"No other period in history offers so richer a choice, a richer source for the study of the moral choice, individual and mass tragedy, the corruption of power politics, ideological hypocrisy, the megalomania of some commanders, betrayal, perversity, unbelievable sadism, but also self-sacrifice and unpredictable compassion."
This all-encompassing description of the World War II was given by British soldier-turned-historian Antony Beevor at the Jaipur Literature Festival. He spoke at the session, The Experiences of Global War 1937-1945, presented by Hindustan Times, on Friday evening.
Rana Chhina, who introduced Beevor, said the author’s 13 non-fiction and fiction works, translated into 30 languages, have sold more than six million copies. His best-selling works, Stalingard and Berlin-The Downfall, 1945, recount the WW II battles between the Soviet Red Army and Nazi Germany.
Beevor said that today it is "very hard to appreciate the huge historical forces that killed between 60 and 70 million people”. Some 15 million Chinese died at the hands of Japanese. The Soviet losses were even higher. "Reliable estimates now put the Soviet casualties between 24 and 26 million. Stalin knew the casualties exceeded 20 million, but he put the figure at 7.5 million which sounded suitably heroic but not overtly homicidal,” Beevor said.
It was details like these, which swarm his works that make World War II history a gripping subject matter. Beevor drew a vivid portrait of the horrors by quoting from letters the triumphant, but at the same time complacent, Nazi soldiers wrote to their wives to the orders heartless generals gave to their subordinates.
He talked about how American marines boiled the heads of the decapitated corpses of Japanese soldiers, boiled them and carried the skulls home. How, during what is known as the Rape of Nanking, Japanese soldiers lined up Chinese civilians in rows and practised beheading with Samurai swords. How , when the Nazis drove hundreds of Jews towards a pit, pushed them into it and then shot them dead, a Jewish girl shouted: "I am only a small girl, I want to live."
"But the discovery that disturbed me the most was that the Japanese commanders not only condoned but actively encouraged cannibalism," Beevor said. World War II, he said, defies generalizations.
In fact, the opinion is divided on where it actually began and many countries claim to be its place of origin. "There are different perspectives about the war. It was a conglomeration of various conflicts. It also bought the world together," Beevor said.
In India, the combined arrogance of then viceroy Lord Linlithgow and Winston Churchill would create havoc. The pre-army Raj army of 200,000 men was increased tenfold and most of that immense force was held back for internal security. Ninety-thousand of them died on battlefronts across the globe.
At the end of the session, when a young student asked Beevor what is the greatest good that came out of this horrible war, Beevor said: "The greatest good, I think, from this war was in the form of the warning about the dangers of ethnic hatred."