World War II recruiting poster for the Australian Imperial Force (1940)
Sergeant Leonard Siffleet was a commando fighting with the Australian Army in New Guinea when he was captured by natives, who turned him over to the occupying Japanese army. Trained as a radio operator in the Special Forces, Siffleet was part of a secret surveillance detachment sent to New Guinea to watch the coast and report back on enemy activities. After they were turned over to the Japanese, they were held for about two weeks, tortured, and then – on October 24, 1943, on the orders of Vice-Admiral Michiaki Kamada of the Imperial Japanese Navy – Siffleet was executed by beheading. He was beheaded by a Japanese officer, Yasuno Chikao. Chikao ordered another soldier to photograph him while he performed the execution. U.S. forces later recovered the photograph from the body of a Japanese major, in April 1944. Though the Japanese often executed prisoners by beheading , this is the only known surviving photograph documenting the beheading of a prisoner.
I wonder how it feels to be in that man’s position, waiting helpless in darkness. It’s horrific.
The picture is a rare glimpse of the bomb’s immediate aftermath, showing the distinct two-tiered cloud as it was seen from Kaitaichi, part of present-day Kaita, six miles east of Hiroshima’s center. […]
The person who took this photo would have been among the first to look out there and realize that this wasn’t just your run-of-the-mill bomb. It wasn’t the air raid that the citizens of Hiroshima had been anticipating for months. This was the beginning of a new world.
Read more. [Image: Honkawa Elementary School]
Russian WWII veterans sit near the Bolshoi Theatre after the nation’s Victory Day military parade in Moscow.
Presumably, there was relatively little strategic value to liberating the Netherlands (along with Belgium and Luxembourg), which was why the bulk of Allied forces were busy fighting elsewhere. Furthermore, these countries were enduring a horrific famine that would’ve killed thousands more had Canada not fought to free them. It was the beginning of a long tradition of humanitarian intervention - not there haven’t been low points.
Russian World War II veterans celebrating Victory Day.
Battered religious figures stand watch on a hill above a tattered valley. Nagasaki, Japan. September 24, 1945, 6 weeks after the city was destroyed by the world’s second atomic bomb attack. A Japanese report on the bombing characterized Nagasaki as “like a graveyard with not a tombstone standing.”
American World War II poster.
Photo: Bodies of dead civilians in Dresden, via Mark Esposito
Australian Sergeant Leonard G. Siffleet about to be beheaded with a sword by Yasuno Chikao. Sgt. Siffleet was captured behind Japanese lines while on reconnaissance. The photo was recovered from a dead Japanese soldier. New Guinea 1943
Leonard George (Len) Siffleet (14 January 1916 – 24 October 1943) was an Australian commando of World War II. Born in Gunnedah, New South Wales, he joined the Second Australian Imperial Force in 1941, and by 1943 had reached the rank of sergeant. Posted to M Special Unit of the Services Reconnaissance Department, Siffleet was on a mission in Papua New Guinea when he and two Ambonese companions were captured by partisan tribesmen and handed over to the Japanese. All three men were interrogated, tortured and later beheaded. A photograph of Siffleet’s impending execution became an enduring image of the war, and his identity was often confused with that of other servicemen who suffered a similar fate, in particular Flight Lieutenant Bill Newton VC.
What’s going through that man’s mind while he’s waiting for the sword to cut into him? I literally cringe at the thought.
All Polish specialists will be exploited in our military-industrial complex. Later, all Poles will disappear from this world. It is imperative that the great German nation considers the elimination of all Polish people as its chief task – Henrich Himmler, leader of the SS.
