Remembering Gone with the Wind In World War II
Historians have beaten the proverbial dead horse in regards to the historical accuracy of Gone with the Wind. Our own Sarah Bierle contributed her thoughts and interpretations on the book and film in its own dedicated series here on the blog. It can be mostly agreed upon that the book was written by a talented writer who viewed the Civil War and Reconstruction through the lens of what information and testimonies were available to her at the time. While the book and film cannot be claimed as a completely accurate depiction of the event, it showcases themes that have transcended beyond its historical context, making the experiences of the characters relatable to audiences, not just in America, but on a global scale. Specifically, the plight of Southerners – poor and aristocrat alike – as the world they had known for their whole lives was torn apart by war and an invading enemy that was portrayed as ruthless and hostile towards them. This post is not to contest the validity or accuracy of the experiences by Southerners (in history and in the book) during General William Sherman’s “March to the Sea,” but to present the versatility of those experiences for an audience far removed from Georgia and the United States.
On the eve of World War II, Adolf Hitler conspired to invade Poland. Due to Anglo-French pleas to avoid antagonizing Hitler by mobilizing their army, Poland was left nearly defenseless on September 1, 1939. Though their forces were nearly equal – 1.3 million for the Poles and 1.5 million in the Wehrmacht – the Germans were better equipped to carry out a military invasion. Military and civilian tragedies unfolded throughout the country as Poland was bombed and overrun, thousands killed or captured in the process. As if repeating World War I, France and Britain declared war on Germany a couple of days later in response to the invasion – as what happened with neutral Belgium over thirty years before. Riots, mass arrests, and unimaginable violence became the order of the day as Poles resisted German occupation, and Germans struggled to maintain control over the population.
As Poles struggled to make sense of the new, war-torn landscape they found themselves in, the scenes from Gone with the Wind came to mind for some. The book by Margaret Mitchell gained popularity in Poland earlier that year, and retrospectively, one Pole wrote, “Somehow, I considered it prophetic.” Poles found a mirror image of their situation in burned-out, rural Georgia, empathizing with the Southern people of the novel who had their lives turned upside down by an invading army. Felicks Lachman, a Polish refugee, contemplated the scene when he wrote, “Desolate as was the Tara estate, Scarlett O’Hara was going through fire and water to the place where she knew she belonged. We had left, once and forever, men and things that formed the social, intellectual and emotional environment of our life.”
Lachman was, of course, referring to the harrowing night Scarlett spent driving a wagon from smoldering Atlanta, trying to make her way home with Melanie Wilks, two children, and Prissy in tow. Scarlett’s journey home begins in chapter twenty-four and her pining for home and shelter is evident on every page. “If she could only reach the kind arms of Tara and Ellen and lay down her burdens, far too heavy for her young shoulders – the dying woman, the fading baby, her own hungry little boy, the frightened negro, all looking to her for strength, for guidance, all reading in her straight back courage she did not possess and strength which had long since faded.” The more desolated plantations she passed, the more pessimistic she became toward the fate of Tara, terrified that she “would find only the blackened bricks, starlight shining through the roofless walls…” and still, she pushed onward toward home. For many Polish refugees, they would never see their homes again and never know the comfort they once felt between the four walls that were made rubble by the Luftwaffe. In Gone with the Wind, they identified with Scarlett’s desperation and trauma as they saw their own society crumble.
Elsewhere and later in the conflict – the spring of 1942 – another reference to Gone with the Wind illustrates the unconscious need to compare and contrast the losses of World War II to the devastated South of the acclaimed novel. The Japanese, siding with the Axis powers, were bent on conquering the Asian world in the Pacific and westward toward Burma. As the army pressed through the British-controlled region, the masses of Indian refugees fled away from the invaders, receiving little to no assistance from the Allied empire. With the refugees came the starving and wounded who needed medical attention that the British and Raj were incapable of providing due to lack of resources and organizing of basic humanitarian efforts for their people. Instead, local and private hospitals became overrun. Visiting a hospital in Ranchi, the wife of government minister R.A. Butler – an ironic surname, given her reference – wrote to a friend about her experience. “The medical wards are like Gone with the Wind – pallets touching each other, people moaning for water and sicking up and so on everywhere. It’s all a shocking crime and may God forever damn the Eastern Command staff.”
