‘Unfinished business’


By 1953, more than thirteen years had passed since the outbreak of the Second World War, and more than seven since it had ended. But what one survivor of Auschwitz, Hugo Gryn, has called the ‘unfinished business’ of the war remained. It existed in many forms, opening old wounds or aggravating those which had never been fully healed. For some, it was a simple bureaucratic act which shocked, such as the extension of the patent, on 5 January 1953, to J. A. Topf and Son, of Wiesbaden, for a crematorium furnace in which to burn corpses; it was this same furnace which had burned so many bodies in Auschwitz. For others, there was the shock of a spate of exonerations for wartime crimes, such as the posthumous pardon granted on 28 February 1953 by a German Denazification Court to General Jodl, hanged as a war criminal at Nuremberg scarcely six years earlier.

For yet others, the unfinished business related to accusations of military incompetence or failure. On 20 July 1953 Admiral Halsey, commander of an aircraft-carrier group in 1941, wrote to Admiral Kimmel, about the latter’s failure to be ready for the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbour when he was Commander-in-Chief of the Pacific Fleet: ‘Certainly we did not discard the possibility of an attack on Pearl, but with the evidence we had, the most logical inference was that the attack would be against the Philippines and to the southward. Knowing what I did, I felt I was just as responsible as you or anyone else in the higher command position.’

Admiral Halsey continued, in defence of his superior: ‘Had we been in possession of the “Magic” messages with clear implication from the Japs, by their anxiety to be constantly informed of ships berthing, that an attack on Pearl was intended, and the further pointed fact that the date was Dec. 7th, the Enterprise and Lexington would never have gone on their missions to Wake and Midway. And further, the Fleet would not have been in Pearl Harbour on that date’.

Admiral Kimmel was to continue to feel aggrieved that his case, even as supported by Admiral Halsey, had not been heard; that he was considered primarily responsible for the disaster. In his memoirs, he expressed his feelings with the bitter words: ‘I cannot excuse those in authority in Washington for what they did. And I do not believe that thousands of mothers and fathers whose sons perished on that tragic seventh day of December Nineteen Hundred and Forty-one will excuse them. They will be judged at the bar of history. In my book they must answer on the Day of Judgment like any other criminal’.

In Europe, those judged in the post-war trials to have been criminals were returning home. At the beginning of 1954, SS General Kurt Meyer had his life sentence reduced by the Canadian Government to fourteen years, with further time off for good behaviour; on September 7 he was back in his home village of Niederkrüchten. A month later, on October 9, Helmut Knochen, of the feared and hated Paris Gestapo, was sentenced to death; three and a half years later, his death sentence was reduced to forced labour for life; a year and half after that, it was reduced again to twenty years’ penal servitude; and in 1963, within nine years of his death sentence, he was released and sent home to Baden Baden.


On 5 May 1955, the Federal German Republic became an independent sovereign state. Four months later, on 9 September 1955, the Federal German Chancellor, Dr Adenauer, was the guest of the Soviet Government in Moscow. During a gala dinner on the evening of September 12, he and the Soviet leader, Marshal Bulganin, came to an agreement that all German prisoners-of-war still detained in the Soviet Union should be sent home. By the end of the month, the repatriation of 8,872 German soldiers had been decreed by the Supreme Soviet. They were released in October; among them was General Friedrich Gollwitzer, who had headed the group of nineteen German generals paraded through the streets of Moscow in July 1944.

Indictments and trials continued, with the Federal German Republic initiating many of the prosecutions; on 22 November 1955 the police in Kiel arrested Dr Karl Clauberg, one of the doctors who had carried out the sterilization of Jewish and Gypsy women at Auschwitz; while a free citizen of West Germany, he had openly boasted of his wartime scientific achievements. Two years later, on the eve of his trial, Clauberg died in a Kiel hospital.

