Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Forgetting World War II 

World War II in Europe began seventy years ago today, with Germany's invasion of Poland. Not only is the New York Times editorial page curiously silent about the anniversary, but so are most of the "milbloggers" who usually at least comment on the passing of such milestones. There is a small event in Poland today (do the Poles really appreciate a visit from the leaders of Russia and Germany on this day, or do they have as little real choice as in 1939?) with scant coverage in the American media, but not much more if you search Google. I wonder if this is because the "greatest generation" has now shrunken to such small numbers that World War II is literally receding from human memory and becoming history, rather than experience, for even the oldest Americans.


By Blogger Larry J, at Tue Sep 01, 09:21:00 AM:

Some historians point out that Japan had invaded China long before Germany invaded Poland, so the actual date when WWII started could be earlier than 1939. Maybe it doesn't count if Europeans weren't involved.  

By Anonymous D. Smith, at Tue Sep 01, 09:34:00 AM:

Good point Larry.Though The suffering and death of the Chinese, while just as horrific, would not have spurred the great world powers (Britain, France, Germany, Russia and the United States)to war. Had the conflict remained only in Asia, I would argue WWII would not have happened...at least not in '39. Besides, the US was already engaged in a full round of severe sanctions against the japanese for their aggressive invasion of China - which was useless. Hmmm, come to think of it, who does that remind me of?  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Tue Sep 01, 09:35:00 AM:

Maybe everyone is waiting for the 3rd, when the declaration took place.

Here's a newsreel treating the Nazi invasion of Poland and the British declaration of war:


And 5 years ago today, there was Beslan:


By Anonymous Ron W, at Tue Sep 01, 09:40:00 AM:

What is or is not WWII is rather up in the air.

Italy was fighting in Ethiopia in 1935

USSR and Japan started fighting in 1938.

The USSR invaded Poland in September 1939 and is considered part of WWII. Later in 1939 the USSR invaded Finland, but that isn't considered to be part of WWII.

It is hard to get excited over an arbitrary date like this.  

By Blogger TigerHawk, at Tue Sep 01, 09:43:00 AM:

To those of you observing that the war in Asia started earlier, note that I wrote the words "in Europe" with precisely those issues in mind.  

By Anonymous Gene Dillenburg, at Tue Sep 01, 09:45:00 AM:

I suspect the American media isn't paying much attention because, in 1939, America wasn't in it. Watch for much better coverage on Dec. 7, 2011.

I suspect the same may also hold true for Britain and France. Though they declared war on Germany almost immediately, they didn't start shooting until later. I don't know what events those countries consider to be their entry into the war, but if I recall correctly there weren't any major engagements until spring 1940.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Tue Sep 01, 09:53:00 AM:

Historical events never static.

I would say that World War II began for the U.S. when FDR signed the Land Lease Act and started to order U.S. ships to escort supply convoys across the Atlantic - which drew the U.S. into an undeclared war against German submarines in the Atlantic.

World War II officially began for the U.S. on December 7, 1941.

On a side note, people have been puzzled as to why Hitler declared war against the U.S.. My educated guess is that the undeclared war on the North Atlantic Ocean really infuriated him and once the Japanese was in the fight felt that he could take on the U.S.  

By Blogger JAL, at Tue Sep 01, 09:58:00 AM:

Later in 1939 the USSR invaded Finland, but that isn't considered to be part of WWII.

Just got back from a terrific air musuem (8th) honoring the airmen of WW II in Pooler, GA. The opportunistic invasion of Finland was included in their extensive runup on the history of the war in Europe. The USSR most certainly seemed to be looking to acquire whatever it could before the Germans got it.  

By Anonymous Alan, at Tue Sep 01, 10:18:00 AM:

I always remember September 1, 1939 because of the Auden poem with that title.

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.

continued at link  

By Blogger Tigerhawk Teenager, at Tue Sep 01, 10:24:00 AM:

I guarantee that as long as there are video games, there will be games based on World War Two. The actual experiences of the war are bound to fade away, just like they did for, say, the American Civil War, but World War Two is going to be in the public consciousness (or unconsciousness) for a LONG time.  

By Blogger section9, at Tue Sep 01, 10:38:00 AM:

World War II actually began in 1931, with Japan's invasion of Manchuria (which, under Japan's military occupation government, was renamed 'Manchukuo"). The failure of Chiang's Nationalists to even send in partisans to oppose the Japanese led to widespread loss of face for the Nationalists throughout China. But Chiang was incompetent even then.

The ease of the Japanese conquest whetted appetites in Tokyo for further plunder. The Marco Polo Bridge incident in 1937 led to a Japanese invasion of the Han Chinese interior, an act which would eventually lead to war with the United States and the other western powers.

