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C. A. Petuch
Knowing that many students are, and will continue to be, very much bored by the learning of historical facts, reading literature about World War II might be the perfect interdisciplinary approach to the teaching of World War II. History is, many times, taught by the memorization of dates and places, reading the chapter and answering the ten questions, and taking multiple choice examinations. By emphasizing the story part of history, the English teacher can serve many purposes.
First and foremost, the teaching of this unit should compliment the teaching of World War II in United States History classes. Reading literature about the war should facilitate the learning of those historical facts which are necessary.
Secondly, it gives the English teacher, who has a strong history background, or one who finds historically-based novels interesting, a chance to transfer this knowledge to his/her classes.
Finally, the unit intends to show the horrors of war, not only for the soldiers involved, but also for everyday people, and how they coped with the intrusion of the war upon their lives.
If not English teachers are like myself, they know little about the chronological events of WW II. Therefore, the following is a brief summary of the important events of WW II. It should be used by the teacher as general information which will be helpful in the successful teaching of this unit. After all, we must be sure who was fighting whom and for what reason!
In a little more than two weeks, Soviet Russian armies were collaborating with the Germans and occupied the eastern part of Poland. Poland’s allies France and Great Britain were powerless to help. They both were astounded by the swiftness of the Blitzkrieg and unprepared to cope with it. The Allies optimistically hoped their armies were safe and tended to overlook the lessons of the Blitzkrieg in Poland. They neglected to take special precautions. Consequently, Nazi Germany transferred forces from the east to the west and prepared to overwhelm France. At the same time, Mussolini was also denouncing France and claiming Corsica, Tunis, Savoy, and Nice as Fascist Italian territory.
Russia, meanwhile, made demands on three Baltic republics, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. They were in no position to resist and in July, 1940, all three countries were incorporated into the Soviet Union.
Russia continued by invading and occupying two Rumanian provinces. In turn, they were surrendered to the Soviet Union. Finland was next on the list. Demands were made upon the Finns for military and naval bases. These were met with resistance, which was surreptitiously aided by Sweden. But by March 1940, the Finns were worn down and surrendered. In April 1940, the Germans seized Denmark and launched an air and naval invasion of Norway. For a brief time, it seemed that Great Britain might be able to come to the rescue of Norway. But German air power proved to be too much for the British ships. On May 10, 1940, as a result of the fiasco of the British in Norway, Winston Churchill succeeded Neville Chamberlain as prime minister of Great Britain. On the very same day, the Germans launched an offensive against France. It was not an outright frontal attack; instead, the Germans surprise attacked through the neutral countries of Holland and Belgium. The resistance by these two countries did not last long. On May 27, the King of the Belgians surrendered.
The French, realizing their future, were confused and blocked not only by the Germans, but also by enormous numbers of civilian refugees. To worsen matters, Fascist Italy seized the opportunity to join Germany in the attack on France. Italy declared war on France on June 11; three days later the Germans occupied Paris. On June 21, 1940, French delegates signed an armistice. This registered the disastrous defeat of their country. (Hitler was caught dancing a jig on this occasion.) For those of you who like to prove a point with statistics, the Germans lost 25,000 soldiers and 70,000 wounded. They captured, killed or wounded more than two million French soldiers.
With the fall of France, Great Britain was left without allies with only the narrow waters of the British Channel as separation from Germany’s forces. Britain also had sustained the loss of the best part of its war equipment except for aircraft.
The Germans opened their air attack on coastal British towns on August 8, 1940 and in early September extended the attack to London. Until late spring of 1941, British cities were under continuous German air attack. More than 50,000 bombs fell on London alone. Coventry and many other ports and cities were badly battered by the German air attack. Some 40,000 persons were killed and those wounded numbered twice that.
Nonetheless, the air attack by Germany on Britain failed. The following are the most important reasons why the air attack failed. (1) Britain still had a sizeable defensive air force, which between 1940-41 knocked down 3,000 German planes but lost only a thousand themselves. Churchill, in a tribute to the British flyers said, “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.” Throughout, the British civilian showed his finest qualities. Their morale proved tough and firmly resistant. (3) Britain had important resources and manufacturing skills which enabled them to replace their losses. They also continued to receive invaluable assistance in the forms of men and supplies from overseas, especially Canada, New Zealand and Australia. (4) Britain also had an increasingly important source of supply in the United States. President Franklin D. Roosevelt gave “all aid short of war” to the British. (5) Germany was prevented from concentrating totally upon Great Britain by the diversion of other developments, one of which was finding out that Hitler’s Italian ally weak and so lacking in spirit that it required constant bolstering.
