WWII began 80 years ago today

Hitler watching German soldiers marching into Poland in September 1939 (Photo: Wikipedia)

Today marks the 80th anniversary of beginning of World War II.

On September 1, 1939, Hitler’s German army—the Wehrmacht—invaded Poland. Two days later Britain and France declare war on Germany. By the time WWII ended in September of 1945, between 70 and 85 million people had perished.*

Of course Hitler was the central villain of WWII (Europe), and so he’s the focus. There are a lot of books about the Nazis and Hitler’s rise to power. Just type in “Hitler” on Amazon’s search engine for books and you’ll get 20,000 “results.” Just casually scan the hundreds of cable TV channels at your fingertips, and the odds are fairly good you’ll find a program or documentary about the Nazis or Hitler. A friend of mine nicknamed the History Channel, the “Hitler Channel,” because he noticed throughout the year so many programs on the channel seemed to be about the Nazis or Hitler.

But while Hitler himself continues to attract the consternation of many, I believe we’d be far better served if we better understood the psychological dynamics or emotional forces moving Hitler’s followers. Would-be tyrants and demagogues are always present in any society. There’s always someone saying he—and “only” he—can make us great again. But why, especially in modern democratic societies, like, say, Germany in the 1930s, would so many people come to support and believe in such a man? I realize this is a complicated question. And before anyone says: “Well most Germans didn’t know before the war, before Hitler came to power, that he’d do so many horrendous and cruel things,” I’ll remind them that Hitler, long before he came to power, had published his extreme views in a book called Mein Kampf—which was a best selling book in Germany! Hitler views were well known.

Hitler’s hate for Jews, for example, was red hot. Not something that could stay hidden. In 1922, that’s 11 years before Hitler became German Chancellor, Jospeh Hell asked Hitler: “What do you want to do to the Jews once you have full discretionary powers?” Hitler didn’t mince any words:

Once I really am in power, my first and foremost task will be the annihilation of the Jews. As soon as I have the power to do so, I will have gallows built in rows—at the Marienplatz in Munich, for example—as many as traffic allows. Then the Jews will be hanged indiscriminately, and they will remain hanging until they stink; they will hang there as long as the principles of hygiene permit. As soon as they have been untied, the next batch will be strung up, and so on down the line, until the last Jew in Munich has been exterminated. Other cities will follow suit, precisely in this fashion, until all Germany has been completely cleansed of Jews.

No doubt Hitler’s views weren’t secret. And yet many Germans, fully aware of Hitler’s spoken intentions, at least in Mein Kampf and what they’d read in the newspapers, voluntarily attended his massive rallies and flocked to the streets to throw the Nazi salute as their fuhrer past. Many Germans willingly surrendered their democratic freedoms, their personal liberties, and without a doubt their conscience, to a fascist, authoritarian leader.

Besides Hitler’s hate of the Jews, Hitler’s plans to expand Germany—which any sentient person knew meant war—was also well known. And once Hitler’s mission to expand Germany began, Hitler held nothing back in how this expansion would effect, not just Jews, but all non-Germans, non-Ayrans. In an August 22nd speech to the group of German military commanders leading the invasion of Poland, Hitler said:

The object of the war is … physically to destroy the enemy. That is why I have prepared, for the moment only in the East, my ‘Death’s Head’ formations with orders to kill without pity or mercy all men, women, and children of Polish descent or language. Only in this way can we obtain the living space we need.

That a whole group of educated, and supposedly civilized, German officers could be informed of the coming systemic slaughter of innocent men, women, and children—just because they were Polish!—and not immediately reject Hitler, should remind us of just how fragile so called civilized people’s commitment to civilized values, basic humanity, can be. After the invasion and occupation of Poland, the Nazi SS carried out Hitler’s orders with cold-blooded efficiency. By the time the war ended 6 million Poles had been killed.