Even before the war began, the Nazis had horrific intentions for Poland. Nazi leader Adolf Hitler, in his 1926 book Mein Kampf, aimed to turn Eastern Europe into part of Lebensraum (“living space”). Nazi ideology held that Slavs, such as the Poles, were a racially inferior group, barely a step above Jews. They were almost literally held to be like monkeys, at best. During the invasion ofPoland, Hitler gave explicit permission to his commanders:
“…. [kill] without pity or mercy, men, women, and children of Polish descent or language”
There was a systematic genocide perpetrated against the Poles, who more or less faced the same fate as the Jews. Early into the invasion of Poland, one of the Nazi’s top leaders, Reinhard Heydrich, stated that all Polish nobles, clergy and Jews are to be killed; a few days after that, the Polish intelligentsia were added to the list, and by the end of 1940 Hitler demanded liquidation of “all leading elements in Poland” – politicians, artists, intellectuals, professionals, and so on.
So aside from being a battlefield for the bloodier Eastern Front of the war, Poland was a direct target of extermination. Subsequently few participants in World War II suffered as much as the Polish people. Poland was believed to have lost between 4.9 and 6 million citizens at the hands of the Germans, with another 150,000 to 1 million more killed by the Soviets. So in total, anywhere from 5 to 7 million Polish citizens – split almost evenly between Ethnic Poles and Jews – were killed, the vast majority being civilians – that comes down to a horrific 16% of the population.
On average, close to 3,000 Polish nationals died each day of the war, with Poland’s professional, artistic, and intellectual classes suffered suffering particularly higher fatalities: 45% of doctors, 57% of lawyers, 40% of university professors, 30% technicians, and 18% of clergy.
In addition, the Nazis turnedPolandinto a giant extermination center and graveyard for its enemies. All the major death camps were based in occupiedPoland, and so many people were sent there to die that estimates still vary wildly. One figure holds that 2 million people from 29 countries died inPoland, including 1 million Jews moved to the camps and 784,000 Soviet prisoners-of-war.
The Invasion of Poland
In addition to the 66,000 troops killed-in-action against the Germans, another 150,000 to 200,000 Polish civilians died by the end of the month-long campaign, victims of indiscriminate or even deliberate targeting of civilians by both the Nazis and the Soviets.
From the very first day, many Poles were rounded up and summarily executed, as were several thousand Polish POWs. The Soviets operated along the same lines, most infamously in the Katyn Massacre. The Luftwaffe led an explicit operation of terror bombings, most infamously Frampol and Wieluń. These and other towns were subject to large-scale air raids, even though they had no discernible military targets. The brutality was such that even caravans of Polish refugees fleeing the fighting were systematically targeted by fighters and bombers.
During the 1939 German invasion of Poland, “special action squads” of the SS and police, known as the Einsatzgruppen, were deployed behind the front lines to arrest and kill civilians considered potential resisters. This intensified soon after the fall of Poland, in a year-long extermination effort known as Operation Tannenberg, which followed a list of 61,000 Poles (compiled before the war by Germans living in Poland) that were identified as high-value targets: former government officials, military officers, landowners, clergy, intellectuals, and anyone else deemed a threat to German occupation.
All this was in turn an early measure of the Generalplan Ost, which among other things was to prepare Poland for annihilation and annexation into Greater Germany. Poles and Jews were either murdered in the spot by death squads or sent to prisons and concentration camps. These efforts were carried out during the rest of the war according to detailed plans such the AB-Aktion Operation, which included the infamous massacre of Lwów professors.
Campaigns of Terror and Pacification
The Nazis already had intentions to eliminate the Poles, but their insolence would only make things worse. As I mentioned before, the Poles led one of the largest and most sophisticated resistance movements in the war. Unsurprisingly, they suffered particularly harsh retribution by the occupying forces, and endured the harshest laws and penalties of any occupied nation: for example,Poland was the only country in occupied Europe where the penalty for hiding a Jew was death for everyone living in the offending house.
