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Posters of World War II: Allied and Axis Propaganda 1939-1945 by Peter Darman

It’s nice to be able to review a book, for once, that is about more than just ‘words’. I must confess to having a great interest in war art, in particular the propaganda poster. Long before ‘Keep Calm and Carry On‘, I have been fascinated with ‘Let us go forward together’, ‘The few’ and ‘I need you for US Army’. An interesting distinction I found is the difference between propaganda produced by Democracies and Dictatorships. Whereas democratic posters tended to be more subtle and laidback, as free citizens tend to be scornful of being told what to do in an overt fashion. Democratic propaganda tends to be more romantic, and more an attempt to appeal to the reader’s better nature. Nazi and Soviet propaganda was far more akin to a sledgehammer – there was no need to appeal to anyones better nature, as in a one party state nobody had a choice in the matter in any case. In an interesting kind of way, propaganda posters reflect that nature of the societies in which they were created.

British propaganda is something that many people will be familirar with, and is certainly in vogue in shops such as Past Times at the moment. Information posters exhorted the population to conserve food, carry gas masks, or evacuate children. Recruitment posters were generally an attempt to encourage rather than enforce. Many examples show an exemplary man or men, in an attempt to encourage the reader to wish to be like them. Quotes from Winston Churchill were also a staple. Funnily enough Canadian propaganda tended to be more overt, such as the famous poster of a lion and beaver charging, bayonets fixed, and the equally famous ‘Lets go Canada!’. French war posters were also quite interesting. Of couse after 1940, whilst the Vichy French were pleading with the populace to ‘remember Oran’, and attempting to recruit for the Vichy Legions, the Free French were also producing posters for the consumption of exiles in Britain and elsewhere. Soviet propaganda has always interested me greatly. Although to begin with Russian posters were very socialist, and very, well, brutalistic and politicised, in time the regime peformed a volte-face and began to embrace aspects of Russia’s history and culture that had been shunned previously. Attempts to demonstrate continuity with the old Russia, ancient Russian heroes and cultural icons such as Tolstoy and Tchaikovsky were made in an attempt to inspire the Soviety citizens in the great patriotic war. Examples of heroic soldiers abound, rifle thrust in their air, in defence of the motherland. Like Soviety War Memorials, its very stirring stuff indeed.

American propaganda is also quite interesting. obviously, after Pearl Harbour a desire for revenge was present, and racial stereotypes of ‘the Jap’ were very common. Often Japanese soldiers were portrayed as rat-like, no doubt in an attempt to convince the American public that they were an inferior race and that Uncle Sam would prevail. Talking of which, Uncle Sam himself featured very heavily, in his Kitchener like pose, along with Golden Eagles and lots of  blue, red and white. i cannot help but think also that a lot of American propaganda was inspired by American commercialism, which obviously drew on consumerism and marketing, to an extent not seen anywhere else in the world at the time. It could be suggested that the US Government was selling the war in the same way that Ford would sell Model T’s, or Coke would sell Cola.

The Nazi regime had made use of Propaganda since its inception after World War One. In fact, men such as Hitler and Goebbels were consumate propagandists, placing spin at the centre of the regime right from the start. How else do you explain a whole country being made to believe in what turned out to be an illogical and nihilistic ideology? The ‘ein volk, ein reich, ein Fuhrer‘ poster is one of the most famous ever. Much use was made of classical symbols such as the Eagle, and bemuscled, Teutonic males, in an attempt to invoke a heritage supposedly linked with age old Empires. Posters decrying the Jews attempted to arouse old stereotypes, particularly of Jewish looks, and portraying them in an animalistic manner. When the war started to turn against the Third Reich the propagandists had an even harder job, to try and persuade the population that Aryan superiority was not a myth. By contrast, Italian propagandist were facing an uphill struggle, as the majority of Italians were indifferent to the war, and hence Italian posters seen, in retrospect, rather absurd and ironic. Japanese posters really are very different to anything seen in Europe, given the vastly different culture. And, again, in a totalitarian monarchy, there was little need to co-erce or persuade.

