On November 10th, 2009, the author was on the battlefield of al Alamein, the site of three separate battles over a four month period in which Rommel was checked, held in place, and then soundly beaten by the British 8th Army between July and November 1942. It is one of the three campaigns (the others being the struggles over Stalingrad and Guadalcanal) that marked the turning point of the war.
The war cemeteries tell their own tales.
The Germans collected their dead from a dozen burial sites in the mid-1960s and heaped them together and built one memorial atop them. It looks like a fusion of a medieval church and a German castle, but it is a thoughtful and attractive memorial. When it was being built the remains of 31 young men, all of whom had died violently, were found on the construction site. They most probably died during the last battle in October/November of 1942 (the German memorial overlooks the area of the main British thrust). Time and looting by unknown persons had stripped any hope of identifying the service and nationality of any of the dead; and the Germans decided that whoever they had been in life in those days, they were brothers now and interred them together.
It is easy to be uncharitable about the Italian memorial. The Italians wanted to bury their fallen tens of thousands together as if they were enclosed in the catacombs of a church back home. By the time they finished, they had a large structure and clad it in white marble. The uninitiated might conclude from appearances that the Italians had actually won the battle.
It is the Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery that really conveys the universal nature of the Second World War. The dead all have their own plots, and the missing (who number in the thousands) have their names inscribed on the walls that enfold the cemetery. Wandering through among the stones, one can come across the grave of an 11 year old Indian soldier, or the graves of two brothers who died within a day of each other. There are German Jews and Arabs who fought in the Palestinian Brigade, Greeks and Poles, Australians, South Africans (Black and White), Indians, and even the occasional Canadian buried as they died in the ranks of British 8th Army. It is here that one can really appreciate what a World War can be.
Stalin is infamously said to have observed that a single death was a tragedy, but that a million was a statistic. He would know, being the most successful mass murderer in history. He does have a point that most of us are quite aware of our individual tragedies, but getting the statistics right can be very difficult indeed.
The Second World War was mankind’s largest war so far, and decisions implemented during or immediately after the war have largely defined our world for the last 70 years. However, nobody really knows how bad the war was, and how many lives were lost during it. Estimates have ranged from 40 million or so in the immediate aftermath of the war, with a consensus of something like ‘over 50 million’ being widely accepted nowadays.
It is an excellent rule for life to always test something that everybody accepts as a given fact because it is appalling to discover how often the known facts are wrong. Given the importance of the Second World War, it seemed useful to go back and see what the real cost of the war appears to have been, and then ponder some observations.
Summary of the War’s Dead:
- USSR: 26,668,000 dead: 8,668,000 military, 18,000,000 civilian (many self-inflicted through Stalinist policies as well as by the Germans). This appraisal is the conclusion of a Russian 1994 Academy of Sciences Conference.
- China: 15,000,000 dead: 3-4,000,000 military dead, 7-16,000,000 civilian dead (many through depraved indifference by Chinese Communist, Nationalist, and Japanese authorities). Accurate count impossible.
- Germany: 8,680,000 dead: 5,533,000 military (Dr. Rudiger Overmans’ estimate includes Soviet, Austrian, Eastern European ethnic German, Waffen SS, Volksturm and other Paramilitary casualties, plus personnel missing and presumed dead in Soviet captivity); 1,130,000 civilians (including Holocaust victims who were German citizens) plus another estimated 2,020,000 (the Overmans estimate again) dead Germans from ethnic cleansing during and immediately after the war.
- Poland (1939 Borders): 5,720,000 dead: 240,000 military, 5,480,000 civilian including an estimated 3,000,000 Polish Jews. Figure includes deaths inflicted by Soviet authorities during the war years.
- Dutch East Indies: Over 3,030,000 dead: Includes 30,000 Europeans in Japanese detention camps, 300,000 Indonesians conscripted labourers in Japanese service, and a conservative estimate of famine deaths throughout the Islands.
- Japan: 2,700,000 dead: 2,120,000 military, 580,000 civilian.
- India (British Raj, including Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal): 2,089,646 dead: Includes 87,031 in Commonwealth military service, 2,615 in Japanese service, and 2,000,000 estimated famine deaths in Bengal in 1943.
- French Indochina: 1,500,000 estimated dead, almost all civilian and almost all attributed to famine during the Japanese occupation.
- Yugoslavia: 1,027,000 dead: 446,000 military (all factions), 514,000 civilian, plus Holocaust victims.
- Romania: 833,000 dead: 300,000 military (mostly missing in the USSR), 533,000 civilians, mostly Jewish. Military deaths do not include those who died in Soviet service.
- Philippines: 807,000 dead: 57,000 military and an estimated 750,000 civilians, mostly at Japanese hands.
- Greece: 806,900 dead; 35,077 military, 771,845 civilian (mostly by the famine induced by the Germans).
