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hitler stalin say hi

firesign theatreAll of us grow as we age; some more than others. Things we thought simple and obvious when we were children turn out to be infinitely complex. Judgments we handed down when we were innocent later turn out to be self-righteous piffle. Uncles we thought were hilarious when we were 6, when we are 15 turn out to be insufferable. If you live long enough, your life gives proof to the Firesign Theatre dictum: “Everything you know is wrong.”

This is the evolution of — what? Of an understanding. A widening of the historical record. I’m using the Second World War as my exemplar. I have been aware of it from my earliest childhood, but my understanding of it has changed radically over the decades.

I was born just after the war ended, and it was an immediate presence in those years. My childhood featured the shabby remainders of that war gotten from the proliferation of war surplus stores. We all played war, and the nerdier kids were condemned to play Japs and Krauts, while the alpha kids were Americans. I envied my friends who had helmet liners, machetes, canteens or drilled and emptied hand grenades to play with.

daggerMy father saw France and Czechoslovakia in that war, although he downplayed his part in it. He had several war souvenirs that were kept in the basement: a German helmet, an SS dagger, pair of binoculars, a Walther PPK pistol. I was fascinated by them, and pulled them out to play with. (When he found out I had been playing “war” with the PPK, he immediately took it and sold it to get it out of the house). These things were catnip to a little boy.

This was the early 1950s, and I learned about World War II through movies shown on television. This was the war of John Wayne and William Bendix. The Americans were the heroes; the Japanese and the Germans were the villains. It was an easy call; there were the good guys and the bad guys.

The version of Hitler that shows up in these films is insubstantial. When mentioned at all, he is satirized as a clown with a funny mustache, but most often the Nazis are an undifferentiated enemy with nefarious aims. Little distinction is made between Germans and Nazis. We argued over which way the swastika bent, and whether they were “knot-sees” or “nah-zees.”

guadalcanal diary bendix

When the German war aims are mentioned, it was that they sought “world domination.” When the movie is set in the Pacific, the Japanese war aims were never mentioned at all: They were just evil and our enemy.

There were documentaries, also. On TV, there was also the resonant voice of Leonard Graves and the music of Richard Rodgers on Victory at Sea, and a Saturday morning filler program produced by the Army called The Big Picture. Both fed a version of the war that was about the United States defeating its enemies.

dead bodies at Nordhausen

It was in those Army documentaries that I first saw images of the liberated concentration camps when I was a boy. I was horrified — and fascinated — by those piles of dead naked bodies bulldozed into mass graves by the American soldiers, and the spindly, glaze-eyed skeleton-survivors. I don’t know how these images affected others, but in my tiny 6-year-old brain, they were the fountainhead of moral development: Those images are indelible; I can draw them up in my mind anytime. Nothing from my childhood has such potent emotional power as the memory of those films. But the Holocaust was a separate issue, barely related in my boyish brain with the war my father had fought. Only later, did the Holocaust become central to my understanding of the war, of Nazism, of Hitler.

sgt rockBy the time I was in the seventh grade, my interest in the war had changed: In typical adolescent (male) fashion, I became hypnotized by the machinery and regalia of the war. I learned the names of each type of Panzer tank, fighter plane, each sort of submarine and corvette, destroyer and cruiser. I drew them endlessly in stereotyped scenes learned from primarily from Sergeant Rock comic books.

By then, I was also becoming aware of the centrality of Auschwitz. But German anti-semitism made no more emotional sense to me than the “world domination dictator” image of Hitler. I grew up in northern New Jersey and my Boy Scout troop leader was Mr. Weinstein. I knew many Jewish people and I could not see any difference between them and the Italians, Irish, Germans or South African families sprinkled through the suburban neighborhoods. Anti-semitism seemed no more possible than men in the moon.

The version of the war that persists in the American imagination is the one in which Americans, with a little help from England, beat back Hitler and won the war.  D-Day was the turning point. There was a niggling awareness that there might also be some fighting on the eastern front, and that somehow the Soviet Union was our ally in the war, despite their being “godless communists.”

belt buckleThis version was filled with stories of American heroism in the war. We won, it was implied, because democracy always wins. It was our system vs. their system, and ours was more virtuous. After all, God was on our side (despite the Wehrmacht beltbuckles that read “Gott mit uns.”)

