Legacies of World War Two in Fact and Fiction

I’ve been actively involved with a family book group since retiring from my day-job four years ago.  I’m from a family of ten post-WW2 “baby boomers”.  Many of us became inveterate readers at an early age, inspired by our book-loving Mom.  When I was looking for a book group to join in my retirement, I eventually realized that the makings of one existed right in my immediate family, in which two of my sisters had been longtime book club conveners.  It didn’t take much persuasion to recruit five of my sibs to join me in regular teleconference calls to discuss books that we take turns choosing. The group consists of three sisters and three brothers, divided by geography, but able to meet regularly via free, multi-party teleconference calls.

Our Dad was a WW2 veteran, having served as an artilleryman in the U.S. Army for the North African campaign of 1942-43, and the Italian campaign in 1943-44.  After the war, he became active in an American Legion veteran’s group and he met our mother at an American Legion function.  They courted and wed in 1946, and started a family soon after.  Unlike many veterans, our Dad spoke often of his war experiences to us.   Uncles on both sides of the family had also served in WW2, and the telling of war stories was common at our extended family’s social events.  Both our Mom and Dad lost brothers in the war.

WW2 in northern Italy, 1943-45

With this common background, it’s not surprising that five of the books we’ve chosen to read so far are set during WW2.  The one we’ve just finished discussing is the 2017 best-selling novel “Beneath a Scarlet Sky” by American writer Mark Sullivan.  It’s a brilliant piece of historical fiction set in northern Italy during the last two years of the seldom-told story of the Italian campaign.  It’s based on the real-life exploits of a late-teenage Italian, Pino Lella, whose experiences in the Italian underground are both death-defying and inspiring.  The author spent over a decade interviewing the elderly Pino Lella, fleshing out his incredible story with substantial independent research.  Sullivan was initially intent on a straight historical account, but then opted for historical fiction to better shape and fill out Pino Lella’s spellbinding stories.  The book contains a wealth of background information and description, focused around Milan from 1943 until the war’s end in 1945.  The trials and tribulations of the Italian citizenry living under the harsh oppression of Fascist and Nazi militarism are a main focus.  During our recent book discussion, I vaguely remembered our Dad talking about his involvement in the bloody battle of Monte Cassino in southern Italy in early 1944.  One of my brothers confirmed that memory, and the events of the book took on new relevance.

WW2 for French Women Living under the Yoke of the Nazis

We’ve also read together two other recent historical novels set in Europe during WW2, both by women.  The first was the 2015 sensation “The Nightingale” by the prolific American novelist Kristin Hannah.  This novel is set mostly in a French village during the Nazi occupation.  It focuses on the day-to-day lives of two sisters, both of whom serve the French Resistance in very different ways.  The older sister, Vianne, sees her husband Antoine conscripted into the French army just before the Nazi invasion in 1940.  Antoine is captured and spends the next five years in a prisoner-of-war camp.  Vianne has a young daughter and her main concern becomes tending her garden so that they will have enough to eat.  Vianne’s younger sister, Isabelle, is fiery and rebellious and an active participant in the French underground from the very beginning.  Her courage and ingenuity allow her to rise in the ranks of the Resistance, culminating in her being assigned to guide to safety Allied pilots shot down over France.  Her code name is “the nightingale”.

Ms. Hannah has said that she wanted to write the untold stories of the many women who risked their lives and families to contribute to the anti-Nazi resistance.  Like Mr. Sullivan, she spent years researching those stories, focusing particularly on that of a Belgian woman whose pilot-rescuing exploits became the basis for her story.  The older sister, Vianne, also serves the resistance by working to hide Jewish children.  Both sisters survive the war after untold risk and hardship.  The entire story is told from the point of view of the aging Vianne, living in the U.S. in 1995 and preparing for a last trip home to receive an award being presented in honor of her deceased sister, “the nightingale”.  The novel has a riveting first sentence that has stayed with me: “If I have learned anything in this long life of mine, it is this:  In love we find out who we want to be; in war we find out who we are.”

WW2 in a Small German Town in 1944

Perhaps our most memorable book club meeting to date was our discussion of the recent historical novel, “The Good at Heart”, by the German-American writer Ursula Werner.  Two of my book club sisters and I had met Ms. Werner after her intriguing presentation at the 2017 Gaithersburg Book Festival.  Her novel is based on her own family story that included a relative who had a high position in Hitler’s civilian government.  As Ms. Werner autographed our purchased copies of her book, we told her that we had a family book group and would likely read her book in that context.  Ms. Werner said that she would love to attend that book discussion and gave us her contact information.  A few months later, we emailed her with the details of the teleconference call when we would have the discussion.  Sure enough, Ms. Werner dialed into our call and offered many illuminating insights about the historical origins of the story and how she came to write it.

