Allied war crimes

In the Ukrainian town of Bruniki, the Russian army attacks the hostile part of 180 soldiers who surrender. Soldiers are forced to undress and hand all their valuables. Seriously injured people are instantly smashed into the skull. The rest were gathered into groups of fifteen men and then shot dead. The bodies remain.

New decline in the current conflict in Ukraine? No, it is one of the war crimes committed by the Red Army that historian Wim Berkelar described in his book Shadow Editors† The opponents in question were advancing German units during Operation Barbarossa (1941). The Germans wreaked havoc during their campaigns in Eastern Europe. The question is: did that give the Russians a license to do the same? This is also a relevant point in the current conflict. Because when does the violence of war become a crime?

Seven hours on

In a conversation with Wim Berkelaar (1960), the step is quickly taken from the past to the present. He receives Berkelar at the VU Historical Documentation Center in Amsterdam, with which he is permanently associated. As soon as we set our date, the news was filled with reports of war crimes committed by the Russian occupation forces in Ukraine. Not surprisingly, our first conversation was about Ukraine.

Wim is not surprised by the misconduct, citing the relative poverty of the Russian soldier as one of the reasons. Russia is not a third world country, but a country in the second world in terms of prosperity. This explains the widespread looting. Groups of soldiers returning home prepare whole parcels to be sent to Novosibirsk, Siberia. It was no different in World War II. These Russians came to Western Europe and saw things everywhere that did not exist in their homeland. There are known photos of Russian soldiers dressed up to seven hours. Opportunity makes a thief.

Berkelar doubts whether there is a higher-order strategy behind the current war crimes. “I don’t think Putin and his clique say one-on-one: rob, hit the target. It is true that if you tell your men that a country and its inhabitants have no right to exist, you give license to misbehavior. You also torture, rape and kill these people. They are inferior after all. Stalin’s propaganda machine has been eliminating the so-called brutal character of the Germans for years.

As a historian specializing in World War II, Wim Berkeller sees parallels all over the place between then and now. He even believes that confronting the new horrors of war can have a job for younger generations. World War II is a norm for the Netherlands, but it has become an empty norm. Young people no longer understand what war is doing. Now we see the atrocities themselves, the refugees are arriving in our country again and all kinds of dilemmas present themselves. What do we do with the arms supplies? How do we deal with war crimes and looting?

He cites Rutger Bregman’s bestseller, which states that in spite of all misery, the majority of humankind pursues the good: Most people are good† “But there is the other side as well. Man may not be inherently evil, but he is capable of anything. He has a choice of becoming the Marquis de Sade or Albert Schweitzer.

brutal treatment

The reason for the conversation is the book that Wim actually published in 1995: Shadow Editors† In it, Berkelar discusses the uncomfortable topic of Allied war crimes during World War II. This is still an area that is under-exposed in the extensive reporting on World War II. It is known that the futile bombing of German civilian targets killed more than one hundred thousand people. Less well known is the brutal treatment of German prisoners of war, and not only the Soviet Union. The large-scale looting carried out by the British, Canadians and Americans during the liberation of southern Holland is almost unknown.

Berkelar came across the latter when he was doing research in the Gelderland State Archives. There are complete files full of citizens’ complaints. Then it reads: They came as liberators, and that’s how we welcomed them. But they misbehaved terribly. The looting began around the Lost Battle of Arnhem, September 1944. Then there is the large group of soldiers in Gelderland who are sheltered among the civilian population. Sometimes they are “neighbors” of such a house, as it is called, and it becomes involved. Sometimes they loot left and right. This, of course, is a shock to the citizens, because they are friendly countries.

The villages around Nijmegen and Bitwe were badly affected. Communities such as Valborg, Andalust and Zeitn, which escaped the occupation unscathed, are still severely affected. Due to the evacuation of the population due to the fighting, the Allied soldiers were free to act. Homes were broken into and emptied, cattle were slaughtered and the entire property of the house was deliberately destroyed. Ironically, German soldiers who misbehaved in occupied Holland were severely punished by their superiors. Only when they left the Netherlands did the German forces begin to rob. Allied thieves can operate with almost impunity.

