Short Film: The Human Cost of War

The tragedies of war have been is endlessly discussed, debated, and lamented about since the dawn of humanity. But in this collaborative short film presented by The Atlantic, photojournalist Kate Brooks teams up with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to add yet another powerful and poignant contribution to our understanding of warfare.

In this short film, producers Leandro Badalotti and Simon Schorno powerfully weave together an interview with the photographer and images from over the course of her career. Brooks discusses the motivation behind her work, the moral dilemmas photojournalists face, and the importance of documenting the non-military lives that are affected by these wars. “One of the things that I love about the greater Middle East is that it’s the birthplace of ancient civilizations and world religions”, says Brooks, “but over the past decade it’s become a region of rubble and broken lives”. While many of the photographs can be difficult to view, the film serves as an ever-important reminder of the consequences of war, and the accompanying cycle of violence that many politicians seem to forget.

The film is well worth nine minutes of your time, so check it out here. You can visit Brooks’ website here, or producer Badalotti’s here, for more great work.

The 100th Anniversary of the U.S. Invasion of Haiti

History has not been kind to Haiti. As the world’s first black republic, and the only nation founded by a successful slave revolt, it was regarded with contempt by world powers from the very beginning. From France’s onerous debts, to the U.S.’ repeated interference in domestic affairs, this poor yet proud nation has endured countless threats to sovereignty and prosperity — and little recognition of it.

It would likely surprise most Americans to know that their small Caribbean neighbor, rarely more than a footnote in public consciousness let alone government policy, has been repeatedly invaded, occupied, or otherwise meddled with by the U.S. since the early 20th century. In fact, as the Washington Post reminds us, it was 100 years ago today that President Woodrow Wilson — who had then-recently championed liberal, democratic values, such as self-determination, in Europe initiated an almost two-decade-long occupation of Haiti.

Perhaps to its credit, the U.S. State Department’s Office of the Historian is pretty candid about America’s longstanding interests in the country, and the true motivations of its intervention. Continue reading

A Veteran’s Unlikely Find

A Russian World War II veteran finds the very tank he fought in during the entire war. It turned out, unbeknownst to him, that it was made into a monument for a small Russian town. He became so emotional – and eventually quite animated – that people worried his heart wouldn’t cope. Remarkable.

The Houla Massacre

It’s hard to believe that people are still being slaughtered like cattle in Syria, with full impunity on the part of the government. The video below is just a sample of that brutality. Fair warning, it’s extremely graphic. I’m not trying to shock or disgust anyone. This is something that I think people need to see and realize.

This was going on around the same time that I was out partying with friends. This is just a sliver of the cruelty and horror that goes on throughout the world at any given time. Years of studying this has not dented the psychological impact – while I’m numb to it for the most part, it saddens me tremendously deep down.

As I lie in my warm bed tonight, I’ll be unable to stop thinking about how something like this is playing out at that very moment, and I’m powerless to stop it.

Memorial Day Reflections

The silence spreads. I talk and must talk. So I speak to him and say to him: “Comrade, I did not want to kill you. If you jumped in here again, I would not do it, if you would be sensible too. But you were only an idea to me before, an abstraction that lived in my mind and called forth its appropriate response. It was that abstraction I stabbed. But now, for the first time, I see you are a man like me. I thought of your hand-grenades, of your bayonet, of your rifle; now I see your wife and your face and our fellowship. Forgive me, comrade. We always see it too late. Why do they never tell us that you are poor devils like us, that your mothers are just as anxious as ours, and that we have the same fear of death, and the same dying and the same agony — forgive me, comrade; how could you be my enemy? If we threw away these rifles and this uniform you could be my brother, just like Kat and Albert. Take twenty years of my life, comrade, and stand up — take more, for I do not know what I can even attempt to do with it now.

-Protagonist Paul Bäumer, in WWI veteran Erich Maria Remarque’s novel All Quiet on the Western Front

I hope everyone had a good and safe Memorial Day. Most importantly, I hope everyone was able to reflect, even mildly, on the purpose and history of this commemoration.

War is such a terrifying thing. That sounds like such an obvious statement, but we tend to expression such a sentiment in a perfunctory fashion, rarely giving it deeper thought or – more difficultly for most people – putting ourselves in the position of it’s combatants and victims.. The entire idea of war, especially in our largely peaceful society, is fortunately quite beyond us.

As a soldier you’ve effectively signed up to become a living weapon, an instrument to both political elites and the public. You’re relied upon to protect the people, as well as serve the interests of a narrow political and economic class. Minus a few exceptional cases, you’re forced to kill strangers who you otherwise wouldn’t have had to until you (and them) were commanded to do so.

In a world where comfort and self-interest is as exalted as ever, the soldier has volunteered to put all that aside in the name of a society that dares not put itself in his or her position.How many people in our generation would dare make such a sacrifice – and I mean seriously so, not just hypothetically – if it were asked of them? We don’t even realize that most of our generation is living in one of the most peaceful eras in our long and bloody history (despite what confirmation bias and the ubiquitous media may suggest, there is far less conflict out there than we imagine, especially in terms of length and prevalence).  For most human,  war and violence were an intractable part of reality.  In the grand scheme of it all, we represent an abnormal and very lucky minority of people who see and experience far less violence than any of our ancestors.

