Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Trek50: When It All Began (2)

Many viewers come to Star Trek when they are young.  But what was going on when the Star Trek creators were young--the 1930s?  How did that time contribute to the soul of Star Trek?  This is Part 2 of 4.  Part 1: Fear Itself is here.  A series marking Star Trek's 50th anniversary.

2. Must It Be Again?

 “Must it be again? Have the fires of humanity then burned in vain?” 

 These anguished words were written by Pierre van Paassen in his book Days of Our Years, the biggest-selling non-fiction book in the U.S. in 1939 and 1940. Decades later, Gene Roddenberry remembered reading it in his youth.

 In the 1930s van Paassen was a foreign correspondent and popular lecturer in the United States, when public talks were well-attended events. Born in the Netherlands, he emigrated to Canada with his family and fought in France with the Canadian army in World War I. Beginning in the 1920s he reported from the Middle East, Africa and Europe for newspapers in Canada and the U.S.

 In the 1930s he covered the rise of Fascism and the European wars that preceded World War II. He watched the world moving towards an even larger and more violent global war. His anguished questions in the book continued:

 “Is humanity to make yet another attempt to wipe out its name with its own blood? Is it not all an endless cycle, a horrible wheel of suffering to which we are chained forever?” 

 This was a question on the minds of many beginning directly after the Great War (as World War I was called before there was a second) and the peace treaty afterwards. H.G. Wells in England was one of the first to decry the treaty terms and the weakness of the League of Nations (the first attempt at an international organization to keep the peace.) Consequently, he foresaw another world war as nearly inevitable. Others would come to agree, including historians.

H.G. Wells
 (Wells as a commentator on current affairs was much read in the U.S. in the 1930s—thanks to the enormous success of his Outline of History, which outsold every book but the Bible. His topical articles were reprinted in newspapers and such high profile magazines as Liberty, Collier’s and American Magazine. His early “scientific romances” like The Time Machine were not yet well remembered.)

Van Paassen shared that analysis of World War I and its aftermath, which led to those passionate questions he asked. His questions became more urgent with the rise of Hitler and Mussolini in the 1930s, as the likelihood gradually grew of a larger and more devastating war. (Van Paassen’s analysis of what was behind international conflicts in the 30s remains cogent and revealing.)

 His questions also became of particular personal interest to young men of Gene Roddenberry’s generation, who would likely find themselves fighting in a new world war, or at least would have their lives transformed by one.

 The Great War of 1914-18 had left Europe traumatized. At least ten million soldiers were killed, almost an entire generation. Casualties were 38 million, with 17 million dead.  Millions more died in the influenza epidemic that raged afterwards.

 The soldiers who died were mostly young, and among them were the best of their generation, wrote literary historian J.B. Priestley. “This is something that nobody born after about 1904 can ever fully appreciate...Europe’s total loss is beyond calculation.”

Revulsion to the Great War in America was also widespread, and led to reluctance and resistance to the country becoming involved in the increasing warfare in Europe in the 1930s.

Charles Lindbergh
This ranged from college campus pacifism through skepticism to isolationists and those sympathetic with Hitler. Another best-seller on library shelves in 1940 was The Wave of the Future by Anne Morrow Lindbergh, writer and wife of American aviation hero Charles Lindbergh. She wrote that fascist governments like those in Germany and Italy were the dynamic forerunners of the future, while exhausted and inefficient democracies were relics of the past. Her husband held similar views.

 Van Paassen did not share these views. He saw Hitler and Fascism as evils that must be stopped, and said so in Days of Our Years.

But the debate was not restricted to books. The rise of Hitler and war in Europe was front and center in newspapers, radio news and the newsreels that ran before features in every movie theatre.

 By 1938, while Nazi Germany was threatening Europe, Japan was attacking China. Both Hitler's Germany and Mussolini’s Italy had begun moving against the Jews in their countries.  Many in America were already alarmed—Arthur Miller recalled his series of nightmares about Hitler and how no one stopped him.

But everyone in the U.S. soon had a front row seat. In the fall of 1938 a speech by Hitler was broadcast on national radio, and his hate-filled voice poured into homes across America. For the first time Americans heard delirious crowds crying “Heil Hitler!”

 In March 1939, Hitler’s forces took Austria and Czechoslovakia. On September 1, they invaded Poland, an ally of France and England. World War II had begun, and polls showed that most Americans believed it was only a matter of time before the United States joined the fighting.

deporting Jews to concentration camps in 1938
In high school Gene was also a member of the International Forum, a world friendship society. But also as a debater known for his patriotism as well as a boy moving quickly towards his 18th birthday, it’s likely he followed these dark events as they happened. Soon he would be in college, but also taking flying lessons, knowing what those lessons were for.

 But even when war was a reality for America and for Gene, the passionate questions van Paassen asked remained: Must it be again? Is war and destruction, hatred and tyranny, all an endless cycle, a horrible wheel to which we are chained forever?

 These questions did not go away—not for others in America, including many who fought the war, and not for some who came together years later to shape a new television series that dared to ask these questions again. They didn’t go away for Gene Roddenberry.

Before we leave the 1930s, there are two other aspects of the decade—two related and happier aspects-- that impressed themselves on young minds and hearts and imaginations, and specifically on GR, in the next two posts of When It All Began.

1 comment:

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