I had read a good deal about the war and had finally come to the conclusion that perhaps D-Day was not the central turning point of the war and that perhaps the conflict with the Soviets was a bigger deal than the war in France. (This is not to diminish the efforts of the Allied soldiers in western Europe, but to recognize the balance of the death and fighting was in the east).

I began to see World War II as the “Great Patriotic War,” a war primarily between Germany and the Soviet Union, with the Western Allies as a sort of sideshow. All those riveting TV documentaries about D-Day and the retro-movie version of the war in Saving Private Ryan seemed like empty chauvinism. How many Americans died in the war? About 400,000, which is a staggering number until you compare it with the number of Soviet forces killed: 10 million. If you add in the civilian war deaths, the number rises to  27 million. That is nearly 14 percent of their total population. In the U.S., that percentage is less than one-third of one percent. (Again, I don’t mean to diminish the enormity of the American suffering or the part played by our soldiers, but to put it into the larger context of the war horror).

Kursk

Kursk

On D-Day, American deaths were about 2,500, roughly the same number as died in the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001 (and roughly the same number who were killed in the attack on Pearl Harbor Dec. 7, 1941), but consider the battle of Kursk in the Soviet Union, when some 10,000 Germans were killed and the Soviet deaths estimated at three times that. Or the Battle of Stalingrad, which admittedly continued over several months, but wound up with nearly 2 million casualties. If there was a turning point in the war, it was Stalingrad, not D-Day. Germany never recovered.

Stalingrad

Stalingrad

japanese stereotype 2Forgotten in all of this is Japan. When I was a child, it was clear that the Japanese were treacherous people who designed the deaths of Americans, presumably for irrational reasons. They were a crazed nation of  squint-eyed, buck-toothed people insanely loyal to an emperor.

World War II was in most books a single entity with combat theaters in Europe and in the Pacific. But at some point, I came to understand that there were really two unrelated wars being fought concurrently, or rather that the two wars overlapped. The European war began in 1939, if you were Polish, 1941 if you were Russian (June 22) or American (Dec. 7). But the Pacific war had begun in 1931 with the Japanese invasion of Manchuria and turned into the so-called Second Sino-Japanese War beginning in 1937. Just as in Europe, where we glory over D-Day and forget the millions who died in Eastern Europe, so in the Pacific, we remember Iwo Jima and Guadalcanal and tend to forget that the real misery was felt in China, where the war death estimates run from 10 million to 25 million. (It should also be remembered that until Pearl Harbor, Germany and the Soviet Union both allied themselves with the Chinese against the Japanese.)

rape of nanking baby

But the one question I could never quite answer to my satisfaction, the issue I could not quite understand was: What were the goals of the Axis powers? What did they hope to accomplish?

warner bros hitlerThe standard answer was: World domination. Hitler wanted to invade Europe to achieve power. Why he might want to conquer France was a mystery. Why he bombed London never made sense. And that was just the Germans. The Italians hardly entered the equation. They were an afterthought. And finally, it was never clear what sort of domination the Japanese might be after.

In the Warner Brothers cartoons I was weened on, Hitler, Tojo and Mussolini were three comic villains with the same aim: world domination. (No one asked if they had accomplished this goal, whether they would turn their rifles on each other).

Ming the Merciless

Ming the Merciless

Hitler was, in this view, hardly different from the nefarious Fu Manchu or Dr. Mabuse or Ming the Merciless. Why any nation would bend to the will of such a madman was an enigma.

Wars are political and economic. We remember them militarily, but they are gestated through power and money. Now that I am an old man, I no longer see World War II as the “Good War” — the American version — or the “Great Patriotic War” — the Russian version — but rather as The War between Hitler and Stalin over Poland.

