but the country whose independence we claimed to be ‘saving’ sank under successive waves of horror, cruelty, lawlessness, murder and despotism, to emerge 60 years later and many miles from where it had been when we ‘rescued’ it.
The main effect of the war on life in Britain (apart from the physical damage done by bombing, considerable though far less than the damage inflicted by us on Germany) was to bankrupt our economy, raise taxes to previously unheard-of levels, make state interference in all aspects of life more prevalent, wreck countless families, popularise divorce, weaken families, engender crime and delinquency, and subject the native culture to an invasion of American customs and language from which it has never recovered. The main effect of the war on Britain as a state and as an economy was to destroy her hold over her Empire, permanently weaken her currency and end her status as a first-class diplomatic and naval power. In the process, in Singapore at 1942, this country suffered the gravest defeat of its armies at any time in its history, a defeat so disastrous and irreparable that to this day most British people are – at best – dimly aware of it, though they are reasonably well-informed about the horrors which befell the captured armies.
During and immediately after the war, as I have discussed here, we employed methods which would have disgusted our forebears and which ought to disgust us, but which were so frightful that we still lie to ourselves about them, or hide them from our consciousness. Nobody who truly understood them could defend them, which is why the critic of these policies has first to confront a great wall of ignorance, sometimes wilful, sometimes not.
The first was the deliberate bombing of the homes of German civilians, not just in the famous incidents at Hamburg and Dresden, but all over Germany for many months, which has morally inexcusable and, as it happens, remarkably militarily ineffective. Most British people are either unaware of this operation, greatly underestimate it or refuse to believe that it was an act of deliberate policy, wrongly believing that the bombers were seeking to destroy military and industrial targets and only accidentally killed or mutilated civilians. The undoubted bravery and sacrifice of the aircrews in this operation, acknowledged unconditionally by me, has no bearing on the guilt of the politicians and commanders who authorised and executed it.
The second was the atrocious but still largely unknown ‘ethnic cleansing’ of perhaps ten million Germans from their former homes across Eastern and Central Europe, authorised and planned before the war’s end, approved by the victorious allies at Potsdam, and falsely portrayed – then and since - as ‘Orderly and Humane’. Those who ordered and authorised it knew perfectly well that it would be nothing of the kind. Those who carried it out made little effort to mitigate its chaos and cruelty, which well served their purpose - of driving their neighbours from their ancestral lands by mass terror and robbery.
These words, ‘Orderly and Humane’ which featured in the Potsdam document which authorised the atrocity, also provide the coldly bitter title of a new book by R.M. Douglas, recently published by Yale University Press.
Cold bitterness is the first reaction of any person who reads it, who claims to be in any way civilised. I have, night after night, sat in my homebound train reading this catalogue of horrors, unable to find any way of expressing or properly articulating my emotions.
The book takes us through several stages, the first being the deliberate planning of the expulsions, by civilised civil servants and politicians, who found very quickly, as they looked into the matter, that the thing could not be done without cruelty.
What of those who were there at the time? Many protested, notably the left-wing publisher Victor Gollancz, that fine journalist Eric Gedye, and our old friends from the campaign against bombing Germans in their homes, Bishop George Bell of Chichester and Richard Stokes MP.
But as usual when something wicked is going on, the ‘mainstream’ consensus was complacent and defensive. Winston Churchill, who had urged the plan for years, and had ignored warnings of its dangers, started making hypocritical noises about its cruelty long after it was too late. There is a fashion these days for according sort of sainthood to Clement Attlee, the post-war Labour Prime Minister. Well, Saint Clement, confronted with advice that the plan would run into grave problems, notably severe human suffering, said: ‘Everything that brings home to the Germans the completeness and irrevocability of their defeat is worthwhile in the end.” Winston Churchill, who had urged the plan for years, started making hypocritical noises about its cruelty long after it was too late.
Everything? We shall see.
I have removed the nationality of the victims and of the soldiers from the following description. See if you can guess who they were, before I tell you, further down:
‘In a single incident, 265 *********** , including 120 women and 74 children, , were killed on June 18 by ****** troops, who removed them from a train at Horne Mostenice near Prerov, shot them in the back of the neck , and buried them in a mass grave that they had first been forced to dig beside the railway station.’
