Posts Tagged ‘World War 2’

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

Most Americans don’t give much thought to the First World War.  Much like the Korean War, WWI may be considered a ‘forgotten’ conflict.  Of course, both of these conflicts have one other thing in common; they have been overshadowed by the Second World War.  WWII is the struggle Americans are most usually obsessed with; from  movies and television shows, to our dubiously titled ‘History Channel’, to national best-seller monographs, WWII gets most of the coverage.  And why not?  The war radically altered the world, and America’s place in it.

But, to understand our wider world, with it’s complexities and it’s many tragedies, we need to look back even further than 1945. After all, to understand the world created by WWII, we must investigate the World War that preceded it.
Ukraine Plane What Happened

We live in a violent, confusing world. The last couple weeks have proven this to any Pollyannas who may have forgotten such a hard ap_israel_hamastruth. For many Americans, the events unfolding in Ukraine, Iraq and Israel/Palestine are difficult to comprehend. As outside observers, we often simply throw our hands up in dumbfounded frustration. I fear such frustration leads many people simply to label the people and politics of these regions as ‘crazy’.

Of course, such an ‘explanation’ explains nothing.

True explanations are difficult. True explanations are complex. True explanations are unsettling.
But, true explanations are desperately needed.  If we are to understand what is happening in Iraq, or grasp why the Israeli/Palestinian conflict is so persistent, or why such bad blood exists between the Ukraine and Russia, we must go to the history books. Specifically, we must investigate the First World War.

Let us begin with Iraq.

As we all know, the American intervention in Iraq beginning in the Spring of 2003 did not go as planned. Though the United States quickly won a technical victory on the field of battle, the ‘rebuilding’, or ‘occupation’ of the nation was marred by, for Americans, seemingly inexplicable violence, sectarian strife, and near civil war.  The reasons for such violence are many and complex. One unarguably important cause was American policymakers’ ignorance regarding the complexity of the Iraqi past. Such ignorance, willful or innocent, is even more shocking when it is understood that the Americans had a predecessor they could have learned from. In 1918, at the end of WWI, the British made many of the same mistakes Americans made in 2003.


The Camel Corp, 1915

During the First World War, the British were not just fighting the Germans in the fields of France. They also were at war with the ‘Sick Man of Europe’, the Ottoman Turkish Empire. In this Middle Eastern war, the British looked to rile up the Arab peoples of the area, hoping the Arabs would be interested in throwing off the yoke of their Turkish overlords. The British promised the Arabs of the region national autonomy. According to Scott Anderson however, the British did this without understanding the complexities of the area.’For nearly 400 years prior to World War I, the lands of Iraq existed as three distinct semi-autonomous provinces, or vilayets, within the Ottoman Empire. In each of these vilayets, one of the three religious or ethnic groups that predominated in the region – Shiite, Sunni and Kurd – held sway, with the veneer of Ottoman rule resting atop a complex network of local clan and tribal alliances. ‘

iraq-ethnic-mapThe British did not concern themselves with this ethnoreligious system, seeing instead one, indivisible, homogeneous Arab people.

After defeating the Turks, the British, and the French made two troubling decisions. First, they reneged on their deal with the Arab populations of the Middle East, basically replacing Ottoman rule with European Imperialism. Second, much like in Europe in 1918, the victors of the war redrew maps, and went about ‘state building’. Out of this came the imperial holdings of Palestine, Syria, Trans-Jordan and Iraq.
This situation was not only tragic, it was absurd. Last year, The Daily Show wonderfully captured the absurdity of the situation:

As John Oliver hilariously illustrates, the mapmakers took no account of the ethnic, tribal and ds_18146_02religious disparities of the region. Iraq was transformed into a simmering land of tension controlled by a crumbling British Empire.  Scott Anderson points out that this was a disaster waiting to happen, and the British did not have long to wait: Iraq’s history of the 1920’s-1950’s ‘would be marked by a series of violent coups and rebellions, with its political domination by the Sunni minority simply deepening its sectarian fault lines. After repeatedly intervening to defend their fragile creation, the British were finally cast out of Iraq in the late 1950s, their local allies murdered by vengeful mobs.’

British decisions from 1918 seem to have never-ending repercussions in Iraq. With this in mind, it seems ISIS is simply another chicken coming home to roost. 

(My next blog post will deal with Israel/Palestine and the First World War. After that, Ukraine and The First World War)


By Peter Stern, Philosophy Faculty

With Armistice Day but a few weeks past, and the commemoration of President Kennedy’s life and short tenure as president only several days away, I nevertheless can’t help noticing how completely the immediate concerns of the present grab our attention whether it’s keeping us absorbed in preparations for a big Thanksgiving Day meal, or watching the drama of a malicious tornado swooping down on an innocent small Illinois town, or shaken by yet another story about a suicide bomber in Iraq killing fourteen people while walking on their way home. This absorption in the present is certainly understandable, yet it also entails a drawback for it inexorably leads us to forget our debts to past generations whose heroics made possible our comings and goings of the day.

