Book Review: “The Winds of War” and “War and Remembrance” by Herman Wouk

Together, The Winds of War (1971) and War and Remembrance (1978) make up  Herman Wouk’s epic two-volume novel of World War II.  Although, as Wouk (pronounced “woke”) writes in his foreword to the second volume, “War and Remembrance is a story in itself, and can be read without the prologue,” it would be a serious mistake to skip The Winds of War.  You will miss too much of value if you do.  The two books tell one story, published in two volumes for no reason other than its length.

Throughout this story, Wouk focuses on the Henry family: career naval officer Victor “Pug” Henry, his wife Rhoda, and their three children: sons Warren and Byron – together with Byron’s wife Natalie and her uncle, Aaron Jastrow – and their daughter Madeline.  Through their experiences, Wouk undertakes to tell nothing less than the entire story of World War II – in both Europe and the Pacific – from beginning to end, as well as the Holocaust that laid waste to European Jewry.  It is a story of extraordinary scope, and while some aspects of the war are described in greater detail than others, the result is a picture of this immense conflict that feels complete.

The primary reason that I picked up The Winds of War in the first place was that I was hoping to find the answer to a question that has troubled me for years:  How could the political and military leaders of one of the most culturally advanced and educated people in Europe have systematically slaughtered six million people in what we know today as The Holocaust?

I have to digress for a minute to talk about that number.  Six million is the most commonly accepted figure for the number of Jews murdered by the Nazis in World War II.  The exact number is impossible to know with certainty, but six million is a reasonable estimate.  Can anyone really grasp how many people that is?  Consider this: the Boston Red Sox play their home games at Fenway Park, which seats about 37,000.  The stadium is sold out for every game the Red Sox play there.  If we were to take all the fans who crowd into Fenway over the course of two seasons – 37,000 men, women, and children for 81 games a year, for two years – and murder them all, we would have killed approximately as many people as the number of Jews who died under the oppression of Nazi Germany.

Six million people!  It staggers the imagination. How was it possible?  How could the leadership of Germany ever have conceived such a plan, much less implemented it?  How could the citizens of Germany have permitted it?  And how, finally, could the Jews have submitted to it?  I have struggled with these questions for years.  These two books finally gave me an answer.  To be sure, it is not a simple answer, and perhaps not a complete one, but the causes were many, diverse, and far from obvious.

Wouk approaches this question from many different points of view.  On page 175 of my paperback edition of War and Remembrance (Pocket Books, 1980), Father Martin, a German priest, says to Leslie Slote, an American Foreign Service official:

You must understand Germany, Herr Slote… It is another world.  We are a politically inexperienced people, we know only to follow orders from above… But we are naïve, and we have been humbugged.  An Antichrist has beguiled us, and with his brutish pseudoreligious nationalism he is leading us on the path to hell.  Our capacity for religious fervor and for unthinking energetic obedience is unfortunately bottomless.  Hitler and National Socialism are a ghastly perversion of an honest German thirst for faith, for hope, for a second modern metaphysics.  We are drinking salt water to quench our thirst.  If he is not stopped, the end will be an immeasurable cataclysm.

Another point of view is provided through the character of the German general, Armin von Roon, whose written history of the war, “World Empire Lost” – entirely Wouk’s creation – adds a fascinating perspective to the narrative as a whole.  On page 198, von Roon is quoted as follows:

It was Adolf Hitler’s political genius to weld the mystique of the nationalist Reich to the rabble-rousing appeal of socialism.  National Socialism resulted, an explosive mass movement.  The modified socialism of Hitler was unobjectionable to the army.  It amounted to Spartan economic controls, and basic employment, health, and welfare measures for all the people except the Jews.

But the Jews were the backbone of German liberalism.  Liberalism had given them the rights and privileges of citizens.  Liberalism had turned them loose to use their energy and cleverness in finance, the professions, and the arts.  These people who had been kept apart were now to be seen everywhere – prosperous, exotic, holding high places, and indiscreetly displaying their new-won gains.  To the Jews, liberalism was their salvation.  Therefore, to a dedicated nationalist like Adolph Hitler, the Jews appeared as ultimate enemies.

Tragically, it all depended on the point of view…

These things speak for themselves.  Hitler exaggerated the threat of the Jews, and badly led astray the well-meaning German people.  The Jews would have served us well.  Their weight in manpower, skill, and international influence, added on our side instead of subtracted from it, would have been most welcome.  Perhaps the war might even have ended differently!