Tigerhawk's last point about the war beginning "in Europe" is well taken. It is worth noting, however, that the Japanese decision to go to war against the Western Allies in 1941 was made in part by an expectation of German success on the Eastern Front as a result of Oparation TYPHOON. The two battlefronts, although they operated seperately, were inextricably intertwined.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Tue Sep 01, 11:16:00 AM:

That atmospheric Auden poem does it for me, and nails the beginning of the war. He's also just perfect for our times.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Tue Sep 01, 11:18:00 AM:

Although the points about Japan's having been emboldened by the weak international response to its invasion of China are well-taken, World War II began on September 1, 1939. What had been a diplomatic kabuki dance finally became a very hot war, and the German invasion of Poland brought Britain in immediately (despite delaying their declaration of war until 9/3). Once Britain was in, it was only a matter of time before the U.S. got involved, and the attack on Pearl Harbor simply accelerated the inevitable. Remember that the design specs for the B-36 bomber were issued in 1941when it was assumed that we would need a transoceanic strategic bomber.
A few months ago, my wife brought me home a copy of Failure of a Mission (Putnam's 1940) by Sir Neville Henderson, UK ambassador to Germany 1937-39 from the a library book sale. I first groaned, since Henderson was cozy with the Nazi regime and I thought it would be simply exculpatory. But it's really an excellent and blunt account of why appeasement and diplomacy simply don't work when dealing with a pathological regime, and it deserves to be reread with an eye toward current events.  

By Blogger Georgfelis, at Tue Sep 01, 11:27:00 AM:

TH-Teen: Yes, but do we really want to explain to our grandchildren how not every German was in the SS, and when they died, they did not come back on the battlefield as zombies? Videogames as education have their limits.  

By Anonymous blaster, at Tue Sep 01, 11:29:00 AM:

I visited Bletchley Park in the UK, where we did all that code code breaking stuff, inventing computers, and all that. THe pioneering work for breaking German codes came from Polsh mathematicians - they KNEW that the Germans were going to invade. And the British rescued (some of) those mathematicians and mostly their work, evacuating them before the invasion. So all that "Peace in our time" crap was crap - the Brits KNEW that Poland would be invaded, and they knew because the Poles had broken the codes and told them. And the Brits were sufficiently convinced that they expatriated a lot of that code breaking work.

Go figure.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Tue Sep 01, 11:41:00 AM:

My wife was raised by her grandfather and grandmother. He was a WW2 vet. They have been telling us for the last 2 years he could die at any moment. They told him that when he invaded Italy, too but he is still here to share his life experiences with my son.

My wife's about to get on a plane to go visit him because it looks like this time he really might not make it.

The point is that some still remember because I made sure he educated my son as much as possible regarding his experiences.  

By Blogger Escort81, at Tue Sep 01, 12:09:00 PM:

This was a topic of conversation at breakfast this morning, after reading an article in The Philadelphia Inquirer that reminded me about the 70th anniversary.

I mentioned it to my father, who will be 94 years old in less than 90 days. He was a couple of years out of college and living in Philadelphia 70 years ago, and he recalled that he happened to be visiting some friends in the suburbs when they heard the news over the radio that Germany had invaded Poland.

"It wasn't unexpected. We just hoped at the time that France would be able to deal with the situation."

I made some snarky remark about hoping that the Eagles offensive line comes together soon.

He enlisted in the United States Navy about a year later, in the fall of 1940.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Tue Sep 01, 12:50:00 PM:

WWII in Europe began when Stalin signed the Ribbentrop Pact that effectively partitioned Poland and gave Hitler free reign to invade.

Prior to that, the Russians trained and equipped the Wehrmacht away from the prying eyes of the Allies long before 1939.

We make fun of Chamberlain, but Hitler made a much bigger fool of Stalin. Stalin could have stopped Hitler long before 1939.  

By Blogger wellington, at Tue Sep 01, 12:55:00 PM:

Concerning "Europe", Tigerhawk's English could not have been more precise. He did not say "World War II began in Europe". He said "World War II in Europe began seventy years ago today". Technically, he's also right that it started there on September 1st with an attack by Germany from the west (and a small Slovak force from the south). The Soviet Union had not joined "until" September 17, 1939 with an attack on eastern Poland. The German-Soviet invasion was quite obviously the implementation of an agreement on spheres of influence included in the secret appendix of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, signed on August 24, 1939.

The active and premeditated Soviet role in the attack on Poland has been so successfully erased from the public consciousness. Could it be that besides the reasons mentioned by Tigerhawk the lack of coverage by the establishment media is at least partially due to the fact that it is hard to comment on it without also reporting the current outrage of the Poles at the active attempts of the Russian government, academy and media to deny and minimize the Soviet responsibility? The New York Times has a long history of pro-Soviet sympathies and the current silence is next to nothing compared, for example, with the fraudulent journalism of one Walter Duranty. Old flames die hard for all of us, the graying New York Timers included.  

