Nov 18, 2014
In the wake of World War II, as the world discovered the full extent of the atrocities committed by the NAZIs, the German people struggled to make sense of their place in the world. Ruined, occupied and reviled, they had every reason to give up all hope. In his most recent book, The Temptation of Despair, Professor Werner Sollors examines contemporary records from the time to understand how they coped. In the process, he shows a side of World War II that is not often discussed.Today, we regard World War II as a morally clear war but well into 1941 the American people continued to oppose direct involvement. Even after the war, General Eisenhower said "We are told that the American soldier does not know what he was fighting for.” It was only with the discovery of the concentration camps that the American soldier would, as Eisenhower went on to explain, know "what he is fighting against.” World War II stands out in the American psyche as the good war. A war in which good guys fought against pure evil and everyone knew it from minute one and then we destroyed the Axis powers with overwhelmingly military might. Rather than viewing each conflict as unique, America has sought to transform every conflict from Vietnam to the War on Terror into another World War II: a conflict between pure evil and pure good that will be decide by who has superior firepower. As Professor Sollors puts it, “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Those who try and repeat history are doomed to fail.” Not only can we not repeat World War II, World War II is not as morally unambiguous as we think it is. History is written by the victors and the Allies have highlighted the atrocities of the NAZIs without drawing attention to their own misdeeds. As Soviet soldiers occupied Germany they subjected German women to repeated rape on a truly unimaginable scale. British historian Anthony Beevor has described it as “the greatest phenomenon of mass rape in history.” Likewise, even as Americans scolded Germans for their racism, they occupied Germany with a racially-segregated Army.However, there is one bright spot in this untold history. The German people while deeply anti-semitic had never been programmed to have any special dislike towards African-Americans. The result was that for the first time African-American servicemen had the experience of interacting with white people with a sliver of the prejudice they had faced back in the States. More than that, denied command positions, servicemen ended up in supply and transport jobs making them the most popular soldiers among the German people. Historians have suggested that this experience was vital in contributing to the Civil Rights movement when the servicemen went home. More personally, it determined the course of Professor Sollors. His fond memories of the kindness of African-American servicemen to him as a child in post-war Germany caused Professor Sollors to become a Professor of African-American literature.The Temptation of Despair is available on Amazon.