Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The day we knew - Japan's war atrocities



Seventy-one years ago today, the headlines across the United States screamed of the brutality of Imperial Japan. Prisoners, civilians, women, children had been tortured, starved, and slaughtered in the Philippines. The rumors of unimaginable savagery toward its captive peoples had all proved true.

On January 28, 1944, the world first learned about the Bataan Death March (April 1942) and the horrors endured by the American and Filipino POWs of Japan. Invading Japanese forces showed no mercy, allowing their prisoners to die by the thousands from savagery, starvation, and disease.

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Newspapers and newsreels told the stories of three American escapees from a Japanese POW camp in the Philippines who had survived the Death March the Davao Prison Camp. Never before had the public been allowed to hear of the extent of Japanese atrocities and the inhumanity of their regime. Washington had kept the story from the public, fearing that the Japanese would use it as an excuse to end efforts to aid the POWs or worse.

Congressman and editors cursed Churchill and Roosevelt for advocating a Europe First strategy that put aside the war in Asia in favor of focusing on Hitler in the West. The result was the smashing of American air and sea power in Asia, the largest defeat in US military history, and the unfathomable deaths of thousands of Americans both military and civilian in the Pacific.

The truth aroused such fury in the American public that the government’s Europe First policy was imperiled. On January 29th at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, Margaret Truman, Missouri senator Harry Truman’s daughter, expressed the feelings of her fellow Americans when she said as she christened the battleship USS Missouri, “May this great ship be an avenger to the barbarians who wantonly slaughtered the heroes of Bataan.” *

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More war bonds were sold in January and February 1944 than in any period of the war. The graphic description of the Death March and the POW camps was serialized by the Chicago Tribune and made into a book. The hero of the story, Texas native and US Army Air Corps William Dyess who organized the escape, unfortunately died December 1943 in a plane crash barely a month before the public release of his story.

The public learned that American and Filipino forces fought from an untenable position until formally surrendering to the Japanese on April 9. The Japanese immediately began to march some 76,000 prisoners (12,000 Americans, the remainder Filipinos) northward into captivity along a 65-mile route of death.

Japanese butchery, disease, exposure to the blazing sun, lack of food, and lack of water took the lives of approximately 5,200 Americans and Filipinos along the way. Many prisoners were bayoneted, shot, beheaded or just left to die on the side of the road. "A Japanese soldier took my canteen, gave the water to a horse, and threw the canteen away," reported one escapee. "The stronger were not permitted to help the weaker. We then would hear shots behind us." The Japanese forced the prisoners to sit for hours in the hot sun without water. "Many of us went crazy and several died."

The ordeal lasted five days for some and up to twelve days for others. Although the Japanese were unprepared for the large number of prisoners in their care, the root of the brutality lay in the Japanese attitude that a soldier should die before surrender. A warrior's surrender meant the forfeiture of all rights to treatment as a human being.

This was the "first murder" Captain William Dyess said he witnessed:
"The victim, an air force captain, was being searched by a three-star private. Standing by was a Jap commissioned officer, hand on sword hilt. These men were nothing like the toothy, bespectacled runts whose photographs are familiar to most newspaper readers. They were cruel of face, stalwart, and tall. 
'The private a little squirt, was going through the captain's pockets. All at once he stopped and sucked in his breath with a hissing sound. He had found some Jap yen.' 
'He held these out, ducking his head and sucking in his breath to attract notice. The big Jap looked at the money. Without a word he grabbed the captain by the shoulder and shoved him down to his knees. He pulled the sword out of the scabbard and raised it high over his head, holding it with both hands. The private skipped to one side.' 
'Before we could grasp what was happening, the black-faced giant had swung his sword. I remember how the sun flashed on it. There was a swish and a kind of chopping thud, like a cleaver going through beef'. 
'The captain's head seemed to jump off his 'shoulders. It hit the ground in front of him and went rolling crazily from side to side between the lines of prisoners.' 
'The body fell forward. I have seen wounds, but never such a gush of. blood as this. The heart continued to pump for a few seconds and at each beat there was another great spurt of blood. The white dust around our feet was turned into crimson mud. I saw the hands were opening and closing spasmodically. Then I looked away.' 
'When I looked again the big Jap had put up his sword and was strolling off. The runt who had found the yen was putting them into his pocket. He helped himself to the captain's possessions.'
You can read here THE DYESS STORY: The Eye-Witness Account of the DEATH MARCH FROM BATAAN and the Narrative of Experiences in Japanese Prison Camps and of Eventual Escape

