Over many years I have spoken to audiences at universities, veterans’ associations and at myriad events to commemorate the sacrifice of young Americans in WWII, the greatest conflict in history with a final butcher’s bill of over fifty million lives. Among students in particular, I have found a great desire to learn about the unknown men and women who earned victory in WWII, not the strategy, not the games of the generals, not the weapons that enabled mass industrial slaughter on an unprecedented scale. Thankfully, because of the nature of my work, I have been able to share with many students as well as readers the often deeply moving and inspiring stories of a generation that bought America more goodwill around the globe than any other and which is now passing away at a tragically accelerated rate.
At one college recently, I was asked why 135,576 Americans died to liberate Europe. Was their death absolutely necessary? Why did young Americans have to lay down their lives in such huge numbers just a generation after the last bloodbath in Europe?
The answer to this question lies at the heart of The Liberator, my new book, which follows the fortunes of a maverick infantry officer, Felix Sparks, who fought throughout the time it took to liberate Europe, from the invasion of Sicily in July 1943 to the war’s end in May 1945. No American endured more heartbreak and violence for longer to free more people from the greatest evil of modern times. On 29 April 1945, after five hundred days of combat, he commanded the American unit which seized Hitler’s first and most notorious concentration camp, Dachau, liberating over 32,000 people from over forty nationalities amid scenes, he recalled, “that robbed the mind of human reason.” After one of the longest and most dramatic marches to victory in WWII, he understood and saw why the sacrifice of so many of his men – his regiment alone had suffered 20,251 casualties – had been necessary.
Before too long, there will be no living eyewitnesses to the liberation of Hitler’s camps, no more old men who remember the day they landed on Omaha Beach on D-Day, no widows who recall the true cost of the war in Europe that killed more people more quickly than at any time in history – more than nineteen million civilians alone. America’s greatest achievement – the defeat of Nazi Europe – will no longer be an experience to be recounted by people who were actually there.
As with my other books, The Liberator tries to capture the voices and emotions of ordinary people in the crosshairs of history, at the epicenter of a conflict in which the future of mankind itself was a stake. Based on interviews with dozens of living eyewitnesses, it reveals the full horror and debasement of war, how it corrupts even the noblest of spirits. Only by understanding the true nature of the trauma involved in defeating Nazism – the so-called “good war” – can we begin to appreciate the magnitude of what Felix Sparks and his fellow liberators achieved. He and his kind defeated immense barbarism – a victory whose significance will still be understood, hopefully through books like mine, when the last of their generation have passed away.