The funny thing is, I can’t help but admire totalitarian propaganda more. There’s something about Nazi and Soviet art that is really impressive. It doesn’t necessarily mean that I agree with what it is saying. I guess its kind of like Lemmy from Motorhead, who has been criticised for wearing Nazi-like clothes. When pressed, he answered that if the Allied armies had cool looking clothes, he would wear them. It just so happens that the bad guys always seem to have the best uniforms. Not sure if I completely agree with that, but it does sum up my thoughts about war propaganda.

This was a very enjoyable book to read. Some well-known examples, but also some posters that were new to my eyes. Neither is it just a picture book, it is well interpreted and enlightening, looking not only at the art itself, but also the sociological, political and military background. I only wish I had more wall space and funds to decorate my flat with some of them!

Posters of World War II: Allied and Axis Propaganda 1939-1945 is published by Pen and Sword

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Could the Allies have bombed Auschwitz?

Photo of the Nazi extermination camp at Auschw...

An aerial photograph of Auschwitz-Birkenau, taken by the US Air Force (Image via Wikipedia)

Somebody asked me recently what I think about the debates about whether the Allies could have bombed Auschwitz, in order to prevent the mass murder of millions of people during the Second World War. Theres always been a very heated debate about the subject, quite understandably given the massive number of victims, and the tragedy that we now know the Holocaust to be.

Historical Debates tend to align into two points of view. Firstly, the ‘Abandonment of the Jews’ – that the Allies knew what was going on, that they could have bombed the death camps, but for whatever reason they chose not to. On the other hand, many historians feel that the Allies only had patchy intelligence about the exterminations; that wartime propaganda made it difficult to know what was true and what was embellished; and that the long range and the risk of killing the prisoners in particular made it impossible to do anything.

The strategic situation in 1943-4

Whilst draconian measures against the Jews in German occupied Europe had begun as soon as the Nazis came to power in 1933 (the 1934 Nuremberg laws, Reichkristallnacht in 1938, the ghettos in the East), it was in 1943 and 1944 that the ‘Final Solution‘ – the extermination of the Jews – was put into action. In particular, 1944 saw the extermination of the large population of Jews from Hungary.

By 1943 and 1944, the Western Allies had received enough intelligence to know that mass murder was taking place in occupied Europe. Reports had reached Britain and the US from prisoners who had escaped from Auschwitz, particularly the Vrba-Wetzler report which surfaced in 1944. Earlier in the war Britain had received intelligence from Polish sources, and later in the war Auachwitz was inadvertantly photographed by the US Air Force, although analysts failed to realise the sites significance. There was no doubt that seriously unpleasant events were taking place in eastern Poland, the only arguments seem to have been focussed on the number of victims, where they were taking place, and what if anything could be done about them.

The Death Camps

One problem with our understanding of the Holocaust is that for many people, Auschwitz IS the Holocaust. Over a million people are estimated to have been killed there, but millions of people died in other extermination camps elsewhere in Poland – Sobibor, Chelmno, Madjanek, Belzec and Treblinka for example. But in the debate about Bombing Auschwitz, these camps are always overlooked. The Holocaust was taking place on such a wide scale, with a thorough administration, stretching back to the SS and the Reich Main Security Office in Berlin, and with people such as Heydrich, Eichmann and Kaltenbrunner involved. Simply bombing one camp would not have ended the whole programme of murder: persecution of the Jews was a fundamental tenet of Hitler and the Nazi party, it would have been akin to chopping one tentacle off a squid. Given the lengths the Nazis were willing to go to, and the complexity of the mass murder machine, the only way the Holocaust could be totally stopped would be to defeat Nazi Germany once and for all.

The problem of precision Bombing at long range

We also need to bear in mind the problems of bombing such a precise target. We assume that the RAF would have been able to drop bombs on a sixpence, neatly destroying the administration block, the gas chambers, and the railways lines, without harming any of the inmates. Cruise missiles with GPS and laser guiding might be able to achieve that level of accuracy, but in 1943 and 1944, the picture was somewhat different. The RAF and USAAF were bombing Germany by night and day throughout 1943 and 1944, but suffering huge losses in aircraft and crews in the process. Even with advances such as GEE, Oboe, H2S, and pathfinding tactics, the only way that the Air Forces could seriously damage targets was to area bomb them – to drop huge amounts of explosives and incendiaries over a wide area. This was clearly a tactic that could not be used against Auschwitz or any other camps, as it would have resulted in the deaths of thousands of prisoners, and might not have been sure to succeed in any case. Some precision bombing raids did take place in the war – the Dambusters raid on the Ruhr Dams, for example. However this involved a Squadron spending much time and resources working on a specficially designed bomb, with countless hours of scientific research and special navigational aids. And although the raid succeeded, it suffered high losses.

