We live in an age where we are constantly taking photographs, many of which we may never look at again. But if your house is like mine, there are pictures of your family on practically every wall. At least one of us has a genuine smile in nearly all these family photos. So perhaps it’s ironic that, in my favorite picture of my four kids, not one of them is even looking at the camera, much less smiling. Here it is:
It was taken on a remarkable day in June 2011 at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial in northern France. This photo often comes to mind around this time of year because of the extraordinarily important place June 6, 1944, has in world history and for the cause of freedom.
Coach Marv Levy, long-time pro football coach, once said, “The only ‘must-win’ was World War II.” I enjoy reading books that provide different perspectives on this period of our country’s past. Recently, I came across a one-of-a-kind work, “When Books Went to War” by Molly Manning. She presents a fascinating story showing that, without an arsenal of paperback books in the hands of our soldiers, history may have looked very different.
By the end of World War II, Germany had destroyed more than 100 million books in Europe. In 1933, author and activist Helen Keller wrote an impassioned open letter to German university students, expressing her disbelief that the very birthplace of the printing press had become a bonfire of the free press. By 1938, the Nazi party had banned 18 categories of books, 4,175 titles and the complete works of 565 authors. In Eastern Europe, a staggering 375 archives, 402 museums, 531 institutes and 957 libraries were burned to the ground. It is estimated that the Nazis destroyed half of all books in Czechoslovakia and Poland, and 55 million publications in Russia. Libraries in occupied nations that remained open were reorganized to serve Hitler’s agenda.
In September 1940, as war with the Axis powers grew closer, the U.S. Congress passed the Selective Training and Service Act. Approximately 16.5 million men between the ages of 21 and 35 were required to register for military service. However, this war would be won not just with bullets and bombs, but with books.
Librarian Emily Danton said, “The soldier at the front needs to have a cause in his heart as well as a gun in his hand.” She, like many other Americans, knew well that the war would be more a clash of wills than simply one of arms. Pocket-size books of all kinds became a tool enabling soldiers to strengthen their minds. Manning explains:
“Librarians understood that the conviction to go to war would not last long if fueled only by hatred and a desire for revenge. Now they vowed not only to collect books for the servicemen, but to illuminate why the nation was at war….
“In addition…books had a therapeutic quality, enabling humans to better process the difficulties and tragedies they endured. Army psychiatrists agreed that books helped divert the mind, providing relief from the anxieties and strains of war. Reading was credited not only with improving morale but easing adjustment and averting the onset of psychoneurotic breakdowns. According to one article: ‘When we read fiction or drama, we perceive in accordance with our needs, goals, defenses, and values,’ and a reader will ‘introject meaning that will satisfy his needs and reject meaning that is threatening to his ego.’ From books, soldiers extracted courage, hope, determination, a sense of selfhood, and other qualities to fill voids created by the war.
“Many men who were injured in the war found hope and healing in the books they read as they recovered.”
Why Books Are So Important
Manning observes that as the United States moved closer to war in Europe, Germany’s book burnings were cast in a new light. She writes that one newspaper remarked:
“‘Hunger, forced labor, imprisonment, concentration camps, unarmed crowds of fleeing citizens slaughtered from the skies, nations murdered without cause’ — these ‘are the spectacles that have succeeded those bonfires of books.’”
Think about this: The most destructive weapon brandished during World War II was not a plane, or a bomb or tank — it was Hitler’s “Mein Kampf.” This single book caused an educated nation to “burn the great books that keep liberty fresh in the hearts of men.”
As the war progressed, the persistence and hard work of thousands of librarians and volunteers began to have a more widespread impact. As TIME magazine described it, by 1943 “book-reading and book-buying reached outside the narrow quarters of the intellectuals and became the business of the whole vast literate population of the U.S.” The military effort had spilled over into the general population. No longer were books linked to wealth and status; they had become a universal pastime and a fitting symbol of democracy.
Additionally, this astounding effort to provide books to service members propelled formerly unsung titles into prominence. Perhaps the best example was “The Great Gatsby,” written in 1925. It was considered a failure during author F. Scott Fitzgerald’s lifetime. But when this book was printed as an ASE (Armed Services Edition) paperback in October 1945, it won the hearts of an army. It rose from obscurity into an American literary classic. Betty Smith’s “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” was perhaps the most popular ASE book of them all. It provided such a vivid account of childhood that many service members felt as though Smith were writing about their own.
In the first 24 hours of the D-Day invasion, 1,465 Americans were killed, 3,184 were wounded, 1,928 were listed as missing and 26 were captured. Manning writes that on D-Day, “Many men who climbed the beach later that day would never forget the sight of gravely wounded soldiers propped up against the base of the cliffs, reading.” Consider the irony. As Americans marched toward victory in Europe in 1945, they were carrying tens of thousands of copies of books that were forbidden in the lands they were liberating.
As a national “thank you” to all who served, President Franklin Roosevelt announced the GI Bill, which put a college degree within the reach of every qualified veteran. In 1944, a college education was outside the grasp of most working-class families. The influx of veterans on campus, who had taken up the habit of reading during the war, created an interesting situation. Specifically, “non-veteran students began to resent having veterans in their classes because former GIs’ high marks wreaked havoc on grading curves. Civilian students at the University of California began to refer to veteran students by the acronym DARs — Damned Average Raisers. ‘It’s books, books, books all the time,’ one exasperated student at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania said about his veteran classmates. ‘They study so hard we have to slave to keep up with them.’”
Through the extraordinary efforts of the Council on Books in Wartime, more than 141 million books were distributed to personnel during World War II. That means more books were distributed to American service members than Hitler was able to destroy.
On Saturday, June 6, 2015, as you remember the brave men who stormed the beaches at Normandy 71 years ago, remember, too, the volunteers who played a key, unpublicized role in assuring victory through the seven-ounce paperback book.
And if I may, I would recommend you start your summer reading list with this excellent title, which tells the story of when books went to war.
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