The writings of Natalie’s uncle, Aaron Jastrow, also figure prominently in War and Remembrance, and add another dimension to the question of the causes of the Holocaust.  On page 801, Jastrow writes:

The hospital time passed quickly because I talked a lot with Dr. R_____.  He wants me to bear witness, when I return to the United States, that the “other Germany” lives on, shamed, silenced, and horrified by the Hitler regime; the Germany of the great poets and philosophers, of Goethe and Beethoven, of the scientific pioneers, of the advanced social legislators of Weimar, of the progressive labor movement that Hitler destroyed, of the good-hearted common people who in the last free election voted by an increased majority against the Nazis; only to be betrayed by the old-line politicians like Papen and the senile Hindenburg who took Hitler into the government when he had passed his peak, and brought on the great disaster.

As for what ensued, he asks me to picture the Ku Klux Klan seizing power in the United States.  That is what happened to Germany, he says.  The Nazi Party is an enormous German Ku Klux Klan.  He points to the dramatic use of fire rituals at night, the anti-Semitism, the bizarre uniforms, the bellicose know-nothing hatred of liberal ideas, and of foreigners and so forth.  I rejoined that the Klan is a mere lunatic splinter group, not a major party capable of governing the nation.  Then he cited the Klan of Reconstruction days, a respectable widespread movement which many of the leading Southerners joined; also the role of the modern Klan in the Democratic politics of the twenties.

Later on (page 1092), Jastrow writes more extensively about this question:

For that matter, what sense is there to the Oswiecim (Auschwitz) gas cellars?  I have thought and thought about that for weeks, with dizzied brain.  Calling the Germans sadists, butchers, beasts, savages explains nothing, for they are men and women like us.  I have an idea, and I will scribble it down, with much more certainty than I feel.  The root of the matter cannot be Hitler.  I start with that premise.  Such a thing must have been brewing for centuries, to have encountered so little resistance among the Germans when it happened.

Napoleon forced liberty and equality on the Germans.  From the outset they gagged on it.  With cannon and tramping boots, he invaded a patchwork of absolutist states hardly out of feudalism.  He ground the faces of the Germans in the brotherhood of man.  Freeing the Jews was part of this new liberal humanism.  It was not natural to the Germans, but they conformed.

Alas, we Jews believed in the change, but the Germans in their hearts never did.  It was the conqueror’s creed.  It swept Europe, but not Germany.  Their (i.e., the German) Romantic philosophers inveighed against the un-German Enlightenment, their anti-Semitic political parties sprouted, while Germany grew and grew into an industrial giant, never convinced of the “Western” ideas.

Their defeat (in the First World War) under the Kaiser, and the great inflation and crash, generated in them a terrible frustrated anger.  The communists threatened chaos and overthrow.  Weimar was falling apart.  When Hitler rose from this witches’ brew, like an oracular spook in Macbeth, and pointed at the Jews in the department stores and the opera promenades; when he thundered that not only were they the visible beneficiaries of Germany’s wrongs, but the actual cause of them; when that frenzied historical formula rolled forth as mendaciously simple as the Marxist slogans, but more candidly bloodthirsty; then the German rage was released in an explosion of national energy and joy, and the plausible maniac who had released it had his murder weapon in hand.  Bottomless lack of compunction in the Germans peculiarly fitted the weapon to the man.  Awareness of this baffling trait had to be kicked into me.  I am still puzzling over it.

Wouk also examines this question at length in his own voice.  Beginning on page 959, he writes:

The intention to kill every Jew in Europe – and every Jew in the world, as German domination expanded – was, for Hitler and his trusted few, probably never in doubt.  It crystallized in deeds and documents early in the war.  The paper trail remains exiguous, and Hitler apparently never signed anything; but that the order came down from him to execute his threats in Mein Kampf appears self-evident.

However, old-fashioned notions in the world outside Germany presented difficulties: mercy, justice, the right of all human beings to life and safety, horror of killing women and children, and so forth.  But for the National Socialists, killing was the nature of war; German women and children were dying under bombs; the definition of enemy was a matter of government decision.  That the Jews were Germany’s greatest enemy was an article at the core of National Socialist policy.  That was why, even as Germany in 1944 began to crumple, crucial war resources continued to go to murdering Jews.  To the critical military mind this made no sense.  To the leaders whom the nation passionately followed to the last it made total sense.  In the last will and testament that Adolf Hitler wrote, before blowing his brains out in his Berlin bunker, he boasted of his “humane” massacre of the Jews – he used that word – and exhorted the defeated German people to go on killing them.