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Tom Uren an Australian hero: In Memoriam

Tom Uren, a man of letters: POW, MP, AC

January 27, 2015

''I'VE been hit with open hands, closed fists, pieces of wood, iron bars and bamboo about two inches in diameter,'' Tom Uren says.


He was hardly more than a boy then- a prisoner-of-war and slave of the Japanese in his early 20s on the Burma-Thai railway.

But Tom Uren would take many more hits as his long, often controversial life wore on, and he rolled with them all and refused to lie down.

Today, aged 91, with most of his opponents fallen away - and a lot of them forgiven by him, including the Japanese - he will receive the highest honour his nation can bestow on a civilian: Companion in the General Division of the Order of Australia.

Others to be so honoured today include former Howard government foreign affairs minister Alexander Downer, astrophysicist and joint Nobel prize winner Professor Brian Schmidt of the Australian National University's Mount Stromlo Observatory, and the director of the Australian Centre for Christianity and Culture in Canberra, the Reverend Professor James Mitchell Haire.
Australia mourns the passing of the Honourable Tom Uren AC. He was a prisoner of war, a parliamentarian, a minister, a deputy leader of his party and served our country throughout his adult life.He was an aspiring boxer and outstanding athlete who joined the army at the age of 20 and deployed to Timor.He spent his 21st birthday – and the following three – as a prisoner of war. He suffered the brutality of the Burma-Thai Railway and he witnessed from afar the atomic bomb on Nagasaki.Despite these experiences, he rejected hatred. -- Prime Minister Tony Abbott
Mr Uren's award states it is for ''eminent service to the community, particularly through contributions to the welfare of veterans, improved medical education in Vietnam and the preservation of sites of heritage and environmental significance".

All true, but it's an inadequate summation of the life of the Balmain-born man who, impoverished, left school at 13 years and seven months.

He fought for the heavyweight boxing championship of Australia at 19 (and lost), marched into the hell of the Burma-Thai railway at 21, served the Labor Party as member for the Sydney electorate of Reid for 32 years, became his party's deputy leader and a cabinet minister in the Whitlam government and later found himself consigned to the junior ministry for four years in the Hawke government.

As a whip-thin prisoner shipped from Thailand to Japan to labour in a copper smelter, he watched the sky discolour when the Fat Man atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. [He was at Omuta, Fukuoka 17 as a slave laborer for Mitsui Mining.]

It stopped the war and freed him, but he became one of Australia's leading anti-nuclear campaigners. The Japanese, he insists, were as much victims of militarism and fascism as anyone else.

Long a man of the Left, Mr Uren's early excursions into the peace movement were so passionate that ASIO believed he was taking his instructions from the Soviets. When newspapers published the libel, he sued and eventually won enough for two holiday homes, which he took delight in calling the ''Fairfax Retreat '' in the bush and the ''Packer Lodge'' on the New South Wales south coast.

His insistence in marching against the Vietnam War earned him several stretches in jails, including Sydney's Long Bay and Brisbane's Boggo Road. Mr Uren was appalled by the dehumanising effect of the old jails, and used his influence to get at least one of his fellow prisoners a job in Canberra.

''So many people are crook on their fellows, but I just look for the love in people,'' he says.

Often Mr Uren found himself talking, he says ''to two-and-a-half dogs". He was one of the early proponents of self-determination for the East Timorese, but no one seemed interested. He simply kept at it until it became mainstream.

The defining period of his life was the Burma-Thai railway. Taken prisoner on Timor aged 20, he marched into his first prison camp on the railway aged 21.