The later part of 1940 and the early part of 1941 saw Italian armies advancing in the North African province of Libya and in Ethiopia and launching an attack on Greece. In June of 1941, Hitler broke with Stalin and launched an invasion of Russia. A German war against Russia should have been brief and highly successful. But this sudden break had numerous repercussions. Churchill promised aid to anyone who fought against Nazidom. American communists, who had wished America to remain isolated, now called for all-out aid to Russia and Britain. Countries, which had been invaded by Russia, such as Finland and Rumania, actively supported Germany.
By November 1941, Moscow seemed to be on the verge of being captured by the Germans. It was an opportune time for Japan, an associate of the Axis, to make its drive for supremacy in Asia and the Pacific. On December 7, 1941, the Japanese surprise attacked Pearl Harbor, destroying a considerable part of the American fleet and winning temporary naval supremacy in the Pacific. On December 8, 1941, the United States and Great Britain declared war on Japan. Three days later, Germany and Italy declared war on the U. S.
By the end of 1941, the Japanese were threatening Burma. They had captured Guam and Wake Island from the Americans and Hong Kong from the British. A month later they had overrun most of Malaya and the Philippines.
Between January and March of 1942, the Japanese conquered Burma; in turn, this cut the main supply-route over the Burma Road to China. In Europe, the Germans met with stubborn resistance from the Russians. By the spring of 1942, however, they had recovered and were making new advances, though they still failed to take Leningrad and Moscow.
The farthest extension of Japanese conquests was reached in June 1942. In the naval battle of Midway, American fleet-based planes stopped a major Japanese thrust at Hawaii. In August, American Marines landed at Guadalcanal and held it despite repeated counter-attacks in the autumn.
Meanwhile, desert fighting was still taking place in North Africa, Egypt, and Tunis with the Anglo-American forces winning decisive victories. On July 9, 1943, the Anglo-American forces landed in Sicily and quickly overcame the Italian defense. This led to rumblings in the Fascist party; Mussolini was arrested and Marshal Badoglio was placed in charge of the government. He opened secret negotiations with the allies. The Germans, who were not caught napping, took over the defense of southern Italy.
As early as May and June of 1942, the British staged three raids on Cologne, Essen and Bremen and by early 1943 Germany was subjected to successive days of round-the-clock bombings. The bombings did not knock out Germany, but did produce shortages and paralyzed communication.
At the beginning of 1943, the Russians were also scoring notable successes. One German army was being held down at Stalingrad. The siege of Leningrad was broken, and in early March the threat to Moscow was practically ended.
By June 1944, the Russians had cleared the Nazis out of most of the territory held by the Soviet Union in 1938. On June 6, 1944, the very day on which the Germans evacuated Rome, American and British forces landed in France. This was the greatest water-born invasion in history.
By mid-September, it was obvious that the Allies were closing in upon Germany and that its defeat was only a matter of months. In early April, Hitler had made a decision to stay in Berlin to the end. On April 29, with Russian troops now fighting in the streets of Berlin, Hitler made his will. On April 30, after eating lunch, he retired to his room and a while later a shot was heard. Members of his personal staff found him lying on the sofa with a revolver by his side. He had shot himself through the mouth. Eva Braun, to whom he had been secretly married, lay dead beside him. She had taken poison. Their bodies were burned in the courtyard, with the sound of Russian guns in the background bringing the end of the Third Reich.
In Italy, on the order of a group of Italian communists, Mussolini and his mistress were seized trying to flee toward the Swiss border. They were taken out in a car and shot. Their bodies, along with others, were sent to Milan and strung up on meathooks in a gas station on the Piazzale Loreto. On May 2, Berlin fell. Allied victory was complete in Europe.
