War against Subhumans: Comparisons between the German War against the Soviet Union and the American War against Japan, 1941-1945

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While both the United States and Germany were principal combatants in the Second World War and confronted many similar challenges, the two societies differed profoundly from one another. The Nazi dictatorship, having built a brutally repressive system of domestic social control during peacetime, evolved during the war years into a machine of mass terror and extermination. Hitler supplemented the slaughter precipitated by military aggression with the murder of millions of non-combatant inhabitants of Europe in an effort to realize the objectives of genocidal Nazi ideology. The United States, by contrast, in fighting what was essentially a defensive war, preserved, with some notable exceptions, the fundamentals of a pluralistic democracy. Although the titanic U.S. military machine inflicted vast physical damage and great loss of life on non-combatant populations, this was the product not of ideological fanaticism but of a sometimes brutal pragmatism.

Nevertheless, a significant similarity of attitude shared by the two powers invites analysis and promises a more stimulating exercise in comparative history than the perhaps more obvious parallels between Germany and Japan. The United States and Nazi Germany each regarded at least one of its multiple adversaries in a manner encouraging, if not dictating, a higher degree of brutality and disregard for the laws of war than that shown to more favored enemies. For Germany, the pariah among its foes was the Soviet Union; for the United States, a comparable status was held by Japan.(1)

To be sure, atrocities occurred even in the course of combat with enemies who were regarded more positively. In the notorious Malmedy Massacre of 17 December 1944, 72 captured American soldiers were executed by members of the 1st SS Panzer Division. Less well-known, but similar in scope and nature, was the killing of approximately 75 Axis prisoners by troops of the U.S. 45th Infantry Division near Biscari, Sicily, on 14 July 1943. Both atrocities were encouraged by inflammatory pre-combat rhetoric delivered by commanding officers. According to testimony presented at the postwar Malmedy Massacre trial (U.S. v. Valentin Bersin et al.), SS-Oberstgruppenfuehrer "Sepp" Dietrich, commander of the 6th Panzer Army, had instructed his officers to remember the German victims of Allied bombing and to kill prisoners where combat circumstances required it. Multiple witnesses testified that the commander of the U.S. 7th Army, Lieutenant General George Patton, had delivered a pre-invasion address in which he directed that enemy troops who continued to resist to within 200 yards of advancing U.S. forces were to be killed, even if they offered to surrender.(2) Both atrocities occurred within the context of highly stressful combat situations. The German perpetrators had the crucial assignment of establishing a bridgehead over the Meuse river for the 6th Panzer Division during the last-ditch Ardennes offensive, an objective that strongly discouraged the delay attendant on holding prisoners. Practices learned in Russia, where the 1st SS Panzer Division had spent much combat time, may also have played a role. At Biscari, American troops new to combat were advancing against a well-concealed enemy who had inflicted casualties upon them by what they perceived as sniper fire, some allegedly directed at American wounded and medical personnel.(3)

The Malmedy and Biscari massacres were not unique occurrences on the more "civilized" battlefields of the West. But these and many similar incidents were sporadic events, precipitated by varying combinations of factors, including the elevated emotions of combat, a desire to avenge real or imagined atrocities, or acts of treachery committed by the enemy. Any or all of these stimuli might be aggravated by pre-combat indoctrination or exhortations as well as prior combat experience and the institutional ethos of the perpetrators. The perceived inherent nature of the enemy, however, did not in itself justify his destruction. …