The theme of this column lately has been the way that Americans are keeping alive the memory of World War II. The results are in, and the verdict is “wow!” The recent exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts of Houston entitled “War/Photography: Images of Armed Conflict and its Aftermath” placed World War II at the center. The National World War II Museum in New Orleans, Louisiana, recently hosted its annual International Conference on World War II, gathering scholars, veterans, and interested observers from all over the world. I was privileged to speak at both of these events, and each time I came away dazzled at the amount of interest that the war continues to generate, nearly 70 hears after the guns fell silent.
After Houston and New Orleans, my next stop was Minnesota, where I paid a visit to the beautiful Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul. In January, I received an invitation to speak at the Dr. Harold C. Deutsch World War II History Round Table, which has held monthly meetings for decades at the Fort Snelling History Center in St. Paul. I never met Dr. Deutsch, but I know him as one of the giants, a dean of military history in the United States, and an expert on the German army in World War II. He founded the roundtable many years ago, and after my visit, I don’t think he could have a better tribute than the organization that bears his name.
When I was in New Orleans, I remember being amazed at how invested the crowd was in the topic. The enthusiasm in the room was palpable, and the questions from the participants kept me on my toes. The World War II History Round Table was more of the same. I was speaking on what I consider to be a fairly arcane topic. It wasn’t D-Day, or Patton, or the Battle of the Bulge. Nothing that a “typical American audience” could sink its teeth into. I study the Wehrmacht, and I try to analyze the writings of German army officers in the original German, attempting to uncover subtle shades of meaning that might not be obvious in English translations. Sure, go ahead and laugh. A thrill a minute? Maybe not to most people, but it is for me.
And once again, this is what made my jaw drop about my trip to Minnesota. Here I was, speaking about the strategic relationship between the Allied landing on the island of Sicily and the German offensive at Kursk. It’s a complex topic, requiring a careful analysis of a very small period of time in the summer of 1943. Early in the evening, I am a bit worried about the audience. How many people are going to come and hear this talk? My host, Professor Joe Fitzharris from the University of St. Thomas, assures me that there will be a good turnout. But Joe is a friend of mine, a nice guy. Maybe he’s just trying to let me down easy.
We drive out to the Ft. Snelling History Center that night. I notice a fair number of cars in the parking lot. We walk into the building. Again, a bunch of folks in the lobby. And then we enter the hall. Are there 250 people here? 300? 400? The room is packed. Enthusiastic. Once again, it’s all ages. Scholars. Older veterans. Ordinary folks. High school kids and their moms. It’s unbelievable.
Understand: they’re not here to hear me. They come to hear about World War II. They want to learn. They want to know. They show up every month, and they’ve been doing so for decades.
Oh, have I mentioned? This was Minnesota in January. I will let you imagine the weather. Not as bad is it could be, not quite Moscow or Stalingrad. But it’s bad. Bad enough to imagine all the reasons why a reasonable Minnesotan might say, “Naw… I’m not going out tonight.” But they did come out, and their interest and questions made for a great night of history.
And so, sitting here in warm Corinth, Texas, I want to take this opportunity to put on my stocking cap and scarf, button my coat, and offer my respect to the good folks at the Harold C. Deutsch World War II History Round Table.