The Forgotten Victims of World War Two
The Second World War is typically presented through a sharp dichotomy between the victorious Allied powers and the vanquished Nazi-led Axis. The sickening Holocaust and other Nazi atrocities take centre stage, a focus certainly justified, but other acts of barbarity claiming millions of lives are routinely ignored or played down. Murder is murder and the death toll in these other forgotten tragedies is astonishing. These stories should also receive great attention - and fierce condemnation.
The Soviet Union
Invasion of Poland: Barely two weeks after the German invasion of Poland, the Soviets also entered the conflict from the east, activating secret provisions of the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact signed in August.
The excuse was the "liberation" of the Polish people. With this murderous intervention came the deaths of countless Polish soldiers and civilians, and this is only in the actual battle for Poland's east. The occupation after, as I will explain, claimed tens of thousands of further lives.
The staggering part of this story is that this area of eastern Poland invaded by the Soviets in 1939 is almost completely in the hands of Belarus and Ukraine today. Rather than being an intervention on humanitarian grounds, this annexation, when it was reclaimed by the Soviets in 1944-45, resulted in the dispossession of lands belonging to the Polish people.
The hypocrisy of a narrative that lambasts Germany but forgets the role of the Soviet Union in both allowing the Nazi invasion to take place and also its own individual acts of aggression and hostile occupation is obvious. Yet this window of history is continuously brushed to the side. I would also claim that only a minority of people today, even in the more liberal West, are aware of the circumstances in which it took place.
Occupation of Poland: This is clearly related to the invasion itself but deserves individual attention also. Vast swathes of Poland's intelligentsia, the officer class, doctors, lawyers and other professions, were systematically murdered by NKVD and other assorted communist cronies.
The mass collectivisation of private properly took place, and the petite bourgeoisie and the landowning classes faced considerable suffering. The destruction or confiscation of Jewish property by the Nazis serves as a horrendous example of human brutality, I agree, but the plight of Poland's private property owners at the hands of the Soviets needs acknowledgment. Once again, this is a fact lost on many leaders in European and other Western nations, let alone the populations they lead.
The point of the matter is that until the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, nearly two years of Soviet inhumanity unleashed itself on the Poles. It is time for ignorance of this to be rectified.
The Baltic States: Initially, most of the Baltic, barring Lithuania, would in Nazi hands following the 1939 invasion by the two aggressive powers. Eventually control of the whole area went to the Soviets.
Unfortunately, one must concede that knowledge of the Baltic's suffering is even more elusive than the Poles. Yet the memory of the occupation remains in the animosity of Baltic countries to the lack of contrition from the Soviets over the years for what occurred.
I have added this here out of respect for that forgotten part of history. But a process of forced collectivisation, murder and other forms of oppression certainly occurred. Like what the Poles are owed, justice should be sought however it can be in addressing history.
Persecution of Ethnic Minorities in Soviet Lands: Communities such as the Volga Germans, who were ironically found in and around Stalingrad, has existed in Russia for around two centuries, perhaps more. Many maintained their ancestral language, others did not. Most could be easily identified by a German surname.
When the Soviets faced catastrophe in 1941 and even at the dawn of the invasion, ethnic Germans were rounded up and faced arrest, deportation, slave labour or death at the hands of mobs or the NKVD and other state organs.
Knowing the immense suffering endured even by loyal Communist Party members who were accused and convicted of trumped-up charges during the Purges, it is not difficult to imagine the fates inflicted on Soviet Germans.
Moving away from the typical Nazi/non-Nazi dichotomy, huge interest continues to surface about the internment of Japanese-Americans during the Second World War. So if the liberally-minded West faces such scrutiny, it beggars belief why the Soviets avoid similar investigation. The facts are clearly there when one looks for them.
This is only compounded when we revert back to a study of the Nazis and their gut-wrenching policies of genocide and dispossession thrust upon many groups, including the Jews, Gypsies and many sub-strains of the Slavic peoples.
To argue that these Volksdeutsche as they are known were descended from a current enemy of the Soviets is irrelevant when we consider the responsibilities to prevent the unnecessary persecution and death of civilians. The standard of revulsion we apply to the Nazis should flow to our examination of particular Soviet racisms. The number of Russians cleansed by the Wehrmacht and SS were certainly higher than Soviet retaliations yet it is not a competition to demonstrate who killed more. The substance of the crimes in both cases were on par throughout the whole era.
Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Others
Pre-War and Dawn of the Invasion: Even as the undoubted victims of the Second World War, Czechoslovakia and Poland were also guilty of particular crimes. The argument of principal German responsibility is not negated by acknowledging a series of terrible and unacceptable atrocities committed against ethnic Germans.
A prime example of this is the often unfair treatment of the Sudeten German population bordering the rump area of Bohemia in the modern-day Czech Republic. Hitler's agitations to incorporate this area into the Reich were of course highly manipulative but not without substance in the sense that a Czech anti-Germanism did exist in these areas. Across the entire Czech Republic, even the majority German Sudetenland, Germans were at a disadvantage. Language rights were suppressed, Czechs overly-dominated government institutions, even in German-population areas, and long-harboured animosities from the previous era of Austro-German imperialism played themselves out.
Poland, too, lacked any particular sympathy for the sizeable German population it inherited post-Versailles, numbering in the small millions. One could argue the discrimination faced by Germans in these two countries in the 1930s constitutes a rather passive form of persecution, especially in comparison to what their non-Slavic neighbour would do to them in later years. The problem with this argument once again is that it involves relative judgments of what is unacceptable state or group behaviour without addressing the merits of the claims themselves.
Invasion: German minorities in the Sudetenland and Czechoslovakia appeared to have been largely spared from any antagonisms stemming from the Munich Agreement of 1938 and Wehrmacht march into Bohemia and Moravia in 1939. The submissiveness of the Czechs during the "invasion" largely explains this. Though Germany's actions clearly indicated an aggressive annexation, Czechoslovakia capitulated entirely, rather than offering even the weakest resistance.
Yet Poland survived in a crippled and much reduced state for a month after Germany began its invasion in 1939. Throughout this time, tens of thousands of ethnic German civilians in Polish-held areas were rounded up and slaughtered. Outnumbered by the Poles murdered by Germans, they still form an atrocious figure. Such a tragedy recognises that in war both sides are almost always guilty in some sense, despite one usually attacking first and having the greatest share of the blame.
I have no qualms with focusing attention on barbarities, such as the Holocaust and German anti-Slavisms, which concern the greater number of human deaths. It is normal and understandable to remember unspeakable acts of 6 million and around 10 million dead respectively as opposed to those numbering 50-100,000. But on an individual basis, I see no need for and actually condemn valuing the life of an innocent Pole murdered in history far more than the life of an innocent German. A government and an army started the war, not the general rank-in-file German people, particularly those living outside Germany at the time. The death toll of German civilians in the invasion of Poland are clearly high enough and savage enough to merit discussion and respect.