Granted, horrific conflicts continue to persist, worsening in some areas than ever before. I have no intention of downplaying the considerable amount of suffering that wars, past and present, continue to wreak on a significant proportion of the population (around 1.5 billion people are said to be regularly affected by war and conflict, according to some reports). But, believe it or not, their scale and scope don’t come close to what was once rather average. It goes to show what a long way we’ve come so that even today’s ghastly conflicts pale in their scope and incidence compared to those in the past.

I think what’s most disturbing about war is that no one ever seems to want it, yet it continues occur anyway.  Almost every side of every war claims to be against the idea, as if war was some third party that has manipulated us into fighting. Almost all countries maintain armies to protect themselves from one another, even though every nation claims only to seek it’s own defense (the threat of “irregular” military forces, such as terrorists and rebels, have changed up this formulation to give everyone some acceptable bogeyman as justification). Of course, we can never really trust anyone and everyone, and this is something even individuals can attest to. But I still find it to be a strange phenomenon.

Are we naturally warmongering? It is the same minority of psychopathic, self-interested, or just plain bad people that are ruining it for the rest of us peaceful folks? Is conflict a human imperative, an impulse that courses through each of us as naturally as living and breathing? Is war truly the result of misunderstanding and desperation or is it something that will continued to inexplicably burden us even as we “civilize” and develop? Humans are, after all, the only living things capable of war. In a cruel irony, some have made the argument that intelligence and higher brain functions actually breed and facilitate warring inclinations.  Only intelligent beings could construct the sort ideological, philosophical, political, and religious elements that predicate all conflicts. Only intelligent beings could have the wants and the desires to drive them to conflict with one another in order satiate their existential needs. Is war truly a human disease then, a result of a perverse coupling of our primal heritage with a higher perception of self?

The answer would seem to be unfolding before us within our lifetimes: as the world becomes more globalized and unified than ever before, war has indeed declined, and the question of whether interconnectedness could reduce – maybe even eradicate – wide-scale conflict becomes deliberated. The usual tensions and divisions remain, as do the means to shed more blood than ever. But conflict has largely abated, and the majority people, even those living in destitution and social instability, remains untouched by mass conflict and violence.

As we become more interdependent, communicate better, exchange more ideas and cultural perspectives, and rely on one another’s societies for economic prosperity and indeed survival, could war become a thing of the past, as much out of inconvenience as out of mutual understanding? Did not two of the most horrific wars in modern times, World War I and II, occur after periods of protectionism and isolationism that bred hatred, distrust, and nationalism? But then again, that begs the question: as the economic crisis  and the inequities of globalization threaten more rounds of  insularism, protectionist sentiments, and nationalism, are we teetering once more to wider scale war?Whatever the guess might be, let us shift away from speculation of the unknown future and take what we know from the past.

Thousands of American soldiers died where few others would dare, joining the millions more around the world and throughout history. These people rendered themselves statistics and nameless figures so that we can live in the comfortable times that we do. We have the luxury of enjoying Memorial Day for BBQs and relaxation because of their ultimate sacrifice. I myself spent the weekend just hanging around like it was any other three-day break. It goes to show what a long way we’ve come when wars and their horrific toll could be so easily relegated to the past.

Imagine being one of the guys in front (or any of them for that matter). My stomach churns just thinking about it. War casualties are just numbers to most people, but everyone of those guys – and their enemies – were distinct human personalities. They disappeared in an instant.

We musn’t forget the growing ranks of women who make up our troops too.

Poland’s Forgotten Bravery: Part IV

The last part of my series on Poland’s forgotten contributions to World War II. You can find the the others through the search bar.

Poland’s Suffering 

All Polish specialists will be exploited in our military-industrial complex. Later, all Poles will disappear from this world. It is imperative that the great German nation considers the elimination of all Polish people as its chief task – Henrich Himmler, leader of the SS.

Even before the war began, the Nazis had horrific intentions for Poland. Nazi leader Adolf Hitler, in his 1926 book Mein Kampf, aimed to turn Eastern Europe into part of Lebensraum (“living space”). Nazi ideology held that Slavs, such as the Poles, were a racially inferior group, barely a step above Jews. They were almost literally held to be like monkeys, at best. During the invasion ofPoland, Hitler gave explicit permission to his commanders:

“…. [kill] without pity or mercy, men, women, and children of Polish descent or language”

There was a systematic genocide perpetrated against the Poles, who more or less faced the same fate as the Jews. Early into the invasion of Poland, one of the Nazi’s top leaders, Reinhard Heydrich, stated that all Polish nobles, clergy and Jews are to be killed; a few days after that, the Polish intelligentsia were added to the list, and by the end of 1940 Hitler demanded liquidation of “all leading elements in Poland” – politicians, artists, intellectuals, professionals, and so on.

So aside from being a battlefield for the bloodier Eastern Front of the war, Poland was a direct target of extermination. Subsequently few participants in World War II suffered as much as the Polish people. Poland was believed to have lost between 4.9 and 6 million citizens at the hands of the Germans, with another 150,000 to 1 million more killed by the Soviets. So in total, anywhere from 5 to 7 million Polish citizens – split almost evenly between Ethnic Poles and Jews – were killed, the vast majority being civilians – that comes down to a horrific 16% of the population.

