In Search of Allied Atrocity Photographs July 30, 2013Author: Beach Combing | in : Contemporary , trackback
A provocative and very difficult question from CS in a post two days ago about an infamous Holocaust photograph: are there WW2 Allied attrocity pictures? Beach spent an hour thinking about the question this evening and as the quality of his thought is not always top notch he’s going to try and lay his logic down here, waiting for readers to punch holes. First, what do we mean by atrocities? Let’s stick to people shooting, gassing or starving prisoners or civilians: long-distance bombing raids don’t count, though many would like them to (the picture above gives a window into that world). Second, who are the Allies? Let’s restrict this to the Western Democracies, the US, the UK, her Dominions, the Free French and leave the dreadful Soviets out of it. This is not to say that the Soviets should not be included in a survey like this – the west, to its eternal shame, shook that butcher’s hand. Only that given their horrendous acts on the Eastern Front before and after the German invasions the post would be over before it had begun.
It is a matter of public record that Allied soldiers did commit atrocities. German soldiers sometimes put their hands up and were discreetly or not so discreetly taken round the back of a barn. Perhaps the most brutal cases of Allied atrocities (as defined above) were the vicious battles on Pacific islands. Japanese soldiers famously did not want to surrender, but they were also not given much chance to and there are many records of Japanese POWs being killed. There is too the shameful case of the massacre at Biscari in 1943 when 71 Italian and two German soldiers were murdered in cold blood. But take these considerations on board as well
(i) All save a fringe of delusional Neo-Nazis – in Beach’s modest experience NN break down into delusional and psycho – agree that the Allies killed far fewer civilians and prisoners of war than the enemy, perhaps a hundreth of the number, perhaps three hundredth of the number, perhaps a thousandth of the number. If sceptics and the down-at-heart find these numbers too small remember six million dead in the Holocaust, perhaps sixteen million civilians killed in Operation Barbarossa by the Wehrmacht and the SS and we haven’t even started on Chinese casualties…
(ii) When the Allies committed atrocities they typically killed prisoners of war. This may have been because, say, an Australian or British platoon were fundamentally nicer. But it was, above all, also because until the last months of the war the Allies did not do much occupying. For example, the Allies never – apart from offshore islands – occupied a Japan at war. There are always going to be far fewer prisoners of war than civilians.
(iii) There was a culture of shame among the Allies that meant even when atrocities were carried out there was not much boasting: if you mowed down twenty-five ‘Wop’ [sic] prisoners after they’d put their hands up, you probably wouldn’t take a photograph of this and send it back to Mum. You’d be frightened of what she’d say and the danger of a court martial. One of the extraordinary thing about Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan was that the culture of the two countries (though not the military laws) demonstrably encouraged just these kinds of letters home. Who can forget the Japanese photograph – published in a newspaper – of the two ‘samuarai’ who had had a race to see who could decapitate 100 of the enemy first?
Let’s say for the sake of argument that the Allies (as defined above) committed a hundred percent fewer atrocities (as defined above) than the Axis: an unrealistically high figure. Let’s also say that when those atrocities took place they were invariably of prisoners of war. Let’s say, finally, that an Allied soldier was only half as likely to photograph an atrocity for some of the reasons highlighted above. This means that there should be an Allied atrocity picture for every two hundred or so Axis pictures of dead bodies and terrified peasants. This is another way of saying that there will be few if any about: and this is massively overestimating Allied atrocities. Beach began this post thinking that this was a nice example of the victors writing history. After spending some thought on the problem though he is inclined, instead, to think that what we actually have are important differences between the two sides. If anyone from the Allied nations wants to indulge in self flagellation the way forward is certainly to concentrate on bombing of civilian targets in 1945. There are nightmares enough for us all…
If readers have other considerations or photographs do please send them in: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com
30 July 2013: LTM points out that there were Allied killings carried out at the liberation of Dachau and that dead bodies were photographed (though there was a pretty hasty cover-up): the wikipedia article cited here is of a high quality. He also points to Chenogne, though there we have, I think, no photographs. Thanks LTM!
1 August 2013: Tacitus from Detritus makes some similar points: Allied soldiers certainly committed fewer atrocities, and almost certainly were less inclined to pose for photos. Most of the incidents I have read about were in the line of “crimes of passion”, executing prisoners after atrocities committed by German or Japanese soldiers. Sometimes they caught up with the culpable, there are instances of a few particularly brutal POW camp guards being dispatched for instance. Sometimes they took it out on whoever was around. If you are looking for photographic evidence the several photos of German guards killed when Dachau was liberated are as close as you will likely get. No photos of the actual shooting to my knowledge but neatly lined up dead soldiers tell a tale. The Wikipedia entry on liberation of Dachau has these if you are interested. The famous female war correspondent Margurite Higgens was there….I wonder if she took these images? ANL writes: Dr. Bill Murphy, a friend of my father, was a Protestant Unionist from the Irish Republic. He was one of the first British Army personnel to enter the camp of Bergen-Belsen, and told us that a British soldier, on seeing what had been done there, ran around shooting the camp guards with his pistol until an officer shouted: “Sergeant-Major! Stop that!” Most allied “atrocities” were probably visited upon the French rather than the Germans. Perhaps the shelling of Lisieux would be a candidate? Reputed to be the most beautiful town in Normandy, largely composed of ancient half-timbered building with exquisitely carved wooden beams, the 11-minute bombardment completely destroyed the town for no good reason; there were no Germans in the area. Thanks Tactitus and ANL!
13 Sept 2013: Apologies to Wade for putting this up late. Wade writes in with this: In the mini-series Band of Brothers there is a summary execution of a small group of German prisoners on D-Day. This is supposedly based on true events from the 101st Airborne experience. I think the justification was that the battle was in doubt, and the paratroops were still behind enemy lines and could not realistically handle securing POWs. I don’t know if this was a “real” event or something invented for the series to represent this kind of summary action that did happen then. A similar justification was used by an SS Panzer Division to slaughter 80 allied POWs at Malmedy during the Battle of the Bulge.’ Thanks Wade!
7 May 2014: Just put up some links relevant to this post from Wolland on the Battle of the Bismarck Sea. Allied attrocity films…