WWII began 80 years ago today

Hitler watching German soldiers marching into Poland in September 1939 (Photo: Wikipedia)

Today marks the 80th anniversary of beginning of World War II.

On September 1, 1939, Hitler’s German army—the Wehrmacht—invaded Poland. Two days later Britain and France declare war on Germany. By the time WWII ended in September of 1945, between 70 and 85 million people had perished.*

Of course Hitler was the central villain of WWII (Europe), and so he’s the focus. There are a lot of books about the Nazis and Hitler’s rise to power. Just type in “Hitler” on Amazon’s search engine for books and you’ll get 20,000 “results.” Just casually scan the hundreds of cable TV channels at your fingertips, and the odds are fairly good you’ll find a program or documentary about the Nazis or Hitler. A friend of mine nicknamed the History Channel, the “Hitler Channel,” because he noticed throughout the year so many programs on the channel seemed to be about the Nazis or Hitler.

But while Hitler himself continues to attract the consternation of many, I believe we’d be far better served if we better understood the psychological dynamics or emotional forces moving Hitler’s followers. Would-be tyrants and demagogues are always present in any society. There’s always someone saying he—and “only” he—can make us great again. But why, especially in modern democratic societies, like, say, Germany in the 1930s, would so many people come to support and believe in such a man? I realize this is a complicated question. And before anyone says: “Well most Germans didn’t know before the war, before Hitler came to power, that he’d do so many horrendous and cruel things,” I’ll remind them that Hitler, long before he came to power, had published his extreme views in a book called Mein Kampf—which was a best selling book in Germany! Hitler views were well known.

Hitler’s hate for Jews, for example, was red hot. Not something that could stay hidden. In 1922, that’s 11 years before Hitler became German Chancellor, Jospeh Hell asked Hitler: “What do you want to do to the Jews once you have full discretionary powers?” Hitler didn’t mince any words:

Once I really am in power, my first and foremost task will be the annihilation of the Jews. As soon as I have the power to do so, I will have gallows built in rows—at the Marienplatz in Munich, for example—as many as traffic allows. Then the Jews will be hanged indiscriminately, and they will remain hanging until they stink; they will hang there as long as the principles of hygiene permit. As soon as they have been untied, the next batch will be strung up, and so on down the line, until the last Jew in Munich has been exterminated. Other cities will follow suit, precisely in this fashion, until all Germany has been completely cleansed of Jews.

No doubt Hitler’s views weren’t secret. And yet many Germans, fully aware of Hitler’s spoken intentions, at least in Mein Kampf and what they’d read in the newspapers, voluntarily attended his massive rallies and flocked to the streets to throw the Nazi salute as their fuhrer past. Many Germans willingly surrendered their democratic freedoms, their personal liberties, and without a doubt their conscience, to a fascist, authoritarian leader.

Besides Hitler’s hate of the Jews, Hitler’s plans to expand Germany—which any sentient person knew meant war—was also well known. And once Hitler’s mission to expand Germany began, Hitler held nothing back in how this expansion would effect, not just Jews, but all non-Germans, non-Ayrans. In an August 22nd speech to the group of German military commanders leading the invasion of Poland, Hitler said:

The object of the war is … physically to destroy the enemy. That is why I have prepared, for the moment only in the East, my ‘Death’s Head’ formations with orders to kill without pity or mercy all men, women, and children of Polish descent or language. Only in this way can we obtain the living space we need.

That a whole group of educated, and supposedly civilized, German officers could be informed of the coming systemic slaughter of innocent men, women, and children—just because they were Polish!—and not immediately reject Hitler, should remind us of just how fragile so called civilized people’s commitment to civilized values, basic humanity, can be. After the invasion and occupation of Poland, the Nazi SS carried out Hitler’s orders with cold-blooded efficiency. By the time the war ended 6 million Poles had been killed.

So I think the bigger, more important, challenge for us is to understand the social factors, the social pathologies, that caused so many German people to accept and support Hitler and his dark Nazi ideology. Again, there are always authoritarian types in the crowd, but these types can only take power if a large number of people in democratic societies go along and buy into it. If anything, Nazi Germany serves as a reminder that the real danger to peace and civilized values isn’t so much the sociopaths and authoritarian personalities, but the social environment where authoritarianism is welcomed, accepted, and saluted as it passes by.

Free State of Jones

While walking through the Gettysburg battlefield museum this past June, I noticed something I hadn’t during my previous 6 or so trips: a display listing the total number of white southern men, per confederate state, that had fought for the Union and its army. The total number was over 100,000 men. That’s basically a large army of southern men rallying to Old Glory and President Lincoln. The largest number, I noticed, came from the southern state of Tennessee, where about 42,000 southern white men joined the Union army ranks. This gives a whole new meaning to the motto “the volunteer state.”

No doubt these southern men were labeled “traitors” by many of their fellow southerns. But these Southern Unionist or, more aptly, Union Loyalists, might have reminded their secessionist brethren that they had rightfully acquired that label first.

I had always known there were white southerns during the American Civil War that didn’t support secession, but they got outvoted. I think one might argue that most southerners got out-maneuvered politically and psychologically as well. Many got pulled into the war by the southern planter class who benefited the most from slave labor and the wealth it generated for their vast plantations.

