Beautiful Catastrophe

There is something quite unnerving about revisiting statistics for an event which is long in the past. You could look at it as a way of validating the pedestal a particular event holds in time, which may be important. Or you could see it as a way of glorifying something truly horrific, and is likely never to happen again at least not in many lifetimes to come. It is with these perspectives that I clicked on The Fallen of World War II, a digital montage visualising the war casualties between 1939 and 1945.

…more at fallen.io

First up I should say that this is a slick and impressive display of the true cost to generations after the war ended. For major countries it is hard not to see how this war effected them. Often the dialogue surrounds the victors, and the price they paid for so called freedom (because, you know, the US and Britain were invaded and ruled for a brief period. Oh wait). Perhaps with the use of this video you can get a strong indication of how other countries really suffered. Indeed a quick scroll through the comments on Vimeo will show the level of appreciation of the maker’s visualisation.

Yet, I can’t really applaud this interpretation beyond the actual aesthetic, as there are far too many concerns raised here. This is especially important as this year sees the passing of the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, and we will be reassessing this past in the coming months.

It is well worth noting, and I do have The Fallen of World War II to thank for this important point, that to have fought in the war, veterans now would be at least in their late eighties, many would be in their early nineties. It is highly unlikely that there are many remaining, regardless of what country they fought for, and soon there will be none remaining. It is with this in mind that we need to take more care about how we interpret acts in history.

It’s very easy to do a statistical analysis of a historical event. With World War 2 it’s is particularly convenient as primarily we are discussing the actions of armies, together with their large bureaucratic arms that detail the specifics of each and every recruit, from all those who survived to all those who died. Knowing all this information, like the average age of new recruits, the amount of people who signed up from a particular town or the amount of Sagittarians that died on a Tuesday in 1942 serves a function which distances us from the ultimate tragedy of the Second World War.

The names of some of the people who lost their lives during World War II (Image courtesy rootsweb.ancestry.com)

I’m kind of a geek when it comes to reading over figures and statistics in history. I’m interested in populations, costs, quantities, and pretty much any other detail which can be extracted. But statistics, whether disputed or not, are merely numbers. To turn the millions of people who died into levels on fancy a bar chart does not settle easily with me.

There is little difference in this elaborate display of colours and stickmen to a chart with the countries listed in alphabetical order and the number of casualties detailed beside them. Creating a graph that shows how many people who died rising epically into some digital stratosphere still holds the same level of shock as when the number 20,000,000 is printed. Short of celebrating one’s own ability to create a quite beautiful display, it doesn’t make the lives that actually make up these statistics any less or more valuable.

British troops arrive on Normandy beaches signifying the beginning of the Battle of Normandy which saw over 400,000 soldiers killed.

What I struggle to accept though, looking at the larger picture, is that for all these people who did die, how do we celebrate their story? Does Ireland, a country that suffered only slightly in the war, deserve to be any less remorseful about the events which took place in Europe and Asia? How does a country like Russia or China, two countries that lost a catastrophic number of people, actually account for these lives? These are places we can find it difficult to imagine life in during those times, but grief like love is a universal factor, we all suffer from it to a comparable level. To me it seems that these people’s histories, and the sheer size of their tragedy, have been forced into statistics before we could ever understand them truly.

We are fortunate that the rich television history of the twentieth century has documented many of the ways in which life was lived both on the battle fields and at home. Recently we have been extra lucky to see more real-to-life interpretations, or as real-to-life as we are willing to be trusted with. Story telling brings us closer to the sadness wrought by the sudden death of a comrade, or the brutality of a shrapnel injury.

It is a story that seems to have been ignored. The countries which suffered the greatest loss of life decided to forget what happened. Can you blame them? Even a country like Poland rarely discusses this. Indeed it is not a surprise that the war is not a topic of conversation on every German’s lips, but I can be sure that those people are more aware than anyone of the history their nation created. I wish the same could be said for Japan.

As for the gaping hole in the generations of Russian and Chinese people who had to have been slaughtered to have perished in the quantities they did, what narrative or remembrance can we learn to truly understand a greater significance of World War II? I would hope we can create one which is not dominated by fancy graphics and data, but by realities wrought in the death and destruction of individuals whose fate was decided by men in offices in search of some class of glory.

 

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P.S. Describing every German soldier who fought and died in the war as a Nazi is an unfair accusation. You wouldn’t say that all the Russians were communists, and all the Americans patriots, or whatever.