On average, close to 3,000 Polish nationals died each day of the war, with Poland’s professional, artistic, and intellectual classes suffered suffering particularly higher fatalities: 45% of doctors, 57% of lawyers, 40% of university professors, 30% technicians, and 18% of clergy.

In addition, the Nazis turnedPolandinto a giant extermination center and graveyard for its enemies. All the major death camps were based in occupiedPoland, and so many people were sent there to die that estimates still vary wildly. One figure holds that 2 million people from 29 countries died inPoland, including 1 million Jews moved to the camps and 784,000 Soviet prisoners-of-war.

The Invasion of Poland
In addition to the 66,000 troops killed-in-action against the Germans, another 150,000 to 200,000 Polish civilians died by the end of the month-long campaign, victims of indiscriminate or even deliberate targeting of civilians by both the Nazis and the Soviets.

From the very first day, many Poles were rounded up and summarily executed, as were several thousand Polish POWs. The Soviets operated along the same lines, most infamously in the Katyn Massacre. The Luftwaffe led an explicit operation of terror bombings, most infamously Frampol and Wieluń. These and other towns were subject to large-scale air raids, even though they had no discernible military targets. The brutality was such that even caravans of Polish refugees fleeing the fighting were systematically targeted by fighters and bombers.

During the 1939 German invasion of Poland, “special action squads” of the SS and police, known as the Einsatzgruppen, were deployed behind the front lines to arrest and kill civilians considered potential resisters. This intensified soon after the fall of Poland, in a year-long extermination effort known as Operation Tannenberg, which followed a list of 61,000 Poles (compiled before the war by Germans living in Poland) that were identified as high-value targets: former government officials, military officers, landowners, clergy, intellectuals, and anyone else deemed a threat to German occupation.

All this was in turn an early measure of the Generalplan Ost, which among other things was to prepare Poland for annihilation and annexation into Greater Germany. Poles and Jews were either murdered in the spot by death squads or sent to prisons and concentration camps. These efforts were carried out during the rest of the war according to detailed plans such the AB-Aktion Operation, which included the infamous massacre of Lwów professors.

Campaigns of Terror and Pacification
The Nazis already had intentions to eliminate the Poles, but their insolence would only make things worse. As I mentioned before, the Poles led one of the largest and most sophisticated resistance movements in the war. Unsurprisingly, they suffered particularly harsh retribution by the occupying forces, and endured the harshest laws and penalties of any occupied nation: for example,Poland was the only country in occupied Europe where the penalty for hiding a Jew was death for everyone living in the offending house.

Communities were often subject to collective responsibility for Polish acts of sabotage or attack, and several mass executions were conducted in revenge. For every German killed by Polish partisans, 50 to 100 civilians – often randomly chosen, other times made up of the intelligestia – were executed. In an event known as Bloody Sunday, around t 10,000 non-Jewish Polish civilians were murdered within the first four months for various acts of insurgency and disobedience. About 20,000 villagers, some of whom were burned alive, were killed in large-scale vengeance operations that targeted settlements suspected (note, not proven) of aiding Jews or resisters. A total of 75 villages were completely wiped off the map. Aside from the conventional German armed forces, paramilitary unites composed of ethnic Germans living in Poland also participated in executions of civilians.

Remember that all this was part of official German (and Soviet) doctrine. It didn’t stem from the chaos of war, or from the isolated actions of a few psychopaths. There was the łapanka policy for example, in which German forces would indiscriminately gather civilians from the street to be executed for no reason. In Warsaw alone, between 1942 and 1944, approximately 400 were killed in this way every day. It’s estimated that tens of thousands of people were murdered in random mass executions of this kind, including within the prison system.

Cultural Genocide
Recall that the Nazis aimed for Poland to be completely annihilated. Not only would the Polish people be physically destroyed, but every trace of their culture, language, and intellectual contributions would be liquidated, as if they had never existed.

Thus, the Germans engaged in what could only be called cultural genocide: they destroyed or closed universities, high schools, libraries, museums, national monuments, and scientific institutes. Millions of books were burned, including an estimated 80% of all school libraries and 75% of all scientific libraries. Furthermore, Polish children were forbidden from receiving education beyond the elementary level, in order to prevent the formation of a new intellectual and political leadership.

The Poles responded with a campaign of underground education known as Tajne Nauczanie or “Secret Teaching” that was rather successful, considering the odds. The government-in-exile, as well as members of the Polish Diaspora, lead efforts to keep the culture alive outside of Poland, just in case the Germans couldn’t be vanquished.

Part of this effort also included Germanization, in which the annexed territories ofPoland were to be politically, culturally, socially, and economically assimilated into Greater Germany. This went beyond the mere teaching of German culture and language, since it was in conjunction with the systematically elimination of anything Polish: the Polish language could not be taught, streets and cities were renamed in German, and tens of thousands of businesses were taken over, from corporations to small shops.

There were crimes against Polish children, were often targeted as part of an effort to eliminate the future generation of Poles. At least 20,000 children in occupied Polandwere selected for their “racially valuable traits,” kidnapped, and sent to special homes to be Germanized and indoctrinated. Afterward there were to be adopted by German families so as to eliminate any trace of “Polishness;” many of them remained convinced that they were German long after the war ended.  The children of those forced into labor were placed in compounds called Ausländerkinder-Pflegestätte, where thousands of them died and thousands more were abused.