Victory in the Pacific over Japan was yet to be achieved. A large-scale invasion of Japan was planned for the autumn of 1945, but it proved to be unnecessary. By mid-summer, the Japanese started to feel that further fighting was futile. The final determinant was the dropping of two atomic bombs.
On August 6, 1945, one was dropped on Hiroshima and a second on August 9 on Nagasaki. The next day Japan offered to surrender. On August 14 1945, an agreement to surrender was made. This marked the end of World War II.
The cost of the war can never be accurately determined. To the American people alone, the immediate and direct cost of the war was over a million casualties, including nearly 400,000 deaths, and financial expenditure of approximately 350 billion dollars. The expenditure of other countries has been estimated at a trillion (1000 billion) dollars, while loss of property must run to another trillion, and of human lives into the millions.
Because of the number of countries involved in World War II, I have narrowed down my choice of novels to ones with universal interest. Teachers may substitute novels from the student bibliography to suit their interests.
I have chosen a novel to represent the following experiences: the Jewish experience in Poland, the British experience during the Blitz, the Japanese experience in Hiroshima and the German experience of those in Germany who opposed Hitler’s plans. The American GI experience will be addressed through the use of nonfiction selections written by journalists.
I will use the photography and artwork from the Time-Life World War II series to give the unit that “historical quality” it needs in order to be an interdisciplinary success. Needless to say, the artwork and photography could be used as a springboard for both discussions and written assignment.
As classroom materials, I will also include tapes of music associated with World War II and some speeches given by Winston Churchill.
After assessing the knowledge that your students have about WW II, continue the discussion by using photographs and artwork from the Time-Life World War II series or James Jones’ World War II to increase their interest. What student would not become interested in World War II after seeing Benito Mussolini, with bandaged nose, after a failed assassination attempt by a 62 year old Irish woman? She said she came to shoot Mussolini or the Pope; she got to Mussolini first. Mussolini capitalized on the incident by magnanimously ordering the woman freed and deported. What student would not be sardonically amused at viewing a series of photographs of Adolf Hitler practicing gesticulations which would produce the impact he wanted to impart during his speeches?
Once the students have become enticed with photographs and artwork, introduce the first novel, On the Other Side of the Gate by Yuri Suhl. This novel was inspired by an actual episode. It tells of the life of a Jewish couple in occupied Poland during World War II. Hershel and Lena Bregman are confined to a ghetto with the rest of the town’s Jews. Nazi authorities outlaw pregnancies in the ghetto so the couple’s first child, David, had to be delivered in secrecy. Only close relatives and a few trusted members of the ghetto’s underground know of little David’s existence.
When Nazi plans for deportation of the ghetto becomes known, the young couple need to find a way to smuggle David out of the ghetto. They find a sympathetic Polish family who is willing to shelter him. How this seemingly impossible plan is painstakingly realized will surely be enjoyed by students who read On the Other Side of the Gate.
To sustain the unit as interdisciplinary, emphasize points taken from the novel such as the following:
These historical facts, along with the suspense of smuggling little David to the other side of the gate, will surely be a successful beginning to the unit.
- a. The Jewish population probably believed, as brought out in the novel, that the world would not stand idly by and let this madman (Hitler) swallow up Poland. For its own protection, the world would stop him in his tracks. But the world only applauded the citizens of Warsaw for their brave stand behind the barricades. The world applauded, and Warsaw fell.
- b. Hershel reminds us how the Germans borrowed the idea of having the Jews wear armbands with the word JUDE sewn in the center of the Star of David. He explains that as far back as the thirteenth century, at the time of the crusades, Christian leaders decreed that Jews must wear some kind of badge on their clothing to mark them as outcasts. Three centuries later, one of the popes improved on that decree. Not only were the Jews of Rome compelled to wear yellow hats, but they were also forced to live in a ghetto.
- c. As an example of the way Jews were “transferred” to ghettos by the Germans, emphasize a typical method used in the novel. Posters were tacked up telling Jews they had 24 hours to get ready for the transfer. They were to appear at a certain location with their belongings. They could take with them whatever they could carry except furniture. In 24 hours the scene would be a stream of Jews hurrying, but making slow progress, toward the town square with their life-time possessions reduced to whatever their hands and backs could carry.
