Remembering the horrors of Europe’s wars
Many Americans — and I count myself among them — are often hard on Europeans when it comes to issues like national defense, appeasement, and willingness to stand up to enemies. We belittle their failure to resist recent Russian intrusions in the Ukraine, we urge them to take a stronger stand in the Middle East, and we shake our heads at their lack of military preparedness.
What we too often forget are the horrors Europe endured during the Second World War. We remember the sacrifices our own troops — what some have labeled the Greatest Generation — but we overlook what the French, English, Germans, Italians, Poles, Russians, and others suffered during this deadliest of wars. We forget the bombed-out cities, the incinerators in the concentration camps, the jack-booted rule of dictators, the millions of lives lost to battle and brutality, the destruction of entire countries.
Let Poland serve as an example of what this war meant. The Nazis invaded that country on Sept. 1, 1939, an attack that drew Britain and France into the conflict. Quickly conquered, hundreds of thousands of Poles — Jews along with Polish elites like professors, doctors, lawyers, and priests — were exterminated both by the Nazis and by Russian communists. When the war ended with the defeat of the Nazis, Poland suffered another 40 years under Russian communists, as did many other Eastern European countries. Although it was Poland that had drawn the European powers into the war, those same powers allowed the communists to continue to oppress the Polish people.
For those who fail to remember what Europe suffered during this greatest and most horrendous of wars, readers need only turn to Anthony Doerr’s All The Light We Cannot See (Scribner Publisher, 2014, 531 pages, $27). In this novel, Doerr, who has won numerous literary prizes for his short stories and novels, gives us an unforgettable portrait of the madness and the brutality of the European war. Through two characters, he takes us inside this global conflict and shows us the horrendous cost behind the political and military struggles of the mid-twentieth century.
Marie-Laure LeBlanc is a blind French girl who lives with her father in Paris. He works for the Museum of Natural History. When she is 12, Marie-Laure and her father flee to the city of Saint-Malo and the home of her great-uncle, who is suffering mental problems incurred during the First World War. With them they carry a precious jewel that will eventually land them in trouble with a cancer-stricken German who wants the jewel more than he cares for life itself.
Meanwhile, Doerr introduces us to a German orphan, Werner Pfennig, who has a talent for mechanics and electronics. These skills take him away from the orphanage and his sister Jutta, and land him in a Hitler Youth academy. Here he encounters a “gentle giant,” a young man who will eventually protect him when they go into combat together. Pfennig serves first in Russia and then in France just as the Allies invade, where he finally meets, for one day only, Marie-Laure.
All The Light We Cannot See does more than show us the impact of war on these two characters alone, the beautiful and lonely sightless Marie-Laure and the increasingly disillusioned Werner. It reveals how such a massive conflict of ideologies affect individual lives. Doerr lets us see how Werner reacts to the harsh realities of Nazism when one of his friends at the academy is beaten so badly that he loses his mind. He describes the rape of Jutta by the Russian soldiers for whom such violation was standard policy — the Russians used rape as a weapon and as an instrument of justice in revenge for the Nazi ravages in Russia. (See Cornelius Ryan’s The Last Battle). Doerr gives us the effects on the individual during this vast conflict.
When they finally meet, for example, Marie-Laure and Werner find a can of peaches. Doerr then writes:
“The girl leans forward; the freckles seem to bloom across her cheeks as she inhales. ‘We will share,’ she says. ‘For what you did.’ (Note: Werner has saved her life from a German after a jewel she posses).
“He hammers the knife in a second time, saws away at the metal, and bends up the lid. ‘Careful,’ he says, and passes it to her. She dips in two fingers, dips up a wet, soft, slippery thing. Then he does the same. The first peach slips down his throat like rapture. A sunrise in his mouth.
“They eat. They drink the syrup. They run their fingers around the inside of the can.”
Few of us have ever experienced a can of peaches in this way. Yet for millions of Europeans from the steppes of Russia to the coastal beaches of Normandy, such small pleasures meant both survival and life. Few of us, too, have undergone the ordeal of having our dreams and our private lives smashed to pieces by history and savagery. What Doerr urges in his novel is an understanding of the cost of memory and what happens when we forget history and those who have gone before us. Near the end of the book, he writes of Marie-Laure near the end of her life, sitting in the Jardin de Plantes and thinking of those who died so long ago:
“They flow above the chimneys, ride the sidewalks, slip through your jacket and shirt and breastbone and lungs, and pass out through the other side, the air a library and the record of every life lived, every sentence spoken, every word transmitted still reverberating within it.
“Every hour, she thinks, someone for whom the war was memory falls out of the world.
“We rise again in the grass. In the flowers. In songs.”
To remain ignorant of what happened before you were born, a famous Roman orator once said, is to remain always a child. With its attention to detail and its beautiful writing, All The Light We Cannot See reminds us that, whether we like it or not, the past shapes and haunts the present.
All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. Scribner, 2014. 531 pages.