Tag Archives: World War II

Book Review: John Strausbaugh’s Victory City

Strausbaugh, John. Victory City: A History of New York and New Yorkers during World War II. (New York: Twelve, 2018). 497pp. $30. ISBN 1455567485

Reviewed by Michael L. Levine

Victory City tells what it was like to live in New York during the Great Depression and World War II. The book may not break new scholarly ground, but it succeeds admirably in bringing a time and place to life and as such can serve as an inviting introduction to students for whom the New Deal and World War II may seem quite remote. Students today are as far removed from the New Deal as those in the thirties were from the Mexican War.

Reading Victory City is a bit like coming across a yellowing newspaper in an old trunk. In that regard John Strausbaugh exercises a deft touch in selecting compelling details. Consider:   During the Depression three out of ten Brooklyn doctors lost phone service for nonpayment of bills. Doctors, mind you! How did ordinary families get by? Meanwhile some of New York’s largest corporations and banks got by– hedging their bets by investing in Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy

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New York, New York. Sidewalk merchant in the Jewish section, Marjory Collins, August 1942, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

We are reminded that during the thirties and forties New York was home as almost no place else to tremendous concentrations of a wide range of ethnic groups. Of particular interest is Strausbaugh’s take on the world’s largest Jewish city. When it came to political confidence in the thirties and forties, the Jewish population in New York seemed less assertive and more uncertain than we might imagine. To retaliate for Hitler’s boycott of Jewish shops in Germany, Jewish New Yorkers called for a boycott of German-owned stores, including Macy’s. Although Macy’s was owned by the Strauses, a Jewish family, it had emigrated from Germany.

Along these lines consider that Arthur Sulzberger, an assimilated Jew, didn’t want his family’s paper, The New York Times, to be seen as Jewish. So, in the thirties, the paper “methodically,” to use Strausbaugh’s words, downplayed news about the persecution of Jews in Europe. Other American Jewish leaders also hesitated to speak out in favor of admitting Jewish refugees for fear of rousing the country’s many anti-Semites. During World War II Washington’s policy toward European Jews was based on the idea that a more aggressive effort to save the Jews from the Nazis would make it appear that the conflict was “a war for the Jews,” in which case Americans would be less willing to make sacrifices.

Hitler Street in Long Island
From The Atlantic: This “Adolf Hitler Strasse” is a street running through “Camp Siegfried,” a summer camp of the German American Bund in Yaphank, Long Island, New York, Bettman Archive, Getty

Strausbaugh also reminds us that while New York was a center of Jewry, it was also very much a German city. New Yorkers of German ancestry (numbering three quarters of million) may not have mostly been pro-Hitler, but Nazism unashamedly maintained a conspicuous presence throughout the metropolitan area. In the thirties, Fritz Kuhn’s German American Bund ran a summer camp on Long Island where youngsters uniformed like Hitler youth marched up and down streets named for Hitler, Goring and Goebbels. On German Day in 1938, the camp drew 40,000 visitors along with 2,000 Storm Trooper guards. The Long Island Railroad thoughtfully obliged by running a Camp Siegfried Special. In 1939 the Bund drew 22,000 to a rally at Madison Square Garden.

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World War II Era Harlem courtesy of Cole Phelps at https://www.thecoli.com/threads/ww2-era-harlem-pics.209216/

Strausbaugh points out that FDR drew the best and brightest—disproportionately New Yorkers—to Washington. If FDR was less concerned with an employee’s religion, gender and race than previous presidents, then some measure of credit must be given to his enlightened First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt. These were the years when appreciative African Americans abandoned Lincoln’s GOP for the New Deal. But Strausbaugh points out that all was not well in the matter of race relations even in progressive Gotham. The 1943 Harlem Riots reflected the city’s oppressive and discriminatory housing and employment practices which made life for Africans Americans so difficult to endure.

A caution: Victory City may prove disconcerting at a time when “enemy of the people,” a vicious slogan calling to mind the brutal authoritarianism of the thirties, now finds renewed currency. When it comes to protecting civil rights and civil liberties—on guard!