Perhaps William Faulkner’s famous statement about the past–the past isn’t dead, it isn’t even past– helps a little in nudging us from the pressures of the present so we can better appreciate important past events. When Faulkner thought about the past, he was probably thinking mostly about the tortured events which played such a destructive role in the history of the south both before and after the civil war. Maybe Faulkner hung on to this past longer than he should have if he wanted to lead a happy life.

I believe our problem today is the exact opposite of Faulkner’s; it’s not that we hold on to the past too long, but that we don’t hold on to it long enough with the result that we lose the benefits that a tie to tradition brings anyone who wishes to cultivate it. What are some of these benefits? A sense of security from being part of a larger world rooted in a worthwhile past and a sense of hope that connects us to a future which will preserve the things we do today that we find so important.

One of my favorite ways of keeping alive a connection to the past is by recalling the remarkable life of Mr. Winston Churchill, one of the greatest statesmen of the 20th century and a man who represents the unique tradition that comprises what he called the history of the English speaking peoples. At first blush, trying to establish a connection to Winston Churchill seems absurd for he was born and lived in circumstances very different from my own, and led a life which couldn’t be more different than the one I lead, or think I lead.

Winston Churchill

Winston Churchill

Churchill was born into an aristocratic family which enjoyed an extraordinary reputation for patriotism and public service. Moreover, Churchill was a renaissance man interested in adventure, military exploits and innovations, and spending lots of time painting his beloved landscapes. He also cultivated a distinguished career writing for English newspapers while also becoming an extraordinarily successful political figure. Already in his early 20s, he fought for England in the Boer War at the same time he negotiated a contract to write newspaper columns back home as a war correspondent.

Finally connecting with Churchill seems like a formidable undertaking given that he’s such a complex difficult man who, while invariably successful at most tasks he undertook, also managed to attract lots of critics who enjoyed attacking him for a variety of shortcomings which most charitably could be lumped under a heading called impulsiveness.

Churchill enjoyed upsetting the apple cart. Of one distinguished member of parliament he remarked that the gentleman had no idea what he was going to say before giving a speech, no idea what he was saying while he gave the speech, and no idea what he had said after he ended his speech.

Still despite his shortcomings and some major disappointments which resulted from them, he also possessed remarkable abilities including a terrific sense of humor and a magisterial writing style inspired in part by Edward Gibbon, author of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. More importantly he was a courageous and extraordinary leader who spoke his mind, wasn’t afraid to voice unpopular positions, and to the toughest jobs, assuming full responsibility for their outcomes without blaming others for his own mistakes.

Churchill’s greatest legacy probably stems from the leadership he provided Great Britain and the United States especially during the darkest days of WWII following Hitler’s lightening fast military victories in 1940 conquering both Western and Eastern Europe in less than two years time. Immediately following these victories, Hitler wanted to launch a full scale invasion of England and England’s defeat seemed only a few weeks away. Hitler’s invasion plan was to start with a devastating series of attacks by the German Air Force whose planes outnumbered those of the Royal Air Force 3-1. Miraculously, the RAF successfully withstood the German air attack; as a result, Hitler decided to scuttle his invasion plan and instead turn his attention again to the East where he would soon begin an attack on Russia.

"In 1940, children of an eastern suburb of London, who have been made homeless by the random bombs of the Nazi night raiders, wait outside the wreckage of what was their home."

“In 1940, children of an eastern suburb of London, who have been made homeless by the random bombs of the Nazi night raiders, wait outside the wreckage of what was their home.”

After Hitler ended his efforts to conquer Britain, Churchill broadcast his famous praise of the RAF and its pilots. “Never in the course of history have so many owed so much to so few.” If one person were to be singled out for their role in saving England and defeating Hitler in 1940, surely Churchill would be that individual. And to give Churchill’s line a little extra “mo” possibly we could include ourselves in Churchill’s reference to “the many” owing so much to the brave RAF pilots whose sacrifices helped create a society which in the history of the world has never been more prosperous, more egalitarian, or more free.

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

The other day I was having a conversation with the inimitable Dr. Peter Stern.  I don’t really remember what we were talking about, but I made a claim that, the more I thought about it, seemed more and more true.   Simply as an aside, I said that from the years 1890-1945 Europe produced an inordinate amount of human brilliance.  As Peter and I pondered, we both felt that this statement was undeniable. Just take a look at the vast array of influential figures who were living, working and thinking during that first half century of the twentieth century.