Always a big, strong man, he became known for his willingness to put his body between furious Japanese guards and his comrades, figuring he could take the beating that might kill a mate weakened by hunger, disease and slaving.

It was the influence of the camp commander, Lieutenant-Colonel Edward ''Weary'' Dunlop, that stayed with him. Colonel Dunlop, a surgeon, taxed fellow officers to build a small bank to buy medical supplies and food, saving the lives of many hundreds of men, and he ensured that the strong looked after the weak, the young looked after the old and the relatively healthy cared for the sick.

It was, Mr Uren says, collectivism - a principle he adopted for life and which during the Cold War found him branded a communist, though he never was.

He never forgot his fellow POW survivors, and fought a battle over 23 years to grant them extra benefits, arguing that they died younger and suffered greater illness than other returned servicemen. In 2011, Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced that all remaining POWs would receive an extra $500 a fortnight.

Of the 22,000 Australian prisoners of the Japanese, only some 400 are alive now, but Mr Uren said Ms Gillard's action displayed compassion and justice, which he valued above all else.

And his elevation to Companion of the Order of Australia?


''I just want to thank my fellow Australians for their support, their warmth and their love in my evergreen years,'' he says.

Reprinted from The Sydney Morning Herald by Tony Wright

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Sourcing Japanese Denier History

Denying cannibalism by Japanese troops is popular trope used by Japan's Rightwingers to discredit the book and film Unbroken. The net-uyoku have accused the author of Unbroken of spreading a lie about Japanese having a “custom” of cannibalism. They proudly declare that Japan has no "food culture" of cannibalism, thus it is simply untrue that Imperial Japanese soldiers and sailors consumed POWs out of hunger or triumph. This denial is at the heart of the online petition to ban the movie in Japan. However, neither the book nor the movie depict acts of cannibalism.

Unbroken is a biography of Olympian and former American POW of Japan Louis Zamperini. The author, Laura Hillenbrand, tries to capture in one paragraph (p 315), the litany of abuses heaped upon those captured by the Japanese. One clause in one sentence refers to "eaten alive in ritual acts of cannibalism." Nowhere else is this mentioned.

The book has not been translated into Japanese nor has the film been shown in Japan. Thus, what is the source of this misperception?

It seems that it can be traced to an one-word mistranslation in a book review of Unbroken in Wedge, a conservative magazine published by a subsidiary of JR Central [see below]. The honorary chairman of JR Central is Yoshiyuki Kasai and the then-adviser to the magazine and JR Central was Tomohiko Taniguchi. Kasai is a confidante of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and lead promoter of hi-speed rail in the United States. Taniguchi is in charge of the government's international public relations. 

Neither man has moved to clear up this misunderstanding. Both are deeply concerned with Japan's global public image. The result is that the campaign  against Unbroken is intensifying and in December a book was published embellishing the false notion that Unbroken is part of a campaign to dishonor Japan. This view is part of a greater ideology that the war crimes trials were based of falsified information and the product of victor's justice.

As many readers of this blog know, JR Central now owns the railcar manufacturer Nippon Sharyo, a company that used American and Allied POWs as slave labor at its factory in Narumi. A founder of the American Defenders of Bataan and Corregidor, Sam Moody, was tortured at the camp. JR Central is vying for high speed rail contracts in Texas and the East Coast. Nippon Sharyo will be part of these bids as well as bids by JR East for this year's high speed rail contracts in California.

The reports of cannibalism are true. Officers were prosecuted in war crimes trials and hanged. Imperial Japan's excessive abuse of its military and civilian prisoners is also true.

The following, for scholarly understanding and analysis, is a provisional, annotated translation of the Wedge article that propagated the campaign against Unbroken.

Very Popular Book In U.S.A. Stirs-up Anti-Japan Feelings
-- Japanese Military's Abuse of POWs, Why Bring It Up Now?

