Bloodbath before dawn: The last years of WWII were among the most brutal

Two books obsessed with human savagery.

Warsaw 1944: the Fateful Uprising
Alexandra Richie
William Collins, 400pp, £25

Year Zero: a History of 1945
Ian Buruma
Atlantic Books, 368pp, £25

Almost 70 years have passed since the destruction of Warsaw by Nazi forces following the suppression of a revolt led by the Polish Home Army. With the German army on the retreat and Soviet troops advancing, the directorate of the Home Army – the organised resistance movement linked to the government- in-exile in London – thought the moment was right for a rebellion against the occupying forces; this would demonstrate the anti-Nazi spirit of the Polish people, forestalling potential Soviet accusations of collaboration or inaction, and give the government- in-exile a presence on the ground with which to assert its legitimacy in the face of the threatened Soviet takeover.

On 1 August 1944, armed insurgents attacked the German occupiers across the city, gaining control of most areas within a few days. However, pockets of German resistance remained and gradually reinforcements began to push back against the rebels. Hard fighting continued for two months, until the Poles were forced finally to capitulate on 2 October. Enraged by their stubbornness, Hitler gave orders for the city to be razed to the ground.

A good deal of Warsaw had already been severely damaged – in the bombing that accompanied the German invasion in September 1939, in the course of the fighting in 1944 and in an earlier, equally unsuccessful armed uprising, staged by the Jewish inhabitants of the Warsaw ghetto in the spring of 1943. The Germans now demolished most of the rest of the city, including the National Library, the university, churches, public buildings and people’s homes.

Out of a million people living in the city at the start of the rebellion, as many as 200,000 had been killed or had died of disease and starvation in the course of the fighting. Himmler, the head of the SS, had ordered early in the conflict that the rest of the population should be killed. In the event, the surrender allowed many to survive, although they all had to abandon their homes and leave the city.

The story of the Warsaw Uprising has been told many times, notably by Norman Davies in Rising ’44 (2003), published shortly before the 60th anniversary of the event. Alexandra Richie’s important new book contributes fresh detail, based on the private archive of her Polish father-in-law, who took part in the fighting. Her account is in some respects more critical than earlier ones. The insurgents, she notes, were poorly equipped, few in number and misled by inadequate intelligence. They underestimated the Germans, whose morale they thought had been gravely damaged by the Soviet victories of “Operation Bagration”, which had begun in June. They also believed that the Nazi regime had been fatally weakened by the events of 20 July 1944, when a group of army officers had narrowly failed to blow Hitler up at his field headquarters in Rastenburg, East Prussia.

The uprising was launched just as a German counteroffensive began to repel the Red Army. Stalin, Richie points out, had originally intended to take the city. By the time the Red Army resumed its advance, the uprising was in full swing. Its leaders should have waited until the military situation had become clear. Moreover, the only result of the July bomb plot was that Hitler entrusted the suppression of the rebellion to the SS, which lacked even the modicum of restraint shown by the regular German army in dealing with insurgents.

Critical though it is, Richie’s account is marred by a simplistic Polish nationalism that leads to sweeping statements, such as her assertion that “collaboration was unthinkable” for Poles in 1939. “There was,” she writes confidently, “simply no thought of co-operation with the enemy.” Contemporaries reported an altogether different situation. The doctor Zygmunt Klukowski, writing in his diary in 1940, condemned the many Poles who denounced fellow citizens to the Nazis, looted Jewish property or volunteered for work in Germany. Polish police officers, he complained, were now working for the German occupying authorities. “I never expected the morale of the Polish population to sink so low,” he wrote, “with such a complete lack of national pride.” Klukowski later joined the resistance, which, as in most other parts of Europe, only gradually gained adherents. His lament gets no mention in Richie’s book.

Far from being the “freedom-loving and independent people” that Richie portrays, Poles had lived for years under an authoritarian military regime in a political culture that, after a century and a half of the suppression of their statehood, lacked a strong democratic basis. Nevertheless, the government-in-exile was clearly preparing for a postwar democracy of some kind. It was this that Stalin wanted to pre-empt; he ordered a pause in the Red Army’s advance until long after the Home Army had surrendered, entering Warsaw on 17 January 1945. While the Nazis sent thousands of military and civilian survivors to camps or into forced labour in Germany, the Soviet occupiers shot members of the Home Army, continuing the policy of massacre and repression they had begun in the eastern part of Poland when they occupied it in September 1939.

