19 March 2010

My Ongoing History Lesson

I became a history nut when I learned that the Civil War was a clash between the two founding societies of our nation, Jamestown, Virginia and the Massachusetts Bay Colony of Plymouth. I like to see where things come from, and how and why they are the way they are. I'm sure it fills some Freudian need in me to put the universe in order. I have read about everything from the Native Americans (Indians is a very racist term if you ask me - conceived around the time of Columbus when he insisted that he had landed in India) to slavery in the Southern states to the emergence of the modern America that began after WWI, and there is always more to know.

I have given myself alot of projects to work on, such as a family history (both sides of the family had homesteads that would eventually be absorbed by the NYS Thruway), tracking the defunct local railroads (one went right by my grandmother's hotel/bar), and the legacy of the Erie Canal. Lately, though, I have been writing and interested in writing.

I recently found a collection of World War II reporting that brought my interest in history and writing together. These are original articles written from the frontlines of the war. The first article of the first volume describes the passiveness of the Allies during negotiations with Hitler in 1938. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain went down in history as a fool, capitulating to Hitler's demands and declaring moral victory. History has judged Chamberlain and Hitler but it will be interesting to see them in the context of their own time.

My aim in writing this particular post is to follow these articles in their succession and, through them, unfold a history of the war. We'll see how it goes. Maybe I'll get bored with it, maybe not. Check back in when you get a chance. I'll label each new post with the date I wrote it and the date of the article.

"It's All Over"
30 September 1938

So begins the article by William L. Shirer, author of The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, describing the Allied capitulation to Hitler that gave up the land known as the Sudetenland. "It's all over. At twelve thirty this morning....Hitler, Mussolini, Chamberlain and Daladier signed a pact turning over Sudetenland to Germany. The German occupation begins tomorrow, Saturday, October 1, and will be completed by October 10." Daladier and Chamberlain "never pressed for a single concession from Hitler. They never got together alone once and made no effort to present some sort of common "democratic" front to the two Caesars," referring to Hitler and Mussolini. The two Allied (what would become the Allies but not yet formally) Prime Ministers arrived on separate planes "and didn't even deem it useful to lunch together yesterday to map out their strategy, though the two dictators did."

The world in 1938 had been suffering a years-long economic depression. No one in Europe wanted another war, except Germany. Hitler had cast off the shackles of the crippling reparations agreement that had ended World War I by paying off the debt. Rebuilding Germany's infrastructure created jobs, spurred the economy, increased nationalism, and gave Germany the roads it needed during war. When Ronald Reagan became president in 1980 he increased defense spending to negotiate with the Soviet Union from a position of strength. Hitler would build his defenses, but not to negotiate. Hitler believed in brute force over negotiation.

Sudetenland was an enclave of Czechoslovakia with a majority-German population, and Hitler not only aimed to unite the German people, he was fairly obsessed with the idea. He wanted the German people united with the "purest" German/Aryan blood. Czecholovakia's "two representatives, Dr. Mastny...Czech Minister in Berlin, and a Dr. Massaryk of the Prague Foreign Office, were told at one thirty a.m. that Czecholovakia would have to accept" the surrender of Sudetenland. They were told this, not by Hitler, but by their allies Chamberlain and Daladier. Hitler had taken Sudetenland through negotiation and intimidation without firing a shot.

March 15 2010

Dorothy Thompson wrote an article called "Peace" - And the Crisis Begins, describing the "peace accord" between Hitler, Mussolini, Chamberlain, and French Prime Minister Daladier. It is a lesson in writing, one of the most well-written pieces of fiction or non-fiction that I have ever read. The article begins with brevity and closes on the point quickly. "What happened on Friday is called 'Peace.' Actually it is an international Fascist coup d'etat." The Four Power accord could hardly be called a treaty and more closely resembled an "armistice in advance of war." Hitler took the Sudetenland, not with force, but the threat of force. It was a territory conquered by "agreement".

Thompson compares the accord to the Treaty of Versailles, a comparison that she says makes the Versailles treaty look generous. Whereas the Treaty of Versailles was arrived at after five months of deliberation, with scores of experts consulted, the Four Power accord was arrived at in four hours, and was drafted by four men who had never set foot in Czechoslovakia. The German-majority populated territories are to be evactuated and no provisions made for the property of those displaced. The property is to be nationalized by Germany.

