The current post and subsequent ones (if I get around to them) are concerned with three books about the Second World War:
History of the Second World War
In 2012, after I became interested in the local history of Long Branch, where I was living at the time, I began to read about world history. Week after week, I borrowed books from the Toronto Public Library, and read them – for weeks at a time, after which I would take a break, before I would start the process of borrowing and reading once again. I wanted to know how local history fits into the larger-scale currents of history.
In other words, from my perspective, context matters a lot.
In the course of my reading about world history over the past six or seven years, I’ve reached a few tentative conclusions.
For one thing, I’ve concluded that it’s a great idea to follow very closely the arguments, and counter-arguments, that are at play when first-rate historians publish works offering interpretations, regarding specified topics of interest.
I’ve learned so much of value from observing how first-rate historians go about their work. Such work is a source of inspiration for me, as is the work of first-rate journalists – no matter what the topic is, that they have chosen to explore.
This is not just a matter of being inspired. I also see things more clearly, all around me, as a result of encountering such first-rate work by knowledgeable people, whose day-to-day life entails the exploration of events from the past (and the present), in a manner that is systematic, collaborative, and critical.
Lethal pursuit of a “new reality,” and of a “new history”
It has also occurred to me that history is in some cases a detailed record of attempts, in countries around the world, to conjure up, and coerce or coax into being, a “new reality.” Killing of massive numbers of people has at times been a central feature of attempts to create such a “new reality” – and, in fact, a central feature of attempts to create a “new history.”
To advance the project that became known as Stalinism, by way of example, groups of people, who were defined specifically as “class enemies,” were killed in massive numbers.
In the case of Nazism, by way of example, groups of people such as Jews, who were defined as existing outside of what Nazi ideology defined as a favoured “racial community,” were likewise killed in massive numbers.
For Nazi Germany, the war with Stalinist Russia prompted a particular focus, among other things, on the killing of Jews.
There are many other examples, that a person think of, in which groups of people have set off in pursuit of a “new reality” that entails, in the end, the destruction of massive numbers of people, and, indeed, of the planet.
For the current series of posts, however, I will focus on just three books about the Second World War.
In fact, for the current post I will focus on just one of the books, and on only one of the points in it. In subsequent posts, if all goes to plan, I will address additional material from the three, very impressive, books.
Collected Memories: Holocaust History and Postwar Testimony (2003)
In Collected Memories: Holocaust History and Postwar Testimony (2003), Christopher R. Browning focuses upon what we can learn, by closely examining and assessing the testimony of survivors – and perpetrators – of the massive, systematic murder of Jews during the German invasion of Russia starting in 1941.
I found the study of interest because, among other things, it underlines the importance of the critical examination of historical (including archival) sources.
Browning’s 2003 study is divided into three chapters:
- Perpetrator Testimony: Another Look at Adolf Eichmann
- Survivor Testimonies from Starachowice: Writing the History of a Factory Slave Labor Camp
- Survivor Testimonies from Starachowice: The Final Days
A basic point that Browning makes in the first chapter of his 2003 study is that a close reading of documents, and of other people’s testimony, indicates that at specified points in his trial, Eichmann told lies in a bid to save his life. At other points, for reasons which Browning specifies, however, Eichmann may have been providing what is at least possibly, or probably, an actually truthful account of events.
According to Browning, Eichmann’s account about how in the fall of 1941 he learned from Reinhard Heydrich “of the Hitler order for the physical destruction of the Jews,” as well as Eichmann’s account of his subsequent trip to Lubin, Poland, at the earliest stages of preparations for the use of gas chambers for the murder of Jews, “has been given short shrift,” in Browning’s words, “in most historical works on the origins of the Final Solution” (p. 35).
Browning argues that Eichmann’s testimony, regarding this particular topic, warrants more attention than it has been given, by historians.
He speaks, in this context, of a prevailing view “that emphasizes local and regional initiatives, downplays the role of Hitler, and rejects the notion of clear decision making at the center” (p. 35).
Browning speaks, as well, of historians “who argue that the fundamental change in Nazi policy from a vision of expulsion to a vision of systematic mass murder was not coupled with Hitler’s decision to begin deporting Jews from the Third Reich and renewed expectations of an early victory in the east but rather followed much later and in a much more piecemeal fashion” (p. 35).
His point (pp. 35-36) is that the above-noted historians are on the wrong track.
Today I bought a copy of The Third Reich in History and Memory (2015) by Richard J.Evans, a book that I’ve previously borrowed from the Toronto Public Library.
A quick glance at one of the chapters has let me know that this later (that is, 2015) study features much of interest, regarding the point that Christopher R. Browning advances in his 2003 study.
In my next post, when I get around to it, I will discuss what Richard J. Evans, whose work I much admire, has to say regarding the genesis of the Holocaust.
A Dec. 10, 2018 Guardian article is entitled: “Humanity is on path to self-destruction, warns UN special rapporteur: On 70th anniversary of Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Nils Melzer says global community has failed to learn lessons of second world war.”
An excerpt reads:
As those who lived through two world wars die out, taking with them real memories of past atrocities, the world is back on a path to self-destruction, a leading authority on torture has warned.
Human rights are facing a “worrying backlash” from a global community that has failed to “learn the lesson” of the past.
Speaking exclusively to the Guardian, the United Nations’ special rapporteur on torture, Nils Melzer, said the global community had become “complacent” in the face of injustice because the world no longer understood why human rights should be protected or what the world would look like without them.
“I don’t think it’s a coincidence that 70 years after world war two, when the last witnesses of past atrocities are dying away, we start to see human rights being questioned on a broad scale,” said Melzer, a Swiss law professor who assumed the UN post in 2016.
A January/February 2019 Atlantic article is entitled: “The Real Roots of American Rage: The untold story of how anger became the dominant emotion in our politics and personal lives—and what we can do about it.”
An excerpt reads:
In journal articles and at symposia, academics described anger as a problem to be solved, an instinct with little social benefit. “But that didn’t really make any sense to me,” he said.