Yesterday, Steve noted that President Obama is considering a stop at Hiroshima some time in the coming months, quite possibly to apologize for our ending World War II by dropping nuclear weapons on that city, as well as Nagasaki. I agree with Steve that Obama should not apologize.
However, the main purpose of this post is to cite what I think are extraordinary statistics about comparative death totals from World War II. I rely here on figures presented by historian Tomek Jankowski in his book Eastern Europe. As Jankowski stresses, these numbers are estimates with some guesswork involved.
Let’s start by comparing the death tolls of the winning side, the Allies, and the losing side, the Axis.
Jankowski estimates that the Allies lost nearly 48 million people, compared to fewer than 12 million people on the Axis side. It strikes me as astonishing that the winning side would suffer four times as many deaths as the losers.
Now let’s look at the death count by country in terms of percentage of population killed. Poland, not atypically, suffered the most. It lost an estimated 16 percent of its population. The raw count is about 5.5 million, around 3 million of whom were Jews. (Deriving a figure for Poland is particularly problematic because one must consider how to treat Polish citizens from ethnic Ukrainian and Belarusian groups).
After Poland comes the Soviet Union, which lost around 14 percent of its population. This translates into many more deaths than Poland suffered, given the large population of the USSR. (Though an Ally, the Soviet Union was also an aggressor early on, during its period of collaboration with Germany).
Then come Lithuania, Latvia, and Greece, all at between 11.2 and 13.7 percent.
After that, finally, we come to Germany at 9.4 percent. Thus the chief aggressor, and the loser, is in sixth place.
What about Japan, the other major aggressor? It lost an estimated 3.8 percent of its population. This puts Japan in 14th place, behind some of its victims (the Dutch East Indies and French Indochina) and just slightly ahead of the Philippines.
Italy, despite some horrific fighting there, didn’t make the top 20.
Here’s another striking fact, one that explains why the defeated countries lost around 36 million fewer lives than the victors. 74 percent of Axis deaths were military personnel; only 29 percent of Allied deaths were.
This is because the Axis waged war against civilian populations. They relied on terrorizing civilians, using them for slave labor, and in some cases simply exterminating them in order to rid the world of their kind and/or to create space for settlers.
When the Allies (other than the Soviet Union) killed civilians they usually did so from the air. The purpose was to cripple the Axis’ industrial and war machines.
The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, for which Obama may apologize, was different. Its purpose was to end the war more or less instantly. It succeeded.
President Truman’s action can’t be equated with the war on civilians waged by the Axis. The American goal was not to exterminate a race, to enslave anyone, to firm up occupation rule, or to replace one population with another.
Had any of these things been our object, the U.S. clearly would have something to apologize for. As it is, I don’t believe we do.