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Posts Tagged ‘World War II’

A Tribute from One “Literary Cobbler” to Another

By Dr. Sander A. Diamond, professor of history

Dr. Sander Diamond

Germany’s best known contemporary writer and winner of the 1999 Nobel Prize in Literature died in a clinic in the German city of Lȕbeck April 11. Gȕnter Grass was 87.

The photo that accompanied his obituary in The New York Times captured the man the German world knew so well: black hair with dashes of gray, trademark walrus moustache, and ever-present pipe, which he puffed from morning to night. I was saddened by the news, the death of a mentor from afar. His writings have been part of my life since I first read his masterpiece, The Tin Drum, as a college student more than 50 years ago.

Born in Danzig (today Gdansk in Poland) in 1927, he was the son of a grocer named Willie. His mother was a Slav who hailed from an indigenous people in the region similar to the Sorbs in Germany. His family could barely make ends meet. Pugnacious as a kid, he was a fighter most of his life, a public intellectual who never walked away from controversy. When the war broke out in September 1939, he was 12 and soon found himself in the Hitler Youth Movement like most of his generation, including Pope Benedict.  At 15 he was called up to serve in the Wehrmacht.  Instead, he was recruited by the elite 10th Waffen-SS Panzer division Frundsberg, after giving up the hope of joining the U-Boat fleet.  This decision to serve in a Waffen-SS Division would haunt him for the rest of his life, and for many darken what was a stellar literary career.

Not long ago, I finished reading one of his last books, Peeling the Onion, his memoir. The title is appropriate, not only for his life but also many Germans, who hide their past activities during the Third Reich.

He wrote: “What I had accepted with the stupid pride of youth I wanted to conceal after the war out of the recurrent sense of shame… I will have to live with this for the rest of my life.”  And he did.  It was the first thing mentioned in The New York Times obituary, much to the annoyance of his dedicated followers. For a man The Wall Street Journal described as “a vivid and controversial chronicler of German guilt,” at age 79 Grass finally peeled back the onion skin that surrounded his life. While some called him a hypocrite, others felt that the action of a 16-year-old in no way tarnished his long career as a writer about German guilt and efforts to bury and conceal the past. His biography was, in many ways, the biography of an entire generation.

While I was appalled but not surprised to learn of his wartime record—there had been hints for years—it in no way tarnished my view of him as a literary master craftsman. His books and articles impacted me in ways unimaginable when I first read The Tin Drum in the early 1960s. I credit Gȕnter Grass for helping shape my world as a practitioner of German history, as well as my work as a writer, especially my last major book, The German Table: The Education of a Nation. It tells the story of how my generation in Germany tried to avoid the past while their elders attempted to bury it under the stainless steel buildings that dot the landscape of the new Germany. The past always resurfaced and we can credit Grass for helping force the Germans to deal with it. He once wrote of Germany:  “The history of my people is like a clogged toilet; no matter how hard you flush, the waste keeps coming.”

After the war, he trained as a sculptor and joined Gruppe 47, a group of postwar German intellectuals. He never lost his interest in the plastic arts or abandoned the habit of writing at his stand-up desks, which were the centerpieces in his several studies in Portugal, Berlin, and late in life, Schleswig-Holstein. Once the initial draft of a manuscript was completed in longhand, he sat down and typed it out on one of his many electric typewriters. Pecking away on a blank sheet of paper taught him patience and if you typed with the window open, he wrote, “at least people know you are still alive.” The pecking away has ended but not his influence on literature.

The recurrent theme in each of his books is the complicity of the Germans in the Third Reich and Germany’s complacency in the postwar world. Grass held a position in German society many aspired to but few gained, a public intellectual who believed that a person with his status had the obligation to speak out on the major issues of his time, the ebb and flow of politics and social issues.  In his later years he wrote a poem about Israel and what he perceived as its aggressiveness. He had hoped to write this long ago, but feared being called an anti-Semite, a very delicate issue for the Germans. The fighting spirit of his youth lasted to the end of his days, and for many he was a thorn in the saddle of the nation. When Germany was reunified in October 1990, he was against it, calling it the Second Anschluss, a reference to the first when Hitler annexed Austria.

