Post Your Opinion
The Unwritten Chapters of World War II - Diana Kuprel speaks with Norman Davies
by Diana Kuprel

Norman Davies, born in 1939, is regarded as one of the most brilliant and provocative historians of Europe in the world today. Formerly a Professor of History at the University of London's School of Slavonic and East European Studies, Davies is the author and co-author of numerous books, including White Eagle, Red Star: The Polish-Soviet War, 1919-1920 (1972), God's Playground: A History of Poland (1981), Heart of Europe-A Short History of Poland (1984), and Europe: A History (1996). His latest book, The Isles: A History (forthcoming from Oxford University Press), deals with the development of Britain and Ireland and how these isles have been inextricably involved with and affected by continental Europe over the centuries. Davies lives in Oxford, England.

This interview was conducted via Trans-Atlantic communications, in August.

DK: Paul Valéry once remarked, "History is the most dangerous product evolved from the chemistry of the intellect... [It] intoxicates whole peoples, gives them false memories, quickens their reflexes, keeps their old wounds open, torments them in their repose, leads them into delusions either of grandeur or persecution, and makes nations bitter, arrogant, insufferable and vain. History will justify anything." Looking back on the twentieth century, in particular to the Second World War, would you agree with Valéry's assessment that history will justify anything? Has history justified World War II?

ND: History hasn't justified World War II. I think what Valéry is saying is that history is an almost infinite collection of facts from which you can select whatever facts suit your particular purpose. People with particular interests will look back at the Second World War and remember what they want to remember and forget what they want to forget. In this respect, the Second World War is no different from anything else. It's also not true that people only remember the negative sides of the past. Many people, especially in the West, regard the Second World War as a grand crusade which had to be fought. They've no conception of the price that was paid by many of the peoples involved. The North Americans, for example, with the exception of Pearl Harbour, never had a single bomb dropped on their country. The United Kingdom was exceptional in Europe by never being invaded. People in the West simply don't have a clue of what the Second World War really involved.

DK: In the 1990s, we've witnessed the mass slaughter in Bosnia and Kosovo, and the genocide of the minority Tutsis and murder of moderate Hutu opponents of the Rwandan government. In the 1970s, Cambodia was turned into a vast concentration camp where over one million people died from malnutrition, maltreatment, and overwork in under four years. Before that, countless Vietnamese lost their lives in that country's civil war. When you consider where we've been over the last five decades, do you think that the Second World War taught us anything about humanity, and if so, what? Have we forgotten or chosen to ignore its lessons?

ND: I think the Second World War brought to the forefront mankind's capacity for evil and savagery. It is, of course, highly ironic that in the century where our capacity for progress in the material sense, for prolonging life, for health, for welfare, for education, was much greater than ever before in history, there are more examples of savagery and barbarism on a scale that is quite unprecedented. This is, of course, a terrible paradox.

It is true that, before the Second World War, there was no conception of genocide on the scale that occurred. The word genocide was only invented by a Polish-Jewish lawyer named Raphael Lemkin in 1943. [He coined it from the Greek word for tribe, and the Latin suffix for murder.-DK] There was the Armenian episode during the First World War. [In 1915, the Turkish government killed many members of the Armenian minority living in Turkey, butchering the males and leaving the women and children to die in the deserts of what is now Eastern Syria.-DK] But that event is somewhat opaque in its nature and extent.

DK: Hence, Hitler's remark, "After all, who now remembers the Armenians?"

ND: Nobody prior to World War II really had to face such horrors on such a scale. The whole concept of crimes against humanity as opposed to war crimes or the horrors of war was only defined in the middle of the twentieth century.

I should say that the Western world nearly always thinks of the Holocaust as being the largest example of genocide. But that is partly because the greater killings that went on in the Soviet Union were largely concealed until fifty years after the war. They've never been publicized or examined the way the Jewish tragedy has been.

DK: Is there currently underway a reexamination and publication of the crimes committed under Stalinism?