Wedge Magazine, February 20, 2011
By Soichiro MORIKAWA -- Journalist who has experience of living in New York during the time of IT Bubble
Link: 反日感情をあおる本が米国で大人気

* * * * * * * * * *
COLUMN: What best-seller books are being read in America? Learn about trends/signs of the times. You think you know, but may not really know, the true state of affairs in America -- and this is essential for thinking about Japan.
* * * * * * * * * *

"UNBROKEN", by Laura Hillenbrand, published by Random House. $27.00

A non-fiction book which describes the true story, in great detail, how a Japanese soldier abused a U.S. POW during World War II. It is unmistakably a book which will certainly heighten anti-Japanese feelings in America, and is being widely-read in the U.S. It is a special category book listed in the New York Times weekly non-fiction bestseller list, and has ranked in the top-five for thirteen-straight weeks. Most recently it dropped to number two, but for six weeks before that it was at the top of the list.

-- JAPANESE MILITARY'S ABUSE OF POWS

Louis Zamperini, is currently a healthy 93-year-old American man of Italian ancestry. The book follows/describes the misfortunes he experienced during his lifetime -- in particular how he had to deal with inhumane treatment as a POW held by the Imperial Japanese military.

As a young 19-year-old middle-distance runner, he raced in the 1936 Berlin Olympics as part of the U.S.A.'s team. He did not win a medal, but his hard-running style drew the attention of Adolf Hitler, who was watching from the stands -- and there is an anecdote that later on,

Hitler shook Zamperini's hand.

Thereafter, Zamperini continued to train as a runner, hoping to compete in teh 1940 Olympics, which were schedule to be held in Tokyo -- but due to the Japan-China War, those games were postponed, and he joined the U.S. Army Air Force. However, bad luck later struck when his aircraft developed engine trouble and it crashed. He eventually drifted ashore on Kwajalein Island, located in the Marshall Islands, about 3,900 KM southwest of Honolulu, Hawaii.

That was when Zamperini became a POW of the Japanese military, in a place which was called "Execution Island." Zamperini was not executed, once the Japanese military realized he was an Olympic athlete, and he was sent bakc to the mainland Japan.

After that, we had to survive being a POW, who was moved from place-to-place in camps at Ofuna, Omori, and Naoetsu, and eventually returned alive to America in August 1945. The book describes, in a cool/factual style, the numerous cases/examples of maltreatment Zamperini received while in the POW camps -- and, conversely, this really causes the image of the cruel Japanese soldiers to vividly emerge.

In particular, the most involved/powerful descriptions of abuse and cruelty are those which cover the actions of Japanese Corporal Mutsuhiro Watanabe, who came to be called "The Bird." The book calls Watanabe a sadist, who seemed to derive sexual pleasure feelings from punishing/tormenting the POWs. For example, the following is one example of innumerable POW-abuse scenes which
are written in the book:

--"THE BIRD," SADISTIC WATANABE

"The Bird swung the belt backward, with the buckle on the loose end, and then whipped it around himself and forward, as if he were performing a hammer throw. The buckle rammed into Louie’s left temple and ear. Louie felt as if he had been shot in the head. Though he had resolved never to let the Bird knock him down, the power of blow, and the explosive pain that followed, overawed everything in him. His legs seemed to liquefy, and he went down. The room spun." (page 251)

Corporal Watanabe, aka "The Bird", made Zamperini his personal enemy, and almost every day he would beat Zamperini, and would also prevent him from receiving adequate amounts of food. The book also states that Japanese soldiers would seize food from International Red Cross relief packages, and prevent distribution of such food to the POWs.

The book further describes, using statistical information, to show that Japan's treatment of POWs was clearly much worse and cruel than Nazi Germany.

"In its rampage over the east, Japan had brought atrocity and death on a scale that staggers the imagination. In the midst of it were the prisoners of war. Japan held some 132,000 POWs from America, Britain, Canada, New Zealand, Holland, and Australia. Of those, nearly 36,000 died, more than one in every four. Americans fared particularly badly; of the 34,648 Americans held by Japan, 12,935? more than 37 percent?died. By comparison, only 1 percent of Americans held by the Nazis and Italians died." (pages 314-315)

POWs were subjected to especially cruel treatment, supposedly, as described in the following passage...