The Four Power accord was not a treaty but a surrender made to look like a treaty. In the end Chamberlain pleaded to save the slimmest of face, and a joint communique was issued with Hitler: the two countries are "determined to continue our efforts to remove the possible sources of difference and thus to contribute to the assurance of peace in Europe." Conversely, Thompson argues that peace at the end of a bayonet point is peace at all. Czechoslovakia is dismembered and "what is left is destroyed as a democratic republic." She goes on to say that "this peace has been established by dictatorship, and can only maintain itself by further dictatorship."

"Let us not call this peace. Peace is not the absence of war. 'Peace,' said Spinoza, 'is virtue caused by strength of spirit.' This is not peace without victory, for the victory goes to Mr. Hitler. This is peace without virtue. Therefore it is not peace - but the initiation of a terrific world crisis."
Written by Dorothy Thompson and dated October 1, 1938

March 18 2010
I have fallen behind my goal of covering my WWII book at a pace of one article per day, but only because everything is so fascinating. I left off at the terrific piece by Dorothy Thompson about, what I learned later, was the Munich Pact, also as the Munich Betrayal by those loyal to Czechoslovakia. They have/had a right to be upset and hold a grudge. They had been sold out, caught in the tide of a coming war whose effects are still felt today.

The following pieces deal with anti-Semitism and the Germans in 1938, a first-person account of the arrest of 20,000 Jews on November 8, 1938, the invasion of Poland almost a year later, the fall of Poland several weeks after that, and first-person accounts of the bombing of London and Berlin in 1940. There is a lot of history here and so much more I need to know. Consequently, this project is going to take a lot longer than I thought.

Speaking of things I don't know, my dad and I were watching the first DVD of the Ken Burns special about WWII, entitled simply, The War. I did not know that:
German U-boats sunk merchant ships off the east coast of America in 1941, and even sunk a ship in the harbor off of Manhattan.
The United States surrendered 78,000 men in the Pacific arena before they established a toehold. The result was the Bataan Death March.

March 23 2010

I have not been keeping up on this post. I haven't lost interest but I am discovering that World War II was vast. The reports I've been reading have been fascinating. William L. Shirer has been reporting from Berlin and griping about the censors. The layers of censors. His reports are dated from 1940 and 1941. He says that when the U.S. enters the war, the reporters will be kicked out. Many of the reporters that he worked with, and that he replaced, had been kicked out before him. The major media outlets, such as the UPI and AP, cooperate more with the Nazis and are thus a little more in with what is going on. Of course, the Germans are keeping a tight lid on information regardless of who is reporting it.

Edward R. Murrow has been reporting from London with observations of the mettle of the English people. Germany attempted to break England's will but Hitler did not count on the character that gave the people with the smallest resources in Europe the means to rule the world (the part of it they wanted to rule) for a few centuries. The Germans bomb at night but the milkman still makes his rounds in the morning. That says something about the English.

Reading first-hand accounts of the war is fascinating. When not working on my blog, exercising my knee, or otherwise being unoccupied, I have been watching WWII history. The Ken Burns special to begin with, and then a series titled The War In HD. This is all color footage of the war. I am just beginning to comprehend the tens of thousands of stories that made up the tapestry of the war years. When I get my act together a bit more, I will try to do a better job reporting them.

April 1 2010
I left off with the bombing of London, which occured in 1940, but I am going to skip back in time to 1938. It is November 8. Neville Chamberlain had just given the Sudetenland away months before, Germany has annexed Austria, and hatred for the Jews has moved from a low simmer to outright action. The night of November 9, 1938, was known as Kristallnacht (literally meaning "crystal night") or the Night of the Broken Glass. A German-born Polish Jew killed the Secretary of the German Embassy in Paris, prompting the looting and destruction of Jewish owned stores throughout Germany and Austria. The looters were alleged to be hot-headed mobs that acted impetuously, but the looting was actually an organized effort by the Nazi Party and the S.S., using Hitler Youth to smash windows, haul goods into the streets, and otherwise destroy Jewish owned businesses.

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