Diary of an Expat, Part 67
The Nazis again. World War II
I've been trying to figure out what to do with the Nazis.

I would venture to say that Nazi Germany is preëminent in a lot of folks' minds when they think about the modern country. This takes a few different forms; you hear a lot of people talking about how contrite the Germans are and how they've come to terms with their past. On the other hand, I know people who refuse to have anything to do with Germany even today on the basis of that past.

I've addressed the first perspective in the past. German contrition takes a somewhat limited form; although they are "nationally guilty" I still think that they believe in — and have been allowed to believe in — a separation between "Germans" and "Nazis" that was never appropriate or accurate. The two are synonymous: Naziism was a popular movement, not an imposition from abroad.

On the other hand...

If I had to make a list of countries that learned appropriate lessons from the Second World War, I'm not sure where I'd start. For a long time, I've put Germany relatively low on that list, on the grounds that, as I said, I think politics in the aftermath of the war made it a bit too easy to distance themselves from the atrocities of that conflict, and the German state.

Recently, though, I've been considering some of the other implications, and I guess I would say that there is another side of it, which is that regardless of their grasp on culpability, of the major players in the conflict Germans seem to be the only ones who have come to realize that World War II was a terrible, terrible thing.

For my American, British, and Russian readers, who hail from countries that have incorporated the Second World War into their mythologies, some points of clarification are in order. To start with, World War II was a terrible, terrible thing.

No, I'm serious. I don't mean, like, "oh, we had to make sacrifices" or "a lot of people got killed." I mean that it was a dark, horrible spot in the grand scheme of human progress and the less time spent glorifying it the better. I mean that if aliens landed tomorrow, we would make a good impression by showing them, say, Tetris. Or the Sistine Chapel. Then they would hit up Wikipedia, and they would read about the Crusades. And we'd kind of chuckle nervously. "Well," we'd say, "that was, uh, a long time ago. Hey, have you seen this? It's Tetris, but two people can play it at the same time."

"'Battle of the Somme,' what's that?" the aliens would read. "Sixty thousand casualties on the British side on the first day alone? And it lasted for... wait, it says here it lasted for four and a half months?"

Then they'd get to World War II. And they'd look at it, and they'd look at us, and they'd look back at it. And they'd say:


And they'd probably leave. And they'd be right.

World War II was the last time we saw empires really come to blows. I would say "last time to date" but the next time is likely to mark the end of human history as I understand it, so I'm comfortable just saying "last time." The Second World War was a massive clash of empires with imperial ambitions, who suckered a generation of young men into dying for their selfish, stupid goals.

That's it. Anything else is bullshit icing on a cake of bullshit. And this is a hard lesson, because I grew up in a country that has lionized it at the people who were coerced into making it possible. As an American, you learn a lot of things about the Second World War, nearly all of which are wrong or oversimplified or both. It's somewhat complicated to explain why this is the case.

At its core, it gets back to the empire thing. World War II represented a period of history in which nationstates hoisted their corpulent forms into fighting stance and dedicated all their resources into killing people. In the United States, we converted our backyards into victory gardens, we melted down statues for bullets, and we subjected ourselves to privation towards this end, backed by a truly massive if marginally effective propaganda machine.

For a brief period of time afterwards, people realized the enormity of what had transpired. Films like The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) explored the aftermath of the war on those who had fought it, highlighting the loss of purpose and sense of abandonment they felt. American writers like Joseph Heller and Kurt Vonnegut had some success at coming to grips with the absurdity of the conflict. Science fiction tended to the apocalyptic, like The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), in which an alien tells us that if we do not give up our destructive ways we'll be taken out for the safety of the universe.

As we acquired a new enemy, however, and the "home front" recovered, these narratives began to seem too complicated, even treasonous. It became necessary to view the war as at worst a necessary evil and at best a grand adventure, with America riding boldly to the rescue of Europe backed by cheering throngs of happily sacrificing civilians willing to do their part.

After Viet Nam put "wait, maybe less killing (?)" back into the public consciousness, we acquired some much needed safety valves. The internment of Japanese Americans, for example, or the racist treatment of dockworkers at Port Chicago, form useful examples that allow us to establish boundaries of civilized behavior. "Accusing black people of treason for not wanting to be subjected to ridiculously dangerous working conditions by incompetent white officers" ventures beyond the pale. "Diverting the industrial production of the country to the end of producing means of ripping people apart with shrapnel," naturally, does not.

It's only now, with most of the veterans we feared offending dead, that American pop culture has started to see a little more of the same honesty of the immediate post-war years. Eastwood's Flags of Our Fathers touches on the myth of the happy home front; for that matter, the video game Mafia 2 features a scene in which the protagonist steals ration cards.

But the core idea of "the good war" is still fundamentally ingrained as an American foundational myth. Now, it's not my intent to excoriate Americans, per se. The reality is, of course, that 1940s America was racist and hateful; that the home front was rife with labour unrest, that corruption was common and bitterness over rationing far more likely than steely resolve. I don't think that's actually all that surprising. We've come a long way; America now and America then are very, very different.

But it is my intent to remind people that World War II was — like all wars — ugly, brutal, and stupid. To the extent that some people were exceptional at using low- and high-explosives to penetrate the brains and internal organs of other human beings, or to remove their limbs, there were certainly heroes. But it was not heroic. Indeed in the scale with which nationstates endeavored to destroy one another, and the degree to which common folk were enlisted into this end, it may be the nadir of our existence.