- Hungary: 585,000 dead: 305,000 military (mostly as Soviet POWs), 280,000 civilians, including Jews.
- France: 567,600 dead: 217,600 military, 350,000 civilian (including Holocaust victims)
- Korea: About 460,500 dead: All civilian, mostly as forced labourers for Japan, some from bombing.
- Italy: 454,500 dead: 301,400 military, 153,100 civilian (including Holocaust victims).
- United Kingdom: 449,800 dead: 382,700 military, 67,100 civilian.
- United States: 418,500 dead: 416,800 military, 1,700 civilian.
- Czechoslovakia: 355,000 dead: 25,000 military (Partisans, exiles, Slovak forces), 53,000 civilians, 277,000 from Holocaust.
- Lithuania: 345,000 dead: All civilians from Soviet and Nazi occupations. 35,000 military deaths listed with Soviet and German entries. Entry does not include deaths resulting from Soviet occupation after May 1945.
- Netherlands: 301,000 dead: 21,000 military (not including those in German service), 280,000 civilian including Holocaust victims.
- Burma: 272,000 dead: 22,000 military; the rest civilian (over half of whom were Indian or Chinese residents, often killed by ethnic Burmese during the Japanese occupation)
- Latvia: 220,000 dead: All civilians from Soviet and Nazi occupations. 37,000 military listed with Soviet and German casualties. This does not include deaths resulting from Soviet occupation after May 1945.
- Austria: 123,700 dead: All civilian, as all military casualties are listed under Germany.
- Ethiopia: 100,000 estimated dead in 1939-43; does not include dead from pre-war Italian occupation; 5,000 guerrillas, 95,000 civilians.
- Malaya: 100,000 estimated dead; all civilian and mostly from Japanese policies.
- Finland: 97,000 dead: 95,000 military, 2,000 civilian.
- Belgium: 86.100 dead: 12,100 military, 74,000 civilian
- South Seas Islands (Palau, Micronesia, Marshal Islands, etc): 57,000 dead, all civilian.
- East Timor: 55,000 dead; all civilians during Japan’s occupation.
- Estonia: 51,000 dead: Does not include 21,000 dead in German or Soviet military service or deaths resulting from Soviet reoccupation after May 1945.
- Singapore: 50,000 dead, all civilians, mostly during the Japanese occupation.
- Canada plus Newfoundland: 46,400 military deaths, 137 civilian deaths (mostly due to U-boat activity).
- Australia: 40,500 military deaths, 700 civilian deaths.
- Albania: 30,200 dead: Almost all military though no reliable statistics exist.
- Bulgaria: 25,000 dead; All but 3,000 military.
- Papua New Guinea: 15,000 dead: All civilian.
- New Zealand: 11,900 deaths, all military.
- South Africa: 11,900 deaths, almost all military.
- Norway: 9,500 dead: 3,000 military (exclusive of those who died in German service), 6,500 civilians.
- Thailand: 5,900 dead: 5,600 military (mostly in 1940 border conflict with French Indochina), 300 civilians.
- Luxembourg: 5,000 dead: 3,200 with Belgian military and as conscripts for Germany, 1,800 civilian.
- Spain: 4,500 dead: Almost all military serving in volunteer force with the Germans on the Eastern Front.
- Denmark: 3,195 (excluding 3,500 dead serving with the German military). 1,068 were civilians.
- Brazil: Estimated 2000 Dead; 1,000 military, 1,000 civilian, mostly due to U-Boat attacks.
- Malta: 1,500 dead: All civilian from Axis air attacks. Military deaths enumerated under British total.
- Iraq: 1,000 dead. Mostly military killed fighting the British in 1941.
- Sweden: 510 dead. 185 military (mostly as volunteers in Finland or with the Wehrmacht), over 329 civilians killed at sea with the Merchant Marine or in fishing boats.
- Nauru: 463 dead: Islanders deported by Japan as slave labour.
- Mongolia: 272 dead: Military in Soviet service against Japan.
- Iran: 200 dead: Mostly military opposing the 1941 Anglo-Soviet invasion; more civilians may have died in Soviet occupied zones.
- Iceland: 200 dead: All civilian, mostly due to German mines and attacks on shipping.
- Ireland: 200 dead: All civilian, mostly due to bombing errors by the Luftwaffe. Some 10,000 Irishmen fell while serving in the forces of the Allied nations and are counted elsewhere.
- Other Latin America: 146 deaths (except for five Mexican air force personnel in the Pacific, all were U-Boat victims).
- Portugal: 100 deaths; Mostly due to U-Boat attacks on Portuguese ships.
- Switzerland: 100 deaths: Mostly civilians from accidental Allied bombings; 300 dead volunteers with German forces counted there.
