World in the Grip of an Idea: 13. World War II - The Socialist Conflagration

In this series, Dr. Carson examines the connection between ideology and the revolutions of our time and traces the Impact on several major countries and the spread of the Ideas and practices around the world.

War is filled with incongruities. On or about May 1, 1945, I watched a command performance of the Dresden Symphony Orchestra in a small town located along the border of Germany and Czechoslovakia. The command was probably issued by the commanding general of the First Infantry Division—the "Bloody Red One"—of the United States Army. The most obvious incongruity was that the United States and Germany were at war with one another, and here were American soldiers in battle dress being entertained by a German orchestra. Another incongruity was that amidst the incivility of war—as Patton’s Third Army made its final thrust toward Prague —we paused for an hour or so to listen to one of the finest products of Western Civilization, glorious German music performed by a symphony orchestra.

The reason for Dresden’s orchestra being quartered in this village adds to the incongruity of the situation. On February 13-14, 1945, Dresden had been subjected to a succession of air raids by British and American planes. Dresden had long been famed as a cultural center and was architecturally one of the most beautiful cities in Europe. It had little significance, almost none, as a military target and had until the above dates only two small raids.

Bombing Dresden

Although Dresden was not an open city—though it was barely defended—, there was a widely held belief that the Allies did not intend to bomb it. In consequence, refugees had poured into the city to double its population to 1,300,000 people. Allied intelligence had reported that German armor was passing through the city by rail, but this was apparently known to be false by air force commanders before the raids were sent out.

At any rate, these may well have been the most devastating raids in a brief period in all of history. The city was devastated, over 100,000 people killed according to some estimates, and 1600 acres laid waste. In the midst of one of the British raids a fire storm broke out raising temperatures to over 1000 degrees Fahrenheit and sucking high winds into the vortex of the fire. The American raid which followed was carried out in the daylight. The bombers were accompanied by fighter planes which added to the death-dealing destruction by strafing civilians. It was to find refuge from this destruction that the Dresden Symphony had moved to a small town.’

There may have been no particular malice behind the otherwise wanton bombing and strafing of Dresden. Certainly, the air force personnel involved in the raid were performing their assigned tasks as thoroughly as they could. Apparently malicious atrocities abounded, however, in World War II. Among the most horrifying of these followed in the wake of the assassination of the SS leader Reinhardt Heydrich by Czech soldiers secreted into Czechoslovakia by the British in late 1941. In retaliation, the Germans immediately killed 1500 Czechs. Three thousand Jews were shipped from Czechoslovakia to Poland to be put to death. A few days after Heydrich’s death, the village of Lidice was apparently selected at random to become an object lesson to the Czechs. The whole village was sealed off by the SD. The next day the males were all killed in a massacre which took ten hours to complete. The females, excepting those who were pregnant, were sent to concentration camps. Pregnant women were sent to hospitals to be delivered when their time came. The new born infants were put to death, and the mothers then sent to concentration camps.2 The village of Lidice was physically destroyed as well.

Germans and Russians sometimes vied with one another in their cruelty to prisoners. The German Admiral Canaris made this report from the Russian front in December of 1941:

Our own treatment of Russian prisoners is having awful consequences. In the retreat from Moscow we had to abandon German field hospitals as well. The Russians dragged out the sick and injured, hanged them upside down, poured gasoline over them, and set them on fire. Some uninjured German soldiers had to watch this torture; they were then kicked in the groin and sent back to the German lines with instructions to describe how the Bolsheviks were reacting to news of the mass executions and barbaric treatment meted out to their comrades in German captivity. On another occasion German prisoners were beheaded and their heads laid out to form the SS.³

Barbarities and Atrocities

As the Russian armies swept into East Germany in early 1945, many of the inhabitants fled westward attempting to escape the terror. Here are two stories recounted by John Toland, from among many, many more:

One of these groups was entering the village of Nemmersdorf when Russian tanks abruptly appeared, bulldozing everything in their path. Dozens of carts were smashed, side-swiped, rolled over. Baggage spilled out, people were crushed. The tanks rolled ahead obliviously, but in a few minutes Dodge trucks appeared. Infantrymen jumped out and began pillaging and raping. At The White Mug restaurant four women were raped many times, dragged outside naked and nailed through the hands to a wagon. Not far away, at The Red Mug, another naked woman was nailed to a barn. When the Russians moved off, they left behind seventy-two dead civilians.