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4 thoughts on “Beautiful Catastrophe

  1. Conor-
    I have long been a distant admirer of your writings ever since my middle-est son-his words, not mine-,Ben Haynes
    introduced me to your blog. This last piece pierced my heart in a way you no doubt, did not intend.
    Ever since last summer’s hostilities in Palestine/Israel I began to question all of the fairy tales upon which
    American Jews and Israeli Jews were raised. I had the fortune to learn those tales in both English and Hebrew
    due to my having lived in Haifa during my childhood. And, surprise, surprise, the only difference in those tales
    told to children in both countries was the language in which they were told. I set out on a mission to attempt to learn not only what tales were told to Palestinian children at the same time, but to attempt to understand how
    those words have managed to incite so much hate and fear that almost 70 years after the events which led
    to the creation of the State of Israel, the children’s children of those Palestinians who were chased or murdered
    for the year and a half following the creation of Israel are more than willing to wrap themselves in garments
    of bombs. Your use of the word catastrophe immediately turned all that I have learned during the past year
    into a flash flood of such proportions that I had to pause, simply to catch my breath.
    In Arabic, the word for catastrophe is” nachbah” . On each and every ” Yom ha-ats-ma-oot, or, Independence
    Day in Israel while Israeli Jews dance in the streets and set off firecrackers, their neighbors, merely a couple of miles away, sob in remembrance of the lives and the way of life they lost-most likely forever- during Nachbah.
    While I am unhappily cognizant of the multiplicity of the deaths of which you wrote acknowledging the millions
    who were murdered in all of the theaters of war during WW ll, perhaps the fact that while most countries who
    suffered such grievous losses have been able to mend most of the fences and accordingly been able to live in peace, there have been but moments of peace and presently little hope for a future in which parents of children on all sides can even imagine a time during which their children have what should be an unalienable right of childhood. The right to play.

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  2. Hello Conor, it is your darling brother Aidan. You know, the one who gets cold sweats thinking about tanks.

    Couple of points regarding your blog post and the video itself. Speaking from the point of view of a military historian, (I still have the qualification, so yes, I can still call myself that) I would agree with your point that indeed, it is a little too “Uncle Sam” for my liking. The narrator seems to gloss over the fact that many French, Polish and other soldiers from occupied territories were evacuated or fled to England, where they formed their own, (often high quality) units, which took a great number of the casualties that he would ascribe to insurgents. Generally, insurgents engage in “low intensity” warfare, and their casualties are by extension lower. Of course, this means that a greater number of casualties are suffered by the civilian population. More on that later. It’s also worth pointing out that a fair number of soldiers fought for Vichy France against the allies in North Africa and in other theatres. The point here being that, even with such solid numbers, nothing is ever black and white.

    A very worthwhile point is also made of ignoring the Eastern Front. To be fair, the narrator is reasonably honest about the importance of the Eastern Front in the eventual defeat of the Nazi regime, namely that without the Russian Army, we would all be filling our tax returns out in German. Popular history ignores a huge amount of what happened in the Eastern Front. I note with interest that you refer in one of your pictures to the battle of Normandy, a three month long ordeal which finally concluded with the breakout from the Normandy beach-head. What few people are prepared to recognise is the fact that this is really a side stage for the stunning victory of operation Bagration on the Eastern front, which saw the effective liquidation of an entire army group and forced German strategic command to switch all their focus eastward.

    I appreciate that he is attempting to write this for an American audience, but honestly he could have used this to expand peoples knowledge of the wider situation in world war II. But realistically, I wasn’t expecting that to happen when he focuses on the lives that ended because of World War II. This again is a typical result of the American situation during the Second World War, because once the War ended, the time then came to mourn the dead. But for many Europeans this wasn’t an option. World War Two did not signify an end for many European countries, only a beginning. These are countries that suffered under a totalitarian regime as some perverse form of recompense, as well as those countries are still engaged in bitter conflict even up to the present, directly because of the results of the War.

    I will be interested to see an attempt to tally the civilian cost of the Second World War, in the same format for two reasons. Firstly, because by comparison to military records it will be hopelessly inaccurate.. Secondly, it will show the real cost of such conflicts.

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    • Aidan? Oh yes i recall an Aidan. But o thought he lived very far seeing as he nevwr calls or visits…

      I had forgotten about Bagration, but to be fair I only put the photo in as an example of the scale of death and destruction caused by WW2, not really because of the significance of the battle. Still worth noting that the German army still redeployed forces from the East after Bagration to cope with Normandy.

      Other than the iron curtain the vast amount of Stalins purges and such had been carried out before Ww2. Yes the communist east wasn’t a nice place but it did not result in any level of slaughter comparable with the pre-war years. China on the other hand was a remarkably different story.

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