Broke, USA; From Pawnshops to Poverty, Inc.

Broke, USA; From Pawnshops to Poverty, Inc. – How the Working Poor Became Big Business by Gary Rivlin, Harper Collins, 2011, paper.

 

This is an impressive example of investigative journalism. In past times we would have called it muckraking. Gary Rivlin has investigated the myriad of companies whose business it is to loan money to the less well-off. Pay-day loans, pawnshops, check cashing, rent-to-own, the cash-in-advance tax return business, the second mortgage market, and used auto-loan financing are categories of enterprises in the poverty business. And the companies described in Broke, USA are all over our town, though more commonly in east Gainesville.

 

It is also true, and he admits this, that these businesses provide a service to their customers. Not everyone has an uncle or aunt who will spot them for $500 until the next paycheck. Moreover, these companies are often in lieu of branch banking, which has generally vacated the poorer areas of our cities. It is estimated that seventeen million Americans no longer have bank accounts. So they need to obtain financial services including that small loan to tide them over until the next paycheck,

 

Rivlin describes a number of ironies.  For example, the tax refund anticipation loan business profited from the earned income tax credit inaugurated by the Nixon Administration as part of its welfare reform. Rather than making direct payments, welfare recipients are given a tax credit. A family with two children and less than a stipulated annual income receives a tax credit. H & R Block would happily loan that in advance of their tax return, but at a substantial interest rate. The tax credit for health insurance that is part of the recent overhaul of healthcare will also profit the tax-anticipation business.

 

Broke, USA. points out that many of the poverty industry’s “victims” are middle-class Americans, but living from paycheck to paycheck and occasionally using these lenders to solve short-run liquidity problems. They could resort to short-term borrowing from a bank via their Visa Card. And be charged much higher effective interest rates than does Advance America, a leading company in the payday loan business. Gasp, a bounced check of $100.00, subject to a $35.00 bank overdraft charge, is equivalent to a short term loan carrying a 910% interest, if made good in two weeks.

 

Rivlin was at first swayed by the arguments for these new financial institutions. But the more he thought about the situation, the more confident he became about the exploitive nature of subprime lending. He argues persuasively that there has been an “unmooring” of interest rates from any calculation of risks. Most of the working poor manage their debt and are not substantially greater risks than the rest of us, he claims.

 

One of the heroes of Rivlin’s book, Martin Eakes, started a company in North Carolina that makes affordable loans to people purchasing homes, and his company can make a go of it at 1 to 2% points above the going interest rate. He looks for borrowers who have proven to be hard workers with secure jobs and not buying a home beyond their means. An insider and vehement critic of the poverty industry, the MacArthur Foundation gave him one of their genius awards.

 

Eakes and Rivlin aren’t happy with the big banks. NationsBank, First Union, Citigroup, Bank of America, and others became involved in subprime lending, securitizing its financial products with disastrous results. That involvement has provided another good reason to enact substantial financial regulations. One useful beginning is the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau which President Obama has created. Also many the states’ Attorneys General are taking an interest. And the big banks may eventually bring some greater integrity to the subprime enterprise. At least they can be more easily shamed.

 

On the other hand, the problem may grow if real incomes of middle class Americans continue to shrink as they have in recent years. We would like to hope that Americans will, nevertheless, begin to put away some savings for a rainy day and be less dependent upon short-term, expensive credit. But that depends on their earning a decent wage and being given a decent interest rate.

 

 

Forgotten Wars; Freedom and Revolution in Southeast Asia

Forgotten Wars; Freedom and Revolution in Southeast Asia by Christopher Bayly & Tim Harper.  Harvard University Press, 2010, paper.

This is a sequel to their Forgotten Armies; Britain’s Asian Empire and the War with Japan. After the Japanese surrendered in August 1945 the British reoccupied the Southeast Asian crescent stretching from the eastern provinces of British India to Singapore. By 1945 it was clear that the ‘jewel of the British crown’ – India – would soon be independent and a replacement anchor was needed. The Malayan Peninsula, with its rubber, tin, timber and other resources could take on that role. But there were problems.

The British and their Empire had made an inglorious exit after Singapore fell to the Japanese in 1941. Posing as a liberator, Tokyo had talked about extending its Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, which it claimed would end the European grip on the crescent’s economies. Part propaganda, part planning mechanism, it was soon set aside and the occupation became a matter of brutality and plunder. The Japanese did, however, create ‘puppet’ national regimes composed of Malaya and Burmese ‘collaborators.’

The Japanese occupation had unleashed forces that could not easily be tucked back into the box of pre-war colonial society. Moreover, as Bayly and Harper note, Britain, in 1945, was in no position to recapture its Southeast Asian empire. With no British army available, the reoccupation depended upon the Indian Army. Officered mostly by Europeans with the ranks drawn from the subcontinent’s ‘martial’ provinces, the Indian army would, however, also not be available after Indian and Pakistani independence.