Poland has rolled around eastern Europe for centuries, expanding and shrinking, becoming an empire and disappearing altogether. You could make an animated map showing how over time Poland moved east, then north, then west like a ball of mercury on a plate, then evaporated like a dried-up puddle. In western Europe, nationality conveniently tends to follow ethnicity. France is filled with the French, the Netherlands are filled with the Dutch. But throughout eastern Europe, ethnicities are scattered like confetti. There were Germans in Poland, Poles in Ukraine, Lithuanians in Poland, Russians in Lithuania, and Jews all over. It made national borders more arbitrary than they are in the west. Much of Hitler’s plan before the war broke out in earnest concerned bringing ethnic Germans together under one nation-state. Hence the Anschluss and the annexation of the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia. His ostensible aims were to “protect” the German people from persecution by non-Germans. The Nazi slogan was “Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Führer” — One people, one country, one leader.einvolk einreich einfuhrer

Ein Volk” — this was a nearly mystical idea of race and genetics. Hitler believed in two things that were current in his age. One was Social Darwinism, that competition was not only between individuals, not only between species, but between “races,” or genetic bloodlines. His Germanic race was in competition with all other races, and only the strong would survive. Second, he believed in a neo-Malthusian sense that as population increased, food production would begin to fail. And, as Germany industrialized, fewer people were producing food, and less land was given to farming. These two things were behind his announced need for “Lebensraum” — living room. He proposed not only to aggregate the Deutsche Volk under one political system, but also to annex new farmland to Germany and repopulate that land with German farmers.

In this, one ventures to say, he was little different from American Manifest Destiny in the 19th century. As we proposed forced migration of Native Americans and to appropriate their lands, so Hitler proposed to move Poles and other non-German people out of his section of Poland and repatriate a growing population of Germans into it.

He faced two international political problems with this plan. The Soviet Union would likely object, and the allied forces of western Europe had a treaty to defend the independence of Poland.

Molotov and Ribbentrop

Molotov and Ribbentrop

To eliminate those problems, he made a pact with Stalin — the Molotov-Ribbentrop non-aggression pact — which freed him up, he expected, to face the armies of France and England that intended to protect the sovereignty of Poland.

In reality, there was an unpublished portion of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact that split Poland in two, with one half going to Hitler, and the remains going to Stalin.

So, when Hitler invaded Poland on Sept. 1, 1939, he planned also to turn his Blitzkrieg on France, which he neutered in 1940, taking over most of western Europe save Great Britain and the neutral countries of Spain, Switzerland and Sweden. This meant he thought he no longer had to worry about a two-front war. In this sense, the whole war in western Europe was a sideshow to the real carnage.

When the forced immigration of Poles, Jews and other non-Germans proved problematic, and after Hitler decided Blitzkrieg could bring him not only Poland, but also most of the European territory of the Soviet Union, he invaded eastern Poland (by then, a part of the Soviet Union) and headed for Moscow.

A separate industry developed to deal with the displaced peoples, which, by Hitler’s racial thinking were Untermensch, or lesser humans, and with his own propaganda blaming Jews for the loss of the First World War, and the “Jewish Bolshevism” of Communist Russia, his Nazi planners came up with a “final solution” for what to do with all those unwanted people. Six million Jews were exterminated over the course of the war, mostly from 1942 to the end of the war. But also nearly 2 million ethnic Poles, 3 million Ukrainian and other non-Jewish victims.

liberated prisoners at Ebensee 1945
bloodlands cover(Timothy Snyder’s 2010 book, Bloodlands, covers all the deaths in the tragic lands between Germany and Russia from the 1930s through 1945, including the Holodomor — the deliberate starvation of between 3 and 7 million Ukrainians by Stalin’s order. In all, between Hitler and Stalin, Snyder estimates that some 14 million non-combatants were murdered for political reasons between 1933 and 1945. The numbers are all estimates; the death was so pervasive, accurate records for most deaths were impossible. And these 14 million were all separate from the military deaths of the war.)

What I have written here is an obviously very simplified version of things. Almost every sentence here could be expanded into a book. I have left out many important things (not the least of which is the bifurcation of Europe after World War I into camps espousing Communism and camps promoting Fascism. For a time in the 1930s, it even looked as if America was going to have to choose between them).

MBDRUOF EC010This is a lot of words, all to show the slow development of ideas about the war, from childish to mature, from simple and unexamined to complex and nuanced. The case I am trying to make is that this is true not simply for my pathetic little understanding of World War II, but that this kind of growing complexity is symptomatic of getting older, seeing more of the world, and tying it all together.