Finally, there were crimes against the Roman Catholic Church, was a major cultural and political institution within Poland. Churches were systematically closed, and most priests were killed, imprisoned, or deported to the General Government. The Germans also closed seminaries and convents while persecuting monks and nuns throughoutPoland. Between 1939 and 1945, 2,935 members of the Polish clergy – nearly 1 out of 5 – were killed in concentration camps. Some cities, such asWrocław and Chełmno, saw almost half their clergy eliminated.

Sexual Slavery
Mass rapes were committed against both Jews and ethnic Poles since the start of the war. Even during mass executions, many girls and women were raped before being murdered. During the course of the war, Polish women were periodically and explicitly rounded up in mass raids in order to serve as prostitutes for German soldiers, both within and outside of Poland. Girls as young as 15 years old were often slated to serve this role.

The Polish Final Solution
Generalplan Ost included plans for the mass transportation of up to 20 million Poles into massive camps, where they would be penned up like cattle to by periodically conscripted for heavy labor during the length of the German empire. Germany planned to completely remove the indigenous population of Poland, replacing them with military and civilian settlers. During the occupation, more than one million Poles were expelled by German authorities; these expulsions were carried out so quickly that many Polish homes had half-eaten food left on their plates. German children were utilized for this effort as well, as members of the Hitler Youth and the League of German Girls were tasked with making sure that deported Poles left behind most of their belongings behind for the settlers to use.

Forced Labor
During the war, at least 1.5 million Polish citizens (if not more) were forced into labor in Germany, including many adolescents. Although the Nazis conscripted laborers from all over Europe, those considered racially inferior, such as Poles and other Eastern Europeans, were subjected to even harsher treatment. Poles were forced to wear tags identifying their “race,” subjected to a strict curfew, and were banned from taking public transportation. Most Polish laborers were compelled to work longer hours for lower wages than their western European counterparts, and in many cities they were forced to live in segregated compounds lined with barbed wire. Social relations with Germans outside work were forbidden, while sexual relations – considered racial defilement – were punishable by death.

Concentration Camps
Aside from hosting all of the death camps (and most of the major labor ones), Poles were themselves direct victims of Nazi extermination. Auschwitz, the largest and most infamous of the concentration camps, ended the lives of 150,000 Polish nationals, many of whom were starved, experimented upon, or worked to death. An estimated 30,000 Poles died at Mauthausen-Gusen, 20,000 each at Sachsenhausen and Gross-Rosen, 20,000 at Stutthof, 17,000 at Neuengamme and 10,000 at Dachau; 17,000 Polish women died at female camp called Ravensbrück. Tens of thousands of Poles were killed in prisons, detention centers, and other facilities that were set up ad hoc specifically to liquidate them. Disturbingly, there was even at least one camp for children, in Potulice. Later in the war, the Germans set up the Warsaw concentration camp, which was to be used to completely depopulate the Polish capital.

Extermination of Psychiatric Patients
In the summer of 1939, just a few months before the invasion of Poland, the Nazis had a secret program called Action T4 , whose purpose was to exterminate people with mental and physical disabilities (though people with chronic and terminal diseases were also targeted). After Poland was conquered, this program was put into practice on a wide-scale. Psychiatric hospitals and mental institutions were raided of their patients (and often their staff) to be systematically murdered. The total number of victims was estimated to be more than 16,000, with additional 10,000 perishing from malnutrition and neglect. Nearly half the members of the Polish Psychiatric Association were killed as well. It was during this time that “gas vans” were first tested and perfected, allowing the Germans to herd undesirables into mobile killing units to be poisoned. After two years of these morbid test runs, these techniques were applied to the extermination camps.

The Destruction of Warsaw
You can read more about the Warsaw Uprising and its consequences in my earlier post., German forces committed many atrocities against Polish civilians in order to suppress the rebellion. The most notorious of these took place in Wola district, where at least 40,000 men, women, and children were methodically rounded-up and executed by the Einsatzkommandos of the Sicherheitspolizei, the German police and intelligence force, and the Dirlewanger, a penal unit made up of German criminals (and formed specifically to terrorize the Polish and Soviet populations).

Similar massacres took place in the Śródmieście (City Centre), Stare Miasto (OldTown) and Marymont districts; when Stare Miasto fell, 7,000 seriously wounded hospital patients and their caregivers were executed or burned alive. Similar atrocities took place in several other sections. Ochota district was subject to a horrific spate of killings, rapes and lootings carried out by the Kaminski Brigade, made up of Russian collaborators..

The suppression cost the lives of 150,000 and 180,000 civilians, not including the thousands of insurgents that were captured and executed, since Polish resistance fighters were not considered combatants (meaning the rules regarding prisoner treatment were discarded). An additional 215,000 civilians were sent to labor camps or concentration camps, while the devastated and once beauty city was systematically demolished brick by brick, along with its ancient monuments, universities, libraries, and other historical centers.

As if Poland didn’t suffer enough during six years of conflict and brutalization, it was made to endure even more hardship. For one thing, Poland has been “liberated” by the Soviet Union, which for all its vital contributions to the Allied war effort was still run by the sociopathic Joseph Stalin. Having endured tremendous losses of their own, the Soviets used their subsequent influence as leverage in post-war plans forEurope (see Yalta Conference).

