Almost every time we listen to the news, there is an echo of the Second World War in
the background. This is above all true at the moment with the crisis in Europe, where old
resentments are re-emerging. And the Second World War remains the dominant reference
point at times of crisis and conflict.
Every country has their own ideas about it. This is not surprising when
experiences and memories are so different. For Americans, the war did not start until
December 1941. Russians consider that it began in June 1941 with the Nazi invasion of
the Soviet Union. Most Europeans regard the German attack on Poland in September
1939 as the start. Yet for the Chinese it had already began in 1937, with the Sino-
The Second World War is generally seen as a monstrous state-on-state clash
between the major powers -- the United States, Great Britain, China and the Soviet Union
against Nazi Germany and Japan. But in fact it was also an international civil war, with
the populations in many other countries split down the middle, leaving terrible legacies
for later such as the Greek civil war, the Chinese civil war, Korea, and Vietnam.
In my newly published history, The Second World War, I do not start the story with the Nazi invasion of Poland, as you might expect. I begin a month earlier in
August 1939, when the Japanese army occupying Manchuria clashed with the Soviet Red
Army on the Mongolian border at Khalkin-Gol.
In comparison to the vast engagements which came later, this battle was comparatively small, but it influenced the whole course of the war. General Zhukov in his first combat command inflicted such a defeat on the Japanese, that they decided not to attack north against Siberia, as many Japanese army officers had wanted. Instead the Imperial Japanese Navy would later prevail with its plan to attack south, against British and Dutch possessions in south-east Asia and American Pacific bases, above all Pearl Harbor. It also meant that in that early winter of 1941, the Japanese refused to help when the Germans asked them to attack the Soviet Far East, to tie down Stalin's Siberian armies as the Wehrmacht advanced on Moscow.
The Second World War stretched from the North Atlantic to the South Pacific,
from Norway to the Libyan desert, from jungle fighting in Burma and on the islands and
atolls of the Pacific, to SS Einsatzgruppen in the borderlands and Gulag prisoners drafted
into punishment battalions. For those involved in the fighting in one place -- battles on the
other side of the world could have been taking place on another planet. And when it came
to the unspeakable cruelties of the Sino-Japanese war and the Soviet-German war, they
could have been taking place in the dark ages.
Today it is very hard to appreciate the huge historical forces which killed some 60
to 70 million people. When we dwell on the enormity of the Second World War and its
victims, we try to absorb all those statistics of national and ethnic tragedy. But this also
makes us overlook the way the Second World War changed even the lives of survivors in
ways impossible to predict.
In June 1944, a young soldier of far eastern appearance surrendered to American
paratroopers in the Allied invasion of Normandy. At first his captors thought that he was
Japanese, but he was in fact Korean. His name was Yang Kyoungjong. In 1938, at the
age of 18, Yang had been forcibly conscripted by the Japanese into their Kwantung
Army in Manchuria. A year later, he was captured by the Red Army after the Battle of
Khalkhin-Gol and sent to a labour camp. The Soviet military authorities, at a moment
of crisis in 1942, drafted him along with thousands of other prisoners into their forces.
Then, early in 1943 he was taken prisoner at the Battle of Kharkov in Ukraine by the
German army. In 1944, now in German uniform, he was sent to France to serve with a
battalion at the base of the Cotentin peninsula inland from Utah Beach. After his capture
by American paratroopers, he spent time in a prison camp in Britain, and then was
transferred to another one in the United States. When released at the end of the war, he
settled in Illinois, and finally died there in 1992.
In a war which killed so many millions of people and had stretched around the globe, this reluctant veteran of the Japanese, Soviet and German armies, had been comparatively fortunate. Yet Yang remains perhaps the most striking illustration of the helplessness of most ordinary mortals in the face of what appeared to be overwhelming historical forces.
Many aspects are not as they appear on the surface. When I was a young officer
in the British Army in Germany based next to Belsen concentration camp, I was appalled
by a memorial to the French Jews who had died there horrified me. It stated: "Aux Juifs
français qui sont morts pour la gloire et la patrie." I found the suggestion of French
Jews dying "for glory and the fatherland" in such squalid circumstances quite grotesque.
Many years later I mentioned this to the French historian Henry Rousso. He replied: "I
entirely understand your reaction, but you are completely wrong. It was the French Jews
themselves who insisted after the war that memorials to their dead should have exactly
the same wording as those of all other French people. This was because they would never
forgive [the collaborationist government of] Vichy for having taken away their French
citizenship and handed them over to the Nazis."
No other period in history offers so rich a source for the study of dilemmas,
individual and mass tragedy, the corruption of power politics, ideological hypocrisy, the
egomania of some commanders, betrayal, perversity, self sacrifice, unbelievable sadism
and unpredictable compassion. In short, the Second World War defies generalization.
Just a few weeks ago, after my book had gone to the printers, I heard from a German friend that her sister's father-in-law had died. His most intense childhood memory came from January 1945 in East Prussia, when his mother took her children on foot across the frozen lagoon of the Frisches Haff to escape the indiscriminate vengeance of the Red Army. The ice began breaking up all around, with many people falling through to freeze and drown. Almost 70 years later, his last words before he died were: "I can hear the cracking of the ice." In the mad scheme of such a war, human life was intensely fragile. Survival was totally unpredictable.