Let’s start with a confession: war movies don’t do much for me. They usually include too much movie and not enough war, too much Hollywood and not enough Hürtgen, you might say. Everything in real war is confused, bewildering, and ambiguous. Everything in movie-war is certain. The great nineteenth century German philosopher of war, Karl von Clausewitz, noted that war is uncertain, that it takes place in a kind of “fog” (thus coining the famous phrase, “the fog of war”). I have a feeling that Clausewitz wouldn’t be much of a war movie buff, either, and when I die, I intend to ask him.
There is one kind of movie I can’t get enough of, however: films that were produced during the WWII era—immediately before, during, or immediately after the conflict. However much they try to deal in fantasy, they can’t help but tell the truth. They are my window into a world that I cannot know. Born in 1958, I can try to understand what it felt like to live through the war, but I usually fail. My introduction to World War II as a boy? The television series Combat, with my boyhood hero, the late Vic Morrow. A few years later, I watched Rat Patrol, and it, too, blew my mind. In neither case, however, do I confuse these shows with real life. They were great television, but historical cartoons.
The other day, however, I was watching a movie made in 1947, in the very wake of World War II. Its audience had just lived through a war that had killed human beings wholesale: 75 million or so dead by the most recent Wikipedia count, some three percent of the world’s 1940 population. In many places, like China and the Soviet Union, the percentage was much, much higher. So, a movie made in 1947 is by definition going to be about World War II. The history was still recent and the wounds were still open.
Oddly enough, it’s a happy, uplifting film, a “feelgood,” as Hollywood calls it today. It’s that holiday perennial “Miracle on 34th Street.” You all know it. It features a nice old man with a beard (played beautifully by actor Edmund Gwenn) who calls himself Kris Kringle. He thinks he’s Santa Claus, and by the end of the film, he manages to convince the US Post Office that he is, in fact, who he says he is. The film also features actress Maureen O’Hara at her most beautiful, not to mention an adorable Natalie Wood at the age of eight.
There is a scene in the middle of the film where Kris, dressed up as Santa at Macy’s, greets a shy little girl. Her mother—actually, we learn, her adoptive mother—tries to explain to Kris that the girl can’t speak English, that she is a Dutch refugee, an orphan from Rotterdam recently brought to the United States and placed in a foster home.
Kris—miraculously, it seems—begins speaking to her in Dutch. Her little eyes widen in amazement and she speaks back. “Sinterklaas,” she squeals with delight! It’s the first sign to us, the audience, that there is something special about this old man. Maybe he really is Santa Claus! I watched it last night, and like always, I cried like a baby.
This is Hollywood at its classic best—unabashedly tugging at the heartstrings. But I’m a historian by trade, and as I sat there, I started thinking about World War II, about Rotterdam and that Luftwaffe terror raid in 1940. It was infamous at the time, a clear sign of Nazi frightfulness. It was that, certainly, but probably also a case of bad timing. The Dutch were ready to surrender the city, but the German bombers were already in the air for their raid into the city center.
But here’s something else I thought about. Today, the Netherlands is one of the richest countries in the world. Dutch cities are renowned for their beauty, their architecture, and their hedonistic delights. Back in 1947, however, you could be making a movie that included a crucial scene centering around a refugee child, and it would be the most natural thing in the world to say, “Get me a Dutch girl.”
We live in a world where “refugees” are from faraway lands that Americans don’t think much about: the Democratic Republic of the Congo or Burma or a dozen other places. The term “third world” has gone out of style since the end of the Cold War, and we have replaced it with a more optimistic designation: these lands are part of the “developing world,” we say.
This is what I thought about the other night while watching Miracle on 34th Street. You want to talk about the “third world”? In World War II, that meant the Netherlands. A prosperous “first world” country descending into hell: terror-bombed by the Luftwaffe, overrun by the Wehrmacht, occupied by Nazi functionaries and ruled by a Nazi madman named Artur Seyss-Inquart. By the end of the war, this prosperous land was starving to death during what the Dutch still call the “Hongerwinter” of 1944-45.
Despite the fanciful holiday topic, Miracle on 34th Street is one film that tells the truth.