Tag Archives: Television

My World War II

My World War II

Geoff Howes

 In May and August of this year, we will observe seventy-five years since VE Day and VJ Day. I was born in November 1955, ten years after the Second World War ended. But WWII lingered on in the culture and defined the world I grew up in. When people said The War, they didn’t mean the more recent Korean or the then-current Vietnam War. They meant the “Big One.”

In the ‘60s, Hollywood kept fighting the war. Sink the Bismarck! (1960), The Guns of Navarone (1961), Judgment at Nuremberg (1961), The Longest Day (1962), The Great Escape (1963), PT 109 (1963), The Dirty Dozen (1967), Battle of the Bulge (1965), Battle of Britain (1969). These movies and more came to my young attention between my fifth and fifteenth years. I even saw some of them: The Guns of Navarone at the drive-in with Ricky Cunningham and his dad. The Battle of Britain on TV. It had way too much chatter and not enough flying for an airplane nut like me.

As an airplane nut, I spent my pre-teen years building plastic models of World War II warplanes: P-51 Mustang, P-40 Tomahawk, P-38 Lightning, P-39 Aircobra, F4F Wildcat, SBD Dauntless, Supermarine Spitfire, Hawker Hurricane, B-17 Flying Fortress, B-24 Liberator, B-26 Marauder, Handley Page Halifax, Messerschmitt Bf-109, Focke Wulf Fw-190, Messerschmitt 110. Two of the first words I learned in German were Luftwaffe and Jagdstaffel(“fighter squadron”).

I loved the beautiful shapes of these machines, and I imagined the thrill of speed and the gallantry of dogfights. I did not imagine the carnage wreaked by flak, 50-caliber bullets, and 500-pound bombs. Shot-down planes and cities 30,000 feet below were magically unpeopled by my childish mind.

My friends and I played War a lot, always World War II, usually Europe. We’d either play “big guys,” toting toy guns, or “little guys,” with small plastic soldiers. I didn’t know a kid who didn’t have at least one set of these figurines, usually army green, but sometimes gray (Germans) or tan (Japanese). These manikins were firing rifles (standing, kneeling, or prone), wielding mine detectors and flamethrowers, and shouldering bazookas. The plastic tanks, half-tracks, and jeeps were usually out of scale with the humans. We emitted war sounds, usually voiceless bilabial plosives followed by velar fricatives, voiceless for rifles and machine guns, voiced for shells and grenades. 

Playing “big guys,” we always had to decide whether to be Americans and their enemies (“Krauts”), or let everyone be American and just imagine our foes. I preferred the latter: there usually weren’t enough of us for two squads, and it eliminated endless arguments over who killed (“got”) who. With everyone on the same team, it was easier to devise adventures.

We modeled these adventures on the TV series Combat!, which ran from 1962 to 1967. The show followed a squad of US Army soldiers through France after D-Day. Once my dad took me out for a birthday dinner at Vanelli’s, a “fancy” restaurant on Woodward Avenue. As we were leaving, I saw the closing credits of Combat! on a TV in the lobby. I felt bad I’d missed it, birthday or no birthday. That’s how much I loved that show.

Recently, I’ve watched a few Combat! episodes on YouTube, and it holds up well. Robert Altman directed half of the first season. The series didn’t glorify war, but portrayed it as hard and tragic. Difficult decisions, not mere heroism, shaped the plots. In retrospect, I think I learned about leadership from Lt. Hanley, played by Rick Jason, and Sgt. Saunders, played by Vic Morrow.

One day I was watching the show in the family room. An American soldier huddling by a house lobbed a hand grenade into the window above him. The explosion sent a German soldier somersaulting out the window. “Cool!” I exclaimed. My usually reserved father had just stepped into the room. Calmly but firmly, he said, “There’s nothing cool about someone getting killed.”

Apparently, twenty years after the war was not too soon for WWII sitcoms. I watched a lot of Hogan’s Heroes (1965-71), set in the fictional German POW camp Stalag 13. (Later I realized the show drew on The Great Escape and Billy Wilder’s Stalag 17.) Colonel Hogan, an American pilot, led a crew of Allied prisoners in resistance and sabotage against the Germans. Every week they outwitted the Kommandant Colonel Klink (played by Werner Klemperer) and the bumbling guard Sgt. Schulz (John Banner).

