On Hiroshima Day, remember the civilian victims of ‘total war’

A field of poppies, symbolising the soldiers’ sacrifice, has been sown in Northwood, London, for the centenary of the First World War, but the civilian losses are no less worthy of remembrance. AAP/Newzulu/Stephen Chung

Hiroshima Day is the closest we come to a day that focuses on the plight of civilians in war. The two atomic bombs dropped on Japan immediately killed over 120,000 civilians, but over the years the day has usually been a vehicle for anti-nuclear campaigns and peace activism. A succession of major commemorative events highlights the ongoing relevance of the two world wars. Communities and governments still mark and remember them with events on key dates such as Anzac Day and the recent 70th anniversary of the Allied landings on D-Day.

This presents as a commonsense, almost natural situation. War was about armed conflict and essentially involved men (and a few women) in uniform. Military history and a burgeoning scholarship on war and memory by scholars such as Jay Winter have charted the experiences of those enlisted men and their families.

Civilians suffer heaviest toll

As important as it is to recall this military history, and acknowledge the ongoing struggles of veterans and their families, the focus on war as essentially a battlefield experience obscures important aspects of the two world wars. Both wars marked important changes in the nature of warfare, which slowly but surely dragged civilian populations into the centre of the conflict. The Second World War was the first war in history where non-combatant casualties exceeded those of serving soldiers.

My father’s experience of the war was a complex one that is not acknowledged in any formal commemorative ceremony. His war did not fit into any simple nation-building story of courage and bravery. There were no uniforms, medals or repatriation schemes.

Holger Eklund’s war, like the war of many millions of non-combatants in Europe and elsewhere, was one of loss, grief and trauma. Their war is in danger of being overlooked in the commemorations that are focused so confidently on the military actions and battlefield experiences of men in uniform.

Mass mobilisation of entire populations, soldiers and civilians emerged in the 19th century and came together in a powerful way in the Great War of 1914 to 1918. While historians such as Eugenia Kiesling and Roger Chickering have debated the extent of “total war” or even questioned the value of the term, the Great War can be taken as a clear example of the mobilisation of armed forces as well as entire economies and societies more generally for war.

German General Eric von Ludendorff’s memoirs, published in the 1930s as Fascist Germany gained confidence, portrayed the Great War as an incomplete “total war”. He saw the lack of absolute commitment as the reason for Germany’s failure.

Such thinking in the 1930s galvanised the German military to pursue far more ambitious total war plans from 1939 onwards. Although there may have been gaps in the total war concept, civilians in the Great War and even more so in the Second World War, from 1939 to 1945, were part of the overall strategic equation. Entire military campaigns such as naval blockades or large-scale bombing campaigns were conducted with the primary aim of killing civilians, destroying their property and undermining their morale.

Historians such Alexander Downes have charted the range of military actions that targeted civilians not just in the world wars but in brutal conflicts in Africa, China, Korea and Vietnam. Downes suggests civilians accounted for more than 50% of war-related deaths in the century of total war.

All of the logistical and support functions of a modern military were legitimate targets, but total war went further. Hospital ships were attacked and civilian vessels blockaded or sunk. Home front populations could be starved into submission.

Civilians were rounded up and forced to work in brutal labour camps supporting the German war effort. Wikimedia/German Federal Archive, CC BY-SA

Suspicious domestic groups were interned. War propaganda seeped into all aspects of domestic life. Civilians from enemy and neutral states were put to work in labour camps to increase war production.

Worse still, in Nazi Germany and its client states, a wholesale racial war was conducted. Regimes deported, imprisoned and ultimately sought to kill their racial as well as their political enemies. None of these tragically unwilling participants were in uniform.

In short, modern warfare, having recruited soldiers often through military conscription, then used the remaining civilians as much as the soldiers as both a resource and a target. Total war pushed and then completely broke the moral boundaries of what were acceptable military methods. This was shown dramatically, and to this day controversially, when the US dropped atomic bombs on two large Japanese cities, thus ending the war in the Pacific.

No escaping ‘total war’

My father was caught up in a Europe in chaos. As a young sailor from the Finnish island of Åland, he was surrounded by warring and neutral states. Finland was invaded by the Soviet Union in 1939 and signed a peace treaty, but was later drawn into co-operation with Germany.

In 1940 the Germans occupied Denmark and Norway, while nearby Sweden remained neutral. Formal neutrality nonetheless meant tense stand-offs and occasional attacks. Neutrals could not be certain of their safety, especially in the chaos and fog of war.

My father was chief engineer on the Norwegian-registered MV Merihelmi in 1944 when Nazi forces seized it in Norway. They gave the crew an ultimatum: operate under the German flag or be placed in a punishment camp.

The crew wouldn’t fly the flag. They had been running fuel for the Norwegian resistance and assisting the Shetland-based fishing boats that were supplying the resistance.

The crew were interned on an island in the Oslo fjord, moved to forced labour camps in occupied Denmark, and then into Germany. The camp at Stettin in Germany was particularly brutal, and the Allies also bombed it.

The civilian death toll in the Allied bombing of Dresden created public unease about ‘total war’. Wikimedia/Deutsche Fotothek, CC BY-SA

Strategic bombing of English, German, Chinese and Japanese cities killed and wounded hundreds of thousands of civilians. Holger’s knee was badly burnt by a phosphorus bomb. For many years he was haunted by memories of these days.

As the Nazi regime crumbled, he fled the German camp, only to be recaptured and sent deep into the Soviet Union. Put on a train with other crew members, he was on the way to the Gulag.

So much in life turns on small moments. A chance overheard conversation, quick thinking and a move from one train to another, and Holger ended up on the road back home.

Despite his wounded knee, malnutrition and a bout of hepatitis, he made his way back to Åland through sheer determination, arriving in November 1945. He recovered and resumed work as a marine engineer with the Swedish-based Transatlantic Line. He eventually migrated to Australia in 1951 and started a new life.

My father was a lucky survivor among the non-combatant group; the war left its legacies but he survived and got on with his life. A continued focus on the experience of enlisted men and women means that we are in danger of losing sight of one of the defining features of both world wars: civilians were central to the strategy and practice of modern warfare.

As we mark and honour the loss of serving military personnel, we need to ask how will we remember the 50 million or more civilians who died as a result of war in the 20th century? Hirsohima Day is a powerful reminder of their plight and their suffering.


The author’s father passed away in April this year, aged 95.