This brings me to a civil war era movie I watched on Netflix the other night. It’s based on a true story. This particular story had escaped my readings over the years until the other night when I saw the movie the Free State of Jones. I hadn’t known that men (and women) in the deep southern state of Mississippi had taken up arms against the confederacy—a rebellion within a rebellion you might say.

Newton Knight was their leader and in the movie he’s played by Matthew McConaughey. Knight was a confederate solider who got furloughed by General Braxton Bragg to go home and to be with his dying father. (The movie has Knight leaving the army to bring his cousin’s—killed in battle— body home). But back home, in Jones County, Mississippi, Knight found the confederate army was confiscating food and other supplies from the locals, and not necessarily in nice way either. And of course the confederate army was hunting down deserters…at gun point…and hanging some of them, too.

On top of that, the confederate government had recently passed a new conscription law that favored wealthy southern families. The law said that for every 20 slaves a family owned, one of its male draft age members was exempt from conscription—the draft. Well…of course…it was mostly wealthy southern planters who owned 20 or more slaves. Almost needless to say the vast majority southern men (didn’t own more than 20 slaves, if any at all) in the confederate army and many weren’t pleased when the word got out about the new law. This aristocratic exemption only added to the confederate army’s desertion rate. On top of that, the whole idea of seceding from the Union hadn’t been particularly popular with many Mississippians anyway.

So Newton Knight, along with a growing band of confederate army deserters, and a number of local run-away slaves formed their own resistance army in Jones County, Mississippi. Basically, at first, their intent was to assist the Union army. They began ambushing confederate army wagon-trains and skirmishing with confederate army troops. Ultimately Knight and his band ran the confederate army out of Jones County and seized Ellisville, the county seat. Initially, Knight tried to get help from the Union Army, but he and his rebel band weren’t happy (at least in the film) with the answer they got from General Sherman. So Knight and his band declared Jones County Mississippi the Free State of Jones. They held on to Jones County until the war ended. Of course after the war you had the continuation of war (against the freed black population) by other means: the rise of the KKK, lynchings, voter suppression, etc, etc, and all kinds of other cruelties by white southerns determined to keep blacks disenfranchised.

It’s well worth your time to watch the Free State of Jones. Overall a good historical drama. A pretty good movie about an interesting aspect of Civil War history.

“Yet again in America”

“And uniquely American, this happens with regularity, in large numbers, as a pattern, just here, nowhere else.”

“Now, gun laws, regulations, background checks, soft targets, body armor, death penalty, mental health, time for action, I promise, thoughts and prayers. We hear yah. We heard you last time, and the time before that. And we’ll likely do it all soon…yet again in America.”

Colorized 1931 photograph of Albert Einstein

“Personally, I experience the greatest degree of pleasure in having contact with works of art. They furnish me with happy feelings of an intensity that I cannot derive from other sources.”— Albert Einstein — Quoted by Moszkowski in Conversations with Einstein, 184

Albert Einstein at the premiere of the film City Lights, February 2, 1931, in Los Angeles, CA

I was fascinated by my discovery of the above picture on the internet recently. The picture looks like it might have been taken yesterday, and yet it’s actually a colorized 1931 black and white photo of Albert Einstein being escorted by Charlie Chaplin at the premiere of Chaplin’s new film, City Lights.

Most of us know Einstein as a towering scientific genius, but he was also a devoted patron of the arts. A man of immerse scientific and mathematical knowledge, he felt that the human imagination and a wonder at the mysteries of life were two of the greatest motivational forces of the human spirit.

As Einstein knew, science, at best, can tell us the what about the world, but it’s only in the Arts and Humanities (which includes religion) that we can discover the why or meaning of our lives. As Einstein told a friend, “It would be possible to describe everything scientifically, but it would make no sense; it would be without meaning, as if you described a Beethoven symphony as a variation of wave pressure.” 

A Thousand Days

(Photo by Jeff Wills)

I visited an acquaintance of mine about two weeks ago. He happens to own a used bookstore. Of course I have far too many books now, but there’s always room for another good find.

We talked for a bit about kids and college and politics and eventually we moved, naturally, into booktalk, which, naturally, led us to his groaning shelves in search of a book.

The search didn’t produce the book we were looking for, but after my acquaintance walked away to take a phone call, my wondering eye spied a thick, black book spine cover with the title of A Thousand Days printed across it.

The full title is A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House written by Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. I had recently read Schlesinger’s Journals, published posthumously by his sons, and was deeply fascinated by them.

A Thousand Days won the 1966 Pulitzer Prize for biography and, from all that I’d read about it, was one of the best books written about President Kennedy the man, the candidate, the leader, and the President. Certainly a book written by an Administration insider and admirer will reflect the writer’s biases, for which, I think it’s fair to say that Schlesinger was well aware of as a professional historian.

But this particular memoir/biography, I think, has become particularly attractive given the times we find ourselves in. I think there’s a need to be reading books about Presidents that, while not perfect, brought high ideals, intelligence, grace, dignity, and visionary leadership to the highest office in the land.

And so, in the quiet of the early morning (0630 when I took picture above), I began a 1000 day journey.