The Second World War (part two)

The board game Risk was invented in 1957. Had it existed twenty years earlier, Hitler’s generals might have been able to use it to explain to the Fuhrer why his invasion of the Soviet Union was foolish—or, at best, premature. Hitler was no military genius. He and the Nazis rose to power because of blind self-confidence and illogical theories of racial superiority. They lost power and lost the world war for precisely the same reasons.

Totalitarian leaders survive by making citizens fear enemies, whether those enemies exist in the country or outside its borders. The shortcoming of leaders is less visible when the people being led are distracted by a common enemy, or at least by the appearance of an enemy. Hitler pushed himself overboard pursuing that strategy. Enemies within the borders of Germany included, according to Hitler, Jews and communists and gypsies (the Roma people). Enemies outside the borders included the Slavic people to the east, whom Hitler believed would easily be enslaved and forced to serve the interests of Germany. In both cases, he was wrong.

The Holocaust was, in once sense, about race, as Hitler imagined the Germans to represent a superior Aryan race and despised the Jews, Roma, and Slavs as inferior races. For two reasons, though, the Holocaust was not entirely about race. First, most Jews today would agree that Jewishness is neither a race nor a religion, but rather a common culture developed and passed down over many generations. Second, the victims of the Holocaust also included other groups: homosexuals, the mentally and emotionally ill, and political enemies of the Nazis—some of whom were Christian clergy. The Nazis denied civil rights to these groups. Then they imprisoned them in camps. Finally, they sentenced those millions of prisoners to death. Other nations, including the United States, knew about the Holocaust. Articles appeared in the New York Times and other newspapers. Letters were written to President Roosevelt and other leaders. Roosevelt’s answer to those letters was that the Holocaust could only be ended when Germany was defeated in the world war, and that the United States was doing everything possible to achieve that goal.

Hitler’s attack on the Soviet Union, combined with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, drew the United States and the United Kingdom into an uneasy alliance with Josef Stalin and the Soviet Union. Stalin was known to be as dangerous a totalitarian despot as Hitler and Mussolini. But, to defeat the combined powers of Germany, Italy, and Japan, the free nations of the world had to fight alongside the Soviet Union. Economic differences were set aside long enough to defeat a common enemy.

The leaders of the Great Powers—Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin—met in Tehran, Iran, at the end of 1943. They met again at Yalta, on the Crimean peninsula in the Black Sea, in February 1945. The third meeting, at Potsdam, Germany, in July 1945, also included Stalin. Roosevelt had died and been replaced by Harry S. Truman; Churchill had lost and election and been replaced by Clement Attlee. These three conferences were dedicated first to cooperation in defeating German and Japan, but second to planning a new world order following that victory. The United Nations would replace the impotent League of Nations. Germany and Japan would be weakened so they could not threaten the world again. Most significant, each government would be responsible for creating and supporting new governments in lands they had captured or liberated. This meant that eastern European countries, including Poland and Hungary and Romania, would have soviet-style governments imposed upon them. Finally, the Soviet Union agreed to enter the war against Japan three months after the fall of Germany. One consequence of the last two points was the eventual division of Korea into North Korea and South Korea.

The battle of Stalingrad was the beginning of the end for Nazi Germany. From August 23, 1942, to February 2, 1943, German forces attacked the Russian city and Soviet forces defended the city. Both sides were committed to total victory. More than two million soldiers died in the conflict—in fact, the Soviet Union lost more soldiers in that one battle than the United States lost in the entire world war. The failure of the German army began a long, slow retreat across Europe that ended with the fall of Berlin in May 1945. Allied forces had taken north Africa, Italy, France, and parts of western Germany by that time. Rather than admit defeat, Hitler committed suicide. His Third Reich, promised to endure a thousand years, fell short by 988 years.

Meanwhile, Japan had instigated the Second World War by its attacks upon China in the 1930s. Japan already had control of Korea and Taiwan; in 1940, it added the French colonies of Indochina (now Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos). The surprise attack on Pearl Harbor near the end of 1941 coincided with invasions of Thailand and of British and Dutch territories in southeast Asia and the south Pacific. While these forays were initially successful, they brought the United States and the United Kingdom into the war against Japan. Naval and air forces from Alaska to Australia began to push back the Japanese Empire. By the summer of 1945, the Allies were prepared to invade the islands of Japan. President Truman authorized the use of newly-developed atomic bombs to shorten the war. This decision saved lives on both sides of the conflict (even compared to lives lost by Japan in the two bombings) and lessened the grasp of the Soviet Union that had just entered the war, already seizing Manchuria in China along with northern Korea. Japan surrendered, and the Second World War was finally at an end. This, of course, set the stage for the Cold War, involving the United States, the Soviet Union, and most other countries in the world. J.

