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Freedeman Memorial Lecture 2013

2013 Freedeman Memorial Lecture

by Kelly Hyde

When Thomas Childers set out to write a quartet of books on World War II, he wanted to create something beyond traditional military history. Like the great British war poet Siegfried Sassoon, a man Childers cites as an inspiration, he wanted to "recover something more intimate."

Childers, the Sheldon and Lucy Hackney Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania, shared his findings at the Harpur College Department of History's 22nd annual Freedeman Memorial Lecture, a series established in 1992 in honor of history professor Charles E. Freedeman. Childers delivered his lecture, "The End in Sight: Life and Death in the Last Days of World War II," in the Casadesus Recital Hall on Nov. 15 to about 50 attendees.

He explained his approach in the context of previous understanding about the war, which has not always been accurate.

"Tom Brokaw's book, The Great Generation (on World War II), showed 'happy, healthy' veterans," he said. "But in fact, the divorce rate boomed (after the war) in 1945 and 1946 to the highest it had ever been. PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) was prevalent in various forms, but not yet acknowledged — they were still called 'psychoneurotic disorders.'"

Brokaw's report is not the only instance, however, of the dark side of World War II's history and influence being overlooked.

"Historians pole vault over the unpleasantness of war," Childers said. "Professional historians hand it off to military historians. My project is different — it's not a military history. (It attempts to realize) history's mission of illuminating the human condition through the use of memory."

To accomplish this, Childers used literary devices and prose more commonly associated with fiction. He said he wants to place readers in the action, allowing them to "see it, smell it and feel it."

"Men's and women's experiences offer a lens through which broader issues can be understood," he said. "It's the 'history of experience,' which captures the human depth and emotion often lost in abstract analyses."

The experiences Childers discussed were those of soldiers desperately hoping to survive the fall of Hitler in the last days of the war. In the spring of 1945, it actually seemed possible to make it to the end and survive, but soldiers remained anxious.

"All wars have their final casualties," Childers said. "No one wants to be one of the last names added to the list."

Even after Victory in Europe Day (VE Day) on May 8, 1945, the war slogged on and casualties continued to rise.

"With victory in hand, Anglo-American soldiers were in an unnerving situation: nobody knew where or when fighting would erupt," Childers said. "Everybody knew the war was over; yet, somehow, the war went on."

The possibility of death after the "end" of the war was particularly demoralizing.

"The final month of casualties was barely lower than February 1945," he said. "There wasn't a drop-off. The unpredictable and pointless resistance of a clearly defeated enemy was dispiriting; a British soldier recalled it as the 'terrible necessity of Germans pedantically and literally enacting their defeat.'"

Childers talked about the bleak realities of these final days through both American and German perspectives. He told the story of 21-year-old American soldier Richard Farrington, who wrote a letter to his parents in St. Louis.

"The last few missions are always the hardest," Farrington wrote. "Thank God the end is finally in sight."

Soon after Farrington's letter, the Americans approached the German city of Regensburg. Knowing the city awaited assured destruction, thousands of women flooded the Nazi headquarters at the center of the city, demanding that officials surrender the city to the Americans.

"No Nazi officials showed up, so a chant of 'down with Nazis' and 'God save Regensburg' began," Childers said. "These were an unruly group of people — they were even calling for the execution of Nazi officials."

Childers said that the uprising stunned the Nazis, who had been aggressively spreading their "fight to the last bullet" message throughout the city in the days prior. Nazi officials sent fire engines into the crowd with hoses to disperse them and hanged its leaders, but the uprising's message was not lost. On April 27, 1945, Regensburg was handed over to the Americans without a single shot fired.

After the capture of Regensburg, Americans were ordered to sweep the surrounding woods, fearing Nazis were hiding in nearby hamlets. Childers recalled that they found a crashed plane and four bodies. The pilot was still inside, burned beyond recognition.

It was Richard Farrington.

This story, among others, exemplifies Childers' experience and memory focused approach in The Twilight of War: Life and Death in the Last Days of World War II, the forthcoming last book in his quartet on World War II. Childers joked that this has to be the last book, whether he likes it or not.

"I promised my wife this is it," he said. "World War II is over after this book."

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Last Updated: 12/10/14