World War II

‘Freedom’ is a word that slips off the tongue easily. As the moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre notes in his essay ‘Freedom and Revolution’: ‘No word has been more cheapened by misuse. No word has experienced more of the tortuous redefinitions of politicians.’ In the essay, MacIntyre turns to Karl Marx to recover the idea that human beings are essentially free. With the same source of inspiration, but through a poignant and often funny memoir of coming to age in state-socialist Albania, Lea Ypi’s Free attempts the same task.

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The suffering of prisoners of the Japanese dominates many Australians’ memories of World War II. More than 22,000 men and almost forty women were captured in Southeast Asia between 1942 and 1945. About 8,000 of them died. Traditionally this high death rate has been attributed to a mix of Japanese cruelty and their refusal to observe international humanitarian law. The military code of bushidō, it is argued, meant that Japanese soldiers had no respect for enemies who had surrendered. 

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Not many people create an archive. For almost thirty years, Phillip Maisel led the testimonies project at Melbourne’s Jewish Holocaust Centre (JHC). Maisel’s memoir is his story of surviving the Holocaust and becoming ‘the keeper of miracles’.

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When I was a graduate student in the Soviet Union in the late 1960s, Russian friends used to talk a lot about World War II. Their stories were of hardship and suffering stoically borne by the population and finally vindicated by victory in 1945. This was not dissimilar from what was published in the Soviet press on the subject, but without the press’s obligatory references to the wise leadership of the party. Wendy Z. Goldman and Donald Filtzer tell basically the same story as my Soviet friends. Invoking the image of a ‘levée en masse spirit’ in the wartime Soviet Union, they admit that ‘strict discipline and repression certainly played a role’ in the state’s ‘unprecedented feats of mass mobilization’, but they put their interpretative emphasis elsewhere: ‘without the support of the vast majority of people and workers in particular, the great achievements on the home front would not have been possible’.

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The invasion of the Soviet Union by Nazi Germany in 1941 caused massive destruction over a huge area. The number of deaths is uncertain, though a figure of around twenty-seven million is now widely accepted. The lives of many more millions were affected – as soldiers, as workers in war-related industries, as civilians in besieged and occupied territories, as refugees – and the experience of hardship and self-sacrifice in what is widely referred to in Russia as the ‘Great Patriotic War’ or the ‘Great Fatherland War’ continues to dominate the Russian historical narrative.

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This is a book in the expansive American tradition of long, well-researched historical works on political topics with broad appeal, written in an accessible style for a popular audience. David Nasaw has not previously worked on displaced persons, but he is the author of several big biographies, most recently of political patriarch Joseph P. Kennedy.

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In its long war in Afghanistan, Australia lost forty-one soldiers. These deaths were felt keenly, and usually the prime minister, other senior politicians, and army chiefs attended the funerals. In addition, more than 260 soldiers were wounded. Service in Afghanistan was trying and demanding. Yet, while Special Forces units were constantly rotated through numerous deployments, at any particular time fewer than 2,000 Australian soldiers were serving in Afghanistan. ... (read more)

No Place to Lay One’s Head by Françoise Frenkel, translated by Stephanie Smee

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When German forces invaded France on 10 May 1940, the French signed an armistice that facilitated limited French sovereignty in the south, the section of the country not yet overrun by German troops. On 10 July 1940 the French Parliament elected a new, collaborationist regime under former general Philippe Pétain ...

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Wilhelm II, German Kaiser and King of Prussia, may be a shadowy figure for Australian readers, better known as the butt of funny-scary caricatures in British World War I propaganda or of black humour in popular soldiers’ songs, than as a political player in his own right. He remains enigmatic even for scholars. Some hand him the burden of responsibility for World War I, despite the immediate trigger being the military standoff between two other states altogether, Austro-Hungary and Serbia. Others see him as an incompetent figurehead who merely rubberstamped the territorial ambitions of the German military.

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Menzies at War by Anne Henderson

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August 2014, no. 363

Prime ministers seem to value longevity, whether it is Bob Hawke relishing the fact that he served longer than John Curtin and Ben Chifley combined, or John Howard relishing that he served longer than Hawke. But no prime minister is likely to serve as long as Robert Menzies’ sixteen years as prime minister from 1949 to 1966. His record is even more impressive when his earlier term (1939–1941) is included.

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