This morning, I finished Max Hastings, Inferno: the World at War, 1939-45, before I fixed breakfast. What a splendid work it is.
The problem with reading history is that it removes magic from The Story.
Mostly, being in the combat zone involved sitting around.
After the war, the Anglo-American men serving with the Allies were much less likely to physically abuse and/or rape the women they chanced upon. In those days, many of the Anglo-American soldier-citizens still believed in Bourgeois values of ‘the gentlemen,’ according to Hastings.
This attitude toward “enemy” women was not true of the Russian Army mostly composed of peasant Communists. On the other hand, Uncle Joe Stalin was pragmatic about war. Cold and ruthless, Stalin offered no quarter, to anyone, which is probably why the Russians defeated the Nazis on the Eastern Front.
Forget all the talk about the French Resistance. With few exceptions, the French, were as anti-Semitic as they had been during the Dreyfus Affair 50 years earlier, and they welcomed the Nazis. The French shipped their Jews to the camps (as depicted in the New Wave French film, Au Revoir Les Infants,
and more recently in Charlotte Grey).
Only toward the end of the war when it seemed the Allies would prevail, did the French turn on the Nazis. Even then, the policeman, played by Claude Rains in Casablanca, comes closest to the truth of the average French person when he says, “Nothing, I know nothing.”
Among the Europeans, the bravest of the brave were the Poles, many of whom escaped after their little country was crushed, and joined the RAF and other Allied fighting organizations. After the war, Poland got nothing in return. Governments in the West were afraid of Stalin. And the population back home was not interested tackling the Russians who had destroyed what was left of Eastern Europe after the Nazi invasion. Hastings says, Putin doesn’t fall far from these roots.
Some nonfiction is just as bad as fiction. In fact, some writers suggest that all written material is biased, thus fictional in some way. However, I learned how to think critically thanks to my Liberal Arts education, and can separate the wheat from the chaff. You can only learn how to think critically via education, and I hope this recent book on the defining topic of the twentieth century, total war, is required reading for high school kids and beyond.
Most won’t read it, of course, because it takes an attention span that lasts longer than five minutes. Sadly, many kids prefer spin or propaganda (don’t confuse me with the facts) and ignore history at their own peril.
Reading history is like gardening. Until you become an experienced gardener, you don’t realize how many things can go wrong (or right). Parasites and diseases, as well as varmints galore attack your cherished plants. Too much or too little rain can wreck everything. The gardener must work to remove invasive weeds. But when you win it’s everything.
Gardening for years until you become experienced and appreciative of a fine garden teaches you to love small things. This morning, for example, I rejoiced at the sight of a few tulips poking through the soil. Those few missed by the hungry voles, who ate the other bulbs this winter. Gardening is forever, like the poppies in Flanders Field, a battleground from a long ago forgotten war.