World War II has been on my mind this year, so when I noticed a small red paperback on a bookshelf and realized it was a bit of propaganda written by Daphne du Maurier, the hugely popular novelist, I started reading it.
The book was published when groups on both sides of the Atlantic were trying to get Americans to join the war against Hitler. This was enormously difficult, something I always think of when I hear an American boast about how we “saved Europe.” I was a teenager before I realized World War II started in 1939, not 1941. [A colleague points out that the war in Asia began much earlier than that.]
In fact, most of the intellectuals of the day were fierce isolationists. As undiplomatic a character as Lewis Mumford was, he was utterly right to his relentless efforts to alert his fellow writers to the danger posed by the Nazis. He saw the danger clearly in the 1930s and spent years trying to raise awareness. He lost some of his closest friends as a result. His wife Sophia, whom I’m writing about, also devoted herself to the cause and was often left to run the local committee meetings and type the minutes while Lewis traveled the country. (His book Men Must Act was published in 1939. This review mentions that one thing he argued for was allowing more immigrants from Europe.)
Their son Geddes was killed during the last weeks of the European war. Sophia felt she couldn’t grieve publicly because so many other mothers’ sons had died in a war she had worked so hard to get America to join. I could see her pain when we talked about this fifty years later. Here she is in 1943 with Geddes and their daughter Alison.
I’ve also been reading the first volume in Winston Churchill’s six-volume history of World War II. It is clear that politicians and the public simply couldn’t bring themselves to imagine what was coming, in spite of the evidence before them. They did not let themselves see that Hitler would break promise after promise and go on invading other countries (as he did on this day in 1939, leading to the declaration of war) and killing vast numbers of people.
They did not want to believe that Hitler was as bad as he turned out to be. They felt that other people would stop him, that the German people were civilized and modern and couldn’t possibly be taken in by an evil leader and evil ideology. And they actually thought Hitler could be negotiated with, and kept in line.
Indeed you may think that I see a parallel to the situation today in the United States, and I do. The efforts by the current administration to quash dissent and promote violence, and the gross deception and tawdry corruption that have become our daily fare, are truly dangerous. But there are terrible things going on in other countries, too, and these evils feed on one another.
Du Maurier’s little book was about how a new spirit of unselfishness was needed to win the war against the Nazis, and this idea was echoed in a column by Paul Krugman a few weeks ago, “The Cult of Selfishness Is Killing America.” The subject of selfish behavior quickly overtook the debate on the neighborhood listserv about whether we should be allowed to keep chickens.
Most of the discussion was about the selfishness of other people: refusals to wear masks or to keep dogs on a leash. But it was nice to see that some people were thinking about their own behavior, too. I’m hoping that the pandemic, while keeping us apart, is making us more alert to our extended relationships and interdependence.
I was intrigued, however, that Krugman didn’t once use the word individualism to explain American behavior. We are known f