A few miles to the west, Russians were breaking into the village of Weitzdorf. A young woman, Lotte Keuch, watched in horror as her father-in-law and six male neighbors were shot. Next a dozen French slave laborers at the manor were rounded up and their rings taken away—by slicing off their fingers. Then the Frenchmen were lined up, executed. And the raping began.4

Such barbarities—and their number is so great and the details so fulsome that the sensitivities are soon dulled and the mind numbed by accounts of them—require explanation. It is undoubtedly true that there have usually been atrocities in the midst of wars. War frequently musters and loosens passions which are not easily contained. It is not easy to prepare men for the business of killing without removing or lessening civilized restraints. The simplest approach is to get men to thinking of the enemy as less than human. This is advantageous, too, for then the soldier may commit acts against them while, hopefully, retaining his inhibitions against doing so against those on his side. At any rate, any historian should be able to call up stories of atrocities from many past conflicts, and he will usually have been aided in his task by those who have found advantage in picturing the enemy in the worst possible light.

Even so, the exigencies of war are not a sufficient explanation for the atrocities of World War II. Warfare may provide the setting for atrocities, but it also provides the setting for acts of bravery, restraint, and compassion. A conqueror may destroy all in his path or he may liberate and restore. The character of any particular war is a reflection of the state of civilization of the combatants. It is determined, too, by the aims and ideals of the participating countries. The events which comprise a war are not self-explanatory; they must be referred to the larger framework from which they arise. This is especially so when events conform to a pattern and when large numbers of people are involved in them.

Why in World War II?

The ferocity and brutality of World War II stands in special need of explanation. This is the case because the notion had been widely held that mankind was making great progress in the twentieth century. Barbarity was supposed to be diminishing as a result of the spread of civilization. President Woodrow Wilson had proclaimed that when democracy was in the ascendant wars would be no more. If universal suffrage and large scale voting are sufficient evidence of it, democracy was in the ascendant between World War I and World War II. At the forefront of progress, according to socialist ideologues, was the spread and adoption of socialist ideas. These give added impetus to the need for explanation of atrocities and ferocity of World War II.

Despite the vast literature on the subject, there has been all too little effort to explain World War II by the ideologies that were involved or held sway. True, Nazi racist ideology is usually taken into account, but its explicit collectivism and tacit socialism are usually ignored. There have been ideological explanations aplenty, i.e., explanations by those under the sway of some ideology, but these have left socialism unindicted. Dictatorship or totalitarianism have been blamed often enough, but such explanations do not explain the rise of dictators or the advent of totalitarianism. The scribes of our era have hidden from the implications of the very ideas they hold dear.

World War II was the clash of socialist titans. It was ignited by revolutionary socialism and threatened for a time to consume the whole world in its fire. In the center ring of this struggle were Soviet Communism and National Socialist Germany. The main struggle was for dominance of central and eastern Europe, particularly eastern Europe. The English speaking peoples were on the periphery of this contest though pride and confused alliances obscured the fact.

A Confused Scene

Everything conspired, it almost seems, to obscure or conceal the nature of the main struggle in World War II. From August of 1939 into June of 1941 Germany and the Soviet Union had a non-aggression and mutual assistance pact with one another. After the brief thrust into and conquest of Poland, the German effort for nearly two years was concentrated in western Europe: the Scandinavian countries, the low countries, France, and Britain. It was further confused by the push of Germany and Italy into southern Europe and North Africa. More, just as the nature of the struggle began to come into focus after the invasion of the Soviet Union by Germany in June of 1941 it was distorted once again by the Japanese assault on American possessions and the British Empire in the Pacific. With the conflict spread over half the world it is small wonder that many lost sight of its central stage, or even doubted that it had one.

A good deal of the confusion can be charged to Hitler’s temperament and the adventures into which it led him. He was intuitive, opportunistic, and often governed by irrational prejudices. Ideology was apt to be sacrificed to whims or prejudices, particularly when he was frustrated by developments. Above all, much of the course of the war was beyond his control. His alliance with Mussolini was hardly founded in love for the Italian people. War against the British was almost certainly not to his liking, and he had little interest in North Africa or the Pacific. Expedient alliances and unwanted contestants led him to some strange places. He was given to blaming many of these misfortunes on the malign influence of world-wide Jewry.

