Experiencing World War II Through Reading: Can We Be Humans Again?

Last week, we wrote about real experiences from the Second World War that different authors turned into words, creating amazing and overwhelming literature. Literature has proven to be a great medium for sharing thoughts and emotions because it freezes them at one point and then continues functioning just like a bridge – overcoming time differences by connecting points in history and telling stories. For this weekend's reading, we continue with recommending emotive readings that have World War II in focus. We have reviewed five different books (some fiction, others non-fiction) to help you get a fuller understanding of what World War II actually meant for ordinary people and for our collective heritage as humans.

The first book on the list is a well-regarded novel titled Book Thief, written by Markus Zusak. What makes the novel different and unusual is the fact it’s narrated by Death itself, in Nazi Germany in 1939. This #1 New York Times bestseller is an extremely moving story about the necessity of reading books, as literature is food for soul. Starting in the wake of the war, the novel tells the touching story of a young German girl named Liesel Meminger. Liesel has suffered a lot, losing her biological parents at an early age and then experiencing her brother’s death and the outbreak of war. Her foster father, Hans, an extremely tender and caring man, introduces her to literature and helps her to find comfort in it. At a book burning, Liesel understands that her real parents were executed under the claim that they were communists. As the horrors unfold, Liesel finds meaning in reading and stealing books, that way preserving them from being destroyed or forgotten. Soon she starts to realize the power of words, since words can be used for good, but also for evil – as Hitler’s propaganda proves. Gradually, Liesel turns to writing her own words, in an attempt to comprehend and create her own „propaganda“ – of love and justice, and bringing good to the world. Writing helps her to find her place in a most horrible world and to survive and protect her soul from rotting:

            I have hated the words and I have loved them, and I hope I have made them right.

Liesel loses almost everyone she cares about in the war, but she never completely loses her faith in the importance of writing.

Another great fiction novel (but based on a true story) comes to us from Thomas Keneally. The book, titled Schindler’s List, was later adapted into a movie by Steven Spielberg. The story focuses on Oskar Schindler, a great man who saved thousands of Jews from certain death during World War II. Initially motivated by profit, Schindler employed Jews as a cheap labor force in his factory, but soon he understood what the Nazi propaganda was all about. It is interesting to learn how the book came to be written in the first place. Poldek Pfefferberg, a Holocaust survivor, convinced the author to investigate the story, as he was Schindler’s great friend and had detailed information about his actions during the war. Pfefferberg eventually lobbied to convince Spielberg to make a movie out of the novel, and as we all know – he succeeded. One of the most emotional sentences from the novel:

Whoever saves one life, saves the entire world.

We have already written about Oskar Schindler’s factory in Krakow. Visiting it will definitely give you a great and eery experience of the war. 

One of the greatest memoirs from World War II is 800 Days on the Eastern Front: a Russian Soldier Remembers World War II, written by Nikolai Litvin. Litvin served as a Russian solder for three years, battling on the Eastern Front. During his wartime service, Litvin saw the brutalities of war, which changed him forever. He was wounded three times as he carried out different assignments in the Red Army, and one of the most shocking and overwhelming experiences was certainly the time his life flashed before his eyes – when a bomb fell just a few meters from his position. But he survived to tell the tale, which is why we should treat this amazing book as a unique historical document. Litvin saw and experienced the absurdity and violence of war and wrote it all down when his memories were still fresh, in the sixites of the last century. It is a personal war memoir, free of Soviet propaganda, but it also discusses the problems of different war perspectives and the always present enthusiasm for war and the will to kill. The author himself never enjoyed taking part in the war and was sickened by it, as he said. Still, being a soldier meant your superiors (and the rest of the world) had great expectations of you. Soldiers were highly disciplined and had to be mentally strong in order to fullfil their missions:

In the morning, we woke up and looked out upon the field of carnage. It was quiet. There was no shooting. The rye field was a mousy color from all the fallen Germans in their field gray uniforms. The corpses lay piled upon one another. It was another hot day. Our machine gun remained pointed toward the village to which the remnants of the trapped German force had retreated. By 11:00 a.m., a stench began rising into the air.

Reading Litvin’s extremely vivid memoir is not for everyone. His fluid descriptions of war events will make you feel the power of words like never before: the sounds, the smells, the colors and images – all of these will come to you bringing emotions of fear, and chaos, and moments of sobriety.

Another personal experience book was written by Herman Wouk. He ended up writing a series of novels, with the first one titled The Caine Mutiny. This Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel discusses the ethics of wartime decisions, mainly focusing on actions at sea. The story is based on Wouk’s war experience when he was assigned to a destroyer minesweeper in the Pacific, in World War II. The story is told by a young man, presumably the author’s alter ego. Reading this novel will direct your attention to the destinies of individual characters, all with real life problems that had nothing to do directly with war events, but had a lot to do with their identities. A great message comes to us through the novel:

Remember this, if you can–there is nothing, nothing more precious than time. You probably feel you have a measureless supply of it, but you haven’t. Wasted hours destroy your life just as surely at the beginning as at the end–only in the end it becomes more obvious.

So, don’t wait until you’re out of time in order to appreciate it.  

Many of us perceive the end of World War II as the day good prevailed, but only a few think about the aftermath of the war. One German author did, and his name was Hermann Broch. The letters (unfortunately, available only in German) he sent to his great friend Erich Kahler during and after World War II show what the world truly looked like from the perspective of a pacifist intellectual. Broch spoke about a topic that was not so widely discussed: how was Germany supposed to pick up the pieces after World War II? How is Europe going to continue with her life path, what will happen to the economy, how will we ever forgive what happened? Are we capable of forgiveness? Broch was among the intellectual Germans who protested against the Nazi regime. During the Nazi period, he was even arrested (for being a Jew and for being very open about his views), but he was rescued by the writer James Joyce and the group of people Joyce had gathered around him. Broch spoke about how to make Germany great again, in a peaceful and prosperous way. This golden Germany was destroyed by Hitler and his propaganda, and picking up the pieces afterwards was left to the intellectuals. They were the ones obligated to help those crushed by war (both their own countrymen and others), which was extremely unfair and seemed impossible to Broch. Broch, like his contemporaries, was shamefully stigmatized as a part of the nation that created fascism, despite the fact that intellectuals represented the first fighters against National Socialism, and all that is inhuman in general. The author asked a great question:

How can a man (any man, not only a German) get back on the path of progressive humanization?

Do you have an answer to Broch’s question? Maybe reading through these five books can help you gain a deeper realization of what World War II really meant and what it left behind.

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