Tag Archives: World War II

Feast of Franz

Today we take a break from our regularly scheduled wisdom from the Christian Standard in order to observe the feast day of Franz Jägerstätter.  Not on your calendar?  Perhaps it should be.  Jägerstätter was a German Catholic who refused to take up arms during World War II.  He offered himself for non-combatant service, but the Nazis cared even less for conscientious objection during the nationalistic global wars than Americans did.  Instead of allowing him to work as a military paramedic, the Nazis sentenced him to execution by guillotine. On the day of his death, he penned these words:

If I must write… with my hands in chains, I find that much better than if my will were in chains. Neither prison nor chains nor sentence of death can rob a man of the Faith and his free will. God gives so much strength that it is possible to bear any suffering.

His story would remain largely untold, until academics uncovered him and offered him to the world. In 2007, the Roman Catholic Church recognized him formally as a martyr and beatified him, making May 21st his feast day. Jägerstätter is a reminder both of the unconquerable power of the human will invigorated by the divine and of our certain ignorance of the countless stories of brave, pious fortitude that might inspire us if only we knew the half of them.

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Japan through a Lens

The New York Review of Books blog has a fascinating article on the work of Hamaya Hiroshi, a famous Japanese photographer. The article is in honor of an exhibit at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles (if anyone is fortunate enough to be in the region) and includes some really exemplary samples of of his work (which I won’t share here, because I am not all that confident in my grasp of fair use). For the historian, however, the article holds an interest all its own as it explores the way art and artists can be instrumental in the construction of national identity and, consequently, complicit in some of the more atrocious features of a nation’s military and cultural imperialism. This is not an indictment of Hayama, of course, but an invitation into the world behind the photographs and their continuing aesthetic appeal. The parallels in other cultures are obvious. The article offers a contemporary examples of Nazis plundering Polish art looking for their own Teutonic heritage. Norman Rockwell springs to mind as an artist who constructed as much as reflected American national, cultural identity. But the example of Hayama suggests that art can work in more subtle ways:

Hamaya was born in a plebeian district of Tokyo, and his early photographs of the 1930s are of its typical denizens: geisha, beggars, prostitutes, and burlesque dancers. Typical urban scenes, in other words. His rejection of this world for the primitive life of peasants in the Snow Country is an interesting example of how important art can emerge from questionable motives….

This was the time when, encouraged by a famous Japanese businessman with ethnographic interests, Hamaya first set off for the Snow Country. The idea was to document the true “Japanese spirit.” Living among the northeastern peasants, recording their dignity in the face of hardship, was for him a “return to Japan.”

I will let you see where it goes from there, but the article and the exhibit both strike me as worthwhile for more than just the stunning photographs included. It is unfortunate that one is so much easier to access than the other.

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The Road to Hiroshima Is Paved with Good Intentions

Mark Fiege’s Republic of Nature is a work of sufficient size and importance to warrant a full review of its contents. William Cronon, rock star of the environmental history world, offered significantly more effusive praise in his foreword: “It is surely among the most important works of environmental history published since the field was founded four or more decades ago. No book before it has so compellingly demonstrated the value of applying environmental perspectives to historical events that at first glance may seem to have little to do with “nature” or “the environment.” No one who cares about he American past can ignore what Fiege has to say.” Nor should they. Fiege’s work–which takes nine standard topics in American history and refashions them to include environmental history–demands engagement from scholars and its easy style invites it from the general public. Necessarily, a work which is linked by a common methodology rather than a common chronology or theme will be somewhat uneven, but Fiege succeeds more often than he fails in challenging the standard historiography and revolutionizing the way environmental history applies to more “conventional” history. But, as much as Fiege’s work demands full engagement, a particular chapter has so seized my attention as to compel me to stop the general review there and turn to a more particular issue: the development of the atomic bomb and Fiege’s attempts to justify it or, at the very least, mitigate the responsibility of the scientists involved.

In a chapter entitled “atomic sublime,” Fiege directly challenges the traditional historiography of the Manhattan Project. The interpretation of the scientists as cold, rationalists with an instrumental view of nature has dominated our collective memory of the makers of the atomic bomb. Instead, Fiege proposes to proceed from the assumption that “the atomic scientists and their families felt a deep affinity for all that was human, natural, and good.” This is, not in itself, an objectionable conclusion. In fact, the assumption that natural scientists should have a love of and fascination with nature is admirable. The problems arise, however, with Fiege moves beyond this to argue that the drive of the scientists to make the bomb proceed from this love of the natural and the good rather than in spite of it. Thus, at the close of the opening section of the chapter, Fiege drops this bomb (so to speak):

Perhaps a powerful attraction to nature in all its guises, whether pine trees or submicroscopic particles, encouraged intellectual processes that enabled the scientists to imagine and design the bomb. Perhaps–and here is a truly unsettling thought–the bomb was the fulfillment of all that was human, natural and good.

