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?


Did April 1865 really save America? Not enough for me.

In April 1865: The month that saved America, author Jay Winik argues that this  month at the end of the American Civil War was a pivotal moment in history where the future of the country was in serious doubt. Yes, the Union in the north was beating down the Confederacy through attrition, but the war was very much still undecided. Winik says that events unfolded in a way that led to a swift end to the war and to a period of national healing that allowed the South to reintegrate back into the the United States.

I don’t buy it.

I don’t think April 1865 was quite the miraculous month Winik says it was. The country continued to bleed from open wounds for at least a century. The war may have ended slavery, but the freed slaves spent the next 100 years as third class citizens, with very few rights and almost no equal protection under the law. Also, when I look at our country today – at how divided it is – I can’t help but notice the regionalism. Most of the South votes one way. Most of the North votes another way. That’s no coincidence.

Yes, the future of the country was still very much undecided in April 1865. The South had fewer resources than the North but it did have better military leadership. General Robert E. Lee had made every single Union general he faced look silly. Even in the final weeks of the war his hopelessly outnumbered forces inflicted massive losses on General U.S. Grant’s Army of the Potomac. Confederate President Jefferson Davis was considering a transition from a conventional war to a guerrilla war that could have prolonged the conflict indefinitely. The Confederacy’s people had formed a national identity of their own and the prospects for them ever identifying themselves as citizens of the United States seemed dim. President Abraham Lincoln was about to be assassinated by a conspiracy that sought to kill him, his vice president and his secretary of state, an attack that had the potential to send the country into a paroxysm of panic and anarchy.

Winik argues that the almost everything seemed to break just right, allowing the war to end and allowing the South to slowly reintegrate into the country. He points to decisions by men like General Robert E. Lee and his fellow Confederate officers to order their men to surrender rather than take to the hills and the mountains as partisan fighters. Had they become guerrillas, the war could have raged for many more years. Imagine the South turning into something like Vietnam or Iraq. Such a conflict would have destroyed the South and broken the spirit of the North.

On and on, Winik points out events that unfolded in a way that allowed the country to survive and heal. And he’s right. Lincoln’s assassination could have been a decapitation that led to chaos. A dictator could have emerged in the White House. The Northern armies could have avenged Lincoln’s death by burning what was left of the South to the ground. Anything could have happened. But the war ended quietly, despite Lincoln’s death.

Winik overlooks a critical part of the war’s outcome. The United States may be irrevocably united by law and nationhood. People in the North and the South consider themselves Americans. But the country remains very, very divided. The South is the land of Republicanism. The North is Democratic. The division in America is complex, but much of it is rooted in the racism that originally perpetuated slavery for centuries.

During the Civil War the Republican party was the party of abolitionists. The Democratic party defended state’s rights and slavery. After the war ended, the parties continued on this course. The Democrats dominated in the South, at least until the late 1940s,  and Republicans dominated in the North. Then President Lyndon Johnson, a Democrat, advocated and signed the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and began enforcing judicial orders to desegregate the country and end institutional racism.

When the Democrats became the party of the Civil Rights movement, the South’s political leanings shifted sharply. It wasn’t all about ethnic divisions, but Republican leaders were explicit behind closed doors that they would exploit Southern racism to take the South from the Democrats.

For nearly 50 years the South has been solidly Republican.  Today there’s very little difference between the two political parties, but the South remains Republican. I’d say that’s a legacy of the racism that has plagued the South and divided it from the North since the war ended 145 years ago. Yes, there was and remains plenty of racism in the North, but racism was a key issue that divided the nation in 1861 and it continues to be an issue today.

Today, the divisions between the North and the South are more complex than smple racism. And the regional divisions are also less geographically monolithic. Some states in the South and the North buck regional trends. The country’s expansion has led to other regional divisions, too. There is a lot of talk about “Real America” and “Real Americans.” People in Alabama might see New Yorkers as alien and vice versa.

I’d say the wounds that cut the country apart in 1861 are still very raw today. Winik should have mentioned something about that in his book. Instead, he barely even mentions the failure of Reconstruction, the North’s attempt to remake the South after the war.