WW II

Herman Wouk: Who wanted to unite Europe?

Saturday, 18 May, 2019

The author and screenwriter Herman Wouk has died at the age of 103. He was born in the Bronx on 27 May 1915 and passed away yesterday in Palm Springs. Wouk won the Pulitzer prize for fiction in 1951 with The Caine Mutiny and he topped the bestseller lists twenty years later with The Winds of War, which was made into a popular TV series in 1983. The novel begins six months before Germany’s invasion of Poland in September 1939 and ends shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. Here, the character Natalie Jastrow speaks:

“I’m sorry. I’m impressed with Hitler’s ability to use socialist prattle when necessary, and then discard it. He uses doctrines as he uses money, to get things done. They’re expendable. He uses racism because that’s the pure distillate of German romantic egotism, just as Lenin used utopian Marxism because it appealed to Russia’s messianic streak. Hitler means to hammer out a united Europe… He understands them, and he may just succeed. A unified Europe must come. The medieval jigsaw of nations is obsolete. The balance of power is dangerous foolishness in the industrial age. It must all be thrown out. Somebody has to be ruthless enough to do it, since the peoples with their ancient hatreds will never do it themselves. It’s only Napoleon’s original vision, but he was a century ahead of his time.”

The Caine Mutiny was made into a hit film in 1954 and Humphrey Bogart gave one of his finest performances as the paranoid Captain Queeg. The author knew whereof he spoke. He enlisted in the US naval reserve in 1942 and served in the Pacific aboard destroyer-minesweepers.

Herman Wouk Apart from epic historical novels of family and war, Herman Wouk’s literary output was devoted to an understanding of Judaism, especially the American Jewish experience. His religion was central to his work.

“Religious people tend to encounter, among those who are not, a cemented certainty that belief in God is a crutch for the weak and fearful. It would be just as silly to assert that disbelief in God is a crutch for the immoral and the ill-read.” — Herman Wouk, This is My God: A Guidebook to Judaism


The Christmas Toast: Home!

Saturday, 23 December, 2017 0 Comments

“The art of living beautifully…” is the motto of Homes & Gardens, a monthly magazine that has been published in London since 1919. The December 1942 issue featured an article by Elizabeth Bowen titled “The Christmas Toast is ‘Home!’ and an editor’s note accompanying the war-time piece pointed out, with typical British understatement, that “travelling may be impossible, none but the plainest food may be procurable and the Xmas holiday itself may make unexpected demands on our time and energy.” It was in this context that Elizabeth Bowen celebrated the meaning of “home” at Christmas:

“Above all, the home means people — their trust in each other, their happy habits of living, the calendar, year by year, of family life — returning seasons, anniversaries, birthdays and, above all, Christmas, the greatest home festival. At Christmas, how strong the pull of the home is! There comes a call that our hearts cannot deny. At Christmas, we turn to our own people: we go home. And, when the Christmas journey cannot be made in real life, it is made with all the more longing, in the imagination. The Christmas letter, or telegram from the exile to the people at home, saying, ‘I am with you today,’ speaks a real truth. At Christmas, wherever we find ourselves, our hearts are back in the beloved place.”

When Elizabeth Bowen was writing those words, the news was filled with reports of crucial battles in far-away places: Stalingrad, El Alamein, Guadalcanal. The very survival of civilization was at stake, but Bowen was resolute in her belief in victory. “Peace will see many homecomings,” she predicted, and the light of Christmas gave her hope. “Christmas speaks the message of an eternal kindness. The Christmas Toast is – Home!'”

Elizabeth Bowen

Tomorrow, here, those whom Christmas touches only by its bitter meaningless.


Primo Levi remembers the horror of Auschwitz

Tuesday, 27 January, 2015 0 Comments

Primo Levi described his return to Italy from the Auschwitz concentration camp in La tregua (The Truce). The Truce In this Paris Review interview, Levi reminisces about one of the book’s characters: “You remember Mordo Nahum? I had mixed feelings toward him. I admired him as a man fit for every situation. But of course he was very cruel to me. He despised me because I was not able to manage. I had no shoes. He told me, Remember, when there is war, the first thing is shoes, and second is eating. Because if you have shoes, then you can run and steal. But you must have shoes. Yes, I told him, well you are right, but there is not war any more. And he told me, Guerra es siempre. There is always war.”

Today, as the world commemorates the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, we should strive to understand the revulsion that Primo Levi felt towards those who took part in the Nazi extermination campaign and also towards those who could have but did not speak out against it. In memory of the murdered millions, here’s an excerpt from The Truce:

“There is no rationality in the Nazi hatred: it is hate that is not in us, it is outside of man. We cannot understand it, but we must understand from where it springs, and we must be on our guard. If understanding is impossible, knowing is imperative, because what happened could happen again. Consciences can be seduced and obscured again — even our consciences. For this reason, it is everyone duty to reflect on what happened. Everybody must know, or remember, that when Hitler and Mussolini spoke in public, they were believed, applauded, admired, adored like gods. They were ‘charismatic leaders’; they possessed a secret power of seduction that did not proceed from the soundness of things they said but from the suggestive way in which they said them, from their eloquence, from their histrionic art, perhaps instinctive, perhaps patiently learned and practised. The ideas they proclaimed were not always the same and were, in general, aberrant or silly or cruel. And yet they were acclaimed with hosannas and followed to the death by millions of the faithful.”