By Blogger billm99uk, at Tue Sep 01, 03:02:00 PM:

In Britain we got:

- Coverage of the Polish event (lots of old soldiers and uneasy looking European leaders at some big Soviet style war memorial, plus a lot of candles in big blue glass jars being handed around for some reason).

- Coverage of a church service about the start of "Operation Pied Piper", the mass evacuation of British children away from the major southern cities, which were expected to be flattened by German Bombers in short order (cue lots of tearful reminicences by the now quite elderly survivors and an a capella rendition of "We'll Meet Again")

- A commemorative train journey from Prague by steam train by a group of Jews rescued as children by such a trip arranged by a British diplomat stationed there in 1939.

I expect we'll get more over the next few days.  

By Blogger Tigerhawk Teenager, at Tue Sep 01, 03:57:00 PM:

Well, I decided to skip COD5 because of the Nazi zombies. The Medal of Honor series is reasonably historically accurate, though, though it isn't as good as Call Of Duty.  

By Anonymous Iowa_John, at Tue Sep 01, 04:00:00 PM:

Also the anniversary of the Beslan massacare, isn't it?  

By Anonymous Howard Veit, at Tue Sep 01, 05:05:00 PM:

The military part of WWII started in 1936 when the Germans just marched into the Rhineland, a French territory awarded after WWI, unopposed and the French, with an army twice as large and an airforce perhaps five times larger, did nothing. This refusal to fight emboldened all the elements inside Germany that were opposed to Hitler, including the Army and the General Staff.  

By Blogger Escort81, at Tue Sep 01, 05:16:00 PM:

Wellington - I understand your point about Poland, the USSR, and the NYT, but you might want to take a look at this AP article on Putin's characterization of the M-R Pact. It's something, though done at no cost to Putin. And, he still says (according to the article) that "Moscow had no choice, blaming Western leaders for failing to oppose Hitler's appetite for territorial expansion." Since a Russian leader knows expansion, there are all sorts of levels of irony in that statement.  

By Anonymous Steve Skubinna, at Tue Sep 01, 06:14:00 PM:

Earlier this year I went to Prague for a week. Absolutely charming city, this from a guy who in general passionately hates urban life.

I noted a lot of bookstores (I live near Seattle, so I know what a city with lots of bookstores looks like - Prague is it). Most of them featured a newly published book with Neville Chambelain on the cover, waving his "peace in our time" paper. Although I can't read Czech, I made a wild assed guess that it might not have been a hagiography of the great statesman.

It did make me wonder how, exactly, the Czechs viewed Chamberlain. As sheer unadulterated evil, or simply as Satan's caban boy? We in the west hold Neville in withering contempt (most of us do anyway). I imagine the impression Eastern Europeans, especially the Czechs, have is much more piquant.

tw: suffer. Skynet is becoming self aware.  

By Blogger Dawnfire82, at Tue Sep 01, 06:39:00 PM:

"But Putin argued that Moscow had no choice, blaming Western leaders for failing to oppose Hitler's appetite for territorial expansion."

Same tired old bullshit excuse that aggressive political leaders always offer for their egregious wrongs. The Nazis used it, the USSR used it, the PLO used it, and Iran uses it.

'The Western powers wussed out, so we *had* to invade Poland, massacre resisters, forcibly institute communist rule there, and annex the land, and *then* invade the Baltic states and annex them as well.'

Ridiculous. But the Russians will eat it up.  

By Blogger foxymike, at Tue Sep 01, 06:45:00 PM:

Well, thanks to your post today we had a moment of silence in honor of WWII veterans at the Rotary Club of Eugene, Oregon, of which I am president this year.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Tue Sep 01, 08:07:00 PM:

A man I used to work with was a Polish soldier in 1939 (19 or 20 years old, I think). He was captured and made a POW by the Germans. To eat and survive, he "volunteered" to join a labor battalion that supported the German war effort, especially after the start of Barbarossa.
Eventually he managed to escape and joined the Polish resistance, which he fought with for two years, before they all ran away from the advancing Red Army, which would have had all of them shot if they were found, because they would have been a big threat to the post war plans of Red Ivan. That crazy, impetuous Joe Stalin; he and Putin, what a pair!

And the man ended up in the United States of America, a country he came to dearly love. He had a good life here, and was successful; a nice man with a heavy Polish accent, and a very intelligent engineer.
I haven't seen him in years, and I think he is dead now. But he was about the age of the Tigerhawk Teen when this all began.