I could have chosen almost any subject and gone on at length about how my understanding has changed, widened, saddened. For, if there is anything that results from broader experience — which is what getting old gives you, want it nor not — is the sad truth expressed in Jean Renoir’s 1939 film, Rules of the Game, spoken by Octave (played by Renoir himself): “You see, in this world, there is one awful thing, and that is that everyone has his reasons.”

treblinka sign

I’m wearing a virtual foam collar around my brain stem, suffering from a kind of whiplash, having finished one book, so devastating and depressing, and having begun another so invigorating and life-affirming — really, brain-affirming — that my poor psyche feels like Faye Dunaway in Chinatown, slapped back and forth by Jack Nicholson.

I recommend both.

The first is a recounting of the inhumanity humanity deals to itself; it is a tale of humankind seen not as individuals, but as an aggregate of categories. The second is a memoir of humans seen as individuals, with all their flaws and foibles. It is the macro view vs. the micro view.

The most distressing thing is that we all have to live in both worlds; we have our families and friends, but we also cannot escape the things our governments, our religions and our employers do in our name.

bloodlandsThe first book is Bloodlands, by Timothy Snyder, which recasts the central story of World War II — really from 1933 to 1948 — in a way which finally makes sense to me, and is a needed antidote for all the triumphalist D-Day feel-goodism you are weighed down by in endless TV documentaries about the war.

We are too often deluded into thinking that World War II was a time in which America waged a “good war” against Nazism and won. I had always found this view indefensible, simple minded and ultimately jingoistic. The U.S. certainly had its part to play — and I don’t mean to denigrate the sacrifice of our soldiers, sailors and those on the homefront —  but when I looked at the figures, it was hard to reconcile the idea that we were the major player when our war dead totaled half a million but the Soviet Union’s dead exceeded 12 million. Either they were terrible soldiers and ours were magnificently efficient, or the real war was not in Normandy, but in the Eastern Front.

But even my own prejudice about the war really being between Germany and Russia turns out to be a gross simplification.

The book is an accounting of all the dying that took place in the shifting-border areas between Germany and Russia — the areas that were sometimes Poland, sometimes Ukraine, Belarus and parts of the Baltic states, Romania and Hungary — death caused by the political choices and policies first of Stalin in the Soviet Union and then Hitler in Germany.Jew_Killings_in_Ivangorod_(1942)

By the accounting of the author, they are culpable in the deaths of 14 million civilians. This is above and beyond the military deaths caused by the war itself. This was the deliberate starvation of Ukrainian farmers in the 1933, the “Great Terror” of 1938, in which Stalin wiped out his political enemies, rivals and phantoms of his paranoia, followed by the mass shootings in occupied Poland from 1939 to 1941, the starvation policy used by the Germans on 3.1 million Soviet prisoners of war and the intended extermination of Jews by Germans from 1941 to 1945. It is a dismal story of humanity’s inhumanity. These were not accidental deaths, but deaths of central planning and political purpose.

The overwhelming bulk of death during those years took place between the so-called Molotov-Ribbentrop line that divided pre-war Poland in half, and the eastern borders of Ukraine and Belarus.

Snyder footnotes the exact counts, often village by village, with anecdotal horror stories of those shot, burned, gassed and garroted. One hardly turns the pages without choking and weeping.

From Snyder’s view, the war in Europe was not merely one between Nazi Germany and the Communist Soviet Union, but rather one in which Hitler and Stalin colluded in first wiping Poland off the map, splitting it between them in 1939 (the aforesaid Molotov-Ribbentrop line), and then, when Hitler’s plan to evict all the Poles and Jews from what was formerly western Poland got bogged down in difficulty (the plan to deport them all to the east, vaguely somewhere in the Soviet Union, perhaps Kazakhstan was nixed by Stalin), it turned into a plan to murder them all.

