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.

“In that sense, reading history is like expanding your memory further back in time”

…I was not completely fooling myself in believing that history has something to teach us all, even though it is impossible to know at the moment of learning just what that something might be. Self-conscious attempts to teach or preach relevance in history are therefore unnecessary, because the connection between then and now is embedded in the enterprise, fated to emerge in the future in unforeseeable ways. In that sense, reading history is like expanding your memory further back in time, and the more history your learn, the larger the memory bank you can draw on when life takes a turn for which you are otherwise unprepared.

— Joseph J. Ellis, American Dialogue

“All history is the history of longing”

All history is the history of longing. The details of policy; the migration of peoples; the abstractions that nations kill and die for, including the abstraction of “the nation” itself—all can be ultimately traced to the viscera of human desire. Human beings have wanted innumerable, often contradictory things—security and dignity, power and domination, sheer excitement and mere survival, unconditional love and eternal salvation—and those desires have animated public life. The political has always been the personal. 

Yet circumstances alter cases. At crucial historical moments, personal longings become particularly influential in political life; private emotions and public policy resonate with special force, creating seismic changes. This is what happened in the United States between the Civil War and World War I. During those decades, widespread yearnings for regeneration—for rebirth that was variously spiritual, moral, and physical—penetrated public life, inspiring movements and policies that formed the foundation for American society in the twentieth century. 

— Jackson Lears, Rebirth of a Nation: The Making of Modern America, 1877-1920

The 155th Anniversary of the Gettysburg Address

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Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, July 1, 1863

For 3 days (July 1-3, 1863) the 2,400 residents of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, hunkered down in their homes and cellars, waiting for the violent storm to pass. Outside the air was filled with bullets, exploding artillery shells, the pounding of horse hooves, and “rebel shrieks” that “permeated their homes, their cellars, their souls” with the “unearthly yells of the exultant and defiant enemy.”

And then finally, it was over. The morning of July 4th was quiet. The guns were silent. During the night the confederate army had pulled out. In his book, The Gettysburg Gospel, the historian Gabor Boritt describes what the residents of Gettysburg found as they emerged from their homes and cellars.

Stench fills the air. Excrement from perhaps 180,000 men and more than 70,000 horses has been left behind in the area. There are thousands of flies, millions. Dead men barely covered in shallow graves. Seven thousand dead men? More likely close to 10,000. How many dead horses and mules? Three thousand, five? None buried. A nurse writes of carcasses “steaming in the sun.” The smell of putrid animal flesh mingles with the odor of human decay. It extends into the spirit of the people. War had come to them. Then it had gone and left the horror behind.

But this initial scene portended another horrific scene that would quickly follow. Amongst all the death and destruction around Gettysburg, the fields and hills and woods were filled with the moans and wails of wounded and dying men. There were 21,000 of them between the Union and Confederate armies. That July 4th morning, Gettysburg woke to find the greatest man-made catastrophe in American history. 

Eliza Farnham, a volunteer nurse from Philadelphia, tell much the same story. “The whole town . . . is one vast hospital. . . . The road, for long distances, is in many places strewn with dead horses . . . the earth in the roads and fields is ploughed to a mire by the army wheels and horses . . . avenues of white tents. . . . But, good God! What those quiet-looking tents contained! What spectacles awaited us on the rolling hills around us! It is absolutely inconceivable. . . . Dead and dying, and wounded . . . torn to pieces in every way.” Moans, shrieks, weeping, and prayer fill the houses, the barns, the tents, the fields and woods, the whole area. The land itself seems to wail. Nothing but suffering. Sights, sounds, smells unbearable. Horror. The piles of limbs dripping blood, the dying, the dead. Hell on earth.

You can’t read Boritt’s narrative of the horrific scene in Gettysburg after the great battle and not be thankful beyond words for the care and compassion and sacrifices made by so many women who came from all over to volunteer as nurses. “Angels” is the only word to describe them. For many of the dying soldiers, the last face or voice they saw or heard would have been one of these nurses providing them with as much comfort—and oftentimes prayers—as possible as they slipped from this world.

At the time of the battle, it was generally felt the outcome of it would decide the fate of the nation. A lot was hanging on what happened during Lee’s invasion of the North. Lee’s invasion plan was to draw the Union army out into the open and destroy it. He came close at Gettysburg. But it just wasn’t meant to be. The significance of the Union army’s victory, the fact that the rebel army was repulsed, badly mauled, and had to retreat, saved the nation, and brought about the planning for the November 19, 1863, ceremony to dedicate a portion of the battlefield as a cemetery for Union army soldiers killed in the battle. Today is the 155th anniversary of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. 

President Lincoln arrived in Gettysburg by train on the evening of November 18th. He stayed at the home of David Wills (no relation that I know of), a local Gettysburg attorney and the man selected by the governor of Pennsylvania to plan the event. There’s been much debate, and Boritt covers much of it in his book, over when Lincoln wrote his Gettysburg Address. But we have strong evidence to believe Lincoln wrote the first part of it at the White House in ink on White House stationary, before he left Washington, and then finished his speech, in pencil on lined paper, at the Wills home the night of the 18th, possibly during the morning of the 19th. 

Lincoln’s original handwritten copy of the Gettysburg Address (Photo by Jeff Wills, November 19, 2018)

Lincoln’s primary goal for his short speech was to justify the continuance of the war and to give meaning to the tremendous suffering and sacrifices—“that these dead shall not have died in vain”—being made by Union soldiers and their families so that “the nation might live.” For Lincoln, the war was a test of whether “a government conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” could “long endure.” The war would be the trial-by-fire of this test, from which “a new birth of freedom” would emerge and set America on a new path. Lincoln called upon his listeners to take from this battlefield an increased determination to preserve the national government, to continue the fight for democracy, because in doing so Lincoln believed the American people, in winning this struggle, would affirm to the world that democratically elected governments—here and wherever they may take root—-can and will survive. “That government of the people, by the people, and for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

I must admit that I can rarely hear Lincoln’s address all the way through and not get a little emotional. Those 265 words, written using the rhythms and phrases of the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer, are beautiful and so meaningful. I’ve searched the internet for a good reading and the best one I’ve found was one done by former President Barack Obama. So take a few moments on this 155th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address and reflect on Lincoln’s words, their meaning, and how incredibly timeless they really are. To hear these words and feel the force of their meaning is to understand that “the proposition” is still being tested and that it is for us, “the living,” to demonstrate its truth. 

Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, on this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived, and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting-place for those who here gave their lives, that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate—we cannot hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract.

The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

— President Abraham Lincoln, November 19, 1863