Well, if I tell you that the year was 1945, when by June 18 the war was over, perhaps you will be able to work out first of all who the killers were *not*. Yes, you are getting warm, they were not ‘the Nazis’ or even ‘The Germans’. The dead (mostly women and children) were Germans. The killers were supposedly disciplined troops of the Army of nice, friendly Czechoslovakia.
Two points emerge here. One, which Professor Douglas drives home repeatedly, is that these disgusting slaughters were not (in general) the result of enraged civilians taking their revenge, which might at least mitigate the crime. They were state-sponsored and centrally controlled, and are to this day defended by the states concerned, rightly nervous of any suggestion that they might be subjected to legal investigation, or demands for compensation.
The second is that the authors of these filthy inexcusable things were the ‘decent’ Czechoslovaks and ‘gallant’ Poles, for so long treated with sentimental admiration by Britain (perhaps to make up for the fact that we betrayed them in 1938 and 1939).
I will also deal here with the muttering I can hear at the back, that ‘the Germans had done this first, and were being paid back in their own kind’, coupled with catcalls of ‘Wot are you then, some sort of Hitler apologist?’ and (no doubt) thought-police insinuations that I am a closet racialist.
Well, some Germans certainly had done such things and worse (though we let most of them off as we needed them to run the country after the defeat of Hitler), but most of the victims of these incidents were women and children, and some of the others were (for instance) Czech German Social Democrats who had themselves resisted the Nazis. This was a racial purge, combined with a colossal mass theft of property, money , houses and land (those refugees who survived could take almost nothing with them), horribly comparable to German National Socialist Actions. Anyone who (rightly) condemns the German National Socialists as barbarian murderers cannot really, in all conscience, fail to condemn the authors of these actions too. (This point is addressed later).
Professor Douglas accepts that the expulsions did not sink to the level of the extermination camps (though on occasion, as we will see, they got remarkably close to it).
But he argues ‘Nonetheless the threshold for acknowledging mass human rights abuses for what they are cannot be the unprecedented barbarities of the Hitler regime. With the exception of the war years themselves, Europe West of the USSR had never seen, nor would it again see, so vast a complex of arbitrary detention - one in which tens of thousands, including many children, would lose their lives. That it largely escaped the attention of contemporaries elsewhere in Europe, and the notice of historians today, is a chilling commentary on the ease with which great evils in plain sight may go overlooked when they present a spectacle that international public opinion prefers not to see.’
By the way, one of the reasons why this monstrous action went ahead was because of a widespread belief that the (bloody and chaotic, and economically and socially disastrous) compulsory population swap between Greece and Turkey, after the cession of Smyrna to the Turks by defeated Greece (1922), had been a success. The silence about the post-1945 expulsions must not be allowed to create the same false impression. It was sheer hell, and anyone who proposes to repeat it should be told so.
Out of the many pages of notes I took from this hugely important book, I shall reluctantly set out only a few of the most striking, while urging all readers to buy or order from their local libraries this necessary work of compelling historical truth.
At Linzer-Vorstadt, close to the Budvar brewery, a camp for Germans had inscribed on its gate the words ‘Oko za Oko, Zub za Zub’, which being translated means ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth’.
New inmates were stripped, compelled while naked to run a gauntlet of guards who beat them with clubs, shorn of all their hair and forced to don humiliating uniforms. The experience of a Catholic priest, Josef Neubauer, in this place of misery, is too long to recount here, but it is simultaneously moving and shocking.
At Auschwitz, there was less than a fortnight between the departure of the last surviving Jews and the arrival of first ethnic German inmates.
One Czech opponent of the persecution, Dr Bedrich Bobek, is quoted as warning in a letter ‘Let nobody fall back on the excuse that the Germans have done the same things. Either we are qualified to stand as their judges, in which case we cannot conduct ourselves as they do, or we are no different from them, and give up the right to judge them’, a sentiment with which I heartily concur.
A few more episodes, often involving slovenly callousness which amounts to murderous negligence. A train arrived in Germany in December 1945 from Czechoslovakia, a period of predictably freezing weather. It carried 650 people. When the doors were opened, it was found that 94 passengers, including 22 children, were dead of cold.
