Let me start by asking you, gentle reader, if you recognize the quotation? That quotation comes from Jorge Agustín Nicolás Ruiz de Santayana y Borrás, better known as George Santayana (December 16, 1863 – September 26, 1952). He was a philosopher, essayist, poet, and novelist. A lifelong Spanish citizen, Santayana was raised and educated in the United States and identified himself as an American, although he always kept a validated Spanish passport. He wrote in English and is generally considered an American author, although he left his teaching position at Harvard in 1911, never to return to the US. He lived the last of his life in Spain and was buried in the Spanish Pantheon of the Cimitero Monumentale del Verano in Rome per his final wishes.
I’m most intrigued by twentieth century history. After all, I was here for over half of it, and my parents and grandparents have told me many tales of the part of the century that I didn’t experience personally. I was born shortly after the end of World War Two. That great struggle by the “greatest generation” is a very significant part of our history, shaping our nation during my tenure here on this terrestrial globe.
The roots of WWII are many, starting with the terms of the Armistice at the end of the Great War, now known as World War One. That and the great depression led to the rise of Adolf Hitler and his cronies. Through hook and crook he got himself named Chancellor of Germany in 1933 and the die was cast. Ignoring the personal milestones of Hitler’s rise to power such as his imprisonment for the Beer Hall Putsch (or Hitlerputsch), the Reichstag Fire, or the Night of Broken Glass (Kristallnacht), there were several steps on the world stage that foreshadowed the actual start of the war when Hitler attacked Poland on September 1, 1939.
Adolf Hitler wanted more land, especially in the east, to expand Germany according to the Nazi policy of lebensraum (literally "living-space"). Hitler used the harsh limitations that were set against Germany in the Versailles Treaty as a pretext for Germany's right to acquire land where German-speaking people lived. Germany successfully used this reasoning to envelop two entire countries without starting a war.
First to fall was Austria on March 13, 1938. After all, since Hitler was born in Austria and preached the superiority of the German race, he needed to make his homeland part of the “Fatherland.” At the Munich Conference of September 28 and 29, 1938, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and the French agreed to hand over a large portion of Czechoslovakia in order to quench the thirst of the German madman. Hitler then took over the rest of Czechoslovakia by March of 1939, proving that a taste only increases the appetite of tyrants, and serving as a historical proof of the impossibility of tolerating aggression and trying for a peaceful settlement of what should not have been in dispute at all.
Many people have wondered why Germany was allowed to take over both Austria and Czechoslovakia without a fight. The simple reason is that Great Britain and France did not want to repeat the bloodshed of WWI. Upon his return from the conference, Chamberlain announced, “"I feel it is in my duty to strain every nerve to avoid repetition of the First World War." The Spanish civil war had shown how the technology and weaponry had improved and was made more deadly. The fears of a war where no one is safe, where the enemies can bomb the cities killing hundreds every night was the stuff of nightmares and was to be avoided at all costs. It is important to recall that not only England and France shared this goal of avoiding war at all costs, but they were joined by Italy, Belgium, and many other countries at that time in a desire for peace.
They believed, wrongly as it turned out, they could avoid another world war by appeasing Hitler with a few concessions (such as Austria and Czechoslovakia). At this time, Great Britain and France did not understand that Hitler's goal of land acquisition was much, much larger than any one country.
After having gained both Austria and Czechoslovakia, Hitler was confident that he could again move east, this time acquiring Poland without having to fight Britain or France. (To eliminate the possibility of the Soviet Union fighting if Poland were attacked, Hitler made a pact with the Soviet Union – the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact.)
So that Germany did not officially seem the aggressor (which it was), Hitler needed an excuse for attacking Poland. It was Heinrich Himmler who came up with the idea; thus the plan was code-named Operation Himmler. On the night of August 31, 1939, Nazis took an unknown prisoner from one of their concentration camps, dressed him in a Polish uniform, took him to the town of Gleiwitz (on the border of Poland and Germany), and then shot him. The staged scene with the dead prisoner dressed in a Polish uniform was supposed to appear as a Polish attack against a German radio station.
Hitler used this imaginary attack as the excuse to invade Poland. At 4:45 on the morning of September 1, 1939 (the morning following the staged attack), German troops entered Poland. The sudden, immense attack by the Germans was called a Blitzkrieg ("lightening war").
The German air attack hit so quickly that most of Poland's air force was destroyed while still on the ground. To hinder Polish mobilization, the Germans bombed bridges and roads. Groups of marching soldiers were machine-gunned from the air. But the Germans did not just aim for soldiers, they also shot at civilians. Groups of fleeing civilians often found themselves under attack. The more confusion and chaos the Germans could create, the slower Poland could mobilize its forces.
On September 1, 1939, the beginning of the German attack, Great Britain and France sent Hitler an ultimatum – either withdraw German forces from Poland or Great Britain and France would go to war against Germany. On September 3, with Germany's forces penetrating deeper into Poland, Great Britain and France both declared war on Germany.
On this day, September 3, 2012, when we in the U.S. are celebrating a national holiday dedicated to workers, we should not forget that this is also the anniversary of the start of the last world war. On this date officially began six long years of World War II. Lest we forget, over 60 million people died in that struggle, which was over 2.5% of the world population. Thankfully the end of this war did not repeat the mistakes of the earlier armistice, and the U.S. and allied countries actively worked to restore the defeated countries from their ruin. The result of that enlightened policy include our current allies, both Germany and Japan, and the United Nations which is often tasked with peace-keeping or actively involved in later wars. We still suffer from wars, but not since 1945 has the entire world been engulfed in a struggle of the magnitude of the last great war.
The proper way to deal with aggression and aggressors is always from a position of power. I appreciate the appeal for peace, but I’ve always felt that a strong military is the best way to deal with aggression. Sadly, it seems that most of the wars fought by the U.S. since WWII were intended, or at least sold to the public as intended to stop aggression and not repeat the error of the Munich Agreement. In hindsight, it is hard to see how they have actually accomplished that, although we will never know how the world would be shaped today if not for the Korean War, the Viet Nam War, and dozens of other skirmishes we’ve been involved in since then including the two current wars in the Middle East and Asia. I don’t know the answer to that philosophical question, but I continue to seek that answer in the knowledge of history.
Real answers require real knowledge. Not sound bites and fuzzy rhetoric about American power and wisdom. Wisdom only comes from knowledge … in a democracy, that means the knowledge of the electorate. With history classes being shunned by the “Internet Generation” and school budgets cutting classes, I wonder who will realize what is in a true “basic education.” Reading and writing and arithmetic are key, but so are history and music and art and design. The Greeks had some thoughts on a well-rounded education, I hope we haven’t forgotten those lessons.