I have been reading a great many books recently, biographies,
history books and historical novels ,which take place in the U.S.,
Europe and Asia in the period between 1934 and 1945.
This time has always interested me because it occurred before
I was born or was conscious of the world around me. I heard much
about it from my parents, other family members and older friends
over the years, and I did previously read a considerable amount
about the U.S. and the worldwide depression, the rise of totalitarian
fascism in Germany and Italy, the rise of totalitarian communism in
the Soviet Union, the conquest of Europe by the Nazi armies and
the conquest of Asia by militaristic Japanese armies, and finally,
the end of World War II which brought the depravity of that era
to a conclusion (as much as any period concludes anything before
a new one springs out of what went before.)
There are many eras, of course, which are very interesting and
deserve individual interest, and for Americans that often includes
the colonial/revolutionary war period and the U.S. civil war period.
But I want to discuss the traumatic time of 1934 to 1945, a dozen
years of unspeakable worldwide violence and terror that included
the millions who died in the Stalinist agricultural and political
purges in Ukraine and Russia,, the Holocaust, the tens of millions
of soldiers and civilians who died in the blitzkriegs, bombings and
There are , of course, the big names of this period, including
President Franklin Roosevelt; Generals George Marshal, Dwight
Eisenhower, George Patton, Douglas MacArthur; foreign leaders
Winston Churchill, Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, Tojo, Emperor
Hirohito and Charles DeGaulle.
But there are many other persons who played key roles in this
pivotal time. Leaders and personalities in all of the affected
nations, today much less well-known, helped determine what
happened, as did much more importantly, ordinary citizens
whose examples of courage, brutality, suffering and endurance
made them heroes, victims, saviors, assassins, torturers and
innovators in such a terrible time.
I have been reading not only accounts of London during the
blitz, but also Paris during its occupation, Moscow and Leningrad
during their sieges, Prague, Vienna and Warsaw when they were
invaded, Berlin, Rome and Tokyo while they pursued their
aggressions against most of the civilized world, and then when
war fell disastrously on them, too.
The basic theme of this relatively short, but so immensely tragic,
time, is the sudden appearance of such venal and totalitarian
forces, the initial inability of the “civilized” resistance to them,
the depravity of how some human beings treated their fellow
human beings, and the final triumph of the civilized nations.
In our own time, most of us, surely in the U. S., Canada, and
most of Europe, are living through nothing comparable. In other
parts of the world, especially in parts of the Middle East, Africa,
Cuba, Venezuela, and North Korea, whole populations are enduring
the latest forms of totalitarian life. That we are spared such
conditions should give us no satisfaction, but the world today is no
more a cooperative place than it has been in the past. The United
Nations is a gross failure as the protector of human rights.
One of the books I have recently read, “The Polish Officer’ by the
British novelist Alan Furth who has turned out so many fascinating
and brilliant spy novels of Central Europe in this period, is
exemplary in how it portrays with extraordinary contemporary
details, the color and mood of 1934-45, and illustrates that while there
are important constants in human behavior, constants of heroism,
venality, courage, barbarism and selflessness, no historical period
is exactly like another.
In “The Polish Officer,” a young cartographer with aristocratic
background holds the rank of captain in the Polish Army at the
outbreak of World War II when the German army invaded
Poland. The novel opens just a the Nazi Wehrmacht crosses the
eastern Polish frontier and moves toward Warsaw, the Polish
capital. At the same time, as a result of a secret pact with Germany,
the Soviet army crosses the western Polish border to split the nation
in two, and occupy it, dividing the spoils.
The Polish government, knowing its long history of enduring
subjugation, quickly realized that its principal alllies France
and Britain would no be coming to their aid (although each
country, honoring their treaties with Poland, declared war on
Germany). Helpless, though courageous, Polish forces were no
match for the Nazi and Soviet armies, and the country fell in a few
weeks .The Polish government moved en masse to Paris (and after
Paris fell, to London). With Nazi troops about to enter Warsaw,
the Polish captain was given a choice of whether fight on (and die),
flee, or remain in Poland as an operative of the Polish resistance.
He chooses the latter, and the novel then takes us on an
unforgettable journey through occupied Europe as the Polish
officer performs dangerous mission after mission, beginning with
smuggling the Polish national gold reserves into Rumania, and
then sabotage of German army preparations for invading England,
for the exiled Polish government and its Allies, most of whom are
now on the island of England.
In addition to the literary skill of Mr. Furst in telling a riveting
story, the author has a knack of filling his pages with amazing and
apparently remarkably accurate details of daily life in occupied
Europe at all levels of society. It is these details, so fulsome and
compelling, which however remind me how different times are.
There are good reasons why this is so, particularly differences of
technology, including transportation, communications, medicine
and medical treatment, weaponry, among others aspects of daily life.
I have long said and written, that while history does not actually
repeat itself, it does instruct us. We may be entering a new dark and
problematic period of history. New forces of terror, hatred and
violence have appeared. An extended period of economic stress,
fostered by worldwide debt and economic instability, has also
appeared. How we get through and resolve this global crisis is so far
uncertain, but it seems it will not be merely a repeat of the crises of
the just completed 20th century.
Yet certain themes of human behavior do not appear to change from
century to century.
The United States is understandably weary of war. We have recently
taken serious casualties, and unlike at the end of World War II or at
the end of the Cold War, our benefits of victory and national interests
are not yet clear. Grievous as the losses were on September 11, they do
not even come close to the losses in other parts of the world in the last
century, or even our own losses in our civil war in the century before
that. The totalitarian impulse, alas, does not go away. It is rapacious
and violent in all its actions. We ignore it at our very great peril.
Freedom is not a slogan, It is the fundamental condition of human
life if we are to advance as a species, and survive.
Freedom is the incomparable human destiny, and if we lose it, we
lose everything we think we want to be.
Copyright (c) 2013 by Barry Casselman. All right reserved.