Thursday, January 16, 2020

Lingering Effects of World War II

World War II Lingers Long After the Fighting Ended

Comfort Women
Comfort women being taken away, along with their luggage.
There is no question that World War II affected the modern world in which we live. The lingering effects of World War II are all around. Family histories became riddled with missing spaces, national boundaries changed, fortifications remain throughout Europe and parts of Asia that are little changed from that time, advanced technologies such as jet engines, missiles, and nuclear power were given a major boost… the list is very long. Those are easy and obvious changes.

This is such a huge topic that just a list of lingering effects would fill a large book. Instead of doing that, which would be pointless, let’s look at some of the “small change” of history, the flotsam and jetsam of a warring world. At least that will put a human dimension on it.

Comfort Women
Japanese soldiers lined up for their turn (The Seoul Times).

Diplomatic and Personal Effects: The Comfort Women

Normal laws often disappear during vicious wars. When the goal is simply victory, the niceties of civilization can get lost in the shuffle. Axis soldiers committed a lot of atrocities, many sanctioned and even encouraged by the state. One area of those was the peculiar case of Comfort Women.

If you’re not a student of Asian politics, the phrase “comfort women” may mean nothing to you. However, it has a very specific and ominous meaning. During World War II, the Japanese military set up official brothels for their troops throughout their sphere of control. The military staffed them with local women who had no choice in the matter and essentially became sex slaves.

While Comfort Women came from many different occupied nations, a major supplier was Korea. This, along with other war-related issues, has led to lingering tensions between the two countries. It is important to emphasize that these captive women were not willing prostitutes who were paid for their services. Instead, they were abused and degraded while receiving nothing beyond their daily keep.

It wasn’t just a few women, either. Tens or even hundreds of thousands of women were removed from their homes and forced to service Japanese soldiers. Very little was known about this for decades after World War II. In the 1990s, some academics began poking around. Finally, Tokyo admitted that Comfort Women had been an official part of the military organization. However, it claimed that claims by the people affected were barred by past post-war treaties.

The Prime Ministers of Japan and South Korea discuss Comfort Women
Pres. Park Geun-Hye shakes hands with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe before their bilateral summit at the National Convention Center in Vientiane, Laos, on 7 September 2016. They discussed the issue of Comfort Women at this meeting (photo by Kim Gyoung-ho, Hankyoreh staff photographer in Vientiane).
Despite repeated efforts to make the issue go away, it has lingered. In January 2016, the Japanese government finally agreed to provide $8.3 million in compensation to 46 survivors. Prime Minister Abe officially apologized for the matter. Japan hoped this had finally put the matter to rest. South Korean President Park Geun-Hye noted:
I think the comfort women agreement is significant because of the improvement in our relations with Japan since the agreement is allowing us to broaden the foundation for taking joint action on a variety of issues and challenges.”
So, attempting to resolve these issues can help overall relations. But this statement came over 70 years after the end of World War II - these seemingly minor issues can poison relations for many decades. The reality of Comfort Women lingers on, and many think Japan has not sufficiently atoned for its crimes. It is just one example of the personal toll on ordinary people that created permanent harm and a feeling of injustice.

There were many other atrocities committed during World War II that remain unresolved. The Japanese massacred many people in Singapore (the Sook Ching Massacre), for instance. These kinds of tears in history can't be defined, they can't be photographed - but they are there just the same.

Remnants of Camp Hale
Camp Hale in Colorado now is a memorial, but many want it restored to its natural beauty and remnants of wartime construction removed.

Environmental Effects: Camp Hale and USS Arizona

Camp Hale was the home of the US Army 10th Mountain Division. It is located high in the Colorado Rockies. Even for people who live in the Rockies, it is out of the way. Among many others, politician Bob Dole trained there.

Dismantled after the war, Camp Hale was left for nature to reclaim. However, the US military made a lot of changes - many of them done by German POWs held there during the war - to the surrounding area. There is a lot of unexploded ordnance. Simply taking down buildings did not restore the site to its natural state. Streams were rerouted, foundation slabs remain on the site, roads were built, and other effects linger. There have been plans over the years to use Forest Service money (the Forest Service now owns it) to put the site back as it originally was, but this is an ongoing issue.