- ________In the case of the town in the novel, all of the town’s 2000 Jews were forced to live in the space of two and a half streets, which were enclosed with barbed wire to totally isolate the ghetto from the rest of the town and seemingly from the rest of the world. It was necessary to assign as many as six, eight, and even ten people to a single room.
- d. There is also an example of the way the Germans carried out an “action.” Four hundred Jews, mostly women, children and elderly, were dragged off to some unknown destination. To the Germans, they were known as “the nonproductive element.”
As a contrast to the portrayal of the Germans in On the Other Side of the Gate, the novel Dangerous Spring by Margot Benary-Isbert should be read and discussed next. It is the story of the Lorenz family. The story takes place during the last days of World War II in Germany. Karin, her brother Till, and their mother, Carola, flee their hometown of Erfurt which is in danger of being invaded by Allied troops. They reluctantly leave their father, Franze, behind. He is the town’s physician and feels it is his responsibility to remain behind to care for his patients. Because of Karin’s love for Helmut Lobelius, a minister in Eberstein, she finds fleeing her hometown to go to Eberstein a bit easier to take.
- 1. Students will write, as a journal entry, telling their thoughts and feeling on the eve of the “transfer.”
- 2. Students will write a paragraph explaining why they are taking a certain personal possession with them to the ghetto.
The novel shows how Germans, who did not agree with Hitler’s plans for Germany and his mistreatment of Jews, felt when they had to disown their feelings of what was morally correct. They had to be silent or be silenced. They were always in the position of being very careful to whom they were speaking and about what. As a strategy to presenting this novel, I would emphasize the character of Till. He was, at the beginning, an ardent supporter of Hitler. Till, a member of the Hitler Youth Movement, is prepared to support the Third Reich until the very end. His parents and his sister do nothing to try to dissuade Till’s ambitions even though they disagree with his views. The events that change Till’s mind about what Germany stands for under Hitler’s reign should be discussed in depth. Till not only realizes the horrible and unjust ways of the Third Reich, but also realizes that it was his youthfulness that made him fall prey to the attractiveness of the Nazi party at the time. This is the best way to contrast the Germans (the Lorenz family specifically) in Dangerous Spring to the Germans portrayed in On the Other Side of the Gate. Many students will probably be surprised to know that there were some caring and humane Germans during the war; not all agreed with Hitler’s tactics for supremacy in the world.
The novel also shows the Allied troops as being very considerate of the villagers during the invasion of Eberstein. Most students picture an invasion as being a “shoot ’em up” affair. Although I am sure most were, by emphasizing this type of invasion, one which takes the feelings and wishes of the people into consideration, it will certainly leave a lasting impression.
The third novel of this unit will address the British experience during the London Blitz. Fireweed by Jill Paton Walsh was chosen principally because it is about two adolescents who brave the Blitz together.
- 1. Students will write, in dialogue form, the conversation between Till and his sister, Karin, when he realizes how he has been misled by the propaganda. Students may expand upon the very short dialogue used in the novel.
- 2. Students will describe the invasion by the Allied troops as a journalist would. These papers can be used when discussing the style of those journalists they will be reading in the nonfiction section of the unit.
All children had been ordered evacuated from London during the Blitz. Bill had been with a group of young people who were evacuated to Wales, and Julie’s parents had put her on a ship bound for Canada. Both, feeling homesick, managed to make their way back to London, where they meet in an Underground Station. They join forces determined to avoid re-evacuation and separation.
Despite seeing London transformed by nightly bombings, Bill and Julie have a curiously happy time. Life seems almost pleasant. For the first time in their lives, they are alone, standing on their own feet. They epitomize the courage and resilience that was so typical of the British during the worst of times.
To keep this novel in the interdisciplinary vein, stress should be placed on the following episodes from the novel:
Along with all of these references to what the British really experienced during the Blitz, there is a very entertaining story-line about the relationship that develops between Bill and Julie. This novel tends to sneak in the real-life experiences without the reader realizing it.
- a. As Bill and Julie had experienced in the novel, during 1939 and 1940 a stream of reluctant “recruits” assembled on railway platforms waiting for transport. These recruits were school children who were being sent off to foster homes in rural and suburban areas. These foster homes were paid modest allowances for taking in London children. Despite the shock and hostility of first meetings of child and foster parent, the child-lift was generally a success. To further demonstrate the seriousness of the evacuation of children, photographs from the Time-Life series, The Battle of Britain volume, should be used.
