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Week 1: History

In Slaugterhouse-five a number of historical events play a significant role.
During week one you are going to investigate those historical events. We start with WWII.
World War II
In May 1945 Kurt Vonnegut wrote a letter home. Vonnegut had volunteered in the US army, been sent overseas
and his relatives hadn't heard from him for a long time.
(1)     In his letter (which in fact is several pages long) Vonnegut refers to Hitler's last desperate thrust through Belgium
         and Luxemburg.
         Which major battle is Vonnegut referring to? You will know if you've read the obituary.
(2)     Was this battle meaningful, i.e. did it have an impact on the outcome of the war? What had Hitler hoped to achieve?
         (research). After having read the novel: how may this have affected Vonnegut's ideas about war?
(3)    Vonnegut was a member of the 106th or Golden Lion division. 
        Below is a link to a military history document relating to that division. 
        a. What happened to the soldiers of the 106th division during the winter of 1944 and in particular to Vonnegut?
        b. What reasons does Vonnegut give for this in his letter home? Are there other sources that verify this?
            Quote them. (research)
(4)     Vonnegut could never really come to terms with what happened to him during his POW time.
         a. Describe his experiences. b. How were they similar to those of the Jews? 
(5)     During his time as a POW Vonnegut was housed together with other prisoners in a slaughterhouse in Dresden.
         How did this location ironically prove crucial to his survival of the war?
         Read the extract from an interview with Vonnegut below to find out:
The entire interview can be found at:       


INTERVIEWER: What happened when you reached the front?

VONNEGUT: I imitated various war movies I’d seen.

INTERVIEWER: Did you shoot anybody in the war?

VONNEGUT: I thought about it. I did fix my bayonet once, fully expecting to charge.

INTERVIEWER: Did you charge?

VONNEGUT: No. If everybody else had charged, I would have charged, too. But we decided not to charge. We couldn’t see anybody.

INTERVIEWER: This was during the Battle of the Bulge, wasn’t it? It was the largest defeat of American arms in history.

VONNEGUT: Probably. My last mission as a scout was to find our own artillery. Usually, scouts go out and look for enemy stuff. Things got so bad that we were finally looking for our own stuff. If I’d found our own battalion commander, everybody would have thought that was pretty swell.

INTERVIEWER: Do you mind describing your capture by the Germans?

VONNEGUT: Gladly. We were in this gully about as deep as a World War I trench. There was snow all around. Somebody said we were probably in Luxembourg. We were out of food.

INTERVIEWER: Who was “we”?

VONNEGUT: Our battalion scouting unit. All six of us. And about fifty people we’d never met before. The Germans could see us, because they were talking to us through a loudspeaker. They told us our situation was hopeless, and so on. That was when we fixed bayonets. It was nice there for a few minutes.


VONNEGUT: Being a porcupine with all those steel quills. I pitied anybody who had to come in after us.

INTERVIEWER: But they came in anyway?

VONNEGUT: No. They sent in eighty-eight millimeter shells instead. The shells burst in the treetops right over us. Those were very loud bangs right over our heads. We were showered with splintered steel. Some people got hit. Then the Germans told us again to come out. We didn’t yell “Nuts” or anything like that. We said, “Okay,” and “Take it easy,” and so on. When the Germans finally showed themselves, we saw they were wearing white camouflage suits. We didn’t have anything like that. We were olive drab. No matter what season it was, we were olive drab.

INTERVIEWER: What did the Germans say?

VONNEGUT: They said the war was all over for us, that we were lucky, that we could now be sure we would live through the war, which was more than they could be sure of. As a matter of fact, they were probably killed or captured by Patton’s Third Army within the next few days. Wheels within wheels.

INTERVIEWER: Did you speak any German?

VONNEGUT: I had heard my parents speak it a lot. They hadn’t taught me how to do it, since there had been such bitterness in America against all things German during the First World War. I tried a few words I knew on our captors, and they asked me if I was of German ancestry, and I said, “Yes.” They wanted to know why I was making war against my brothers.

INTERVIEWER: And you said—?

VONNEGUT: I honestly found the question ignorant and comical. My parents had separated me so thoroughly from my Germanic past that my captors might as well have been Bolivians or Tibetans, for all they meant to me.

INTERVIEWER: After you were captured, you were shipped to Dresden?

VONNEGUT: In the same boxcars that had brought up the troops that captured us—probably in the same boxcars that had delivered Jews and Gypsies and Jehovah’s Witnesses and so on to the extermination camps. Rolling stock is rolling stock. British mosquito bombers attacked us at night a few times. I guess they thought we were strategic materials of some kind. They hit a car containing most of the officers from our battalion. Every time I say I hate officers, which I still do fairly frequently, I have to remind myself that practically none of the officers I served under survived. Christmas was in there somewhere.