The Second World War, part one

A few historians suggest that the two world wars were, in reality, one war of roughly thirty years, with a treaty separating the earlier hostilities from the final stage of the war. Their model for this suggestion is the Hundred Years War between England and France. That war began in 1337 and extended until 1453, but it consisted of three stages of fighting and two truces—one of roughly ten years and the other of nearly twenty-five years.

Both at the time and in retrospect, one could defend the proposition that the Second World War picked up where the first World War ended. But unlike the Hundred Years War, in which the governments of England and France both remained stable (even as kings died and were replaced), the governments that brought about the Second World War were largely different from those that had fought in the Great War. Hitler and the Nazis had little connection to the Kaiser’s government in Germany or that of the Emperor of Austria. The Italy of Mussolini was far different from Italy of the Great War, an Italy which joined the Allies to battle against Germany and Austria. The Czar of the Soviet Union had been displaced by Stalin and the Communists. Even Japan—which, for the most part, sat out the Great War—was changed. At the height of the Victorian Era, Japan consciously imitated the most successful policies they saw in Europe and North America. During the Great Depression, Japanese leaders saw more hope in imitating (and joining with) Hitler and Mussolini. All these nations embraced totalitarianism, and a totalitarian government needs continual enemies to battle, or the nation’s people will rise up against their government and overthrow it.

Therefore, Italy under Mussolini and the Fascists first invaded their neighbor, Albania, and then set out to colonize Ethiopia. When the League of Nations criticized these actions, Italy quit the League of Nations. Japan provoked an incident in China, using it as an excuse to invade and colonize northeastern China. When the League of Nations criticized these actions, Japan quit the League of Nations. With help from Stalin’s Soviet government, Hitler rebuilt Germany’s armed forces. He expanded German national power by absorbing Austria in the Anschluss, a union which many Austrians welcomed. Hitler then moved to claim a section of Czechoslovakia on the grounds that German-speaking people lived there. The British government was ready to challenge this expansion; instead, negotiators decided to appease Hitler, assuming that giving him what he wanted would keep him quiet. (Try this sort of appeasement with a five-year-old child in the grocery store!) Hitler then concluded that the rest of Czechoslovakia was too weak to survive, so he placed that land under German control as well.

Meanwhile, the League of Nations was also too weak to prevent civil war in Spain. The Spanish government first was overthrown by Communist forces, supported by the Soviet Union, who declared Spain a Republic. But, with help from Germany and Italy, General Franco struck back at the Republic, invading his own country from north Africa. Most other countries, including the United States, remained officially neutral, although some American volunteers did serve in Spain—helping the Communist Republic defend itself against Franco’s Nationalist forces. The war in Spain allowed both sides of the coming World War to test new technology that had not existed in 1918. Franco eventually won the war, and his Fascist government remained in power until his death in 1975.

Where and when did the Second World War begin? European historians point to the division of Poland between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union and the incursion of German troops into Poland on September 1, 1939. But, since the war ended with the surrender of Japan, historians increasingly look to the Japanese invasion of China in 1936 to identify the beginning of the war. As Japan sought to increase its power at the expense of China, it changed a set of regional conflicts into a world-wide conflict. Germany’s successes in Europe enabled Japan to seize British and French colonies in eastern Asia. Even though the largest empire in history, counting only dry land, was the Mongolian Empire of Genghis Khan around 1225, if one includes control over ocean regions the Japanese Empire in 1942 was marginally larger than the Mongolian Empire.