Communities were often subject to collective responsibility for Polish acts of sabotage or attack, and several mass executions were conducted in revenge. For every German killed by Polish partisans, 50 to 100 civilians – often randomly chosen, other times made up of the intelligestia – were executed. In an event known as Bloody Sunday, around t 10,000 non-Jewish Polish civilians were murdered within the first four months for various acts of insurgency and disobedience. About 20,000 villagers, some of whom were burned alive, were killed in large-scale vengeance operations that targeted settlements suspected (note, not proven) of aiding Jews or resisters. A total of 75 villages were completely wiped off the map. Aside from the conventional German armed forces, paramilitary unites composed of ethnic Germans living in Polandalso participated in executions of civilians.
Remember that all this was part of official German (and Soviet) doctrine. It didn’t stem from the chaos of war, or from the isolated actions of a few psychopaths. There was the łapanka policy for example, in which German forces would indiscriminately gather civilians from the street to be executed for no reason. In Warsaw alone, between 1942 and 1944, approximately 400 were killed in this way every day. It’s estimated that tens of thousands of people were murdered in random mass executions of this kind, including within the prison system.
Recall that the Nazis aimed for Poland to be completely annihilated. Not only would the Polish people be physically destroyed, but every trace of their culture, language, and intellectual contributions would be liquidated, as if they had never existed.
Thus, the Germans engaged in what could only be called cultural genocide: they destroyed or closed universities, high schools, libraries, museums, national monuments, and scientific institutes. Millions of books were burned, including an estimated 80% of all school libraries and 75% of all scientific libraries. Furthermore, Polish children were forbidden from receiving education beyond the elementary level, in order to prevent the formation of a new intellectual and political leadership.
The Poles responded with a campaign of underground education known as Tajne Nauczanie or “Secret Teaching” that was rather successful, considering the odds. The government-in-exile, as well as members of the Polish Diaspora, lead efforts to keep the culture alive outside of Poland, just in case the Germans couldn’t be vanquished.
Part of this effort also included Germanization, in which the annexed territories of Poland were to be politically, culturally, socially, and economically assimilated into Greater Germany. This went beyond the mere teaching of German culture and language, since it was in conjunction with the systematically elimination of anything Polish: the Polish language could not be taught, streets and cities were renamed in German, and tens of thousands of businesses were taken over, from corporations to small shops.
There were crimes against Polish children, were often targeted as part of an effort to eliminate the future generation of Poles. At least 20,000 children in occupied Poland were selected for their “racially valuable traits,” kidnapped, and sent to special homes to be Germanized and indoctrinated. Afterward there were to be adopted by German families so as to eliminate any trace of “Polishness;” many of them remained convinced that they were German long after the war ended. The children of those forced into labor were placed in compounds called Ausländerkinder-Pflegestätte, where thousands of them died and thousands more were abused.
Finally, there were crimes against the Roman Catholic Church, was a major cultural and political institution within Poland. Churches were systematically closed, and most priests were killed, imprisoned, or deported to the General Government. The Germans also closed seminaries and convents while persecuting monks and nuns throughout Poland. Between 1939 and 1945, 2,935 members of the Polish clergy – nearly 1 out of 5 – were killed in concentration camps. Some cities, such as Wrocław and Chełmno, saw almost half their clergy eliminated.
Mass rapes were committed against both Jews and ethnic Poles since the start of the war. Even during mass executions, many girls and women were raped before being murdered. During the course of the war, Polish women were periodically and explicitly rounded up in mass raids in order to serve as prostitutes for German soldiers, both within and outside of Poland. Girls as young as 15 years old were often slated to serve this role.
The Polish Final Solution
Generalplan Ost included plans for the mass transportation of up to 20 million Poles into massive camps, where they would be penned up like cattle to by periodically conscripted for heavy labor during the length of the German empire. Germany planned to completely remove the indigenous population of Poland, replacing them with military and civilian settlers. During the occupation, more than one million Poles were expelled by German authorities; these expulsions were carried out so quickly that many Polish homes had half-eaten food left on their plates. German children were utilized for this effort as well, as members of the Hitler Youth and the League of German Girls were tasked with making sure that deported Poles left behind most of their belongings behind for the settlers to use.
