War and Remembrance
Four books revisit key sites and battle operations of World War II.
By Mark Lewis
Sunday, May 30, 2004; Page BW03
These are busy times for military cemeteries. The flag-draped coffins keep arriving from Iraq, and meanwhile the elderly veterans of World War II are dying off at the rate of more than 1,000 per day. Sixty years ago this week, many of these vets were preparing to invade Normandy, an operation their superiors feared would result in disastrous losses. The Allied leaders knew that the U.S. public had a low tolerance for casualties. "If the American armies had been forced to leave Normandy bloodied and defeated," Martin Gilbert writes in D-Day (Wiley, $19.95), then the United States might have cut and run "and Europe would have been left to its own devices."
Gilbert is Winston Churchill's official biographer, so it's no surprise that Britain's wartime leader looms large in this account. Churchill first urged a cross-Channel invasion on his American allies in 1942; he then shifted to Italy or Norway as preferred targets before finally accepting Normandy as the Operation Overlord site. But Churchill never reconciled himself to the pre-invasion bombing of France's railroad stations. "You are piling up an awful load of hatred," he wrote as the air attacks continued, killing thousands of French and Belgian civilians. Franklin Roosevelt declined to cancel the air raids: "However regrettable the attendant loss of civilian life is, I am not prepared to impose from this distance any restriction on military action by the responsible commanders that in their opinion might militate against the success of Overlord or cause additional loss of life to our Allied forces of invasion." In the event, the Allies got off rather lightly, except on Omaha Beach, where some 2,000 Americans died.
This is not the book for those seeking a dramatic, blow-by-blow account of "the longest day." Gilbert prefers to focus on planning, logistics and the elaborate deceptions that persuaded Hitler that Normandy was not the Allies' main target. The events of D-Day itself -- June 6, 1944 -- take up only the last third of this very short volume. Yet even as Gilbert keeps things brief, he densely packs his book with facts, not all of which are crucial to the narrative. His study also suffers from a flaw common to most D-Day elegies: the presumption that the Normandy invasion led inexorably to Germany's surrender 11 months later, as if the Eastern Front no longer mattered.
Red Army Rising
D-Day in fact was only half the story in June 1944. The other half -- a far more sanguinary tale -- unfolded in Belarus, where the Red Army launched Operation Bagration on June 22. This massive assault destroyed Hitler's Army Group Center and drove the Germans back into Poland. As Norman Davies points out in Rising '44: The Battle for Warsaw (Viking, $32.95), Bagration was a worse disaster for the Nazis than the Battle of Stalingrad. Unlike Churchill and FDR, Joseph Stalin had no aversion to casualties. He stationed NKVD goon squads in the rear of his armies, ready to machine-gun any Soviet soldier unpatriotic enough to retreat. Stalin's soldiers died in droves, but his armies kept moving forward.
Once Poland's capital fell, their path to Berlin would lie open. But in early August, the Soviets paused for breath at the Vistula River, which separates central Warsaw from its eastern districts. The scene was set for the tragedy that Davies narrates here in chilling detail. Poland of course was where the war had begun in 1939, when Hitler unleashed his first blitzkrieg and Britain and France honored their commitment to the Poles by declaring war on Germany. Stalin had been Hitler's partner in crime, seizing eastern Poland for himself. The defeated Poles set up a government in exile in London and contributed troops to other fronts while awaiting the chance to liberate their homeland. But things changed when Hitler invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, forcing Stalin into an alliance with the West. By the summer of 1944, Britons and Americans were cheering the unstoppable Soviet advance into Poland. The Polish exiles and their underground forces in Warsaw were less thrilled; they knew that a triumphant Stalin would hand over their country to his Polish Communist stooges.
"The Polish people were no more eager to be occupied by the Communists than by the fascists," Davies writes. But their options were limited. As the Red Army approached the Vistula in late July, Warsaw's underground commanders decided on a desperate gamble. They would rise against the Germans in hopes of claiming a share of the credit for liberating Poland. (This 1944 uprising often is confused with the Warsaw Ghetto uprising of 1943, a separate and smaller-scale event.) The Poles launched their rebellion on Aug. 1, expecting aid from the nearby Soviet troops. Not much was forthcoming. For the most part, the Soviets hunkered down on the far bank of the Vistula and looked on impassively while the Germans brutally put down the uprising.