Germany’s invasion of Poland caused France and the United Kingdom to declare war. The next year, Denmark and Norway both fell under German control, and the Germans then repeated their effort of 1914 to strike France quickly through the Netherlands and Belgium. This time, German forces made it to Paris. Motorized military vehicles overcame the risk of trench warfare which had happened in 1914. Germany’s Blitzkrieg, or “Lightning War,” seemed effective in overwhelming the opposition. In fact, Blitzkrieg was the only kind of fighting Germany could afford; a protracted bout of fighting would have driven the nation into insolvency and defeat. The United Kingdom managed to survive the Battle of Britain, and if Hitler had been satisfied with his gains in the early stages of the war, the course of history from that time until the present might have been far different.

Two things changed the course of the war. First, Hitler turned against his ally to the east and invaded the Soviet Union. He thought that the Blitzkrieg would work as well in eastern Europe as it had worked in Poland and in France. Hitler also hoped that Japan would invade the Soviet Union from the Pacific, forcing the Russians to fight on two fronts. Japan elected to wait and see before committing itself to battle the Soviets. Instead, six months after Hitler’s attack on the Soviet Union, Japanese forces bombed American positions at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Japan hoped to prevent American interference in its Pacific empire. Instead, by bringing both the Soviet Union and the United States into the World War, Germany and Japan guaranteed their eventual defeat. J.

Memorial Day

The history and significance of Memorial Day (or Decoration Day) is complex. For centuries, people have decorated the graves of soldiers with flowers, flags, and other tributes. Naturally, following the carnage of the Civil War, commemorations were made at the graves of soldiers, whether Federal or Confederate. At least twenty-five cities claim the honor of creating Memorial Day to remember all Civil War soldiers. By 1868, the custom across the nation had developed that May 30 was the day to remember soldiers who lost their lives on Civil War battlefields. Gradually, the custom expanded to include all soldiers who died while in battle, including all the wars and military actions in which the United States has been involved.

Beginning in 1971, Memorial Day has been observed on the last Monday in May. The three-day weekend has become, in the United States, the unofficial beginning of summer, which then ends at the beginning of September with the three-day weekend of Labor Day. Many communities still have parades on Memorial Day, and generally ceremonies are held at cemeteries to mark this holiday. (I remember marching in the high school band to two cemeteries each Memorial Day.) But for many families, the weekend is marked with outdoor gatherings and meals, generally with little thought of military matters. I grilled hamburgers and bratwursts for the family last Sunday as part of our Memorial Day observances.

Often people confuse Memorial Day with Veterans Day (November 11) and with Armed Forces Day (the third Saturday in May). Memorial Day specifically remembers soldiers who died while serving the United States. Armed Forces Day salutes those who currently are serving in the armed forces. Veterans Day thanks those who served in the armed forces and survived their military career.

In my family research, I have discovered numerous veterans but no one who died while serving in a military force. Last weekend I used my Facebook page to honor three veterans—my grandfather, my uncle, and my father—and no one corrected me with the blurring of holidays. Here are two photographs I shared last weekend: the first was taken by my grandfather at Camp Hancock in Georgia. It shows Lieutenant G. M. Kuntz and Lieutenant Nygeberger with a World War I rifle and was taken in 1918. The second picture, taken by my uncle in Banneaux, Belgium, shows a World War II tank and an unnamed soldier. My uncle landed in France on D-Day plus 2 (June 8, 1944) and saw action in France, Belgium, and Germany.

We remember and honor those who died while defending our freedom and battling against the enemies of our country. We promise that their sacrifice will never be forgotten. J.

Remembering my uncle

He was my uncle. When I was a boy, he was also my neighbor, my keyboard teacher, and my mentor. He passed away December 23, 2019, at the age of 97.

During the Great Depression, my grandfather went to a famous food company and offered to work at any job they had available. They had him loading trucks for a few weeks, until one company official discovered that the new man was very talented mathematically. They hired him as a bookkeeper, a position he held for many years. By the end of the 1930s, my grandparents had purchased a farm house and three acres of land in a western suburb. They intended that their son and their daughter, after each of them married, could have a quarter of the property on which to build a house. My uncle and my mother accepted this gift, and so the family remained in close contact. Traveling east to west, or west to east, one would encounter a street, a front yard, a house, a back yard, a garden (two adjacent cultivated gardens, one belonging to each household), another back yard, another house, another front yard, and another street. Both households had a small orchard at the north end of the garden, and journeys through the orchards from one household to another were common. There were also paths from each household to my grandparents’ house to the south.

