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Let’s have a ’sensitive’ war

November 7, 2001

By late 1942, after Adolf Hitler had invaded most of the nations of Europe, relentlessly bombed England and declared war on the United States, the vexing question naturally arose: What’s better, to fight back or to sit down and study the root causes of Germany’s behavior?Some impetuous students simply rushed off campus to defend their homelands. But their professors knew that many semester hours of causal analysis lay ahead, especially since several very promising root-cause seminars in Poland and Belgium had been interrupted by Panzer divisions rolling through on their way to Paris.

The root-causists agreed that Germany had been badly misunderstood and that Britain and America had brought the terror of war upon themselves. Some pointed to misguided policies — not handing over the Rhineland and Czechoslovakia to Hitler quickly enough, for example. Others thought the deepest roots of the root causes were in the eighth century. That was when the Teutonic knights were treated discourteously by newly Christianized Slavs, thus setting the stage for a perfectly understandable “religious war” between the pagan Nazis and majority Christian nations 13 centuries later.

One problem with the growing sympathy for Hitler was the unsettling news that the Nazis were rounding up and killing Jews, some 6 million of them. But the Episcopal bishops of the United States were able to put this in perspective. In a soothing formal statement titled “Wage Reconciliation, Not War,” they said that while killing so many people is surely not a good thing, it is also true that 6 million children die of natural causes every few years without attracting nearly as much attention.

When President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill put together their “broad coalition” to fight Hitler, they ran into unexpected problems. One ally said it would fight only if the war could end within two months. A few wanted a cash payoff before joining up. One was willing to fight without a bribe but would cease fighting if it didn’t like the looks of the probable postwar government in Norway. And one said, we are with you all the way, but we can’t send troops, and you can’t use our airfields or our airspace. And please don’t mention that we’re on your side.

As if that weren’t bad enough, the Allies had to confront the ticklish question of whether to suspend the bombing of Germany during Oktoberfest. The Nazis, in fact, had already killed several million people during previous October beer-drinking festivals, but they were known to be very much opposed to being shot at themselves during this culturally important period. “What’s next? Bombing during Lent?” asked a New York Times editorial. It appeared under the headline “Let’s Bomb, but Sensitively.”

Several papers ran daily photographs of dead German children, helpfully provided by Berlin. As a result, some columnists pronounced themselves shocked into second thoughts. Nobody had told them that children sometimes die in war. They had been led to believe that Allied bombs, though dropped from 30,000 feet, would fall only upon the heads of German troops and Nazi-armband wearers.

Another problem was that German saboteurs were known to be crawling all over America, but the FBI was reluctant to arrest any lest it be accused of “racial profiling” or outright ethnic insensitivity. Besides, if you start arresting German-Americans, German speakers all around the world and all students who have ever studied German or visited Germany will hate Americans forever.

National Public Radio weighed in with a 19-part series reporting widespread bias against German-Americans. The series said Americans of German descent had been targets of 100,000 hate crimes — two had been shot at, three had suffered punches in the nose, one had been slapped with a bratwurst, and 99,994 had received hurtful sidelong glances or insincere hellos from neighbors.

NPR also announced it had decided to cover the war by attending every meeting of the Berkeley, Calif., city council. NPR reported that the council, by a 7-to-2 vote, decided not to declare war on either Germany or Japan. Instead, the nine members and all 10,000 students at Berkeley lighted candles and declared themselves individual hate-free zones.

Somehow, however, America and Britain won the war and established the peace, probably because they ignored all the amazing nonsense around them and just fought the good fight. But then some people always prefer standing around with scented candles instead of attacking the darkness.

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