World War II in Literature

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Historical Background

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In 1933, Adolf Hitler, leader of the Nazi Party, was appointed chancellor of Germany. He immediately began to prepare for war, rearming the country, engaging in aggressive foreign policy, and establishing dictatorial powers for himself. German rearmament and aggression were in violation of the Treaty of Versailles, which Germany had signed at the end of World War I, and which the Nazi Party repudiated. Even after Hitler annexed Austria and invaded Czechoslovakia in 1938, attempts were made by other European powers to placate him. When Hitler invaded Poland in 1939, however, Great Britain and France declared war on Germany. The war of the Axis powers (Germany, Italy, Japan, Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria) against the Allied powers (Great Britain and its allies, France, China, Denmark, Greece, Norway, and Yugoslavia) had begun.

The Soviet Union, initially at uneasy peace with Germany, went to war against Germany when Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941. Japan, having gone to war against China in 1936, joined the Axis in 1940 and attacked the United States in 1941. The United States thereupon entered the war in 1941 on the Allied side, declaring war on Japan, Germany, and Italy.

World War II was truly a world war, with nations around the world involved in theaters of war around the world. World War II was also a total war; all targets, military and civilian, were considered legitimate, and all means of war, including the bombing of cities, were employed. Total warfare meant that entire societies were affected. The war was global; few people on the planet were completely unaffected. Some of history’s most terrible atrocities took place during World War II, including the Holocaust (the systematic murder of approximately ten million civilians that the Nazis considered unworthy of life) which claimed the lives of approximately six million Jews.

World War II ended with the defeat of Italy in April, 1945, of Germany in May, and of Japan in August. The United States hastened the surrender of Japan with the first use in history of atomic weapons; this act also may be said to be a symbol of the rise of United States to the level of the world’s preeminent power as a result of World War II. The Allies, victorious, made arrangements of territory and political alliance that deeply affected the world thereafter.

American Literature

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Most critics regard Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead (1948) as the best American novel to come out of World War II. Some prefer the works of James Jones. Both authors based their books on their personal experiences, Mailer in the Philippines and Jones at Pearl Harbor, on Guadalcanal, and in a stateside hospital. Mailer’s book is the story of an infantry platoon that participates in an invasion of a Japanese-held island.

Jones intended to write a trilogy based on his World War II experiences, but died before he could finish Whistle (1978). Jones was a soldier stationed on the island of Oahu before and during the attack on Pearl Harbor. From Here to Eternity (1951) is based on those experiences. When Jones started to write the second book in the series, he faced the problem that he had killed off a central character in the first book. He solved the problem by keeping the characters but changing the names. The second book in the series, The Thin Red Line (1962), is based on his experiences on Guadalcanal. Jones was wounded in the fighting and shipped back to the United States to recover. He intended to use those experiences in Whistle. Jones also collaborated with Art Weithas on WWII (1975), a pictorial history of the war.

Other American novels...

(This entire section contains 948 words.)

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set in the Pacific theater include Thomas Heggen’sMister Roberts (1946), Herman Wouk’s The Caine Mutiny: A Novel of World War II (1951), and James A. Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific (1947). The title character of Mister Roberts is the executive officer on a navy cargo ship. The story is mostly of his battles with the ship’s tyrannical captain. The Caine Mutiny refers to a fictional mutiny on a U.S. Navy destroyer, the U.S.S. Caine. The executive officer relieves the captain on the grounds of mental illness and has to face a Navy court-martial. In Tales of the South Pacific, American men and women experience culture shock and face their racism when they met the people of Polynesia. These three books have in common the fact that the conflict between the Americans and the Japanese is only in the background. The primary conflicts are between American naval officers (Mister Roberts and The Caine Mutiny) or among Americans and their allies such as the Polynesians and French colonialists in Tales of the South Pacific. All three books were adapted to the Broadway stage. Heggen adapted his story in collaboration with Joshua Logan. Logan later worked with Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein to adapt Michener’s book as the musical South Pacific (1949). Wouk adapted the last part of his book as the play The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial (1955).

American war novels set in the European Theater include Irwin Shaw’s The Young Lions (1948), Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five: Or, The Children’s Crusade, a Duty-Dance with Death (1969) and Mother Night (1961), John Hersey’s A Bell for Adano (1944) and The War Lover (1959), and Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 (1961). The Young Lions is the story of three men, a Nazi German and two Americans, one Jewish and one Christian, who meet in the last chapter. Shaw based both American characters on different aspects of himself. His portrayal of a dedicated Nazi was one of the first and best attempts by an American novelist. It is hardly sympathetic, but Shaw attempts to make him understandable. Mother Night is the story of an American who ostensibly collaborated with the Germans but was really an American spy. Slaughterhouse-Five is based on Vonnegut’s experience of being a prisoner of war in Dresden during the destruction by firebombing of that city. Catch-22 is a satirical story about an American bomber group in the Mediterranean.