The 1950s were also a time of memorials; on 11 September 1956, religious delegates from twenty-one countries inaugurated a memorial at Dachau. On 30 May 1958, at Arlington Cemetery, Virginia, a memorial was unveiled to America’s Unknown Soldier of the Second World War. So long had it taken to prepare this memorial that a second coffin had to be buried at the same cemetery, to represent the unknown soldier of the Korean War which, beginning in the summer of 1950, pitted American against North Korean and Chinese Communist soldiers, and left 33,629 American dead.

More than a decade had now passed since the end of the Second World War. Memories were merged into, and overtaken by, the claims of a new age. On 1 July 1957 a hundred-mile section of the once notorious Burma railway, built at such a high cost in the lives of Allied prisoners-of-war, was reopened to civilian traffic. It became a regular route of pilgrimage for the widows and children of prisoners-of-war visiting the Allied cemetery at Kanchanaburi; thirty years later, a special tourist train of the State Railway of Thailand left Bangkok every morning to make the hundred mile journey. The rest of the railway, over the mountains into Burma, had long since been swallowed up by the jungle.

The relics and remains of war were found everywhere: there were unexploded bombs on all the battlefronts, and in the cities and towns which had been under repeated air attack. As I write these words—on 4 February 1989—the British newspapers report the discovery of yet another unexploded bomb at Whitechapel, in the East End of London, and the evacuation of several thousand people as the bomb was made safe.

The remains of human beings were also found, long after the war’s end, in the fields that were once the front line, on beaches and landing grounds, in the mass murder sites of Eastern Europe, in jungles, and in deserts. On 9 November 1958 a pilot flying across the Sahara desert south of Tobruk saw a crashed aircraft lying in the sand. It was the American bomber ‘Lady Be Good’ which had disappeared in 1943 while on its return flight to its base in Libya from a bombing raid over southern Italy. Its radio, guns and ammunition were found in working order. Later, the skeletons of five of its crew members were discovered in the desert sand, including that of Lieutenant Robert Toner. Also found was Lieutenant Toner’s diary, describing their final, fateful days in the desert.


It was in the 1960s that West Germany began to pay money to States which had suffered from German occupation during the Second World War, having signed what were called Global Accords on reparation payments with eleven European countries. On 18 March 1960, Greece was paid 115 million German marks under one such accord, and France four hundred million that same July. Payments were also made to Poland, which received one hundred million, and, on a much smaller scale, seven and a half million to Russia and eight million to Yugoslavia.

For Western Germany, it was the existence of a divided Europe, with all its fears and uncertainties, that provided an opportunity to enter a new world of defence systems facing the East; on 11 September 1960, the officers, men and tanks of a West German panzer battalion began a three week training programme in Britain, at Castlemartin in South Wales. Nine days later, journalists were invited to watch the German tanks in action, sending their shells into the battered hulks of five British wartime ‘Churchill’ tanks.

Not only retribution and reconciliation, but, for the Soviet Union, rehabilitation of individual reputations, was a feature of the post-war years. In 1962, ten years after Stalin’s death, the Leningrad Military District Court rehabilitated Captain Vyacheslav Kaliteyev, commander of the troop transport Kazakhstan during the evacuation of Tallinn in August 1941. Following the decision of the court, Kaliteyev’s widow, the actress Vera Tutcheva, was informed that the charges against her husband, of deserting his ship at its moment of need—charges for which he had been shot—were totally without foundation.


On 31 May 1962, Adolf Eichmann, the principal organizer of the deportation of Jews to the death camps, was hanged at Ramle Prison in Israel. Two years earlier he had been tracked down to Buenos Aires, abducted to Israel, and brought to trial. During his trial, which lasted for just over four months, eye-witnesses gave testimony, not only about Eichmann’s part in the deportation process, but about every aspect of that process itself, from the initial round-ups to the very gates of the gas chamber. Within five months of Eichmann’s execution, further details about the final moments of Jews sent to the gas chambers at Auschwitz were discovered within a few yards of one of the gas chambers itself: on 17 October 1962 a Polish worker at the camp site discovered the notes hidden by a Jew, Salmen Lewental, who had been forced to take the bodies of those killed out of the gas chamber and into the crematorium. Lewental’s notes, which had been hidden in a jar, included an account of the last-minute remarks of several Jewish women as they were about to die, one of whom, in January 1942, had asked him: ‘I am still so young, I have really not experienced anything in my life, why should death of this kind fall to my lot? Why?’