Novelists/Writers: Virginia Woolf, Marcel Proust, Franz Kafka, Thomas Mann, Leo Tolstoy, Robert Musil, Joseph Conrad, H.G. Wells, Knut Hamsun, D.H. Lawrence, Andre Gide, James Joyce, Hermann Hesse, Italo Svevo, Vladimir Nabakov, Samuel Beckett, Joseph Roth, George Orwell, Arthur Koestler, Bertolt Brecht, etc, etc.

Philosophers: Hannah Arendt, A.J. Ayer, Isaiah Berlin, Albert Camus, Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre, Friedrich Nietzsche, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Simone Weil, Walter Benjamin, Henri Bergson, Benedetto Croce, Martin Heidegger, etc, etc.


Bohr and Einstein

Social Scientists/Psychologists/Economists: Freud, Jung, Adler, John Maynerd Keynes, Freidrich Hayek, Joseph Schumpeter, William James, Peter Kropotkin, Max Weber, Emile Durkheim, etc, etc.

Physical Scientists: Albert Einstein, Neil Bohrs, Marie Curie, Enrico Fermi, Nikola Tesla, Max Planck, Ivan Pavlov. Werner Heisenberg, Erwin Schroedinger, etc, etc.

Musicians/Dancers: Nijinsky, Diaghilev, Mahler, Shostakovitch, Rachmaninoff, Stravinsky, etc, etc.

Painters/Artists: Picasso, Braque, Modigliani, Matisse, Cezanne, Munch, Kandinsky, Klimt, Marc, Paul Klee, Egon Schiele, Beckmann, Dix, Kathe Kollewitz, etc, etc.

This is a small list that I came up with on the quick, and it is by no means complete.  The point is, for the population of Europe at this time (about 300-400 million), the number of brilliantly influential figures is inordinate; perhaps even incredible.

Perhaps ironically, perhaps not, this era also gave birth to the modern world’s most horrifically violent ruptures: The World Wars.  And so, this list has an air of tragedy about it as well.  How much brilliance was annihilated in the years 1914-1918, and 1939-1945?


Salinger in the military

During the First World War, roughly ten million young people lost their lives, almost all of them men. Many were already promising cultural figures; the vast majority, however, never had the opportunity to effect the world. A generation later, this ‘War to end all Wars’ would be overshadowed, and dwarfed by the Second World War.  In Europe, roughly 40 million people were killed from 1939-1945.  Unlike the First World War, the majority of the dead were civilians.  Males and females, both old and children,  were killed in the Nazi Holocaust, 300px-matisse-open-windowSoviet reprisals and repression, American and British bombings of Axis cities, and old ethnic conflicts rekindled by the war.

These wars annihilated millions of unheard voices that may have been the next Picasso, or Wittgenstein, the next Proust or Einstein.  I recently learned that the famously private American author, J.D. Salinger landed in France on D-Day carrying numerous chapters of ‘Catcher in the Rye’ in his rucksack. How many soldiers lost their future cultural glory to an anonymous shell fragment?  How many children died in the gas chambers of Birkenau with color schemes in their mind’s eyes that would have put Matisse to shame?

It was truly an era of brilliance. It was truly an era of tragedy.

By Paul Gaszak, English Faculty

This past weekend, I felt like I was having lunch with a character straight out of myth.

My dad’s VFW post held its annual summer picnic. It was a nice afternoon of food, fun, and chatting for the veterans and their families. At my table were a handful of Vietnam veterans, my dad included, whom I see every week.

Then there was Jim: a World War II veteran.

Jim is in his 90s, and he can’t be more than 5’2” and 100lbs. Yet, he is deceptively fit and spry. He gets around on his own, he is mentally sharp, he can see and hear better than all of the Vietnam vets, and he ate more than I did. I lost count of how many plates of food and ears of corn he went through.

Jim was there by himself, and he didn’t say much during the meal. After eating, he took off his “World War II Veteran” hat, placed it on the table as if saving his spot, and wandered off. While he was gone, my dad asked if Jim had ever told me his story. ww2 hat

Generally, it seems all veterans have lots of stories about their days in service. But, it seems like many also have their one big go-to story – that one story that, if they only have a chance to tell you one war story, this is the one. Over my years of going to the post with my dad for events and volunteer work, I’ve heard a good number of these stories, mostly from the Vietnam vets.

But, I’d never heard Jim’s story.

My dad explained that Jim and his platoon were marching along a hedgerow in France that cut off line of sight to the other side. At some point, the hedgerow either ended or there was sudden visibility through the hedges, and to their surprise, a platoon of German soldiers (who were equally surprised) were marching along the other side. A firefight ensued. Jim was shot, but he “won” and obviously survived.