Whenever haughty General Burkhalter (Leon Askin) inspected the camp, the POWs managed to distract him from Klink’s and Schulz’s failures. Incompetent Nazis were good for their operations. Years later, my father-in-law (a veteran of the Battle of the Bulge) remarked that if the Germans had been that stupid, it wouldn’t have taken so long to win the war. Ironically, Klemperer, Banner, and Askin were all Jewish émigrés from Germany and Austria who had served in the US Army in WWII.

We lived with personal echoes of The War as well. My mother’s brother Jimmy was killed in 1943 when his submarine, the USS Amberjack, was sunk in the South Pacific. My mother never got over it, and absent Uncle Jimmy was a presence in our lives. My father was too young to have served, but his father, in his forties, had worked for the Army newspaper Stars and Stripes.

In the 1970s, learning German in high school and majoring in German studies in college, I fleshed out my rudimentary knowledge of the European war. The first piece of literature I read in German was Wolfgang Borchert’s short story “The Bread,” which depicts hunger after the war. The first novel I read in German was Heinrich Böll’s House without Guardians, about families whose loved ones had fallen.

Studying German in the ‘70s and ‘80s meant studying The War. Böll’s family saga Billiards at Half Past Nine, Günter Grass’s anti-epic The Tin Drum, Siegfried Lenz’s novel of inner immigration The German Lesson, and Borchert’s play The Man Outside, about a traumatized returnee from the Eastern front: these texts and others created a world in my mind of both German culpability and German suffering. Films like The Marriage of Maria Braun (1978), The Tin Drum (1979), Germany, Pale Mother (1980), Das Boot (1981), and The White Rose (1982) tried to deal with guilt, destruction, trauma, and crimes against humanity.

The first time I visited Berlin, in 1975, the war had been over for thirty years. Its traces were everywhere, from the ruined Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, to the hulk of Anhalter Station, to the prison memorial at Plötzensee, to pockmarks left in stone. The harsh division of the city, a bizarre by-product of the settlement of the war, was a new form of unsettlement.

The peaceful, shady avenues of Charlottenburg, where my student group was staying in the House of Political Education, made nineteen-year-old me nostalgic for something I never knew: the world that was pulverized by World War II. Now, forty-five years later, with the living memory of The War nearly obliterated by mere time, I feel nostalgic for that nostalgia.

21 April 2020


The Global Suburb (A letter from Salzburg, Oct. 19, 1998)

[NOTE: When I was directing Bowling Green State University’s study-abroad program in Salzburg, Austria, in 1998-99, I wrote a series of letters to the faculty list back at BGSU. I got wonderful responses, so I kept writing them! This one, from October, 1998, reflects on how Austrian and German culture have absorbed and adapted American culture, including borrowing words, especially from popular culture, business, and high tech.

I wouldn’t come to all the same conclusions today.  A lot has changed in twenty years – for example, Netflix is making many series produced abroad available to American audiences – and a lot sounds quaint and out of date, but a lot has stayed the same or continued to develop in the directions described.]


The Global Suburb

Last week I bought some potato chips–“Chips” in German–with the brand name “Funny-frisch.” “Frisch” means “fresh,” and Germans seem to think that “funny” is the adjectival form of “fun,” so this probably means “fun-fresh,” not “humorous-fresh”.  The product and the name have the aura of America, where both the snack (German “Snack”) and the idea of eating for fun come from. Countless such borrowings show the pervasive influence of American and international culture in Germany and Austria, especially in business, popular culture, and high technology.


Many a German “Manager” hopes that his “Management” has the “Know-how” to provide the “Level” of “Service” required to avoid a “Flop.” Whether his “Business” involves “Leasing” or “Investment” in “Blue chips” (not to be confused with “Microchips” or “Funny-frisch Chips”), he will probably want to provide his customers with either a “Hotline” or “online internet business” opportunities–in short, “E-Business.”


The “Kids” in Central Europe are hip to “Hip-Hop” and “Rap-Musik,” of course, if they’re “cool.” If they watch “TV” they probably avoid “Gameshows” and “Talkshows”–the realm of the uncool–and prefer “Videoclips” on MTV.