Among their actions was the imposition of drastic territorial changes on Poland that reduced its size by 20%; in addition, the numerous postwar migrations that followed and the destruction of Poland’s Jewish community drastically changed the country’s demographics and culture: it was no longer the multicultural and multiethnic nation it had been for centuries. To this day, it remains a homogenous rump state.

Furthermore, Polandwas subjected to a communist regime beholden to the USSR, and would remain a satellite state until 1989, when, appropriately enough, it would be the first to lead efforts to freeEastern Europe from Soviet domination (through peaceful means I might add).

Still, the Poles have always had a history of struggle and perseverance, and World War II, for all its unprecedented horror, was just one of a long-line of such calamities. Indeed, attempts to destroy Polish culture – and the Polish people themselves – may have only reinforced their sense of identity. As Norman Davies noted in his excellent book, God’s Playground, the untold sacrifices of surviving Poles made their attachment to nationhood and culture stronger than ever. The experience created what was known as the “Generation of Columbuses,” denoting those who came of age during World War II, and whose cultural output was subsequently based on a drastically changedPoland.

To this day, various polls and surveys have shown that the overwhelming majority of Polish people place great importance on World War II to the Polish national identity. Unsurprisingly, many works of art are greatly influenced by the conflict. As Polish historian Tomasz Szarota wrote over a decade ago:

Educational and training programs place special emphasis on the World War II period and on the occupation. Events and individuals connected with the war are ubiquitous on TV, on radio and in the print media. The theme remains an important element in literature and learning, in film, theater and the fine arts. Not to mention that politicians constantly make use of it. Probably no other country marks anniversaries related to the events of World War II so often or so solemnly

Indeed, givenPoland’s tremendous contributions and tribulations, I could see why.

Victory Day

Today is Victory Day, also known simply as the 9th of May, in which Nazi Germany capitulated to Soviet forces, bringing an end to the war in Europe. Known to many Russians as the “Great Patriotic War,” the conflict was won at a tremendous cost: the Eastern Front was by far the largest and bloodiest theatre of World War II, and the deadliest conflict in human history, claiming the lives of over 30 million people (half or more being civilians).

Soviet Russia lost at least 9 million soldiers, a third of them in Axis captivity, and just as many civilians, if not more. Some sources suggest that as many as 17 to 27 million Soviet citizens were killed, while others have calculated that perhaps as many as 20 million Soviet civilians lost their lives. By comparison, the United States lost over a quarter of a million men for the entire war, and fewer than a 3,000 civilians, while the Germans lost 5 million troops on the Eastern Front (and perhaps another 1 to 2 million civilians when the Russians invaded). So many young men were killed that the USSR’s population was nearly 50 million less than it should have been, given the families that these men would’ve had. To this day, many former Soviet states have an imbalance between men and women, having not fully recovered from the scale of dead men.

This is a scale of carnage and death that is difficult to grasp. Think of all the pain and suffering caused by loss of several thousand troops in Iraq and Afghanistan (to say nothing of the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and Afghans). Now amplify that anguish by several million, with nearly 20% of some countries wiped out (namely Russia and Poland). The human mind simply can’t process that level of death. How the Soviets managed to move on and rebuild is beyond me.

And while the Soviet Union came out of World War II victorious, was economically and structurally devastated. Much of the combat took place in or around densely populated areas, and the brutal actions of both sides contributed to massive loss destruction. The property damage inflicted on the USSR by the Axis invasion was estimated at a cost 679 billion rubles, probably a trillion or more dollars by today’s standards. The Siege of a single city, Leningrad, alone cost 1.2 million lives. That fight over another city,Stalingrad, cost a similar number of lives and by some accounts became the single largest battle in history (not to mention a turning point in the entire war).

In all, the combined damage consisted of complete or partial destruction of 1,710 cities and towns, 70,000 villages/hamlets, 2,508 church buildings, 31,850 industrial establishments, 40,000 miles of railroad, 4100 railroad stations, 40,000 hospitals, 84,000 schools, and 43,000 public libraries. Over 20 million sheep, goats, horses, and other cattle were also slaughtered or driven off. Western Russia, as well Ukraine and Belarus, still bear signs of this devastation (in some cases, fragments of bone and metal have been dug up, though that also happens in Western Europe occasionally).

There is no denying that this sacrifice was instrumental in winning the war. The Russians were dealing with around 85% of Axis forces, and German armed forces suffered anywhere from 80 to 93 percent of its military deaths in the Eastern Front. If the USSR had capitulated, Allied forces would’ve had to contend with a lot more resistance. The war would’ve been far bloodier and more drawn out. The Russians nearly bled themselves dry in our place.

But this wasn’t merely the result of bravery and stereotypical Russian resoluteness (though those were certainly factors). The markedly brutal nature of warfare on the Eastern Front was the result of the often willful disregard for human life by both sides: Hitler and Stalin each used terror and mass murder to further their aims, and had no qualms about leading millions to their deaths in the name of victory. This included victimizing their own troops and civilians, through mass deportation, threats of execution for cowardice, and human wave attacks.