“The Good at Heart” takes place over the course of three days, July 18-20, 1944, in a small, picturesque German town, Blumental, near the Swiss border.  Although the town has been spared much direct combat, a sense of dark foreboding hangs like a cloud.  The story centers around the Eberhardt family whose patriarch, Oskar, is a finance minister within Hitler’s cabinet.  He has moved his family from Berlin to their simple country home in Blumental for safety purposes.  His wife and adult daughter are sick at heart over Nazism.  The daughter is involved in an underground operation to get Jews over the Swiss border to safety.  She is close friends with a radical Protestant minister (roughly modeled on Dietrich Bonhoeffer) who is even more deeply involved in the German underground.  Ms. Werner draws a carefully detailed picture of the small town and its inhabitants, some of whom are rabid Nazis, but many of whom are simple farmers and merchants trying to live their lives under harsh economic conditions.  When the Fuhrer himself decides to visit his finance minister’s town, events come to a head.  An assassination attempt on Hitler almost succeeds, but has lasting repercussions for the Eberhardts and the rest of the townspeople.

Ms. Werner’s title comes from an entry in Anne Frank’s diary: “In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart.”  Ms. Werner’s family research led her to believe that her relative managed to serve as a higher up in Hitler’s government without losing his integrity or his humanity.  By casting his wife and daughter as sickened by Nazism, she makes a case that not all Germans need be implicated by the evil deeds of their leaders.  Whether one fully agrees with her or not, her novel is a richly rewarding reading experience, with carefully developed characters and an abundance of local color.  When Hitler finally arrives at Blumental, Ms. Werner is able to communicate a feeling of both his charisma and his fundamental narcissism and depravity.

The 1936 Berlin Olympics

We’ve also read two non-fiction books with stories that have WW2 as their backdrop.  The first was Daniel James Brown’s 2013 best-seller “The Boys in the Boat – Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics”.  The book inspired an excellent documentary film, “Boys in the Boat”, which essentially tells the same story using historical film footage.  The book documents the historic 9-man rowing team from the unheralded University of Washington which rose from a humble start in college competition to become the gold-medal winner at the 1936 Olympics.  The book painstakingly recreates a detailed picture of hard-scrabble lives in the Pacific Northwest during the depression era.  The main character, Joe Rantz, is abandoned by his parents as a teenager because they simply cannot afford to feed him.  This abandonment plagues Joe emotionally yet, with the help of a loyal girlfriend and her family, he’s able to slowly overcome his personal limitations.  The most dramatic emotional healing for Joe comes as he learns to let down his defenses, to trust his coaches and teammates, and to allow himself to give a sustained, maximum effort to a group of men who would remain connected by tight bonds on friendship for the rest of their lives,

Brown’s account of he 1936 Olympics in Hitler’s Berlin is detailed and poignant.  Hitler’s goal was to show the world the universal power and skill of his German athletes as representatives of the “master Aryan race” that deserved dominion over the entire world.  Stunning upsets in track by the African-American sprinter Jesse Owens and in the premier rowing competition by the American team from Washington state caused Hitler supreme disappointment and unbridled anger.  As an American reading the account, one can’t help but feel that these victories were prophetic of our G.I.’s victories on the battlefields when hostilities broke out a few years later.

Lasting Physical and Emotional Wounds from WW2

A book that had particular relevance to me and my siblings was Thomas Childers’ 2009 non-fiction “Soldier from the War Returning”.  In his Introduction, Childers laments “the now pervasive public view of the Second World War and its aftermath, a view that seems increasingly intent on sentimentalizing and sanitizing a conflict that killed fifty-five million people around the world and left millions more broken, either physically or emotionally”.  The book focuses on a few detailed case studies of U.S. soldiers’ war experiences as well as the experience of returning home and trying to get on with their lives.

Our own Dad, though often a good husband and father, had shown noticeable emotional and psychological effects from his years of active combat.  An aunt told me that he had spent time in an institution for the “shell-shocked” after returning home from the brutal Italian campaign in 1944.  He recovered enough to get a job, get married and start a family.  But his life was filled with stretches of melancholy, often medicated away with alcohol.  The drinking got worse over time and he slid into retirement as a full-scale, unacknowledged alcoholic.  None of us family members really understood the nature of Dad’s emotional malaise, and Childers book did a good job describing the kind of war trauma that, left untreated, yields lasting emotional scars.  Reading cases that were similar to Dad’s, I developed a better understanding, acceptance, and compassion for what he must have gone through during those terrible war years.

WW2 and Today’s “Existential Threats”

As I observe the readily apparent manifestations of climate change and read the sobering scientific assessments, I often think back to Al Gore’s challenging words at the end of his documentary film, “An Inconvenient Truth.”  After reporting on how dire the trajectory of climate change is for the human race in the 21st century, Gore argued that it’s not too late to launch a frontal assault on the problem, involving a complete re-do of energy generation away from fossil fuels.  He reminded us how dire the future of the human race looked after the Axis conquests in the first years of WW2.  But after Pearl Harbor, the U.S. under FDR responded with the fullest possible investment of human capital, money,, energy, and human blood that we were capable of.  It was enough to eventually turn the tide and defeat the Axis forces on all fronts.  We did it as a nation in WW2 when the entire world was under threat of tyranny. And perhaps we can do it again now.  That’s the legacy of WW2 that I most want to remember and affirm.

John Bayerl, 3/9/2019

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