Initially the Allied Land Forces, South East Asia, commanded by Louis Mountbatten, faced little armed military opposition as they rolled through the Malayan peninsula, but encountered no end of difficulties. The most immediate was the 630,000 Japanese occupation troop, housed in temporary detention camps, awaiting their repatriation to Japan.

Mountbatten had also to deal with the Indian National Army which had fought alongside the Japanese. Indians living in Malaya argued, however, that the Indian National Army had safeguarded them when Britain had skedaddled. Malayan collaborators had to be rounded up, and European colonials, just liberated from internment camps, were demanding revenge. Various resistance groups based on ethnicity had arisen during the Japanese occupation that now claimed the right to self-determination. Finally there was extensive damage done by the war that had to be repaired to get the county up and running.

The Chinese were the largest non-Malayan ethnic group. They dominated the labor force laboring on the rubber plantations and in the mines. To cope with the food shortages during and after the war, many Chinese laborers had hacked out small farms on the British-owned plantations and the forest reserves to provide food for their families. Now they were organizing themselves into bands to protect those holdings.

They were said to be communists. At least that was the judgment of the various British and American intelligence agencies. The continued insurgency in Malaya was one of the ‘dominos’ which President Eisenhower described in a news conference in April 1954. His argument was that if one country in the region came under the influence of the communists, the adjoining countries would subsequently fall in a domino effect. Thus China and India at either end and the smaller states, Korea, Indochina, Thailand, Malaya,  Indonesia, and Burma in between. And there was Winston Churchill saluting Eisenhower’s clarity.

The British have been given credit for defeating the ‘communist insurgency’ in Malaya. Bayly & Harper have a more nuanced version of that ‘triumph.’ It involved moving rebels and their families into detention camps, not unlike the notorious concentration camps of the Boer War in South Africa. That was accompanied by what would now be called a “winning hearts and minds” policy.

Think more recently experiments with this policy in such places as Iraq and Afghanistan.

Where Men Hide

Where Men Hide by James Twitchell and Ken Ross, photographs. Columbia University Press, 2008 paper.

 

James Twitchell, UF, is reflecting on Ken Ross’s photographs of men’s hiding places. Twitchell looks at traditional men’s lairs, their disappearance, the possible reasons why, and then proposes some newer ones. He argues, however, that these newer hiding places have less power to shape male cultural life than did the older.

 

Perhaps the most striking ‘male cave’ of old was the fraternal order, the Masons, Odd Fellows, Elks, Order of Moose, Knights of Columbus, Woodmen of America, to name the most popular. They gave opportunities to get away from both the job and family life. Twitchell agrees with Robert Putnam (Bowling Alone) that their passing represents a significant loss of male community.

 

The causes of their demise are complex. American men are working longer hours. And in their free time, they have been induced to spend more “quality time with their families.” They have found a more convenient ‘retreat,’ their La-Z-Boy recliner located in front of the television set.

 

In recent decades barbershops have been transformed into “hair styling salons” and are often bisexual. They were once a male hiding place, providing opportunities for loafing and for convivial conversations across varying backgrounds. The only women who ventured into those barbershops were mothers bringing their sons for a first haircut.

 

On the other hand, Twitchell notes that home workshops continue their popularity as hiding places. The inhabitants of these warrens may be leisurely restoring an old car or making furniture. More commonly workshops are equipped to undertake home repairs. The do-it-yourself craze does not, however, account for the elaborate work-benches and collections of specialized tools there lovingly displayed.

 

The home office as hiding place? That would seem a contradiction. Men cannot be escaping from either home or office by retreating to their home/office. Yet hideouts they are despite their smart phones and internet connections.

 

Getting away from both home and office on wheels has been a form of hiding, Twitchell reminds us. The open road has always beckoned the man on his motorcycle. Sports utility vehicles? Yes and no. When first introduced in the 1970s, SUVs were presented in ads as opportunities for males to strike out by themselves. A SUV could take on any back road and even go off-road in quest of adventure and escape. But nowadays the SUVs and their drivers have been domesticated. Moms find them convenient for hauling kids to soccer.

 

One of the newer hiding places, Twitchell proposes, is the phenomenon of men’s religious organizations, for example the Promise Keepers and their stadium rallies. Menfolk have never regularly attended church in the same numbers as women. In order to induce them to do so, mega-churches have explored the male-only prayer meetings. This may be an instance of men hiding out, but this men-only worship and the place in which it occurs is hardly hidden.

 

These men’s groups are intended to ‘keep the faith,’ while perpetuating traditional notions of maleness. The Promise Keepers encourage men to share life’s experiences with other men, and in that way they resemble older occasions when men hid. Yes, they provide opportunities for male bonding, but not at the expense of their wives and children. Family values are part of their credo. For good or ill, the movement, and therefore this particular hiding place, has lost steam in the new century.

 

Is the disappearance of men’s hiding places the result of a prolonged assault on the part of women? If so, Twitchell believes, this is only indirectly so. Rather the male cave is disappearing because the male, who once found hiding out essential for maintaining his peace of mind, is perhaps finding it less necessary – and certainly less possible

 

 

The Songs That Fought the War.