That is, sure enough, a deeply unsettling thought. It is, in fact, one that I find acutely unsettling given my prejudices against violence in general and against the bomb in particular. That anything which is inherently good can lead to something so unequivocally evil as the atrocities perpetrated at Hiroshima and Nagasaki seems to me so impossible on its face as to be easily dismissed. And yet, as a historian, I compelled myself to give, as far as I was humanly able, a fair reading to Fiege’s argument. I hoped that perhaps, at the end, I would find that the scientists had been coerced into creating the bomb by the government(which I am always happy to cast as the ultimate enemy) or that they had had been duped by the military about the applications of their new technology, that it would function only as a deterrent. Unfortunately, Fiege only convinced me that the scientists fooled themselves.

Fiege offers a very compelling, if sentimental, portrait of the love of the scientists for nature. Each had been drawn into science through some love of and curiosity about the natural. Fiege likens scientific research to the explorations of Victorian adventurers (whitewashing over the imperial designs of both). He tells of the times at Los Alamos where, when they were not engulfed in creating weapons of mass destruction, the scientists hiked the canyons and searched for rare cacti and waxed poetic about desert sunsets. At Los Alamos “the scientists fashioned a community that embodied their life-affirming values.” It was these very values that led them to collaborate on the atomic bomb.

How is that possible? Fiege stresses that the scientists sincerely believed that a single use of the bomb would be so dramatic, so devastating, that it would inaugurate an era of world peace–ultimately saving more lives than it took–and fling the doors of society open to allow a utopian global community. The description would be comic had Fiege intended it as a farce, but he truly believes that the scientists, through purely humanitarian motives, were compelled to create the most destructive weapon in human history. Never mind that anyone with a high school level grasp of history could have easily demonstrated that bigger weapons make for bigger wars, not peace. The scientists, as the day of completion drew nearer, began to have these same realizations but, rather than abandoning the project, instead convinced themselves that a benign demonstration of its power would be sufficient to establish their idyllic society.

These were among the most brilliant men and women in history, and what Fiege has demonstrated is not their pure motives but the ability of brilliant people for brilliant rationalizations. It is impossible to deny the obvious confluence of the greatest successes in atomic science and the most destructive global war in history. What’s more, it is difficult to not assume that the one caused the other, especially since the specific purpose of the scientists at the Manhattan Project was to develop a super weapon for use against the Germans and Japanese. What motivated the creation of the atomic bomb was precisely what motivated World War II: fear and self-interest. Fiege notes that in spite of their humanitarian concerns, scientists flocked to Los Alamos to create the bomb. In spite of their moral qualms about its use, they completed the project.

The true nature of their motives is apparent enough in their language and behavior. Just as it is apparent that wartime fervor drove the scientists to Los Alamos in spite of their theoretical reluctance, the reaction of the community at Los Alamos to Hiroshima testifies to their true feelings whatever their theoretical moral turmoil. “When news of Hiroshima reached Los Alamos, the atomic community celebrated. The revelry was spontaneous and intense. ‘We jumped up and down, we screamed, we ran around slapping each other on the backs, shaking hands, congratulating each other,’ Richard Feynman wrote.” The party continued on into the night, was formalized in a meeting in the town auditorium where Oppenheimer gave a speech received by resounding cheers, and repeated itself when the bomb fell on Nagasaki, though Fiege is careful to point out that, for Nagasaki, “the spirit just wasn’t there.” The scientists could convince themselves they were for world peace not victory, but when success and victory were at hand, they gave no thought to life or peace or morality. Instead, they indulged in the self-delusion typified by David Bradbury, child of Los Alamos, who later advocated the use of atomic weaponry for population control but insisted that he was “not pro-war. I’m most strongly pro-nature, pro-earth, pro-tree.”

It was a beautiful and thorough deception, no doubt, but it was still false and ultimately incomplete. The scientists, history remembers, went on to regret their mistake, to see the atomic bomb for what it really was. A horror, both in principle and in its tragic application in Japan. An enormity of the modern mind that is without justification and without legitimate purpose. That this realization hit only when the war was over and a cessation of hostilities (but by no means peace) was won demonstrates the true root of the scientists motives. They were engaged in an epic struggle for nation or, if you prefer, self-preservation. They were not, as Fiege concluded, pursuing the good, the beautiful, the true with an innocent curiosity and in a context of “openness, toleration, and democracy.”* As much as Fiege may wish it were so, the heart of war is not “deep moral ambiguity” and the scientists are not absolved by their good intentions. In fact, Fiege neglects to entertain the seemingly logical conclusion that they had no such benign intentions, only convincing rationalizations. It is in the clear distinction between motives and justifications that Fiege’s interpretation flounders.

