Home
home > contents > The Living Past: Parallel Cases and Precedents. Overview
The Living Past: Parallel Cases and Precedents
Overview
Jan T. Gross’s work addresses the fate and behavior of the civilian population under occupation by the Germans (1939 - 1945) and the Soviets (in eastern Poland, September 1939 - June 1941). In “Blinded by Social Distance: the Elusive Jewish Issue in the Historiography of Postwar Poland” (Spanish version), this historian recalls that World War II had a massive impact on all European societies but notes that the devastation suffered by Poland was unique among the warring countries. At the heart of its catastrophe was the particularly tragic experience of its Jewish population, whom the Nazis attempted to eliminate entirely. Despite this enormous reality, however, postwar Polish historiography dealt with their fate only incidentally. This is the matter the author examines in this article.

For Gross the evasive treatment of the Jews by early historians is related to another issue similarly left in the shadows: the diverse ways the local population was complicit with the Nazi intent to carry out the “final solution.” He “will attempt to explain why this could have happened as it did in Poland” and continues:

Everybody in Poland knew that Jews were being annihilated as the Holocaust was unfolding, but the awareness concerning the mechanism of destruction was different in different social strata and it was embedded in historical circumstances and concepts – war, resistance, occupation, uprisings – loaded with symbolism. Perspectives shifted and changed, and as a result the destruction of Polish Jewry was never told as an autonomous story. It was always part of something else, refracted through concepts and contexts that sidelined observers and commentators, impeding their ability to name properly what they had actually seen and recorded.
In contrast to Western Europe, the massacre of Polish Jews began right before the eyes of the people, Gross remembers. But the precise knowledge the different groups had of the situation depended on many things – and it is this that should be examined. Wielding two notions, “concepts and contexts,” Gross shows how they may be used to understand the reactions of a range of different groups – direct witnesses and observers, those responsible for circulating information, and, later, historians. Knowledge of the facts was conditioned by the words available and, with these, the ability to designate and thereby recognize. What were deemed “facts” was also affected by a person’s social class and the symbolic charge of terms such as “war” or “resistance.”

Beyond the historiography, Gross examines a broad range of sources, evaluating their trustworthiness case by case against the bedrock of the most reliable evidence. He wonders: what was seen? What was said? Who was the information for and among whom did it circulate? He puts us in a complex zone of the mechanisms of observation and expression, mental selection and perception, personal and collective representations, meaning given to what was seen and heard, and, lastly, in what observers and commentators were able to represent and communicate to others.

In 2005 European heads of state chose Auschwitz as the place to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II on the continent. Their decision signals how much that war and the extermination of the Jews in Europe represent a central challenge to our social conscience on the threshold of the 21st century. In “War, Genocide, Extermination: the War against the Jews in an Era of World Wars” (Spanish version), Michael Geyer argues for a combined focus of these two issues – war and extermination – which have been treated separately until now in the historiography. To examine this racial war, the author begins with the American historian Christopher Browning, whose research was the first to study the massive killings of Jews in Poland by a battalion of police reserves in mid 1942. Geyer’s article is based on a series of works, especially in German, published in the last 10 years (including one of his own dealing with the military aspect of the problem).

Geyer posits that extermination was directly related to the war itself:

[The Germans] will undoubtedly be remembered for their ferocity with which they fought the two world wars and the depravity that lead them to the premeditated attempt of murdering any and all Jews within their sphere of power. The determination with which these wars were fought and the radical nature of the ambition to subordinate a continent, to enslave a good part of its population and to exterminate a people in entirety marks the twentieth century.
Geyer argues that Weltanschauungskrieg, or ideological war, originated in the combative spirit German soldiers showed in conflict – one due to a belief in their racial superiority. He demonstrates how, fortuitously at first, two plans born out of the same ideological Nazi dementia came to be combined. The first is the organization of an empire of “security” for the Reich through the use of limitless terror, confinement, and elimination of its enemies, policies all given free rein in the occupied territories. The second is the search for the building of a greater Germany only for ethnic Germans, which required that enormous populations be displaced and turned into slaves to serve them. The two plans combined with devastating effect in Poland, where “the immediate concerns in matters of security were fused together with grandiose plans to recover German lands and repopulate them with ethnic Germans.”

