Previewing My New WWII Course

Black POWs in December 1944, at the Battle of the Bulge
American soldiers taken prisoner at the Battle of the Bulge, December 1944 – Bundesarchiv

I think it was sometime in the fall of 2003, my first semester teaching at Bethel University, when I blurted out to members of my Modern Europe class something like, “You wouldn’t be interested in a course on the history of World War II, would you?”

More than ten years and lots of student requests (and alumni grievances) later, here I am: frantically preparing for HIS231L World War II to finally premiere next Monday, when Bethel’s January term begins. I did a fair amount of blogging about that war last August-September, when I started to turn my attention seriously to the class. But now that it’s upon me, I thought I’d check back in with a few more details…

• Because of the category that the course fills in Bethel’s gen ed curriculum, it needs to do a fair amount of American history — but much of that will come by comparison to other nations’ experiences of the war. The last thing I want to do is teach a story that started with Pearl Harbor and ended with V-J Day. We’ll start by catching up on some of the central ideas and values of modernity, revisit some turning points in American history of the late 19th and early 20th century, and then actually start the war with Japanese aggression in China.

To help develop students’ comparative lenses… In addition to a primary source reader with international sweep (The World in Flames, by Frans Coetzee and Marilyn Shevin-Coetzee), I’m assigning two oral histories — Japan at War (Haruko Taya Cook and Theodore Cook) and Remembering the Good War (Thomas Saylor).

• The Saylor book, which features Minnesotans’ memories of the war, helps set up two more distinctive themes of the course.

First, to a limited extent, I’m trying to treat the Twin Cities as an extension of our classroom. One of the students’ three required essays will have them respond to an off-campus activity: a session of the Harold C. Deutsch World War II History Round Table at Historic Fort Snelling; a visit to the Minnesota History Center; a tour of several local war and veterans memorials, starting with the WWII and Vietnam memorials on the south mall of the State Capitol; or their own oral history interview of a family member who lived through the war.

Saylor, Remembering the Good WarIf you’re interested in joining us for one or more of the first three activities, I’ll have more information available later this week on our department blog, where I also gave an interview last month in which I addressed the problematic phrase in Saylor’s title: (check out the three other courses previewed in that series — ranging from African politics to Muslim women to sexuality in America)

What do you think students will enjoy most about HIS231L? What will they find most challenging?

…Besides the grief and exhaustion that comes with studying an event that killed more than 60 million people… What they should find most challenging is that the idea of World War II as a “Good War” fought by “The Greatest Generation” is very much an American (and perhaps British) notion. If you’re French, Dutch, Croatian, German, Russian, Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, or virtually any other nationality, you’ll have a much more ambiguous memory of the war. And I hope students are willing to consider that even American soldiers rarely felt like what they were doing was all that “good,” even if it was necessary.

I appreciate how Saylor addressed this ambiguity in his preface:

World War II has been memorialized in the United States as “the Good War,” the noble cause. Indeed, in many ways it was: European society was delivered from the horror of National Socialist Germany, and Asia was spared Japan’s economic and military control. Many proud stories have been recounted, and in the collective national memory 1941-45 has advanced to icon status. In this self-congratulatory rush, many darker sides of the war have been pushed aside or ignored. These recollections and experiences, sometimes unpleasant, need to be included in our historical consciousness, and they form a fundamental part of this volume. So, amid the good and the positive — and there is much of both — we confront hate and racism, cowardice and depression, self-doubt and loss of faith, mental breakdowns and nightmares. World War II was all of these things, too. (pp. viii-ix)

• While this is a gen ed class, I also want to use it to help students, whatever their major, to think more deeply — and more Christianly — about the past. This is the goal of Tracy McKenzie’s excellent The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us About Loving God and Learning from History, and I plan to introduce at least a few of Tracy’s key questions early on in the course: Can we treat members of what Christians might consider their “cloud of witnesses” as heroes without making idols of them? Can American Christians study their nation’s history while keeping their identity in Christ intact? Can we approach the past seeking inspiration rather than ammunition? (I microblogged my way through the book over Thanksgiving at our blog’s Facebook page)

• At the end of my department blog interview, I said that the one thing I most hoped students would take away from the course would be a “heightened degree of empathy for those who participate in warfare — and not just those who fight it. More civilians died in WWII than combatants, and millions more were forced to leave their homes forever.”

Sajer, The Forgotten SoldierTo be honest, I’m never sure that I can accomplish this particular objective, especially with a topic like World War II. While I’ll do the best I can using a variety of sources and pedagogical techniques, we should enter and exit a course like this keeping open the possibility that an experience like serving as a German soldier on the Russian Front in 1942-1943 is simply beyond the imaginative understanding of a middle-class American college student in the early 21st century. That’s the concern that tortured the German-French writer Guy Sajer, in his memoir (novel?), The Forgotten Soldier:

I should perhaps end my account here [p. 68], because my powers are inadequate for what I have to tell. Those who haven’t lived through the experience may sympathize as they read, the way one sympathizes with the hero of a novel or a play, but they certainly will never understand, as one cannot understand the unexplainable. This stammering outpouring may be without interest to the sector of the world to which I now belong. However, I shall try to let my memory speak as clearly as possible.

3 thoughts on “Previewing My New WWII Course

  1. This looks like an excellent course. I come from a long line of veterans: Great-Grandfather WWI, Grandfather WWII and I Iraq & Afghanistan. That being said, my interest in this topic runs deep.

    I wish you and your class the best. Wish I lived in the area to audit the class.

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