If it was not possible to bomb the camp itself, might it have been possible to bomb the railway lines going into the camp? Railways lines were a very difficult target to hit – being extremely narrow, even more so from 10,000 feet up. It would have taken an awful lot of planes, dropping many bombs, to give a good chance of destroying the railway lines. But even then, railways lines were relatively easy to repair – they consist pretty much of aggregate stone, sleepers and the track itself. Even if the line was hit and cratered, it would take little time for the Germans to make slave labourers fill in the craters and re-lay the lines.

Auschwitz was at the very extreme limit of the range of Bombers such as the Lancaster and the Flying Fortress, flying from Britain. The bombers were not able to fly from anywhere in liberated Europe until virtually the end of the war, although some bases in southern Italy were available, these were at about the same range. Whilst it would have been possible to fly Bombing missions of that range – the US Air Force did carry out a few small raids on industrial targets in Southern Poland – it was at the very extreme range of what was possible. Flying to Bomb Auschwitz would have entailed an extremely long flight across Germany itself, and – in all likelihood – massive losses from flak and nightfighters. The distance might have limited the bombload that could have been carried. And we should not underestimate the challenge of bombing accurately after such a long flight.

The long range might have not been such a problem, had British and American aircraft been able to land in Soviet occupied territory to refuel. However, the Soviet authorities were not keen to allow the western allies to do so. When the British and Americans wanted to land planes in soviet-held territory in order to drop supplies to the Polish Resistance during the uprising in August 1944, Stalin refused to help until it was too late.

There have also been suggestions that Britain and the US could have dropped the 1st Polish Parachute Brigade on the camp. This would have entailed a flight of the same distances of a bombing raid, in C-47 Dakota’s with less range, which were also unarmed and unarmoured. The lightly armed Polish Paras would have been hundreds of miles behind enemy lines, and would have had to fight a well prepared SS Guard, who probably numbered the same as them, with the ability to call in reinforcements quickly. They might even have liquidated the prisoners more quickly. In any case, even if the Polish Parachute Brigade had landed and liberated the camp, what then? Auschwitz was almost certainly going to be liberated by the Red Army, who were not happy for the British-supported Parachute Brigade to be used anywhere in their sphere of influence.

The Soviets

Whilst the British and Americans might be seen to have had the means to take action over Auschwitz, the Soviet Union was fighting on the Eastern Front, and was much closer to liberating Auschwitz. In February 1945, it was soldiers of the Red Army who discovered the camp, it having been abandoned by its SS Guards. They also liberated the other extermination camps in the East. But the Russians possessed a negligible Air Force compared to Britain and the United States.

Although Bombing might be able to impact upon the enemy, the only way to completely end the atrocities of the Holocaust was to defeat the Nazis, liberate occupied Europe and Germany itself – only by doing so could the mass-murders really be stopped. Anything else could only have a short-term effect, and as we have seen, even as the Third Reich was collapsing, the Nazis were still determined to exterminate the Jews.

Neither should we forget that the Soviet Union under Stalin was capable of committing some terrible crimes. With the Great Purges, the liquidation of the Kukaks and the massacre of Polish Officers at Katyn, it has been argued by some historians that Stalin is ultimately responsible for more crimes than Hitler was. This is an important point to consider. Whilst some might feel that the western allies did not do enough, all the evidence suggests that Stalin and his subordinates, if they knew about the Holocaust, in all probability did not see it as a priority to stop it. Such was the disregard for human life that Stalin had. Indeed, when photographs appeared of what the Red Army had found, many refused to believe it, seeing it as Communist anti-Nazi propaganda.

Final Thoughts

This is such an emotive, and, difficult subject to write about. No matter what conclusion you come to, you are bound to upset somebody. But on the balance of history and evidence, for that is what we must deal with, I do not think the Western Allies could have done much to prevent the Holocaust by bombing the camps. I feel that the possiblity was looked into, but rightly the planners concluded that it was just not possible to enact. Winston Churchill, a long-time supporter of Jewish groups, even at one time ordered the RAF to look into launching a bombing raid, offering his own personal influence if others tried to prevent it. But Churchill himself accepted the problems that his officers had come up against. I believe that any historian would want the allies to have been able to do something, and would want them to have done it. But it just could not be done. Of course, now it would be impossible, with high-tech sattelite observation, for such genocide to take place on such a scale unhindred, and with precisiom bombing and advanced special forces, we have more options for prevention.