Nazi activism against the enemy was carried to the extreme of including Jews in the category of the irrecoverable, destined to be eliminated altogether by force. The works Geyer cites shed new light on anti-Semitism. After its ideological phase, directed against German Jews within the framework of police repression carried out by the State, the elimination stage began as part of the plan for building a greater Germany and a reordering of the Third Reich which affected many other spheres. With the German advance in occupied territories and then into the Soviet Union, “the policy of ethnic cleansing and transfer of populations once again singled out the Jews as the first and foremost target.”

War and genocide must be conceived of “in the context of the violent reconfiguration of European society and public order in the caldron of displacements, expulsions, ethnic cleansing and extermination.” The genocide perpetrated during World War II appears as the climax of the cycle of extreme violence running throughout 20th century Europe. As such, it is part of the history of all the inhabitants of the continent and not just that of the Germans.

The atomic bomb the American pilots of the Enola Gay launched over the city of Hiroshima on 6 August 1945, and another dropped on Nagasaki on the 9th, caused the unconditional surrender of the Japanese and with this, the end of World War II. The different ways this violent and decisive event has been recounted and how these conflict with historical knowledge is the topic of “Three Narratives of our Humanity: the Atomic Bomb in US-Japanese Memory” (Spanish version) by John W. Dower.

The Enola Gay reappeared, freshly restored, in 1995 at the Air and Space Museum, which is part of the complex of governmental and federally-funded museums on the Mall in Washington, D.C. It was meant to be the centerpiece of an exhibit mounted by Smithsonian Institution curators and historians that would allow the public to consider the significance of the end of the war in the Pacific in light of current historical scholarship and of diverse opinions expressed over the previous 50 years.

In the process of preparing the exhibit, the Smithsonian was subjected to a withering fire of criticism from veterans’ associations and conservative members of Congress, on the grounds that it was a confusing and unpatriotic distortion. The Smithsonian retreated in disorder and eventually presented a more anodyne and politically-acceptable exhibit. (This episode is examined in depth in Edward T. Linenthal, “Anatomy of a controversy,” en E. T. Linenthal y Tom Engelhardt, eds., History Wars: The Enola Gay and Other Battles for the American Past, New York, Metropolitan Books, 1996, pp. 9-62).

At stake in the Enola Gay case is giving the status of “history” to a purely heroic or triumphal narrative that turns its back on the whole larger historiography of critical and multi-causal explanation that a host of historians elaborated over decades as new information became available. Dower shows how the American narrative (“Hiroshima as Triumph”) utilizes the bomb as a metaphor for the whole war, noting ironically, that “due to official disposition, the history of the United States written with federal funds must be almost exclusively celebratory, above all if it deals with military history.” He then examines the parallel Japanese version (“Hiroshima as Victimization”), which exhibits a similar lack of critical perspective and narrowness about its victims. Dower believes this view of war has lost its force in Japan, in contrast to the views expressed in the mid-1990s in the United States.

Dower also sees a third possible narrative of Hiroshima, one that makes room for the “other,” something unacceptable to the two previous narratives. It is a story that simultaneously features the bravery of the pilots carrying out their mission and the sufferings of the people in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. One showing the plane’s fuselage from which the bomb was dropped and what happened below immediately afterward: a mushroom cloud. A story that, in light of the information available today, presents the different possible alternatives to dropping the bomb, the moral reservations about using it expressed by some of the responsible parties at the time, and also the complex context of commitments previously made by the Allies regarding what should be done with Japan. A story that deals with racist feelings and desires for revenge as strong among the Americans as the Japanese. And it would include, finally, the vested interests of the Truman administration and the scientists involved in the secret and costly nuclear research in seeing the bomb used.

This last narrative – “Hiroshima as Tragedy” – is one of our failure, a collective failure, Dower explains, and it began not long after the beginning of World War II, when the Allies abandoned their opposition to bombing civilian populations, which had been condemned when the fascist powers did it in the 1930s.

“The passage of time and the appearance of new archives have led us to rethink the history of the repressive military regime (1964 - 1985) in Brazil.” Thus Kenneth P. Serbin’s begins his “Anatomy of a Death: Repression, Human Rights and the Case of Alexandre Vannucchi Leme in Authoritarian Brazil” (Spanish version) and evokes a characteristic of contemporary history – how the revision of historical knowledge often depends on the rhythm with which previously-closed archives are opening.