The Songs That Fought the War; Popular Music and the Home Front, 1939-1945 by John Bush Jones.  Brandeis University Press, 2006.

In 1941, just before our entry into World War II, the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers, on behalf of its membership, attempted to double its licensing fees. Nightclubs, theaters, dance halls, and radio stations that featured live musical performances paid a licensing fee for the songs they performed. Radio broadcasters – NBC, CBS, and their affiliates – responded with a boycott of all songs that ASCAP controlled, and the agency and its composers lost the battle.

Less than a year later the American Federation of Musicians barred its members from making recordings of popular songs to be replayed in these venues. AFM hoped to preserve the jobs of the thousands of musicians employed by radio stations and did help keep live performance alive and well.

Meanwhile song writers kept writing new songs.

 

Local radio stations of any size had a band that “plugged” popular songs, playing their own arrangements. Numerous bands and vocalists performed in nightclubs, and those live performances were often broadcast over the radio networks. There were numerous network variety shows as well, the most popular being ‘Your Hit Parade’. Broadway musicals of the day incorporated popular songs. Films were an important opportunity for song writers, musicians, and singers. Sheet music sales were still a measure of a song’s popularity. The recording industry and the thousands of juke boxes around the country that played those records were, of course, also a major part of any record’s success.

 

John Bush Jones’s entertaining book explains this enormous achievement of wartime popular music. He contends that the war years were “happy” times despite the carnage abroad. The country was remarkably united and prosperous. There was a mood of cultural excitement and participation. Oddly Jones also shows that a good portion of the songs which had wartime themes were about loneliness and separation. “I’ll Walk Alone,” “Saturday Night is the Loneliest Night of the Week,” and “You’ll Never Know” are three of many. Christmas brought out this mood. Hence Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas,” was the most popular of all the songs that fought the war. “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” and “Have Yourself a Merry, Merry Christmas” had similar themes.

 

Sixteen million American men and women served in the armed forces, out of a population of 130 million. And millions more moved to find work in defense industries. The social angst that would seemly have been the result of both displacements was eased with lighted-hearted, up-beat songs. Thus “Mairzy Doats” and “Ac-cent-tchu-ate the Positive.”

 

Some of the jobs in the defense industries were held by African-Americans. And they also made their contribution to Tin Pan Alley. “Ain’t Misbehaven,’” “Honeysuckle Rose,” and ”Shoo-Shoo Baby” were three. The Andrew Sisters made a big hit out of “Shoo-Shoo Baby.”

 

Concerned about the country’s morale, the Office of War Information wanted songs with patriotic themes. It welcomed those about boot camp and army life that were amusing without being critical. Songs about combat deaths and men who would never return, were taboo, of course. There was little formal censorship, however. Most of this restraint was self-imposed. Country-western song writers, Jones contends, were the more likely to venture into proscribed themes.

 

The OWI was looking for a one single war song that would match the great success of “Over There” in World War I. WWII never produced one, although two songs came close: “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition” and the service song “The Army Air Corps.” “God Bless America,” all about American exceptionalism, surprisingly never did.

 

Axis-bashing was common, though generally good-natured. Jones quotes Carson Robison’s “Hitler’s Last Letter to Hirohito;” Hitler is offering Hirohito some tips that would help him have a good day. “Why don’t you review your great navy? / ‘Twill boost your morale, I am sure. / Just borrow a suit from a diver, / and you’ll have an int’resting tour.” Japan’s navy had largely been sunk in the battles of the Coral Sea and Midway.

 

Only six when the war ended, I have been puzzled about why I know so many of these songs so well. It turns out that school children in Garwin, Iowa at least continued to sing the songs that fought the war well into the 1950s. I wish my music teacher had played some good boogie-woogie on the school piano. She could have led us in “The Boogie-Woogie Bugle Boy (of Company B).”

 

The war years had a rich popular culture, and they seem to have been blessed with more than their share of memorable tunes.

 

 

Embracing Defeat; Japan in the Wake of World War II

Embracing Defeat; Japan in the Wake of World War II by John Dower. W.W. Norton, 2010, paper. (835)

 

On 15 August 1945 Emperor Hirohito announced Japan’s capitulation via Japanese radio. Two weeks later the Supreme Command Allied Powers began an occupation that would last until April 1952. Most of the officials who administered occupied Japan were American. There were never more than 3200 of them, plus an occupying military force. John Dower argues that while the end result of our occupation was a post-war Japan of remarkable vitality, the means where by that was accomplished were flawed.

 

When General Douglas MacArthur was fired during the Korean War, he left Tokyo to Japanese acclaim. But for the seven years of his administration, this hero reigned as a paternalistic dictator, or in terms of Japanese history an all-powerful shogun.