No one could answer that question in 1942; no one could answer it twenty years later. Yet the question continued to be asked at every war crimes trial. On 30 December 1963, in Frankfurt-on-Main, twenty-two former Auschwitz guards were put on trial. ‘I knew only one mode of conduct’, Wilhelm Boger told the court, ‘to carry out the orders of superiors without reservations.’ Found guilty of 144 murders, and complicity in the deaths of a thousand more, Boger was sentenced to life imprisonment. ‘I believed in the Führer,’ another of the guards, Hans Stark, explained, and he added: ‘I wanted to serve my people.’ Found guilty of forty-one separate instances of joint murder, one involving two hundred people, Stark was sentenced to ten years in prison.

On 30 September 1964, SS General Wolff, who in a letter on August 1941 had written that he was ‘particularly gratified with the news that each day for the last fortnight a trainload of five thousand members of the “Chosen People” has been sent to Treblinka’, was sentenced to fifteen years’ penal servitude. In view of what the court called Wolff’s ‘otherwise blameless life’, and of his part in the negotiations for the surrender of the German Army in Italy, he was released seven years after being sentenced.

Honour as well as shame came to those who had been active in the torments and struggles of the Second World War; on 19 December 1964, what were believed to be the remains of the French Resistance hero, Jean Moulin, were placed in the Panthéon in Paris, as part of the twentieth anniversary celebrations of France’s liberation. This was but one of tens of thousands of memorials and monuments set up throughout Europe and Asia. On 26 October 1968, in the British city of Leamington Spa, a monument was unveiled to all Czechs and Slovaks who had died during the war, and in particular to the seven Czech patriots who had been killed after their successful attempt to assassinate the SS General Reinhard Heydrich, Hitler’s Deputy Reich Protector for Bohemia and Moravia.

Stories arising from the Second World War became a regular feature, long after the war had ended, of newspaper and magazine articles, and film and television presentations. Some of these stories were bizarre, as when, on 7 February 1972, the American magazine Newsweek reported the discovery in the jungles of Guam of a Japanese army sergeant, Shoichi Yokoi, twenty-eight years after he had fled into the forest to avoid the shame of surrender. With two other soldiers, Sergeant Yokoi had hidden in a cave by day, emerging at night to forage for mangoes, nuts, snails, pigeons and rats. His two fellow fugitives had died of malnutrition in 1964, the year in which they had learned, from an old leaflet, that the war was over. Still Yokoi was determined not to surrender, and had maintained his determination by thinking: ‘I am living for the Emperor, and for the spirit of Japan’.

Not only monuments, but relics, became a part of the aftermath of war; in 1975, under Operation Harvest, British and Dutch researchers recovered the wrecks of eight aircraft shot down over the Zuider Zee in Holland. Similar recoveries, of aircraft, tanks and even warships, were made in every war zone, even in the remotest corners of Borneo and New Guinea.

The advent of films, plays, even tournaments recalling the war years could not entirely eclipse the continuing war crimes trials, which, after the rebuilding of the cities, had become one of the most visible legacies of the war, despite a widespread public reluctance to pursue them. Such sentences as were imposed were often for only that fragment of a major crime that could be proved so long after the event. On 26 November 1975 the trial began in Dusseldorf of fourteen SS men, accused of mass murder at Majdanek concentration camp near Lublin, in Poland; the trial was to last for more than five years. One of the accused, SS Lieutenant Arnold Strippel, found guilty of participation in the deaths of forty-one Russian prisoners-of-war, was sentenced to three and a half years in prison. Being over seventy years old, he did not have to serve it. Earlier, Strippel had spent six years in prison for complicity in murders at Buchenwald and Neuengamme. For his time spent in prison, he was awarded compensation, a cash payment of 121,000 German marks, seven times more than the amount his concentration-camp prisoners would have received as reparations for the same period, had they lived. But Strippel’s trials were not over; on 12 December 1983 he was charged with the murder of twenty Jewish children at Bullenhuser Damm and twenty-two adults at Neuengamme concentration camp.

