The world marched to war, 1933-1939

In his 1859 historical novel, “A Tale of Two Cities,” Charles Dickens wrote, “It was the best of times. It was the worst of times. It was the age of wisdom. It was the age of foolishness. It was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”

How does this description compare with the times we are living in now?

Once again, I had coffee with Robert Ochsenhirt and his wife, Sharon, of Williamsburg, and the subject of how war and peace have played out came up.

Ochsenhirt, who graduated with a mechanical engineering degree, served with Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. for 37 years as an executive. He traveled to all 50 states and spent time on every continent except Antarctica. He also earned a master’s degree in economic geography and, after retiring from Goodyear, become an adjunct professor at the University of Akron in Ohio, and Park University near Kansas City, teaching courses in economic, cultural and military geography. His wife was a university archivist.

During the course of our discussion, we came to the conclusion that in spite of the daily headlines, the world is not coming apart at the seams, and compared with other periods in history, people are better off and conflicts among nations are more manageable than in the past.

To document it, Ochsenhirst, who has a personal library that contains almost 1,000 books on history, retrieved a large volume, “Marching To War 1933-1939, History as it Happened in Original Photographs,” published by The Illustrated London News.

The foreword to the book was written by Sir Martin Gilbert, a British historian and author of 88 books, including works on Winston Churchill and the Holocaust.

“Hitler‘s coming to power in Europe on the last day of January 1933 dominated the news in Britain,” Gilbert wrote. “The picture of him at the window of the Chancellery on the evening of his triumph, greeted by an ecstatic crowd, was clearly the event of the hour, even if soon to be notorious, but at the moment the unknown cry of ‘Heil Hitler’ was translated as ‘Hail Hitler.’ ”

Gilbert continued, “Yet there were other dramas in the news that month, particularly the ... Japanese conquest of Manchuria. As Japanese soldiers reached the Great Wall of China, it was clear that in the Far East, as well as in Europe, momentous events, equally full of foreboding were taking place.”

In Britain, Gilbert noted, it was not any foreign army, but the mass of unemployed, many of them former soldiers of World War I, which gave cause for comments. The vulnerability of democracy was apparent even in the United States.

The book illustrates with hundreds of original photographs the march toward World War II. The burning of the Reichstag, Germany’s launching of two “pocket battleships,” the construction of autobahns in Germany, Germany’s withdrawal from the League of Nations and the German Army mechanization for a “Lightning War.”

On Sept. 1, 1939, less than a week after the Nazi-Soviet Pact, Hitler’s troops invaded Poland. The same day, German bombs fell on Warsaw, killing thousands. Polish forces were driven back by overwhelming German military force and air power. By mid September, German troops reached the outskirts of Warsaw. World War II had begun.

It is obvious from the photos in the book and the running commentary that Germany, Italy and Japan, under the dictatorships of Hitler, Mussolini and Gen. Tojo Hideki, were hell-bent on war and nobody was able to stop them. Today, Russia and China are also a threat to peace, but America’s military might and its attraction as a democracy are credible counterweights.

Shatz is a Williamsburg resident. He is the author of “Reports from a Distant Place” the compilation of his selected columns. The book is available at Bruton Parish Shop and Amazon.com.

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