"Thousands of other POWs were beaten, burned, stabbed, or clubbed to death, shot, beheaded, killed during medical experiments, or eaten alive in ritual acts of cannibalism. And as a result of being fed grossly inadequate and befouled food and water, thousands more died of starvation and easily preventable diseases." (page 315)

** TRANSLATOR'S NOTE: Here Mr. Morikawa (mis)translated the phrase "ritual acts of cannibalism" as hito-kui fushu de-- he used the word fushu for :ritual", but, fushu's meaning is customary, or common practice -- which does not really match the nuance of ritual.**

The book then tries to explain why the Japanese military's abuse of POWs occurred so routinely/commonly. As is shown in the following quote, the cause can be seen from one aspect of the Japanese military's unique "culture": "In the Japanese military of that era, corporal punishment was routine practice. “Iron must be beaten while it’s hot; soldiers must be beaten while they’re fresh” was a saying among servicemen. “No strong soldiers,” went another, “are made without beatings.” For all Japanese soldiers, especially low-ranking ones, beating was inescapable, often a daily event." (page 194)

Since Japanese soldiers themselves routinely experienced being beaten, their resentment/anger was thereafter directed at the POWs.

This writer, Morikawa, at the time of reading this section of the book, recalled reading the war novel: "The Human Condition", by Junpei Gomikawa, which described the irrational/unreasonable aspects of the army, and I found myself nodding in agreement with what was written about the reality/true nature of the Japanese military in UNBROKEN.

-- JUSTIFICATION OF THE A-BOMBINGS

However, I cannot accept the logic deployed by the book that: since POWs were abused/treated cruelly, therefore, the large-scale bombings of Tokyo and other cities, and the A-bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were unavoidable.

For example, the book tells of a newly-released POW, right after the end of the war, travelling by train through central Hiroshima after the dropping of the a-bomb, and looking at the scene he said:

“Nothing! It was beautiful.”

The American POW felt it was due to the A-bombings that he was able to meet/reach the end of the war, where he were released from captivity. So this is the deep emotion he had when he saw devastated nothingness of the central explosion area -- and to him it looked beautiful. The book records the ex-POW's comment using the following expression:

“I know it’s not right to say it was beautiful, because it really wasn’t. But I believed the end probably justified the means.” (p320)

-- IS JAPAN'S DIPLOMACY COPING/ABLE TO DEAL WITH THIS BESTSELLER?

The typical thinking/logic of America's conservative class can be seen in the assertion that the A-bombings were unavoidable actions, which were required to end the war. While UNBROKEN goes into great detail explaining the abuse of POWs by Japanese soldiers, it does not mention at all that hundreds of thousands of civilians were killed by the A-bombings. The following passage from the book is written as if to say that, from the start, the Japanese government was really responsible for the victims of the A-bombings:

"That same night, B-29s showered leaflets over thirty-five Japanese cities, warning civilians of coming bombings and urging them to evacuate. The Japanese government ordered civilians to turn the leaflets in to authorities, forbade them from sharing the warnings with others, and arrested anyone with leaflets in their possession. Among the cities listed on the leaflets were Hiroshima and Nagasaki." (page 297)

To be honest, this writer, Morikawa, had no previous knowledge about the issue of how Japan handled/treated POWs during the Second World War. So, I had numerous confused/bewildered thoughts as I read UNBROKEN. I also have no ability to judge/verify the statistical information which was cited in the book.

Furthermore, what I cannot understand is why this book was published at this time -- and, beyond that, that fact of how it has become a top best-seller.