It should be noted that in Russia, the official dates of World War II are 1941 to 1945. They don’t acknowledge the invasion of Poland by Germany on Sept. 1, 1939 as the start of the war, because they were equally culpable in that dissolution of the state of Poland. But they start the conflict in 1941, when Hitler invaded the Soviet Union. Except, of course, that Hitler didn’t first invade the Soviet Union. He invaded what used to be eastern Poland, on the other side of the Molotov-Ribbentrop line, but had since been declared to be part of the Soviet Union — the formerly Polish part. For Stalin it made no difference that this was formerly Poland; now it was de facto part of his Soviet Union.

When Hitler’s army failed to take Moscow quickly, as his Blitzkrieg model had planned, the war turned into a protracted and mass slaughter of German and Soviet armies.

While we in the West call World War II “the good war,” in Russia they remember it as the Great Patriotic War, but in reality the whole thing should be called the Soviet-German war over the dismemberment of Poland.

To that bloody conflict, D-Day, Sicily, North Africa, Dunkirk, the Battle of Brittain were all basically a side-show. Our propaganda portrayed Hitler as seeking “world domination,” but that was never more than a comic-book arch-villain sort of plot. France and England were brought into the war because they had a defense treaty with Poland. Hitler would have preferred to avoid war with England and France. His beef was with Stalin over the land he wanted in Poland for German expansion — primarily to provide farming land and food for an expanding and industrialized Germany. Having to deal with England and France in the west was a pesky bother to him.

(The war in the Pacific, which happened concurrently, can be seen as primarily a separate war, beginning with Japanese invasions of Manchuria and China in the 1930s and ending after the war in Europe. The Pacific war was essentially America’s war, unlike the war in Europe.)

Back to the book: What makes it so dismal is not just the magnitude of the statistics — how many million shot in the back of the head here, so many million run through the death camps there — but the documented stories of individual deaths, or whole villages prisoned in churches that were then burned down, or men required to dig pits the length of two football fields, and then told to lie down in the graves, where they were shot, and layered like lasagne with another pile of bodies, shot, and another, and another, then covered up with dirt.

One fears turning the page in Bloodlands to find more starvation, more cold-blooded planning of mass murder, more mothers torn from their babies, more husbands worked to death in labor camps, while their parents were shipped off to Treblinka or Chelmno.

We too often think of the concentration camps as the place of the Holocaust, but Snyder makes clear that as many Jews were killed by bullets as by gas, and that the version of camp death we most often think of — say Auschwitz or Buchenwald — were not actually death camps, but rather holding camps in which death was a too-common byproduct. The real death camps were small facilities with no barracks, just changing rooms. The victims arrived by train, stripped of clothing and possessions and were herded directly into gas chambers where internal combustion engines piped carbon monoxide in, killing all in about 20 minutes of terror, and then the corpses were carried out an burned in huge pyres, kept fired up like so many charcoal grills. Treblinka was built exclusively to empty out the Warsaw ghetto. When that was accomplished, Treblinka was closed down. The extermination camp at Chelmno did the same thing for the Jews of the Lodz ghetto. The industrialized purposefulness of such factories is all the more chilling. deportation to treblinka 1942

We tend to think of Hitler’s atrocities as being 6 million Jews killed in the Holocaust. And in terms of ethnic cleansing, it is one of the most ghastly in human history, but the suffering was also spread out in the period Snyder covers, from so-called kulaks in Ukraine to Polish officers massacred after the division of Poland in 1939, to dissidents and potential dissidents in the Soviet Union. Some 60 million people died in those years from political violence, less than half of them were military. That was 3 percent of the world’s population at the time.

One of the arguments one hears from the so-called Holocaust deniers, is that the Shoah was simply too vast to be believed. No humans could possibly have exterminated that many people in that short a time. Yes, they say, Hitler had anti-Semitic policies and maybe a few were killed, but the vast numbers were not believable. One has to laugh at this argument, not only in the face of Snyder’s careful accounting, but in the long view of history, and the slaughter of conquered peoples from the dawn of time. The Holocaust was not a singular event, but something like the standard order of things. This is what people do to each other, over and over and over. One must remember the wholesale extermination of city populations by Genghis Khan, the pyramids of skulls of Tamerlane. The slaughter of Cathars in the 13th century, or earlier, of the Wu Hu in China in the Fourth Century. One voice echoes through history: Carthago delenda est. So, ethnic cleansing continues in our own time, whether in Rwanda or Sudan or Cambodia.