Richie’s narrative focuses on the atrocities committed by the Germans as they took back the city street by street. The rapes, murders, tortures, mutilations and cruelties of every description, committed especially by the Dirlewanger SS brigade (consisting largely of prisoners released from German military jails) and by the collaborationist “Russian national liberation army”, almost defy description. Richie narrates them in stomachchurning detail but neglects to describe the military action with enough precision to make the course of events comprehensible.

It is also a pity that she does not make use of the voluminous letters and diaries of Wilm Hosenfeld, the German officer who rescued and hid the Polish-Jewish pianist Władysław Szpilman, whose story was recounted in Roman Polanski’s 2002 film The Pianist, to give a more nuanced account of the German occupation, brutal though it was.

Atrocities are also at the centre of Ian Buruma’s Year Zero, a panoramic account of the events of 1945 in both Europe and Asia. In the past, Buruma has produced sensitive and informed reportage on culture in Germany and especially Japan, and his Wages of Guilt, a comparative study of contemporary memory of the Second World War in the two countries, has deservedly become a classic. However, this new book, an attempt at a purely historical study, does not match up to his earlier journalistic achievements. It begins with a long narrative of rape, sexuality and prostitution that verges on the prurient, the more so as this narrative resurfaces in other chapters. During the war, he writes, “Female collaboration with the enemy was mostly about sex.” But this isn’t true: women collaborated in a variety of ways – as secretaries, administrators, clerks, cooks, housekeepers and many other roles that he leaves undiscussed.

When it comes to Poland, Buruma focuses on postwar anti-Semitism, on the prejudice and discrimination, spilling over into violence and pogroms, which marred the restoration of civil society in 1945. The picture he paints is as one-sided as Richie’s determined downplaying of the anti-Semitism that was rife in some units of the Home Army.

He seems to think that the millions of “displaced persons” put in camps at the end of the war were mostly Jewish but they were not; the majority were non-Jewish slave labourers and prisoners of war from all over Europe. He quotes David Ben-Gurion’s claim that the inmates of the Nazi concentration camp at Belsen were all Jewish but this, too, is wrong. Buruma misunderstands the nature of the denazification process, which was intended not just to root out Nazism from German culture but also to extirpate more deep-rooted militarism and authoritarianism, represented by institutions such as student duelling corporations or, indeed, the state of Prussia.

What comes across most strongly from Year Zero is the depth and breadth of the hatreds that raged across Europe and Asia in the last months of the war and the first months of peace. Everywhere, with the approval or even under the direction of the Allied governments, people who had suffered for years under the rule of the Germans or the Japanese took matters into their own hands and exacted revenge.

In France, individuals identified as collaborators were humiliated, tortured, beaten, murdered. In Germany, marauding Red Army troops looted, raped and killed at will. Eleven million ethnic Germans were forcibly expelled from Poland, Czechoslovakia and other eastern European countries, while an unknown number perished en route to safety in Germany. Colonial subjects in Malaya, having seen their masters humiliated by the Japanese, dragged “traitors and running dogs” through the streets to summary execution; in Indonesia bands of young toughs attacked Eurasians and other minorities using machetes and guns taken from the Japanese.

Buruma’s last couple of chapters are devoted to the Allied effort to restore order amid all the mayhem. The rule of law was asserted in the courtrooms of the International Military Tribunal in Nuremberg and its equivalent in the Far East. Vengeful former members of the resistance were gradually disarmed. The process of reconstruction began. Nazi and militarist propaganda was banned, its products destroyed. “Re-education” got under way, with some, especially the British, seeking to rescue the “good” Germany of Goethe and Beethoven from the “bad” of Bismarck and Hitler and others aiming to replace a fatally compromised German culture with the best democratic products of modern France or the United States.

A successful democracy had to be anchored in a successful economy, as the Third Reich’s ill-fated predecessor the Weimar Republic had not been; yet the widespread starvation and malnutrition of the last phase of the war, especially in the Far East, made it difficult to create the right conditions. In Germany, the punitive intentions of the Americans, who initially wanted to stop the Germans from experiencing any improvement in their standard of living, were only gradually displaced by a more positive policy, adopted mainly because of the fear that hunger and destitution would drive West Germans into the arms of the communists. With the beginning of the cold war gradually came an attitude of forgive and forget on the part of the western Allies, mindful of the need to bolster West German and Japanese morale in the face of the threat from the Soviet Union and communist China.