"But, Alex," you don't say, because this isn't a dialogue. "You would certainly agree that the atrocities committed by the Axis were so excessive, and so much worse than the Allies, as to defy comparison. How could you equate the two?!"

I didn't.

In the same way as I really don't think people understand how criminally, indefensibly barbaric and horrifying the Second World War was, I've said in the past I don't think people understand how criminally, indefensibly horrifying the Holocaust was. I don't think they realize how complicit everyone was in it, and how overwhelming that complicity was. I do not touch on Japanese atrocities chiefly because they are so unspeakably inhuman that dwelling on them makes me ill.

Setting aside the Soviet Union, Allied war crimes of the traditional sense were so minor as to be outside the scope of this discussion. To the extent that basic human decency is laudable, consider it here lauded. But World War II had nothing to do with atrocities. The Second World War was "about" the evils of Nazi Germany or the Empire of Japan only in the same way that Occupy Wall Street was "about" trespassing — a useful simplification for people on the other side, and bearing zero relation to reality.

We know this, of course, because the number of people held accountable for those war crimes is vanishingly small. We know it because the Allies were so horrified by the human experimentation of the Japanese that they let them off scot-free in exchange for the data, and so incensed by the indefensible use of slave labor by Nazi Germany that they gave Werner von Braun and his fellow criminals new jobs far away from anyone who might want to hurt them.

"Fair enough," you counter, "but at least you'll admit that the world would've been worse off if the Axis had won."

Well, no. I won't admit that because it's a silly hypothetical. It's a silly hypothetical because games of alternate history are always absurd, and also because the question is meaningless. Worse off for whom? Worse off for the Soviets? Probably, although it's hard to say too many good things about Stalin. Worse off for the Indians? Subhas Chandra Bose, a Japanese ally, had a lot to do with getting them independence in the first place, so it's hard to say. Worse off for the Chinese? The Iraqis? The Mexicans? For whom?

That these questions get asked in the first place is emblematic of how important the war is for Americans. It's crucial for us to believe that it had some cosmic meaning — that the universe ordained a climactic battle between Good and Evil, and that we were Good, and that Good won. But it wasn't. It was a stupid caveman squabble, fought at the whim of stupid cavemen leaders for stupid cavemen reasons. It didn't matter. The soldiers fighting for Germany were not really fighting for the glory of the Reich. The soldiers fighting for Japan were not really fighting for the honor of the god-emperor.

Nor were the soldiers on the Allied side fighting for freedom, or any other abstract ideal (nor, indeed, did they themselves think so — this being mostly a cheerleading story conducted by morale organizations for the benefit of the homefront). The most noble were fighting for revenge (for example, over the attack on Pearl Harbor). More were fighting for baser reasons, like survival. Most, at remove, were fighting for the worst reason of all, which is that they had been told to, and they saw no other option (modulo desertion, which was endemic for the Allies, and somewhat less of a problem for the Axis, for various reasons).

This has been the story for conflicts throughout human history; it is not particularly special here. Indeed in its causes World War II is very ordinary. It is special only in its terrifying brutality, and in the universality of this brutality. Everyone saw no problem in mass slaughter; everyone considered civilians to be valid targets. Everyone torpedoed merchant boats; everyone strafed blindly from the air, everyone endorsed area bombing.

That's what World War II was, at the end of it. Stripped of the propaganda and the Hollywood, it was a period of time in our history when everyone on both sides are equally guilty of endorsing, and then engaging in, the commitment of the entire state to the purposes of reducing people to rubble. To subjecting them to brief or extended agonies, to maiming them, to rendering them mad. The best minds in science, the most capable leaders, the strongest workers, all turned to the end of reducing another's exit from this earth to one of pain, and terror, and suffering.

There is nothing noble in this, nor glorious. It is one of mankind's great shames that we permitted it to occur.


"But we were different." "But we needed to fight." "But they attacked first." "But our cause was noble." "But they did x, and we never did y." Yes. I know. I grew up in the United States; I was steeped in military history as a kid all the way up until the time I studied it at university. I know the reflexive reaction.

I think, in general, it's the Americans and British who disagree — not the people reading this, necessarily, but I first started writing this in response to a discussion thread I saw and resurrected it for similar reasons. We, by which I mean Americans, et al., are the ones groping for the need to defend an orgy of destruction in which tens of millions died and millions of tons of steel, and food, and energy were wasted for the purpose of slaughter. It's the Germans I know who seem to understand this. To a degree the French do, though they learned the folly of empire a few years later in Indochina. And judging from the Germans I know, I think we'd be a lot better off if we could admit the absurdity of the desire to justify our crimes to ourselves.

We as humans were guilty. All of those participant countries. We did terrible things, and at the end of the day, nobody who picked up a gun had to. We did, because as humans we are a species as flawed as we are beautiful. World War II was a flaw.

"But —"

27.01.2013 - 3h39
27.01.2013 - 3h40
27.01.2013 - 3h41
27.01.2013 - 3h43
Comrade Alex
27.01.2013 - 5h38
Comrade Alex
27.01.2013 - 5h39
2.02.2013 - 4h23
2.02.2013 - 5h11

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