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Hoover exhibit explores buildup to World War II

L.A. Cicero shatter

Dabney Lyles, left, Nick Siekierski and Tim LaVerne arrange materials for the exhibit in Hoover Pavilion, open 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday.

Courtesy of the Hoover Institution archives Shatter

A drawing of a battle during the Spanish Civil War from an anarchist art album.

Courtesy of the Hoover Institution archives shatter

A postcard picturing Puyi, the last emperor of China and puppet of Manchukuo during the Japanese occupation.

BY ADAM GORLICK

Italian troops stream into Addis Ababa in May of 1936, setting the stage for a brutal occupation of Ethiopia. A year later, smoke rises over Shanghai Harbor while panicking residents flee Japanese bombs. Soon, Nazi troops crouch in the woods near the Austrian border, preparing to invade. It's 1938.

The official start of World War II won't come until September 1939, when Germany invades Poland. But war is already raging around the world.

With photographs, propaganda posters and memorabilia collected from soldiers and civilians, Shattered Peace: The Road to World War II tells the story of how far-flung global discord snowballed into history's deadliest and most widespread conflict.

"The touchstone of World War II for many Americans was the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941," said Nick Siekierski, an assistant archivist at the Hoover Institution Library and Archives, which is presenting the exhibition through May 27. "But five or six years before that, there was a lot of conflict already under way."

Drawing on Hoover's vast holdings, the exhibit begins in 1935 with photographs from the collection of Ruth Ricci, an Italian nurse who traveled with Benito Mussolini's troops during the Italo-Ethiopian War. The snapshots from her album outline the dictator's push for a new Roman Empire and expansion into Africa: soldiers on a boat bound for Eritrea, tanks rolling across Eritrea toward Ethiopia, and the victorious troops finally streaming through Ethiopia's capital city.

Other photographs replace war's pageantry with its horror. Randall Gould, editor of the Shanghai Evening Post and Mercury, then China's largest English-language newspaper, documented the start of the second Sino-Japanese War in 1937.

Inside his leather-bound photo album, embossed with images of falling bombs and the title "Shanghai Shambles," pictures tell the story of Japan's ferocious attack on China. Craters are blown into roads. People are crammed on a bridge trying to escape the devastated city while a man is laid out on a street, his clothes seemingly blown off in a bomb blast.

Japanese aggression led to a call for Chinese unity, even between political rivals. A colorful poster featuring portraits of Chinese leaders shows Chiang Kai-shek, chairman of China's Nationalist Government, with his political enemy, the communist Mao Zedong.

The exhibit captures other alliances forged in the prelude to world war. There are snapshots of Mussolini with Adolph Hitler—both backers of Francisco Franco in Spain—and a large focus on 1939's Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which paved the way for Eastern Europe to be divided between the Soviets and Germans. The treaty is faithfully recorded in the photos of German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop shaking hands with Joseph Stalin, but recast as a deadly deal in a French poster showing a Nazi and Soviet handshake drenched in blood.

"One of the ironies of World War II is that the Soviet Union was an ally of Britain and the United States," Siekierski said. "But beforehand, they were closely tied to the Nazis."

That military rivalry between Germany and the Soviet Union had been playing out for years. The Nazis were giving military aid to Franco's Nationalist army during the Spanish Civil War that started in 1936, while the Soviet communists were backing Spain's Republicans.

The propaganda of that proxy war is boiled down in a pair of posters featured in the exhibit. In one, a mother and her child cower under the threat of German planes flying overhead. In the other, a devilish Soviet figure—with a hammer and sickle emblazoned on his chest and whip in hand—rages over terrified Spaniards as blood-red flames flare behind him.

"Spain was the testing ground for what happened a few year later," Siekierski said. "The Soviets wanted to spread communism worldwide. And the Nazis wanted to spread their influence around the world, too."

While Shattered Peace is mainly concerned with the buildup to World War II, the exhibit doesn't conclude with Germany's defeat of Poland in 1939. Instead, it explores the destruction and defiance of the Polish campaign. Photographs taken by a Luftwaffe pilot as he flew over Warsaw show the bombed and burning city below. Other photos show Polish women digging an anti-tank trench. But their efforts wouldn't stop the Nazis.

In another scene, Hitler—his right arm extended and his generals behind him—presides over a military parade through downtown Warsaw.

It would take two more years for America's military to join the conflict. But World War II was well under way.

The exhibition is free of charge. The Herbert Hoover Memorial Exhibit Pavilion is located next to Hoover Tower. Pavilion hours are Tuesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.