- b. Road signs in Britain were removed to confuse possible invaders. British drivers turned out to be the only victims of this measure. In the novel, Bill and Julie are confused by the blacked out Underground Station signs and missing street signs.
- c. Britons were issued Anderson Bomb Shelters, as Bill’s aunt received. These shelters were prefabricated sections of steel that came with a bag of nuts and bolts and instructions for assembly. To show what they looked like, use the photographs in the Battle of Britain volume mentioned earlier.
- d. The Royal Engineers’ bomb disposal squad defused many delayed action bombs that gouged craters into London’s streets and houses. Disarming these bombs called for courage and iron-like nerves since the bomb’ s timing device could trigger an explosion at any moment. Julie and Bill come upon many barricades with signs reading “Danger Unexploded Bomb.” Bill’s aunt’s house had an unexploded bomb lodged against the kitchen windowsill, under which our two adventuresome characters creep to retrieve some of Bill’s possessions.
- e. As I have mentioned in the WW II summary section of the unit, the British civilians showed some of their finest qualities during the Blitz. There are many examples in the novel, Fireweed, which show their courage, their character and their resilient morale. Cite some of the more impressive actions of the British. For example, even though shops were fronted with boards instead of glass, there were “Business as Usual” signs proudly displayed. The people of London, although frightened and tired, were still friendly, talking, and sometimes singing and dancing in the Underground Stations during air-raids. An unforgettable scene from the novel, witnessed by Bill and Julie, was a woman scrubbing her doorstep and asking about the milkman. That sounds quite ordinary until one reads the description of her house. Every window in the house was blown in and the door was blasted from its hinges. They persisted absurdly in the same routineness when everything around them was changed. Students will be amused by the proud statement of a bus conductor, whose bus windows are blown out, but says that they should tell “bloody ’Itler” that the buses are still on time. Another typical scene to cite would be the streets full of bowler-hatted men carrying their black umbrellas going to work, stepping gingerly over firehoses and around craters.
It seemed logical chronologically to place Hiroshima, by John Hersey, last in the novel section. Hiroshima, since it is a brilliant piece of journalism, is also a perfect way to introduce the nonfiction that will end the unit.
- 1. Show examples of British advertising and morale-boosting posters such as the ones in The Battle of Britain volume. Students will invent their own slogans.
Not only is Hiroshima the story of six human beings who lived through the first atom bomb, but it also presents the story in a non-judgmental way. Hersey reports the events as they happened before, during and after the bomb was dropped.
The best way to approach this piece of writing is to have the students read it as a homework assignment. Each student will write down anything they would like to discuss. Many interesting discussions should develop from their notetaking. Teachers may want to emphasize particularly the way Hersey ends Hiroshima. What better impression can be made than by reading aloud the last paragraph. The matter-of-fact school essay written by Toshis Nakamura, who was ten at the time of the bombing, will leave a lasting impression.
To conclude the unit, I have chosen some nonfiction written by journalists covering the war. They are taken from the book They Were There edited by Curt Riess.
Because there are so many good pieces of writing in this book and also because I have not used a work pertaining to the American experience in WW II, I have chosen works from the “United States at War” section only. They were also chosen because they are first-hand accounts of being in a battle-zone. I have chosen “Manila” by Clark Lee, “We have done our best” by Carlos P. Romulo, “City in Prison” by Joseph Alsop, Jr., and “Augery of Death” by Raymond Clapper. Teachers of history may want to choose one essay from each section of the book to project a well-rounded view.
In addition to reading and discussing these works, the role and responsibilities of a journalist could be discussed. Students could try their hands at writing nonfiction. A good exercise in journalistic writing could be to have the students write an account as an American journalist would as opposed to the way a foreign correspondent would report the same incident.
Boulle, Pierre, The Bridge Over the River Kwai, Vanguard Bantam paperback, 1954. Colonel Nicholson, compelled to build a bridge by his Japanese captors, so loved his masterpiece that he could not contemplate its destruction even by his own countrymen.
