“What I don’t like about books and movies set during World War II,” my wife said to me the other day, “is that they remind you how bad things can get.”
We were watching a PBS Masterpiece Theater series called The World on Fire which takes place in Europe starting in 1939. The Germans invade Poland. The young English attache marries a Polish girl to get her out of the country — although he has a girlfriend at home. When the Polish girl meets him at the train station for their getaway, she instead thrusts her younger brother on the train and implores the man to take care of him. There’s a soap opera quality to the series — the girlfriend back in England turns out to be pregnant — but there’s also plenty of killing, torture and intimidation to remind the viewer that it’s a soap opera set against a very dark background.
We recently watched a Netflix show called The Restaurant, which takes place in Stockholm as World War II is ending. The restaurant had collaborated with the Germans during the occupation, and now was having problems adapting to the modern post-war world.
We also just finished reading Erik Larson’s new book The Splendid and the Vile about Winston Churchill leading the fight against Hitler through the Battle of Britain in 1940 and 1941.
Then I was talking to a friend of mine who said I also had to read In Harm’s Way by Doug Stanton, a great tale about the sinking of the U. S. S. Indianapolis in 1945, after it had delivered the atom bomb to a South Pacific airbase, in preparation for the bombing of Hiroshima.
Why all the sudden interest in World War II? I wondered. Maybe it’s just coincidence. But then I realized that May 8th was the 75th anniversary of VE Day, the day the Germans surrendered.
The 75th anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima falls on August 6 which, together with the one on Nagasaki, brought the war to a quick close. The Japanese surrendered on August 15, 1945, known as VJ Day.
An estimated 200,000 Japanese, mostly civilians, died as a direct result of the two atomic bombs. Thousands more suffered injuries and met early deaths as a result of radiation poisoning, leukemia and other cancers.
At the time, no one was certain that the atom bombs would even work. So there was a backup plan, called Operation Downfall, to invade Japan and force the end of the war. The American military estimated an invasion would have cost as many as 4 million Allied casualties, including 500,000, or even 800,000 dead.
I’m not saying that COVID-19 is a tragedy on a scale anywhere near World War II — although perhaps a disease affects the “home front” more than a war does. And I’m not saying we’re lucky that our problems are minuscule compared to what the world faced in the early 1940s . . . because, who knows?
But I agree with my wife. Looking back at World War II reminds us just how bad things can get. And so it’s up to us to make sure that they don’t.