Japanese should take notice/be aware that such a book is selling well in America. I think it would be wise for Japan's MOFA to read and analyze the contents of UNBROKEN, and then develop a countermeasures plan as part of a diplomatic strategy to improve the image of Japan.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

A POW views Unbroken

Fukuoka #17 Omuta
Lester Tenney, Past National Commander of the American Defenders of Bataan and Corregidor (ADBC) has both read the book and seen the movie Unbroken. He is a survivor of the Bataan Death March, a Hellship, and Fukuoka #17 Omuta where he was a slave coal miner for Mitsui. Below is his reaction.

The movie Unbroken will be seen in Japan only when the Japanese in authority decides not to rewrite history.  Forgetting about one's past is like a narcotic: it dulls the senses and relieves the pain of knowing you’ve committed a wrong.

The book, and ultimately the movie Unbroken, once again verifies that society cannot escape history. The reality of what happened remains with us in the present and follows us into the future. History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be un-lived, but when faced with courage, the past need not be lived that way again.

I have often been asked about the apology given to us by the Japanese government in 2009. I reply that apologies are very important. That is, if they are honest and sincere. A meaningless apology, so often expressed, is like a second insult. I do believe the apology given by Japan's Ambassador to the United States Ichiro Fujisaki and the one given to the POW’s in 2010 by the Minister of Foreign Affairs was sincere and I appreciated the words and the desire to be recorded.

We POWs, however, have been hurt not just by Imperial Japanese soldiers, but also by employees of those Japanese businesses that used and abused us as POWs. We were slave laborers for the likes of Mitsui, Mitsubishi, Kawasaki, Hitachi, Sumitomo, and Nippon Sharyo. And we want to be healed. And that can be done only with a sincere apology.

The movie Unbroken is bringing forward our story of survival and search for justice and truth.  The abuse and enslavement of American and Allied POWs did happen. If honor is important to today's Japanese, then the full and truthful story must be brought to a public forum. It can no longer be hidden.

NHK, Japan's National Broadcasting Company (similar to our PBS) called me and wanted to take me to see the movie. A producer, cameraman, and writer came to my home on December 27th and took my wife and me to a screening of Unbroken. They interviewed me right outside the theater, within minutes after we left the show. 

To be sure, I watched the movie with different reasons than most other movie-goers. My objective was to see whether the movie honestly portrayed being a POW of Japan. I told the NHK journalists that I expected a lot from the film. Thus, my first impressions, on a scale of 1 to 10, I gave the overall picture a 4; the screenwriting a 6, the acting an 8; and the directing a 3.

I found it strange that of all the POWs only one was picked out regularly to be beaten or tortured and that there was only one abusive guard (the Bird). That was not the way it was in the camp that I was in. Arbitrary and excessive punishments to all were the rule. Guards were mean, petty, capricious, and psychotic. And the war crimes records for the camps in which Mr. Zamperini was held also noted the widespread abuse. I also found odd the absence of bugs, vermin, and the deathly ill. And never was it clear how little the POWs were fed, clothed, housed, or given medical care.

When the NHK team said goodbye, I said to them that I was surprised by the interest in the movie  and book as I had not found many people curious about the history of the POWs. I wondered how many viewers understood the enormity of a near 40% death rate among the Americans held in Japanese POW camps. The movie did not capture the degradation of spirit and body that took place. Everyday was a desperate effort to survive for every prisoner, not just one.

In parting, I told the Japanese
Maybe now you can see why we POWs say 'dying is easy; it's the living that’s hard'. We survivors cannot give you any hard facts as to why we survived and others died. We keep asking ourselves, 'why me God, why me Why did I survive?' And it is this burden that has proved worse than all the abuse and torture inflicted upon us by the countless "Birds" that populated the camps. The Bird was not unusual, however, surviving was and our goal, despite all The Birds was survival.
Although the movie was not all that I wanted or expected, it does succeed in ensuring that the struggle for survival endured by all American POWs of Japan is unforgotten.

Sunday, January 04, 2015

Louis Zamperini an inspiration in life and death

Louis Zamperini, Olympian and former POW of Japan who died in July 2014, remained the Grand Marshal of the Tournament of Roses 126th Rose Parade presented by the Japanese company Honda. The theme was inspiring stories.

