Matters of identity

“Shocking evidence of German torture and murder had been emerging for many months as Allied armies overran crime scenes at Breedonck prison in Belgium, or in camps like Natzweiler in France and Majdanek in Poland. Yet not until the revelations of April 1945 did the vast criminality of the Nazi regime spark enduring outrage in the West. Hyperbolic propaganda about World War I atrocities ‘had left an enduring legacy of skepticism,’ the U.S. Army acknowledged; a survey in early December [1944] found that barely one-third of British citizens believed atrocity stories about the Germans. Graphic film footage from Europe had been suppressed because Hollywood worried about nauseating moviegoers or creating ill-will toward newsreel companies. But photography and eyewitness accounts from Bergen-Belsen, Buchenwald, and other hellholes now filled newspapers and cinema screens. Warner Bros. and other studios collaborated with the Pentagon in releasing atrocity documentaries. By mid-April, another survey showed that more than four in five Britons were convinced that the Reich had done evil on a monumental scale. Even war-weary soldiers felt a new sense of purpose. ‘What kind of people are these that we are fighting?’ an anguished GI in the 8th Infantry Division asked after viewing Wöbbelin. If the answer to that question remained elusive, the corollaries—What kind of people are we? What kind of people should we be?—seemed ever clearer. Complete victory would require not only vanquishing the enemy on the battlefield, but also bearing witness to all that the war had revealed about the human heart. ‘Hardly any boy infantryman started his career as a moralist,’ wrote Lieutenant Paul Fussell, ‘but after the camps, a moral attitude was dominant and there was no disagreement on the main point.’ A rifleman in the 157th Infantry agreed. ‘I’ve been in the Army for thirty-nine months,’ he said. ‘I’ve been overseas in combat for twenty-three. I’d gladly go through it all again if I knew that things like this would be stopped.’ ” – Rick Atkinson, The Guns at Last Light (emphasis in original)

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