And keep in mind that all this is in addition to atrocities carried out by the Nazis, including routine massacres of civilians and the brick-by-brick destruction of entire communities (and their inhabitants). There was simply no parallel to this on the Western Front. According to Time:

“By measure of manpower, duration, territorial reach and casualties, the Eastern Front was as much as four times the scale of the conflict on the Western Front that opened with the Normandy invasion.”

The fact is, as monstrous as Stalin was, and as brutal as the Soviets tended to be (before, during, and after the war), we arguably needed that kind of viciousness on our side in order to win. To put it crudely, Soviet Russia was the bad cop in the war. It took playing Hitler at his own cruel game to put a stop to him, and only the USSR was willing and able to do so. Such is the nature of war. The horror and destruction of the Eastern Front proves exemplifies, in the most extreme example, the fact that most conflicts are hardly black-and-white, nor are they matters of honor and glory. It’s simply about winning in whatever way you can, period. There’s no romanticizing that, although we can certainly do so for the average Soviet soldier who was mixed up in all this, and fought valiantly to the end.

All this stands in contrast to the Allied experience. We Americans could remember the conflict very different, simply because our conduct and memory of the war was much cleaner – we were a democracy fighting a conventional conflict against a fraction of the enemy’s forces. We weren’t occupied and invaded.* We didn’t need to use heartless and self-destructive tactics (nor could we, given the vast differences in the ethics of our political and military leadership).

I’m in no way denigrating our contribution to the war effort, especially considering that we did provide many useful supplies to the beleaguered USSR (at least until they got their own industry back on line). And we pretty much fought the Japanese single handedly (although the Russians and Chinese played a much underrated role in that effort as well). I’m simply noting the obvious fact that World War II couldn’t have been won without the Soviet Union, at least not without investing far more of our own blood, money, and time. It’s very unfortunate that few people outside of Russia seem to realize that – as if the sacrifice itself wasn’t horrific enough, it’s barely even acknowledged.

So while the Russians, as well as other Europeans, celebrate their hard-fought victory over Nazi oppression, there’s a level of somberness that underlies all that glory that we can barely relate with. They’ll keep on romanticizing of course, as humans are wont to do. And indeed, the typical soldier deserves it. But we mustn’t forget just how messy and gray most of these conflicts tend to be. With all that said, my heart goes out to the tens of millions of men, women, and even children who fought and died in the single most horrific conflict in human history.

Poland’s Forgotten Bravery Part III

This is the second to last component of my long-running posts on Poland’s contributions to World War II. You can search for the other ones on my blog, since I can’t seem to hyperlink them for some reason.

Vital Intelligence
Though under-appreciated in many cursory studies of military history, intelligence was has always been to turning the tide of the war, as it did during WWII more than once. Even in defeat,Poland helped the Allies learn valuable information about the Nazis. Its role was far larger than its size and military prowess would have suggested, and it was all the more remarkable considering that it was occupied for all but a single month of the war!

Interestingly, Poland’s contribution to intelligence began years before World War II even broke out. From late 1932 to the eve of the September Campaign, three mathematicians and cryptologists – Marian Rejewski, Henryk Zygalski and Jerzy Różycki – had developed a number of decryption methods and devices while working for the country’s Cipher Bureau in Warsaw. Rejewski’s cyclometer and card catalog, Zygalski’s perforated sheets, Rejewski’s cryptologic bomb, and still others. Together these could crack Germany’s infamous and once-indecipherable “Enigma” device.

In the summer before the war, Poland shared this development to its French and British counterparts, which were unable to crack the Enigma cipher themselves, and would perhaps never have been able to. The intelligence gained from these advancements, codenamed Ultra, ended up being extremely valuable to the Allied war effort (although the exact importance of this evidence is disputed, most sources agree it helped the course of the war).

Intelligence operations continued throughout the occupation as well. AK, the Polish Home Army, was instrumental in helping the allies locate and destroy a rocket facility located at Peenemünde, in 1943. They supplied intelligence to the Soviets about German troop movements into their territory. Perhaps their most well-known contribution was the provision of information on Germany’s top secret V-1 and V-2 rockets, which AK even managed to collect parts of. The subsequent analysis of these powerful weapons proved vital to developing Allied defenses against the V-2 (see Operation Most III).

In fact, until 1942 most ofBritain’s intelligence concerning Germany came from the AK reports, and until the very end, the Home Army would remainBritain’s main source of intelligence for all of Central and Eastern Europe. As early as 1940, Polish agents such as Witold Pilecki infiltrated German concentration camps, includingAuschwitz, and exposed Nazi atrocities to the world.

In July 1941 Mieczysław Słowikowski, under the codename “Rygor” (Polish for rigor) set up “Agency Africa,” which developed into one of the war’s most successful and prominent intelligence organizations. The information gathered by the Agency helped the Allies execute Operation Torch, the 1942 amphibious landings inNorth Africa that were the first large-scale assaults of their kind thus far. The success of this operation paved the way for the Italian Campaign, in which Polish forces would also serve with distinction (to be discussed later).

Indeed, Polish intelligence agents were present in every European country, whether occupied or neutral. The Poles even managed to run one of the largest intelligence networks within Nazi Germany itself. Subsequently, of all the reports received by the British from continental Europe, 43% came from Polish sources. Many Poles also served with distinction in Allied intelligence services, the most well-known of them being the reputable Krystyna Skarbek (aka “Christine Granville”) of theUK’s Special Operations Executive.