One cable station fills the dead hours after midnight with uncommented footage of various “Raves,” especially last spring’s “Love Parade” in Berlin, a huge demonstration of resolute pleasure-seeking, a sort of urban Woodstock without illusions. The Love Parade’s motto, “One World One Future,” displayed in English on banners in mid-Berlin, is not unconvincing, even if global unity is being ushered in not by abstractions about peace, love, and understanding, but by CDs, McDonald’s, Gatorade, CNN, and the Internet. To paraphrase Brecht, “Fast Food,” then ethics. To be sure, the global suburb is peopled by the propertied: “Consumers of the world, unite!”


I haven’t checked to see whether the “Love Parade” has its own “Homepage,” but it wouldn’t take too much “Surfen” on the “Web” to find out. Whether with a “Notebook” or a “Desktop,” many Germans and Austrians are connected to the “Internet.” As might be expected, being “online” means being hooked up to a flow of American English terms like “Software,” “Hardware,” “Bytes,” “E-mail” and “Internet Service Provider.” You can check (“checken”) all this out by going to “Yahoo Deutschland” or one of the other German search engines. “Heute schon yahoot?” (Did you yahoo yet today?)

Even before the “Computer” became the conduit for the English language and American ways of life, the movies, television, and pop music were transplanting names, images, and words from California and New York to Frankfurt and Linz. American “Stars” are as well-known here as in the US. As the movie audience nibbles its “Popcorn” at the “Cineplexx” in Salzburg this week it can see “The Mask of Zorro,” “Saving Private Ryan,” “Dr. Dolittle” with Eddie Murphy, “The Horse Whisperer,” “Lost in Space,” “Mafia,” “Armageddon,” “Godzilla,” and “Out of Sight.”


While I think it’s patronizing snobism to want to save the poor Austrians from such flagrant cultural imperialism–why shouldn’t they see the movies we watch?–it is too bad that most Americans will never see the other films in Salzburg this week–the cabaret film “Hinterholz 8,” or Niki List’s homegrown Austrian spoof “Heroes in Tyrol,” or “Lola rennt” (“Run Lola Run”), or the film version of Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach’s novella “Krambambuli,” showing at the Mozart-Kino downtown. Too often we Americans do not benefit at all from the internationalism our culture has unleashed.

On television (public, cable, or satellite) this week you can enjoy the following American fare: “Full House,” “Mad About You,” “Baywatch,” “Star Trek Voyager,” “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” “ER,” “The Simpsons,” “Alf” (remember “Alf”?–the Germans have never forgotten him), “Seinfeld,” “The Cosby Show,” “Married with Children,” “The Rockford Files,” “Friends,” “Suddenly Susan,” and “Who’s the Boss?”, to say nothing of the Hollywood movies, dubbed into German, but often with the original English titles (“Free Willy,” “Born to Be Wild,” “Bad Girls,” “Destiny,” “Tank Girl,” “Tin Men,” “Extremities,” and “Bananas.”)


But how many Americans are aware that after 24 years, the venerable police drama “Derrick” with its popular star Horst Tappert ran its last episode this past week? It’s too bad–although they’re importing “Homicide ” and “Law and Order,” Germans and Austrians have long been creating cop shows of the same caliber (I happen to like the genre). But who in the US has ever seen “Derrick,” or “Scene of the Crime,” or “Kottan on the Case,” or “Kommissar Rex,” or any of the other good shows that are filmed on the streets of Munich, Berlin, or Vienna?

“Derrick” is seen in Japan, the Netherlands, France, Israel, in 100 countries, but not in the United States. Is it stupidity or arrogance that makes US producers think that foreign fare won’t play? (Maybe that’s the same thing.) A TV special marking the end of this era is called “Goodbye, Derrick.” Not “Auf Wiedersehen, Derrick,” but a farewell in the language of Edgar Wallace and Hollywood. This is not just faddish; it shows a certain sensitivity to the cultural position of a German television police drama: we’ve borrowed from America, but made it our own.


There are many exceptions, but all in all Europeans are enriched by their knowledge of American culture. They learn English, and they’re globally oriented in a way that Americans simply are not, even though the means of global understanding through business, music, film, TV, and computers were largely developed in the US. Paradoxically, instead of using technology to bring the world to us, we use it to tell us our own stories to ourselves, over and over again.