 

Japan was destitute. The bombing of Japanese cities had created millions of homeless. Japan’s industrial economy was shattered as was its transportation system. Cut off from its traditional sources of food and its merchant marine sunk, starvation now stalked the land. In 1946 the inflation rate was 539% and still 256% in 1949. There were 6.5 million Japanese soldiers and civilians stranded in East, Southeast, and Pacific Asia. Most families had a father, son, or brother either missing or dead. Many Japanese civilians suffered from what was called the kyodatsu condition – despair and exhaustion.

 

The Potsdam Declaration had determined that the American occupying force should destroy the basis of Japan’s militarism, ultra-nationalism, and feudal elements and build the basis for a democratic future. With this mandate the American occupation introduced a “revolution from above.” One of the earliest reforms was MacArthur’s proclamation of universal suffrage before the first postwar election in April 1947.

 

The end of the military dictatorship produced what John Dower calls a “new social space,” characterized by openness, and personal freedom. It provoked a flourishing of literature and film, and a public that relished this new ‘brightness.’ It also gave rise to a rambunctious mixture of overlapping subcultures, including the all-pervasive black markets, and panpan – prostitution. The latter was intended to serve American servicemen, oversexed the Japanese thought.

 

One of the most remarkable amongst the many interesting stories in Embracing Defeat was the drafting of a new constitution for Japan. Several Japanese attempts had failed, and characteristically MacArthur made the unilateral decision to appoint a drafting committee drawn from civilian talent then serving in the army of occupation. MacArthur gave the committee a week to finish its work. The proceedings of this ‘constitutional convention’ were in English as was the final document, followed by a “translation marathon.”

 

What do you tell the dead when you have lost a war? Dower compares the ‘community of remorse’ to that of the ancient Greek tribute to its fallen heroes. Victors can comfort their grieving by claiming that the outcome of the war – the good war – is partial recompense. The vanquished must celebrate less glorious outcomes.

 

Surprisingly one trope was that the war dead represented a ‘sacrificial atonement for the crimes of the nation.’ But this sacrifice could not be praised. Censorship by the occupation forces excluded this and a long list of other topics. Among them: criticism of SCAP and the occupation forces; criticism of Great Britain, or Russia; criticism of pre-war Allied behavior toward Japan; fraternization of Allied personnel with Japanese women; and the divine descent of the emperor.

 

Dower is much interested in the fate of Emperor Hirohito. General MacArthur protected the throne, reasoning that after its ‘dry cleaning’, the institution of the Emperor would become a rallying point for post-war Japan. The trouble was that the Emperor had participated in the planning and execution of Japan’s ‘Great East Asia War,’ including the attack on Pearl Harbor. And General Eisenhower had told MacArthur to include an investigation of the Emperor’s role, with his possible inclusion in the Tokyo trials of Japanese war criminals.

 

MacArthur basically ignored that command. He chose instead to bring to trial a selection of the war-time Imperial Cabinet and the army leadership. Tōjō Hideki became perhaps the most notorious war criminal to be tried. He did not implicate his Emperor.

 

The general who was responsible for the Bataan Death March escaped a trial. He had made himself useful to the Nationalist Chinese in their war with the Chinese Communists. Indeed the “loss of China” and the Cold War cast their shadows over the trials and the American occupation in many ways. Americans in Japan came to appreciate Japan as a potential ally against Mao’s China and the Stalin’s Russia.

 

The book has only a brief mention of one of the most remarkable creations of the occupation. The economic planners, mostly Japanese, decided to foster a cutting-edge economy. Stagnant for the first decade or so after the war, Japanese manufacturing took off. An envious America and Europe eventually talked about “Japan as Number One.” Japan became a wealthy economy with a lot of consumer confidence and with a more equitable distribution of that wealth than was true of the victors’ postwar economies.

 

Fast Food; Roadside Restaurants in the Automobile Age

Fast Food; Roadside Restaurants in the Automobile Age by John Jakle & Keith Sculle, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002, paper.

 

The authors explore how corporate America has created various formulas for the businesses that dominate the American roadside. They call the formula ‘place – product – packaging.’ Fast-food restaurants with multiple locations, the subject of this book, are the result of an integration of programmatic architecture, interior decorating, the standardized products and services for sale, and their regimented operating procedures.

 

‘Place – product – packaging’ is a manifestation of the American consumer’s dependence on branded products. But it needs to be noted that the expansion of the interstate system after the Federal Highway Act of 1956 both nourished our automobile age and created a new opportunity for American restaurant entrepreneurs.

 

The present-day roadside quick-eating restaurants, John Jakle and Keith Schlle suggest, had precedents, which many of us are old enough to remember. Most originated in America’s ‘downtowns.’ Soda fountains, luncheonettes, lunchrooms, cafeterias, and diners have mostly disappeared along with those downtowns.  When young I can remember tearooms usually in private homes along highways. High school in the early 1950s would not have been the same without carhops and drive-ins to feed hungry teen-agers after a movie at the drive-in theater.

 

The authors describe how these types of eateries metamorphosed into fast-food chains. White Castle diners were one of the earliest. Their smallish, rather greasy hamburgers were eventually replaced by a better product dished up by MacDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, Hardee’s, Checker’s, Krystal Restaurants, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Subway, Chick-fil-A, Sonic Drive-In, Whataburger, and others. Mexican, I give up! Pizza, I give up!

