A slaughter's long shadow
WORDS OF WAR
By the end of war in Europe 60 years ago today, more than one
million Canadian men and women had enlisted for battle. The struggle to
preserve their legacy continues on the printed page
Journal Books Editor
There is a scene in the oddly aloof film The Pianist where the
detached protagonist, a concert pianist named Wladyslaw Szpilman, watches
the destruction of the Warsaw ghetto from the window of the room where he is
Through almost unbelievable good luck and a natural stoicism, Szpilman, a
Polish Jew, survived the war in which every member of his family died along
with millions of others in the German concentration camps of the Second
World War. Standing apart and in isolation was his key to living under
When Szpilman finally emerged from his hiding place and walked through the
streets of his city, it was completely destroyed, and the landscape to which
he returned was unrecognizable. Hardly a house remained standing, mountains
of rubble turned every street into an obstacle course of bricks, paving
stones, roof beams and dead bodies. The scene was so bleak and despairing as
to be positively surreal.
The story told in the Roman Polanski movie is a true one. And the razing of
Warsaw is true, too, a fact to which Gregor Dallas returns again and again
in his grand and sweeping history of the aftermath of the Second World War.
During the Warsaw Uprising that lasted for two terrible months in the late
summer and early autumn of 1944, more than 40,000 people in one suburb alone
would be slaughtered by a special SS troop assigned to crush the revolt.
When the uprising ended on Oct. 1, not a soul remained of the city's 1.3
million population. Any who had managed to survive had been shipped to death
What was shocking then, and what remains shocking today, is the Soviet army
was within striking distance of the city and could have saved it. Stalin
ordered otherwise, and even refused permission for the Royal Air Force to
drop food and ammunition to the rebels until it was much too late.
There is a profound irony in all of this that Dallas understands. The Nazi
invasion of Poland was the spark that ignited the war, and the defence of
its freedom was the catalyst that sent millions of men and women to war.
With the Red Army parked on its territory at the end of the Second World
War, Poland would be lost again for more than two generations.
Poland's fate was a portent of what was to come to places like Hungary, East
Germany, Romania, Czechoslovakia and the rest of Eastern Europe.
Shooting did end, but war's fallout lasted for generations
Dallas, the author of 1815: Roads to Waterloo and 1918: War and Peace, is an
expert on how wars end ... or don't. In fact, it could be argued that the
Second World War was an extension of the first, and that Europe needed the
two decades in between to regroup, re-arm and catch her collective breath
before the killing could being again.
His title, however, may be wrong. The war did end, although there was no
formal peace conference and no real treaty signed between post-war allies,
then at each other's throats, and the utterly vanquished forces of Nazi
Germany. It just took a long, long time.
irrefutable fact is that the war most certainly did not end in 1945 with the
deaths of the monstrous Adolf Hitler and his bride, Eva Braun, in their
stuffy, crowded and chaotic bunker in Berlin as the Soviet army closed in.
The war's aftermath would last for generations and can be seen in places
like the Balkans, where fractious nationalism led to war crimes, and in the
former Soviet states that now struggle with complicated futures. It could be
seen in the Berlin Airlift in 1948, where Stalin tried to strangle the life
out of West Berlin by blocking road and rail links to that part of the city,
then under the control of Britain, France and the U.S. It could be seen in
the Cold War and the arms race. It would live on in confrontations around
the world, from the Cuban missile crisis to the Vietnam war.
|"Whatever the claim of national mythologies," Dallas
writes, "no one could seriously describe the peace of 1945 as a success,
even when compared to 1919: Europe was divided on an unhistorical,
ungeographical basis; Eastern Europeans were driven into slavery, their
pre-war economies destroyed; Western Europeans faced dire poverty...."
Stalin, finding himself with a population of restless Jews, encouraged
immigration to Israel, even if it meant running the British-imposed blockade
of Israeli ports.
When Andrei Gromyko, whom Dallas describes as a
"Soviet apparatchik incarnate," argued before the United Nations that
Palestine be partitioned into two states, Jewish and Arab, Zionist leader
Abba Eban called it "a godsend."
Although relations would quickly sour between Moscow and Israel, largely
over the treatment of Jews in the Soviet Union, the stand by Stalin was a
decisive one in turning the Middle East into a tinderbox of politics and
The rancid consequences of the Second World War are, therefore, a bitter
fact of life in this new century.
There are aspects of this book with which readers are sure to argue -- for
example, Joe McCarthy's post-war anti-Communist rants in the U.S. Senate
don't receive the condemnation they deserve, and the war in the South
Pacific is given somewhat short shrift -- this is a compelling work of
history that is crowded with profound observations on how the Second World
War, fought by our fathers and grandfathers, has shaped the world in which
we now live.
It is, also, a book that will appeal to general readers of history. Dallas
is a writer with an eye for telling detail and a master of the vivid,
colourful anecdote: de Gaulle and Churchill share a black Citroen while
driving the Champs Elysees on Nov. 11, 1944; on April 30, 1945, days before
Berlin would fall, the scent of lilac and hawthorn compete with the stench
of rotting bodies. It was, after all, spring.
This book also speaks of the sweep of battle planning, punctuated with the
kind of personal stories that prove no matter how grand -- and successful --
a strategy might be, it's always real people who ultimately pay the price.
Churchill's prescience de Gaulle's arrogance
What are valuable here, too, are the assessments of wartime leaders. Some of
these may be familiar, but still bear repeating.
For example, Roosevelt, wearied by war and polio, failed to understand what
Europe's future would be like with Soviet armies, which had borne the brunt
of the fighting, encamped in places like Poland, Romania, Hungary and East
Germany. Roosevelt would not live to see the ultimate consequences of his
failure to stand up to the Soviets.
Churchill accurately predicted the future, and was ignored by his American
allies. In his famous 1946 speech in Fulton, Mo., he warned of the Iron
Curtain that would descend across Europe, and he spoke of the dark days that
were sure to come to those nations that found themselves crushed under the
De Gaulle, of course, was de Gaulle: self-centred, not a little arrogant and
By the time the last bullet was fired, the tanks were halted and the final
bomb was dropped, national interests of former allies trumped everything
The shooting war did end. For the most part the killing stopped in 1945,
with or without a formal peace treaty, unless you count the civil war in
Greece that lasted until 1947.
And then, of course, there are the uncounted millions slaughtered by Stalin
in the gulags, many of whom were former Soviet soldiers who had had the
misfortune of being made German prisoners of war. Stalin, merciless as
always, regarded surrender as treason.
For those victims of Stalin, and they are often the focus of the final
chapters of this memorable and often moving history, the war would never
So it is, then, that if readers want to know how the world grew into what it
is today, why there was such a thing as a Berlin Wall and why it ultimately
fell, and why the world remains torn by conflict and war, they need look no
farther than Poisoned Peace.
© The Edmonton Journal 2005