Number 59 (2015)

Commemorating World War II at 70: Ethnic and Transnational Perspectives

Edited by Birgit Däwes and Ingrid Gessner

Commemorating World War II at 70: Ethnic and Transnational Perspectives – An Introduction

Almost 70 years after it ended, World War II is still a lastingly shaping event in global public history. In the United States, the image of the “Good War” prevails, and the remembrance of the soldiers is marked by the display of national heroism, as the dedication of the National World War II Memorial on the Mall in D.C. in 2004 exemplifies as much as recent Hollywood films such as David Ayer’s Fury (2014) or George Clooney’s The Monuments Men (2014). This national narrative of unity and moral self-confidence, however, is counterpointed by the experiences—both within and after the war—of ethnic American individuals and groups.

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Keeping Time with the Good War

This essay suggests several ways to think about changing modes of commemoration of World War II in light of the arbitrary nature of calendars, the reasons we give to justify war, the role of bodies, and, the way we frame memory and history. It proposes an exceptionalist reading of the war and links its singular attributes to the unusual trajectory of its memorialization and commemoration. Finally, it turns to Mircea Eliade’s theory of “eternal return” as a conceptual framework to reconsider the relationship between the uses of history and memory in modern commemorative practices.

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“Out of Germany”: Flossenbürg Concentration Camp, Jakub’s World (2005), and the Commemoration of the Holocaust in the United States

This essay addresses survivor stories as formulations of Holocaust memory in the U.S. More specifically, it focuses on the former concentration camp at Flossenbürg in southern Germany. Compared to places like Dachau and Buchenwald in Germany or Auschwitz and Treblinka in Poland, Flossenbürg is often absent from or—if present at all—marginalized in the public and scholarly discourse of Holocaust memory. The heavily autobiographical novel Jakub’s World (2005) tells the story of Jakub Szabmacher, a Jewish boy who is taken from his home in Poland by the Nazis and is eventually interned at Flossenbürg. He survives many months of deprivation and hardship in the concentration camp until U.S. forces liberate it in April 1945; orphaned and homeless, he eventually relocates to the U.S., yet returns to the site of his suffering many times.

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Transnational Debts: The Cultural Memory of Navajo Code Talkers in World War II

Even 70 years after it ended, World War II continues to endure in the global imagination. In the United States, images of the “Good War” prevail, and memories of the soldiers have been widely translated into displays of national heroism and glorification. At the same time, the celebratory narrative of national unity and democratic triumph is undercut by the counter-histories and experiences of the 44,000 Native American soldiers who served in this war. Their experiences and memories challenge the narrative of a glorious nation in unison, especially in light of the historical conflicts between American nationalism and Native American political sovereignty. This paper investigates the specific memorial debt owed to the Navajo Code Talkers of World War II.

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Commemoration, Race, and World War II: History and Civil Rights at the Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site

History and civil rights are intertwined at the Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site at Moton Field in Tuskegee, Alabama. Moton Field was a training flight facility for African American pilot candidates in the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II, operating from 1941–45. Through the extant buildings and interpretive exhibits, the National Park Service commemorates the Tuskegee Airmen’s contributions to World War II, recognizing the first African American military aviators and their struggle for civil rights during the 1940s.

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Commemorating the Port Chicago Naval Magazine Disaster of 1944: Remembering the Racial Injustices of the ‘Good War’ in Contemporary America

On July 17, 1944, the largest homeland disaster that the United States experienced during World War II occurred at the Port Chicago Naval Magazine, a deep-water terminal thirty miles northeast of Oakland, California. Some 320 men, almost all African American sailors, were instantly killed when two ships being loaded with ammunition exploded. Initial responses to the disaster reflect the deep racial injustices of the era. This essay considers how contemporary recollections of the Port Chicago disaster both challenge and reify conventional narratives about World War II.

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The Good War and Japanese America

For many Americans, World War II has become entrenched, solidly and nostalgically, in the national narrative as “The Good War” fought by “The Greatest Generation.” Increasingly, and disturbingly, this formulation appears to have won acceptance even by an American minority group grievously oppressed by its own government—Japanese Americans who were forcibly removed from their homes and incarcerated in American concentration camps. This essay explores the trajectory of this journey from the historical moment in World War II to current struggles of memory and history within and beyond the Japanese American community.

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Commemorating Crystal City: The Transnational Dimension of German American Internment Experiences

During World War II the U.S. government interned Japanese, German, and Italian legal U.S. residents and their American-born children and exchanged many of them for American prisoners of war in Europe and the Pacific. This essay investigates stories of former internees at the Crystal City Family Internment Camp in Texas with a particular focus on German Americans. It also examines the transnational repercussions of eviction from Latin American countries and the practice of forced repatriation.

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