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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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|
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.