In the pre-dawn hours of September 1, 1939, Hitler’s armies, using a trumped-up pretext, invaded Poland, signaling the start of World War II in Europe. By the time the war ended 2,194 days later, on May 8, 1945, it represented the most catastrophic man-made event the world had ever known.
I offer two quotes from contemporaries writing at that time—one an elegy for a world which had vanished forever, and one a fearful prediction of the world that was yet to come.
Journalist and author William L. Shirer (whom I have written about here), wrote in his diary on October 8, 1939:
“How dim in memory the time when there was peace. That world ended, and for me, on the whole, despite its faults, its injustices, its inequalities, it was a good one. I came of age in that one, and the life it gave was free, civilized, deepening, full of minor tragedy and joy and work and leisure, new lands, new faces—and rarely commonplace and never without hope.”
“And now darkness.”
Journalist and playwright Clare Boothe Luce (of whom I’ve written about here), observed in early 1940:
“Of course, Hitler hasn’t won the war yet. . .. . But victory or defeat or the deadlock of a long-dragged-out blood-letting, half of Europe and perhaps all of England will be laid in ruins, and millions of boys—and girls—and old people and babies who might have seen many more lovely, lovely springs will have died very needlessly.”
Human beings, being human, love to try and quantify complex events, so as to get a better handle on them, and World War II is no exception. How many deaths, how many casualties, did the war produce? Twenty million? Thirty million? Forty Million? Fifty Million? No one will ever know. But even if we could calculate with precision the vast number of dead and wounded produced by the war, we would still not bring within its compass the tidal wave of suffering it produced.
I recently watched an installment of Foyle’s War, a wartime detective series first broadcast in 2002. Entitled “Broken Souls” the show had its share of mysteries, mixed motivations, and human foibles, all unraveled by DCS Foyle by episode’s end. But this one had more: a RAF pilot consigned to an asylum after watching the rest of his bomber crew perish in a fiery crash; a young boy, a messenger, who runs away from home after delivering one too many death notices to grieving families; a German POW who doesn’t know whether his family is still alive or not back home; a returning British POW who struggles to reconnect with a wife who hasn’t seen him in years and a son who doesn’t know him; and a Polish-Jewish refugee who, upon learning of the horrors of Majdanek (the first major concentration camp liberated by the Allies, on July 24, 1944), where his wife and daughter had been sent, attempts suicide, and later in the program kills the German POW who has knocked him to the ground and speaks to him in German. The final tally: one life taken, four lives broken.
And today, 78 years later, Americans are marching in the streets, more heavily armed than Nazi stormtroopers, bedecked in Nazi regalia, chanting anti-Semitic slurs under the guise of free speech. If this is not insanity, then I don’t what insanity is.
Which leads to another question: could the madness of 1939 happen again?