Category Archives: American History

Normandy’s Legacy

I was fortunate enough last week to visit the D-Day landing sites of Utah and Omaha beaches. Growing up reading about, hearing about, and seeing movies which portray the landings which occurred did not prepare me for the vast weight of history you can feel on a metaphorical pilgrimage to these places. Looking out across the immense, flat beach (far longer from low-tide to the seawall than I ever imagined) it is hard to imagine the courage and tenacity of the brave men who fought and died there that day and throughout the rest of Normandy during the campaign.

Walking up the bluffs and through the ruins of the German positions, seeing their vantage and the scars left from the shelling by naval forces, it is hard to picture how any soldier left the beach alive on either side. In one case I saw a piece of reinforced concrete roughly the size of an SUV which had been launched several hundred feet out onto the beach from where it had begun. Likewise, the 12 foot deep craters which still, almost 75 years later, pock the ground of Pointe du Hoc give silent testament to the unbelievable destructive forces which played across the Normandy region.

However, the most important sites visited, to my mind, were the cemeteries created for the servicemen who died on D-Day and through the remainder of the Normandy campaign. Most of these young men would never leave Normandy, even after death, though a small few were sent home for funeral rites. Most striking though, even over the weight of the tens of thousands of dead, was the stark difference between that cemetery dedicated and filled with young American soldiers and that occupied by the German soldiers.

The American cemetery is done in white marble, with a sweeping vista and beautiful statuary which calls to the heroism of those interred there. Broad arches and manicured greens pay honor to the soldiers there and enhance their sacrifices through memorials and services meant to bring remembrance and awe to visitors. It truly is one of the most beautiful and touching sites in Normandy.

What surprised me, however, is the solemnity and quiet despair which lies over the graveyard for the young German soldiers who gave their lives during the campaign. In this cemetery over 20,000 German soldiers are interred, most two to a grave, and with a mass grave situated in a mound at the center. Where the American cemetery is done in shining white marble and set on the bluffs overlooking Normandy in witness to their deeds, the German cemetery is done in rough granite and sits next to a highway. Where the American cemetery is full of visitors, veterans, and school trips, the German cemetery was empty but for my family. And, where the white marble statues and arches call to the nobility in the American cemetery, the rough stone statues which occupy the center of the German graveyard call simply to the sorrow of mothers and fathers whose sons would never return home.

Both cemeteries are full of young men who, with varying levels of willingness, were doing their duty as best they could. Looking at the differences it is easy to say the truth in history being written by the victors, but also it is easy to note in the ages and stories of those who are buried the thought shared by many soldiers that under different circumstances these men could have been friends rather than mortal foes. I feel it is important to remember all who fought and died, whose sacrifices are memorialized in Normandy, as regardless of their nationality they did their duty and made the ultimate sacrifice for it.

 

Thank you for reading and remembering with me.

 

-Mike

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Filed under American History, Uncategorized, World War 2

An American Peculiarity

A subject which often arises when I chat with friends here in the UK is how curious it is that most Americans know not just their ethnic background, but are able to quantify it readily. This seems to be a byproduct of the waves of immigration which had different groups arriving in the US at different times meaning that groups tended to be segregated at first, think of the famous stereotypes of the signs “Irish need not apply” for example. This reluctance of the older immigrant groups to welcome new ones seems to have created points in time where families would look back at when they themselves first came to the American continent.

Since new waves of immigrants continued to come from around the world, and still do, this retrospection of one’s family’s or one’s own origins kept being reinforced. A further factor which emphasizes the ratio of an American’s ethnic makeup is that new immigrants often settled in like communities. For example, in my home state of North Dakota the groups which immigrated are largely Swedish, Norwegian, and German. These groups ended up settled in towns largely equidistant along the train line with immigrants from Germany getting off on one stop, those from Norway getting off at the next, and Swedes getting off at the next. This created very tight-knit communities which, until the age of large-scale agriculture and the interstate system remained largely closed.

It was often quite the scandal if a woman from one town married a man from another, such as happened with my great-grandparents who were Swedish and Norwegian respectively. This further emphasized where origins were from creating a third pressure to remember.

But, there can be practical reasoning behind this sectioning off of one’s person as well. In this I mean that there are some groups of individuals where membership offers either monetary or societal rewards such as with certain Native American tribes. While it would be a grave mistake to simplify the greater impact of membership to these groups it can be beneficial in certain specific areas, especially where there are casinos which offer a redistribution of wealth throughout the community. In these cases, to try and prevent abuse of these income sources inclusion in the tribe is sometimes strictly limited to members who can prove a certain percentage of heritage within that group.

All of these various forces result in the ability of many Americans to calculate exactly where their ancestors came from, and in some cases the precise time of their arrival as well. This boils down to the peculiar ability to site ones own ethnic heritage very precisely, in my case 50% German, 25% Norwegian, and 25% Swedish. A fact that to me is just basic knowledge but to many of my British and European friends is often surprising and puzzling.

Thanks for reading and I hope you found this as curious and interesting as I have come to.

-Mike

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Filed under American Culture, American History, Uncategorized

This Day In History!