Grosbeek was also evacuated due to heavy fighting. When the residents returned, the residents found more than a thousand homes looted and destroyed meaninglessly. In villages such as Malden and Beuningen, the police received many complaints about burglaries, cattle rustling and the sale of stolen goods to civilians. Military Commissar Blaauw, responsible for order in the newly conquered area, was even afraid that this would create an anti-English situation. He traveled to London to inform the military leadership. Berkelar thought that was very inconvenient. Dutch military authority was under American and British authority. There was always an embarrassment from the Dutch who had to maintain order here. You’re addressing your editor about abuse, and that’s a sensitive one.

Did not help either. The destruction and looting continued unabated. In Jenep, a returning family is denied access to their home by the broken British. The father decided to camp in a shed across from the house until the soldiers left. That took six weeks, daughter Berkeller told. “They left with a truck full of things. I saw they were charging the piano. Nothing was left in the house. No spoon, no fork – absolutely nothing. The floors were broken, the doors slashed their tires, and the kitchen set on fire. My dad was angry, but he didn’t talk about That was never after the war.


Berkelar believes he has an explanation for the structural violations in the area. The battle on the south side of Nijmegen was more fierce than expected, with enormous resistance from the Germans. Then the battle intensifies, and these soldiers also intensify. They become more indifferent. Then this army unit becomes a world of its own, don’t underestimate it. You are detached from everything. From morals, to the civilian population. They move in together, there’s no woman in between, so it’s all testosterone. There is the pressure of having to fight. Then you end up in some kind of tunnel.

After the liberation, the looting continued for a while and became spoils of war. The soldiers had the feeling: We did this, this is our reward. After all, they took coals from the fire. It’s all psychology. You are the liberator, you have the power and you are worshipped, you have certain rights. However, there was only talk of looting and not rape. Not even because girls often come to these soldiers themselves. And there was far less loot than the parts with strong power. “If a colonel hits his fist on the table and says: ‘It’s over, then it’s over’.

In 1995, Berkelar’s findings were also shocking to him. “It was a different time. Book like gray past (2001), in which Chris van der Heyden differentiates between right/wrong opposites, has not yet been published. Everything was very sensitive. I was really horrified when I found these files, and never thought that this could happen. The scale was too large, and the idea that this came from the editors was unrealistic. All the editing photos you know show jeeps on the streets with happy and happy people on them. Turns out, that’s been a bleak recently.

He believes that this shock is also due to the fact that the image of World War II has long been simplistic: good versus evil. This is a fundamentally Western story, on our part. We fought a war in Holland for five years, and that was horrible. After a century and a half of peace, Rotterdam was bombed, a hundred thousand Jews were deported, and there was a famine winter. But for the rest of the world it was much less black and white. In countries such as Poland, Serbia, Hungary, and Ukraine, the story of World War II is more complex.

The fact that something was wrong with the story of good versus evil from the start is due to the dubious role of the Soviet Union in the course and settlement of the war. Russia likes to present itself as the destroyer of Nazi Germany, but in 1939 it was Stalin who made a pact with Hitler to divide Poland. Berkelar: “And after the war it was the turn of all of Eastern Europe, via the Warsaw Pact. These countries did not have five years, but fifty years ago. So the story of the Second World War that we know is a typical Dutch story.

In his book, Wim Berkelaar pays a lot of attention to the actions of the Soviets in World War II. It all began in 1943, when the Germans found the bodies of 20,000 Polish officers in the Katyn Forest in Poland. They were prisoners of war shot by the Russians. As the tide turned for the Allies and took more and more German prisoners of war, violations of the laws of war also increased, especially by the Soviet Union. Interned Germans faced years of imprisonment, beatings, exhaustion, and starvation under the Soviet regime. Hundreds of thousands never came back.

Curious about the rest of the article? You read it on Blendle.

You can read more in the article about the war crimes committed by the Allies. According to Article 79 of the Geneva Convention, they were protected and could not be returned after the war. However, the British High Command had 25,000 Cossacks shipped to the Soviet Union where they went directly to the Gulag. †

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