FIFTY YEARS AGO THIS MONTH, CANADA — along with Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand, and France — declared war on Nazi Germany. The terrible confrontation took six years to reach its conclusion and claimed the lives of perhaps 50-million people, combatants and civilians alike.
Unlike the “Great War” of 1914-18, the Second World War was imbued from the start with an air of righteousness that still strikes us as apt half a century later. Indeed this sense of a just war has been buttressed by post-war accounting, particularly as it brought home the reality of the German concentration camps where — notoriously — more than 6-million Jews were murdered in circumstances that will always cry out for remembrance and atonement.
Postwar historians have properly complicated our understanding of how the war started. (The spinelessness of the Western democracies, for example, has long been seen as almost as crucial as the endemic German ills that gave rise to and sustained Nazism.) Nevertheless, ordinary people have never been in much doubt about the basics. It was Hitler’s Germany that caused the war. In the terrible struggle to defeat the Nazis, most people could agree with Winston Churchill’s famous witticism that even the devil would merit a favourable reference if he sided with the Allies.
Time, though, plays perverse tricks. With this issue, and only coincidentally to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the war’s outbreak, Saturday Night is publishing an oddity: an account of events born in the ashes of the Third Reich that no-one wants to publish — including ourselves. The reason is straightforward. The central revelation in James Bacque’s report, which is adapted from his onerously researched new book entitled Other Losses, concerns the fate of German prisoners of war in the American camps in Europe in 1945 and 1946. The book itself implicates the French camps as well. By even the most conservative statistical reckoning, nearly a million prisoners died of starvation, exposure, and neglect at the hands of two of the victorious Allies. In the case of the Americans, this was accomplished; it needs to be stated very clearly, as a result of orders, issued from the highest levels of command that deliberately contravened the Geneva Convention on the treatment of POWs.