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

1On the occasion of the 70th anniversary, this special issue will serve as a reminder that the end of World War II did not necessarily provide closure. In seven articles highlighting invisible, silenced and displaced memories of the war from a transnational historical perspective—including the voices of Japanese Americans, German Americans, African Americans, Native Americans, and Jewish people from within and beyond the United States—the issue examines questions of representation, commemoration, and debt from a variety of disciplinary perspectives, including memory, museum, and material culture studies, literary and film analysis, and public history. Why does World War II still hold a unique place as a “good” war in American memory? Who determines the codes that shape this memory? Which alternative memories (of other wars, or of the contemporary political scene) does it displace? The essays specifically investigate the ways in which these historical experiences comply or interfere with the dominant memory of World War II in official memorials, museums, and historic sites, as well as in literary and filmic narratives. This issue thus not only examines how these commemorative practices, narratives, and objects highlight the conflicts between national and cultural identity, but also outlines their transformative impact (from a national memory into a transnational one), thus contributing to the larger debates of memory studies, public history and transnational studies.

2In the War and Peace Studies Caucus of the American Studies Association (2013), Marita Sturken pointed out that the ways in which wars are remembered have a crucial impact on the propagation of future wars. And indeed, especially in the last decades of the twentieth and in the early twenty-first century, there has been a remarkable increase in memorial building in the United States, a phenomenon that Erika Doss has termed “Memorial Mania.” This growing number of memorials not only testifies to a turn toward the past in search for meanings relevant for the present, but it represents “heightened anxieties about who and what should be remembered in America” in general (Doss 2). In analogy to this boom, the discipline of memory studies has become one of the central driving forces of Public History and Transnational American Studies over at least the past twenty-five years. In 1994, Edward T. Linenthal evidenced the increased public interest in American history and called on historians “to examine ways in which our history is mediated and narrated in public and to add their voices to the shaping of such interpretive work” (“Committing History in Public” 986). Just as the debates arising from memory studies about remembering the Holocaust have revived and reshaped the ways in which we think about wars in a global arena, historiography itself is moving away from its national origins toward new understandings of multilateral boundaries and connections.1

370 years after the end of World War II, a revision of the dominant memory seems aptly timed. “In recent decades,” Erika Doss writes, “enormous efforts have been expended to include all Americans in national war memory” (230). At the same time, while these efforts document an unparalleled interest in World War II as a special, or especially ‘good,’ war, this exceptionalism is problematic. It is therefore particularly appropriate to critically revise the singularity of World War II precisely on the eve of an intensified memorialization. The global war that is World War II is generally understood to have lasted from 1939 until 1945. Many countries have thus commemorated the 75th anniversary of the beginning of World War II in 2014, and in the United States and Western Europe the 70th anniversary of the D-Day invasion was remembered. In 2015, seventy years have passed since World War II’s official end, including the liberation of the concentration camps in Auschwitz and elsewhere in early 1945, VE-Day [Victory over Europe] in May and V-J-Day [Victory over Japan] in August. 2016 will mark the 75th anniversary of the United States entering World War II. Whereas we acknowledge the arbitrariness of the dates (dictated by a ‘calendar of commemoration’), we are asking what happens to the narrative of a war when there are hardly any veterans left to tell it. Who is interested in commemorating what in which form(at), or—as Andrew Shanken—expresses it in this volume, “who is the ‘we’ in memorializing?”

4After the 50th anniversary a global audience witnessed the capitalizing of World War II experiences in the popularity of Tom Brokaw’s The Greatest Generation (1998) and Steven Spielberg’s film Saving Private Ryan (1998). The narrative of the “Good War”—made popular by Studs Terkel’s oral history (1984)—was not only picked up in such publications as Michael C.C. Adams’s The Best War Ever (1994) but the impetus at glorification of World War II increased in the 1990s. These celebratory discourses dovetailed with the rise of memory studies (Nora; Bodnar); so a double perspective—of revisiting the exceptionalist rhetoric of a single “good” war and of critically and transnationally contextualizing it for the twenty-first century and for generations to come—is the aim of this special issue.

5This project has developed out of a conference panel at the American Studies Association’s 2013 Annual Meeting on “Historical Debts and Transnational Commemoration: Revising the ‘Good War’s’ Memory and Meaning in Contemporary America.” In a roundtable that was as multidisciplinary as it was thematically coherent, we gathered voices from specialists in the fields of architecture, Asian Pacific American history and curation studies, art history, memory studies, museology, Native American history and literature.

