Estimated reading time: 6 minutes
Irwin Shaw is one of the writers whose works have a defined place in history, chronicling a reality we can never afford to forget. The Young Lions is perhaps his best-known work, depicting the Second World War and its immense complexity through three different perspectives: an observant young Nazi, a weary American film producer, and a shy Jewish boy who just got married.
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Irwin Shaw sets Reality into Fiction
The reality of war is something nigh-impossible to understand for those of us who have never experienced it, and this goes double for the Second World War, the largest human conflict in history (so far). Nevertheless, authors like Irwin Shaw do their best to relay their experiences and observations to us, as he did in his timeless modern classic, The Young Lions.
First published all the way back in 1948 and subsequently made into a movie starring Marlon Brando, this is a historical fiction novel set in World War Two. However, it is heavily based on Shaw‘s personal experiences in Europe during the conflict, and for this reason I believe it holds much more weight than many other fictional stories on the subject.
Moving on to the story itself, we are essentially taken through the various aspects of the war through three radically different perspectives, all of them dealing with their own specific challenges, atrocities, and of course, interpretations of the whole thing.
First, we have Michael, an American film producer living in New York and Hollywood, accused of having Communist connections because of the symbolic financial aid he provided to the Spanish Republic during its Civil War. Second, we have Christian, a young Austrian ski instructor who ends up a Nazi sergeant under Erwin Rommel.
Finally, the third narrative in this novel follows a young Jewish man by name of the Noah, shy in his demeanour but happier than ever after marrying the love of his life. He is sent into combat on D-Day, and through him we get to see the rampant antisemitism which prevailed in the American army and society at large.
Betrayal of Ideals in The Young Lions
If there is one thing most people who have studied and experienced the Second World War are keen on repeating, it’s in regards to the danger of depicting the whole thing in black-and-white terms. Sure, there were clearly-defined aggressors and defenders in the conflict, but there existed good and bad people on all sides of the conflict, and sometimes they expunged their own.
Through the three stories we meet men who have been betrayed by the societies they exist in. The film producer is made into a pariah because he dared show support to human beings of a certain political affiliation many years ago. Irwin Shaw includes numerous autobiographical elements in this part of the book, and I’d wager he knows more than most about what it’s like being ostracized.
On the other hand, Christian is a young man who has been living a decent life as a ski instructor in accordance with all laws of common sense and rational thinking. He finds himself stomped into the Nazi uniform and is, in a sense, betrayed by his country when he witnesses the unjustifiable atrocities it commits all over the world.
It is always necessary to remain barbarians, because it is the barbarians who always win.― Irwin Shaw, The Young Lions
With Noah, I’m sure the betrayal in his situation is quite obvious: a Jewish man fighting for his country while being rejected by his fellow brethren merely because of his identity. Irwin Shaw, being a Jewish native of Brooklyn, included some rather piercing commentary quite obviously stemming, once again, from his own personal experiences during the Second World War.
On a personal level, the most important piece of knowledge or understanding which I got out of it was the idea that fascism isn’t limited to a historical period nor a geographical location; it can sprout and blossom in a deceptively large number of forms wherever ignorance finds a foothold to establish itself. None of us are immune to it, and must always keep an internal antifascist vigil not to fall victims to it.
A Journey of Growth and Death
While Irwin Shaw has an incredible amount of thoughts and observations to relay to his readers (I’m certain he couldn’t fit them all into The Young Lions), he still understood the need to captivate us, to make the story more easily digestible. There is especially a consideration to those who come from a different time and can’t possibly have a memory of the event.
The plot starts off a little slow as the stage is set and we’re presented with the three characters, whose narratives today would have likely been split up into three books to sell a neatly wrapped-up trilogy. We get to see how their civilian lives are going, how their internal worlds are spinning, and essentially what they make of themselves as human beings.
As the threat of the war approaches, we see how each of the three characters grows from a regular civilian to a soldier, the horrors they are forced to face and the transformations they have to undergo in order to survive under absurdly extreme circumstances. This growth is described in such vivid detail I doubt the memory will ever leave me.
Despite this being a novel, I think it’s quite difficult not to have a close personal rapport with all three characters, especially seeing as how they likely mirror the paths taken by countless young men at the time. It’s difficult to convey the sadness and disappointment we experience as they change from normal people to inhuman brutes out of sheer necessity.
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As much as it is about the experience of the Second World War, it’s also just as much about the immeasurable amount of trauma it inflicts. From the young men and women dying on the fields of battle to the countless families crushed and torn by the deaths of their loves ones, we are made to understand just how deep war’s destructive roots can run
The Final Verdict
The Young Lions by Irwin Shaw is one of the greatest World War II historical fiction novels in existence, exploring through various perspectives the reality of the conflict and the societal movements of the times.
If you’re interested in the Second World War, or are looking to learn more about war in a general sense, then I believe you absolutely must add The Young Lions to your collection; the depth and accuracy of Irwin Shaw‘s observations is simply unrivalled and priceless.
(February 27, 1913 – May 16, 1984)
Irwin Shaw was an American screenwriter, playwright and novelist. Two of his works are far more recognized than all others: The Young Lions, made into a film starring Marlon Brando, and Rich Man, Poor Man, made into a miniseries.
Among the numerous notable awards he received are the 1944 and 1945 O. Henry Awards, as well as the 1946 National Institute of Arts and Letters Grant.