Your Country Needs You, But Do They Want You? WWII and ‘Race,’ Part One

As yesterday was Memorial Day in the US, and the anniversary of D-Day comes up next week, I thought I would do a blog on issues of ‘race’ in war. And if there ever was a war that the British and Americans could feel good about, it was World War II. Other wars and conflicts had moral dilemmas (or even quagmires) attached to them, or heavy losses that made people question the worth of the cause. But World War II was a ‘good’ war, maybe the last of its kind. It produced what has been called in America the Greatest Generation, and a plethora of children’s literature—on which I, for one, grew up—about defeating or escaping from the worst bad guys in history, the Nazis. The moral imperatives of the Allies in World War II reached out beyond the war through children’s literature, and taught succeeding generations that discrimination against people because of their ‘race’ (according to the Nazis, you could stop going to synagogue but you remained Jewish) was not only wrong, it was evil. Books like Judith Kerr’s When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit (1971) and Doris Orgel’s The Devil in Vienna (1978) showed what Hitler’s world looked like from the perspective of the young, how fear invaded every part of life. A novel like Bette Greene’s Summer of My German Soldier (1973) suggested that tolerance for other people must extend even to Germans, because they might also be good people caught up in a struggle sanctioned by (maintained by, created by) their leader.

Summer of My German Soldier, however, is an interesting case. When I took it off my shelf—not having read it since high school—I only remembered the drippingly romantic story of a Jewish American girl who reached out to a German POW. I had entirely forgot one of the book’s major characters: the Bergens’ African-American maid, Ruth, who acts as confidant and comforter of the protagonist. The injustice of imprisoning a young German soldier who didn’t believe in the Nazi policies made an impression on me; the injustice of an economic system that kept African-Americans serving white Americans long after the end of slavery did not. Perhaps this is because to me, Ruth’s position was “normal,” perhaps unfortunate but expected.

A typical cover for Greene’s novel–most, like my memory, leave the character of Ruth out.

When thinking of the Greatest Generation, it is also (if children’s books are any guide) common to consider the white, male soldier as the “normal” specimen (with the white Rosie the Riveter as his female counterpart). The heroes of World War II in the popular imagination were coded white. But the war was fought on multiple continents (and islands) and people from all those places contributed in significant ways. Across the world, the allies of the Allies—no matter what their ‘race’—agreed that the war was good and the cause just. People from Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean all signed up to help their “Mother Country,” Britain; and African-Americans from all over the US enlisted as well. These stories were not part of my childhood. But they are beginning to be a part of a new generation’s reading material.

Osborne and Torrington's book shows that men and women from the West Indies were eager to serve the "Mother Country."

Osborne and Torrington’s book shows that men and women from the West Indies were eager to serve the “Mother Country.”

Before the war, many West Indian countries were considering the logistics of breaking away from British rule, but when war erupted in 1939, local governments immediately switched to planning how they could help Britain win the war. Although most West Indian service was initially in terms of material support, by the end of the war over 16,000 West Indians had enlisted in one of the branches of the British forces, and another 40,000 joined civilian war service (many in the United States). Most saw it as not only a duty, but something they were glad to do. Angelina Osborne and Arthur Torrington’s We Served: The Untold Story of the West Indian Contribution to World War II (2005) offers two reasons for this, both expressed by one of the book’s subjects, Sam King, a Jamaican member of the RAF. King recalls his mother telling him that, “‘the mother country is at war. Go—and if you survive, you will not regret it’” (13); but he also believed “that if Hitler won the war, he would enslave all black people” (13). Thus, both duty and self-interest were motivators for West Indians to join the war.

The four individual stories of service in We Served are overwhelmingly positive, and all four returned to live in Britain after the war. But that is not to say they did not experience racism. Even though Harold Sinson (RAF from Guyana) noted that “the locals treated him and other West Indians very well” (23) and “the vast majority of Canadians and Americans were very friendly” (23), the introduction by historian Ben Bousquet provides a brief hint of what they faced when he writes that, “Americans refused to accept [Black West Indians] and thus the colour bar was enforced by the War Office” (6). There is no further critique of either the British or the Americans in charge. The West Indian segment of the Greatest Generation embraced Britain both during and after the war—Bousquet concludes his introduction by reminding the readers that all of the West Indians who participated in the war were volunteers.

It is clear in We Served, however, that any blame for racism in the forces is laid at the feet of the Americans—Americans who could at once hate the hating of the Nazis and at the same time be so indifferent to the institutional racism in their own country.  This is perhaps unsurprising, as in the end it was the American vision of the world that won, so it is their racism that should be blamed. In next week’s blog, I’ll look at portrayals of African-Americans in US military service during World War II to see if any of the portrayals recognize the irony of America’s wartime position or if, as I did with Summer of My German Soldier, they accept without question the narrative of American tolerance and German racism.


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