Breaking Glass

Europe's Dark Roots

In April 1945, a world of avengers was closing in rapidly on Berlin.  Trapped in the bunker complex, Hitler’s dwindling band of followers faced mounting despair, until the news broke that Franklin Roosevelt had died.  The glorious word of relief ran through the surviving Nazi leadership: “The Empress Elizabeth is dead!”  However baffling that reference might be to a modern audience, its meaning was obvious at the time.  Although Germany was in deep crisis, the situation was no worse than that facing Prussia’s Frederick the Great in 1762, when the sudden death of the Russian empress had begun the collapse of the enemy alliance.

This story comes to mind whenever I contemplate the vast contemporary interest in World War II and All Things Hitler, an obsession that is obvious to anyone who watches television documentaries or peruses the history sections of chain bookstores.  For many, “the war” has come to be almost synonymous with history itself.  In itself, that fascination is harmless: Nobody doubts that the 1939-45 war did contribute mightily to shaping our modern world.  But without a functional knowledge of European history, we have no hope of understanding the worldview of the participants, and we are going to misjudge their actions profoundly.  Ideally, I’d like to insist on teaching any future courses on that war in a two-semester sequence, with the first part ranging...

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