In France, a law passed in 1964, enabling charges to be brought for ‘crimes against humanity’, was first used in March 1979, when Jean Leguay, who had been actively involved in the round-up and deportation of Jews from Paris to Auschwitz, was indicted. Seven months later, in October 1979, three Germans were put on trial in Cologne, charged with actually arranging those deportations. The sentences were of twelve, ten and six years in prison respectively. But one observer at the trial, David Pryce-Jones, the historian of Paris in the war years, commented: ‘Public opinion was hardly touched’.


As the Second World War receded in time, there remained much ‘unfinished business’ to fuel controversies. In 1971 the Emperor Hirohito visited Europe. He was seventy-seven years old. His journey provoked considerable protest among those who had been prisoners-of-war in the notorious prison camps throughout Japanese-occupied South East Asia. On October 5, Hirohito was in London, where the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh—who in 1945 had witnessed Japan’s surrender in Tokyo Bay—met him at Victoria Station. During his visit, the Emperor was invested with the Order of the Garter. In outrage, a former prisoner-of-war on the ‘Death Railway’, John Marsh, then Director-General of the British Institute of Management, returned his Mentioned in Dispatches certificate. ‘We cannot pretend’, the Queen told her Imperial guest at a banquet at Buckingham Palace, ‘that the relations between our two peoples have always been peaceful and friendly. However, it is precisely this experience which should make us all the more determined never to let it happen again’.

The ‘unfinished business’ of the Second World War has continued even into the 1980s. On 15 June 1981, the survivors of what had become known as the Holocaust—the German murder of six million Jews—held their first international reunion, on a hilltop on the outskirts of Jerusalem. Hundreds of people who had not seen each other since 1945 met again, to share memories not only of torment, but of loved ones and friends who had been killed.

Other echoes of the war abounded, from all aspects of the conflict. When, on 2 May 1982, during the Falklands War, the Argentine light cruiser General Belgrano was sunk by a British submarine, there were not many who knew, or could remember, that she was in fact the American light cruiser Phoenix, which had survived the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour with a single bullet hole in the shield of a range-finder. A veteran of the Pacific war, she had met her watery grave, as did 368 of those on board, in a war in the Atlantic.

Three months after the sinking of the General Belgrano, another warship of the Second World War, the United States aircraft carrier Intrepid, came to a very different final berth when, having been moored at Pier 86 in New York City’s Hudson River, she was opened to the public as an Air, Sea and Space Museum.

The mid-1980s saw other echoes of a war that had ended four decades earlier. In February 1985, the widow of Judge Roland Freisler, who had condemned to death the Germans found guilty of plotting against Hitler in July 1944, was granted a pension from the Government of Bavaria, on the grounds that, had her husband not been killed by the Allied bomb which struck his courthouse, he would have been able to accept a high position in post-war West Germany, with the result that she would have been entitled to a substantial widow’s pension. Not a widow, but a former fiancée, Doreen Young, was present on 5 November 1985 for the burial near Caen of Reginald Thursby, shot down in Normandy in August 1944, whose remains had been found earlier that year at Ste Marguerite-de-Viette.

Forty years after the end of the Second World War, there was a sudden upsurge in concern at the number of former Nazi war criminals who, undetected, had found a safe haven in the West. The United States took the lead in deporting those who could be shown to have had a Nazi past. In Britain, Australia and Canada, official commissions of enquiry examined how such people had been allowed in, and asked if trials should be begun again. On 30 December 1986, the Canadian Deschenes Commission of Inquiry on War Criminals was outspoken in its assertion that, since 1948, ‘Canada devoted not the slightest energy to the search and prosecution of war criminals’.