Even so, World War II was mainly a contest for control over eastern Europe, and to a lesser extent all of continental Europe. This conclusion is supported from three different directions: the aims of the contestants, the arena of the major and protracted land battles, and the consequences of the war. It is tempting to describe it as a war between Pan-Germanism and Pan-Slavism, for that was certainly a major element in it, but that theme can here be subordinated to the contest between two brands of revolutionary socialism: National Socialism in Germany and Soviet Communism. This is so because revolutionary socialism provided the methods for the concentration of power for the expansive thrusts, whatever the ultimate motives of those who directed them.


World War II broke out as a result of the expansive efforts of Germany and the Soviet Union. Germany was expanding to the east: first Austria, then Czechoslovakia, and then the expansion into Poland which provoked the general war. The Soviet Union attacked westward: Poland, Finland, and annexed Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania. The next most likely goal of both powers was the Balkan countries, although that was delayed by Germany ‘s war in the west. Germany and the Soviet Union were on a collision course with one another, though the fact was obscured for a time by the Nazi-Soviet Pact.

It brings some clarity to this confused situation to examine the aims of Germany and the Soviet Union, or, if that is too broad and ambitious, the aims of Hitler and Stalin. First, those of Hitler. A ponderous gloss was provided for Hitler’s aims by the pseudoscience of geopolitics as advanced by Professor Karl Haushofer of Munich. Geopolitics is a way of looking at geography in terms of the interests and desires of a single nation without reference to the interests and possessions of others. It has been used by conquerors throughout history, but prior to the twentieth century none has attempted to give academic standing to the subject.

The key phrase drawn from geopolitics for Hitler’s aims was Lebensraum. It can be literally translated as "living space," but it was freighted with the nationalistic aspirations of living space for and domination by Germany. It should be noted, too, that socialist regimes frequently suffer from what might be called claustrophobia, a sense of being hemmed in and surrounded by enemies. This has been characteristic of the Soviet regime throughout its history. The reason for this is not difficult to grasp. The control over their own people is ever threatened by the existence of other countries independent of their will. The Nazis also used the term Grossraum which meant the "whole space" or area that they required. The term was applied in the following way:

Politically the New Order was simple. German hegemony was to be extended by German arms and accepted by everybody else. Nazi values were to be exported from their German centre and the pattern of Nazi revolution and Nazi life repeated in other lands. The first precondition of the New Order was conquest: the land had to be got. How much land was left vague. At the high tide of German successes the concept of the Grossraum, or Greater Germanic Estate, embraced Europe from the Atlantic to the Urals, although a little earlier it had seemed to make do with rather less of Russia. The determining features of the Grossraum were not its borders but its nature. Instead of finding where people lived and then drawing permanent or semi-permanent frontiers to fit the ethnic facts, the Nazis began by designating an area and then moved people around in order to make demography fit the facts of power. The Grossraum therefore might be any size and in 1942 one writer envisaged it as covering one sixth of the globe. It was not a fixed area but a biological habitat like a nature reserve. It was where the German family lived.5

More precisely, it was an area into which the German family might be moved and established after conquest.

A Germanic Europe

One way to grasp what Hitler had in mind is to understand that he aimed to unify Europe under German hegemony. But it was not to be a unity of equals. Much of Europe, particularly eastern and southern Europe, was conceived as an area to be colonized. The closest thing he had by way of a model for what he had in mind was probably the English attitude toward and treatment of the North American Indians.

Hitler’s racial theories were used to buttress the proposed conquest, domination, and uprooting of peoples. He held that many of the peoples of Europe were inferior, indeed all the others were inferior to the Germans. Other Nordic peoples were the next highest in the scale, and under German guidance they could probably be more or less self-governing. The Latin peoples would probably be next in line, though for expedient reasons— Germany was allied with Italy and hoped for alliances with Spain and France —their position in the ethnic scale was not carefully spelled out. Slays were considered to be decidedly inferior, not worthy of being civilized, but good potential slaves. The Nazis heaped contempt on the Poles, spoke of them as being sub-human, but once his armies were in Russia, Hitler was equally contemptuous of the Russians. The level of education proposed for the Russians was described this way by Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS: "I can only repeat what the Führer has asked. It is enough if, firstly, the children are taught the traffic signs at school so that they won’t run under our cars; secondly, they learn to count to twenty-five; and thirdly, they can write their names as well. No more is necessary."6 At the bottom of the scale were the Jews.

