What the Football Coach Failed to Teach You About History: WWII

I recently had an idea to start a new series on my blog discussing main themes and points of certain historical events that our high school history teachers (yes your wrestling and football coach who taught history) taught us incorrectly.  I realize more and more how many people stopped engaging with historical content after Junior year of high school. And even if they did, then the history they engaged with was limited and focused way more on remembering “Great Men” or dates of certain battles. Which I find utterly useless to the proper understanding of history and application to our modern age. I may be biased, but I really am thinking a modern history course should be required in college, especially since almost all of us received our historical education from someone who wore sweatpants and a school football polo every day.

I had a professor, who is totally my Facebook friend because I’m a first-rate nerd, who taught me in my sophomore year how important history was in regards to understanding themes, moments, movers & shakers, and ordinary every day lives. While the winners of wars and the Great Men tend to write history, we can learn so much from looking at other points of view from the countries we waged war against to average civilians to women, poc, and LGBT.

I decided to start by discussing WWII, mainly because that is what I am currently surrounded by. And what both of my study abroad programs were mainly focused around.

Let’s jump into it!

Reminders

World War II was a war that, as historians have decided, started on September 1, 1939, and lasted until September 2, 1945. China and Japan began their war in 1937, but it did not become a global conflict until 1939 when Nazi Germany invaded Poland and resulted in France the United Kingdom declaring war. Originally, Soviet Russia invaded Poland with Nazi Germany with plans to divide the country, but they would soon become an ally against the Nazis and ultimately be a major factor in defeating them. It was fought between most of the countries of the world during the time. The two “sides” would become known as the Axis (Japan, Italy, Nazi Germany) and the Allied forces (Russia, France, Great Britain, USA). The United States would enter the war officially in 1941 after Japan attacked us in Pearl Harbor.

Why did Japan attack the United States?

Japan attacked the US in Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941. They attacked Malaysia, Gaum, Singapore, and a few other territories under British and American control. Their aim was to destroy our navy in hopes to keep us from interfering in Japanese attacks for oil and other natural resources in the Pacific. There was no declaration of war, which is why FDR emphasized “a day which will live in infamy,” it would later go on in the Tokyo Trials, (The equivalent of the Nuremberg Trials for the Japanese during WWII; the Nuremberg Trials were the trials for Nazi War Crimes), to be declared a war crime. The attack thrust the United States into the war, with America declaring war on Japan on December 8th. On December 11th, Germany and Italy declared war on the United States. The US responded with declarations, though before that moment the US had a non-intervention pact. (Which is why FDR won’t give Winston Churchill the ships and planes to borrow in Darkest Hour).

 

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Japan attacks Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941

 

 

Why did America enter the war?

Before America entered the war FDR tried to persuade Congress to lift the non-intervention pact, as early as November 1939. He wanted to be able to provide arms to France and Britain. Once France fell in June 1940, he aggressively pushed and prepared for military action that he deemed inevitable. In 1941, Germany also asked the Soviets after making a pact; the Soviets then entered the War. Which eventually would be Hitler’s greatest mistake. And as most responses to the Soviets, the mindset of containment of communism became something the United States rallied around as they prepared for the war.

We went to War to save the Jews.

I’m really not sure where, when, how and why this narrative happened. And in fact, I find it incredibly detrimental that this narrative exists. Let’s get one point crystal clear, we did not at all go to war to save anyone, except maybe Britain’s ass. In fact, FDR met with Jan Karski, a Polish man who snuck into the Warsaw Ghetto to document what was happening and made it his life mission to tell the world what the Nazis were doing, in 1943. 2 years after the United States entered the war. FDR responded by asking about the horses in Poland. Most Americans discovered what was happening as the pushed the Third Reich further and further back, but our soldiers were not rallied around saving Jews as for why they should defeat the Germans. I think it is incredibly disrespectful to deny this important part of our world history. We as a world failed the Jews during this time. And it was never part of our Nation’s prerogative upon entering the war.

 

 

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Jan Karski’s book “Story of a Secret State” addressing the horrors against the Jews, published in 1944

 

The Holocaust and WWII are two ENTIRELY DIFFERENT things

I don’t have much to say about this, but I find it pretty shocking how many people were never taught this distinction. The Holocaust started long before Hitler invaded Poland. And as I discussed above, the Holocaust and the Final Solution were the knowledge that was pretty much neglected by the rest of the world. Most historians will define the Holocaust as the Nazi German policy, enacted between 1941 and 1945, to exterminate the European Jews. Though other historians include the years from 1933 until 1945, which include the events in Germany pre systematic murder of the Final Solution. I follow the understanding of the latter.