As my dad told the story, I was picturing the events like this:

The hedgerow was perfectly manicured and the day was just slightly gloomy. My perspective hung twenty feet over the ground, looking down on two rows of soldiers. The Americans were all dressed in clean, shiny, perfectly pressed green army outfits. All of the men were ruggedly handsome with square jaws and five o’ clock shadows. Jim was now 6’2” and 190lbs, his biceps exposed and flexed to hold on to an oversized gun. The Germans were also well put together, but wearing gray uniforms with bold, red swastikas stitched on. All of them were unattractive. When the shooting started, it was bloodless even when people were hit. Jim was struck, but while falling backward in slow motion, he fired back. He found his mark, and then collapsed into the grass and the camera receded into the sky, looking down as soldiers ran to his aid.

When Jim sat back down at our table, I glanced over at him and had this weird sensation like he wasn’t even real. “A World War II veteran? It can’t be!” It was like if I had seen the kids at the picnic getting pony rides on a unicorn.

I was caught off guard by this feeling, because I was already aware that there are a few World War II vets at the post, including Jim who I’ve run into several times. And, obviously, I know World War II happened and that real people were involved.

Yet, for some reason, it suddenly felt like I was seated at the table with a character out of myth. In the days since, I’ve wondered why. I have two potential reasons:

Reason 1

Undoubtedly, many college students today don’t know much about the Vietnam war. I found this out my first year of teaching in 2007 when I asked a class which countries fought in the war, and after several moments of awkward silence, one student finally said, “America???”

I can’t blame the students, though. This year’s class of incoming Freshmen was born 20 years after the end of the war, and many current students have parents who weren’t even born when the Vietnam War started.

I was born just over 7 years after the fall of Saigon, but my dad was in Vietnam nearly a decade before that. Vietnam always felt real to me, for obvious reasons. I grew up with a Vietnam vet telling me war stories all the time. I saw his pictures – the ones the army let him keep – and nothing about it looked glamorous. Rare were the pictures of soldiers wearing clean, shiny, perfectly pressed outfits. No one was a Sylvester Stalone sculpted Rambo; everyone looked skinny, tired. They all looked like kids. They were kids.

secret-wartime-tunnels-entrance-doverWorld War II, on the other hand, I’ve had limited “real” exposure to. To my knowledge, none of my immediate family fought in the war. My grandfathers were both too young to fight in WWI and then too old for WWII. My dad was only three-years-old when WWII ended and my mom was not yet born. I’ve seen museum exhibits, and I’ve been inside the Secret Wartime Tunnels in Dover, England that served as a military headquarters for Winston Churchill and the British. I’ve had history classes, I’ve read textbooks, I’ve watched documentaries, I’ve worked with history buffs like Michael Stelzer Jocks.

Yet, still, World War II seems so distant and feels as “real” to me as even more distant conflicts like the Civil War or the Revolutionary War.

Reason 2

World War II is such an amazing story: Good Guys v. Bad Guys, American Heroes vs. history’s ultimate supervillain Adolf Hitler.

Oh, wait. There’s more to the war than that?

I know there is when I stop and reflect logically. The horror of the war is overwhelming: the tens of millions of fatalities, the genocide, the atomic bomb. It is hard for me to even process the scale of the war. Thinking of it as real is beyond sickening. Maybe that’s why some American versions of the events are slightly-glamorous tales of Good triumphing over Evil.

My most frequent exposure to the war has come through art. I’ve read Night by Elie Wiesel and Maus by Art Spiegelman. I’ve seen my share of WWII movies. Some art does try to reflect back on the reality of the war, but still, it is art rather than experience. Night

captain-america-poster-newWWII also crops up in not-so-real fictional films like Inglorious Basterds and Captain America. It’s hard to see WWII as a real event in a film involving a shield-toting superhero fighting a skinless, red supervillain.

I’ve seen WWII through a fictionalized lens so many times that when I heard a real WWII story, my mind immediately saw it through that lens.

So, there is Jim, sitting at the table. He is more than 60 years older than me and participated in a war of mythic proportions 40 years before my birth. Of the more than 16 million Americans who served in the war, he is one of approximately 1.7 million alive today.

I am old enough to remember the Gulf War. I was in college when 9/11 happened. I watched those conflicts unfold. Like us all, I see people daily who have served in contemporary conflicts. They are real; those conflicts are real. But World War II, it’s harder to imagine it happened when our living links to that event are rapidly dwindling. And it was strange and interesting to see one of the characters in that story sitting at my table, eating lunch with the rest of us.