During the war, at least 1.5 million Polish citizens (if not more) were forced into labor in Germany, including many adolescents. Although the Nazis conscripted laborers from all over Europe, those considered racially inferior, such as Poles and other Eastern Europeans, were subjected to even harsher treatment. Poles were forced to wear tags identifying their “race,” subjected to a strict curfew, and were banned from taking public transportation. Most Polish laborers were compelled to work longer hours for lower wages than their western European counterparts, and in many cities they were forced to live in segregated compounds lined with barbed wire. Social relations with Germans outside work were forbidden, while sexual relations – considered racial defilement – were punishable by death.
Aside from hosting all of the death camps (and most of the major labor ones), Poles were themselves direct victims of Nazi extermination. Auschwitz, the largest and most infamous of the concentration camps, ended the lives of 150,000 Polish nationals, many of whom were starved, experimented upon, or worked to death. An estimated 30,000 Poles died at Mauthausen-Gusen, 20,000 each at Sachsenhausen and Gross-Rosen, 20,000 at Stutthof, 17,000 at Neuengamme and 10,000 at Dachau; 17,000 Polish women died at female camp called Ravensbrück. Tens of thousands of Poles were killed in prisons, detention centers, and other facilities that were set up ad hoc specifically to liquidate them. Disturbingly, there was even at least one camp for children, in Potulice. Later in the war, the Germans set up the Warsaw concentration camp, which was to be used to completely depopulate the Polish capital.
Extermination of Psychiatric Patients
In the summer of 1939, just a few months before the invasion of Poland, the Nazis had a secret program called Action T4 , whose purpose was to exterminate people with mental and physical disabilities (though people with chronic and terminal diseases were also targeted). After Poland was conquered, this program was put into practice on a wide-scale. Psychiatric hospitals and mental institutions were raided of their patients (and often their staff) to be systematically murdered. The total number of victims was estimated to be more than 16,000, with additional 10,000 perishing from malnutrition and neglect. Nearly half the members of the Polish Psychiatric Association were killed as well. It was during this time that “gas vans” were first tested and perfected, allowing the Germans to herd undesirables into mobile killing units to be poisoned. After two years of these morbid test runs, these techniques were applied to the extermination camps.
The Destruction of Warsaw
You can read more about the Warsaw Uprising and its consequences in my earlier post., German forces committed many atrocities against Polish civilians in order to suppress the rebellion. The most notorious of these took place in Wola district, where at least 40,000 men, women, and children were methodically rounded-up and executed by the Einsatzkommandos of the Sicherheitspolizei, the German police and intelligence force, and the Dirlewanger, a penal unit made up of German criminals (and formed specifically to terrorize the Polish and Soviet populations).
Similar massacres took place in the Śródmieście (City Centre), Stare Miasto (Old Town) and Marymont districts; when Stare Miasto fell, 7,000 seriously wounded hospital patients and their caregivers were executed or burned alive. Similar atrocities took place in several other sections. Ochota district was subject to a horrific spate of killings, rapes and lootings carried out by the Kaminski Brigade, made up of Russian collaborators..
The suppression cost the lives of 150,000 and 180,000 civilians, not including the thousands of insurgents that were captured and executed, since Polish resistance fighters were not considered combatants (meaning the rules regarding prisoner treatment were discarded). An additional 215,000 civilians were sent to labor camps or concentration camps, while the devastated and once beauty city was systematically demolished brick by brick, along with its ancient monuments, universities, libraries, and other historical centers.
As if Poland didn’t suffer enough during six years of conflict and brutalization, it was made to endure even more hardship. For one thing, Poland has been “liberated” by the Soviet Union, which for all its vital contributions to the Allied war effort was still run by the sociopathic Joseph Stalin. Having endured tremendous losses of their own, the Soviets used their subsequent influence as leverage in post-war plans forEurope (see Yalta Conference).