One of the most iconic scenes of the Gone with the Wind film is the stunning shot of what appears like hundreds of wounded Confederate soldiers awaiting medical assistance or transport at the train depot in Atlanta. Like the wife of Mr. Butler, Scarlett was appalled at the sight before her.
“Lying in the pitiless sun, shoulder to shoulder, head to feet, were hundreds of wounded men, lining the tracks, the sidewalks, stretched out in endless rows under the car shed. Some lay stiff and still but many writhed under the hot sun, moaning. Everywhere, swarms of flies hovered over the men, crawling and buzzing in their faces, everywhere was blood, dirty bandages, groans, screamed curses of pain as stretcher bearers lifted men. The smell of sweat, of blood, of unwashed bodies, of excrement rose up in waves of blistering heat until the fetid stench almost nauseated her. The ambulance men hurrying here and there among the prostrate forms frequently stepped on wounded men, so thickly packed were the rows, and those trodden upon stared stolidly up, waiting their turn.”
As before implied, Gone with the Wind is a work of fiction which took place in a historical time, though the exact events are dramatized through the eyes of Mitchell’s characters and inspired by her own research. Still, the scenarios and the sentiment of those events still resonated with audiences whose lives and families were never touched by what took place in Georgia in 1864. Literature and film provide these outlets and basis of understanding to help people cope with their own realities. For European readers and movie-goers, Gone with the Wind was not just an entertaining story. It was, in some ways, psychological preparation for what was to come. It may have given them some solace that they were not the first to experience war dropped on their doorsteps.
 Max Hastings, Inferno: The World At War, 1939-1945, (Alfred A. Knopf, 2011), p. 6
 Rula Langer, The Mermaid and the Messerschmitt, (Roy, 1942), p. 20
 Imperial War Museum, London, 91/6/1, Felicks Lachman Manuscript (quoted in Hastings, p. 21)
 Margaret Mitchell, Gone with the Wind, (Scribner, 1996), p. 398
 Mitchell, p. 399
 Hastings, p. 222-223
 Mrs. G. Portal, quoted in Christopher Bayly and Tim Harper, Forgotten Armies, (Penguin, 2004), p. 189
 Mitchell, p. 361
9 Responses to Remembering Gone with the Wind In World War II
I recall reading that the hospital scene had 3,000 extras and 3,000 mannequins. It is a stunning scene, amidst the Lost Cause folderol.
A fair comparison, perhaps extending to Ukraine today. I highly recommend “Southern Daughter”, Darden Asbury Pyron, a biography of Margaret Mitchell. Mitchell’s research for GWTW was immediate and personal, as a resident of Atlanta whose four grandparents were directly involved in the War. The byline for a photo of her maternal grandmother, Annie Fitzgerald Stephens: “….lived to influence three generations of her progeny, not always to the good. She also helped inspire the creation of Scarlett O’Hara.”
Great article; fascinating insights.
Great insights. I’d add that it played in Singapore before that city’s fall on February 15, 1942.
wonderful idea for an article … well done.
GWTW was released in the theaters right after WW2 started and several months after the Spanish Civil War finished (1936-39). on April 1 in a country completely destroyed. Despite it, GWTH became the top grossing film worlwide, replacing The Birth of A Nation (in some sources, I have found Snow White was briefly the 1st one), which lasted until the mid 1960s replaced by the Sound of Music. Between The Birth of A nation first, and later, GWTH, the two Civil War films were the top grossing films for a half of century.worldwilde.
Any war and its results are always the same…. there are the combatants involved in the fighting trying to defend their homes or territories., and the civilians left behind to ” hold down the fort.” Doesn’t matter the century, the feelings incurred, the brutal happenings of war are always the same. When your country is invaded legally or illegally, suffering occurs, and it happens to the non-combatants who suffer right along with the soldiers fighting the war.
Definitely don’t disagree with you on that note. Soldiers and civilians both suffer greatly during war. I would argue, however, that the civilians of World War II in Europe suffered much greater atrocities than Americans during the Civil War. When considering that more civilians died in WWII than combatants, Holocaust victims aside, it’s hard to say that the results of the two wars were the same. WWII, of course, was fought on a much larger scale with very different objectives.
Hi Sherritta, Your comments are noted and we agree on them. I was really only referring to the war between the states in our (American) history. I am sure there were atrocities on both sides during the Civil War. I believe that the Southern civilians probably took the brunt of these because most of the war was fought down South. Doesn’t make any of it right but during wars, terrible inhumane things occur to and between civilians and combatants on any side.