I don’t think the myth of an allied abandonment of the Jews holds water. The Jewish lobby had great influence in both Britain and the US before, during and after the war. Britain had been the main instigator, via the Balfour decleration, of the call for a Jewish homeland. British forces liberated Belsen, and US forces liberated Dachau, and both camps saw considerable disaster relief efforts. If the western allies were guilty of anything regarding the holocaust, it is of not doing enough when they had the chance, prior to 1939 when all the signs were there that the persecution of the Jews was not going to stop and was likely to get worse. More effort to help Jews escape mainland Europe would have lessened the number who ended up in the death camps. Or, better still, standing up to Hitler in the first place might have prevented him having the opportinity to commit mass murder.

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Heaven and Hell: The War Diary of a German Paratrooper by Martin Poppel

Airborne Warfare has always been one of my favourite subjects in military history. Its probably got something to do with the fact that my Granddad was a paratrooper and an Arnhem veteran, and – not surprisingly – I have read pretty much every book I can get my hands on about the great airborne battles of the Second World War. Or at least I thought I had. I’ve read about Bruneval, Sicily, Normandy and Arnhem, but only from the British and American (and Polish!) perspectives. But considering that the allies were relative latecomes to airborne warfare, its surprising to think that I have read virtually nothing about German paratroopers. Until now, that is.

Martin Poppel joined the German Fallschirmjaeger shortly before the start of the Second World War, and went on to see action in Poland, Holland, Crete, several stints on the Russian front, in Sicily and Italy, in Normandy and finally in Holland and north west Germany during early 1945. He was wounded three times (in Russia, Italy and Normandy). Initally serving as a junior soldier, he was eventually commissioned as an Officer, and ended the war as a Company Commander. He was captured when the allies crossed the Rhine in March 1945. Whatever the political direction of their masters, there can be no doubt that many Germans – especially the paratroopers – fought tenaciously throughout the war. After capture Poppel was taken to England and held in a Prisoner of War Camp in North East England, an experience he does not seem to have minded too much. He was finally released a year later in 1946. Fortunately, his family were in the US zone in Munich – many of his comrades families were in the Russian sphere.

Poppel’s war diary is a fascinating read. We gain a unique insight into the daily life of the German soldier. Poppel gives us plenty of interesting snippets, about comradely relations, equipment, rations, attitudes to the Nazis and the war in general. Its interesting to note that the elite status felt by parachute troops was not limited to the allies – the fallschirmjaeger were very proud of their status. They seem to have preferred to jump into action (Poppel performed two combat jumps) towards the end of the war the paratroopers were used increasingly as a ‘fire brigade’ in order to reinforce weak points. Another interesting point to note is that Germany’s airborne troops came under the command of the Luftwaffe rather than the Army, unlike the allies.

Its also interesting to note how Poppel refers to British soldiers almost completely as ‘Tommy’ or ‘the Tommies’. Also, how dismissive the German troops were of British and American equipment, and their fighting prowess. However, for me the most interesting point was how Poppel – by his own admission a supporter of the Nazi party earlier in the war – began to see the Nazi ideology in different eyes as the war went against Germany. When returning to his unit after being wounded, his commander warned him that his negative attitude had been noted. But, interestingly, when in a Prisoner of War Camp Poppel remarked that, even though he was by no means an ardent Nazi, he still could not believe what had happened to Germany, and it took some time for the last vestiges of years of Nazi indoctrination to disappear. Evidence of just how politicised the youth of Germany were. No wonder they fought so doggedly.

I found this a fascinating and enlightening read. It has reinforced, above all, my feeling that very often fighting men on either side have more in common with each other than they do with their own generals, and definitely more in common than they do with their own politicians. And, no matter how unpleasant some ideologies might be, in many cases men simply did not have any choice but to fight. And if we are to curb extremism, we need to understand how it takes hold.

Heaven and Hell: The War Diary of a German Paratrooper is published by The History Press

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