Author Talks About Post-World War II Era
LIANE HANSEN, host:
Although the Second World War ended more than 60 years ago, stories about it are still being written. A recently published book contradicts what we have come to believe about the end of the conflict - that in small towns all over Europe, cheering crowds greeted smiling GIs as heroes. Although it was true in some cases, there was also brutality, injustice and violence.
"The Bitter Road to Freedom: A New History of the Liberation of Europe" is written by William Hitchcock, a Temple University professor who specializes in the history of Europe since 1939. Professor Hitchcock joins us from WRTI, on the campus of Temple University in Philadelphia. Welcome to the program.
Dr. WILLIAM HITCHCOCK (History, Temple University; Author, "The Bitter Road to Freedom: A New History of the Liberation of Europe): Thank you. It's good to be with you, Liane.
HANSEN: I have an anecdotal story for you. Many of the taxi drivers in Paris are from Normandy and you know, whenever they pick up an American, they are always so effusively grateful for what the Americans did. And yet in your book, you write after D-Day, when the Allied troops moved through, it wasn't all kisses and flowers. Explain.
Dr. HITCHCOCK: Well, after 60 years, the French people have put a lot of the bitterness of the immediate liberation period behind them, and I think rightly so. We have a very long, and on the whole, a very close relationship with the people of France despite our periodic differences. But in June of 1944, in the summer of 1944, the situation was quite different.
On June 6th, 1944, the American and the British armies came ashore at Omaha and all the other beaches, and we're very familiar with that story and what it looked like. We know it was a great day of sacrifice on the behalf of the liberators, but I don't think we realize just what it was like to be on the receiving end of that storm of violence that came ashore. And in fact, we now know that about 3,000 French civilians were killed on June 6th alone. So that may be part of what those French taxi drivers are putting behind them now to focus on the longer story, which is the just war that we fought together to defeat the Germans.
HANSEN: There are several incredible chapters. I mean, you write about Belgium, you write about the camps and the fact that many of the inmates in some of the camps weren't even allowed to leave during liberation. And there's one chapter that you call "Hunger," and this is about the terrible situation that the Dutch were in. Can you tell us a little bit about it?
Dr. HITCHCOCK: Oh, it's a terrible chapter, and it's very difficult material to read about, but at the very end of the war, just on the eve of liberation, the Dutch people as a whole rose up against their German occupiers, but it was too soon. And the German military put down that uprising and as punishment, they cut off all additional imports of food, of medicine, of clothing into Holland.
So Holland, in the winter of 1944 and into the spring of 1945, went through an absolutely awful period of privation. At a time when the Americans and the British were beginning to push further into Germany, the Dutch were sort of left in a kind of limbo waiting for liberation. They could see it just across the rivers of the Rhine and the other rivers in the south of Holland. But the Germans kept them under a very fierce occupation, and thousands of them starved to death.
HANSEN: They were eating tulip bulbs?
Dr. HITCHCOCK: Oh. After having used all sorts of creativity to try to draw nourishment from leaves, from grass, from bark, the Dutch turned to the two things that were most readily available. One was tulip bulbs, which when boiled could be turned into a grotesque kind of a soup, and the other was sugar beets, that when boiled and boiled and boiled can be turn into kind of a sickly sweet pulp. It's designed really - was meant to be used with cattle food, but the Dutch were forced to eat this kind of thing just to survive that hunger winter of 1944.
HANSEN: There was an awareness of the situation that the Dutch were in. Why was no help given? Why was no food sent?
Dr. HITCHCOOK: It was one of those terrible moral decision. I think it wore on Churchill, in particular, who was very close to the Dutch, and he agonized over it. And at the end of the day, he had to agree that the way to save the Dutch was to defeat Germany first.
HANSEN: So, the idea was that if food had been dropped into the Netherlands, that it would feed the German soldiers and not the people?
Dr. HITCHCOCK: That was certainly one of considerations, that Eisenhower felt if we drop tens of thousands of tons, at great cost and at great risk, tens of thousands of tons of food and medicine, the Germans will steal it anyway. So, that doesn't make a great deal of sense for us to undertake a large-scale, humanitarian relief when the Germans will simply steal this material from the Dutch people themselves for whom it's intended.
HANSEN: Many books have been written about the military aspect of World War II, the bravery and courage of what's known as the greatest generation. Why haven't more been written about the condition of the European people during the liberation, the humanitarian side of all of this?
Dr. HITCHCOCK: Well, I think that Americans - and Britains, really too - like to tell a certain kind of story about the Second World War. We focus on the fact that it was a just war, which it undeniably was. There was a sense of national sacrifice.
But as a consequence of focusing on our sacrifices, I think we have gotten away from the sacrifices that ordinary European civilians often made. But I think it also gets us away from another great story that we ought to tell about the Second World War and our role in it, not just the military story, but the humanitarian story because immediately following the armies of liberation, came armies of humanity, if you like.
Volunteer organizations, not just the Red Cross, but dozens and dozens of other similar humanitarian intervention organizations came in order to bind up the wounds of Europe. They gave food, they gave medicine, they provided clothing, they provided DDT powder, which was used to control lice that carried typhus, they provided barracks and clearing centers for people to get papers so that they could get on their way back home.
HANSEN: You specialize in the history of Europe since 1939. What inspired you to write this book?
Dr. HITCHCOCK: Well, in 2003, the United States and Europe was engaged in a great debate about whether or not to invade Iraq. And the Americans, American leadership took a very strong view that like in the Second World War, so in Iraq, there was a bad guy, a dictator whose regime was criminal and genocidal, and he had to be stopped.
But at that time, Europeans in 2003, the Europeans were saying, wait a minute, before you go barging in, just keep in mind that many ordinary civilians are going to suffer in Iraq because wars of liberation are unpredictable. And wars of liberation sometimes sort of spill out over the nice, neat boxes that you want to keep them in.
And I was fascinated by this debate because both sides in the U.S. and in Europe made a lot of references to the war experience, and it occurred to me that Americans and Europeans remember the Second World War very differently because of their different experiences in it. And as a consequence, they have very different views about how to use force in the contemporary world.
HANSEN: William Hitchcock's new book is called, "The Bitter Road to Freedom: A New History of The Liberation of Europe." He joined us from WRTI, on the campus of Temple University in Philadelphia. Thank you very much.
Dr. HITCHCOCK: Thank you so much, Liane.