BOOKS: by Michael Daniel (reviewer)News Weekly
THEIR DARKEST HOUR: People Tested to the Extreme in WWII, by Laurence Rees
, March 15, 2008
The worst of timesTHEIR DARKEST HOUR: People Tested to the Extreme in WWII
by Laurence Rees
(London: Ebury Press)
Hardback: 320 pages
Rec. price: AUD$54.00Winston Churchill famously described the British people's defence of their island-nation in World War II as "their finest hour". This book, by contrast, shows how the same war was also the occasion and catalyst for some of the most atrocious behaviour in human history.
Historian Laurence Rees, whose previous works Auschwitz: The Nazis and the "Final Solution"
and The Nazis: A Warning from History
have both been reviewed in News Weekly
(July 22, 2006), examines the war experience of those who were either victims or perpetrators of atrocities.
Each account is based upon interviews with participants. Although most of these people have been cited in previous books by Rees and/or have appeared in documentaries produced by him, Rees has re-worked this material with a focus on war atrocities in an attempt to discover how human beings could commit deeds such as shooting at close range large numbers of innocent people.
The accounts are grouped not by theatre of war or nationality, but rather by types of experience, such as indiscriminate mass-killing or more specific atrocities such as killing prisoners or people deemed to be inferior or "inhuman". The study concludes with a category entitled "servants of the regime".
Rees's anthology includes descriptions not only of Nazis who took part in Hitler's "Final Solution" of the Jews, but also of members of the Japanese Imperial Army who raped and shot their victims.
Nor is the subject-matter of the book restricted to atrocities committed by the Axis powers. Also included are essays about people such as Zinaida Pytkina, a female member of the notorious Soviet counter-intelligence agency SMERSH charged with seizing alleged "traitors, deserters, spies, and criminal elements". Pytkina relished torturing German prisoners for information before killing them.
The accounts of SMERSH's victims are also included, such as that of Tatiana Nanieva, a Soviet nurse, who, after enduring almost three years as a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp, was arrested by her Soviet "liberators", accused of "betraying the Motherland" and sentenced to six years hard labour in the gulag.
Equally disturbing are Rees's accounts of senior British officers who, at the end of the war, took part in the forced repatriation of anti-communist Cossacks, Croats and Serbs who had sought asylum in the West. Once returned to Stalin's Soviet Union and Tito's Yugoslavia, they were either shot or sentenced to slave labour camps.
Rees discusses how culpable American pilots were who participated in the large-scale bombing of Japan. Although Rees does not endorse the bombing of civilian targets, he argues that such actions committed by the forces of a democracy simply cannot be morally equated with the mass murders perpetuated by despotic regimes.Their Darkest Hour
contains material that many readers will find challenging and asks some hard questions about human nature.
Tempting though it may be to ignore some of the book's stories because they are uncomfortable or "inconvenient", to do so would be to ignore the lessons of history.