Paris was liberated that month, but Warsaw was left to its agony. "On 5 August alone," Davies writes, "an estimated 35,000 men, women, and children were shot by the SS in cold blood." Davies writes as an impassioned partisan, determined to force the world to remember the betrayal of the Poles. He asserts that the West might have been able to keep Stalin from swallowing Poland in 1944, if only Roosevelt had been willing to try. That seems unlikely. How could FDR have prevented the all-conquering Red Army from overrunning Eastern Europe?
No one in the West realized it, but the Cold War already had begun, and Warsaw was its first victim. After the rebels finally capitulated on Oct. 2, the city was razed on Hitler's orders. What little was left of it fell to the Soviets in January 1945 with hardly a shot fired. Now there was nothing blocking the Soviets' path to Germany, where they would do to Berlin what the Nazis had done to Warsaw.
The Americans, having advanced to the Elbe, could have tried to take Berlin ahead of the Soviets. But Dwight Eisenhower held back, in part because of the great number of casualties his troops would have sustained as they fought their way into the capital. Stalin, of course, had no such compunctions; German author Joachim Fest asserts in Inside Hitler's Bunker: The Last Days of the Third Reich (Farrar Straus Giroux, $21) that 300,000 Red Army soldiers died to take Berlin. That estimate sounds high -- Antony Beevor pegs the Soviet dead at 78,000 -- but even the lower figure is a horrific toll for a battle to wrest a dying city from a defending army of old men and teenage boys.
Hitler knew what was coming. Yet he remained in his bunker beneath the Reich Chancellery, rejecting all entreaties that he flee Berlin. Encouraged by his loyal acolyte Joseph Goebbels, Hitler preferred to die in the ruins of the world he had created -- an ending worthy of a Wagnerian hero. It's a familiar story, but it retains the power to shock, and Fest tells it well. (He is ably served by his translator, Margot Bettauer Dembo.)
Unlike Beevor in The Fall of Berlin 1945, Fest eschews the synoptic view. Mostly he stays in the bunker, offering scenes from the Nazis' private inferno: a silent Hitler communing with a portrait of Frederick the Great, Magda Goebbels playing solitaire to steady her nerves after poisoning her six children, Martin Borman and the other loyalists giving one last Nazi salute to the Führer's burning corpse. In the end, Fest writes, Hitler got the memorable exit he wanted, staging his defeat "as a historic spectacle of doom," a Götterdämmerung of his own design. "We may go down," he vowed, "but we will take the world down with us."
Hitler might have achieved that gruesome aim if his nuclear physicists had been able to produce a bomb. Fortunately they failed, but the Allies still had plenty of high-tech Nazi weapons to fight over in the spring and summer of 1945. One obvious target: The Me 262 jet fighter, which with its unmatchable speed might have won the air war for the Germans had it appeared sooner. In American Raiders: The Race to Capture the Luftwaffe's Secrets (Univ. Press of Mississippi, $35) Wolfgang W.E. Samuel tells how a group of American pilots scoured Germany for jets, surface-to-air missiles and other Luftwaffe treasures, which "became the basis for America's technological rejuvenation" and eventually helped the United States win the Cold War.
Samuel's book is more for Air Force buffs than for the general reader, but it does offer an eye-catching comment from Gen. Henry "Hap" Arnold, the wartime Army Air Forces chief. "It is a fundamental principle of American democracy that personnel casualties are distasteful," Arnold told his science advisers in 1944. "We will continue to fight mechanical rather than manpower wars."
Arnold's dictum still holds true: We keenly regret every lost American life, whether the soldier fell in Baghdad last week or on Omaha Beach 60 years ago. A weakness in the eyes of Hitler or Stalin, but one we can live with. •
Mark Lewis is books editor at Forbes.com. He is writing a book about America's colonial experience in the Philippines.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company