Suddenly, with the beginning of the fifth decade since the war had ended, its wounds were again being opened up, as happened on 24 April 1988, when a British newspaper, the Sunday Times, reported that Wilhelm Mohnke, the officer responsible for the massacre of British prisoners-of-war at Wormhout, near Dunkirk, in May 1940, was living, as a retired businessman, near Hamburg. An official British post-war report, stating that it was Mohnke who ‘gave the order the prisoners were to be shot’, was, however, not to be open to the public until the year 2011, seventy-one years after the event.

The relics of war had continued to be a source of curiosity, and even of looting, for more than four decades. On 3 September 1988, the forty-ninth anniversary of the outbreak of the war, three British deep-sea divers were being held by police in Germany on suspicion of trying to loot the Wilhelm Gustloff in German Baltic waters. More than six thousand soldiers and refugees had drowned when the ship was sunk during the last months of the war—the greatest loss of life in any sea disaster.

The search for a reconciliation of former adversaries continued to exercise the world’s leaders. ‘You and I are about the same age’, the Federal German Chancellor Helmut Kohl told the Soviet President, Mikhail Gorbachev, on 26 October 1988, at a banquet in the Kremlin, and he added: ‘In our youth we experienced the horror of war. Your father was seriously wounded, my brother was killed in action. We saw how many women waited for their husbands, how many mothers waited for their sons—often in vain’. Now was the time, with the debris of war removed and the towns and villages rebuilt, ‘to bring the people closer together in heart and mind’. In this, Kohl declared, ‘I perceive a common, a profoundly human obligation, in spite of the fact that we live in different political and social systems’.

Yet, more than four decades after the end of the Second World War, such sensitive and sane words were not universally accepted. Within a month, in Chancellor Kohl’s own West Germany, when a group of sixteen Jews, then living in Holland, Britain, the United States and Israel, revisited their former home town of Xanten in the second week of November 1988, some local residents were so angered by the visit that they painted slogans on the walls of two schools and a museum. One slogan read: ‘That’s the way to the gas chamber,’ and another, ‘Auschwitz is too small.’

That same week, in Bonn, in the Federal German parliament, the Speaker, Philipp Jenninger, recalling the pre-war years and the beginning of Nazi persecution, asked, during a memorial meeting to commemorate German anti-Jewish pogrom of November 1938: ‘And as far as the Jews were concerned: hadn’t they in the past measured themselves for roles that did not suit them? Didn’t they finally have to accept restrictions? Didn’t they perhaps even deserve to be shown their place? And above all: apart from wild exaggerations which were not to be taken seriously, didn’t basic points of the propaganda reflect one’s own speculation and convictions?’

‘Wasn’t Hitler’, the Speaker went on to ask, ‘someone selected by Providence, a leader who would only be given to a people once in a thousand years?’

Forty-eight hours after asking these questions, Philipp Jenninger resigned. His questions, which had been intended merely to recall the German mood of the pre-war years, offended many Germans, as well as Jews. The emotions of the past had remained vivid in the minds of those who lived through it. Even if physical wounds had healed, other wounds remain. Although the Second World War is now far distant, its shadows are long, its echoes loud. How else could it be with an event, lasting for nearly six years, in which courage and cruelty, hope and horror, violence and virtue, massacre and survival, were so closely intertwined?

One example of these shadows and echoes was reflected early in 1988, when the United States Government decided to reduce the number of countries whose citizens would need a visa to enter. On 26 May 1988 a pilot visa waiver programme was launched in which, instead of presenting a visa, visitors had to answer certain questions on entry. These questions listed, among the grounds for exclusion to the United States, one of which applied to those individuals ‘who were in any way connected with the persecution of others in association with the Nazi government.’

Thus the unfinished business of war remained on the legal agenda of the victor States fifty years after the war had begun.

For the leaders of West Germany, there was a continual and courageous effort to face up to the past. On 12 October 1988, in opening a congress of German historians at Bamberg, the Federal German President, Richard von Weizsäcker—whose father had been a senior diplomat in the Nazi era—declared that the German nation ‘cannot make others responsible for what it and its neighbours endured under National Socialism. It was led by criminals, and allowed itself to be led by them. It knows this to be true’.