ND: Not really. There have been phases when concessions and publications have been made, but the present government of Russia is very reluctant to make further investigations. For example, the massacre at Katyn of 27,000 [Polish] Allied officers doesn't even count as a crime in the United Kingdom because it was committed by our ally. For the longest time, up until 1990, the Russians denied responsibility for the massacre, and even blamed the Germans. The people who perpetrated those crimes are still living undisturbed in Moscow. If those same people had been Germans who had committed a crime on even 1/100th the scale against Allied personnel, the Western world would be up in arms, demanding justice, trials, and punishment. But that's not how the world works.

DK: Even though the Soviet Union was an ally during the war, surely the Cold War must have made the West want to bring these crimes to light and the Russians to account-if only for purely propaganda purposes.

ND: They did, for a short period, for about ten years after the Nuremberg trials, when the West realized the Nuremberg trials were extraordinarily one-sided, that only the crimes committed by the enemy had been investigated. And quite rightly, too. But all the crimes committed by our great Soviet ally had been passed over in silence. There were attempts made by the American Congress in the 1950s. There were various commissions of inquiry. But after some of the major facts were established, the whole matter was dropped.

The reason is that a great myth developed that only the fascist enemy was capable of genocide, of mass crimes. If the crimes of the Soviet Union were to be put into the same category as those of the Nazis, the whole moral story of why we fought the Second World War would have been ruined. We now know that during the war, Stalin actually killed more of his own people than Hitler killed during the Holocaust. But that fact has not reached the public consciousness, and there are not many people interested in publicizing it.

Many people repeat the mythical figure of 20 million Russian war dead, which is entirely misleading because, first, they weren't Russian, they were Soviet citizens. Only half were Russians. Second, the figure was not 20 million, but 27 million Soviet citizens. But lastly, they weren't what you would call war dead. They included all the people that Stalin himself had killed. And yet, people who have had a rosy view of Stalin and the Soviet Union try to pretend that the Soviet Union was somehow fighting for democracy and paying this enormous price for it. Well, that's not how it was.

DK: One of the terrible episodes in the Second World War concerned the repatriation of conscripted Soviet labourers and Soviet soldiers from POW camps after the war. These people were branded collaborators and war criminals by the Soviet government. I remember attending a lecture at the University of Toronto a few years ago where a visiting scholar was discussing this little-known chapter in Soviet history. And in a just-released book, Walking Since Daybreak, a University of Toronto historian, Modris Eksteins, refers to it, and briefly presents an account of someone who witnessed several Russian soldiers committing suicide when they were about to be repatriated.

ND: The story of the Soviet soldiers is one of the great tragedies. The Nazis held something like five to six million-again similar numbers to those killed in the Holocaust. About three million, at least, were simply starved by the Nazis. They weren't willing to give Soviet prisoners the ordinary rights. They didn't feed them. They left them in the cold. They simply let them die. And the million or so who survived were sent back to the Soviet Union only to be shot or thrown into the gulags. It's a horrific story of human barbarity.

DK: And then there is the affair surrounding the repatriation of displaced persons and allied soldiers after the war. These are people whose homes were now, post-Yalta, in Soviet territory, and who had experienced deportation to Siberia, life in the Soviet camps and gulags. When my father, for instance, and his comrades-in-arms, found themselves in England at war's end, they refused to go back. Many of them emigrated to Canada or the U.S. or South America at that point. Entire communities in Canada were formed from just such DPs.

ND: The Poles, Romanians, Ukrainians, Yugo-slavs, Balts. The British and Americans at that time simply didn't understand what it was all about. The British Foreign Secretary issued, it was almost an order, to the former Polish soldiers in the United Kingdom to go back home. Someone had to tell him, look, their homes are no longer in Poland.

DK: A whole spate of books on the Second World War is currently being published. For a historian, are there any more lacunae in the study of the Second World War? In addition to what you've already mentioned, what else haven't we delved into? What else hasn't been brought to light in the West?