Compulsory Unification

What Hitler conceived was a Germano-centric Europe. Theretofore, Europe had been fragmented into many small countries, dependent upon one another and the rest of the world. Not only had Europe been fragmented but its focus had been "peripheralized." Russia had linked a considerable portion of the land mass of Europe, and some of the most fertile, to Asia. Italy ‘s center was on the Mediterranean looking to Africa and the Near East. The countries fronting on the Atlantic had thrown themselves into colonizing in other portions of the world. Germany would become the heartland of a unified Europe, economically self-sufficient, and a power so formidable that the rest of the world would be at bay.

In the course of World War II enough of this program was carried out to indicate that Hitler was in earnest about it. Western and central Europe was virtually depopulated of Jews. There had been talk of resettling them on the island of Madagascar, but nothing ever came of this. They were shipped to the east, mainly to Poland, where a massive liquidation took place. Russian Jews were frequently killed on the spot. Poles were moved out of some areas of Poland and Germans resettled there. A vast displacement of persons took place as millions of Europeans were shifted about to work on German industries and farms. These peoples were segregated from the Germans as far as possible and constituted little more than slave labor.

Clearly, Nazi aims were in opposition to that of the Communists, but it needs to be made clear that the Soviet Union had aims of its own. Soviet expansion was (and is) fueled by three fairly distinct but interrelated aims. One of these aims is imperial in character. The Russian Empire was partially dismembered during and after World War I. Western portions were cut away to form nations, such as Estonia and Latvia. The thrust of the Soviet Union during the early months of World War II to reclaim this territory attests to the imperial aim. It is probable, too, that Pan-Slavism still played some part in the quest to regain lost portions of the Russian Empire. The thrust of Germans eastward has long been matched by the Russian thrust westward. Russia has long been technologically backward and has looked toward the West in one way or other to make up this deficiency.

Russian Expansion

Another aim of Soviet expansion was strategic. Russia is very nearly landlocked to the west and south. Leningrad, the major western port before World War II, had access to the Baltic only through waters fronted by Finland, Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania. Archangel lies far to the north in frigid waters. Russia has long sought, to no avail, a warm water port in the south that would have access to the Mediterranean during time of war. More, there are no natural barriers of consequence separating central Europe from European Russia. Buffer states have provided such solution to this problem as has been offered, but when these have been unfriendly, as they generally were before World War II, they were unreliable buffers.

The other aim was ideological. Indeed, all other aims have generally been subsumed so as to be virtually a part of the ideological aims. When, for example, the Soviet Union established a Communist controlled government over Poland and made it a satellite state, the imperial, strategic, and ideological aims of the Soviet Union were satisfied in a single stroke.

The ideological aims of the Soviet Union pit that country against every non-Communist country in the world. In 1919 the Communist International, known for many years thereafter as the Comintern, was founded in Moscow. It purported to be a creature of Communist parties from around the world, but in fact control over it was monopolized by the Russians. Moscow became the center for the domination of communist parties founded in countries around the world. These parties were to foment revolution whenever and wherever they could. One of the points to which parties must concur was to this effect:

In countries where a communist party is permitted by the laws to function legally it must nevertheless maintain, parallel with its legal organization, a "clandestine organisation capable at the decisive moment of fulfilling its duty towards the revolution."7

Moreover, all communist parties must have their ultimate allegiance to the Soviet Union:

Communist parties must support unreservedly all soviet republics in their struggles with counter-revolution, urge workers to refuse to transport arms or equipment destined for the enemies of a soviet republic, and pursue propaganda by legal or illegal means among all troops sent to fight against a soviet republic.8

This last point shows the marks of having been formulated during the civil war in Russia, but in essence it still describes the relationship between the Soviet Union and any parties it controls in other lands.