Hersey’s A Bell For Adano is set during the American occupation of Italy. The title character of The War Lover enjoys the war because it has given him the opportunity to engage in activities denied him in peacetime. Hersey also wrote Hiroshima (1946, 1985), a journalistic account of how six Japanese survived the atomic bomb blast.

Leon Uris wrote novels of both the Pacific and European theaters. Battle Cry (1953) follows one squad of marines from boot camp to the invasion of Saipan. The Angry Hills (1955) is an account of the Jewish brigade from Palestine that fought with the British in Greece. The home front was not ignored. James Gould Cozzens wrote Guard of Honor (1948), the story of a colonel commanding an air base in Florida during the war.

Robert E. Sherwood’s play There Shall Be No Night (1940) is about the Soviet invasion of Finland. He also wrote some of U.S. president Franklin Roosevelt’s speeches and Roosevelt and Hopkins: An Intimate History (1948). Harry Hopkins was Roosevelt’s most trusted assistant during the war.

American poets who achieved prominence for their war poetry were Randall Jarrell and Karl Shapiro. Jarrell served in the Army Air Forces and wrote Little Friend, Little Friend (1945). Shapiro was a soldier and wrote several volumes of poetry: Person, Place, and Thing (1942), The Place of Love (1942), V-Letter and Other Poems (1944), and Trial of a Poet (1947).

Many of the survivors wrote personal accounts of their experiences. One notable book is Crusade in Europe (1948) by Dwight D. Eisenhower. The author not only commanded the Normandy invasion but became president of the United States. The memoirs of Harry S Truman are Year of Decisions (1955) and Years of Trial and Hope (1956). William Shirer was an American journalist working for CBS Radio in Berlin during the 1930’s. He kept a diary about the events of the day which he finally published as Berlin Diary (1940). He later wrote one of the most famous histories of the war, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (1960).

The Literature of Other Countries

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Evelyn Waugh served as a British army officer during the war and wrote a trilogy based on his experiences. Those novels are Men at Arms: A Novel (1952), Officers and Gentlemen (1954), and Unconditional Surrender (1961, also published as The End of the Battle, 1961).

Russian writers Yury Bondarev and Emmanuil Kazakevich served in the Soviet army during the war. Bondarev wrote two short novels set during the war, Batal’ony prosiat ognia (battalions ask for fire, 1957) and Posledniye zalpy (1959; The Last Shots, 1959). Kazakevich wrote Zvezda (1947; Star, 1950) and Dvoe v stepi (two men in the steppe, 1948). Both books were based on his personal experiences.

The Holocaust

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In accordance with a racist ideology, the Nazis systematically murdered approximately six million Jews and approximately four million members of other groups (Slavs, Gypsies, homosexuals, the disabled and the mentally retarded, criminals, religious objectors) they thought undesirable. The Nazis worked their victims to death in labor camps, starved them to death in ghettoes, and murdered them directly in death camps.

The Nazis’ most famous victim was Anne Frank. Her Het Achterhuis: Dagboekbrieven 12 Juni 1942-Augustus 1944 (1947; Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl, 1952) describes how her family hid in Amsterdam for two years before being discovered and sent to concentration camps, where only Anne’s father, Otto, survived. Elie Wiesel, born in Romania and a Holocaust survivor, achieved eminence as a writer about the Holocaust and received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986. La Nuit (1958; Night, 1960) is his autobiographical account of his experience in the concentration camps. Most of his fiction also deals with the Holocaust in one way or another.

Three notable American authors who have written about the Holocaust are Leon Uris and Wouk, both Jewish Americans, and William Styron. Uris wrote Mila 18 (1961), about the uprising in Warsaw’s Jewish ghetto in 1943. In QB VII (1970), Uris tells the stories of a Polish doctor who collaborated with the Nazis and a Jewish American writer who exposes him. The doctor sues the writer for libel, and the final third of the novel is devoted to the trial. Wouk writes extensively about the Holocaust in War and Remembrance: A Novel (1978), his sequel to The Winds of War: A Novel (1971). These two books concern an American naval family whose younger son marries a Jewish woman. This woman is trapped in Europe during the war and is arrested and taken to one of the Nazi death camps. Styron’s Sophie’s Choice (1979) is set after the war, but the title character is a survivor of the camps. The climax of the book is a flashback scene in which she tells her American lover about the so-called choice she was given while a prisoner.

French novelist Andre Schwarz-Bart, whose parents were Polish Jews who emigrated to France in 1924, was a member of the resistance. He wrote Le Dernier des justes (1959, The Last of the Just, 1960). It traces a Jewish family through thirty-six generations and ends in Auschwitz. Australian writer Thomas Keneally’s Schindler’s Ark (1982; also published as Schindler’s List, 1982) tells the true story of a German businessman who saved about one thousand Polish Jews during the war. Keneally’s book was made into an award-winning film.