The Free Polish Forces
As I’ve clearly established,Poland continued fighting Nazi Germany in some form or another throughout the remainder of the war. But this wasn’t limited to insurgency, subterfuge, and spying (as vital as all those activities were). Believe it or not,Poland managed to maintain a large and independently operating military from the very moment the nation fell. It came to be one of the largest and more distinguished armed groups in the entire war.

After the country’s defeat in 1939, the Polish Government-in- Exile quickly organized a new army in France that consisted of about 80,000 men who had fled the country to continue the fight. In 1940 a Polish brigade fought in the Battle of Narvik in Norway, two Polish divisions took part in the defense of France, while more Polish forces were being assembled during the course of the French campaign. A Polish brigade was even formed in French-controlledSyria, to which many Polish troops had escaped to. The Polish Air Force had also shifted toFrance comprising 86 aircraft in four squadrons.

Unfortunately, despite their best efforts, Francecapitulated, with 6,000 Poles having been killed and another 13,000 captured. But the stubborn Poles once again tried to keep on fighting. General Władysław Sikorski,Poland’s commander-in-chief and prime minister, was evacuated many Polish troops to theUK. In 1941, Polish government-in-exile convinced the beleaguered Soviets (who had just been invaded) to release Polish citizens, from which emerged an army numbering around 75,000 troops. This force eventually joined the British 8th army, where it became the Polish II Corps.

The Polish armed forces in the western front came under British command and eventually numbered 165,000 towards the end of 1944, including about 20,000 personnel in the Polish Air Force and 3,000 in the Polish Navy. By the very end of the war, Polish forces totaled close to 230,000, not including the other 200,000 or so that served on the Eastern Front.

Polish Air Force
As I noted before, the Polish Air Force put up a pretty decent fight in the Battle for Poland. Despite being outnumbered and outmatched (despite their relatively high standard of pilot training for the time), the air force remained active up to the second week of the campaign, managing to inflict significant damage on the Luftwaffe, which lost 285 aircraft to the Pole’s 333 (with an additional 279 damaged).

Like the most of the remaining Polish military, pilots fled the country after it was defeated to continue the fight elsewhere, namely France. It’s a little-known fact that the Polish Air Force participated in the Battle of France as one independent fighter squadron, GC 1/145, as well as through several small units attached to French squadrons. In total, 133 pilots achieved 53-57 victories at a loss of 8 men, making up nearly 8% of allied victories – not bad given the size and relative lack of training. Polish Air Forces in France and Great Britain

As per their habit, the Poles kept the fight going every time they were pushed back: once Francefell, their air force shifted its operations to the UK, which was to be the final bulwark against Nazi domination of Europe. Polish pilots fought with considerable distinction in the crucial Battle of Britain: for example, the famed Polish 303 Fighter Squadron claimed the highest number of kills of any Allied squadron.

It should be noted that from the very beginning of the war, the Royal Air Force (RAF) had welcomed foreign pilots to shore up the heavy losses of British pilots. In the summer of 1940, the Polish Government in Exile signed an agreement with the British Government to reestablish a Polish Army and Polish Air Force in theUnited Kingdom. The first two (of an eventual ten) Polish fighter squadrons went into action just a couple of months later.

Aside from the 303, three other Polish squadrons eventually took part in the Battle of Britain: the 300 and 301 Bomber Squadrons and the 302 Fighter Squadrons. These groups comprised a total of 89 Polish pilots, in addition to more than 50 Poles that fought under British command, leading to a total of 145 Polish pilots defending theUK. Though originally outmatched in terms of skill, Polish pilots were by then one of the most experienced in the battle, most of them having already fought in the first two major battles of the war.

The 303 Squadron claimed took down 126 enemy air craft, the highest number of any fighter squadron engaged defending theUK – even though it was one of the latest to join the effort. In fact, despite constituting only 5% of the pilots active during the Battle of Britain, Poles were responsible for 12% of the total victories. They punched far above their weight level.

The Polish Air Force continued to fight beyond the UK, fighting in Tunisiain 1943 (look up the Polish Fighting Team, aka “Skalski’s Circus”) and participating in raids onGermany for the duration of the war. In the second half of 1941 and early 1942, around 19,400 pilots were serving with the British, and Polish bomber squadrons comprised a sixth of the RAF’s bombers, though they later suffered heavy losses – being a bomber was one of the riskiest positions in the war, and the Poles lost 929 pilots. Ultimately, Polish fighter claimed 629 kills by the end of the war.

The Polish Navy
I feel that Navies in general get short thrift in the European Theater of the war, and underrated Poland would of course be no exception. Indeed, its navy wasn’t much to look at, given that the country was almost landlocked. Subsequently, the Poles rightly anticipated that the fighting would occur mostly on the ground and in the air, and there was no reason to risk letting the ships get taken over in the event of defeat. So just before the war, three destroyers, the bulk of the Polish Navy’s capital ships, were sent for safety to the British Isles.

Once there, however, they continued the trend of their air and land counterparts, fighting alongside the Royal Navy for the duration of the conflict. The Polish Navy grew considerably, having been given command of several British, cruisers, submarines, and other ships that would otherwise been left in dry dock due to an initial lack of skilled British personnel to operate them. It eventually numbered 27 ships, ranging from destroyers to torpedo boats.