World-wide Communism

This was a blueprint for the spread of communism around the world and domination by the Soviet Union. It did not necessarily entail conquest in the usual military sense but it did, in effect, envision the fruits of conquest for the Soviet Union. The great prize, historically, for communism was to be Germany. The writings of Marx were replete with references to the coming of revolution in Germany. The Communist Party in Germany was growing in appeal in the months before the Nazi takeover. Hitler set all that at nought.

The Nazis and Communists, then, were profound enemies. To Hitler, Communism was a Jewish conspiracy to dominate the world. To Stalin, Nazism, usually referred to as "Fascism," was the last virulent and aggressive stage of capitalism. It was the mortal enemy of communism come to life and moving on the world stage. To those not infected by either doctrine, communism and Nazism were profound enemies because they were different varieties of revolutionary socialism contesting for control over Europe, and perhaps the world.

Hitler considered asking Stalin for an armistice on several occasions. There was talk of making contacts by way of the Soviet embassy in Sweden. Yet, each time he drew back. He is reported to have remarked that it would be of no use even if Stalin accorded an armistice. As soon as he was able Hitler would resume the assault on Russia. By most accounts, the conquest of Russia was Hitler’s deepest and most abiding ambition, that and ridding Europe of Jews. Despite all their similarities, and in part because of them, Nazism and Communism were irreconcilable opponents at bottom.

The eastern front was the scene of the titanic struggle between these socialist powers. Most of the worst horrors and much of the ferocious fighting occurred there. (The major exception to this was the bombing and strafing of civilian populations by both sides in western Europe.) It was in the east that the liquidation of millions of Jews took place, first by massacres with shot and shell, and then in gas chambers. It was in the east that perhaps a half million Gypsies were slaughtered. It was on the eastern front that ideological murders took place, the killing of commissars whenever they could be taken and retaliation by Communists.

War Casualties

One way to measure the scale and ferocity of the fighting is the number of military personnel killed and otherwise lost in the war. The Soviet Union reported seven and a half million personnel as killed or missing. German military personnel killed or missing were reckoned at 2,850,000, though all of these were not lost on the eastern front. By contrast, the United States lost 292,100 in all theaters of operation, and the British Commonwealth somewhat over half a million.9

The scale of the war on the eastern front has probably never been matched in all of history. There have been greater concentrations of forces in smaller areas but not on such a far-flung front. The Germans invaded the Soviet Union in June of 1941 with 135 divisions of their own and 13 Finnish and 15 Rumanian divisions. The Russians brought to bear approximately 136 divisions of their own. At a later date in the war the Germans claimed to have identified 360 Soviet divisions fighting against them, and still later there was talk of the Russians having over 500 divisions. By contrast, the United States had 60 divisions on the western front in the spring of 1945. (The division was the largest standard sized unit employed in the war, but the size varied from country to country and from time to time.)

The Battle of Stalingrad

The war was fought on a front stretching for 2000 miles from Leningrad in the north to Rostov in the south. Leningrad was never taken by the Germans, but it was laid under siege for 900 days. "Without light or fuel, the inhabitants of the beleaguered city depended upon supplies hauled across Lake Ladoga…. Enemy bombardment, starvation, and disease cut down a million citizens; the dead at times were heaped up in streets littered with refuse and excrement."¹° One of the reasons the Germans never took Leningrad was that Hitler did not want his armies bogged down in the house-to-house fighting of a large city. Even so, it happened in one of the decisive battles of the war, the battle for Stalingrad in the winter of 1942-43. Here is a brief description of the fighting there: "The closest and bloodiest battle of the war was fought among the stumps of buildings burnt or burning. From afar Stalingrad looked like a furnace and yet inside it men froze. Dogs rushed into the Volga to drown rather than to endure any longer the perils of the shore. The no less desperate men were reduced to automatons, obeying orders until it came their turn to die, human only in their suffering. The Germans were on half rations from the end of November…. The final capitulation came on 2 February. Ninety-one thousand survivors, including a Field Marshal and twenty-four generals, were taken captive. The Russians had already taken 16,700 prisoners during the last weeks of the fighting. Some 70,000 Germans died during the siege, many of them from exposure or starvation, some by suicide."¹¹ The ferocity of Russian attacks gained force by the apparent unconcern of the leaders for casualties and lack of fear of death by the troops. A German specialist described their attitude this way:

