The young men on the generals’ staffs are now dead or in their 90s, as are the dogfaced infantrymen Willie and Joe. The members of the “Greatest Generation” are almost all gone now, and the veterans of the Korean Conflict have taken their place as the most-senior survivors of war. Although we are quick to paint the Allies as heroes, isn’t it time that we at long last begin to look honestly at the war crimes committed against the soldiers and civilians of the Axis powers? Who can it bother now?
Some people will justify Allied actions by arguing that Nazi and Imperial war crimes, and crimes against humanity, were far worse than anything we did—yet this is at best hypocritical. A crime is a crime, regardless of the circumstances—a murder is still a murder, a rape is still a rape—and by justifying such actions you become equal to that of which you scorn.
For those who felt a twinge of discomfort at yesterday’s post, the following list documents ten cases (out of many) of Allied war crimes committed during WWII, ranging from the small, to the unjust, to the horrendous.
I don’t relish this. But isn’t it time that we are honest and view what happened in the full light of day?
As yesterday’s post suggested, almost all Allied nations carried out air raids on non-military, civilian targets throughout the war. It was a tactic used primarily to destroy morale. The practice began as a retaliatory strike against the Germans for a bombing of a limited number of London civilian targets as a result of a navigational error of one Luftwaffe plane—but this was the very excuse Winston Churchill had been waiting for to escalate his air war on civilian targets in Germany. The Germans retaliated in September 1940 with the Blitz. As the war thereafter progressed, strategic bombing by both sides regularly involved bombing areas inhabited by civilians; many bombing campaigns were deliberately designed to target civilian populations in order to terrorize, disorganize, and disrupt their usual activities.
The physical destruction to Germany is said to be greater than at Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined. Around 600,000 German civilians died during the allies’ wartime raids on Germany, including 76,000 German children. In July 1943, during a single night in Hamburg, 45,000 people perished in a vast firestorm. Incinerated victims were stuck to the melted asphalt.
In his book 2003 Brandstätten (Fire Sites), Jörg Friedrich argues that the RAF’s relentless campaign against Germany during the final months of the war served no military purpose. Instead, he says that Churchill’s decision to drop more bombs on a shattered Germany between January and May 1945, most of them on small German towns of little strategic value, was a war crime.
It has been a taboo subject in France for 70 years: the terrible civilian casualties suffered by the French due to Allied bombing up to and during the liberation of France. According to research carried out by Andrew Knapp, history professor at the UK’s University of Reading, air raids by the British, Americans, and Canadians resulted in 57,000 French civilian losses. “That`s a figure slightly below, but comparable to, the 60,500 the British lost as a result of Luftwaffe bombing over the same period,” says Knapp.
France was the third country most-bombed by the Allies after Germany and Japan and it is hardly mentioned in our history books. “France took seven times the tonnage of [Allied] bombs that the UK took [from Nazi Germany],” says Knapp. “Roughly 75,000 tonnes of bombs were dropped on the UK [including Hitler’s V-1 and V-2 missiles]. In France, it’s in the order of 518,000 tonnes,” he says. As the French are finally daring to admit, the liberation of Normandy towns like Saint Lo (above), Caen and Le Havre turned them into wastelands of rubble and ash.
“It’s fairly clear,” says Knapp, “that on the basis of the treaties we have signed now—not the treaties we had signed then—some of these raids would be eligible for the category of war crimes.”
Knapp is the co-author, with Claudia Baldoni, of Forgotten Blitzes.
The Cage was essentially a set of cells and rooms used to hold and interrogate captured members of the Schutzstaffel and Gestapo. Everything from starvation and sleep deprivation to brutal beatings was practiced within its walls, to extract information and, in some cases, confessions. At a trial in 1947 of eighteen Nazis accused in the massacre of fifty Allied prisoners, the Germans alleged starvation, sleep deprivation, “third degree” interrogation methods, and torture by electric shock.
Though undeniably a site of war crimes, no participants were ever prosecuted. The British government, for the most part, turned a blind eye to the abuse arguing that it was justifiable given the situation.
Committed during late May of 1945, the Kočevski Rog Massacre describes the systematic murder of members of the repatriated Slovene Home Guard and their families by special units of the Allied Yugoslav Partisans. They were killed without formal charges or trial. They were thrown into various pits and caves, which were then sealed with explosives.
British forces in Austria turned back tens of thousands of fleeing Yugoslavs, and Tito’s victorious forces took revenge on their real and perceived enemies. Several thousand victims (between 30,000 and 55,000, according to certain sources) were killed between spring and autumn 1945. No one ever faced prosecution for this atrocity.
Russian-British author Nikolai Tolstoy wrote an account of the events in his book The Minister and the Massacres. British author John Corsellis, who served in Austria with the British Army, also wrote of these events in his book Slovenia 1945: Memories of Death and Survival after World War II.
As American soldiers approached Dachau concentration camp, they bore witness to thousands of highly decomposed bodies sitting in open top freight carriages. Because of this, it can hardly come as a surprise that American soldiers summarily executed captured—and unarmed—SS guards, purely out of rage. Prisoners, too, were said to have beaten as many as 50 guards to death in retaliation for their treatment.
The photograph above is a still photo taken by Arland Musser, of the 163rd Signal Photographic Company, US Seventh Army, on April 29, 1945, the day that Dachau was liberated. It shows 60 Waffen-SS soldiers on the ground, some wounded, some playing dead, 17 actually dead.
Unfortunately, the guards who operated the camp and carried out most of the atrocities had fled many days before, and were replaced with members of the Waffen-SS, whose sole purpose was to surrender the camp to the Allied force without resistance. Thus, the men were unjustly executed for crimes they did not commit. No one was ever court-martialed for the massacre.
