Everyday entropy: displaced persons

Bridge Escape

Lee Sandlin, “Losing the War” (published in the Chicago Reader)

Njal’s saga ends with a vision of war as the underlying horror of the world, always waiting underneath the frail mirage of peace. In a final dream image, spectral women are seen working an occult and horrible loom: “Men’s heads were used in place of weights, and men’s intestines for the weft and warp; a sword served as the beater, and the shuttle was an arrow. And these were the words the women were chanting:

Blood rains
From the cloudy web
On the broad loom
Of slaughter.
The web of man
Gray as armor
Is being woven.

This is as good a description as is available for the course of World War II from the fall of 1944 on — after the Allies at last acknowledged that, despite the decisive battles of the previous summer, the Axis was never going to surrender. That was when the Allies changed their strategy. They set out to make an Axis surrender irrelevant.

From that winter into the next spring the civilians of Germany and Japan were helpless before a new Allied campaign of systematic aerial bombardment. The air forces and air defense systems of the Axis were in ruins by then. Allied planes flew where they pleased, day or night — 500 at a time, then 1,000 at a time, indiscriminately dumping avalanches of bombs on every city and town in Axis territory that had a military installation or a railroad yard or a factory. By the end of the winter most of Germany’s industrial base had been bombed repeatedly in saturation attacks; by the end of the following spring Allied firebombing raids had burned more than 60 percent of Japan’s urban surface area to the ground.

There was no precedent even in this war for destruction on so ferocious a scale. It was the largest berserker rage in history. The Allies routinely dropped incendiary bombs in such great numbers that they created firestorms in cities throughout the Axis countries. These weren’t simply large fires. A true firestorm is a freak event, where a large central core of flame heats up explosively to more than 1,500 degrees, and everything within it goes up by spontaneous combustion — buildings erupt, the water boils out of rivers and canals, and the asphalt in the pavement ignites. Immense intake vortices spring up around the core and begin sucking in oxygen from the surrounding atmosphere at hurricane speeds. The Allied raids reduced cities in minutes to miles of smoldering debris. Hundreds of thousands of people were killed — about 20 percent of them children. Tens of thousands suffocated, because in the area around a firestorm there’s no oxygen left to breathe.

Such was the discipline of the Axis armies that they went on fighting even in the midst of these cataclysms. But the homelands they were defending disintegrated into anarchy and rubble. Tens of millions of Germans and Japanese were driven from the wreckage of their homes to join the hundreds of millions of people already flooding the roads of Europe and Asia. They were seen everywhere, trudging away from smoking villages and along the ruined autobahns, across cratered fields and through burned forests. “DPs,” they were called, displaced persons: interminable lines of refugees carrying a few possessions (a bag of tools, a handful of books, a house cat, a crying baby) in an anonymous stream. Amid the chaotic flux of collapsing empires, no one could sort out what side the latest flood of DPs had been on or where they wanted to go now; their movements were as unpredictable as tidal waves. Millions of Japanese came pouring back into the home islands from the dwindling fringes of the “coprosperity sphere,” but there was nowhere to house them, with so many millions already on the streets because of the firebombings. In the eastern provinces of Germany a wave of terror and panic spread through the population as the Red Army at last approached. Overnight more than ten million people bolted for the west, abandoning land that had been cultivated and treasured by Germans for more than a thousand years, since before the time of Die Meistersinger, since before an anonymous poet in a royal court had first written down the legends of the Nibelung’s ring. Not everyone joined the stampede, but those who stayed to protect their homes learned that their worst fears had been wholly justified. The Red Army murdered more than a million civilians in the eastern provinces of Germany as it marched toward Berlin.

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