July 28, 2010

The Second World War by Martin Gilbert

The number of those who died in the Second World War will never be known with precision. Tens of millions of men, women and children were killed without any record being made of their names, or of when or how they died. Millions of soldiers were killed in action without anyone recording their names, or marking the place where they fell.

Many calculations have been made of the number of war dead. In the war between China and Japan, which began two years before the war in Europe, it has been estimated that six million Chinese civilians were killed. The Soviet Union suffered ten million deaths in action, on land, in the air and at sea. A further 3,300,000 Soviet soldiers were killed after they had become prisoners-of-war. Seven million Soviet civilians also died; a death toll in excess of twenty million Soviet citizens. The Germans calculate 3,600,000 civilians dead, and 3,250,000 soldiers. The Japanese calculate two million civilians and a million military deaths, the largest single death toll being the 138,890 deaths recorded at Hiroshima as a result of the dropping of the first atomic bomb. Six million Polish citizens were killed while Poland was under German occupation, three million of them Polish Jews. A further three million Jews from other parts of Europe were killed, bringing the Jewish death toll to six million. More than a million and a half Yugoslavs were also killed after the German conquest. In this listing only of those groups that suffered a million dead or more, a total is reached in excess of forty-six million.

In every war zone, and behind every front line, loss of life was enormous. The British, who had entered the war in September 1939, suffered 264,433 army, navy and air force deaths, as well as 60,595 civilian deaths from bombing, and 30,248 merchant navy deaths. The total number of British Commonwealth deaths in actions was 129,196, making a total British and Commonwealth death toll of 484,472.

In Greece, which was first attacked, by Italy, in October 1940, and then, in April 1941, by Germany, 260,000 civilians died from privation and hunger between 1940 and 1945, 70,600 were executed by the occupying forces in reprisals, and 50,000 were killed in the Resistance: a total civilian death toll — not counting the 60,000 Jews deported to their deaths — of 380,600. A further 79,743 Greek soldiers were killed in action in 1940 and 1941. In all, 420,343 Greeks lost their lives.

The United States, which entered the war in December 1941, suffered 362,561 army, navy and air force and Marine Corps deaths.

In Holland, 185,000 civilians perished as a result of war and occupation, more than 104,000 Jews, and 16,000 civilians from hunger and disease during the famine in the northern part of the Netherlands, when, still under German rule, it was cut off from the war zone at the end of 1944.

The number of Indian war dead was 36,092, killed in action in the Far East, North Africa and Italy. The number of Australians killed on the same battlefields, and in New Guinea, was 27,073.

Every warring country suffered losses; even small countries on the periphery, and far from the war zone, could not avoid losses which were heavy for them. Finland, for example, lost 27,000 soldiers in the winter war of 1940. The Spanish Legion lost 4,500 dead during its action alongside the Germans during the siege of Leningrad. The South African Air Force lost 2,227 pilots killed in action over Europe.

There were also deaths from among the solders brought from black Africa, including 1,105 Basutos who volunteered to fight for Britain in Syria, Sicily and Italy; and 498 Askaris from Southern Rhodesia, who fought in the Mediterranean, Europe and Burma.

With the return of the soldiers, sailors and airmen from the war zones, and from the prisoner-of-war camps, it became clear that the legacy of the battlefield was far more than its heroism, statistics and victories. Of the Australian servicemen who returned to Australia in 1945, among them her own father, Germaine Greer has written: "Thousands of them came home to live out their lives as walking wounded, carrying out their masculine duties in a sort of dream, trying not to hear the children who asked "Mummy, why does that man have to sleep in your bed?""

No one has been able to calculate the number of wounded, certainly amounting to several millions, whose lives were permanently scarred as a result of the war. Physical scars, from the severest disability to disfiguring wounds, and mental scars, accompanied these millions for the rest of their lives. Many died as a direct result of them. Others lived in pain, discomfort, fear or remorse. For those civilians who were fortunate to survive privation, deportation and massacre, similar scars, physical, mental and spiritual, remained — and still remain — to torment them. The greatest unfinished business of the Second World War is human pain.

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