Republic of Nature is worth every penny of its price, both for the times when it is compelling right and the times when it is unnervingly wrong. The success of any historical work is in provoking critical reaction, and while Fiege is unsuccessful in redeeming the Manhattan Project through environmental history, he is at least capable of forcing the reader to reconsider it. The final judgment, however, remains the same. Fiege’s is a wonderful book, even if at times it has a perverse logic. The reader ought to find repugnant (and blatantly hypocritical) the attempt to sanctify the atomic assault on Japan with the passing observation that most of the civilians killed had acquiesced to Japan’s “military conquests, slaughter of civilians, and suicidal resistance,” but it is this same willingness to challenge conventional interpretations that convincingly reinterprets the Salem witch trials as a conflict between the ideal and the real in nature. The reader simply must keep in mind that not all history is in need of revision.

*(Here Fiege is at his most disturbing and his most inadvertently brilliant when he points to the dark fact that democracy allowed the US and Britain to create the bomb and authoritarianism prevented Germany from achieving the same end. Suddenly it seems that if ever their were a critique of democracy, the atomic bomb is it.)

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An Honest Assessment of Evil

Some years ago, I raised questions about the place of the Holocaust, and Auschwitz in particular, in debate regarding the problem of evil. It was my contention then–one which I continue to stand by–that the Holocaust did not represent any special evil, any new sort of paradigm shattering expression of the depravity of human behavior. In fact, the truly shocking nature of the Holocaust was precisely in that it was consistent with the overarching history of humanity’s gross inhumanity.

In reading Vernard Eller’s Christian Anarchy in conjunction with the Anarchy in May series, I came across similar arguments he was making with regard to the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Though I thought it best to delay sharing them so as not to overwhelm readers, the arguments bare reiterating and Eller argues them well:

With zealotism, things get worse rather than better. It turns out that the black heart of the black West is the United States of America. “More than any other event in history the worldwide human experience of those August days in 1945 (Hiroshima and Nagasaki) was a recapitulation of the primeval Fall.”

…Why would it not be nearer to speaking the truth in love to say some things such as these: “In World War II, every combatant that possessed atomic capability used it. That some did not possess it is of no moral credit to them. T he evidence is that all would have liked to have it and would have used it if they had had it—as would the Romans (or the Zealots) if it could have been theirs in the first century. So where is this quantum jump in moral evil?

“Whereas Hiroshima was destroyed with a single bomb, other cities in other nations and other wars have suffered similar devastation from conventional (if not primitive) weapons—it just took a bit longer to do it. So where is the quantum jump in moral evil?

“Although we are not obligated to agree, we are obligated seriously to consider and thoughtfully to respond to President Truman’s rationale for using the bomb. His explanation cannot simply be waved aside as disingenuous.”

…”That the Hiroshima bomb was not ‘history’s most evil event’ as the zealots make it out to be is shown clearly by its context. The bomb was not used as a first strike but as one blow in a raging war in which every combatant already was throwing everything he had. And the U.S. had not started but had entered only under the provocation of what was indeed a dastardly first strike. The U.S. purpose in using the bomb clearly was to achieve a surrender and a cessation of hostilities, and was in no way a genocide of the Japanese people…”

Now I am opposed to war—all war, including the U.S. involvement in World War II. But in my anti-war manual of the Bible I find not one little bit of this business of playing fast and loose with the facts in order to single out one nation’s “war demon” as the special recipient of true Christianity’s righteous rage. If find it suggesting, rather, that from Cain on, all war has been very much the same, a manifestation of the same spirit of sin no matter who’s doing it how—even if it should be the “peace people’s” war against the U.S. Government.

The same, of course, should be said for the Holocaust, and Eller’s argument should give Christian’s pause as they attempt to single out Nazi Germany’s “war demon” as somehow more atrocious than their own. After all, the same war which saw the internment of Jews in Germany saw the internment of the Japanese in America. The same war that saw Hitler exterminate six million Jews over the course of twelve years saw the Americans exterminate seventy thousand Japanese civilians in a single day. You do the math: which nation was the more efficient executioner of non-combatants?

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