A Brief History
Nowadays, it seems that World War 2 (WW2) is talked about all the time – so let us talk about it some more; however, the question I want to postulate is, why is World War 2 spoken about so often, so specifically? It is not as if WW2 is a SlotoCash Casino. World War 2 has a unique cultural hold for some reason that no other war really has.
Perhaps it can be chalked up to how recent it was, although there have been several major wars since then and loads of civil wars going on right now that you have probably heard nothing about.
Perhaps it can be chalked up to the sheer death toll, although there have been plenty of far more devastating events since and before World War 2. Yet none of these events have nearly the same… prestige, like WW2, and I think the reason is a little more abstract.
When I say “Literary Influence,” what I mean is that WW2 appears often in pop-culture. Either it is the front and center topic of the show or movie (Saving Private Ryan), or WW2 is a precursor to the show’s/movie’s events (Captain America).
In more fantastical-science-fiction shows, there is always that one episode where the Nazis win World War 2 and rule the world, as per Godwin’s Law of Time Travel. So what makes World War 2 such a compelling setting for fiction?
A good story has a beginning, middle, and an end. Ideally, there is an explosive climax followed by a resolution to the story’s narrative threads. Stories follow protagonists fighting an uphill battle to achieve their goals and seek an end to their conflicts. A story begins with conflict and ends with its resolution.
Can you already see the parallels with World War 2? World War 2 is an epic story. The Dark Lord tale before there were Dark Lord tales. An undisputedly mad and evil tyrant who built an army and an empire, hell-bent on world (or at least European) domination.
What I am saying is that World War 2 can be cleanly broken down into every important part of a good story. Did you ever have to make a plot graph in high school?
The beginning of our story. Germany is in ruins, desperate for a leader and a way out. Hitler, a veteran of World War 1, promises unity, strength, and hope- the restoration of the Holy Roman Empire. He has his opponents removed by force—foreign powers cow to his demands. Then, Hitler’s Germany invades Poland.
If you do not remember what the Rising Action is, just understand that it’s the meat of the story. The conflict has begun. The Nazis, allied with the Russians, Italians, and the Japanese, invade Poland, Belgium, France, Austria, Norway, Bulgaria, Romania- nation after nation falls. Britain, alone against these juggernauts, fights independently against the Nazi War Machine.
The climax is sometimes known as the turning point in a story. There is a major shift in the plot, usually in the hero’s favor. There are several important events that could be described at the climax of World War 2. Pearl Harbor, which brought America into the War.
Hitler betrayed Russia, which made Russia switch sides. The Battle of Stalingrad, where the Nazi’s overinvested and started getting pushed out of Russian territory. D-Day, when the allies established a foothold in continental Europe. Each of these events could be accurately described as the climax of World War 2, as each heralded the fall of the Nazi Empire.
Here, the conflict is falling into a Resolution. The Nazis are losing on all fronts. Italy gives up. The Japanese are pushed back into Japan. The Nazis desperately attempt to cover up any evidence of the Holocaust and kill off as many remaining Jews in the process as possible.
The end of our story. The conflict is over. Hitler swallows cyanide, and then shoots himself. Germany surrenders. The Japanese, alone, fight to the bitter end, and after two nukes, surrenders to the allies. The concentration camps are liberated. Territory is divided. The remaining Nazis are rounded up, tried, and hanged. World War 2 is over.
Can you see what makes World War 2 so unique in its narrative aspects? It fits perfectly into our traditional storytelling methods, with clear goals, heroes, and villains. There are enough small stories and incredibly important side characters to make Tolkien and George RR Martin drool. (In fact, some have insisted Lord of the Rings was inspired by the War, although Tolkien himself vehemently denied this claim).
It is the sort of conflict that does not usually happen in real life. Most of the time, we live in a world of gray hues, with no clear villains or heroes. I could not break down, say, the Vietnam War or the invasion of Iraq as neatly or clearly without taking a lot of liberties. That is the macabre beauty of World War 2 as a story- no wonder it’s got such a stranglehold on pop culture.
Question for students (and subscribers): What is your favorite book about World War II? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
Your readership is much appreciated!
For more information, please see…
Erenberg, Lewis A. and Susan E. Hirsch. The War in American Culture: Society and Consciousness during World War II. University of Chicago Press, 1996.
The featured image in this article, Join us in a victory job poster by Maurice Bramley (Department of National Service), is available from the Collection Database of the Australian War Memorial under the ID Number: ARTV00332. This image is of Australian origin and is now in the public domain, because its term of copyright has expired.