 

Two of them, Sonic Drive-In and Whataburger closed within a year of their opening in Gainesville and sat for a long time forlorn and empty. That brings up a problem which the authors don’t mention: These themed buildings and their chain-specific interior décor do not recycle well.

 

It takes three chapters of Jakle and Sculle’s book to get through the progress of the hamburger. There follow chapters on sandwich, ice cream, breakfast, chicken, seafood, pizza, and taco shops, with lots said about singularities, but also their similarities.

 

The authors trace ice cream parlors back to portable stands that would motor over to factory gates at lunchtime, schools letting out, and football fans returning from a sunny stadium. Those portable stands led to Diary Queens. The old Howard Johnson’s Ice Cream and Coffee Shop, found at one time along many a ‘blue highway,’ had “28 flavors” of ice cream. The Howard Johnson’s have been replaced by Häagen Das, Ben & Jerry’s, Baskin Robins, and TCBY. And competing with all of them in Gainesville, thank you, is our own Sweet Dreams.

 

One similarity amongst these different eateries is the use of franchising. Though initially mostly ownership chains, the rapid expansion of roadside fast-food was facilitated by local investors. There was a range of services and obligations demanded of both sides to a franchise agreement. The chain would obtain both a source of venture capital and a local owner-manager. The franchisee would secure a known branded product and a good start in the fast-food business. He was often required to obtain his supplies from the chain’s commissary.

 

Not all roadside restaurants were about quick service. Some have gone upscale to create the “destination restaurant.” Like their fast-food neighbors, they are ‘casual’ or ‘family oriented’ but they offer a more varied and expensive menu. The largest destination restaurants in terms of units as of the late 1990s were Applebee’s T.G.I. Friday’s, Chili’s, Ruby Tuesday, and Hooters.

 

Several of these were once in our Oaks Mall. Is the Oaks Mall to be considered a road-side place or a transplanted downtown? In terms of their suite of restaurants, I would say the former.

 

Fast Food was published in 2002, and some quick food places that cater to Americans-on-the-go are not included. Sports bars are not mentioned, which are common along airport concourses, a more recent version of the American roadside. There is overlap between roadsides and concourses. Vending machines are appearing in airport concourses, an interesting throwback to the automats of bygone years.

 

The authors contend that the roadside is a place. They have provided the reader with an interesting tour of its precincts.

 

That Neutral Island; A Cultural History of Ireland During the Second World War

That Neutral Island; A Cultural History of Ireland During the Second World War by Clair Wills. Harvard University Press. 2007

 

Eamon de Valera, president of Ireland from 1932 and 1948, made the decision to keep Ireland neutral after Britain declared war on Germany in 1939. He was supported in this decision by most Irish politicians and a good majority of the public. Yet Clair Wills suggests that it remains a festering historical issue.

 

De Valera had been a critic of the “victor’s peace” dictated to Germany at Versailles in 1918. He had become disillusioned with the League of Nation after it failed to respond to Italy’s invasion of Abyssinia. It would have been impossible for any Irish statesman to have imposed on Ireland an active participation in the war; 1939 was only a few years beyond the Irish rebellion against Imperial Britain and civil war between Irish republicans and unionists. Not to stir up that hornet’s nest! There was also the very practical reason that Ireland lacked both an army and coastal defenses.

 

Small nations, De Valera, believed had the right to make decisions about entering this great-power war. At least until the summer of 1940, he could argue that Germany was respecting that decision. Neutrality was the popular choice across the Channel. Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg, Scandinavia, most of the Balkans, Portugal, Spain, and Switzerland had remained neutral. The USA had also remained neutral; Irish-Americans were divided on the issue.

 

Irish neutrality, Wills maintains, was a pragmatic, inevitable, and difficult response to war on the continent. And ultimately it was also successful. But that is not how both Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt viewed it at the time. Rather the Irish were shirking their responsibility as good Europeans. More specifically, they worried that the Germans would invade neutral Ireland to strike at England’s west Coast, avoiding the more difficult cross-channel invasion.

 

From the spring of 1940 until the invasion of Russia in June, 1941, Germany carried on an extensive aerial bombardment of RAF factories and installations in preparation for an invasion of Britain. That included Belfast in north Ireland. The Irish were shocked; in 1940 north Ireland was still considered part the Irish republic, though under temporary English occupation. The war came home to Irish living in the communities on its west coast in another way. Bodies of dead seamen began washing up on shore, the result of German submarine warfare against ships bringing supplies to England. And Ireland.

 

While Sweden and Switzerland may have profited from their neutrality, Ireland did not. That was because, Wills points out, Ireland was dependent on imports of food, most of the raw materials that fed its young industries, and coal to produce electricity and heat homes. Shortages produced price increases which made available food stuffs too expensive for the rural and city poor.

