Sean Kennedy discusses his new book, The Shock of War: Civilian Experiences, 1937-1945, now available from UTP.
“Everything considered I wish I had ended up dying during the bombings. If only there weren’t a war, we wouldn’t have to pretend we were happy.” These words, written in the diary of an eighteen-year-old Japanese teenager on July 21, 1945, were among the many stirring passages written by ordinary people that I encountered as I wrote The Shock of War: Civilian Experiences, 1937-1945, the second book in the UTP / Canadian Historical Association short book series on “International Themes and Issues.” To me this particular passage is especially striking for two reasons. First, it highlights how many civilians faced great danger during the conflict and the despair which could ensue from trauma. Furthermore, it alludes to the fact that ordinary people sometimes faced intense pressure from their governments—in particular authoritarian governments—to display patriotic spirit regardless of the situation.
Other individual stories I mention in the book are most positive in tone, stressing, for instance, the jubilation experienced in the Allied nations as the war came to an end. By noting the experiences of individuals from diverse backgrounds, and by situating those experiences within the political and social context of the time, I am hoping that The Shock of War will convey to general readers and students the profound yet complex impact of the Second World War upon civilians in a wide range of societies.
I wrote this book because of my teaching experiences at the University of New Brunswick, in particular a third-year course entitled “The Generation of World War Two.” Over the years I have encountered many excellent books and articles on topics such as civilian experiences on the home front in different countries, what it was like for ordinary people to live under foreign military occupation, and the horrific cases of genocide and other atrocities during the war. I have tried to introduce my students to at least some of these admirable works, but over the course of time it seemed to me that a short book that compared the wartime experiences of different societies in a broad way, while trying to convey a variety of individual experiences, could make a useful contribution in the classroom, and for a wider audience.
I’m very excited at the prospect of now seeing the book in print. I have tried to synthesize a variety of works by very talented scholars, and I am hoping that The Shock of War encourages readers to explore the subject in more depth. Some of these topics, such as the Holocaust, can be very difficult to read about, but it is vitally important that we understand the horrors of the past. We do not live in a peaceful world: there are many conflicts around the globe which shatter the lives of ordinary people in different ways. Mobilizing for, and fighting in, wars have complex and even contradictory effects: the process can bring citizens of a nation together, but it can also expose, and even intensify, existing tensions within a society. I hope that the book helps us to understand these processes today, in light of the tumultuous global conflict between 1937 and 1945.