Reading a complete history of a world gone mad in World War Two

You were our liberator, but we, the diseased, emaciated, barely human survivors were your teachers. We taught you to understand the Kingdom of the Night.

Those are the words of holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel. He wrote them about the American soldiers who arrived at the Buchenwald concentration camp on April 11, 1945 and freed him and other ragged survivors of Nazi Germany’s brutality. His words are quoted by Martin Gilbert in his epic and sorrowful book, The Second World War: A Complete History.

I grew up with a father who was always fascinated by the history of World War Two. We would watch John Wayne movies together when I was young. He had a tattered copy of a Time-Life book on the history of the war that I would page through occasionally. I remember it mostly for the black and white photos, particularly the graphic images of dead soldiers lying on beaches and meadows, their eyes closed and their mouths open in some unending gasp of pain.

For all I knew of the war, I never fully understood the scale of it, nor the mechanics of how it all happened. Who attacked whom and why? How did the different alliances form and collapse? How did Germany and Japan go from unstoppable conquerors to cowed and shattered occupied nations?

To get a better picture of all that happened, I decided to pick up Gilbert’s complete history.

How can you capture a “complete history” of a war that spanned six years, killed more than 45 million people and engulfed an entire world? Gilbert did it within 750 dense pages. It’s a blow by blow account. It isn’t a deep reading of events. It won’t tell you why Adolph Hitler came to blame the Jews for all the world’s miseries, nor why Germany decided to follow him down a path of murder and depravity.  You can go elsewhere for those answers. You can read any number of books about D-Day at Normandy, the struggle of the Allies against the Japanese in the South Pacific, or the battle of Stalingrad. Hitler, Stalin, Churchill, Roosevelt. They’ve all had their biographers. Their deputies and generals, too. There are so many stories to tell.

But Gilbert takes a high-level view of the war. From beginning to end he summarizes every major battle in a few sentences or paragraphs. He explores the major events and the grand strategic decisions.  And he lists the dead. He offers name after name of people who lost their lives in battle, who were exterminated in death camps, who were tortured in dungeons, who drowned at sea. And he lists the nameless, too. One hundred gypsies dead on this day, 475 Jews dead on the next. The numbers just grind you down. The scale of the madness and murder is heartbreaking.

German soldiers rounding up Jewish women and children in the Warsaw ghetto

This book was a journey into the horror and the evil that was unleashed on the world in 1939. It is a portrait of a world gone completely insane. This book reveals Elie Wiesel’s Kingdom of Night, where madmen and banal cynics built gas chambers and crematoriums to exterminate Jews, Gypsies, Communists, homosexuals and anyone else they could blame for their own dreadful failures to live as decent human beings in a challenging world.

That madness lurks in our world still. There is so much hatred and fear. And there are still evil men who are more than happy to bend that hatred and fear to their will in pursuit of power and satisfaction of petty, ugly urges. Jihadism is an expression of that madness. So is the backlash against peaceful Muslims by bigots who firebomb mosques and beat up dark-skinned shopkeepers.

The eyeglasses of victims of the gas chambers at Auschwitz concentration camp

This is why I read history. I like to learn lessons from the past. They say learn from the past so you don’t repeat the mistakes of those who came before you. Well, I say you learn from the past so you can see what’s coming. Madness, hatred, fear, stupidity. It’s a toxic mix that lurks around us. Seventy years ago it drove grown men to line up hundreds and thousands of innocent men, women and children against walls in hundreds of cities and shoot them dead, all because they were different. They worshiped the wrong god. Their skin and their hair was a little too dark. They spoke Yiddish or Polish or Russian. Is it so hard to imagine it happening again? Did it really ever end?

The final line of Gilbert’s history of the war talks about unfinished business. “The great unfinished business of the Second Word War is human pain.” That pain never went away. It festered. It is still with us. It expresses itself in the Sudan, in Southeast Asia, in Mexico and on our own streets. Pain breeds hatred and with hatred comes madness. There is so much hatred in this world. A war wasn’t able to kill that hatred. Who knows what could. But hatred can be defeated by good-hearted people who have the courage to stand up and shout down the cynics and the demagogues. In 1939 there weren’t enough voices ready to drown out the ravings of Hitler and Tojo and Mussolini. Who offers up their voices today?


The Department of Education

Yikes! The Republican Party wants to kill the U.S. Department of Education. What are we going to do!

Think Progress, a popular liberal blog that I follow regularly, claims that 111 Republican Congressional incumbents and candidates have expressed support for abolishing the Department of Education. This story is part of a series Think Progress is publishing on legislation that might emerge if Republican’s take back Congress.

I’m sorry, but this just isn’t an issue. Such legislation would never pass. And even if it did, President Obama would veto it.

Also, why should we care? Think Progress takes it for granted that its readers know that the Department of Education (ED — yes the Department’s acronym is ED. DoE was taken by the Department of Energy) is essential. It’s got the word “education” in its name so it must be good, right? The country needs education, so why abolish it?

What I’d appreciate in an article like this is a little bit of what we journalists like to call the “nut graf,” the paragraph that forms the core of a story and tells a reader why he should care. It’s also referred to as the who, what, where, why and how of a story. Why should we care about the ED? What would happen if it were abolished? What the heck does the ED do?

I’d say that the average voter has very little idea what the Education Department does. They just know it’s a $60 or $70 billion bureaucracy that “intrudes” on individual states’ efforts to administer education. Only, the ED doesn’t really have the power to do that. It doesn’t set curricula in this country. It doesn’t set rules for budgeting education. It doesn’t set standards for teachers. It doesn’t even manage accreditation of primary, secondary or post-secondary education institutions.

What does it do? It disburses federal education grants and scholarships. It manages federal student loans. It enforces privacy and civil rights laws in the context of education. It collects statistics on education in the country. That’s about it.

What about in terms of the GOP’s so-called fiscal conservatism? In the grand scheme of things, the ED’s 5,000 employees and $60-70 billion budget are a drop in the bucket. You could cut the budget by 100% and the deficit would still be measured in trillions.

Instead of being on the defensive and assuming that the ED is a sacred cow that deserves our unquestioning support, perhaps Think Progress should ponder whether we need the ED in its current form. Maybe the GOP is right. Maybe we should kill it. And then replace it with something else with a stronger mandate. I say we should be doing more, not less.

I think this country needs a centralized education system more than ever before. Math and science education is critical to the future of the economy and yet our schools struggle to instruct students on these subjects.

We’re leaving this policy up to the individual states? Fifty individual bureaucracies, some of which are headed by elected ideological gasbags (Exhibit number one, the Texas’ State Board of Education, which wastes its time trying to ferret out “pro-Islamic bias” in textbooks). The current ED’s mandate is very limited in scope, because Republicans opposed its creation from the start. Republicans say there is nothing about an education department in the Constitution. I don’t think there was any mention of the Department of Energy or the Department of Housing and Urban Development in there, either.

I say the ED should be doing more, not less. Instead of defending its turf, the Democrats should be rallying for  stronger federal role in education. Go on the offensive for once. Hammer the Republicans who want to kill the ED and emphasize that we should be doing more for education at the federal level. That’s what Think Progress should be advocating.  It kneejerk defense of the ED is preaching to the converted. Instead, this article should be pointing out how the ED could be doing more to reinvent education in our country. Maybe that would give some moderates and independents a reason to go to the polls on Tuesday. They need a reason, and articles like this gem from Think Progress just don’t cut it.