This month’s selection, When Books Went to War: The Stories That Helped Us Win World War II by Molly Guptill Manning (2015) is offered in memory of the 75th anniversary of D-Day, June 6, 1944. While memory of this aspect of the war has dimmed over the intervening decades, the impact of books on American culture remains. This is the true story of the impact of the Armed Services Editions (ASE) books on the democratization of literature in American culture, described as “the most significant project in publishing history.” [p. 74]

Adolf Hitler became German Chancellor on January 30, 1933. Germany had never recovered from World War I and the aftermath. Germans were hungry to regain their place in European culture and politics. Hitler had devised a comprehensive plan which he formulated during the 1920s and detailed in his book Mein Kampf. He, like many Germans, blamed Germany’s loss of the war and subsequent lengthy humiliation on betrayal by certain parties. Hitler wanted Germany to rise to power again and to extend its power over other European countries to be used as “Lebensraum” for an increased German population.

Hitler started remaking Germany immediately upon taking office. A failed artist, he started trying to win the hearts and minds of Germans by focusing on all aspects of culture. By micromanaging the purging of art, music, literature, etc. of anything he considered “not German,” and artfully using radio and films to spread propaganda, he worked tirelessly to re-instill pride in being German.

In May 1933, a ceremonial burning of many thousands of books took place in Berlin and other towns throughout Germany. Oddly enough, the people most up in arms AND able to take action in response to this “bibliocaust” were American librarians!

As librarians and other Americans learned of the events in Germany via German radio propaganda and the American media, the American Library Association (ALA) became a strong advocate of trying “to stop Hitler from succeeding in his war of ideas against the United States.” [p. 15]

The U.S. did not have a standing army, as well as no intention of entering the war, but Congress passed the Selective Training and Service Act in September 1940 requiring registration for military service. It seemed a wise choice to be able to expedite troop deployment if it became necessary.

Building an army (and navy) had to start from scratch: building bases and weapons training took much time and effort. Most bases were located in places without amenities, and the young men had nothing to do to relieve boredom, no way to blow off steam, in their hours off work. A drive for book donations to send to these bases-to-be started, and Americans responded with extreme generosity.

When the U.S. entered the war, these soldiers and sailors took the donated hardback books with them to the battlefields if and when possible, but the extra weight and room the books required in their already overloaded backpacks was a drawback. Manning’s book describes the groups and people who brainstormed how to solve this problem.

The solution was overseen by the Council on Books in Wartime. Paper rationing played a significant part in the final decision to publish small paperbacks weighing just a few ounces that could be carried in uniform pockets. These books were bound on the short side with print formatted in two columns on each page to maximize paper usage while remaining readable. Publishers mobilized to print the books, while government entities cooperated & supported the project. The War Book Panel took charge of selecting a wide range of books to be printed in ASE format. Transportation to get the books to all the places where troops were stationed or fighting was a monumental task, but they did it.

There was virtually no censorship, although the focus was on books that would elevate the spirit and mind, remind the troops of home, give respite and an escape from the horror of battle, and keep present in their minds why and what they were fighting against and fighting for. The books gave the troops a virtual place to go to refresh their minds and spirits. It’s impossible to calculate their true effect on morale, but many soldiers wrote letters to the authors of books they particularly enjoyed. Many letters survive in the archives and reveal the gratitude with which the troops received the ASE books and the difference the books made in their wartime experience.

It wasn’t unusual for some troops to enter combat convinced that they weren’t “readers.” It also wasn’t unusual for them to discover the pleasure of reading during the war, and they tended to continue the habit throughout their lives. Many returning soldiers used the G.I. Bill to obtain a college education using their improved skills and wider range of interests acquired from their wartime reading. Often college had been considered out of their reach before the war. Clearly, Americans benefitted immeasurably from opportunities they’d never expected. In fact, they were so serious about their education that regular-aged college students complained they had to work harder to keep up with the high grades and standards set by the G.I. Bill students!

Franklin Roosevelt was inaugurated as the American president on March 4, 1933—less than 5 weeks after Hitler took office. Both inherited countries in dire need of help, but they could hardly have had more different temperaments and ways of dealing with issues.

FDR was a reader (as was Eisenhower); he described himself as a lifelong “reader and buyer and borrower and collector of books.” He designated April 17, 1942, as Victory Book Day, releasing this “statement on how books played an essential role in the fight for freedom:

We all know that books burn—yet we have the greater knowledge that books cannot be killed by fire. People die, but books never die. No man and no force can abolish memory. No man and no force can put thought in a concentration camp forever. No man and no force can take from the world the books that embody man’s eternal fight against tyranny of every kind. In this war, we know, books are weapons.” [p. 48]

It’s difficult to assess how great an impact the support and example of such a leader had on the book donation program, the ASE creation and distribution, and the creation of millions of reading Americans. It is certain that he helped change our nation for the better in this war of ideas.

“It is estimated that more than 100 million books perished over the course of the war. This figure includes books that were destroyed by air raids and bombs as well as by book burnings. Through the efforts of the Council on Books in Wartime, over 123 million Armed Services Editions were printed. The Victory Book Campaign added 18 million donated books to the total number distributed to the American troops. More books were given to the American armed services than Hitler destroyed.” [pp. 193-194]

This book is well-researched and has made important history easily accessible to any reader. It’s clear that the author loved the topic and material. Pictures brought parts of the story to life. Best of all, Manning included a list of Banned Authors (Heinrich Heine was the biggest surprise) and a list of all the ASE’s and their release dates. I can’t think of anything more she could have added. This story shows that Americans can accomplish the near-impossible when they work together and have a common important goal.

Of all the images Manning evokes, this one sticks with me the strongest. Describing the horrors of the Omaha Beach landing:

“Many men who climbed the beach later that day would never forget the sight of gravely wounded soldiers propped up against the base of the cliffs, reading.” [p. 102]

What better way exists to take one’s mind off the place, time, and pain, to mentally flee to a better place until help arrived!

(Spoiler alert: I will try to locate 2 or 3 of the most-read and -loved ASE books to write about next month.)

–Donna Rueff–