I have gone on is rather more length than I had intended. The book is overwhelming, the pessimism it engenders is oppressive. I do not hope for a brighter future; I cannot knowing the lessons of history.

But I can put the book down when finished, and pick up another, one that gives me as much pleasure as Bloodlands gives me pain.

And here’s where the whiplash may hit you, too.

trilogyBecause the next tome I picked up was H.L. Mencken’s three autobiographical books, published as a single volume by the Library of America. I cannot convey to you quite the pleasure to be had by reading Mencken. His writing is full of the vigor and intellectual energy of a man in love with life and in love with the way language can convey that love.

It is not that everything is wonderful in Mencken’s life, but rather that the failings of human existence — seen as the acts of individuals, rather than classes of people — are at bottom so entertaining.

It is particularly his volume on his early newspaper work that fills me with joy. Newspaper Days covers the years from about 1899 to 1906, and lets me know that journalism hadn’t changed much from his day to mine (that it is now nearly extinct is another sorrow I feel).

Just as I dreaded each new chapter in Bloodlands, I check to see how many more pages I have left of Mencken and dread instead the final page, when my pleasure will come to its end. Prejudices

The Library of America had previously published his six series of  Prejudices, which were collected essays, always a joy to read, even when what he says might be outrageous and, well, prejudiced. At bottom, Mencken is clear-eyed and unbowed, and we value his fellowship, even in print, as we might value it sitting on a barstool next to him, sharing banter over a foamy beer. You might not agree with Mencken’s opinions, but they were always magnificently expressed, in a kind of journalistic language raised to the level of poetry.

I have his three volume The American Language, which is about as entertaining a scholarly book as you could find. Thorough, amused and amusing, it is indispensable.

The best way I can convey to you the qualities of Mencken’s writing, and of his mind, is to quote him. Here is a section from Newspaper Days, in which he talks about the artists employed back at the turn of the century to illustrate newspaper stories, before the days when photographs could be easily reproduced. As editor, he had to deal with their eccentricities.

After a few anecdotes about artists getting themselves into trouble and drink, he reminds us that:

“The cops of those days, in so far as they were aware of artists at all, accepted them at their own valuation, and thus regarded them with suspicion. If they were not actually on the level of water-front crimps, dope-pedlars and piano-players in houses of shame, they at least belonged somewhere south of sporty doctors, professional bondsmen and handbooks [obsolete slang clarification: bookies]. This attitude once cost an artist of my acquaintance his liberty for three weeks, though he was innocent of any misdemeanor. On a cold Winter night he and his girl lifted four or five ash-boxes, made a roaring wood-fire in the fireplace of his fourth-floor studio, and settled down to listen to a phonograph, then a novelty in the world. The glare of the blaze, shinning red through the cobwebbed windows, led a rookie cop to assume that the house was afire, and he turned in an alarm. When the firemen came roaring up, only to discover that the fire was in a fireplace, the poor cop sought to cover his chagrin by collaring the artist, and charging him with contributing to the delinquency of a minor. There was, of course, no truth in this, for the lady was nearly forty years old and had served at least two terms in a reformatory for soliciting on the street, but the lieutenant at the station-house, on learning that the culprit was an artist, ordered him locked up for investigation and he had been in the cooler three weeks before his girl managed to round up a committee of social-minded saloonkeepers to demand his release. The cops finally let him go with a warning, and for the rest of that Winter no artist in Baltimore dared to make a fire.”

mencken 3The book moves forward with speed and irony, full of vivid expressions and entertaining stories. Mencken recalls cops and judges, editors and pressmen, drummers for patent medicines and press agents of dubious veracity, kindly murderers and scapegrace yobs of all descriptions, many of which Mencken counted as his special angels of the kind of humanity he most valued. He detested all cant and corporate or governmental doublethink, and anyone who would put life into a file cabinet alphabetically.

It is the pleasure of coming across his book after reading Bloodlands that restores the oxygen to a world otherwise noisome with the mephitic stench of death. And reminds us that it is a grace that we live in a world of individuals rather than in the statistical world of categories and proscription lists. Grace is what keeps us alive.