Among their actions was the imposition of drastic territorial changes on Poland that reduced its size by 20%; in addition, the numerous postwar migrations that followed and the destruction of Poland’s Jewish community drastically changed the country’s demographics and culture: it was no longer the multicultural and multiethnic nation it had been for centuries. To this day, it remains a homogenous rump state.
Furthermore, Poland was subjected to a communist regime beholden to the USSR, and would remain a satellite state until 1989, when, appropriately enough, it would be the first to lead efforts to free Eastern Europe from Soviet domination (through peaceful means I might add).
Still, the Poles have always had a history of struggle and perseverance, and World War II, for all its unprecedented horror, was just one of a long-line of such calamities. Indeed, attempts to destroy Polish culture – and the Polish people themselves – may have only reinforced their sense of identity. As Norman Davies noted in his excellent book, God’s Playground, the untold sacrifices of surviving Poles made their attachment to nationhood and culture stronger than ever. The experience created what was known as the “Generation of Columbuses,” denoting those who came of age during World War II, and whose cultural output was subsequently based on a drastically changed Poland.
To this day, various polls and surveys have shown that the overwhelming majority of Polish people place great importance on World War II to the Polish national identity. Unsurprisingly, many works of art are greatly influenced by the conflict. As Polish historian Tomasz Szarota wrote over a decade ago:
Educational and training programs place special emphasis on the World War II period and on the occupation. Events and individuals connected with the war are ubiquitous on TV, on radio and in the print media. The theme remains an important element in literature and learning, in film, theater and the fine arts. Not to mention that politicians constantly make use of it. Probably no other country marks anniversaries related to the events of World War II so often or so solemnly
Indeed, given Poland’s tremendous contributions and tribulations, I could see why.
The Barmaley Fountain, also known as the Children’s Khorovod, in the devastated city of Stalingrad during World War II. Needless to say, this makes for an eerie contrast.
Soviet children witnessing an air raid during the start of the German invasion. I can’t imagine what something like that does to your psyche. I wonder how these children, assuming they survived, ended up in the end.
Today is Victory Day, also known simply as the 9th of May, in which Nazi Germany capitulated to Soviet forces, bringing an end to the war in Europe. Known to many Russians as the “Great Patriotic War,” the conflict was won at a tremendous cost: the Eastern Front was by far the largest and bloodiest theatre of World War II, and the deadliest conflict in human history, claiming the lives of over 30 million people (half or more being civilians).
Soviet Russia lost at least 9 million soldiers, a third of them in Axis captivity, and just as many civilians, if not more. Some sources suggest that as many as 17 to 27 million Soviet citizens were killed, while others have calculated that perhaps as many as 20 million Soviet civilians lost their lives. By comparison, the United States lost over a quarter of a million men for the entire war, and fewer than a 3,000 civilians, while the Germans lost 5 million troops on the Eastern Front (and perhaps another 1 to 2 million civilians when the Russians invaded). So many young men were killed that the USSR’s population was nearly 50 million less than it should have been, given the families that these men would’ve had. To this day, many former Soviet states have an imbalance between men and women, having not fully recovered from the scale of dead men.
This is a scale of carnage and death that is difficult to grasp. Think of all the pain and suffering caused by loss of several thousand troops in Iraq and Afghanistan (to say nothing of the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and Afghans). Now amplify that anguish by several million, with nearly 20% of some countries wiped out (namely Russia and Poland). The human mind simply can’t process that level of death. How the Soviets managed to move on and rebuild is beyond me.
And while the Soviet Union came out of World War II victorious, was economically and structurally devastated. Much of the combat took place in or around densely populated areas, and the brutal actions of both sides contributed to massive loss destruction. The property damage inflicted on the USSR by the Axis invasion was estimated at a cost 679 billion rubles, probably a trillion or more dollars by today’s standards. The Siege of a single city, Leningrad, alone cost 1.2 million lives. That fight over another city, Stalingrad, cost a similar number of lives and by some accounts became the single largest battle in history (not to mention a turning point in the entire war).
