Finest Hour 145, Winter 2009-10
Marketing a War
World War II: Saving the Reality, A Collector’s Vault, by Kenneth W. Rendell. Whitman, hardbound, slipcased, 144 pages, profusely illustrated in color with 80 replicas, $49.95, member price $40.
By Michael Richards
Here is the most indispensible guide ever created to the war that made us what we are today. From students to veterans, readers will be captivated by this portable version of Kenneth Rendell’s Museum of World War II: an unimitated collection of wartime memorabilia, documents, personal effects and autographs housed in an unmarked building in Natick, Massachusetts.
Visits to the Museum itself are necessarily restricted. Being private, it has no public-access facilities; more-over, there are few barriers—thousands of exhibits are displayed in the open. Naturally, Mr. Rendell is particular who meanders through his trove. Now through his book, everyone may experience and even “handle” the artifacts.
It would take pages to describe the exhibits, but this book does a fine job. Reproductions of paper items from postcards to passports are tucked into envelopes and pockets, or taped to the pages of a massive, landscape-format book housed in a sturdy slipcase.
The Rendell collection runs from identification papers for SS soldiers to the rough draft of the Munich agreement, with amendments in their own hands by Hitler and Chamberlain (rescued from a bin by Nevile Henderson, British Ambassador to Germany); from maps of German invasion plans (including Ireland) to wartime propaganda posters from every belligerent; from Holocaust and POW documents to confidential letters from Roosevelt to Churchill; from first editions of Mein Kampf and the Diary of Anne Frank to German town signs warning Jews to keep out; from officer insignia fashioned by prisoners from food tins to Nazi flyers designed to demoralize invading Allied troops: “Blondes prefer strong and healthy men—not cripples!”
On my last visit to the Museum, Mr. Rendell showed me a recent acquisition: an innocent sheet of yellowing stencil paper labeled OPERATIONS ORDER and dated 6 August 1945. On it were the names of a flight crew— Tibbets, Sweeney, Marquardt, McKnight—and the notation: “BOMBS: Special.” It was the ops-order for the atomic bomb that devastated Hiroshima. Sure enough, a perfect replica of this priceless document is housed in a pocket of the final chapter.
Indeed, no outstanding item from the famous Rendell collection seems to be missing, except maybe his tank and landing craft, Hitler’s personal effects, the “gentleman’s toiletries” box Hermann Goering took to prison in Nuremberg, and waxwork figures of Churchill, Hitler, Patton and Montgomery—but most of these are pictured. The book like the museum is laid out in chronological order, from the prostrate Germany that emerged defeated after World War I, to Victory over Japan in September 1945.
By far the most chilling aspect of this hoard are the brilliantly effective Nazi graphics: uniforms, banners, swastika-bedecked standards patterned after those of the Roman Empire—for the Reich was to have outlasted Rome. Rendell collected the Nazi material with repugnance, knowing it was needed to tell the story. Sometimes he had to deal with pretty scary characters: living, would-be Nazis who viewed the Third Reich as a lost opportunity.
Visitors frequently remark on the array of German propaganda posters, which begin by depicting Hitler as the benign Fuehrer, presiding over bucolic farmers and mothers with children, then gradually evolve to race-baiting admonitions and exhortations of Deutschland Erwacht!—Germany Awake! When they comment on how superior the German graphic artists were, Mr. Rendell nods in agreement: “They were the best,” he says. They were trying to market a war—and they succeeded.”
Don’t fail to secure your copy of this book. You might want extra copies for your children and grandchildren, to remind them of what our forebears went through to secure liberty.
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