Tuesday, May 13, 2008


There are so many books about the Second World War, it is difficult to know where to start. Max Hasting's Armageddon is a great choice for those wanting a serious, thoughtful book that isn't too dense for non-specialists, but is also takes strong stands that can inform those who are well-read in the subject. What will attract many is the analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of the American, British, German and Soviet armies in 1944 and 1945. Also of great interest is the exploration of incidents that are not well known to Western readers.

Hastings constantly reinforces the scale and the intensity of suffering in World War 2. While we recall the Holocaust, we tend to ignore the full range of the horror of life in early 40s Europe. Hastings spends some time on one of the more controversial subjects, the sufferings of German civilians. The bombing of German cities does not generate the same level of controversy as the atomic bombing of Japan, and the wholesale rape of German (and Polish) women by the Red Army is practically unknown. The issue of collective guilt overlays this and makes it more difficult to discuss.

One incident that is well known in Germany and less known elsewhere was the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff. As the vengeful Red Army approached East Prussia, Gauleiter Erich Koch refused to evacuate civilians. Once the atrocities began piling up, the civilians began to be evacuated, but in much more dangerous conditions. The Wilhelm Gustloff was a liner loaded with up to 10,000 refugees when it was sunk by a Soviet submarine. There were survivors, but somewhere between five and seven thousand people drowned, making it the worst maritime disaster in history.

These deaths are but a small piece of the total loss of civilian German life. Hastings gives a figure of one million missing German civilians and a hundreds of thousands confirmed dead. Of course, the Germans had much more Russian civilian blood on their hands, a fact also little known in the West, but again, there is much more to this war than is commonly known in the West.

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