Now on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places, Camp Hale receives few visitors and many want it gone. Incidentally, Vail Ski Resort was founded by a former soldier, Pete Seibert, who became familiar with the area because he trained at Camp Hale. The effects of wartime activities can pop up in unexpected ways.

There are sites like Camp Hale around the world. Many will never return to their pre-war state.

Oil seeping from USS Arizona in Pearl Harbor
Oil leaks out of the USS Arizona every single day.
The case of the USS Arizona is well known. Sunk during the attack on Pearl Harbor, its battered hulk remains exactly where it has been since December 1941. Among other reasons, Arizona has not been disturbed because it serves as a war gravesite.

However, Arizona has another lingering effect beyond being a memorial and gravesite. It also is an environmental time bomb. Its oil tanks were filled only days before the Japanese attack on 7 December 1941. Essentially, it was loaded with oil that is still inside it. Nobody knows exactly how much oil is there, but it is easy to tell that it remains because it drips out of the wreck every day. Estimates of how long this may continue vary, but it may be as long as another 500 years. However, some experts think the metal may corrode away long before then and release all that oil into Pearl Harbor one fine day. We’ll just have to wait and see.

Landscapes around the world, many far from the scene of battle and some at the scene itself, were changed by World War II. That isn’t going away anytime soon.

The Gurlitt art trove house in Austria
A large cache of the Gurlitt art trove was stored in this unassuming Salzburg house (Financial Times).

Financial and Cultural Effects: The Gurlitt Art Trove

Predatory Germans stole a lot of property throughout Europe from 1933–1945. Much of it was recovered and restored to its rightful owners, but a large fraction of it remains missing. Art is an area that remains a Sword of Damocles over many in the art world, with artwork often being discovered or identified that turns out to have been stolen. Stolen artwork may have changed hands many times, or it may not even have been discovered by anyone yet. Art theft was almost state policy, practiced by Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering and other military and civilian leaders.

That brings us to the Gurlitt art trove. If you’re an art aficionado, the name Gurlitt probably gives you a queasy feeling. Hildebrand Gurlitt was a German World War II art historian in the employ of the Germans who somehow accumulated a vast treasure trove during the Third Reich. His own family had its share of artists, too, including his father and sister. Some of Gurlitt’s art came to him legally, but much of it just found its way into his secret collection somehow.

Oh, I know what you’re thinking, so let's add one fine point: Hildebrand Gurlitt himself was Jewish. The world is a complicated place.

Cornelius Gurlitt
Cornelius Gurlitt lived alone with his art for the last 40 years of his life.
Hildebrand passed away in 1956 and left everything to his son, Cornelius. Cornelius kept the art secret. It comprised about 1500 works of extremely valuable art. A secretive sort, Cornelius managed to sell some of the artwork over the years to support himself. Exactly how many pieces were sold is unclear, but the sales were through prominent auction houses for large sums of money (some for millions of Euros).

The German authorities finally got wind of this odd fellow with the incredibly valuable art to sell and unexplainable wads of cash and raided his mundane apartment in Schwabing, Munich. They seized the artwork and found that Cornelius had additional staches in other places, too. Cornelius passed away in 2014 and left his holdings to a museum, but the hard job was sorting them out to determine which were legally his and which were stolen. The artwork is the subject of an Israel Museum exhibit that closed the day that I am writing this - 15 January 2020.

Cornelius Gurlitt wasn't necessarily a bad man. He was dealt a hand by World War II, and he played it. Art thefts during the Third Reich is an issue that will linger for a long, long time.

Generals Eisenhower, Bradley, and Patton look at stolen art
Generals Dwight D. Eisenhower, George Patton, and Omar Bradley look over some art stolen by the Germans found hidden in a salt mine. I love the look on Patton's face.


My point is that history is not just big things, broad-brush strokes, fancy inventions, and valiant warriors and big battles. History is the small change of life, the little things that affect people and places with a lingering aftertaste. World War II is still with us today, all around us. All you have to do is look hard enough.


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