Tuesday, November 03, 2015

2015 International Conference on World War II

The National World War II Museum in New Orleans never fails to produce an amazing line up of speakers and events every year for their International Conference on World War II. This year, the theme is 1945: To the Bitter End and it will explore some of the pivotal events of this last year of the war. The conference runs from November 19-21, 2015.

From their website:

"Our 2015 Conference explores the final year of World War II, from the Battle of the Bulge to the discovery of concentration camps across Europe to the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a time when Allied nations celebrated victory and their leaders sought to implement their postwar agendas."

If you can't make it to New Orleans (like me), then you are in luck: the museum live streams the conference for FREE. This means you can sit in the comfort of your home or office and watch some of the leading scholars of World War II speak about the events of 1945.

A full list of speakers and lectures, plus the link to live streaming, can be found here:


If you missed last year's conference, (which focused on the events of 1944), you can watch it in its entirety here: http://livestream.com/nww2m/events/3632330

Make sure to mark your calendars. This is something you won't want to miss.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Generation War (Unsere Mütter, Unsere Väter)

When this German miniseries on World War II came out in Germany in 2013, I was quite anxious to watch it. I knew it had generated some controversy, but I also knew I had to judge for myself. It just recently appeared on Netflix streaming, and I binge-watched all three episodes.

Generation War (Unsere Mütter, Unsere Väter) centers on five friends from Berlin who've been together since childhood: Wilhelm and his younger brother, Friedhelm, are in the Wehrmacht; Charlotte (Charly) just joined the German Red Cross as a nurse; Greta is a bartender with singing aspirations; and Viktor is a Jewish tailor.

The series follows the five friends from the summer of 1941 through the end of the war and shows how their lives intersect and dramatically change as the war drags on.

Both brothers serve on the Eastern Front, beginning with Russia. Friedhelm knows the futility of the war from the start and hangs on to his humanity until the war mercilessly grinds it out of him. Wilhelm, a lieutenant, does his duty even when he doesn't want to, but the senselessness of leading his men to slaughter becomes too much for him. Charly works at a field hospital and sees the war's gruesome toll on a daily basis. Greta, wanting to save her boyfriend, Viktor, begins an affair with a  Gestapo officer, one that will lead to her eventual destruction. And Viktor, after being held in a concentration camp, escapes from a train en route to Auschwitz and ends up embroiled with Polish partisans.

Not all of them survive, and those that do have changed so irrevocably by the war's end that they are a mere shadow of their former selves.

The acting is quite brilliant. I feel that the actors who played the two brothers (Volker Bruch and Tom Schilling) did an especially incredible job of portraying the relentless toll of war and how it fundamentally alters our perceptions of good and evil, moral and immoral.

Some of the reviews I read said it "whitewashed" Nazis crimes and made the central characters sympathetic. Two points to consider here. One, I don't believe it whitewashed Nazi crimes at all - there are several scenes that show just how horrific they really were and also shows the Wehrmacht's complicity in such crimes. Two, the fact that the central characters were sympathetic (and at times, they most certainly were not) is what a story needs to keep the audience intrigued. Not many people want to watch a movie with characters who are so despicable that you just want to throw the remote at the t.v. in disgust or turn it off altogether.

I also think there is a tendency for people to believe that any type of World War II movie that comes out of Germany cannot have main characters who are not fanatical Nazi ideologues because it's not "accurate." I dispute this notion. I don't believe that 100% of Germans were fanatics or subscribed to Hitler's ideology.  That is a statistical improbability, and we have historical evidence that proves otherwise. However, that the vast majority went along with the war is indisputable.

There were plenty of other characters who showed the hatred, racism, intolerance, and sadistic behavior of average Germans and soldiers alike. So all in all, I felt we were given all sides of the story.

A very strong point of the series: it shows how the constant brutality of war dehumanizes a soldier, no matter what side they're on. E.B. Sledge talks about this a lot in his memoir, With the Old Breed. He served in the Marines on Peleliu and Okinawa, two of the most brutal battles fought in the Pacific campaign. He started out with his humanity in full force and cringed at the inhumanity he saw his fellow soldiers participating in. For example, Marines would often take souvenirs from dead Japanese soldiers. But after awhile, Sledge found himself doing the same thing.