Saturday, January 03, 2015

Misunderstanding World War II

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World War II: A Very Short Introduction

BY GERHARD L. WEINBERG

First published in the Oxford University Press Blog January 2, 2015.

The Second World War affected me quite directly, when along with the other students of the boarding school in Swanage on the south coast of England I spent lots of time in the air raid shelter in the summer of 1940. A large German bomb dropped into the school grounds fortunately did not explode so that we survived. To process for entry into the United States, I then had to go to London and thus experienced the beginnings of the Blitz before crossing the Atlantic in September. Perhaps this experience had some influence on my deciding to write on the origins and course of the Second World War.

Over the years, there have been four trends in the writing on that conflict that seemed and still seem defective to me. One has been the tendency to overlook the fact that the earth is round. The Axis Powers made the huge mistake of failing to engage this fact during the war and never coordinated their strategies accordingly, and too many have followed this bad example in looking at the conflict in retrospect. Events in Europe, North Africa, and the Pacific often influenced each other, and it has always seemed to me that it was the ability of Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt to engage the global reality that made a significant contribution to the victory of the Allies.

A second element in distortions of the war has been the influence of mendacious memoirs of German generals and diplomats, especially those translated into English. The enthusiasm of Germany’s higher commanders for Adolf Hitler and his projects vanished in the postwar years as they blamed him for whatever went wrong, imagined that it was cold and snowed only on the German army in Russia, and evaded their own involvement in massive atrocities against Jews and vast numbers of other civilians. They were happy to accept bribes, decorations, and promotions from the leader they adored; but in an interesting reversal of their fakery after the First World War, when they blamed defeat on an imaginary “stab-in-the-back,” this time they blamed their defeat on the man at the top. Nothing in their memoirs can be believed unless substantiated by contemporary evidence.

A third contribution to misunderstanding of the great conflict comes from an all too frequent neglect of the massive sources that have become available in recent decades. It is much easier to manufacture fairy tales at home and in a library than to dig through the enormous masses of paper in archives. A simple but important example relates to the dropping of two atomic bombs on Japan. One can always dream up alternative scenarios, but working through the mass of intercepted and decoded Japanese messages is indeed tedious work. It does, however, lead to the detailed recommendation of the Japanese ambassador in Moscow in the summer of 1945 urging surrender rather than following the German example of fighting to the bitter end, and to the reply from Tokyo thanking him for his advice and telling him that the governing council had discussed and unanimously rejected it

A fourth type of misunderstanding comes from a failure to recognize the purpose of the war Germany initiated. Hitler did not go to war because the French refused to let him visit the Eiffel tower, invade the Soviet Union because Joseph Stalin would not let the German Labor Front place a “Strength through Joy” cruise ship on the Caspian Sea, or have a murder commando attached to the headquarters of Erwin Rommel in Egypt in the summer of 1942 to dismantle one of the pyramids for erection near Berlin renamed “Germania.” The purpose of the war was not, like most prior wars, for adjacent territory, more colonies, bases, status, resources, and influence. It was for a demographic revolution on the globe of which the extermination of all Jews was one facet in the creation of a world inhabited solely by Germanic and allegedly similar peoples. Ironically it was the failure of Germany’s major allies to understand this concept that led them over and over again, beginning in late 1941, to urge Hitler to make peace with the Soviet Union and concentrate on crushing Great Britain and the United States. World War II was fundamentally different from World War I and earlier conflicts. If we are ever to understand it, we need to look for something other than the number popularly attached to it.


Born in Hanover, Germany in 1928, Gerhard L. Weinberg spent from 1939 until September 1940 in England. He then moved to the United States. He worked on the War Documentation Project, establishing the project for microfilming and studying captured German documents. He has taught at the Universities of Kentucky, Michigan, and North Carolina, retiring in 1999. Weinberg has held numerous positions in professional organizations and has served on and chaired a number of US government advisory committees. His books have earned him a number of prizes, fellowships, and two honorary doctoral degrees. He is the author of World War II: A Very Short Introduction.