 

With high unemployment particularly in the western counties, many young Irishmen sought employment in Britain, building English factories, landing strips, coastal defenses, and army bases. They weren’t all that well treated by Brits. But they found the pay good and they were fed.

 

Wills contends that the severity of newspaper and radio censorship heightened a sense of isolation from events in Europe. As part of their neutrality, incoming news about the war had to be “balanced.” Movies were hugely popular. But most films came from the US or Britain and had to be heavily censored so as not to appear to be Allied propaganda.

 

Many Irishmen, Wills argues, thought this isolation a boon to Irish arts, long dominated from abroad. Prewar Ireland was stuck in what would today be called the post-colonial mind set. In the absence of British, French, and American cultural

production, Irish drama and the short story flourished, finding new audiences among Ireland’s educated classes.

 

There were those who advocated the establishment of a corporatist society. Benito Mussolini in Italy, Francisco Franco in Spain, and particularly António Salazar in Portugal were admired for their social experimentation. Irish conservatives resonated to their rhetoric of order and social harmony.

 

Much of the Roman Catholic clergy joined in that enthusiasm, attacking the individualism and materialism of popular culture in Europe and America. Ireland would be a force in the rejuvenation and re-Christianization of Europe after the war. Thus the pragmatic decision for neutrality acquired a moral virtue.

Such a good book.

A Stranger to Myself; The Inhumanity of War; Russia, 1941 to 1944

A Stranger to Myself; The Inhumanity of War; Russia, 1941 to 1944 by Willy Peter Reese, Stefan Schmitz, ed. & Michael Hofmann, trans. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005 paper.

A Stranger to Myself is a powerful book. Willy Peter Reese was a young German who served on the Russian front from the autumn of 1942 until he was reported missing in action in June of 1944.

Reese’s memoir of his experience was kept by his parents as a shrine to his memory. A cousin realized its extraordinary literary quality and spent years deciphering his handwriting. The book was published in Germany in 2003, almost sixty years after Reese’s death, and became a bestseller. The English translation by UF’s Michael Hofmann followed by several years.

There have been few memoirs of Germany soldiers who served on the Russian front. This is explained in the preface as an unwillingness on the part of post-war Germans to confront its horrors. It took the distance of sixty years to produce an audience ready for Willy’s account.

The title chosen for the manuscript should not imply that Reese was wholly alienated by his experience. His response was more complicated. He had, he confesses, been transformed into a warrior. Rather than experiencing elation in quiet, thoughtful moments between battles, Reese found the experience of battle itself, however horrible, also exhilarating. His euphoria was more the product of understanding how it molded his soul, refined his notions of god, made him more knowing. His repeated affirmation, even in the months before his death, was “I love life.” “I love life.”

There has never been a more deadly warfare than that which engulfed the Russian front. The initial German advance into the Soviet Union was not like the Blitzkrieg waged in the Low Countries and France. From the beginning it was clear that there would be no easy victory.

The German military command was aware of the superiority of the Russian forces arrayed against them and the vast industrial establishment that would continue to supply those armies. But Adolf Hitler refused to listen. He assumed that Ukrainians, the Belarus, the Russian peasantry would welcome his armies as
liberators. He underestimated the determination of the Russian people to resist theGerman advance.

Because the Germans believed that their campaign would only last through the summer, no provision was made for winter warfare. The German soldiers were not equipped to fight through the fierce Russian winter.

The Wehrmacht has been indicted by world opinion for its brutality. They were brutal. They were also starving. Willy had no food for days, no water, no winter uniforms. He suffered with lice, diarrhea, jaundice. He was exhausted from the continuous nA Stranger to Myself; The Inhumanity of War; Russia, 1941 to 1944 by Willy Peter Reese, Stefan Schmitz, ed. & Michael Hofmann, trans. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005 paper.

A Stranger to Myself is a powerful book. Willy Peter Reese was a young German who served on the Russian front from the autumn of 1942 until he was reported missing in action in June of 1944.

Reese’s memoir of his experience was kept by his parents as a shrine to his memory. A cousin realized its extraordinary literary quality and spent years deciphering his handwriting. The book was published in Germany in 2003, almost sixty years after Reese’s death, and became a bestseller. The English translation by UF’s Michael Hofmann followed by several years.

There have been few memoirs of Germany soldiers who served on the Russian front. This is explained in the preface as an unwillingness on the part of post-war Germans to confront its horrors. It took the distance of sixty years to produce an audience ready for Willy’s account.

The title chosen for the manuscript should not imply that Reese was wholly alienated by his experience. His response was more complicated. He had, he confesses, been transformed into a warrior. Rather than experiencing elation in quiet, thoughtful moments between battles, Reese found the experience of battle itself, however horrible, also exhilarating. His euphoria was more the product of understanding how it molded his soul, refined his notions of god, made him more knowing. His repeated affirmation, even in the months before his death, was “I love life.” “I love life.”

There has never been a more deadly warfare than that which engulfed the Russian front. The initial German advance into the Soviet Union was not like the Blitzkrieg waged in the Low Countries and France. From the beginning it was clear that there would be no easy victory.