The unfinished business of war concerned all the warring nations, and all the war zones; even areas beyond those zones. On 25 January 1989, the Governor-General of Australia gave the Royal Assent to an Australian act of Parliament, the War Crimes Amendment Act, which in its preamble stated that ‘concern has arisen that a significant number of persons who committed serious crimes in Europe during World War II may since have entered Australia and become Australian citizens or residents’. It was ‘appropriate’, the Act continued, ‘that persons accused of such war crimes be brought to trial in the ordinary criminal courts in Australia’. Under the Act, a procedure was set up to find these people as quickly as possible and to prepare a legal case against them. Two days later on 27 January 1989 the Dutch Parliament discussed the proposed release earlier that week of two German war criminals, Ferdinand aus der Fünten and Franz Fischer, from prison in the Dutch town of Breda. Both men had been sentenced to death—later commuted to life imprisonment—in 1945 for their part in the deportation of Jews from Holland to Auschwitz. Fischer was now eighty-seven years old and aus der Fünten seventy-six; amid considerable protests and world-wide publicity, it was agreed by a vote of 85 to 55 that they should both be allowed to return to Germany.

The controversy about the release of the two men came at a time when the Dutch, as well as the British, public, were much exercised over the question of who should represent them at the funeral of the Emperor Hirohito, who had died earlier that same month. The British Government were under much criticism for deciding to send Prince Philip, who as a young naval officer had been present at the formal surrender of Japan in Tokyo Bay. The Dutch Government had as yet made no decision, but, as it studied the question, and as survivors of the Japanese prison camps protested against any royal emissary, a Dutchman who had collaborated with the Japanese in the war, Jan Olij, was in prison in Argentina, awaiting extradition to Holland. He was later released by the Argentine authorities.

The unfinished business of the Second World War was seen again on 29 January 1989, the year of the fiftieth anniversary of the outbreak of the war, when, in parliamentary elections in West Berlin, a new extreme right wing party, the Republicans, won eleven of the 138 seats. The leader of the Republicans, Franz Schönhuber, then aged sixty-five, had joined the Waffen SS in 1942 at the age of nineteen, and had fought both on the Eastern front and, in 1944, in Normandy. In reaction to Schönhuber’s success, ten thousand Berliners marched through the streets of their city carrying placards which read: ‘No more fascists’ and chanting the slogan: ‘Nazis out’.

It was controversy over Hirohito’s funeral which was proved the most pronounced of those which were heard in the early months of the year which marked the fiftieth anniversary of the Second World War. ‘I have before me’, John Hart, a former prisoner-of-war of the Japanese, wrote to The Times on 4 February 1989, ‘a list of 300 names of those POWs who died on the tiny island of Haroekoe, in far western Indonesia. Ragged and emaciated, they stumbled daily to build an airstrip, until abandonment of hope, or disease, brought them release. They died under unspeakable, degrading conditions.’ John Hart added: ‘Pleas for help from the Red Cross, its patronage claimed by the Imperial Family, were ignored and the very mention of the Geneva Convention brought hysterical reaction. But we had surrendered and thus, in accordance with Japanese military custom, we had forfeited all rights. We buried our dead without ceremony, save for a hurried prayer, under the bayonets of impatient guards. Now, kings and princes will assemble, trumpets will sound and troops march, in memory of a man who must carry the ultimate responsibility for so much inhumanity’.

The bitterness evoked by reflections such as these brought back to public prominence the scale of the slaughter of the Second World War, both in the Pacific and in Europe. As many as a quarter of a million slave labourers—Javanese, Burmese, Malays, Chinese and Indians—had died while working for the Japanese on the Thailand—Burma ‘Death Railway’, forced amid constant brutality and near starvation to move earth and rock along the route. A further 50,000 Allied prisoners-of-war—Australian, Dutch, English and American—had also died on this railway, of disease, starvation and deliberate killing. In Japanese prison camps, 10,500 Dutch civilian internees and 8,500 Dutch prisoners-of-war had perished.


