Tag Archives: world war 2


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).



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.



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.”

apolcalypse 1

The date is Jan. 15, 1941. Snow blankets the ground of a Nazi prisoner of war camp near Gorlitz, Germany, and the temperature is below zero. But in unheated Barracks 27, several hundred prisoners have gathered to hear a new piece of music. German officers occupy the front row.

“The cold was excruciating, the stalag was buried under snow,” wrote the composer of the music heard that night. “But never have I had an audience who listened with such rapt attention and comprehension.”

The prisoners and officers heard the quartet begin with a clarinet playing the same notes a blackbird sings. The answer came from a violin imitating a nightingale. Meanwhile a piano and cello created the harmonic nimbus that sits as still as the surface of a windless pond.

apolcalypse 2

It was the “Liturgy of Crystal” and the opening movement of French composer Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, one of the most miraculous pieces of music ever written.

Messiaen wrote of that opening, “Between three and four in the morning, the awakening of birds: a solo blackbird or nightingale improvises surrounded by a shimmer of sound, by a halo of trills lost very high in the trees. Transpose this onto a religious plane and you have the harmonious silence of heaven.”

The composer, a devout Roman Catholic, had been the organist at Sainte-Trinite Church in Paris. But his religion was less concerned with dogma than with revelation: He was a religious mystic.

olivier messiaen

Messiaen, an odd little man, had joined the French army as a medic and was captured by the Germans in 1940. Herded into cattle cars, he had no food and little clothing but filled his knapsack with musical scores. When he was transferred to Stalag 8A near Gorlitz he found a violinist, a cellist and a clarinet player and — more important — he found Karl-Albert Brull, a German guard who loved music.

Brull bought manuscript paper for Messiaen, found him an empty barracks to work in, posted a guard to keep the composer from interruptions and encouraged him to write music. He also counseled the captured Jews not to escape, arguing that their life in Vichy France would be more dangerous than life inside the stalag.

Soon after the now-famous concert, Brull arranged to have Messiaen repatriated to France.

“As musicians, you had no guns,” an officer said.

The Quartet for the End of Time spun out from its prison birth and became one of the celebrated musical compositions of the 20th century, but it always maintains its ability to astonish and shock.

yehuda hanani

“When I first played it, 30 years ago,” says cellist Yehuda Hanani, “it was as if someone took me to the moon and said, ‘This is what they write here.’ It was so different.

“It was written in the early ’40s, but it is still considered contemporary music. It transcends time.”

It was so avant-garde that it wasn’t performed in New York until the 1970s. Hanani was cellist at the 92nd Street Y in New York when Quartet premiered there. During that New York performance, Messiaen was in the wings, listening, “with tears streaming down his cheeks,” Hanani recalled.

During the war, Messiaen, who died in 1992, saw civilization crumbling around him and thought of it as the end of the world. “And he gave it a religious spin,” Hanani said. “For him this was the end of time, and you can see him experiencing it, but rather than being destroyed by it, or portraying the cruelty and savagery of war, like Picasso did in Guernica or Shostakovich in his symphonies, which are so devastating, he transcends this whole thing and goes somewhere else.”

quartet CD cover

But the quartet’s end of time also is musical: Messiaen was interested in non-Western music and the songs of birds, and he attempted in the quartet to make music without the normal rhythm of bars and meter. He manages to slow time to the point that, musically, it almost stops.

“Like the pulse of animals that hibernate,” Hanani said. And when it moves forward, it does so with the violence of apocalypse, irregular and fitful.”

Apocalypse contains not only monsters and cataclysms,” Messiaen wrote, “but also moments of silent adoration and marvelous visions of peace.”

There are many recordings out there, but one of the best, still available, is by the long-disbanded group Tashi, with Peter Serkin, Ida Kavafian, Fred Sherry and Richard Stoltzman. It was recorded in 1975.


My attraction to Manzanar was initially artistic, not political.

The 500-acre site in California’s Owens Valley on the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada is now a dusty spot of desert under the snow-capped peaks, but in 1943 it was home to 10,000 Japanese-Americans detained under federal order in a concentration camp built there, one of 10 such camps in the American West.

That year, it was visited by photographer Ansel Adams, who was invited to make a series of photographs of camp life. I had seen prints of those photographs while doing research at the Library of Congress, where they are stored, and had long wondered about the place.

”My first impression of Manzanar,” Adams wrote in his autobiography, ”was of a dry plain on which appeared a flat rectangular layout of shacks, ringed with towering mountains. … row upon row of black tar-paper shacks only somewhat softened by the occasional greenery.”

manzanar barracks

Most of the photographs he made are of the people, their homes and the social lives they maintained under impossible circumstances. But he also found something redemptive in the landscape.

”I have been accused of sentimental conjecture when I suggest that the beauty of the natural scene stimulated the people in the camp. No other relocation center could match Manzanar in this respect, and many of the people spoke to me of these qualities and their thankfulness for them,” he wrote.

And the single most famous image from Adams’ time in the camp is his Mount Williamson, Sierra Nevada, from Manzanar, California. It was prominently featured in the Museum of Modern Art show ”The Family of Man” in the 1950s, with its foreground of gargantuan boulders and background of sunlight breaking through a storm over the mountain peak. If ever there was a photograph meant to evoke the spiritual power of landscape, this is it.

manzanar mt williamson

So I was drawn to Manzanar to see the land. Certainly nothing was left of the camp, I was certain.

And the only thing that gives away the location of the camp is a stone sentry booth off the side of U.S. 395 about 15 miles north of Lone Pine. Behind it, all you see at first glance is gravel, dry grass, mesquite trees and clumps of datura wobbling their coarse white lace in the breeze.

But as soon as you drive into the camp and crawl along the old dirt roads, you discover what the decades have tried to obscure: flat concrete foundations of barracks, some weathered lumber littering the ground and the odd sight of water-system standpipes poking up like leafless shrubbery in the emptiness.

Walking through the old foundations, you discover broken bits of dinner plates and an occasional fork with its tines splayed. In one plaza area between the concrete ruins, there was a 5-foot mound of earth ringed with stones. It had been a Japanese rock garden built by the internees.

Above the camp, Mount Williamson still looks impressive although nothing in nature ever looks quite so impressive as it does in Adams’ prints.

And the reality of American politics is sometimes less impressive than it looks in the Constitution. Here in Manzanar, American citizens were locked up for no reason but their race.

When Adams published a book, Born Free and Equal, of his Manzanar photographs in 1944, copies were actually burned by what Adams called ”reactionary groups with racial phobias and commercial interests” who questioned his loyalty and patriotism.

manzanar father and son

I became adult as the Vietnam War raged both here and in Asia, and I recall many of the same sentiments expressed then.

And as I left the camp, I poked through the sentry booth, which is filled with 50 years’ worth of graffiti, most of it in Japanese and left by those who were detained there and now by their descendants, who often come back to visit.

A young Japanese man pulled up on his Kawasaki while I was there and started photographing the booth interior. He spoke almost no English, but when I asked him if he could translate the words, he told me that most were names.

I pointed to one set of characters carved into the woodwork around a window, and he told me it was the Japanese transliteration of the name Clark.

In 1992 Congress designated Manzanar as a National Historic Site. It was the 50th anniversary of Franklin Roosevelt’s executive order authorizing the internment.