By the same token, the two brothers serving in the Wehrmact smack right up against this brutality. Freidhalm begins the war with a high sense of morality, appalled at what he sees going on around him, and determines not to participate in it. Yet two years later, after experiencing the horror of the Eastern front, he's turned into a hardened soldier, capable of killing on command.

Of course, this isn't limited to soldiers. Charly must cope day after day with wounded, dying soldiers to the point where, toward the end, she actually hinders some soldiers' healing process so they don't have to go back to the front.

I do have some quibbles. I was astonished at how they portrayed the Polish partisans as being so virulently anti-Semitic. Further research shows that this wasn't quite true, and I'm wondering at the filmmakers' decision on this.

What the series succeeds in, quite admirably, is to show how immensely war changes people. The carefree, happy group of friends from the first few scenes is a faraway dream. Those who survived and meet again after the war are a shell of their former selves, irrevocably different, and they will never view each other quite the same way again.

It's always interesting to see how other countries portray the war, and this experience was no different. I believe the filmmakers did an admirable job of portraying all sides of the German experience, and in this, they succeeded in achieving their goal: of starting a conversation about the war in contemporary Germany. With the generation who experienced this war fast disappearing, it's imperative that conversation continues.

For American audiences, this is a must see. It examines the war from a different perspective than the narrative we currently have, and deepens our understanding of not only how the war affected the common soldier, but how the Nazi ideology infected every segment of German society. This is its strength. While there were those who became profoundly disillusioned with Hitler's rhetoric, others believed in it up until the very end.

The series is currently on Netflix streaming.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

War Bonds: Love Stories from the Greatest Generation

Wartime brings out some of our strongest emotions, but arguably one of the most powerful is love. With the very real possibility of death hovering over them, men and women of the 1940s often rushed to get married before the soldier shipped off to war, or made a commitment to marry once the war was over. They often wrote ardent letters to each other full of dreams of the future. Those letters became the glue that kept them together when the fighting, the waiting, and the separation became too much.

War Bonds: Love Stories from the Greatest Generation by Cindy Hval brings many of those stories to life. A journalist, Hval gathered 36 stories from men and women across America and compiled them into this wonderful volume.

Each story features wartime photos of the couples, as well as photos of their lives together 70 years later. This is perhaps the most poignant feature of the book, to see how their marriages have lasted for more than half a century. They will be the first to admit that it certainly hasn't been a bed of roses, but has taken commitment, strength, courage, and devotion to stay together through thick and thin.

There's Jerry and Nancy Gleesing who married and were expecting their first child before he was sent overseas, shot down over Hungary, and taken prisoner by the Germans; Gene and Evie Fields who waited to marry until Gene came home, carrying a Purple Heart he earned from wounds received in Italy; and Dean and Betty Ratzman who met as college students on a blind date in 1943 and married in February of 1946. These are just a small sampling.

Included with each story is a snippet of relationship advice from the couple, and it is here that you can catch a glimpse into the truth behind their marriage's longevity.

War Bonds is truly a heartwarming read, one that will renew your faith in commitment and marriage itself.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

The Spy with 29 Names

Sometimes, life really is stranger than fiction.

Juan Pujol was a Spaniard who created one of the most incredible espionage networks in Europe during World War II. His incredible tale comes to life in The Spy with 29 Names: The Story of the Second World War's Most Audacious Double Agent by Jason Webster.

Pujol was caught up in the Spanish Civil War and because of it, he knew fighting totalitarianism was to be his life's mission. A quick, sharp-witted man, Pujol decided to become a double agent, and he began spying for the Nazis in 1941, pretending to be in London while he was actually in Lisbon. And the Nazis believed him. Once he hooked the Nazis, Pujol approached Great Britain with his newfound "status" and convinced them to begin a massive espionage campaign against the Germans.