My uncle was hired as a chemist by the same company that had hired my grandfather. He also served in the U.S. Army during World War II. His company was among the waves of soldiers that continued the invasion and occupation of German-held France in Normandy after D-Day; he and his fellow soldiers landed on June 8, 1944, the third day of the landing, and he saw action in France during the war.

He had two sons and two daughters. One daughter preceded him in death (due to cancer), and one son became estranged from the family. His four children were all older than me; in fact, during family gatherings I frequently joined the two sons of my cousin, playing in the basement while the adults visited upstairs. The family came together to celebrate birthdays and wedding anniversaries, as well as Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter. Even children’s birthdays were marked by multi-generational gatherings that featured cake, ice cream, and (for the adults) coffee.

When he was working outside, my uncle would frequently have a young boy following him. That boy was me. My uncle teased with riddles. (Can you identify the longest day of the year? It’s the day each fall when we turn back our clocks to end Daylight Saving Time, because that day lasts twenty-five hours.) I learned a great deal from my father and from my mother, but my grandparents and my uncle were also part of my life nearly every day.

My uncle played the piano. I am sure he taught his children how to play. My sister also took lessons from him. When she wanted to quit, I was ready to start. Since I was only in the first grade, my parents doubted that I was ready for lessons, but my uncle was willing to give it a try. I still remember the triumph of mastering the piece that had frustrated my sister, leading to her quitting and my starting the lessons. But I did not practice on a piano. My grandparents had an electric organ on which I would practice my assignment every weekday afternoon. When I thought I was ready, I would make an appointment with my uncle and play the piece for him. He would either suggest improvements or pass me and assign a new piece. We completed all three books of the Thompson Method, and then he suggested various classical pieces for me to learn. His favorite was Schubert’s “March Militaire.” Because I practiced on an electric organ, I did not learn the fine points of piano technique until I was in high school, where I finally had regular access to pianos.

Eventually I grew up, took on a full-time job, was married, had children, and only occasionally visited my parents. When I stopped by the old place for a visit, I usually took time to cross through the orchards and visit my uncle as well. In his later years he battled failing sight, hearing, and strength. Despite these limitations, his mind remained strong, and provided I didn’t mind shouting and repeating myself, I was able to converse with him.

The death of my uncle produces a mild melancholy, not a deep grief. He had a long and meaningful life, and I have many fond memories of our time together. I know that I will still think of him from time to time. I am thankful to the Lord for my uncle’s place in my life and in my memories. J.

Turning into my parents

An insurance company advertises that they can save you money, but they can’t keep you from turning into your parents. I guess all of us become more like our parents as we age, no matter how often we told ourselves as children that we would never say or do certain things that our parents said and did.

The other day I was preparing to mow the lawn and the mail carrier said, “Looks like someone is getting ready to have some fun.” I laughed and told her, “No, but it has to be done.” Instantly I remember how many times my mother and my father said the same thing about lawn and garden work or about housework: “It has to be done.” I felt at times that they were committing themselves and their children to a lot of chores that really didn’t have to be done. Pulling weeds was never my favorite summertime activity. But they justified their own efforts—and the efforts they demanded of their children—with that simple slogan, “It has to be done.”

Both my parents grew up during the Great Depression. There were probably a lot of things that “had to be done” in those days, from growing their own vegetables to taking small jobs to earn a few coins to help support the family. Then they had the wartime years, where certain things “had to be done,” such as going without food to help feed the soldiers and collecting scrap metal and rubber for recycling as part of the war effort. Many of their peers settled into more comfortable lives in the Fifties and Sixties; but for my parents, life remained full of chores and duties that had to be done.

I wrote an essay in college about my parents’ “work ethic,” saying that I hoped I would not be as duty-driven as an adult. Some years I have succeeded in living up to my college dream, treating the things I do at my job as things I get to do, not things I have to do. At home I try to reduce the work that has to be done—as I’ve written before, one hour of lawn work a week is enough, in my opinion. My children have had chores, but they were meant to teach them life skills, not as something that “had to be done.”

To my surprise, that slogan of my parents came out of my mouth as naturally as if I invented it myself. “It has to be done.” The grass has to be mowed. The city will fine me if my lawn exceeds a certain height, and given all the rain we’ve had lately and all the rain in the forecast, there was only a window of a day or two open to get the grass cut.

What things do you say or do that you learned from your parents? J.