Prof. Chris Gehrz has been promising students a class on the Second World War since he came to Bethel in 2003. In January, he’ll finally follow through with the second of four new courses we’re rolling out in Interim and Spring 2014.

HIS231L World War II

What are some of the big themes of your WWII course?

Polish air raid victim in 1939
A ten-year old girl in Warsaw finds her older sister, a victim of a German air raid in 1939 – Wikimedia

While we’ll certainly address the American experience of the war, perhaps the central theme of the course is that World War II is best studied as international, not national, history. This was a conflict that started long before Pearl Harbor (1937 in Asia, 1939 in Europe) and affected countries from Burma to Bulgaria, Italy to India. That international sweep will show up in the narrative of the course, but also in the primary sources students encounter. Unlike the World War I class, where we read a lot of poetry, here I’m going to focus on oral histories and films. For the former, students will be reading two books: one based on an oral history project in Japan; the other featuring interviews with Minnesotans. Then we’re going to be watching excerpts from films made around the world: some American movies, of course, but also films from China, Japan, Russia, Poland, Germany, France, and Britain.

What are you most looking forward to in the course?

I’m curious to see what kind of preconceptions students bring to the course. Back when I first started talking about developing this course, ten years ago, it was still somewhat common for students to have had grandparents participate in WWII. Now that connection is fading: most of their grandparents were, at most, young children in the 1940s. On the other hand, they’ve grown up with films like Saving Private Ryan, TV series like Band of Brothers, and even video games like Call of Duty — how have those media shaped their “memory” of the war?

What do you think students will enjoy most about HIS231L? What will they find most challenging?

It can be hard to sit in a Minnesota classroom in January for over two hours a day, but I think students will find that the course moves along. Even though we’re focusing for three weeks on a relatively short stretch of time, so much happens in so many places to so many people that it will probably feel like we’re on a rollercoaster ride at times. Lest it feel too much like it’s a thousand miles wide and an inch deep, students will work together in groups to research a topic of their choice and produce their own documentary film about it.

Besides the grief and exhaustion that comes with studying an event that killed more than 60 million people… What they should find most challenging is that the idea of World War II as a “Good War” fought by “The Greatest Generation” is very much an American (and perhaps British) notion. If you’re French, Dutch, Croatian, German, Russian, Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, or virtually any other nationality, you’ll have a much more ambiguous memory of the war. And I hope students are willing to consider that even American soldiers rarely felt like what they were doing was all that “good,” even if it was necessary.

If students take away only one thing from the course, what would you like it to be?

If nothing else, I hope they come away with a heightened degree of empathy for those who participate in warfare — and not just those who fight it. More civilians died in WWII than combatants, and millions more were forced to leave their homes forever.

If you’d like an extended preview of what to expect in the course, Prof. Gehrz has written widely about World War II at his personal blog, The Pietist Schoolman, including recent series on how the war has been commemorated in Minnesota (see also his photoblog on war memorials, Memento belli) and how the war was fought before the United States entered it.

<<Read the first course preview in this series                    Read the next preview in this series>>

3 thoughts on “Interim and Spring Course Previews: World War II

  1. When I was in elementary school, one of the men from the community came and spoke about his experience as a little boy during the war. His dad was in the Filipino underground and went missing one day never to return. He said when the American soldiers arrived, they had sponges in their supplies. The Filipinos were so hungry they mistook the sponges for bread and ate several of them. Made an impression on me (as did the atrocities I heard about). The legacy was ever-present, not least because Filipinos call white people “Joe” (as in G.I. Joe) and loved me because of the American soldiers in the war. I’m always struck by how much closer and real the war felt there.

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