Old edition illustrates attitudes of the times

Published 8:59 am Friday, January 7, 2011

A copy of the Monday, May 7, 1945, Austin Daily Herald “Victory Edition” made its way to my desk this week, sealed in a plastic bag where a collector had saved it for many years.

The jubilant tone of the headlines was countered by the lead local story, which noted Austin had taken news of Germany’s surrender “soberly.” Not only were many local members of the armed forces still fighting in the Pacific, the city’s flags were flying at half staff in memory of recently deceased President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Word of the surrender came, the Herald reported, as a funeral service was under way for 1st Lt. James Stolzenberg, “One of the 112 Mower County men who gave their lives in this war.”

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Most of the rest of the headlines ran true to the pattern we all know, either from our history books or memory: discovery of the wreckage Allied bombers had made of Adolph Hitler’s favorite retreat, the role Russia had played in forcing Germany’s eventual surrender, prospects for American industry in the reconstruction of Europe.

And, of course, there were pages devoted to picturing and listing the area men who had died, been injured or gone missing in action during the war.

Those stories, which gave a sad but well-known account of sacrifice didn’t catch my interest as much as some of the advertisements, which painted a picture of a time when the violence of war was less something to abhor than to note as a reality.

Austin Bus Line’s ad in the special edition featured pictures of bombs raining from the sky onto a Japanese-occupied Pacific island. Noting that readers could perhaps not be there “to share in the glory of defeating Germany,” the ad urged Austin residents to buy war bonds.

One car dealer’s advertisement featured an illustration of a clearly deceased Hitler hanging from a noose, with the legend, “The goose-stepper hangs high.” When I showed it to a woman in the office, she actually gasped in surprise.

Hard to imagine any business, here in Austin or elsewhere, celebrating the defeat of modern enemies in those stark tones. Would any of us associate ourselves or our brand with photos of an Iraqi dictator or al Qaeda terrorist being executed? Nope. That’s beyond the pale, nowadays.

Racism was also overt. The Austin Candy Co.’s ad for war bonds featured a caricature of a Japanese soldier holding a blood-dripping knife. Yep, that was the candy company. The saw mill’s ad pictured a grotesque combination of a Japanese-looking face blended into an octopus body – the kind of thing that would probably be a hate crime if it saw the light of day today.

In 2011, our bitterest enemies get gentler public treatment. Is it because it has been so long since we were truly convulsed by war? Certainly the current war on terror has been more of a sideshow than something that compels our attention every day. Perhaps our attitudes about violence and truly changed. Sudden and early death is so much less common that we’re more sensitive to its portrayal. Or, maybe, we have simply been schooled to bury our thoughts about violence.

Whichever the case may be, it’s clear that things have changed a lot since 1945.

A side note: The advertisements in old newspapers also shed unintended light on how different life at home was six-and-a-half decades ago. Austin’s grocery stores — all 37 of them — went in together on a large ad urging readers to avoid wasting food. “Food… Fights for Freedom,” the ad noted. Wonder what those grocers would think of today’s throw-away society? Not much, I guess.

The thirty-seven grocery stores are also a reminder of a time when hopping in the car and driving across town to buy groceries was not the norm. Presumably many people walked to their favorite neighborhood grocery store, especially during a period when gas and tires were being rationed. Quite a difference from the way we live today.