6What emerged from the discussion was a twofold dynamics of tension between memory and forgetting, and between past and present uses of memory. On the one hand, the various techniques of memory yield a binary relation between those war narratives that are coded as undesirable and those that are gladly used and integrated into the larger celebratory discourse of the “Good” War. We do want to hear about the liberation of Hitler’s concentration camps by U.S. soldiers; the breaking down of race and gender barriers; the brave Tuskegee Airmen; the Navajo Code Talkers; the women workers of the greatest generation who followed Rosie the Riveter into the shipyards. The memorial effort, however, is less welcome when the narratives emphasize the U.S. American inaction against the Holocaust; the internment of Japanese Americans, the treatment of German and Italian people in the U.S.; POW camps during and after the war; the Chicago 50; American GIs committing rape in France and elsewhere; Thomas Doherty’s study Hollywood and Hitler (2013); as well as racism against ethnic U.S. soldiers as soon as the war had ended.

7Furthermore, it is notable that the fewer survivors are still there to be remembered, the more of an urge to remember seems to come into the foreground; raising questions about the temporality and trajectory of collected war memories at large. What do we remember in what ways, and who is the target audience? What do the contemporary reiterations of remembering World War II tell us about the political and historiographic outlines of the twenty-first century, in which an increasingly globalized World also uses memory and memorials to inscribe specifically coded narratives into its own future?

8This special issue collects perspectives not only from different disciplines but also from different institutional contexts in North America and Europe, including the University of California at Berkeley, the Smithsonian’s Asian Pacific American Program, the University of Regensburg, Germany, the University of Passau, Germany, the University of Vienna, Austria, the University of Maryland, and the University of Notre Dame in Indiana in order to present a transatlantic and transnational spectrum of approaches.

9Andrew Shanken’s essay “Keeping Time with the Good War” frames the case studies presented in the issue in terms of the temporal and spatial displacements of commemoration. As World War II becomes a part of the increasingly distant past, Americans have begun to memorialize the war in novel ways that reflect this change. As Americans pause between the 50th and 100th anniversaries of the war, the very nature of who commemorates what for whom has shifted. Neglected groups and sites have come to the fore, many recognized posthumously and in a very different context than earlier forms of commemoration. At the same time, the subjects, pretexts, and grounds for commemoration have expanded immensely and at times are even dislocated from actual sites of memory. Once the living memory of the war is gone, what fate will its future hold?

10“‘Out of Germany’: Flossenbürg Concentration Camp, Jakub’s World (2005), and the Commemoration of the Holocaust in the United States” by Klara Stephanie Szlezák employs a transnational focus to examine the ways Holocaust survivor stories, such as the autobiographical novel Jakub’s World (2005), become embedded in American memories of World War II and toward—what has been called—the “Americanization of the Holocaust” (Hilene Flanzbaum, 1999). By focusing on the former concentration camp at Flossenbürg in southern Germany, Szlezák draws attention to a site often marginalized in the public and scholarly discourse of Holocaust memory. As sites of memory both the narrative and the space of the former camp actively partake in the commemoration of the Holocaust and complicate the narrative of World War II as the “Good War” as well as reveal a deeply transnational dimension of experiences of survivors and visitors.

11Birgit Däwes centers her approach on the Native American contributions to World War II, and especially to the contested memories of the Marine veterans employed as code talkers in her essay “Transnational Debts: The Cultural Memory of Navajo Code Talkers in World War II.” She argues that films such as John Woo’s Windtalkers (2002) fail to make up for the memorial debt owed to the Navajo Code Talkers of World War II. In contrast to this dichotomous reduction and ethnic distortion of historical facts, memoirs and fiction by Native writers (such as Joseph Bruchac’s novel Code Talker or Chester Nez’s memoir, also entitled Code Talker) develop elaborate codes of orality, community, and historicity, within which memories of Native American achievements can be more aptly framed.

Renée Ater examines the perceived historical debt that led to the restoration and dedication of the Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site in Alabama in 2008. In her essay “Commemoration, Race, and World War II: History and Civil Rights at the Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site,” Ater argues that history and civil rights are intertwined at Moton Field in Tuskegee, Alabama, which was restorated and dedicated in 2008 (the same year that Obama ran his first presidential campaign). Through the extant buildings and interpretive exhibits, the Tuskegee Airmen, are commemorated for the important role they played in World War II and in the civil rights struggles of the 1940s and beyond. Ater’s essay examines the way in which race, personal narratives, historical objects, and sensorial experience are conveyed at the site to suggest the significance of the Tuskegee Airmen at a moment in time when segregation permeated American society.

12With her essay “Commemorating the Port Chicago Naval Magazine Disaster of 1944: Remembering the Racial Injustices Of the ‘Good War’ in Contemporary America,” Erika Doss examines the construction of historical memory at the Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial, near San Francisco. In July 1944, 320 American soldiers, most of them African American, were killed when ships being loaded with ammunition exploded. The deep racial injustices of the era lead to the trial of the Port Chicago 50. Doss considers how contemporary recollections of the Port Chicago disaster in annual remembrance services, a national memorial, and as site of tourism both challenge and reify conventional narratives about World War II.

