Monday, February 20, 2012

On All Fronts

I have always been somewhat interested in the history of wars in general, but the world wars, and World War II in particular, are probably what capture my time and attention the most.  I am not sure how or why this interest came about.  When I was really little — in kindergarten, I think — I did a report (with a lot of help from my dad) in school on World War I aircraft.  I have always found the Fokker Dr.I (the famous triplane of the Red Baron) to be an incredibly cool airplane.  I always enjoyed the pictures of World War II bombers in a Richard Scarry book of mine as a kid, especially the B-17 Flying Fortress, whose moniker inspired invincibility in the mind of young kid lying on the moist grass of a summer evening while looking at contrails high in the sky.  Later, I learned that I had a real connection to WWII since my grandparents from Germany had experienced the horrors of war on the receiving end and my American-born grandpa had fought in the U.S. Army.  I always appreciated the stories from both sides.  As a young man, the story of Anne Frank both haunted and fascinated me.  Eventually, I was able to tour a Nazi concentration camp and visit the apartment the Franks lived in while in Amsterdam.  The resistance, of which those who harbored the Franks were part, is maybe the part of WWII history that spawns the most questions.  How did people get involved?  Why did they get involved?  Why did others not get involved?  In fact, in a museum dedicated to the wartime resistance in Amsterdam, a provocative sign explains that, in the opinion of those who put the exhibit together, some were underground leaders, others chipped in occasionally, and others maybe only resisted in their hearts, but all of those types are worthy of respect.  It is an interesting question that I admit I haven't found a convincing answer to yet, but I don't hesitate to admit that it's those who actively participated, whether in uniform or trying to escape detection in the underground, that command instant respect and make for intriguing reading.

Book cover.In On All Fronts: Czechoslovaks in World War II, Part 3 (ISBN: 0-88033-456-8), edited by Lewis M. White, there are many stories of people with Czechoslovak heritage fighting and resisting the Nazi occupation of their beloved land, fighting with the Allies to overthrow the Germans, and then fighting an unexpected enemy, their major liberator, when the USSR decided to prop up a Communist dictatorship in the post-war years.  The book consists of short contributions from a wide variety of Czechoslovaks involved in the war in one way or another.  The vast majority are contributions from men who served as officers in Czechoslovak regiments of Allied militaries.  Many served in the French Foreign Legion, others in the Royal Air Force, and a disproportionately large number served in the Red Army.  Other stories were from members of the underground resistance or partisans.  All had a very common theme: the liberation of what was a free and democratic country from the grips of a totalitarian Nazi government.  Stories of tense minutes hiding under the floorboards of a stranger's house, fighting off German tanks on swampy riverbanks, forced treks through the snowbound and freezing Tatras, and high-flying adventure in the skies over enemy territory make for interesting reading, especially since it is about a group that doesn't get much billing in the usual run-down of the history of World War II.  While the book largely focuses on military successes, there is room for a few stories of defeat as well as some realism that describes the banalities and redundancies that afflict all military bureaucracies the world over in all eras.  The end of the book sees a little change in focus as the stories do not have so much to do with the vanquished Germans, but with the intruding Red Army that presented a much different face than the French, the British, and the Americans.

The book was enjoyable and provided for an unexpectedly powerful and poignant ending, although it was admittedly hard to plow through in places.  Since most of the writers were officers and career military men, many of the memoirs seem technical and are filled with recountings of names, dates, lines held, and guns lost.  This is especially true of those who served with the Western Allies.  Those who served with the Soviets, in the Far East, or in partisan units provide for what I found to be more intriguing reading.  Their stories are full of crazy moments such as a Soviet captain telling a Czech lieutenant that if he doesn't succeed in battle, he'll answer with his head; or a Czech officer recounting how he and another officer had horses, but one morning during a particularly hard time in the winter, they awoke to only one horse, but the camp cook was proudly serving horse goulash in the mess hall.  Dry tales of artillery lines and military bureaucracy are counterbalanced effectively by your heart racing along with the resistance member hiding in a barn as the Nazis tear a farmyard apart.  The far reaches of the Gulag make some depressing appearances and, even having read books explaining the Gulag and Stalin, make the Soviet bureaucracy seem absolutely crazy.  Czechs escaping the Nazis by going into Soviet territory were promptly arrested and spent time in prison until the Soviets found a use for them by forming a Czech regiment.  Then, they were sometimes used as canon fodder.  Finally, as the war came to a close, those who had put their complete effort into fighting for Czechoslovakia in an effort to make it again free, found themselves fighting a new and entirely unexpected foe.  The Soviets had a little bit of a different agenda than the Allies on the western front, and started implementing things right away.  It was interesting to read about the disappointment of those who returned from the war only to find themselves looking to get out of Czechoslovakia again.  Some made it; others weren't so lucky and suffered torture and other inhumane treatment in prisons.  The part that was the hardest to believe was that it wasn't some far enemy (i.e., the Soviets), but a near enemy in the face of former classmates, those who one fought next to, or acquaintances from the same town.  Not only had the Soviets sold Czechoslovakia out, Czechoslovaks sold Czechoslovakia out.  Of course, that spawned a whole new generation of tales of an equally intriguing underground resistance movement; hopefully their stories are also recorded somewhere for us to both enjoy and learn from.

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This work, including all text, photographs, and other original work, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial No Derivatives 3.0 License and is copyrighted © MMXI John Pruess.

1 comment:

Papa Tom said...

Sometimes the "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" just doesn't work out. I guess we have seen that in the middle east conflicts. Nice review. tp