In dealing with the softhearted prejudices of the benighted outside world during the great slaughter, the essential National Socialist policy was hoax.  Wartime secrecy made possible the job of covering up the actual killings.  No reporters traveled with the Einsatzgruppen (“task forces”) or got into Auschwitz.  It was a question first of counteracting the ever-growing flood of leaks and rumors about the slayings, and second of getting rid of the evidence.  The corpse-burning squads of Paul Blobel, and the Paradise Ghetto of Terezin, were complimentary aspects of the great hoax.  Theresienstadt would show that the slaughter was not happening.  The corpse-burning squads would erase any evidence that it had ever happened.

Today the notion of forever concealing the murder of many millions of people may seem utterly crazy.  But the energy and ingenuity of the entire German nation were at Hitler’s disposal.  The Germans were performing many other prodigious mad feats for him.

The most triumphant part of the hoax was directed at the Jews themselves.  All through the four years of the giant slaughter, most of them never knew, few suspected, and fewer truly believed that the trains were taking them to their deaths.  The Germans soothed them with the most diverse and elaborate lies about where they were going, and what they would do when they arrived.  This faking lasted to the final seconds of their lives, when they were led naked into the “disinfection shower baths” which were asphyxiation dungeons.

Today, again, the millions of doomed Jews may seem crazily simple-minded to have swallowed the hoax and walked like oxen to the knife.  But as the patient refuses to believe he has leukemia but grasps at any straws of reassurance, so the European Jews willed not to believe the ever-mounting rumors and reports that the Germans meant simply to kill them all.

To believe that, after all, they had to believe that the legal government of Germany was systematically and officially perpetrating a homicidal fraud gigantic beyond imagining.  They had to believe that the function of the state itself, created by human society for its self-protection, had mutated in an advanced Western nation to the function of secretly executing multitudes of men, women, and children who had done nothing wrong, with no warning, no accusation, and no trial.  This happened to be the truth, but to the last most of the Jews who died could not grasp it.  Nor can we, even in hindsight, altogether blame them, since we ourselves still find this one stark fact absolutely incomprehensible.

If Wouk’s primary purpose in writing The Winds of War and War and Remembrance was to relate the events of the Holocaust within the larger framework of World War II, why not write a history book?  The answer is, Wouk is a storyteller.  He wants to give this drama a human face.  There is a vast amount of valuable and fascinating history in these pages, enough to satisfy any student of this era.  But by writing a novel, Wouk brings the story to life, giving it far more impact and making it much more memorable than if he had written straight history.  Making it memorable was critical to Wouk, who ends his foreword to War and Remembrance with these words: “The beginning of the end of War lies in Remembrance.”

Everyone should read these books.  In my opinion, they comprise the most important novel to come out of World War II.  You may be prompted, as I was, while reading about the role that prejudice played in the devastation of the Holocaust, to reflect on the prejudices that you grew up with, and the extent to which they may yet live on in you.  And, you may also be struck, as I was, by the unimaginable pain and suffering caused by war, and feel a renewed conviction that going to war must never be anything other than the final option, when all others have been exhausted.

Derrick Robinson

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Published in: on June 30, 2012 at 9:29 pm  Comments (3)  
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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Great review–I’m reading it now, and in searching for additional information found your blog. I also put a link to this page on http://www.wordsreadandwritten.com/reading-2/reading-moment/#respond (answering “what I’m reading now” question), because your review is really perfect. Thanks for this!

  2. Absolutely the best books together written about WWII. It took Wouk 7 years to write each. I remember how I waited for War and Remembrance all those years knowing it was on the way. When it was published, I went back and reread Winds of War and then the sequel. The longest and best read of my life.

  3. I have one problem with Wouk’s tale – especially in regard to Natalie Jastrow. I can understand why she wanted to get her uncle out of Europe. But once she became pregnant, why didn’t she consider the safety of her unborn child and return to the United States? Especially since she was having so much trouble acquiring the means to get her uncle Aaron out of Europe before the discovery of her pregnancy?


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