In all, the combined damage consisted of complete or partial destruction of 1,710 cities and towns, 70,000 villages/hamlets, 2,508 church buildings, 31,850 industrial establishments, 40,000 miles of railroad, 4100 railroad stations, 40,000 hospitals, 84,000 schools, and 43,000 public libraries. Over 20 million sheep, goats, horses, and other cattle were also slaughtered or driven off. Western Russia, as well Ukraine and Belarus, still bear signs of this devastation (in some cases, fragments of bone and metal have been dug up, though that also happens in Western Europe occasionally).
There is no denying that this sacrifice was instrumental in winning the war. The Russians were dealing with around 85% of Axis forces, and German armed forces suffered anywhere from 80 to 93 percent of its military deaths in the Eastern Front. If the USSR had capitulated, Allied forces would’ve had to contend with a lot more resistance. The war would’ve been far bloodier and more drawn out. The Russians nearly bled themselves dry in our place.
But this wasn’t merely the result of bravery and stereotypical Russian resoluteness (though those were certainly factors). The markedly brutal nature of warfare on the Eastern Front was the result of the often willful disregard for human life by both sides: Hitler and Stalin each used terror and mass murder to further their aims, and had no qualms about leading millions to their deaths in the name of victory. This included victimizing their own troops and civilians, through mass deportation, threats of execution for cowardice, and human wave attacks.
And keep in mind that all this is in addition to atrocities carried out by the Nazis, including routine massacres of civilians and the brick-by-brick destruction of entire communities (and their inhabitants). There was simply no parallel to this on the Western Front. According to Time:
“By measure of manpower, duration, territorial reach and casualties, the Eastern Front was as much as four times the scale of the conflict on the Western Front that opened with the Normandy invasion.”
The fact is, as monstrous as Stalin was, and as brutal as the Soviets tended to be (before, during, and after the war), we arguably needed that kind of viciousness on our side in order to win. To put it crudely, Soviet Russia was the bad cop in the war. It took playing Hitler at his own cruel game to put a stop to him, and only the USSR was willing and able to do so. Such is the nature of war. The horror and destruction of the Eastern Front proves exemplifies, in the most extreme example, the fact that most conflicts are hardly black-and-white, nor are they matters of honor and glory. It’s simply about winning in whatever way you can, period. There’s no romanticizing that, although we can certainly do so for the average Soviet soldier who was mixed up in all this, and fought valiantly to the end.
All this stands in contrast to the Allied experience. We Americans could remember the conflict very different, simply because our conduct and memory of the war was much cleaner – we were a democracy fighting a conventional conflict against a fraction of the enemy’s forces. We weren’t occupied and invaded.* We didn’t need to use heartless and self-destructive tactics (nor could we, given the vast differences in the ethics of our political and military leadership).
I’m in no way denigrating our contribution to the war effort, especially considering that we did provide many useful supplies to the beleaguered USSR (at least until they got their own industry back on line). And we pretty much fought the Japanese single handedly (although the Russians and Chinese played a much underrated role in that effort as well). I’m simply noting the obvious fact that World War II couldn’t have been won without the Soviet Union, at least not without investing far more of our own blood, money, and time. It’s very unfortunate that few people outside of Russia seem to realize that – as if the sacrifice itself wasn’t horrific enough, it’s barely even acknowledged.
So while the Russians, as well as other Europeans, celebrate their hard-fought victory over Nazi oppression, there’s a level of somberness that underlies all that glory that we can barely relate with. They’ll keep on romanticizing of course, as humans are wont to do. And indeed, the typical soldier deserves it. But we mustn’t forget just how messy and gray most of these conflicts tend to be. With all that said, my heart goes out to the tens of millions of men, women, and even children who fought and died in the single most horrific conflict in human history.