As can be imagined, he had his share of detractors, which apparently he loved, whetting his appetite for controversy. Such was the price of a lifetime of work and dealing with issues most Germans wanted to avoid in the 1950s and 1960s. As Germany’s leading public intellectual and greatest living writer in the last 30 years, his huge collection of writings was read not only in Germany but overseas as well. It would not be an exaggeration to write that he achieved almost god-like status among his followers, which was confirmed when the Nobel Committee awarded him the Prize for Literature in 1999. He joined two other Germans who received the literary prize since the war: Hermann Hesse (1946) and Heinrich Bȍll (1972). These awards did much to restore Germany’s literary reputation that was destroyed by the Nazis and sent many of the country’s leading writers into exile or worse.

Most of Grass’s major books cannot be read in a few days, especially in German. He was a literary cobbler and it was often hard to follow his army of characters. In the fabric of each page is woven the history of Germany’s conflicted past. Grass never asked “what if.” He dealt with what was. His books have a special place in my study. After The German Table was published, I sent him a copy with a polite thank you for addressing those issues that have been the central constellations of my intellectual and professional life. A reply never arrived. Grass was a very busy man to the end, giving his last interview to a Spanish newspaper. In it he expressed his fear that all of the latest chaos could easily lead to a world war.

As he grew older, a younger generation of Germans viewed the war as ancient history and his wartime service did not seem so extraordinary. Younger Germans are mindful of the past but do not wish to be engulfed by it. Grass was appreciative of this and his later books dealt with contemporary issues, as was the case with Crabwalk and Novemberland.

The world has lost a great man and an outstanding author, a giant in the context of German literary life with his trademark Holmesian pipe, walrus moustache, and bi-focal always on the tip of his nose. Gȕnter Grass, R.I.P. You will be missed. Every time I peck away at my venerable old IBM Selectric I will think of you and your influence on this modest cobbler of words.

Oscar Win Would be Fitting Tribute to Turing

By Dr. Jorge L. Díaz-Herrera, president

Dr. Jorge L. Díaz-Herrera

The Imitation Game, based on the real-life story of Alan Turing and his team of code-breakers at England’s top-secret Government Code and Cypher School in World War II, garnered eight Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Best Actor in a Leading Role for Benedict Cumberbatch.

Turing built a digital computer that broke Nazi Germany’s most closely guarded encryption code, the Enigma code. That story was superbly told in The Imitation Game, which ended with the filmmakers’ revelation that Turing committed suicide in 1954. An open-minded gay man, Turing was a victim of the discriminatory laws of the day.

Prime Minister Winston Churchill said that “Turing’s work was one of the most important factors in the victory for the Allied forces and had probably shortened the war by as much as two years.” In 1945 he was awarded the Order of the British Empire for his services to his country and in 1951, Turing was elected to the Fellowship of the Royal Society.

However, we knew nothing about this war hero and mathematical and engineering genius until the 1970s, and not until 2012, 100 years after his birth, were his wartime papers declassified. What is now known is that Turing’s brilliant work proved essential to the development of computers and today’s machines rely on his seminal insight. He brought cryptology to the modern world and invented the concept of the programmable computer.

In 1936, while reading mathematics in Cambridge, England, the 24-year-old Turing made an extraordinary discovery: a universal “computing” machine. Turing called this theoretical entity the “automatic machine,” or a-machine; today we call it the Universal Turing Machine. Turing proved that the a-machine could solve any computing problem capable of being described as a sequence of mathematical steps. In 1938 he completed his Ph.D. thesis at Princeton, providing a formalization of the concepts of “algorithms” and “computation.” More importantly, he proved the notion that “software,” a word not coined yet, was capable of encompassing “every known process” as evidenced by today’s world of computers.

Turing’s interest in the human mind, even from 1936, centered on modeling the brain; in the 1940s he developed ideas for artificial intelligence (a term attributed to John McCarthy from the University of Pennsylvania in the mid-1950s). In the early 1950s Turing founded a completely new field: mathematical biology (today’s computational biology, without which we would not have been able to decipher the human genome). In 1952, he developed a chess program for a computer that did not yet exist but which he simulated by hand. It was his fascination with the human brain that led him to develop a test for machine-based intelligence; he called it the imitation game, published in his extraordinary paper “Computing Machinery and Intelligence.” It is now known as the famous Turing Test.

