The Horror of D-Day A New Openness to Discussing Allied War Crimes in WWII
Part 2: A New Approach to Writing History
Beevor frequently quotes from personal memoirs of Allied soldiers that have been available to historians for years. But could it be that they were ignored by them until now because they didn't support the image of the "greatest generation," the term that Americans have liked to use to describe their victorious soldiers from 1945? It would seem that no shadows were to be cast on the war that gave the Americans, in particular, the moral right to have a say in shaping Europe's postwar future as well as creating the practical conditions for it to do so.
Still, that approach has recently been revised. In his 2007 book "The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1934-1944" Pulitzer Prize-winning author Rick Atkinson described various war crimes committed by the Allies. And now we have the same thing with Normandy.
Beevor primarily attributes the Allied crimes to the epic ferocity of the battles. The Germans themselves called it a "dirty bush war," a reference to the bushes and hedgerows, ranging in height between one and three meters (three and ten feet), used to demarcate the fields in Normandy's bocage landscape.
Indeed, Normandy's terrain is ideally suited for ambushes and booby traps. For example, German units stretched thin steel cables across roads at head level, so that when an American Jeep came roaring down the road, its driver and passengers would be decapitated. They also attached hand grenades to the dog tags of dead GIs, so that anyone who tried to remove the dog tags was blown up. Likewise, it is an established fact that German soldiers, and particularly those in the Waffen SS, shot prisoners.
Allied Behavior Doesn't Forgive Germany 's
The artillery fire from both sides and the Allied bombing attacks transformed Normandy into a moonscape. Beevor writes about soldiers who huddled in the craters screaming and weeping, while others walked around as if in a trance picking flowers in the midst of explosions. Indeed, American physicians reported 30,000 cases of combat neurosis among their troops alone.
In a letter to his family in Minnesota, a US infantryman wrote that he had never hated anything quite as much, adding: "And it's not because of some blustery speech of a brass hat."
But such "blustery speeches" did exist. According to the findings of German historian Peter Lieb, many Canadian and American units were given orders on D-Day to take no prisoners. If true, that might help explain the mystery of how only 66 of the 130 Germans the Americans took prisoner on Omaha Beach made it to collecting points for the captured on the beach.
It is also conspicuous that the Allies rarely captured members of the Waffen SS. Was it because the members of this organization -- with its Totenkopf (death's head) insignia -- had sworn allegiance to Hitler until death and often fought to the last man? Or did the Allied propaganda about the SS have its desired effect on soldiers? "Many of them probably deserved to be shot in any case and know it," a British XXX Corps report bluntly stated.
Of course, for German apologists, this new information shouldn't be something to make them feel better about their own side's behavior. In fact, although the extent of Allied war crimes may have been greater than previously known, it cannot be compared with the scope of German crimes against civilians. For example, shooting innocent hostages was part of the German strategy for fighting the French partisans who struck out after D-Day. Up to 16,000 French citizens -- men, women and children -- fell victim to the terror of the Wehrmacht and the SS.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
- Part 1: A New Openness to Discussing Allied War Crimes in WWII
- Part 2: A New Approach to Writing History