The number of those who died in the Second World War will never be known with precision. Tens of millions of men, women and children were killed without any record being made of their names, or of when or how they died. Millions of soldiers were killed in action without anyone recording their names, or marking the place where they fell.

Many calculations have been made of the number of war dead. In the war between China and Japan, which began two years before the war in Europe, it has been estimated that six million Chinese civilians were killed. The Soviet Union suffered ten million deaths in action, on land, in the air and at sea. A further 3,300,000 Soviet soldiers were killed after they had become prisoners-of-war. Seven million Soviet civilians also died; a death toll in excess of twenty million Soviet citizens. The Germans calculate 3,600,000 civilians dead, and 3,250,000 soldiers. The Japanese calculate two million civilians and a million military deaths, the largest single toll being the 138,890 deaths recorded at Hiroshima as a result of the dropping of the first atomic bomb. Six million Polish citizens were killed while Poland was under German occupation, three million of them Polish Jews. A further three million Jews from other parts of Europe were killed, bringing the Jewish death toll to six million. More than a million and a half Yugoslavs were also killed after the German conquest. In this listing only of those groups that suffered a million dead or more, a total is reached in excess of forty-six million.


In every war zone, and behind every front line, loss of life was enormous. The British, who had entered the war in September 1939, suffered 264,433 army, navy and air force deaths, as well as 60,595 civilian deaths from bombing, and 30,248 merchant navy deaths. The total number of British Commonwealth deaths in actions was 129,196, making a total British and Commonwealth death toll of 484,472.

In Greece, which was first attacked, by Italy, in October 1940, and then, in April 1941, by Germany, 260,000 civilians died from privation and hunger between 1940 and 1945, 70,600 were executed by the occupying forces in reprisals, and 50,000 were killed in the Resistance: a total civilian death toll—not counting the 60,000 Jews deported to their deaths—of 380,600. A further 79,743 Greek soldiers were killed in action in 1940 and 1941. In all, 420,343 Greeks lost their lives.

The United States, which entered the war in December 1941, suffered 362,561 army, navy and air force and Marine Corps deaths.

In Holland, 185,000 civilians perished as a result of war and occupation, more than 104,000 Jews, and 16,000 civilians from hunger and disease during the famine in the northern part of the Netherlands, when, still under German rule, it was cut off from the war zone at the end of 1944.

The number of Indian war dead was 36,092, killed in action in the Far East, North Africa and Italy. The number of Australians killed on the same battlefields, and in New Guinea, was 27,073.

Every warring country suffered losses; even small countries on the periphery, and far from the war zone, could not avoid losses which were heavy for them. Finland, for example, lost 27,000 soldiers in the winter war of 1940. The Spanish Legion lost 4,500 dead during its action alongside the Germans during the siege of Leningrad. The South African Air Force lost 2,227 pilots killed in action over Europe.

There were also deaths from among the soldiers brought from black Africa, including 1,105 Basutos who volunteered to fight for Britain in Syria, Sicily and Italy; and 498 Askaris from Southern Rhodesia, who fought in the Mediterranean, Europe and Burma.


With the return of the soldiers, sailors and airmen from the war zones, and from the prisoner-of-war camps, it became clear that the legacy of the battlefield was far more than its heroism, statistics and victories. Of the Australian servicemen who returned to Australia in 1945, among them her own father, Germaine Greer has written: ‘Thousands of them came home to live out their lives as walking wounded, carrying out their masculine duties in a sort of dream, trying not to hear the children who asked “Mummy, why does that man have to sleep in your bed?”’

No one has been able to calculate the number of wounded, certainly amounting to several millions, whose lives were permanently scarred as a result of the war. Physical scars, from the severest disability to disfiguring wounds, and mental scars, accompanied these millions for the rest of their lives. Many died as a direct result of them. Others lived in pain, discomfort, fear or remorse. For those civilians who were fortunate to survive privation, deportation and massacre, similar scars, physical, mental and spiritual, remained—and still remain—to torment them. The greatest unfinished business of the Second World War is human pain.

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