ND: People in the West don't seem to realize that by far the biggest chapter of the Second World War was on the Eastern Front. The Ally campaigns into Normandy were secondary. So many things about the Eastern Front are simply not understood. For example, the story of the cooperation of the Nazi SS and the Soviet NKVD from 1939 to 1941 has never been satisfactorily explored, and yet it is absolutely the key matter. There's a controversy going on about Stalin's intentions or non-intentions in 1941 to launch a war against Germany. There's a new book by a man called Gabriel Gorodetsky [Grand Delusion: Stalin and the German Invasion of Russia by Yale University Press], who challenges the views of a former Russian intelligence officer called Suvorov that Stalin was planning to invade Germany in 1941 and was tipped at the posts when Hitler invaded the Soviet Union. Gorodetsky's arguments are rather feeble. But that whole story is still, in my view, wide open. And one can go on. There is no treatment of the Eastern Front that matches the level of knowledge we have about the Allied war.

DK: How has the representation of the Second World War, and what we consider worthy of study, changed over the decades?

ND: Things have changed a great deal. There has been a distinct falling-off of interest in military affairs. I can remember all the films about the Desert Rats, etcetera, from the 1950s and the 1960s. The Second World War was presented as a heroic episode in our history. That patriotic approach has completely faded away. I'm sure there's a majority of school children who wouldn't be able to tell you, for example, what your father was doing at Monte Cassino. On the other hand, other subjects have come to the front. The Holocaust is the obvious one. There's an extraordinary discussion going on this year about the English schools' history curriculum. The only contemporary subject for compulsory study was going to be the Holocaust. It's the only thing some politically correct people think is worth the children knowing about. That's a complete turn-around. The Holocaust is presented in a very strange, exclusive context, as though the Jews were the only people being persecuted during the war. I'm sure if you ask people in North America which nation suffered the largest number of civilian casualties, practically nobody would be able to tell you. Can you guess?

DK: I'd have to guess Poland.

ND: I don't think so. Ukraine. But the Ukrainians are always called Russians. Of the 27 million Soviet casualties are all sorts of people. Yet, the Nazis never got into Russia. The Nazi occupation was in Eastern Poland, Belarus, the Baltic states, and Ukraine. But people just don't know these things.

DK: The Gypsies were another people who were decimated.

ND: The Gypsies had the highest proportion of deaths, but they're a very small community. The total number is very small. If you're talking about absolute numbers, I think the Ukrainians probably top the list.

DK: How has the way in which war is studied altered since World War II?

ND: The First World War had a greater impact on thinking about war as being a glorious masculine enterprise. The senseless killing of soldiers-not civilians, but soldiers-during that war forced a lot of rethinking along those lines. After the Second World War, the war did get drawn into new trends of historiography: ethnics-obviously the Holocaust fits into that trend; the history of homosexuals; the history of Gypsies. Gender studies have been very active: the role of women during the war, the fate of women who waited at home, who were left with the children, who lost their support-the female experience has received a lot of emphasis. The perspectives are always changing. Yet, no one in the West is interested in the history of Catholics. The number of Catholics killed is of the same order as the number of Jews. It just doesn't compute. There's no great concern.

DK: One last question. In a Special Faculty Lecture you gave in November 1996, you said that the old division between East and West in Europe will soon become "a mere historical curiosity". You argued that the defeat of fascism in the West made the collapse of communism more inevitable. Do you see, then, the defeat of fascism after the Second World War as having reverberations leading inevitably to the collapse of communism in 1989?

ND: There is a major difference. Fascism was defeated in war. The Soviet Union was the principal victor of the Second World War. Communism was not defeated; you couldn't destroy communism in the same way that you could fascism. Communism died on its feet; it died a natural death; it was militarily far too strong for anyone to destroy by force. The Cold War remained cold because of nuclear weapons. Any sort of military action would have been self-defeating.

But there is an interesting parallel which not many people think of. Fascism actually survived the war in several places: in Spain, which hadn't taken part in the war, and in Portugal. The Franco regime in Spain gradually faded, changed its priorities, and on his death-bed, Franco actually arranged for the reinstatement of democracy and the return of the king, a constitutional monarchy. That was in 1975. There was a revolution in Portugal. And certainly for people in Eastern Europe who were watching other totalitarian regimes evolving and fading away, that was all very heartening. But I don't think many people in the West noticed.

DK: Thank you for taking time out from the writing of The Isles: A History to speak with us. 


Home First Novel Award Past Winners Subscription Back Issues Timescroll Advertizing Rates
Amazon.ca/Books in Canada Bestsellers List Books in Issue Books in Department About Us