Like the rest of the Polish forces, the navy fought with great distinction and took part in many vital operations, most famously in efforts to sink the great German battleship, Bismarck. It sailed a total of 1.2 million nautical miles, escorted 787 convoys, conducted 1,162 patrols and combat operations, sank 53 Axis ships, damaged 24 more, and shot down 20 aircraft. Of the over 4,000 Poles who served with the navy, 450 lost their lives. Note that none of this includes the important contributions of the Polish Merchant Navy.

Poland’s Forgotten Bravery: Part II

In my previous installment – which you could find here – I gave an introduction to Poland’s performance at the start of the World War II, particularly by dispelling some pervasive myths about their martial ability. This section will explore what happened once the Poles fell. It’s unfortunate that occupied countries are treated as having passively absorbed in the Nazi empire, even though many continued the fight as intensively as any independent nation – with Poland at the forefront.

Protecting the Jews
Jews have a long and rich history in Poland, which until World War II probably hosted the largest Jewish population in the world, at 3 million. While anti-Semitism existed among the Polish people, as it did nearly everywhere, Jews had it comparatively better than elsewhere in the world (indeed, throughout history the Poles were markedly tolerant by European standards, which are why their Jewish population was so large to begin with). But in any case, the Holocaust became a grim test of Polish attitudes towards its Jewry.

Numerous Poles risked their lives to save their Jewish neighbors. This was despite the fact that Germany imposed uniquely harsh laws against granting any sort of aid to any Jew: an entire family would be killed if just one member was caught doing so much as giving bread or water to a Jew on the street. It’s believed that tens of thousands of Poles lost their lives for this reason.

Indeed, Poland was unique among occupied countries in that it established a formal organization specifically aimed to help the Jewish people: Żegota, or “Council for Aid to Jews”. The group was politically and financially supported by the Government-in-Exile, and among its many activities, it provided shelter, food, medicine, money, and false documents for Jews across the country. The most well-known example is that of Irena Sendler, who allegedly saved around 2,500 Jewish children with the help of Polish families.

Individual Poles also did their part, and there are innumerable stories of their bravery and sacrifice. In fact, most Polish Jews were saved by people unconnected to any formal organization like Zegota; the number of those saved could range from 40,000 to 120,000. Of all those recognized as the Righteous Among the Nations (an award given by the State of Israel to Gentiles who saved Jews from extermination during the Holocaust), Poles made up the largest number by a considerable margin: so far, 6,266 Polish men and women have been given the award, representing 25 percent of all recipients (the number is still high even when adjusting for population).

To be sure, as one helpful Polish commentator  pointed out below, the Polish-Jewish relationship was far less rosy than I may be suggesting. Anti-Semitism may have been less acute than in other parts of the world, but that doesn’t say much, given the pervasiveness of bigotry towards Jews. Many Poles were complicit in the exploitation, arrest, and murder of Polish Jews, and the use of blackmail against hiding Jews was not uncommon. It was a complex and often tragic situation, but that makes it all the more warranted to focus on where humanity excelled.

The Polish Resistance
We have a tendency to see wars as ending the moment a country capitulates or is occupied. Despite centuries of military history giving lie to this seemingly intuitive assumption, it remains a misconception to this day (consider the recent examples of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars).

But many wars are arguably decided by the response of “defeated” states, which often chip away at the manpower, supplies, and political will of their victorious occupiers. Many a successful ruler has swept through nation after nation, only to see their subsequent empire fall apart shortly after. Nazi Germany was no exception.

Most Americans know only of the French Resistance, which has become an iconic example of insurgency against Nazi forces. However, every occupied state had a resistance movement of some kind, and many of the largest and most effective– not only Poland’s, but also Yugoslavia’s and the Soviet Union’s – are forgotten about.

As I discussed before, the Polish Resistance Movement was probably the largest and most sophisticated of it’s time, helped by the fact that it was often led (albeit nonexclusively) by a well-organized underground state. It also included a full-fledged army, the Armia Krajowa (abbreviated AK), which numbered some 400,000 soldiers at its peak, not including many more sympathizers and irregulars. The AK functioned like any military force, AK coordinating its operations with the Polish Government in Exile.

Originally, its main focus was on sabotage, tactical diversion, and intelligence gathering. Even during this time, however, it carried out thousands of raids and bombings, initiated spying rings, and clashed with German police and military. Close to 7,000 supply trains were damaged, over 4,000 army vehicles were damaged or destroyed, and tens of thousands of military equipment being built by Polish laborers were purposefully constructed with defects. In also provided intelligence and advance warning to the Soviets ahead of the Nazi invasion of 1941.

In 1943, it AK lead a nationwide uprising known as Operation Tempest, which included the famous Warsaw Uprising I discussed before. Though it was viciously quelled, the fighting continued until the very end of the war: German losses to the AK and other Polish partisans began to average 850 to 1,750 every month, and even early on the resistance would claim a few hundred occupiers per month.

As a result, the Third Reich had to devote a substantial part of its military forces to keep Poland under control, draining its resources from elsewhere (which was part of the Polish resistance’s objectives). Even at its lowest point, during the first month of occupation, the Nazis maintained a total of 630,000 soldiers, police officers, and SS units in the country; towards the end of the war, this force had grown to over 1 million.