Siete quiWar and Civilians
War and Civilians
- The fact that in war the population is always subjected to destruction, suffering and mourning is an expected event, as well as these increasing hugely. Not to go back very far in time to the Thirty Year War, which involved Europe from 1618 to 1648, “the long war and the constant troop migrations and front changes meant a condition of constant and intolerable civil war. The travellers who crossed the German towns at that time saw dreadful and unforgettable sights: art and cultural treasures destroyed, pillaged, undersold, a population decimated and desperate and episodes of cannibalism due to starvation” (Prosperi).
But the concept of “war against civilians” goes beyond the realization that civilians suffer in war, indicating a condition in which the difference between civilians and combatants vanishes and which is typical of the last century’s wars. In modern warfare public opinion, morale, and support of the State in war are as essential for the conflict’s success as the army’s offensive abilities. From this point of view, it is undisputed that the turning point was the First World War, defined by Furet as “the first democratic war in history”, given that the conflict “in each of the involved countries, that is to say in the whole of Europe, affects citizens universally [...] It is a democratic war because of numbers: the soldiers, the weapons, the dead. For this reason it is a civil event more than a military one: more than a soldiers’ combat, it is a proof suffered by millions of people torn from their daily existence”. This effect was the result of the ground level change in people’s nationalistic passion: obtaining allegiance from every citizen to their Nation was one of the main goals of the Nation States during the nineteenth century.
The aggressive nationalist propaganda which accompanied the imperialistic policies of the great powers persuaded the masses. This explains why war found, at least at the beginning, wide consent in every country. It wasn’t just a few who approved their nation’s entry into the war even at the cost of disowning solidarity of class and religion, which would have brought together people from different countries
- Thus the character of mass transforms modern war into total war, both because the combatants are more and more numerous, and because civilians and civil life become the direct, and sometimes the main target of the military strategy and also because in democratic wars, as well as in democratic policy, the opponents are naturally demonized in order to make them hated or at least despicable” (Hobsbawm). The war heightens and exasperates the sense of membership and polarization among “us” and the “enemies”. It isn’t the case that during the war the first modern genocide took place (the prototype of the nineteenth century’s genocides): the massacre of Armenians carried out in Turkey in 1915-1916. Around two thirds of the Armenian minority in the Ottoman Empire territory were killed, about a million to a million and a half people.
What’s more the development of the bureaucratic and administrative State and its related work division has also favoured a war of impersonal conduction, a distance between rapist and raped, between slave-drivers and victims, which makes it possible for common and ordinary men, not at all fanatics, in the name of the obedience to authority principle, conformism and loss of responsibility, to commit morally repugnant actions.
- The Second World War, more than the First, represented a jump towards “total” war, in which the distinction between civilians and combatants disappears: it was a conflict which represented not only the struggle among the great powers, but also between two different concepts, the alternatives of civilization or international order, a conflict with a strong ideological characterization. But in the case of the German strategy we also find the product of ideology, the Nazi one, which represented something of a unique example. To the modern war characters, as “total” war, the Nazi war mobilization added a special kind of expansionism, with a specifically racist value which, especially towards the Slav people, turned into ethnic cleaning actions.
“The war led by Hitler hadn’t been one of expansion in the traditional sense. Its program of extermination, innate in a racist ideology, didn’t just have the aim of political antagonists or single ethnic groups or States, but foresaw nations reduced to slavery or annihilated, by fully depopulating some areas to make room for the expansion of “the German superior race” (Müller e Ueberschär). As regards the massacres of the civilian population in Italy which accompanied Hitler’s army after 8th September, the German generals didn’t hide, in the statements made after the war, their deep contempt for the partisans, of whom they provide a grotesque and deformed image which showed when the war was already finished their real and proper hate towards them, not lacking in a sense of enraged frustration, derived from an “irregular” war like that of the partisans, which caused much more damage to the army than they later admitted (and that we keep on maintaining today in the repeated and false statements on the military uselessness of the Resistance).
This hate, also fomented by a complex caused by the treason suffered, was nurtured by an explicit consideration of ethnic superiority over the Italians. The pride of the bearers of a new “European order” was still perceptible in the declarations of the generals, when imprisoned, together with feelings of revenge for the stated “second treason” of Italy. We can affirm that in Italy the German army fought a “war against civilians”, at least from one moment on, with a system of orders transmitted by the highest levels of military commands and repeated by the various hierarchic levels: they allowed pitiless anti-partisan actions, which at times left aside real partisan presence or their relevant actions, and instead arose as precautionary or punitive measures towards people who didn’t accept or denounce or isolate those irregular soldiers the Germans considered nothing but “bandits”.
On 9th July 1945 a British War Crime Section officer labelled the German military line towards Italian civilians as “a systematic policy of massacre, predation, piracy and terrorism”, highlighting just the aspect of the planning of actions against civilians, which presupposed a structure of “functional organization” and “responsibility for the order issue”.
- However the theme of the violence against the civilians is not just ascribable to the Germans: nowadays historians tend to evaluate from a critical point of view as crimes, behaviour which belongs to both warring sides. You just need to think about the many allied bombings of European cities (about 60,000 Italian dead, and 700,000 Germans), often without real fighting motivation, but for the concept of global war in which every civilian from the opponent State is thus considered an enemy; or to remember the atomic bombs in 1945 on the Japanese cities; or the violence towards German civilians by Soviet soldiers (“the atrocities carried out by the Soviet soldiers in the German territory turned out to be of unheard proportions.
The Soviet army put the German civilians through a barbaric terror reign”, Müller and Ueberschär) or the deportation of whole populations from the central and eastern European countries after the end of the war, due to the border changes (in which around 2 million Germans died). All that makes obsolete the definition that “Devoto-Oli” (an Italian dictionary) gives of war: “armed fight among countries or coalitions to settle an international dispute”.
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