"Soviet Russians reacted differently to battle from civilized city dwellers. They remained unaffected by high casualties…, by close combat, by battles at night, in villages and in forests. They were used to misery, to lack of care, to absence of leave and of mail, to suffering cold and hunger. They faced death with fatalistic equanimity."12

This war on the eastern front was characterized by a ferocious assault not only on persons but also on property. As German armies moved into the Soviet Union they were followed by economic organizations bent on expropriating and using for their own efforts whatever they could take from the Russians. All state-owned property was simply confiscated. The Russians, on the other hand, destroyed whatever they could not take with them as they retreated. The horror of the war was augmented by the massive confiscation and destruction of property.

Much, indeed most, of Europe —west, central, and east—was devastated in the course of World War II. Only three countries, each small in population and peripheral, escaped the destruction: Portugal, Sweden, and Switzerland. (True, Ireland and Spain were spared most of it, but Spain had experienced its own destruction in the civil war just preceding World War II.) European civilization, the most vibrant in all of history, was shattered. The greatest work of civilization is the city; indeed, "city" and "civilization" spring from the same etymological root and cities are the centers of civilization. The shattering of European civilization was visible during and immediately after World War II in the rubble of the cities.

Cities and Civilization

The modern city is a marvelous tribute to man’s imagination and ingenuity, a result of his aspirations to build, and a wondrous complex wrought from the cooperation of many men to bring it into being and operate its facilities. The network of highways and railroads which pour into and out of cities gives some indication of their centrality and economic vitality. The huge water mains that supply them, the maze of electric wires that light them, the subterranean sewers which drain them, and the vehicles that ply their numerous streets make it possible for hundreds of thousands of people to live in close proximity to one another in comfort and security.

War turned many of the cities of Europe into torture chambers for their inhabitants. Artillery bombardment, street fighting, and bombing broke water mains, cut off electricity, made movement precarious, and made rubble or shells of buildings. The desolation of such small cities as Aachen could only be overmatched by that of huge cities such as Berlin, Leningrad, or Hamburg.

It has sometimes happened in history that barbarians have conquered more civilized peoples and laid their cities waste. When the Germanic tribes conquered the remains of Roman Britain the technology of cities was beyond their abilities to operate and their needs to use. Those that were not destroyed must have been left to deteriorate and decay. So it was, too, for much of the western Roman Empire as Europe descended into the Dark Ages.

A Fury Born of Ideology

But Europe was not laid waste in World War II by barbarians who could not comprehend or utilize cities. On the contrary, every major power involved had large and complex cities of its own. The Germans who rained bombs on London and bombarded Leningrad into rubble had some of the finest cities in the world. The Americans and British who bombed Dresden and Hamburg and Berlin and Schweinfurt and many other cities were proud of their own great cities. Nor will it do to think of the Russians as constituting some uncivilized horde sweeping over Europe, tempting as it might be to do so. True, Russia has long been technologically backward compared to most other European countries, but it was only relatively so in a common civilization.

The fury that gripped and laid Europe waste in World War II was of a different character. It was a fury born of ideology. It was a fury unleashed by people who had the trappings of civilization but whose civilized restraints had been weakened and cut away by ideology. Some account of this must now be made along with the story of further communist expansion and the reasons for the German defeat.

Next: 14. World War II: The Bitter Fruit of Ideology.


‘See John Toland, The Last 100 Days (New York: Random House, 1965), pp. 130-49.

2Peter Calvocoressi and Guy Wint, Total War: The Story of World War II (New York: Pantheon Books, 1972), p. 267.

³David Irving, Hitler’s War (New York: Viking Press, 1977), p. 363.

4Toland, op. cit., p. 9.

5Calvocoressi and Wint, op. cit., p. 212. ° Irving, op. cit., pp. 403-04.

‘Hugh Seton-Watson, From Lenin to Malenkov (New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1953), p. 74.


9Encyclopaedia Britannica XXIII (1955), 793R.

‘°Arthur J. May, Europe Since 1939 (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1966), p. 76.

"Calvocoressi and Wint, op. cit., pp. 476-77. ‘2May, op. cit., p. 97.