The guns at last light

The statue of the Marines raising the flag at Iwo Jima  

As the decades pass, and the most widespread war in history, involving millions of people in four continents, is relived through books and films, the contours of that memory continue to change. From drawing the line at good winning over evil, World War II is now being examined beyond the tropes of victor and vanquished by a growing number of historians and writers.

As the distance between the extraordinary generation that fought it and a generation that struggles to remember it widens, these stories of valour, horror and the strange bonds that war forges may be lost forever. There is a sense of time marching on, and with the greatest generation now in their 90s, oral history projects see this as the last chance to record the stories of these veterans. While the Indian Army had the largest volunteer force fighting in battlefields in Africa, Europe and Asia, there is little or no record of their experiences as part of an archive. Britain, the U.S. and France have fared better, with many museums and archives refusing to let the din and lessons of battle die down.

Heather Steele, executive director and lead historian of the U.S.-based World War II History Project that she founded in 2010, was an entrepreneur who ran a non-profit that helped law enforcement agencies hunt down child predators. A chance viewing of HBO’s Band of Brothers, however, took her down a different path. Speaking on telephone from Washington, Steele says, “I had an unconventional childhood. My mother was an ice-skater and my sister and I travelled through many lands when young. I was always interested in history, but was told it was never practical.” Steele earned an MBA from the University of Chicago and her work took her to Berlin, where she was when its iconic wall was brought down. “Watching Band of Brothers had such an emotional impact on me — I decided that the project would be more than a hobby; it would be a platform to disseminate the information I gathered. These were people who had volunteered to save us. What does their sacrifice mean to us? They were a generation who respected women and life, even in the midst of war. I couldn’t allow their stories to die with them.”

Steele, along with veterans, professors and children of American military men who had similar interests, has interviewed nearly 200 American, British, French, Canadian and German veterans and civilians. Journals, diaries and photographs are part of the archives. The interesting aspect of Steele’s archive is that there are not just stories coloured by triumph, but also records from the other side of war — of humiliation and the burden of history.

To help her translate the stories of the Germans, Steele found an unlikely friend in Charles Koenig, an officer in a Panzer regiment, who fought with Rommel’s Africa Corps in 1943. As a German POW, he worked as an interpreter for the Allies and made it his life’s mission to effect reconciliation with his former enemies. Today, some of his best friends are veterans of the British Sherwood Rangers, men he fought against in Africa. “There are many stories like Koenig’s, where former enemies now have deep relationships. These bonds are important to them, even if they rarely talk about it,” says Steele.

She has also attempted to speak to the women of that generation in Germany, who were often molested and strafed by Allied forces. “We see only the glory of war. But, women, as always during times of conflict, never had a voice. I spoke to these women in their native language, and many of them shared how they had been abused and then shunned by their own society. In Berlin, I came across so many for whom the trauma had never really gone away.”

While Steele looks for innovative partners who can transform these stories into documentaries, the voices that come through, despite the passage of years, are those of men and women as they were in the 1940s. Steele says, “For many of them, living in those times overshadows everything else that followed in their lives. They were open enough to share a lot of the good and bad things that happened on both sides of the war. It helped them reconcile. Some, however, continue to be bitter about it.”

The war that played itself out in many theatres across the globe, still presents many avenues for storytelling. While some of the interviews and articles on the project’s blog speak of the sequence of action, others talk of chance meetings with friends and enemies at the very places they fought. Yet others have built relationships with families whose fathers, sons and brothers they wounded or killed. “Memories change with time, and it’s not possible to verify all accounts; discrepancies do creep in,” says Steele, who encourages every country that went to war to record its stories. “Some of the stories are surreal.”

As age defeats the ranks of those who lived through this cataclysmic time, it is only fitting that their stories of resilience and redemption find a place in our lives.

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Printable version | Apr 18, 2021 2:53:54 AM |

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