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Evolving perspectives of a war never out of mind

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Harvard is an old hand at shunning ethnic groups, spurred by one or another administrative zeitgeist. Current legal squabbles about Asian-student eligibility are just another chapter, same book, of the university's ready collaboration with what it believes is the social moment. Harvard did not hire its first salaried Jewish professor (Harry Levin) until 1939, three centuries after its founding. (Mid-eighteenth-century Hebrew instructor Judah Monis was not permitted to join the faculty until he converted to Christianity.)

Harry Wolfson became a tenured professor in 1925, but had to fund his salary from outside sources. Harvard's president, A. Lawrence Lowell, wrote, "The anti-Semitic feeling among the students is increasing, and it grows in proportion to the increase in the number of Jews." Harvard had no difficulty hiring eugenics champion Charles B. Davenport, who influenced state laws on forced sterilization and miscegenation "to improve the race ... and control the propagation of the mentally incompetent." Yale honors graduate and Columbia University lawyer Madison Grant received fan mail from Adolf Hitler, who praised his book, The Passing of the Great Race (1916), as "his Bible."

Eugenics, involuntary sterilizations, a hierarchy of races with whites on top were accepted truths everywhere. National Socialists took the existential leap by making a true nightmare of it all. When death-factory gates opened to reveal the unimaginable, the Allies could see why the war had been fought. Except for that, the reasons for conflict would long ago have been erased from popular memory. Marauding dictators had marched across Europe for centuries. Nothing new in that. Auschwitz validated the fight against National Socialist Germany, but does not explain all of the war's origins.

Communists--including Marxists, however hard they reach for aesthetic distance by ducking under economic or literary theory, or whatever they think washes them clean of Stalin--still believe that something valuable is bound to be there in the pile, somewhere. No one teaches National Socialist theory on the difference between Wagner and Mendelssohn, or why Chagall is just a me'lange of greens and blues. Revisiting the National Socialist era to dig about for something positive is not done except in mocking trifles like, "Hitler built the autobahn." The Nazi shadow lingered in the style of uniform worn by New Mexico and New Jersey state police, and the corps of cadets in early 1960s Texas A&M jack boots and Sam Brown belts. As well as in 1930s federal architecture. In the shape of American eagles on buildings of the period in Washington, DC. In WPA sculptures like those outside the Department of Justice and the National Archives building and, strangely, in the design of the new World War II memorial on the Mall.

American and British self-righteousness based on the foolish notion that in the place of the Germans they would have risked everything to resist the National Socialist regime is hypocritical nonsense. What protects America is never having been there, yet, and having a Constitution that it has managed to hold onto. The remaining issue is the fiction or delusion or half-truth so often insisted on that nobody in Germany knew what was going on. Many people did know. But most people, especially in times of trouble, live their lives pretty much with their heads under their wings, trying to put bread on the table and protecting their own as best they can.

When violence is done by a police state, like the process through which a state lets itself become a police state, resisting it is, was, and will always be something else again. Under such pressures as existed in Germany in the 1920s following the Treaty of Versailles and the collapse of the Reichsmark, the U.S. today would surely go to pieces and grasp at any straw on any terms. And it might well degenerate into personal, racial scapegoating savagery. All that is latent here, anyway. And, alas, in most people.

Much of the darkness at the core of European memory through the middle of the twentieth century after the Bolshevik Revolution was the threat to its Christian identity, however threadbare and tenuous that sounds today. Hundreds of thousands non-German Europeans volunteered for German forces. The Anabasis, as this enormous cohort is known, swore allegiance to Adolf Hitler but specifically fought Soviet Communism and for Christianity. Tim Foote, late senior editor of Time magazine and Smithsonian magazine, remembered, "Years ago I knew a French infantry lieutenant who just after the war went on a retreat to Mount Athos. After a bit he got to know a really old, really Holy man who occupied the cell next. 'My son,' the old man asked, 'where have you come from?' 'I've just come from the war, father.' 'And did you win?' Without getting into the equivocal recent record of French soldiering, he replied, 'I won, father.' Long pause. Then the old man asked, 'Then why didn't you take back Constantinople?'"

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Eric Dietrich-Berryman Social Media Pages: Facebook page url on login Profile not filled in       Twitter page url on login Profile not filled in       Linkedin page url on login Profile not filled in       Instagram page url on login Profile not filled in

German-born (1940) immigrant (1958). US Army 1958-1964. Vietnam 1962-1963. USN 1969-1993. Hofstra University BA 1966; University of New Mexico MA (1968), PhD (1971). Fully retired. Married. Five children, three grandchildren. Resident in (more...)

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