Buruma tells this story largely through anecdote and quotation and this often makes it difficult to pick out an overall argument from the detail. He gives too little attention to the broad outlines of policy and the framing conditions of the economy. There’s been a great deal of scholarly work in recent years on the troubled transition from war to peace in 1945 but you wouldn’t guess so from Year Zero.

Both of these books seem obsessed with human savagery. Focusing on people’s personal experiences in the last months of the war and the first months of peace makes for gripping accounts in the hands of these two skilled, literate and fluent writers. Yet both of them neglect the world of military strategy, high politics, diplomacy, international action and institutional processes to such an extent that neither book quite succeeds in painting a coherent or comprehensive picture of its chosen subject.

Richard J Evans is Regius Professor of History at Cambridge. His books include “The Third Reich at War” (Penguin, £12.99)

A view of Ulica Swietokrzyska (Holy Cross Street) in central Warsaw after the 1944 rebellion. Image: Roger-Viollet/Getty

This article first appeared in the 17 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Austerity Pope

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How nature created consciousness – and our brains became minds

In From Bacteria to Bach and Back, Daniel C Dennett investigates the evolution of consciousness.

In the preface to his new book, the ­philosopher Daniel Dennett announces proudly that what we are about to read is “the sketch, the backbone, of the best scientific theory to date of how our minds came into existence”. By the end, the reader may consider it more scribble than spine – at least as far as an account of the origins of human consciousness goes. But this is still a superb book about evolution, engineering, information and design. It ranges from neuroscience to nesting birds, from computing theory to jazz, and there is something fascinating on every page.

The term “design” has a bad reputation in biology because it has been co-opted by creationists disguised as theorists of “intelligent design”. Nature is the blind watchmaker (in Richard Dawkins’s phrase), dumbly building remarkable structures through a process of random accretion and winnowing over vast spans of time. Nonetheless, Dennett argues stylishly, asking “design” questions about evolution shouldn’t be ­taboo, because “biology is reverse engin­eering”: asking what some phenomenon or structure is for is an excellent way to understand how it might have arisen.

Just as in nature there is design without a designer, so in many natural phenomena we can observe what Dennett calls “competence without comprehension”. Evolution does not understand nightingales, but it builds them; your immune system does not understand disease. Termites do not build their mounds according to blueprints, and yet the results are remarkably complex: reminiscent in one case, as Dennett notes, of Gaudí’s church the Sagrada Família. In general, evolution and its living products are saturated with competence without comprehension, with “unintelligent design”.

The question, therefore, is twofold. Why did “intelligent design” of the kind human beings exhibit – by building robotic cars or writing books – come about at all, if unintelligent design yields such impressive results? And how did the unintelligent-design process of evolution ever build intelligent designers like us in the first place? In sum, how did nature get from bacteria to Bach?

Dennett’s answer depends on memes – self-replicating units of cultural evolution, metaphorical viruses of the mind. Today we mostly use “meme” to mean something that is shared on social media, but in Richard Dawkins’s original formulation of the idea, a meme can be anything that is culturally transmitted and undergoes change: melodies, ideas, clothing fashions, ways of building pots, and so forth. Some might say that the only good example of a meme is the very idea of a meme, given that it has replicated efficiently over the years despite being of no use whatsoever to its hosts. (The biologist Stephen Jay Gould, for one, didn’t believe in memes.) But Dennett thinks that memes add something important to discussions of “cultural evolution” (a contested idea in its own right) that is not captured by established disciplines such as history or sociology.

The memes Dennett has in mind here are words: after all, they reproduce, with variation, in a changing environment (the mind of a host). Somehow, early vocalisations in our species became standardised as words. They acquired usefulness and meaning, and so, gradually, their use spread. Eventually, words became the tools that enabled our brains to reflect on what they were ­doing, thus bootstrapping themselves into full consciousness. The “meme invasion”, as Dennett puts it, “turned our brains into minds”. The idea that language had a critical role to play in the development of human consciousness is very plausible and not, in broad outline, new. The question is how much Dennett’s version leaves to explain.