Probable Death Toll: 76,820,000
Civilian deaths outnumbered military deaths in almost all nations except for Germany, Japan, Italy, the English speaking world and some smaller neutral nations. This is probably a result of the Axis nations’ willingness to pursue aggressive wars, meaning that all of them (Italy included) did most of their fighting on other nations’ territory, amid other civilian populations. Even the Allied bombing offensives of German and Japan did not shift this balance.
The English speaking nations, except England itself, saw only limited combat occurring off their coasts and not on their national soil (Hawaii and Alaska being territories of the US at the time). The English tradition of fighting defensive wars away from its own territory and the Anglo-American naval dominance paid their usual dividends. We forget that naval superiority conveys safety at home, which makes trimming even today’s naval budgets a deeply dubious exercise.
There are several smaller surprises and one big one that shouldn’t have been such.
The Belgians, Danes, Dutch, and Norwegians were among those European nations that had thousands of their citizens volunteer for service with the German military. Many of these were members of Fascist or National Socialist movements (though some must have been bored youths looking for adventure). Regardless, their home governments were not interested in recognizing or pensioning the survivors after the war, and it fell to Germany to bear the fiscal responsibility for them and enumerate these fallen among their own.
The casualties inflicted on the Maritime nations of the Atlantic by the U-Boats are surprisingly diverse; and depredations by German submarines certainly drove Brazil to enter the war. They also deeply irritated many Latin American countries.
The main killer in the Second World War was the old combination of famine and epidemic that has carried off so many people in so many wars since the dawn of our species. This should not be a surprise. If — God forbid – we ever have a war on the scale of the Second World War again – famine and epidemic will no doubt be responsible for the majority of deaths. This would undoubtedly be much worse in the aftermath of a nuclear conflict.
These “two horsemen” have always attended war and were particularly energetic in such places as much of Europe. The Germans, for instance, deliberately induced famine in Greece and the Netherlands to punish the population, and used hunger and sickness to carry off more Jews than they ever managed with Zyklon B in the death camps or with Einsatzgruppen firing squads. The Soviets also made full use of the two in combination as the main killing agent in their Gulags (which operated full bore through the war years), and many civilians who had both the Wehrmacht and the Red Army rumble over their homes had to face the uncharitable elements of winter without a roof over their heads and no food reserves.
Famine was also the main killer in most of Asia. Chinese peasants whose fields were flooded out by the Nationalists, or whose food was confiscated by the Japanese or Communists faced death by famine and an unknown number did succumb. The accidental famine in Bengal in 1943 was a combination of the loss of pre-War Burmese rice imports and reckless commodity trading by local brokers. By the time the British stepped in and organized relief (diverting badly needed resources from the front lines), two million people were dead. Japanese garrisons were expected to feed themselves, particularly as the Japanese were short of merchant shipping even before US submarines got to work. Their usual recourse was to confiscate local food stocks, with predictable results.
When we look at the Second World War, our histories concentrate almost entirely on the process of combat – which, in hindsight, is not nearly as deadly as famine. Convulsive violent episodes like the siege of Monte Cassino or the battle of Midway are not nearly as deadly as we think (although the aging survivors of these battles might beg to differ). Epic battlefield killing and the narrative of combat captures our attention. Examples include the 225,000 dead that attended the three month campaign on and around the island of Okinawa in 1945 or the titanic battles on the Russian Steppes in the summer of 1943 that may have claimed 75,000 German and 320,000 Soviet lives (a rough estimate). These battles involved enormous effort, backed by prodigious industrial production; with thousands of tanks and aircraft consuming hundreds of thousands of tons of ammunition and fuel.
However, these titanic battles, expensive in terms of material and resources, are not nearly as deadly as the conditions of life imposed on trapped or conquered peoples. This suggests two verities that should be remembered even by today’s policy makers.
People can be easily killed in large numbers by deprivation or displacement. Once you force people to move from their homes and send them afoot on the road without any thought to logistics, you immediately place them in great peril. These are the very circumstances that attended Pol Pot’s rule of Cambodia, account for much of the death toll in the central interior of Africa today, and so on. War is not nearly as deadly as deliberate misgovernment. However, in both the Second World War and today, we often miss the true deadliness of such conditions and often regard reports that subsequently turn out to be accurate to be alarmist.
We didn’t much care about what was going on inside our ally, the Soviet Union, often couldn’t believe what the Germans were really doing to Europe’s Jews until 1943 (and even then never truly understood what was going on until the concentration camps started being liberated), and couldn’t imagine the enormity of the suffering in China. Yet, this use of deprivation and displacement is the deadliest human force that exists, and we should always take reports of it seriously.
However, warfare, by changing or preventing dangerous conditions of life imposed on people, can save lives as easily as it can doom them. What really matters is intention. Sending troops to the rescue is often exactly the lesson we should really draw from the 76,820,000 deaths of the Second World War. It can be the proud boast of the Western Allies that all the soldiers, sailors and aviators that we lost died while saving the lives of countless other people. It is the shame of the Western Allies that we didn’t act sooner to head off the aggressors.