Brinkley, William, The Ninety and Nine, Doubleday, 1960 (nonfiction). Adventures on a LST, including the transporting of supplies, nurses, refugees and German prisoners.
Cowan, Lore, Children of the Resistance. True accounts of teenagers in the underground resistance against Nazis.
David, Janina, A Square of Sky: Recollections of my Childhood, Norton Publishing Co., 1966: (biography) A moving memoir that pictures the German invasion of Poland and the four years she spent as a Jewish child amid the horrors of the Warsaw ghetto.
Donovan, Robert J., PT 109: John F. Kennedy in WW II, McGraw, Crest paperback, 1961. (nonfiction) When John Kennedy’s PT boat was hit by a Japanese destroyer in the South Pacific, he was able, by almost superhuman effort, to get his crew safely ashore and eventually rescued.
Houston, Watatsuki, Jeanne and James B. Houston, Farewell To Manzanar. A Japanese-American family during WW II attempt to survive in a detention camp.
Lawson, Ted, Thirty Seconds over Tokyo, Random, 1953. (nonfiction) This is a first-hand account of the Doolittle raid over Tokyo. It describes the secret preparations, the raid itself, and the unbelievable adventures of the surviving Americans.
Time-Life World War II series. A combination of prose and very good photography.
Westheimer, David, Von Ryan’s Express, Doubleday, 1964. An American martinet escaped from an Italian prisoner of war camp during WW II and led to freedom the men he had formerly treated harshly.
Wouk, Herman, The Caine Mutiny, Doubleday, 1951. In WW II a young Willie Keith served a year aboard the old minesweeper Caine, under the tyrannical Captain Queeg and emerged commander of his shop and master of himself.
Zarubica, Mladin, The Year of the Rat, Harcourt, 1964. Spellbinding true saga of a dangerous masquerade by Allied intelligence to drop false plans into Nazi hands during WW II.
Reiss, Johanna, The Upstairs Room. A young Jewish girl and her sister are forced into hiding during Hitler’s reign.
ten Boom, Corrie, The Hiding Place. The novel is the author’s experiences hiding Jewish refugees during the Nazi occupation of Holland.
Tregaskis, Richard, Guadalcanal Diary, Random, 1943. (nonfiction) Tregaskis records the thoughts, feelings and actions of the men who fought inch by inch to recover Guadalcanal from the Japanese.
Tunis, John R. Silence over Dunkerque, Morrow, 1962,Berkeley. Aided by the French underground, an English soldier caught up in the German occupation of France tried to return home.
Werstein, Irving, The Long Escape, Scribner, 1964. All the horrors of war were seen by Nurse Justine Raymond and her 50 sick children as they made their way to Dunkerque after Hitler’s devastating attack on Belgium.
World War II-Artwork photography and excellent prose.
Kuznetsov, Anatoly Petrovich, Babi Yar, translated by Jacob Guralsky, Dial 1971. This documentary novel describes the German occupation of Kiev in 1941 as seen through the eyes of a Ukranian boy who witnessed Nazi barbarity and the mysterious disappearance of thousands of the city’s Jews.
MacLean, Alistair, Guns of Navarone, Doubleday, 1956. Five British soldiers invaded a Greek island to silence guns keeping 1200 fellow soldiers pinned down on a neighboring island. Taut, exciting, good characterization.
Montagu, Ewen, The Man Who Never Was, Lippincott, 1954. Faked documents planted on the corpse of an unknown Englishman during WW II fooled the Germans into withdrawing troops from a strategic position.
Riess, Curt, They Were There. An excellent collection of nonfiction pieces written by journalists. Can be used in both English and History classes.
Ryan, Cornelius, The Last Battle, Simon, 1966. (nonfiction) Exciting and readable narrative of the 21 days prior to the fall of Berlin in 1945.
Silva, Anil de and Otto Von Simson, editors, Man through his Art Volume I: War and Peace. N.Y. Graphic Society, 1964. (nonfiction) Through excellent reproductions and a lucid text this book develops the universal theme of war and peace as depicted in the language of painting, sculpture and architecture.
Thermo-fax copies of the nonfiction selections.
Tape of Winston Churchill’s speeches.
Tape of music associated with World War II.
Time-Life World War II series
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