As the world recalls Nazi Germany's surrender 60 years ago, Germany's media mainly focuses on European events. But some journalists are doing their best to draw attention to developing countries' roles in World War II.
Australian aborigines were among those fighting against the Nazis
It's one of Karl Rössel's favorite examples of the German approach to World War II history: a 45-minute-long German documentary about the war in the Pacific, examining the battles between the Americans and Japanese near the Salomon Islands. Not once does the narrator mention the islanders. On the contrary, he explains that the Salomons were uninhabited. Actually, millions of people lived there, and ten-thousands were soldiers or forced laborers, and thousands of Salomon Islanders were killed.
Rössel and his Cologne colleagues have been researching the involvement of Third World countries in World War II for 10 years. They've researched in universities abroad, collected photographs and spoken with descendents and eyewitnesses. The result is the provocative book: "Unsere Opfer zählen nicht" (Our victims don't count).
"If people were to realize that we were also liberated by millions of Africans, Jews from Palestine, Pacific Islanders, Aborigines, Maoris -- the people from the various colonies or formerly colonized countries -- one would have to behave differently," Rössel said. "For example, one shouldn't exclude them as happens in Germany. There should be a different economic, political relationship to these Third World countries."
" Justifiably bitter"
Indeed, it's striking how little German historians deal with the issue. In the former centers of empire, Britain and France, the colonies' participation in the Second World War was also long overlooked. After the former colonies gained independence, the new states themselves propelled discussion in Europe, according to Rössel.
The German media focuses mainly on the war in Europe
"Earlier, during colonial times, the colonial powers had the say, and they also determined how history was told," said Rössel. "Then it (the colonies' involvement) was largely forgotten. But in the 1970s, biographies, memoirs from the war's participants and veterans were published in many African countries. And there are veterans' clubs all over in the (former) British and French colonies today. In every West African city there's a meeting place for veterans of the French colonial army. And they lobby for the issue to be discussed because they're bitter -- and justifiably so -- about not receiving the same pensions as their white comrades, with whom they lay in the trenches."
The Cologne journalists have been unable to dig up reliable statistics on the exact number of colonial soldiers who participated in the war, but they know that there were millions. The number of victims -- including civilians in the African, Asian and Pacific theaters of war -- is even more difficult to estimate. Liberating Manila, the capital of the Philippines, from the Japanese occupiers alone left around 100,000 civilians dead.
Not just victims
Beyond the combat operations, the colonies had a strategically important role as cheap suppliers of raw materials -- sisal hemp for the rope on warships, oil and coal for machines cotton and food for the troops.
"Other countries were restructured for rubber production," Rössel explained. "There wasn't any natural rubber production in Brazil until World War II. But rubber was desperately needed for tires, for military vehicles. In this respect, plantations that still exist today were established. Ten-thousands of people were forcibly resettled and recruited, and many of these plantations remained under supervision, mainly for export to the USA. The structure was retained. It's that way in other countries too."
But Rössel and his colleagues also point out that the former colonies weren't necessarily merely victims. The Nazis found many willing collaborators in some countries. Employing the logic that "my enemy's enemy is my friend," some hoped for support in their aspirations for independence.
People on Place de la Concorde scatter for cover as a hidden German shooter opens fire on the crowd gathered to celebrate the entry of Allied troops in Paris on August 26, 1944.
Indonesians, for example, practically celebrated when Japanese troops arrived in their country. And the head of the Indian Congress Party set up an army with German help. The Indian legion didn't end up fighting in India, but they did back German troops in the fight against the French Resistance.
Still, significantly more people from the former colonies fought on the Allies' side. Thus, Rössel and others have concluded that the World War II would have ended differently had it not been for the contribution of the colonized peoples. Liberation from the German, Italian and Japanese warmongers would have taken longer and been more difficult, Rössel said.
"People are always baffled about why this issue could have been so completely forgotten for six decades, at least here in the German discussion," he said. "Perhaps it's a good sign that now a sort of debate is taking form."