The British - astonished at first at how well Pujol had done for himself - had to be persuaded that he was authentic, and once they did, they brought Pujol and his wife to live in Britain. Then Pujol got to work. Along with the help of his MI6 "handler", a Spanish-speaker named Tomas Harris, Pujol created an elaborate network of spies all across England. The catch? Not one of them was real. All of the spies were fictional: Pujol and Harris had made them all up.

Pujol, who was known to history as the famed double agent "Garbo", and MI6 were so successful that they were actually able to divert German Panzer divisions away from Normandy. The success of D-Day would not have been possible without them.

That one man was able to concoct such amazing, convoluted tales and have the German High Command trust his words was nothing short of incredible. This is a terrific, fast-paced, riveting story, one that must be read to be believed.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

The Deserters by Charles Glass

The topic of deserters during war doesn't come up very often when we think about World War II. Yet the act of desertion has occurred in every war since time immemorial. Only one man was executed for desertion by the U.S. military during World War II.

Charles Glass tackles this little-known topic in The Deserters: A Hidden History of World War II. While the press release says it is a "breathtaking work of historical reportage", I tend to disagree. Yes, there were men who deserted in World War II (and, as I stated previously, in every other war throughout history). But Glass chooses to focus on only three soldiers who deserted and doesn't deliver a comprehensive overview of deserters as a whole. Instead, we're treated to stories of men of somewhat dubious character who made the choice to desert. I don't see three men as being representative of the nearly 50,000 U.S. servicemen who deserted and the nearly 100,000 British servicemen who deserted.

Still, it is a good starting point on this topic, and reading these men's stories is worth your time. (Glass is not a historian but a journalist, a fact to keep in mind when reading.) War is hell, as William Tecumseh Sherman so famously said, and it created broken men who could no longer handle the stress of combat and chose to flee. It is crucial to understand what drove these men to do what they did, and I'd like to see a more thorough study of what made a soldier stay as opposed to what made a man flee during World War II. Of course, studying desertion during the war is a mixture of psychological and historical methodologies, but it is definitely one worth pursuing.

Saturday, February 07, 2015

The War Dogs of World War II

My newest article for America in WWII magazine is on the war dogs of World War II. I had such fun researching this one and came across a plethora of anecdotes that were a joy to read.

Nearly all of the dogs that served in the war came from civilian families. Owners actually donated their pet dogs to the war effort. That is quite a sacrifice! Yet thousands of Americans did just that. I wonder if such a program would be successful today. Somehow I doubt it.

The issue will be available on newstands and in bookstores February 17.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

The Garden of Letters by Alyson Richman

One of the joys of reading historical fiction is in learning intriguing historical details. It's amazing how little-known facts can lead to an entire treasure trove of information.

That's one of the reasons I loved Alyson Richman's latest novel, The Garden of Letters. Set in World War II Italy before and during the German Occupation, the novel centers on Elodie Bertolotti, a gifted young cellist who becomes involved in the Italian Resistance movement. As the novel opens, Mussolini is still in power, and Elodie lives a quiet life with her parents in Verona. Music is everything to her - it shapes how she sees every aspect of the world.

Things change, however, when her father is savagely beaten by fascists, and suddenly, Elodie's world view becomes skewered. She becomes involved in the local resistance movement as a staffetta. But instead of using a gun to fight her battles, she uses her cello, hiding secret codes within her music. She passes messages on to local resistance members and finds herself transforming from a girl into a woman, a woman who sees the destruction of her beloved country and cannot sit idly by and watch. But the deeper she becomes involved, the more dangerous it becomes, and when the Germans occupy Verona, Elodie must rely on all her courage to survive.

It is Elodie that makes this novel such a treat to read. Richman's characterization of her is full and rich as she expertly shows the symbiotic relationship between Elodie and her beloved music. Richman's descriptions of Elodie playing her cello are impeccably crafted, pulling the reader fully into Elodie's world.

The inner workings of the Italian resistance movement in Verona are fascinating and Richman uses real personalities in the novel. Her historical detail isn't heavy-handed, but deftly wielded to create a vibrant story alive with the feel of the time.

Beautifully written, The Garden of Letters is a wonderful read and a must for lovers of World War II fiction.