The Rarely Told Story of WWII


In his Oct. 19 column (“Looking to Past to See the Present”), Howard Rosenberg compares the “sanitized” images of our war in Afghanistan with the harrowing battle scenes in HBO’s “Band of Brothers,” which he claims “brought home” the true horrors of war.

Rosenberg’s analogy is correct only to a point.

Hollywood and the American public have always loved the images of heroic young GIs battling German soldiers in Europe (witness the popularity of films such as “Saving Private Ryan” and the “Greatest Generation” books). However, as accurate as these images are, they are also somewhat “sanitized” because they don’t tell the full story of how we won the war in Europe.

What brought Germany to its knees was U.S. and British aerial bombing. This aspect of the war is rarely dramatized.


Obviously, dropping bombs from on high is less dramatic than going toe-to-toe with German soldiers on the ground, but I suspect there’s another reason for Hollywood’s reluctance to bring attention to the bombing campaign: In our bombing of Germany, heavily populated civilian districts were intentionally targeted. The idea was that by targeting the civilian population, we would disrupt Germany’s economy, destroy the morale of its citizens and create chaos by rendering millions of people homeless.

Low-income areas were especially targeted for destruction because the population was denser and the buildings closer together. In February 1942, Allied bombers were specifically instructed to concentrate on built-up residential areas instead of targets such as dockyards and factories.

It was a brutal way to win a war--and it worked like a charm. By the war’s end, more than 2.3 million German civilians were dead, about one-third of them killed in air raids (60,000 of these air raid victims were not even Germans; they were foreign laborers, including Jews).

We used a similar bombing strategy against Japan, but the death toll from both atomic bombs does not equal the death toll from the fire and phosphorous bombs used against Germany. (These bombs created a firestorm that was so intense, German civilians were baked alive in their basement bomb shelters.)

Why is this information relevant today? Because today’s Americans have been led to believe that in a “good war,” civilians aren’t targeted. With every news release about Afghani civilians killed by stray American missiles, many Americans react with righteous indignation. “How can we kill innocent civilians? Why, we’re as bad as the terrorists!” Hollywood helps foster the notion that we fought World War II in a strictly ethical way, but the truth is that the destruction of the brutal Nazi empire came about only through brutal methods.

By facing the non-sanitized reality of World War II, we can confront the assumptions and prejudices that color our views of the current war. If millions of civilian deaths were necessary to bring down Nazi Germany (a country that never attacked the United States), are not some civilian deaths to be expected--dare I say tolerated--in our war against Islamic fascists, who’ve already killed more Americans than died on D-day?


Most Germans voted against Hitler in the election of 1932. The German civilians who were burned alive in our bombing raids were no more likely to be Nazis than the Afghani civilians who’ve been hit by U.S. missiles are likely to be Taliban sympathizers.

Many liberals insist that the U.S. only kills civilians in our wars against “people of color.” This assumption is seriously challenged when one realizes that no war in U.S. history claimed more civilian lives than our war against Germany.

Hollywood does no public service by “cleaning up” our conduct during World War II. The public should know the full story of how the “greatest generation” won the war. Without all of the facts, we are not able to ask ourselves, and our consciences, the right questions: Did the “greatest generation” lack our moral compass and restraint, or do we lack their resolve to do whatever’s necessary to excise a cancerous growth from the body of nations?

The answers to these questions are subjective. From my perspective, as the son of Holocaust survivors, I sympathize with the plight of Afghani women, who have been burdened by the Taliban with restrictions that are actually more oppressive than the racist Nuremberg Laws passed by the Nazis in 1935. To me, there is little difference between the Islamic fascists who seek to control the Muslim world and the fascists of the 1930s who tried to control Europe.

By sanitizing our war against the fascists of old, Hollywood may be hobbling our ability to deal with the fascists of today, by creating the impression that “good wars” are, by definition, fought in a “good” way.

The reality of our victory in World War II isn’t pretty, but that doesn’t mean we should avert our eyes--especially not right now.



Caleb Tinbergen is president of the Tinbergen Archives, a Holocaust education and research facility in Beverly Hills.