Flint Whitlock, historian for the 45th Thunderbird Division, reported: “The killing of unarmed POWs did not trouble many of the men in I company that day, for to them the SS guards did not deserve the same protected status as enemy soldiers who have been captured after a valiant fight. To many of the men in I company, the SS were nothing more than wild, vicious animals whose role in this war was to starve, brutalize, torment, torture and murder helpless civilians.”
You can read more about this incident here.
It’s widely accepted that the Second Sino-Japanese War was perhaps one of the most brutal conflicts ever to have occurred in human history. With a history of intense rivalry and conflict, little mercy was shown from either side during this eight year long war. Although the Japanese were guilty of crimes that bordered on genocide, the Chinese are also reputed to have committed their fair share of war crimes.
Unfortunately, due to the volatile and vicious nature of the war, there was practically zero press on the ground to provide concrete evidence of atrocities (the photograph above, taken by Tom Simmen, is one of the few to have surfaced). Survivors, however, reported mass looting and pillaging, summary execution, and torture of POWs and Chinese civilians believed to have been collaborating with Imperial Japan—as well as mass rape within occupied settlements—to name but a few.
The Prisoners of War Temporary Enclosures, or Rheinwiesenlager, were a collection of 19 US-built prisoner of war camps constructed to hold German POWs during the Allied occupation of Germany. At the program’s height, the camps held up to two million prisoners, although the precise number of individuals imprisoned is unknown due to poor record keeping.
Due to the sheer size of these camps and the general neglect for the welfare of enemy POWs, the Allies failed to provide enough supplies for all the prisoners, which resulted in thousands of deaths. At one camp, prisoners died of thirst while a river flowed within sight, just outside the camp enclosure. Typical estimates put the number of deaths from starvation, exposure, and dehydration at up to 10,000. This figure has been heavily debated, however, with some researchers placing the death toll in the hundreds of thousands.
Regardless, these deaths would have been classed as a war crime under the 1929 Geneva Convention if it wasn’t for the fact that Dwight D. Eisenhower ordered the prisoners to be classed as “Disarmed Enemy Forces,” in order to circumvent the treaty. Jacques Bacque argued that Eisenhower’s misdeeds led to the starvation of over 800,000 German POWs.
Speaking of Bacque’s allegations, Eisenhower biographer Stephen Ambrose wrote: “I quarrel with many of your interpretations, [but] I am not arguing with the basic truth of your discovery” and acknowledged that Bacque had made a “major historical discovery”, in the sense that very little attention had hitherto been paid to the treatment of German POWs in Allied hands. In 1990 he said: “When those millions of Wehrmacht soldiers came into captivity at the end of the war, many of them were deliberately and brutally mistreated. There is no denying this. There are men in this audience who were victims of this mistreatment. It is a story that has been kept quiet.”
Once the Allies stormed the beaches of Normandy and began to capture large swathes of occupied land, they had a problem: what to do with the thousands of captured POWs? Instead of shipping them off to camps, many were simply executed where they stood to save time and resources which were much needed on the western front. For many of the dead, their only crime was being German.
There is much worse, however. Although the veracity of the testaments is highly debated among historians, there were reports of the Allies using captured German soldiers as human shields—forcing them to walk through minefields to clear the way for advancing allied forces, and marching them headfirst into German encampments to avoid defensive gunfire.
While researching his book D-Day: The Battle for Normandy, Antony Beevor learned that Allied soldiers committed war crimes in Normandy to a much greater extent than was thought. The exact number of soldiers executed or killed after surrender is unknown, as the fatalities for the most part resemble normal war-time deaths.
Quentin Tarantino’s film Inglourious Basterds about a Jewish militia that killed Nazis in World War II is not that far-fetched. A real-life team of Jewish soldiers hunted down SS officers in Austria after the war in an operation called “Nakam” (revenge), reveals Chaim Miller: “We were soldiers in the Jewish Brigade group of the British army… we went in groups of 3 to secretly search them out. At first they thought they were simply dealing with the British military police. They got a shock when we later showed them our Stars of David. But by then, it was already too late for them. We took them to some woods… They remained in the woods forever.”
Though born out of desperation and perhaps necessity, the US bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is, arguably, a war crime. It is claimed that such drastic measures prevented the need for a land invasion of Japan, and the potential deaths of millions of individuals.
But this ignores the fact that the majority of deaths arising from an invasion would have been military combatants, rather then civilians. The Geneva Convention (and in particular the 1977 amendment: Protocol I) explicitly declares that the indiscriminate targeting of non-combatants, such as civilians, is a war crime. Given that the use of nuclear weapons on civilians populations today would be considered a war crime, as well as a crime against humanity, I can see no reason why one would not consider the 1945 bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki a war crime.
After the fall of Berlin, Germany was in ruins. Occupied by millions of foreign troops, none of whom had complete control over any given entity, Germany quickly descended into anarchic lawlessness. It is believed that the Soviet Army alone was responsible for the rape of up to two million women and children, as well as the subsequent death of 240,000.
Claimed to be the largest mass rape in history, many unfortunate victims were assaulted up to a hundred times, and often could not resist in the face of overwhelming Soviet numbers.
For the most part, these atrocities were driven by the lust for revenge, although in many cases it was simply because the Soviets saw themselves as conquers, not liberators. Stalin himself was reputed to have said that people should be understanding, “if a soldier who has crossed thousands of kilometers through blood and fire and death has fun with a woman or takes some trifle.”
It wasn’t just the Soviets who were accused of this crime, however: German historian Miriam Gebhardt has published a new volume in which members of the US military are said to have raped as many as 190,000 German women by the time West Germany regained sovereignty in 1955. This is not on the same scale as the Soviets—but it doesn’t make it any less terrible.
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