Something to think about. The Poles were real people, and the Germans and Russians weren't just counting coup when they rolled over them.


By Blogger Arthur, at Tue Sep 01, 11:40:00 PM:

Agree with some of the previous commenters, because for the West, the beginning of the war was essentially a big yawn: fighting in Poland took about 6 weeks, which was followed by months of the "phoney war" with Britain and France (i.e. nothing happened), and the US only became involved in December 1941, more than two years later.

Commemorating this anniversary also brings up far too many uncomfortable memories: six years of appeasing Hitler, dismemberment of Czechoslovakia with a tacit approval of everyone but the Czechs, and finally the Soviet Union as the co-aggressor of WW2, with their 17 September invasion of Poland. We much rather celebrate the end of the war as one big happy family, including the original aggressors Germany and Japan, who emerged out of the war much better than the "liberated" Eastern and Central Europe.  

By Blogger RPD, at Wed Sep 02, 09:27:00 AM:

There's also the argument that WWI and WWII were essentially the same conflict with an interregnum in the middle.  

By Anonymous tyree, at Wed Sep 02, 10:14:00 AM:

"...the "greatest generation" has now shrunken to such small numbers that World War II is literally receding from human memory and becoming history"

That is true. They are dying at a faster rate than when they getting shot at.

My father enlisted at 17 and served as a pharmacists mate at the naval hospital in Pensacola, Florida. My father-in-law served in Eritrea at a former Italian airbase with Douglas aircraft. They did maintenance on British aircraft fighting in North Africa. My uncle served aboard the second Lexington as a Hellcat pilot. I could go on for hours.
Now they are almost all gone and most of the recent immigrants and illegal immigrants that make up our community have none of the same shared history. Not all change is good.  

By Blogger wellington, at Wed Sep 02, 12:33:00 PM:

Escort81 – Thanks, I read it. Putin said some surprising things in his letter to the Poles. Now, there is plenty of blame to go around for the events prior to September 1939 but he clearly wants to have it both ways. Your comment about expansion is the key to understanding current Russia, more so than anything to do with Communist totality. Russia is not totalitarian today but it has imperial longings and ambitions. The Russian Education and Science Ministry just authorized a history textbook for 11th graders that provides a good insight into the prevailing thinking in Russia:

“Stalin’s Empire and the Soviet Union’s sphere of influence encompassed a territory greater than all past European and Asian powers, even surpassing the empire of Genghis Khan.”

It’s not just the Russian elite regretting the loss. You can hear similar sentiments from regular Russians every day.

Of course, the New York Times liberals would get more misty-eyed about another part of this particular textbook:

“… the Soviet Union was not a democracy, but in terms of social policy and programs, it was the best model of a fair and just society for millions of people around the world.”

It’s not just the NYT elite. You can hear similar sentiments from regular Boulderites every time the subject comes up.  

By Blogger Trochilus, at Wed Sep 02, 01:40:00 PM:

A few days ago, I posted about a related topic -- the fact that Dame Vera Lynn, now 92 years old, has just broken into the Top 20 again on the music charts in the United Kingdom, with a CD of her greatest hits from World War II including her immortal classic, "We'll Meet Again!"

Yesterday, I updated the post when I came across a very recent BBC video of a public interview with her in the National Theater on August 24th, where she put in a lovely appearance before a packed audience, accompanied by a few adoring World War II veterans. Just check out the affection those old boys still hold for that wonderful gal!

One of several fascinating comments she makes, is about what her reaction was at the time -- to the outbreak of war on September 1, 1939 -- seventy years ago. She was already something of an established entertainer at the time, even though she was only 22. She had broken into show business some 15 years earlier at the age of seven!

As you can hear, Dame Vera concluded -- quite incorrectly --that the beginning of the war would spell the end of her singing career, and that she would necessarily wind up in a munitions factory.

How history played a kind trick on her! And, how graciously she responded.

Vera Lynn never shrank from the role she was cast in, or shirked her sense of duty. At great personal risk, for example, she insisted on touring with General Slim's "Forgotten 14th Army" in Burma, which she says was her most memorable recollection of all.  

By Anonymous feeblemind, at Thu Sep 03, 10:45:00 AM:

I am surprised at the number of nitpickers that came out of the woodwork to quibble with your generally accepted date, TH. My guess of the lack of coverage would be due to the fact that 70 is not a particularly noteworthy milestone. Wait five years for 75 and see if the coverage improves. Although the comments veered off the topic, (reporting anniv of war), there are many very good ones.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Fri Sep 04, 05:47:00 AM:

As an American who just recently moved to London, I can report that the BBC is very much covering this anniversary - it's all over the telly (as they call it). There were also people collecting donations on the street this morning for a fund for vets.

So, it's certainly not forgotten in the UK.  

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