the good war


As one of the first American journalists to arrive in Berlin after the end of the Second World War, John Dos Passos was embarrassed by the devastation the American B29s had inflicted. At Stettiner Station he saw large crowds of bewildered people, their skin hanging on their bones ‘like candle drippings’. Berlin, he recalled, was not ‘just one more beaten-up city: there the point had been reached where the victims were degraded beneath the reach of human sympathy’. When Malcolm Muggeridge arrived in the same city, he was astonished by what he found. By then the Russians had fought their way into the streets, house by house. The friezes and columns had been torn away from the Brandenburg Gate, from which the most warlike nation in Europe had once dispatched its armies in triumph. The trees along Unter Den Linden had been cut down for firewood or charcoal. The subway had been flooded on the order of Hitler himself, leaving people floating in black icy waters. The city presented a barren landscape permeated by the sour smell of rotting corpses and the occasional glimpse of the 50,000 or so orphans who’d been made deranged by both the bombing and the ferocity of the final ground attack. Did all this, Muggeridge asked, represent the triumph of good over evil? The world both writers saw was born from some of the moral compromises the Western allies had to make to win the war. That Hitler had to be defeated and Nazism crushed was the one moral certainty that sustained them. Churchill, Michael Burleigh reminds us in this magisterial work, gave a talk at the annual dinner of the Chamber of Commerce in Leeds in 1937 in which he told his audience that he had resolved never to visit the ‘Arctic or Antarctic regions in geography or politics’. ‘Give me the temperate zone. Give me London, or Paris, or New York. Let us keep to our faith and let us go somewhere and stay there where your breath is not frozen on your lips by the secret police.’ Within three years he had to reverse this view, expressing a pragmatic willingness to sup with the devil in order to defeat Nazism – a figure of speech that reflects his abhorrence for the Soviet system. (The grim reality was that if the USSR had not been Stalinist, it might never have survived the war at all.)

more from Christopher Coker at Literary Review here.