So I think the bigger, more important, challenge for us is to understand the social factors, the social pathologies, that caused so many German people to accept and support Hitler and his dark Nazi ideology. Again, there are always authoritarian types in the crowd, but these types can only take power if a large number of people in democratic societies go along and buy into it. If anything, Nazi Germany serves as a reminder that the real danger to peace and civilized values isn’t so much the sociopaths and authoritarian personalities, but the social environment where authoritarianism is welcomed, accepted, and saluted as it passes by.

Dunkirk

930At the last minute I decided to go see the movie Dunkirk. The movie is based on the mass evacuation (26 May to 4 June 1940) of British and French troops from the beaches of Dunkirk, France, during the opening stages of WWII.

Before the Russians and the yanks got involved, the German army was pretty much taking whatever they wanted and crushing all resistance. They were steam rolling the continent. The French and British armies, woefully unprepared to face Hitler’s military juggernaut, had been pummeled and forced to retreat to the beaches of Dunkirk and wait to be evacuated to England before the encircling German army killed or captured them.

This is a war story, so one should expect the typical motifs of war and warriors: sacrifice, endurance, honor, courage, fear. They’re all here in abundance and they give to the film, as such emotions do, a raw energy, mostly dark, but with the occasional piercings of light.

The tempo of the movie is fast—rightfully so when soldiers are cornered, beaten, tired, afraid and being constantly strafed by German airplanes. The movie is told through 4 perspectives.

There’s a British army private and his attempts to get off the beach anyway he can, even if it means using deceptiveness to cut in line to board a transport ship—from which he barely escapes after the ship is sunk by a German bomb just after departing. There’s the British Navy admiral, played perfectly by Kenneth Branagh, standing stoically at the end of a long pier, directing the orderly loading of troops onto transport ships, and refusing to leave until all the troops, British and French, are evacuated. There’s the British father and son, who join the thousands of other British civilians, using their personal boats and braving the bombs and machine guns of German planes, in order to help evacuate the British army stranded on the French beach just across the English Channel.

And then, lastly, there’s the British Spitfire pilot. He was my favorite character. Alone and running out of fuel, after having his two wing men shot down, instead of turning around and returning to base, he continues to engage the enemy, fighting until the last drop of fuel is gone. Leading up to this, there’s a defining scene in the movie where this British Spitfire pilot is staring at his gas gauge. He knows if he doesn’t turn around now, he can’t make it back to England. His face is covered by a flight helmet and mask so all you see is his eyes. And that’s all you need. In those eyes you see the brief moment of struggle, the thousand yard stare as his mind hovers between two loves and two duties, and then the decision, his eyes relax, and we see a man embracing his fate. He pushes the throttle forward to chase a German bomber in the distance. He’s not turning back. No. His countrymen are on that beach getting shot at and every man must do his duty.

If you’re looking for complex character development this isn’t your movie. At the opening of the movie you’re dropped into a quickly evolving situation and you’re carried along on a fast ride. The movie is more about action and scene than dialogue and personal connection. The emotional connection you get is from the pathetic spectacle of watching men fight for their lives against the odds. To survive is to win! A terrible sense of doom lingers over those beaches, and the only thing those soldiers have is their fighting spirit and the faith in their fellow countrymen to rescue them.

About 338 thousand allied troops were evacuated from Dunkirk. Over a hundred thousand by citizens coming to the rescue with their own boats. The battle was a big defeat for the allies, and yet, for the British nation it was a defeat that served the needs of the moment. The French, beaten and battered, would ultimately surrender. But the British, led by Winston Churchill, would take from this defeat the spirited determination, the fearless resolve, to fight on regardless of the odds. (Ahhh, and unlike the French, it helped—a lot—that Britain is an island nation with a channel holding back the German invasion force.)

On a scale of 1 to 5, five being the best, I’d give Dunkirk a 3.5. It lacked in a few areas in my view but overall it was a good movie and I recommend it.

If you go see it, please come back and let me know what you think.