At a loss for what to write that could spark my interest today I decided to look up events of this day in history and was pleasantly surprised to discover an event which had, possibly, a transformative impact on the world. In this day in 1941 the Lend-Lease Act was signed into law allowing the transfer of free provisions and materiel from the United States to Allied countries at war with Germany, Italy, and Japan.

This was quite a controversial move for a country that was still technically neutral until events later that same year. However, strong arguments can be made that it was the transfer of materiel, especially aircraft and food, which tilted the balance in the Battle of Britain and in gaining air superiority over the English Channel.

While I had known about the Lend-Lease agreement in doing a bit of digging for today’s blog I learned a few interesting new things. Firstly, the agreement was to return anything at the end of the war unless it had been destroyed, however in practicality most materiel was in unusable condition for peacetime and as such allies were allowed to keep, free of charge, most remaining supplies. Interestingly, the agreement was ended without warning though after the surrender of Japan and any shipments which were already enroute to the Allies were charged for, although at a severe discount.

Secondly, the Lend-Lease agreement also accommodated reciprocal  exchange in the use of zero-cost leases for army and navy bases in allied countries, many of which still exist though of course no longer for free.

By the end of the war the equivalent of over $50 billion in supplies (over $500 billion in modern terms) had been donated to Allied nations with the lion’s share going to the UK. Conversely the use of land for bases and other reciprocal deals are estimated to have been at a value of almost $8 billion over the course of the war. This figure was very surprising to me in serving to show just how immense the industrial and transportation capacity of the US was in the 1940s.

All told, the signing and continuance of the Lend-Lease Act over the course of the war was vital to Allied victory and almost certainly altered history in a fundamental way. And it all started 78 years ago on this day.

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Filed under American History, American Politics, Uncategorized, World War 2

Spring 2019 Lecture Series

Spring 2019 Lecture Series - Poster-page-001

The 2AD Memorial Library’s Spring 2019 Lecture Series spotlights the multifaceted nature of studying the United States and World War II. The series features a range of scholars from different disciplines as they discuss the changing face of American culture and our understanding of our own history.

All talks will take place at the Millennium Library on Thursday evenings at 7PM. To book tickets email 2admemorial.lib@norfolk.gov.uk, find us on Eventbrite, or phone us on 01603 774747.

 

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“The current period of Nazi frightfulness”: Cinemagoing in the Blitz (25 April)

A night at the pictures often offers the prospect of escape, but was that possible under the threat of enemy bombers? This talk will discuss what happened to British cinemas and British cinemagoers during the Blitz.

Richard Farmer is a Lecturer in Film and Media Studies at the University of East Anglia.

https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/the-current-period-of-nazi-frightfulness-cinemagoing-in-the-blitz-tickets-57878104970

 

The only photograph of the Buddy Bolden Band, c. 1903-05, with Bolden standing next to bassist cropped

Jazz and Disability (2 May)

This talk explores how early jazz reception thought of the new music and dance as disabled and even disabling. It also considers the musical careers of key jazz musicians with disabilities, inviting us to think of jazz as an enabling musical practice.

George McKay is a Professor Media Studies at the University of East Anglia and Humanities Research Council Fellow for its Connected Communities programme.

https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/jazz-and-disability-tickets-57878776980

 

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Of Mice and Krazy Kats: The History and Art of American Comics (9 May)

This talk will provide an in-depth examination of the complex history of American comics from early newspaper strips to contemporary graphic novels, including the birth of superheroes, WWII propaganda comics, controversial 1950s horror comics, and contemporary graphic novels.

Frederik Byrn Køhlert is a Lecturer in American Studies at the University of East Anglia.

https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/of-mice-and-krazy-kats-the-history-and-art-of-american-comics-tickets-57878242381

 

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Indigenous London and Beyond: Native Travellers at the Heart of Empire (16 May)

The stories of Indigenous travellers, willing or otherwise, from territories that became Canada, the US, New Zealand, and Australia show the ways in which London and Britain have for centuries been bound up in the Indigenous experience.

Coll Thrush is a Professor of History and Associate Faculty in Critical Indigenous Studies at the University of British Columbia. He is also the International Investigator on the AHRC-funded project Beyond the Spectacle: Native North American Presence in Britain.

https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/indigenous-london-and-beyond-native-travellers-at-the-heart-of-empire-tickets-57878315600

 

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American Apocalypse: 21st Century Climate Change Fiction (23 May)

This talk considers how the apocalyptic dangers of climate change are being addressed by American fiction. Climate change fiction, or ‘cli-fi’, offers us a way to assess, understand, and address the phenomenon of global warming and the impact of humans on their environment.

Rebecca Tillett is a Senior Lecturer in American Studies at the University of East Anglia.

https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/american-apocalypse-21st-century-climate-change-fiction-tickets-57878709779

 

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A Heroic Mass Shooter? The Politics of Netflix’s The Punisher (30 May)

Due to his unyielding methods of exacting violent justice, much has been discussed about the Punisher. What is the place of Marvel’s controversial antihero within today’s politics? How has his new Netflix series been received in the Trump era?

Miriam Kent is a Lecturer in Film and Media Studies at the University of East Anglia.

https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/a-heroic-mass-shooter-the-politics-of-netflixs-the-punisher-tickets-57878147096

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Filed under American Culture, American History, American Politics, Memorial Library, Public Events, World War 2