Another description, this time of a train from Poland: ‘….Most of the passengers, after their stay in Polish camps, were emaciated to the point of starvation, covered in lice, and suffering from a variety of infectious diseases.’ Thirty-nine passengers ended the journey as frozen corpses.
The description of the fate of a train from Luben, on page 196, simply has to be read in full to be believed.
As always happens, the intense darkness of these events (during the entire time I read this book I felt myself to be surrounded by a sort of dusk, and imagined every event described, even those I later realised had happened in summer daylight, to have gone on in conditions of smog and dusk, night and fog) is sometimes illuminated by the blazing light of individual good deeds, done against the tide.
The story of the Czech Premsyl Pitter (who had laboured to save Jews from Nazi murder during the occupation) shows that small individual acts of human courage and kindness can counterbalance enormous weights of state necessity and cynicism. After rescuing a thousand German detainees from a secret prison in Prague, Pitter recounted: ‘As we brought emaciated and apathetic children out and laid them on the grass, I believed that few would survive. Our physician, Dr E. Vogl, himself a Jew who had gone through the hell of Auschwitz and Mauthausen, almost wept when he saw these little bodies. “And here we Czechs have done this in two and a half months!”, he exclaimed.’
Readers are invited to guess to which system of thought and belief Premsyl Pitter subscribed.
The Czech, Polish and Yugoslav authorities knew what was resulting from their policies (just as the Allies, who planned and permitted it knew what would happen in general, and had been warned by their own officials of the perils of such action). They did almost nothing about it. To have spared the women and children from internment would have been to undermine the whole programme. I might add that when the refugees arrived in Germany, everything was made a thousand times harder and more miserable by the colossal destruction of housing, by British and American bombing.
You might not wish to know that at the Postoloprty camp in Northern Bohemia, in June 1945, five ethnically German children were first whipped, then shot by firing squad, for trying to escape.
I could go on quoting from this book for hours. But you must read it instead. I will end with two other moments from it that left me feeling intensely ashamed of the human race, and immensely grateful that I live on an island which has for many centuries been safe from invasion, subjugation and arbitrary rule.
The first is this account of the conditions of life of Germans in occupied Berlin (by then crammed with refugees from the East, many of them seriously ill and/or starving) in autumn 1945. ‘…Women could be seen straining the waste water from the kitchen sink of a house where there was an Allied mess, to save from the drain small scraps of grease which could be used again in their own homes.’
You may be sure that, even a year before, none of those straining the drain water for scraps of grease would have had the remotest premonition of what would later befall them. Nor would they, in their police state, have had any serious say in the events and policies which brought this fate about. Those in free societies such as ours, who promote or permit wars, have much to answer for. They should certainly cure themselves of any smugness about whether ordinary Germans ‘deserved’ what happened to them.
The second is an extract from a (literally) suicidal letter written by Gertrud Kostka to her husband Johannes, a conscript soldier in the German Army who had been taken prisoner by us. Their baby daughter, Barbara, had died in the chaos of the Red Army advance across Poland. Gertrud had then been raped by a fellow refugee and had become pregnant. Johannes Kostka tried to get first the American and then the British government, at least, to speed up his wife’s deportation from Poland so they could be reunited. The British authorities replied that any such action might well be used in propaganda against us, and could make her position worse (both of these were of course genuine fears) and that the deportation was ‘an internal Polish matter in which we have no right to interfere’, which I think is more dubious, given that we had sanctioned it and co-operated with it. We did nothing, understandably. I cannot find out what happened, in the end, to the Kostkas. I can guess, though.
‘I feel void and dead. But just as honest as our mutual life has been, may these last lines be. I have no guilt to confess. I have no tears to shed. I have only this belief that the Lord will help you to trust my words. After a short pain you will find happiness again. For me there will be bleak despair and the hope that the Lord will not leave me, and will call me to Him in my dark hour, uniting me with my child. Trusting upon His help I take farewell form you, and my life. I cannot write any more. I can only beg you, please, believe me, I am without blame.’
This tiny scrap of utter human misery, blowing across the desolate wasteland of the post-war world, together with the certainty that this is just one of thousands of personal woes about which we shall never know anything, and our knowledge that the pleas of the sufferers went unanswered, seems to me to contradict any claim that war can be ‘good’. Necessary, possibly, but be careful to be sure. Just, maybe at a pinch, though not as often as we like to think. But good? Never.