“On the Zane (USS Zane, DMS 14) before that battle (Leyte Gulf), in long night watches passed contemplating starry skies and dark waters, the idea had grown on me that World War II might be something new in the history of man on earth, a clash of all the great nations clear around the planet; and that a novelist might well arise one day and take it on as a sort of global War and Peace. Not me, of course!”
Herman Wouk, Sailor and Fiddler, page 37.
What struck me the most when I read this passage by Herman Wouk, the author of the two magisterial novels The Winds of War and War and Remembrance, which chronicle the journey of the Henry family through World War II, was the source of his inspiration.
In the midst of the fighting, Wouk was entirely correct that World War II was a unique event, and much of the types of warfare common to it would not be seen in the future. I have heard it asserted many times that due to the advances in technology in drones and unmanned aircraft, the last fighter pilot has already been born.
But I was unaware that Count Tolstoy’s epic novel setting the stories of five families against the historical canvas of Napoleon’s war against Russia was Wouk’s inspiration. Wouk refers to his two novels as the “Main Task” of his life’s work, and indeed it took him 13 years to write them.
There is one other WWII novel that is a contender to be the heir to Tolstoy’s legend, however—Life and Fate, the epic novel of the battle of Stalingrad by the Soviet writer Vasily Grossman. Following a single family cast from Germany to Siberia in an unsparing account of the Nazi-Communist clash, Grossman’s novel plunges deep into the darkest history of the 20th century.
As we live through uncertain times, these works of literature may give readers a deeper appreciation for what we’ve been spared today.
“A place can evoke the history that occurred there, but through words our minds truly gain perspectives and understanding of what it was like to know, feel, experience, hope, fail, triumph, and live through events from which we ourselves were absent. The written word is our most intricate map to retrace and reconstruct what we think happened, and ultimately brings us back to ourselves.”
– Keith Huxen, PhD, Senior Director of Research and History, The National WWII Museum
Keith is the former Senior Director of Research and History in the Institute for the Study of War and Democracy at The National WWII Museum.