The German military command was aware of the superiority of the Russian forces arrayed against them and the vast industrial establishment that would continue to supply those armies. But Adolf Hitler refused to listen. He assumed that Ukrainians, the Belarus, the Russian peasantry would welcome his armies as
liberators. He underestimated the determination of the Russian people to resist theGerman advance.

Because the Germans believed that their campaign would only last through the summer, no provision was made for winter warfare. The German soldiers were not equipped to fight through the fierce Russian winter.

The Wehrmacht has been indicted by world opinion for its brutality. They were brutal. They were also starving. Willy had no food for days, no water, no winter uniforms. He suffered with lice, diarrhea, jaundice. He was exhausted from the continuous night warfare in which the Russians excelled. He acknowledges his reliance on inebriation.

After Stalingrad in the early months of 1942, the Germans were in continuous and often disorderly retreat. Occasionally that “wandering,” as Reese calls it, was by train, mostly on foot through the Russian countryside.

Unlike the Russian soldiers who fought for the duration of the war, German soldiers did return home for brief periods. Reese was wounded three times and spent time in military hospitals. He was granted home leave. On those occasions he worked on his manuscript.

Away from the front he complained of feeling empty, homesick for Russia. Russia was home to that strange friend he seemed to himself.

ight warfare in which the Russians excelled. He acknowledges his reliance on inebriation.

After Stalingrad in the early months of 1942, the Germans were in continuous and often disorderly retreat. Occasionally that “wandering,” as Reese calls it, was by train, mostly on foot through the Russian countryside.

Unlike the Russian soldiers who fought for the duration of the war, German soldiers did return home for brief periods. Reese was wounded three times and spent time in military hospitals. He was granted home leave. On those occasions he worked on his manuscript.

Away from the front he complained of feeling empty, homesick for Russia. Russia was home to that strange friend he seemed to himself.

Dark Continent; Europe’s Twentieth Century by Mark Mazower.

Dark Continent; Europe’s Twentieth Century by Mark Mazower. Vintage, 2000 paper. (752)

 

Mark Mazower has received much praise for his Dark Continent. He argues there and in this book that European fascism in the interwar period is a continuation of the authoritarian regimes of the nineteenth century and not alien to European traditions. Thus National Socialism cannot be explained solely by the party and its leader’s insanity. Moreover post-war European political economy has many of the same intentions as the National Socialist regime in Germany. Had Adolf Hitler not chosen to divert the German economy to war production in the late 1930s, the economic consequences of his corporatism might have resembled the prosperity of post-war Germany and Europe.

 

The Treaty of Versailles in 1919 had created 25,000,000 citizens living in states in which they were a minority. The largest two minorities were Germans and Jews. It was assumed that the League of Nations would be able to guard Europe’s ethnic complexity; hence there was no necessity for an exchange of populations. But ethnic conflict remained a continuing challenge to the League. Unlike America, Europe had no tradition of the ‘melting-pot.’

 

This minority problem was particularly acute in Eastern Europe. The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk which ended the Great War on the eastern front had established a “Pax Germania.” That was overturned by the Russian revolution in 1917 and the Versailles treaty, which created relatively weak buffer states between Russia and Germany with uncertain futures.

 

The success of Mazower’s book is that it explains interwar developments that have often been considered inexplicable. For example, the British policy of ‘appeasement’ which we are always told only encouraged Adolf Hitler’s ambitions. The alternative to appeasement, it is commonly argued, would have been opposition, and that had been ruled out because Britain was unprepared. Mazower suggests, rather, that Chamberlain was “blinkered” by the traditional anti-Bolshevism of the British Conservative Party. National Socialism, many Brits believed, was an understandable reaction to the rise of Bolshevism. Sooner or later the two dictators would clash, sparing Britain another land war. Or so they hoped.

 

Both the Soviet Union and National Socialist Germany were in the process of creating a new social order. However Russia believed in the future of the industrial state and had little regard for the welfare of its agricultural classes. Hitler wanted to turn Germans into peasants, not industrial workers. Both economies were evolving in an interwar backdrop of population decline, unemployment and political extremism.

 

Mazower does a remarkable job of making post-World War II Europe interesting. One can sense in the Dark Continent the declining interest of historians in the Cold War. The conflict between the two world powers that emerged from the rubble did not, fortunately, result in military confrontation. Rather the Cold War, according to Mazower, brought stability to post-war Europe. There was an acceptance of the status quo, post-1945, despite the rhetoric.

 

Mazower speaks of continuity but he fashions Margaret Thatcher’s victory in 1979 and her years as Britain’s Prime Minister as a bolt out of the blue. She set about dismantling social democracy in Britain while it was being rebuilt on the Continent. She sold off state-owned enterprises when Continentals were comfortable with theirs. Hers was an authoritarian form of neo-liberalism, both strengthening the role of the state in, for example, regulating labor relations, but also weakening Britain’s industrial sector. During her decade Britain lost over a million factory jobs. She looked with disfavor on the post-colonial migration of colonials to Britain. Her legacy is rarely celebrated these days.