Before the reader arrives at that crux, there are many useful philosophical interludes: on different senses of “why” (why as in “how come?” against why as in “what for?”), or in the “strange inversions of reasoning” offered by Darwin (the notion that competence does not require comprehension), Alan Turing (that a perfect computing machine need not know what arithmetic is) and David Hume (that causation is a projection of our minds and not something we perceive directly). Dennett suggests that the era of intelligent design may be coming to an end; after all, our best AIs, such as the ­AlphaGo program (which beat the human European champion of the boardgame Go 5-0 in a 2015 match), are these days created as learning systems that will teach themselves what to do. But our sunny and convivial host is not as worried as some about an imminent takeover by intelligent machines; the more pressing problem, he argues persuasively, is that we usually trust computerised systems to an extent they don’t deserve. His final call for critical thinking tools to be made widely available is timely and admirable. What remains puzzlingly vague to the end, however, is whether Dennett actually thinks human consciousness – the entire book’s explanandum – is real; and even what exactly he means by the term.

Dennett’s 1991 book, Consciousness Explained, seemed to some people to deny the existence of consciousness at all, so waggish critics retitled it Consciousness Explained Away. Yet it was never quite clear just what Dennett was claiming didn’t exist. In this new book, confusion persists, owing to his reluctance to define his terms. When he says “consciousness” he appears to mean reflective self-consciousness (I am aware that I am aware), whereas many other philosophers use “consciousness” to mean ordinary awareness, or experience. There ensues much sparring with straw men, as when he ridicules thinkers who assume that gorillas, say, have consciousness. They almost certainly don’t in his sense, and they almost certainly do in his opponents’ sense. (A gorilla, we may be pretty confident, has experience in the way that a volcano or a cloud does not.)

More unnecessary confusion, in which one begins to suspect Dennett takes a polemical delight, arises from his continued use of the term “illusion”. Consciousness, he has long said, is an illusion: we think we have it, but we don’t. But what is it that we are fooled into believing in? It can’t be experience itself: as the philosopher Galen Strawson has pointed out, the claim that I only seem to have experience presupposes that I really am having experience – the experience of there seeming to be something. And throughout this book, Dennett’s language implies that he thinks consciousness is real: he refers to “conscious thinking in H[omo] sapiens”, to people’s “private thoughts and experiences”, to our “proper minds, enculturated minds full of thinking tools”, and to “a ‘rich mental life’ in the sense of a conscious life like ours”.

The way in which this conscious life is allegedly illusory is finally explained in terms of a “user illusion”, such as the desktop on a computer operating system. We move files around on our screen desktop, but the way the computer works under the hood bears no relation to these pictorial metaphors. Similarly, Dennett writes, we think we are consistent “selves”, able to perceive the world as it is directly, and acting for rational reasons. But by far the bulk of what is going on in the brain is unconscious, ­low-level processing by neurons, to which we have no access. Therefore we are stuck at an ­“illusory” level, incapable of experiencing how our brains work.

This picture of our conscious mind is rather like Freud’s ego, precariously balan­ced atop a seething unconscious with an entirely different agenda. Dennett explains wonderfully what we now know, or at least compellingly theorise, about how much unconscious guessing, prediction and logical inference is done by our brains to produce even a very simple experience such as seeing a table. Still, to call our normal experience of things an “illusion” is, arguably, to privilege one level of explanation arbitrarily over another. If you ask me what is happening on my computer at the moment, I shall reply that I am writing a book review on a word processor. If I embarked instead on a description of electrical impulses running through the CPU, you would think I was being sarcastically obtuse. The normal answer is perfectly true. It’s also true that I am currently seeing my laptop screen even as this experience depends on innumerable neural processes of guessing and reconstruction.

The upshot is that, by the end of this brilliant book, the one thing that hasn’t been explained is consciousness. How does first-person experience – the experience you are having now, reading these words – arise from the electrochemical interactions of neurons? No one has even the beginnings of a plausible theory, which is why the question has been called the “Hard Problem”. Dennett’s story is that human consciousness arose because our brains were colonised by word-memes; but how did that do the trick? No explanation is forthcoming. Dennett likes to say the Hard Problem just doesn’t exist, but ignoring it won’t make it go away – even if, as his own book demonstrates, you can ignore it and still do a lot of deep and fascinating thinking about human beings and our place in nature.

Steven Poole’s books include “Rethink: the Surprising History of New Ideas” (Random House Books)

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times