There are aspects of the Second World War that receive scant attention in the West. We know about Dunkirk, Pearl Harbor and D-Day, but far less about the Battle of Stalingrad or the Sino-Japanese War, simply because Western countries weren’t directly involved. Yet the Battle of Stalingrad was the bloodiest conflict in history, while the Japanese occupation of China resulted in the deaths of between 10 and 25 million Chinese.
It’s very easy to forget, too, that the main victims of the war were civilians. Civilian deaths totalled an estimated 50-55 million – more than twice the number of military dead. China and the Soviet Union accounted for roughly half of that total.
That civilians paid by far the highest price – either directly, due to military activity and deliberate extermination, or through war-related famine and disease – was brought home to me on my recent visit to Poland. Between 5 and 6 million Poles died during the war, of whom an estimated 3 million were Jewish. That’s roughly 20 per cent of Poland’s population – a higher ratio of civilian dead than even the Soviet Union, and more than twice that of Germany.
Walk around Warsaw and you can’t fail to be aware of the enormous price Poland paid for events over which it had no control. In an article I wrote for this week’s issue of The Listener, marking the 75th anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising, I mention that there are at least 160 memorial plaques dotted around the Polish capital, each signifying a place where civilians were the victims of Nazi atrocities.
I now realise that my wife’s parents, who were forcibly removed from Warsaw in the reprisals that followed the Uprising and were transported to Germany to work in a labour camp, were among the lucky ones. As my Listener story points out, 10,000 civilians were killed in the Ochota district where my parents-in-law lived. In another part of the city, the Wola district, 40,000 died in acts of unimaginable savagery.
As a point of comparison, New Zealand lost 12,000 people in the same war, nearly all of them combatants. That equated to 0.72 percent of the population. Yet proportionately, our military losses were the highest of any Commonwealth country and caused immense grief. On Anzac Day, we quite rightly mourn and honour the New Zealanders who died far away in a terrible conflict for which they were blameless. But I wonder whether our commemorations should also include acknowledgment of the many millions of civilians – Polish, Russian, Chinese and, yes, German and Japanese too – who bore by far the harshest cost of the conflict.