Most interpretations pinpoint a momentous religious protest against the torturous murder of journalist Vladimir Herzog in 1975 as the opposition’s great awakening in the fight for human rights and democracy. [...] This article reappraises the role of human rights in the opposition by focusing on an earlier, similar protest against the killing of Alexandre Vannucchi Leme, a 22-year-old student at the University of São Paulo [...who] died in jail on 17 March 1973, hours after his arrest and torture by security agents. [...] His death led students and Roman Catholic clergymen to defy riot troops and gather three thousand people to hear the archbishop of São Paulo criticize the government at a memorial service.
The first part of the article introduces the incident: “The routine detention of a student activist escalated into a murder and a cover up by the security forces and a political problem for the regime, which had cowed the opposition into silence since 1969.” With access to new sources, Serbin clarifies the character of Leme’s political activities, which at the time were distorted or hidden by Cold War categories. For the regime Leme was a dangerous terrorist, while the opposition saw him as a symbol of heroic resistance. The opening of the archives of the former political police of São Paulo (DEOPS-SP) and Rio de Janeiro (DOPS-GB) was one of the fruits of the consolidation of Brazilian democracy and made it possible to reconstruct the truth. As Serbin notes, “The move exemplified how the political process affects the writing of history.”

The second section of his article analyzes contemporary reactions to the Leme episode and its role in forging opposition to the dictatorship. In particular, it illuminates how the Catholic Church responded to the Leme case, assumed decisive leadership in the opposition and approached the student movement, while maintaining a strong defense of human rights. In the third section Serbin reveals a series of high-level secret meetings between high military officers and the bishops, who attempted to resolve the political conflict through dialogue and specifically asked the Armed Forces to investigate the Leme case.

The discussions of the so-called Bipartite Commission involving the Church and the military, previously unknown to historians, Serbin is able to document from the archives of General Muricy (one of the military members of the Commission), which were opened in 1992. Those same sources now make it possible to see the period of Medici’s presidency (1969 - 1974) in a different light.

“There weren’t many of us working on Vichy France and World War II, and that made us feel like we were embarking on an adventure and a mission,” recalls Henry Rousso at the beginning of “The Trajectory of a Historian of the Present, 1975-2000” (Spanish version). But it turns out that, in the 1970s, “Vichy” would reappear on the front pages of the media and shake up public opinion. “I tried […] to understand what that presence meant and to place myself as a historian and a citizen facing these permanent reappearances of the past. What had been a digression became the central question: the survival of Vichy in French consciousness.”

The political and economic history of the Vichy regime was the author’s initial terrain. Intrigued by how the past of Vichy became present after 40 years, Rousso then redirected his research toward collective memory of the era. “Vichy” came to include the period of World War II but also its subsequent marks or, as Rousso put it, “Vichy after Vichy”; that is, the evolution of recollections and representations of Vichy throughout several decades.

“Vichy after Vichy” also addresses the representation and explanation of the past that emerged through judicial processes. Rousso examines the purging of state institutions after the Liberation and the trials that took place much later (1978 - 1998) of the last Vichy leaders still alive. He writes:

This is about explaining why I began to work on the economic history of Vichy, to then become interested primarily no longer in that era alone, but in its mid-term “posterity,” to finally wind up in a terrain infrequently trod by historians – that of law and justice and their relationship to history.
A central idea runs through this whole article. Any historian working on the recent past faces a dialectic between the questions he or she poses as historian and contemporary sensitivities about this past.

How the debate on Vichy developed in the 80’s and, to a certain extent, how the public reacted to my analysis, exercised a strong influence on my work and the meaning that I could give to my commitment as a historian. In this sense, this article attempts to analyze, through this particular case, the interdependence of scientific work and “social demand” is inherent in the history of the present.
Henry Rousso’s career as a historian is closely identified with the development of the Institut d’histoire du temps présent, which since 1980 has been a major pole of the history of the present in France.



Translation by Lea Fletcher
Universidad Alberto Hurtado | Centro de Ética | © 2007 Anne Pérotin-Dumon > Todos los derechos reservados | All rights reserved Créditos