This year in the run up to D-Day and the Allied invasion of the Nazi Empire of Death in June 1944, several books have appeared that revisit the past. One, D-Day: The Battle for Normandy by Antony Beevor, has rightly been critically acclaimed. In addition to its documentation of the invasion, amongst other controversial issues, it goes into detail describing the Allied disregard for human life and property as they advanced through Normandy. Not even the justest of wars is without its abuses.
Apart from sickos, I have not yet heard it said that the Allies were wrong to destroy the Nazi regime. Even those who excoriate what they see as Allied excesses, such as the bombing of Dresden or of Bomber Command, moral relativity has not yet (though no doubt it will) descended to depravity in declaring that the Allies should have sought a deal that would have reduced casualties but left the Nazis intact. One of the reasons, of course, was the evidence everyone had of the unbelievable barbarity of the Germans and their partners in depravity. This was why the president of the United States visited a concentration camp on his way to commemorate D-Day, precisely to underscore the distinction between wars and just wars.
In Judaism, one of the definitions of a Just War, Milchemet Mitzva, is war of self defence, and this issue comes up indirectly in Beevor’s book when discussing the way Nazi soldiers battled on against overwhelming odds against the Allies. Beevor suggests they were brave defenders of their land, battling to the end only to be dealt no quarter by the Russians coming in from the east. But defenders of what? Defenders of death camps? In reality, they fought on because they knew damn well what evils and atrocities they had been committing, and rightly expected no quarter, the cornered beast.
This is one reason why I find so much history of the Second World War so unpleasant to read. It is why I cannot bear the sort of BBC or PBS documentaries that interview old Nazis who sit there proudly and dispassionately talking military tactics and efficiency in dispatching the enemy, when they were the very ones supporting a regime of the greatest inhumanity the world has seen. The German people and the German soldiers knew well enough the nature of the regime they were supporting and willingly supped with the devil and directly benefited from the booty and the loot. So when these barbarians fight “bravely” for their lives and their crazed leader, is this something we should commend or admire?
One of the reasons I believe that Israel is still morally superior to its enemies and detractors is that, for all its faults (and who has none?), its society has produced a massive amount of literature and film that decries the awful waste and degradation of war and the human tragedy that affects victor and vanquished alike.
Not a Cannes Festival goes by nowadays without at least one film baring the Israeli pacifist soul, and a healthy thing it is too. Arab society bans such offerings. Similarly, I see a moral difference, without excuse, between crimes committed during the heat of battle and the slow, calculated, vile torture, evisceration and mutilation of bodies afterwards in which Israel’s enemies specialize, from Lebanon, Gaza, and Ramallah to Mumbai (one reason why in the War of Israeli independence the wounded often dispatched themselves rather than fall into Arab hands).
But where were the films and literature produced in cultured and literate Germany while they were destroying Jewish children? And if the answer is negative because they were frightened of the regime, then tell me why they fought to the bitter end to defend it?
I doubt the Allies fought a moral war. It was one of survival. No country in continental Europe, except Denmark, behaved in a civilized manner. The French were even more determined to get rid of Jews than the Germans, though they were delighted to let them do the dirty work. Had not the Americans joined the British in fighting the Germans, I would not be alive today. That is why I celebrate the victory and regard the outcome of the war as a miracle that defied logic and nature. Yet a younger generation of Europeans who have no inkling of history fail to understand why Israel so doggedly fights for its survival and independence.
I used to think conflicts were between two rights. And I certainly accept the rights of all peoples to self-determination. But I still believe that one can and one needs to see moral disparity where it exists. WWII was not just a military contest between two professional armies. It was a battle between free societies and one that was absolute evil. And that is why for as long as supporters of Hezbollah and Hamas are determined never, ever to recognize a Jewish presence and employ the crudest of anti-Semitism in their armory, Israel must not lay down its arms. Peace must be pursued regardless, but moral values must be seen to win. Capitulation to a primitive mindset in the misguided hope that this will lead to peace would be the same error that Chamberlain made in 1939.
There was a neurotic outcry from some rejectionists in Israel that Obama made a comparison of equivalence between the Palestinians and the Holocaust. But actually he neither said nor implied anything of the sort. On the contrary, he was saying that opposing the Nazis was an unconditional mandate for civilized mankind. But supporting the Palestinian cause is a moral issue that, while it must be addressed, still requires reciprocity. Otherwise, the lessons of World War II will be forgotten as avoiding conflict becomes the only good.