The hardware does not look the same, but the mathematical model of today’s computers is identical to the Turing machine. Proving again that he was way ahead of his time, Turing showed indirectly that we cannot automatically detect machine viruses or other malicious code, which explains why cyber-security is one of the most intractable problems of the 21st century.

The Association of Computing Machinery (ACM) A.M. Turing Award is an annual prize that honors an individual “for contributions of a technical nature made to the computing community.” It is generally recognized as the highest distinction in computer science, the “Nobel Prize in Computing,” now carrying a $1 million prize.

This is a fitting tribute to Turing, who was grossly misunderstood during his lifetime, but today is remembered as a true science and engineering pioneer, and a hero of the theory and practice of computer science.

And while The Imitation Game did a superb job of chronicling Turing’s heroic work during World War II, the film told just a portion of his story. As I left the theater I couldn’t help but wonder how much further ahead computing would be today if Turing had lived longer.

Epic-making Change without Conflict

By Professor of History Dr. Sander Diamond

Epic-making change rarely comes without conflict. Such was not the case 25 years ago this month when the Berlin Wall opened.

Some people approached 1989 with consternation, subscribing to the vision held out by George Orwell in his bestseller, 1984. In truth, what happened Nov. 9, 1989, set in motion a train of events that would have caught Orwell short. It is a day when nearly all of the legacies of the 20th century began to dissolve, literally overnight, and without conflict.

On that fateful day, one may say that the Cold War ended, the German Question was put to rest with the reunification of the two Germanys the following October and the re-establishment of a long-divided Berlin as its capital, the retreat of the Red Army from Central and Eastern Europe, the creation of democratic nations in place of communist ones, the unimaginable collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991 and soon its dismemberment into independent states, and China, drawing lessons from the fate of the USSR, emerging into an economic giant leaving its communist political leadership intact. Just as the outbreak of World War I marked the end of an age, so did the opening of the Berlin Wall.

The history of the Berlin Wall began in 1945 when a defeated Germany was divided into Four Zones of Occupation: one each to the British, French, Americans, and Russians. In 1949, the French, British, and American zones were collapsed into the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany). In turn, the Russians created the German Democratic Republic (East Germany). Berlin was also divided into four zones and on Aug. 13, 1961, Berliners awakened to find a wall of separation being built and soon it divided the city in two, a small version of the Iron Curtain. Escape was nearly impossible from the Eastern sector. The western occupiers protested; there was talk of war, but soon the Berlin Wall became a fact of life.

However, in the mid-1980s, internal changes in Moscow—with the advent of Mikhail Gorbachev and his policy of Glasnost— set into motion an unexpected tidal wave of changes helped along by the election of a Polish-born Pope and Ronald Reagan’s more aggressive foreign policy. In the late 1980s, the winds of change swept into the shipyards of Gdansk, the former city of Danzig, Hitler’s casus belli for war in 1939; into Budapest; and in 1989, the Lutheran churches of East Germany. In short order, the Houses that Stalin Built in the wake of World War II started to waver on their foundations and the GDR fell off its pedestal. With the Old Guard gone, the GDR’s guards stepped aside as people with pick axes chipped away at the hated wall Nov. 9.

The end of the Berlin Wall opened the path to rebuild a divided nation. Today, Germany is an economic giant and Berlin is again a world-class city with its museums, theaters, off-beat sections, and rebuilt Parliament— the old Reichstag with its glass dome as a symbol of its new transparency.Rarely has a transition from one period to another gone so smoothly.

Only a small section of the Berlin Wall still stands, a tourist attraction, while a bronze line in the pavement reveals where the entire wall stood.

Nearby this last piece of the wall are the former Luftwaffe  headquarters; the Brandenburg Gate, a symbol of the Prussians who unified Germany in 1870; the newly built Memorial to the Six Million Murdered Jews of Europe; a memorial to those killed trying to flee East Germany; and below the surface, the Fȕhrerbunker, where Hitler committed suicide.

