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?

Nazi uniform-wearing Republican: Honest but clueless

Rich Iott, a Republican candidate for a U.S. Congressional seat in Ohio, says he wears a Nazi military uniform because he is fascinated by military history, not because he’s a Nazi sympathizer.

I believe him. But I also believe he has a thing or two to learn about history.

I love to read about history because I enjoy learning how the past shaped the world we live in today. A full understanding of history requires  you to take a broad view of past events. You can’t just interpret events to suit your own prejudices. History is about uncovering the truth. And the truth can be ugly.

Rich Iott is a millionaire businessman who is running for the  9th Congressional District in Ohio. The Atlantic has revealed that in his spare time he participates in a group that reenacts World War II battles as a unit of the 5th SS Panzer Division Wiking, a Nazi Germany military unit noted for its valor and known for having a large number of volunteers from Northern European countries that had either been conquered by or allied with Germany during the war.

This division was also part of the Waffen SS, the military arm of the German Nazi Party. The Waffen SS was a military organization that was distinct from Germany’s traditional regular army, the Wehrmacht. In fact, commanders and enlisted men in the Wehrmacht were known to despise the Waffen SS for a variety of reasons, in particular its function as an instrument of terror. The Waffen SS was responsible for a large percentage of the war crimes Germany perpetrated in World War II. During the 1939 invasion of Poland, the Waffen SS systematically murdered thousands of Jews and Poles. When officers in the Wehrmacht complained to Hitler’s government about the brutal and inhuman behavior of the Waffen SS, those complaining officers were usually relieved of duty. The Waffen SS continued to be an instrument of terror throughout the war, but it also was a competent fighting organization that proved itself in conventional battle.

So, we have a GOP candidate for Congress who in his spare time wears the uniform of a Panzer (tank) division within the Waffen SS. This has the media in a frenzy. Iott is such an easy target. Perhaps rightly so. But even as the media takes aim at him, they miss the real issue.

After all, is it really so terrible that Iott and some friends wear these uniforms in order to reenact battles from World War II? If he liked to dress up as a British Redcoat and reenact battles from the American Revolution, would we be so riled up? Reenacting historical military events is a common pursuit in our country. These are people who enjoy military history. They enjoy learning about it, reliving it and teaching about it.

If you visit the website of Iott’s “Wiking” reenactment group, it’s quite clear the group is sincere in its pursuit of learning and teaching history.

The real problem lies in the groups misrepresentation of history.

The group’s website describes a very narrow view of the history of the 5th SS Panzer Division Wiking. According to Iott’s group, the division was a valiant and highly decorated military unit made up of volunteers from Holland, Denmark, Norway, Finland and other Northern European countries who wanted to fight Soviet Russia and “the threat of communism.” According to the website, these men saw Nazi Germany as the “protector of personal freedom and their very way of life.”

This historical account is highly misleading. First of all, it neglects to mention that this SS division was involved in several war crimes. For instance it assisted the Einsatzkommandos (Germany’s paramilitary SS death squads that roamed Europe rounding up and murdering Jews) in murdering at least 50 Jews. Can any reenactment of this division be fully honest without some acknowledgment of this atrocity.

Second, the most famous member of the 5th SS Panzer Division Wiking must be acknowledged somewhere. He is Dr. Joseph Mengele. He served as a medic in this division before getting wounded. He was reassigned to the rear and eventually served in Germany’s concentration camp system. If you haven’t heard of Dr. Mengele before, do some reading. There are many reasons why he is known as the Angel of Death.

Finally, I believe that the “Wiking” reenactors are deliberately misinterpreting the motivations the of the 5th Division’s non-German volunteers. Did these men really see Germany as the protector of personal freedom? Germany had bombed Holland back into the Stone Age. It had invaded Norway and set up a puppet regime there.  It invaded Denmark, although it let the Danish government remain in place until 1943.  Only Finland was a real ally to Germany, and in some ways it had no choice. The Soviet Union tried to conquer Finland shortly after Germany invaded Poland. The Finns turned to Germany for help.

Did these people see their conquerors as defenders of freedom? Was their main motivation to fight the spread of communism? I think the truth is more complex than the “Wiking” group would have you believe. Perhaps some of them saw Germany as a beacon of freedom. I think others were drawn to the Nazi Germany’s ideology of racial superiority and xenophobia. To many, Communist was just a euphemism for Jew or Gypsy.

I think Iott has been seduced by the idea of Europeans volunteering to fight against communism because the idea appeals to his ideology. He is a “Tea Party” candidate for Congress, which means he’s a part of the movement which thinks that anything slightly left of the political center is socialist. I think he has a romantic view of these Danes, Finns, Norwegians and Dutch men who became SS soldiers in order to fight communism and socialism because he still sees communism and socialism as an evil that plagues our country today. He’s wrong of course, but that’s a discussion for another day.

Because of their romantic view of these Nazi soldiers (and let’s not be coy, these were Nazi soldiers) and their so-called struggle against communism, Iott and his colleagues have chosen to ignore some of the more unsavory facts of the history of the 5th SS Panzer Division Wiking. By painting an incomplete picture of the division, they are doing a disservice to the study of history. In some ways they are rewriting it. And that is unforgivable.