In his book, Who Owns History? Rethinking the Past in a Changing World, published in 2002, historian Eric Foner wrote, “There is nothing unusual or sinister in the fact that each generation rewrites history to suit its own needs, or about disagreements within the profession and among the public at large about how history should best be taught and studied.” Foner went on to observe however, that in the 1990s history became “a ‘wedge issue’ in the so-called culture wars. During that decade, it sometimes seemed, one could not open a newspaper without encountering bitter controversy over the teaching and presentation of the American past.” This wasn’t happening only in America, and Foner included stories of history being contested in other countries as well. Foner could have included the story of an exhibition that opened in Germany in 1995, which is the subject of a documentary I watched last night on Netflix, The Unknown Soldier.
Foner quoted James Baldwin who wrote, “History does not refer merely, or even principally, to the past. On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it with us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do.” I think this is true because history is often based more on faulty memory than fact, or on what we want to believe rather than truth, or on only the facts that support what we want to believe, or on anecdotal evidence. This is effectively shown in The Unknown Soldier. To borrow from an Amazon reviewer:
The subject of this documentary is the opening of the Wehrmachtaustellung (Wehrmacht Exhibition) in 1995, the now famous collection of photographs and documents that provided graphic evidence of German atrocities throughout the Second World War. What distinguished the exhibition from past scholarship on the 3rd Reich, was its depiction of the German Army, or Wehrmacht, as one of the main perpetrators of the Holocaust – essentially no different from the SS, SD, or other Nazi organizations commonly associated with the brutality and mass murder of Hitler’s regime.
The exhibit provoked powerful reactions from the German people, many of whom refused to believe or acknowledge that their parents or grandparents could have participated in the horrors. Among others, Neo-Nazis turned out to protest the exhibit. Historians defended the exhibit. Two had this to say:
A part of this phenomenon of the Neo-Nazis is the fact that a second stream of information runs in the families, and of course the glorification of Nazi literature. Above all a transmission in families that portrays a totally different picture: our fathers, our grandfathers were not criminals.
There was a study in Hanover that shows how strong the transmission from generation to generation is. Also the transmission of lies. Grandchildren who were told a family story that clears everyone’s name of participation. Those whose grandfathers were cleared of wrongdoing in the Third Reich come across pictures that disprove this and the reaction is always the same: but my grandfather is not a Nazi. “Grandpa is Not a Nazi” is the name of the study.
An alternative historiography, the verbal one in German families presents a heroization, or an anecdotal style of storytelling, or the resistance, our father, our uncle, our grandfather were resistance members and they did this and that. And, on the other hand, the official historiography is geared toward finding the facts, guilt and responsibility.
How easily can these German historians’ observations be applied to Americans and their history? Is this what we are seeing in the response to Nick Turse’s Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam? Is this what we are seeing here? I realize that few people want to be identified with the evils of the Nazis, and that is not the intention of this post. I’m merely interested in how memory affects our understanding of history. By the way, for what it’s worth I am a direct descendent of John and Sophie Winkler, both born in Bavaria, who migrated to the United States in the 1840s.