 

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Night of the Broken Glass, November 9-10 1938, a German pogrom attacking Jewish businesses, synagogues, and homes

 

The Soviets were our allies

I know this is shocking. Most people think we were against the Soviets during WWII. Which is amazing to me.  But they also think that the Cold War started immediately after Lenin took action, and this also isn’t true. But don’t worry, I will do a whole piece on the Cold War. The Cold War started in 1947, hugely due to what happened after WWII. The Soviets invaded Poland on a pact with Germany. Germany then attacked Russia, which would also be Hitler’s biggest mistake. The Red Army helped end the war, free thousands upon thousands of Jews in Treblinka, Auschwitz, Belzec, Sobibor, Stuthof, Sachsenhausen, and Ravensbrueck.

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Winston Churchill was a good guy

Earlier I mentioned how those who win wars, write history, and Winston Churchill is no exception. While Churchill surely was Hitler’s matchmaker, I have always found it out the fantasy surrounding him. Churchhill openly had no issue using poison gas on Kurds and Afghans, saying “why so squeamish” and justifying it by stating they were uncivilized. During the war there was a famine in India, still a British territory, due to Japanese attacks in Burma, he did nothing, allowing millions to die. He was an avid Zionist, but incredibly anti-semitic. He believed the Jewish state should be far away from civilized and Christian Europe. He was incredibly anti-black, anti-Muslim, etc. While of course, this was the early 20sth century, and it was a much different culture, I urge you all to do some more research on the man so many calls the father of the British nation, who earned his stripes during WWII.

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 FDR, Stalin and Churchill met to divide up land

I am also super amazed at how many people just think “Oh the Soviets liberated that land so that means they got that land and that’s why communist land got bigger after WWII.” Uhm not entirely.  FDR, Stalin, and Churchill met in Crimea, at what is now known as the Yalta Conference in February of 1945. At this conference, it was decided to split up Germany into what we know as West Germany and East Germany, the plan for the wall was added later. It was also discussed to have open and free elections in countries of the East to decide if they would be communist or not and who their leaders would be. Stalin never allowed this to happen, which is what resulted in the beginning of the Cold War, anti-communist, and containment.

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Yalta Conference February 1945, Left to Right: Churchill, FDR, Stalin. 

 Hitler v Stalin

While we know Hitler and his horrors, it is less known that more civilians were killed by Stalin during the War. Roughly 85 million people died during the war, and most of them were on Soviet soil. Stalin strategically starved people in Poland, Ukraine, Belarus. Originally, Stalin wrote, “I would like to deport them all but 20 million is too many to move.” And he strategically created the Holodomor, the Ukrainian famine. Under the Soviets, Jews were also not welcomed or treated kindly. In fact the term, pogrom, the applicable for during the whole war, originated due to Russian Civilians killing, attacking, and torturing their Jewish counterparts.

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 Which country was actually Hitler’s first victim?

This is one of my favorite conversations about WWII. I would say Czechoslovakia was Hitler’s first victim. Hitler invaded in May of 1938, while this was inherently against the Treaty of Versailles, no nations batted an eye or got involved. Many historians would say Poland was the first victim, and their invasion led to the full start of WWII. But for some reason, Austria seems to take the place of the first victim. Austria was annexed into Germany in March of 1938, prior to the Anschluss, there was heavy support from people in both countries to unify the two countries. Keep in mind before WWI, Austria was part of the Austro-Hungary empire, who was defeated along with the Germans and lost a lot of land, resources, and citizens in their domain. Upon Hitler’s arrival in Vienna, Austrians cheered him on, in fact, one reporter wrote, and please excuse the language, “if Hitler was raping Austria, they were begging for more.” Hitler had fulfilled a lot of their dreams for a Greater Germany. One thing my professor explained was that the ballot to vote on a unified Greater Germany was very much a piece of propaganda, which voting yes much larger and voting no much smaller. It is a very complicated conversation with a lot of different layers which I barely scratched the surface of. But I hope it got you thinking about this interesting piece of WWII history.

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Unkown Facts about WWII

  1. WWII was the most destructive war in history with more lives lost, property damage, and money spent
  2. The Nazis did not call themselves Nazis, the word is a Bavarian word meaning “simple-minded.” It was a word used to mock them. The real shortcut name was Nasos
  3. 80% of Russian males born in 1923 did not survive the war
  4. The Nazis stole the Harvard fight song as their Seig Heil anthem
  5. More Russian civilians died during the siege of Leningrad than all British and American troops combined
  6. Once France fell, Parisians cut the cords to the elevators at the Effiel Tower. So to hang the flag, Nazis had to  climb all the stair to the top of the tower to flag the Swaztika, though most infamous is the photo with the banner saying “Germany is victorious on all fronts” hanging from the Effiel Tower
  7. Adolf Hitler’s nephew, William served in the US army during the war

 

This is my first post like this. I hope to do one every month. I really missed writing about history. And I truly hope you enjoyed it. If you have any ideas you would like me to write about, questions, or advice, please feel free to leave me a comment or message me!

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