INTERVIEWER: And you finally arrived in Dresden.

VONNEGUT: In a huge prison camp south of Dresden first. The privates were separated from the noncoms and officers. Under the articles of the Geneva Convention, which is a very Edwardian document, privates were required to work for their keep. Everybody else got to languish in prison. As a private, I was shipped to Dresden . . .

INTERVIEWER: What were your impressions of the city itself before the bombing?

VONNEGUT: The first fancy city I’d ever seen. A city full of statues and zoos, like Paris. We were living in a slaughterhouse, in a nice new cement-block hog barn. They put bunks and straw mattresses in the barn, and we went to work every morning as contract labor in a malt-syrup factory. The syrup was for pregnant women. The damned sirens would go off and we’d hear some other city getting it—whump a whump a whumpa whump. We never expected to get it. There were very few air-raid shelters in town and no war industries, just cigarette factories, hospitals, clarinet factories. Then a siren went off—it was February 13, 1945—and we went down two stories under the pavement into a big meat locker. It was cool there, with cadavers hanging all around. When we came up the city was gone.

INTERVIEWER: You didn’t suffocate in the meat locker?

VONNEGUT: No. It was quite large, and there weren’t very many of us. The attack didn’t sound like a hell of a lot either. Whump. They went over with high explosives first to loosen things up, and then scattered incendiaries. When the war started, incendiaries were fairly sizable, about as long as a shoebox. By the time Dresden got it, they were tiny little things. They burnt the whole damn town down.

INTERVIEWER: What happened when you came up?

VONNEGUT: Our guards were noncoms—a sergeant, a corporal, and four privates—and leaderless. Cityless, too, because they were Dresdeners who’d been shot up on the front and sent home for easy duty. They kept us at attention for a couple of hours. They didn’t know what else to do. They’d go over and talk to each other. Finally we trekked across the rubble and they quartered us with some South Africans in a suburb. Every day we walked into the city and dug into basements and shelters to get the corpses out, as a sanitary measure. When we went into them, a typical shelter, an ordinary basement usually, looked like a streetcar full of people who’d simultaneously had heart failure. Just people sitting there in their chairs, all dead. A firestorm is an amazing thing. It doesn’t occur in nature. It’s fed by the tornadoes that occur in the midst of it and there isn’t a damned thing to breathe. We brought the dead out. They were loaded on wagons and taken to parks, large, open areas in the city which weren’t filled with rubble. The Germans got funeral pyres going, burning the bodies to keep them from stinking and from spreading disease. One hundred thirty thousand corpses were hidden underground. It was a terribly elaborate Easter-egg hunt. We went to work through cordons of German soldiers. Civilians didn’t get to see what we were up to. After a few days the city began to smell, and a new technique was invented. Necessity is the mother of invention. We would bust into the shelter, gather up valuables from people’s laps without attempting identification, and turn the valuables over to guards. Then soldiers would come in with a flamethrower and stand in the door and cremate the people inside. Get the gold and jewelry out and then burn everybody inside.


And if you are curious as to how this all ends, here is part 3 of Vonnegut's letter home.

Below you see an uncorrected proof (i.e. manuscript) for Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-five dating from 1969.
In fact, if you've got 12,500.00 dollars to spare, you can buy it on the internet.
(6) How does the title page of Slaughterhouse-five differ from that of a conventional novel?
Listen to the following interview on audio file.
(7) How did the subtitle The Children's Crusade come about?
(8)        It should be obvious to you by now that Slaughterhouse-five contains many autobiographical elements.
            In fact, the subtitle arose during a discussion Vonnegut had with O'Hara about their shared wartime experiences.
            What, in your opinion, would bring Vonnegut to make the connection between young American men volunteering
            to fight in Europe and 13th-century children going on a crusade?
            You can find out more about crusades here:
From WWII we move on to the counterculture of the 60s, the second decade on our timeline.
In order to make the Counterculture assignments, you will need to click on the links to Vietnam, race relations and women's rights below. Answering the questions will help you put the novel into context and will also give you a deeper understanding of American history.

"Mr. Vonnegut wrote plays, essays and short fiction. But it was his novels that became classics of the American counterculture, making him a literary idol, particularly to students in the 1960s and ’70s. Dog-eared paperback copies of his books could be found in the back pockets of blue jeans and in dorm rooms on campuses throughout the United States."

--unquote--       New York Times Obituary 2007

The counterculture of  the 1960 refers to a cultural movement that mainly developed in the USA and spread through much of the western world in the 60s and 70s. The movement gained momentum during the US government's extensive military intervention in Vietnam. As the 1960 progressed, widespread tensions developed in American society that tended to flow along generational lines regaring the war in Vietnam, race relations, sexual mores, women's rights, traditional modes or authority, experimentation with psychoactive drugs, and differing interpretations of the American Dream.