Michael L. Levine holds a doctorate in American history from Rutgers. A long-time freelance editor and writer, he has staffed the A. Philip Randolph Institute and has served as editor-in-chief of National Productivity Review and as Associate Editor of Political Profiles, a multi-volume series featuring biographies of contemporary political leaders.

 Featured image (a top): World War II Era Harlem courtesy of Cole Phelps at https://www.thecoli.com/threads/ww2-era-harlem-pics.209216/.

 

 

Member of the Week: James Wolfinger

James Wolfinger September, 2015James Wolfinger

Professor of History and Education

DePaul University

Describe your current research. What about it drew your interest?

I am currently working on a book about a World War II U.S. airman named Bert Julian.  Julian grew up in the Orange, N.J. area around 1910, in an era when the New Jersey suburbs were being more fully incorporated into New York City and people still rode to town in horse-drawn buggies.  Julian survived the Depression by doing odd jobs and sleeping on people’s couches.  He joined the Army after Pearl Harbor, trained as a waist gunner on a B 24 bomber, and was stationed in New Guinea, where he flew reconnaissance missions in preparation for the invasion of the Philippines.  Julian’s plane crashed in northern New Guinea and he was ultimately captured, interrogated, and killed by a Japanese officer in the commission of a war crime.  The inherent interest of Julian’s death coupled with the larger forces he experienced as an ordinary person swept up in huge events—world war and attendant globalization, urbanization, technological advance, and Depression—all drew me to this story.  What particularly fascinates me is how a young man who knew small town New Jersey, with its neighborhood stores, corner taverns, and concrete sidewalks, wound up on his knees in a muddy clearing in New Guinea with a man standing over him with a sword, screaming at him in Japanese.

Describe what you are currently teaching. How does your teaching relate to your scholarship?

I teach a class for our graduate history education students with the prosaic title “Readings in American History.”  The class is chronological and covers American history from the colonial period to the present.  I like teaching it because the reading load emphasizes to future teachers that they are entering an intellectual occupation, it allows me to teach classics as well as cutting edge scholarship, and it has deepened my knowledge of many aspects of U.S. history.  Every book I read, whether it is on urban history or not, gives me new ideas on how to think about history, write history, ask historical questions.

What recent or forthcoming publications are you excited about, either of your own or from other scholars?

I am excited about a new book that I am editing for Temple University Press, with the working title “African American Politics in the City of Brotherly Love.” Covering the period from the Great Migration to today, the book brings together mostly young historians who are doing fresh research on black politics in twentieth century Philadelphia.  There is no other book like it—on Philadelphia or other cities—and it gives me the opportunity to work with exciting new authors and help bring their work to a larger audience.  “African American Politics” will analyze formal politics, community organizing, women’s leadership, and many other topics.  It will focus on Philadelphia while offering a model for how scholars might examine the history of other cities.  In today’s political climate, this book will speak to historians but I believe it will also find a much larger audience.

What advice do you have for young scholars preparing themselves for a career related to urban history or urban studies? 

Follow your passion!  Research and write about what interests you.  My daughter is currently an undergraduate in college, and I always tell her: “If you don’t do what you love, if you don’t try to make it your life’s work now, then you never will.”  I grew up in Oklahoma City, and I remember as a child listening to Boston Bruins hockey games on my dad’s old shortwave radio.  I was probably the only person in Oklahoma doing so!  Large Northern cities seemed so far away, so foreign to me as a child.  I wanted to learn more about them, live in one of them, be urban.  I have always been fascinated by cities, how they work and how people live in them.  Living in and exploring cities was my passion then, and now.

Do you have a favorite book about teaching? Is it one that’s personally resonant and meaningful? Or is it one from which you learned the most and gleaned the best advice?

Let me change the question a bit, to a favorite book to teach.  More than any other book, the work that helped me see the power of history to illuminate the past and better understand the present is Edmund Morgan’s American Slavery, American Freedom.  To me, Morgan analyzed the central issue for understanding the American experience: the vexed relationship between race and class throughout all of American history.  I tell my students that if there’s one book that they should read as a starting point for understanding the promise and problems of the United States, this is the one.