14 July 2011

Measuring the storm

Andrew Roberts writes:
The Second World War lasted for 2,174 days, cost $1.5 trillion and claimed the lives of over 50 million people. That represents 23,000 lives lost every day, or more than six people killed every minute, for six long years. At the Commonwealth Beach Head Cemetery just north of Anzio in Italy lie some of the men who fell in that campaign, in row after row of perfectly tended graves. The bereaved families were permitted to add personal messages to tombstones below the bald register of name, rank, number, age, unit, and date of death. Thus the grave of Corporal J. J. Griffin of the Sherwood Foresters, who died aged twenty-seven on 21 March 1944, reads: 'May the sunshine you missed on life's highway be found in God's haven of rest'. Gunner A.W.J. Johnson of the Royal Artillery, who died the following day, has: 'In loving memory of our dear son. Forever in our thoughts, Mother, Joyce and Dennis'. That of twenty-two-year-old Lance-Corporal R. Gore of the Loyal Regiment, who died on 24 February 1944, reads: 'Gone but not forgotten by Dad and Man, brother Herbert and sister Annie'. The gravestone of Private J.R.G. Gains of the Buffs, killed on 31 May 1944 aged thirty, says: 'Beautiful memories, a darling husband and daddy worthy of Everlasting Love, His wife and Baby Rita'. Even two-thirds of a century later, it is still impossible not to feel fury against Hitler and the Nazis for forcing baby Rita Gains to grow up without her father, Annie and Herbert Gains without their brother, and for taking her nineteen-year-old boy away from Mrs. Johnson. If one then multiplies each of those tragedies by 50,000,000, one can begin to try to grasp the sheer extent of the personal side of the composite world-historical global cataclysm that was the Second World War.
The aftershocks of this cataclysm also literally propelled my mother and her parents from Japan, the land of her birth, to Germany in 1948. (They were involuntarily resettled by the U.S. military.) Her next move was to the USA, where she met my father, the son of a Norwegian resistance leader. Thus I was an indirect result of the massive dislocations and relocations triggered by that war.

The graceful linkage of micro and macro scales is one of the amazing gifts that historian Andrew Roberts brings to his new history of World War II. It parallels his ability to link the objectivity of a deep ecologist, observing the ebbs and flows of huge battlefields along with the strategic breakthroughs and blunders they represent, with the moral outrage of one who cares deeply and eloquently about human dignity.

Roberts does not grant Hitler even the remotest drop of sympathy or sentimentality, yet he cuts the monstrous Corporal down to human size, where we can examine both his cleverness and his insecurities.
In personal terms, although Hitler was easily able to bully and swindle fearful and naive men such as Schuschnigg, Hacha, Chamberlain and Daladier, when he came up against men of the calibre of Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and Josef Stalin, he found he had more than met his match.
I've read more than my share of histories of World War II--last year I re-read all of Churchill's six volumes--but I could not put down this new book in large part because of its humane, absorbing, intelligent reflections on the central puzzle of the war: was Allied victory inevitable? If, for example, Hitler had left military leadership to the professionals instead of constantly interfering (remembering that sometimes he was at least tactically right!), would Germany have won? On the other hand, given the Allies' advantages in productive capacity, Russia's endless resources of space and human reserves, and the choice of nearly all the world's leading atomic scientists to end up in the USA, was a long-term German victory even possible? And could a personality like Hitler have possibly kept his hands off the steering wheel?

Those whose moral vision of the world is formed by Isaiah 11:6-9 ("...and a little child will lead them...") might find little of consolation in the author's dense, multidimensional portrait of our planet's six-year bloodbath. Nonviolent heroes, such as Norway's teachers or the villagers of Le Chambon, don't figure in this history. I'm not surprised nor distressed; what emerges for me is the collective behavior of humans as a species of animal, acting and reacting with varying individual capacities but with no collective ability to resist that special evil that depends on fear and prejudice, on wholesale objectification, on blood-mythology and blood-intoxication. It is this specific distortion--ignorance, neglect, or outright concealment of the truth of our creation in the image of God--that nonviolent evangelists always and still need to address with persistent urgency. In this struggle, books like The Storm of War don't have to depress us; they remind us of the stakes.

And what about the Allies' "victory"? Despite the carnage, the loss of fifty million, the grieving survivors, and the global shift of populations, we humans did survive. Collectively, we all "won" and the "Master Race" myth "lost." Mostly. Didn't it? Keep watch!



Pam Ferguson, "Living with ambiguity."I struggle with the ambiguity of pastoring. There is great peril in this vocation as well as great good. My husband and I learned from our work with refugees in Africa that the most important thing we could do was to communicate our willingness to do everything we could WITH them and nothing FOR them. That has continued to be our philosophy for ministry."

Christianity Today interviews Eastern Orthodox bishop Kallistos Ware.

Deseret News: "Landmark evangelical survey finds both unity and division." (Via Pew Forum.) By the way, am I detecting some need on evangelicals' part to be reassured that we can be intellectuals?

"God's lobbyists: the hidden realm of religious influence." Guess which is "By far the largest religious organization that discloses its lobbying...."



Among the impressive musicians at the last Waterfront Blues Festival: Grady Champion...

2 comments:

Nancy said...

Thank you again, Johan, for this insightful review. I usually end up reading the books you recommend. One statement you made impresses me: "The graceful linkage of micro and macro scales is one of the amazing gifts that historian Andrew Roberts brings to his new history of World War II." I think that is one thing good literature often does--gracefully link the big picture with the small, concrete realities of people's lives. That's one of the reasons Tolstoy's War and Peace continues to be one of my favorites.

Johan said...

Thank you, Nancy! By the way, it's interesting how often Napoleon was cited by both author Roberts and by Hitler. It's not only those who don't know history who are condemned to repeat it--those who DO study it sometimes don't seem to learn the right lessons.

P.S. Hello from PDX! We're on our way to Spokane.