You may protest that CNN and CSPAN bring the world to us, and indeed they are better than nothing. But while I can watch CNN here in Austria, I can also watch German news, Austrian news, and French news, and I could watch Italian news too if I could understand Italian.

While I can hear Madonna and the Beastie Boys, I can also hear Such a Surge and Rainhard Fendrich. While I can see “Der Soldat James Ryan,” I can also see “Solo fuer Klarinette” (Solo for Clarinet), a current German movie drawing much attention. American culture is available, even dominant, but not exclusive.

Granted, some broadcasters like RTL in Germany have succeeded in importing or imitating the worst of American TV. The “Talkshow” is now a fixture on German cable and satellite (still the only forms of purely commerical TV in Germany and Austria), and it is just as tasteless as at home. “The Wildest Police Chases in the World” is probably not the best ambassador of America. On the other hand, at least its viewers know that America exists, that it has big cars, wide roads, and desperately stupid drivers. They have seen it. What have Americans seen of Germany on television or in the movies? Not much.

So, even though a group of lexicographers in Germany called last week for contributions to translating English borrowings into “real” German, I am not concerned about Americanism ruining German and Austrian culture. Germanic tribes learned to make wine from the Romans, Caribbean islanders turned oil company junk into steel drums, South Africans claimed the electric guitar as their own, and British guys like Van Morrison and Eric Clapton turned Black American music into something that Black Americans like to listen to too: cultural clashes and exchanges have always been productive as well as destructive.

The Germans and Austrians, I trust, are smart enough to know which parts of American culture they want and which ones they have no use for. The “leveling” of culture is as much the triumph of the petit bourgeois (culturally dominant in the US) as it is an Americanization.

To throw out popular culture and its language because it is not German enough, or not “authentic” (whatever that might be), or not sophisticated, would not only be arrogant, it would be as foolish as if we threw out diplomacy and its language because it is French. Any attache worth her dossier seeks detente and rapprochement with as much finesse and elan as she can muster, without worrying about French cultural imperialism.

Besides, American culture is transformed when it is adopted. This dialectic is reflected in strange ways. David Hasselhoff is known in Germany not only as the star of “Baywatch,” but also as a singer. A singer? Something in the German taste (or lack of it–Germans invented kitsch, after all) can stomach this idea even if this American export never made it as a crooner in the US.


The live event of the year, with David Hasselhoff. 

The dialectic is also reflected in the language, in the form of words and phrases that are English but not English at the same time, that somehow convey international panache (that pesky French again), but are puzzling to native speakers. “Happy ending” has become “Happy End” in German. An emcee is a “Showmaster.” Clearly English, but clearly not a word we use. And the now-ubiquitous cell phone is known here as a “Handy.” An English word, but who in Cleveland or Liverpool would know what you’re talking about?

And so English, mostly American English, pours in more and more. Commercials revel in it. Business pages cannot get by without “Joint Ventures” and “Crossrates.” “Singles” and “Teenager” buy “Singles” and “CDs,” the “Chartbreakers” they hear on “Melody FM” during “Drivetime.” Sheryl Crow is as big as she is in the US, and so are “Boygroups” like the Backstreet Boys.

But where is the reverse flow? Every German fan of Hip-Hop knows who Busta Rhymes is, but how many Americans get to hear Moses P., a German purveyor of fine rap? Granted, the heavy-metal group “Rammstein” (a pun on the name of a NATO air base) has had German-language hits recently in the US, but this is the exception that proves the rule. The last spate of German music on US radio was over 15 years ago (Nena, Falco, Trio). This does not mean that German pop musicians stopped making music with German lyrics after 1983.

Maybe because so many cultures are within our borders, we don’t need to hear German rock or Italo-pop. Maybe because we do so well exporting our shows, we don’t have an economic need to import others’.

But the economic power of the Hollywood industry isn’t all that keeps foreigners out. There is a corresponding aesthetic, something about the products themselves that recycles our self-images and keeps us from seeing beyond them.

For Europeans and others around the world, American culture is a window, but for Americans it is a mirror. America send its images out to the world, and much of the world happily welcomes their casualness, their directness, their fun. Americans themselves, however, don’t follow those images across the planet. America sells but it doesn’t buy. It stays at home, busy at its transmitter, only it hasn’t turned on its receiver. America is everywhere and nowhere.