While unity permitted Germany to move on, it will never escape its past.

College Will Mark Veterans Day with Ceremony

Associate Professor of History Chris Leahy speaks at last year's Veterans Day ceremony.

Keuka College will mark Veterans Day Monday, Nov. 11, with a 4 p.m. ceremony at the World War II memorial near Lightner Library. (In case of inclement weather, it will be held in Hegeman Hall 109.)

College President Jorge L. Díaz-Herrera will deliver remarks along with Chris Leahy, associate professor of history; Sander Diamond, professor of history; and Linda Park, director of Lightner Library. Rev. Eric Detar, College chaplain, will offer a prayer of remembrance, and members of the Penn Yan VFW Honor Guard are expected to take part.

After the ceremony, refreshments will be served in Lightner Library.

Erected by members of the Political Science and History Club in 2005, the memorial commemorates the 60th anniversary of V-E Day, honors World War II veterans, and recognizes the contributions Keuka College nurses made during the war.

For more on Veterans Day, read an opinion piece by Professor of History Sander Diamond.

Seven Events that Changed Our Nation and the World

By Dr. Sander A. Diamond, professor of history

This year marks the milestone anniversaries of  seven events that changed our nation and the world, altering the lives of the witnesses and all that followed.

The Battle of Gettysburg (150 years), Lincoln’s address at Gettysburg (150 years), the inauguration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt as president (80 years), Dr. Martin Luther King’s defining oration in Washington, D.C. (50 years), and the assassination of President Kennedy in Dallas (50 years) helped define the American journey and continue to impact our lives. Adolf Hitler’s ascension to power (80 years) and the Battle of Stalingrad (70 years) altered the course of world history in ways that were unimaginable at the time.

On Jan. 31, 1933, Hitler was appointed chancellor of Germany. Within a year, he consolidated his power, the Third Reich was born, and the course of world history was soon to take a different course.

Three months later, FDR stood on the steps of the Capitol and was sworn in as president in the midst of the Great Depression. Unlike Hitler, who told the German people that the depression was caused by a great conspiracy, FDR told our nation that “all we have to fear is fear itself.”  FDR led the the nation through the darkest days of the Great Depression and World War II. Rarely has there been a sharper contrast between good and evil, between all that was embodied in FDR and what Der Führer represented.

In the annals of military history, there are battles that turn the tide of warfare. In World War II there were two: D-Day, June 6, 1944 and the Battle of Stalingrad, which came to an end Jan. 31, 1943 with victory by the Red Army. It was after Stalingrad when Hitler acknowledged to his close associates that the war might not end as he imagined.

In World War II, it was Stalingrad and D-Day June 6, 1944. This year we will commemorate the 150th anniversary of a battle that took place in Gettysburg, from July 1-3, 1863. The hilly landscape, with outcroppings of rock and names like Seminary Ridge, Culp’s Hill and Cemetery Ridge, became a killing field. When it ended, 56,000 were dead or wounded, and  Lee’s shattered forces retreated to Virginia. The tide of war had turned and when it ended in April 1865, more than 750,000 men had died, according to recent estimates.

The battlefield was dedicated Nov. 19, 1863, with the grave sites still fresh and much of it still littered with pieces of weapons of war. The words delivered by President Lincoln that day transcend what occurred on that blood-soaked battlefield, “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from this earth.”

One hundred years later, on Nov. 22, 1963, President John F. Kennedy, the embodiment of youth and vigor, was shot and a few minutes after 1 p.m. the nation and the world were in a state of shock as they listened to the report from Parkland Hospital. After JFK’s death, American politics and foreign policy moved in a different direction. We are left to only speculate what would have happened had he been elected for a second term.

Four months earlier, on Aug. 28, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial overlooking the mall and delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. In the shadow of Lincoln, he called upon the nation to complete its work, the promise of equality for all 100 years after Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address. The Civil Rights Movement had moved to the top of the nation’s agenda.

We can never forget the evilness of Hitler, but as we stop and commemorate so many defining events this year, we should be thankful that each generation brought forth people like Lincoln, FDR, JFK and King who in word and deed gave us a better world. Their monuments are less in stone than in ourselves.