13In “The Good War and Japanese America” Franklin Odo takes the World War II epithets of “The Good War” fought by “The Greatest Generation” and scrutinizes their connotations for an American minority group unjustly and grievously oppressed by its own government during that momentous struggle. Odo’s essay explores the trajectory of this journey from the World War II experience as internees and soldiers to current struggles of memory and history within and beyond the Japanese American community.

14Ingrid Gessner explores the experiences of several groups of internees at the Crystal City camp in Texas with a particular focus on German American memories and their transnational repercussions in her essay “Commemorating Crystal City: The Transnational Dimension of German American Internment Experiences.” The absence of these experiences in the popular World War II discourse is only beginning to be addressed and rectified with the introduction of memorial practices, oral testimonies, camp pilgrimages, and historical markers. Gessner argues that the inclusion of German internees’ memories particularly challenges the liberatory version of the World War II narrative. Rather than freeing the world and Germans from fascism, many German American families were—often involuntarily and forcibly transported—to Nazi Germany.

15In their entirety, the presented essays critically reconsider the mythologizing of the “Good War” and the “Greatest Generation” into a unifying liberatory narration of World War II. By examining popular representations as well as nearly unknown stories and places, the essays present alternative versions of lived experience during World War II as well as problematize their contemporary commemoration and functionalization. The question how wars are remembered on anniversary occasions and how their remembrance is used in the justification of current and future wars seems all the more urgent at a time of de facto breaches of human rights on the one hand (in Syria, Ukraine, and elsewhere) and massive economic interests and subsequent transgressive interventions on the other. With the special issue, we hope to prove the words of Edward T. Linenthal, “that transnational remembrance can contribute to the expansion of the boundaries of our moral imaginations” (“Commentary Epilogue,” Transnational American Memories 2009, 450).


1    Collections of essays such as Diederik Oostdijk and Markha G. Valenta’s Tales of the Great American Victory: World War II in Politics and Poetics (2006) have investigated the renewed interest in a re-narrativization of World War II by particularly looking at literary and filmic examples. Kenneth D. Rose has presented a social history of Americans in World War II with Myth and the Greatest Generation (2008).

Works Cited

Adams, Michael C.C. The Best War Ever: America and World War II. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1994. Print.

Bodnar, John E. The “Good War” in American Memory. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2010. Print.

Brokaw, Tom. An Album of Memories : Personal Histories from the Greatest Generation. New York: Random House, 2001. Print.

—. The Greatest Generation. New York: Random House, 1998. Print.

—. The Greatest Generation Speaks : Letters and Reflections. New York: Random House, 1999. Print.

Doherty, Thomas. Hollywood and Hitler: 1933–1939. New York: Columbia UP, 2013. Print.

Doss, Erika. Memorial Mania: Public Feeling in America. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2010. Print.

Flanzbaum, Hilene. The Americanization of the Holocaust. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1999. Print.

Gallicchio, Marc. “World War II in Historical Memory.” A Companion to World War II, Aftermath and Consequences. Ed. Thomas W. Zeiler and Daniel M. DuBois. Oxford: Blackwell, 2012. 978–98. Print.

Linenthal, Edward T. “Commentary Epilogue.” Transnational American Memories. Ed. Udo J. Hebel. Berlin: DeGruyter, 2009. 447–52. Print.

—. “Committing History in Public.” Spec. issue of The Public Historian “The Practice of American History” 81.3 (1994): 986–91. Print.

Nora, Pierre. “Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Mémoire.” Representations 26 (1989): 7–25. Print.

—. Les Lieux de Mémoire. Paris: Gallimard, 1984. Print.

Oostdijk, Diederik, and Markha G. Valenta, eds. Tales of the Great American Victory: World War II in Politics and Poetics. Amsterdam: VU University Press, 2006. Print.

Rose, Kenneth D. Myth and the Greatest Generation: A Social History of Americans in World War II. New York: Routledge, 2008. Print.

Sturken, Marita. “Caucus – War and Peace Studies: Keywords for American Studies, War, and Peace.” ASA Annual Meeting. Washington, DC. 2013.

Terkel, Studs. “The Good War”: An Oral History of World War II. New York: Pantheon, 1984. Print.

Suggested Citation

Däwes, Birgit, and Ingrid Gessner. “Commemorating World War II at 70: Ethnic and Transnational Perspectives – An Introduction.” American Studies Journal 59 (2015). Web. 19 Jul. 2024. DOI 10.18422/59-01.


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