Brookfield Basics

A column about history, culture, policy, and things in between.

Into Hitler's Europe

It hangs there in the closet - there in silent repose.

It hangs there, wishing it could tell us of the men that it knew; even as I gaze at it, wishing the very same thing.

It hangs as a silent metaphor of the man who wore it:  quiet, understated, strong.  I speak of the dress uniform of my father-in-law, who served in George Patton's Third Army, and participated in its epic, almost mythological dash across Europe.  The Third Amy's heroics would not have been possible without D-Day, sixty seven years ago today.  

In the Middle Ages entire centuries passed with little political, economic, or social change.  Conversely, it could  be argued that few periods in history have seen more geo-political upheaval than the relatively short time since D-Day.  Today the technology we carry in our pockets affords incredible power; but even as our capacity to learn of the past increases, our desire to do so seems to decrease in equal measure.  And combined with this, each day sees the passing of hundreds of World War Two Veterans, making it incumbent upon us to tell and re-tell their story.

Augustine told us in the 5th Century that it is the capacity for memory and reflection that sets man apart from the other creatures of the earth.  So let's take a few moments to remember............

Romanian-born American Elie Wiesel wrote of his ordeal in a Nazi concentration camp and titled his book, Night.  It is a hauntingly gripping work that tells the story of a soul plunged into a life-long shroud of darkness by the horrors it witnessed and endured.  June 6, 1944 saw the first rays of dawn penetrate the Krystal Nacht of Hitler's Third Reich, though it would be ten long months before the camps were liberated.

World War Two was such an enormous conflict that today, we can't even "get our minds right" about it, as the warden in Cool Hand Luke would have said.  What are we to say of a conflict that left fifty million casualties?  FIFTY MILLION.

Hitler rose to power through the perfect storm of world-wide economic gloom, the aftermath of a World War, political genius, and a race-based cocktail of propaganda and hatred.  Ignoring the explicit and repeated warnings of Winston Churchill, the leaders of Western Europe not only tolerated Hitler; they all but encouraged a strong Third Reich as a wall of Teutonic might to be erected between themselves and Bolshevism.  As long as his conquest-crazed eye turned eastard, to the endless steppes of Russa, France and Britain were comfortable.  They mollified him, and as Churchill scathingly observed in the wake of 1938's Austrian Anschulss and the rape of Checkoslovakia, "our leaders spend their weekends in the country, while Herr Hitler takes his countries on the weekends".

In 1939 the Austrian Corporal wearied of his diplomatic triumphs and released his Wermacht; the most innovative and superbly trained war machine the world had seen since the days of Alexander.  With battles that actually witnessed cavalry charges against mechanized vehicles, Poland fell in just three weeks.  Poland was to the east, and western Europe slept...........

But in May of 1940 Hitler, like Tolkien's dark lord Sauron, turned his gaze to the West.  Panzer General Heinz Guiderian led those same mechanized columns across the River Meuse, penetrated the Ardennes Forest, out-flanked the Maginot Line, and in six weeks, affixed the Swastika to the Eiffel Tower.  America was not yet in the War, and the free world looked to England which, protected by her Channel and the indomitable will of her Prime Minister, stood alone.  

Master of Continental Europe, Hitler then succumbed to the fatal tap root of megalomania - over reach.  Choosing the same date as Napoloen's ill-fated invasion of Russia, he unleashed Operation Barbarossa, the single largest military undertaking in history.  On June 22, 1941 the Wermacht lunged eastward, pouring across the Niemen River; three million men deployed across a twelve hundred mile front.  They would defeat and capture several Russian armies, but ultimately fall prey to over-extended supply lines, winter, and the superhuman efforts of Soviet resistance, defense, and counter attack.  Today we remember the names of Stalingrad, Leningrad, and Kursk; names carved irrevocably into the annals of warfare and human suffering.  And we remember the quote of Joseph Stalin, the other great monster of that era: "One death is a tragedy - a million deaths are a statistic".

One week ago we celebrated Memorial Day - a day given to remembering and honoring those who died in conflict.  Here in Brookfield's exquisite Oak Hill Cemetery, we have the remains of a Revolutionary War Veteran.  Today marks the rememberance of the above, and of the sacrifices paid by those who; like Churchill, resolved that "the odious apparatus of Nazi rule shall not stand".

The opening scenes of Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan depict a veteran and his family visiting the American Cemetery at Normandy.  Overcome by the assault waves of his emotion, the man collapses to the ground, his body convulsed with sobs.  Above him the enormous, over-arching American flags luft in the Channel breezes, keeping silent and faithful vigil over her fallen heroes.


And on this day we think of the men on Omaha beach.  And we try to imagine the staggering reality of standing in a Higgins boat, bobbing in the treacherous waves and currents of the Channel, and knowing that when that door dropped, there was nothing but a sheet of fire and death to greet them.  

And yet they did it.  

D-Day in America.

Let's put away our smart phones and our technology for a short while.

Let's take a minute or two - and just remember.

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