 

Mrs. Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, who occupied the White House in those same years, have often been given credit – have taken credit – for the unexpected collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe. Rather than Anglo-American bluster, it was the result of the prolonged old age of the political economy of Stalinism that lasted for three decades after his death in 1953, and well beyond its usefulness.

 

Meanwhile in Eastern Europe “goulash consumerism,” the importation of consumer goods from the West, mollified the public and propped up the “little Stalins.” Occasionally the Russians had to lend a helping hand, for example suppressing the Hungarian Revolution in 1956 and the Prague Spring in 1968. But ultimately Russia lacked the will to continue these interventions.

 

The real victor in 1989 and the Soviet zone in Eastern Europe was not the Anglo-Americans, nor the European Union. Rather it was European capitalism, but a capitalism willing to accept the welfare state and recognize its continuity with Europe’s twentieth century.

Savage Continent; Europe in the Aftermath of World War II

Savage Continent; Europe in the Aftermath of World War II by Keith Lowe. St. Martin’s Press, 2013 paper.

Keith Lowe asks the reader to imagine a world without institutions, no functioning governments, no courts, no schools, universities, no cinema or theater. Railroads had all but ceased running, no telephones, post offices, no banks or stores. That was the situation throughout much of Central and Eastern Europe in April 1945 when Germany surrendered.

World War II is dated by that German surrender. But its ending occurred over several years. Sicily and Southern Italy were liberated by the autumn of 1943. France and Belgium by the in fall of 1944. Russian armies swept through Ukraine, Poland, and the Baltic States and brought their ‘peace’ to the region later that same year. However, civil wars and ethnic conflicts troubled Eastern Europe and the Balkans for years after their liberation.

As his title would suggest, Lowe does not diminish the savagery of the last years of World War II or the slaughter the followed German defeat. He does, however, warn us that casualty figures are exaggerated. As is the myth of Poles, Ukrainians, Lithuanians, etc. united in opposition to German occupation. Lowe shows that there were many divisions within the ranks of those partisans fighting the Germans, and they reflect long-standing ethnic and class conflict unleashed by the war.

Much has been made of the flight of Germans from Poland, Ukraine, Belarus, the Baltic States, and the former Czechoslovakia in front of the advancing Russian army.  Later, the 12.4 million Germans living outside post-war Germany were forced to move, sometimes by governments, sometimes by civilian brutality. But as the author reminds us, ‘ethnic cleansing’ had been a well-used policy of both Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany prior to 1945. Moreover this removal of Germans had been blessed by the Allied leadership. In World War I, peacemakers had attempted to move borders to reflect ethnic patterns. After World War II, the policy was to transfer populations to achieve that homogeneity.

The rape of German and Austrian women by the Russian soldiers is the well documented. Lowe reminds us, however, that rape was only one of the forms of revenge. Many, many women were raped; Men and boys were hanged, shot, and beaten to death. Lowe explains that the police and the courts had collaborated with the Germans and that justified individuals taking the law into one’s own hands. There was no one in authority to stop the revenge.

I can remember seeing newsreels of revenge against women who had slept with German soldiers. They were often stripped and their heads shaven. (This was documented by Movietone News and screened in the Savoy Theater in Garwin, Iowa.) Lowe suggests that the number of sexual unions of French women with German soldiers is “staggering.”  The children that resulted from these unions were ostracized after the war, considered Germans.

Lowe makes it clear that what happened in post-war Europe is nothing like the scale of barbarities committed by the Third Reich; nothing like the destruction of Eastern Europe’s Jewry.

The anti-Semitism that had fueled German savagery didn’t disappear after April 1945. At that point the surviving Jews had to decide to return to and rebuild their communities. Or emigrate. But their homes and property hand been seized and occupied by their Christian neighbors. And they were quickly made to feel unwelcome. Lowe warns that individual incidents of violence can misrepresent the more universal story. But the pogrom at the town of Kielce in Poland in July 1946, he believes, the incident which convinced Polish Jews that return was not an option. They fled, if they could, to displaced persons’ camps in the British, French, and American sectors to await an alternative.

The Russians were the first to liberate a German concentration camp, Majdanek near Lublin. And very soon after that Auschwitz. Their reports were at first discounted as Russian propaganda, but then an American unit liberated a camp in Alsace. The discovery of the camps, Lowe contends, changed the moral landscape.

What to do with camp survivors? At first camp inmates were released, with little in the way of assistance in returning to their home. The ensuing lawlessness and savagery compelled the Allied occupation forces to create camps for these displaced persons’ camps, often the camps from which they had been recently liberated.

Keith Lowe’s Savage Continent; Europe in the Aftermath of World War II should make readers cautious about the traditional date for the end of the war, or any war. In 1949 both West Germany (British, French, and American zones of occupation) and East Germany (Russian zone) were independently established. Perhaps 1949 would, therefore, be a better date for the end of World War II.