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Posts Tagged ‘history’

A big part of the reason I stopped watching the History Channel eons ago was that I grew tired of the constant assault of programming fixated on the Second World War. It seemed like there was always some documentary or special touting some minor campaign in the Pacific, or cheering the heroes of D-Day, or (somewhat less frequently) pointing out the horrors of the Holocaust.

Of course, as I began training to become a professional historian and read more widely, I found the American perspective on the war tiresome and wanting. To watch the History Channel or, I’m guessing, to ask most Americans, the history of the Second World War went something as follows:

Hitler and the Nazis did some bad stuff, and there were evil deeds afoot in Japan, then the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, and the war began, and it was a slog until D-Day, which turned the tide of the war and it was only a matter of time before the Allies defeated Nazi Germany and then Truman dropped the bomb on Hiroshima to end the war in Japan.

Certainly that version captures some of the general contours of the war. And it definitely covers the major American participation. But as tantalizing as it is to think that “our boys” single-handedly won the war, such a view just doesn’t do justice to what actually happened.

Then again, it’s convenient to forget that a bunch of Commies did a lot of the heavy lifting and bore the biggest human toll. Even if we occasionally remember that Stalin was an ally: remember “Uncle Joe”?

Anyway, I saw a headline for a story in the NYT op-ed section that piqued my interest: “How World War II Wasn’t Won.”

It seemed promising. I wasn’t offhand what occasioned such an audaciously headlined piece, but I thought it might be an attempted corrective on the narrative so entrenched in the American popular consciousness.

Naturally, I was wrong. Wrong to think this was going to challenge American perspectives. Wrong to think it would deflate the deification of D-Day, if only a little bit. And certainly wrong to think it might be something so simple as a think piece to say, “Actually, the turning point of the war in Europe came on the Eastern Front, where the Red Army did the real heavy lifting.”

Nope. None of that. In fact, there was no mention at all of “Soviet” (or “Russian,” which was and remains synonymous with “Soviet” in the American lexicon) or “Red Army” or “Eastern Front.” Nope. Nothing.

Instead, the piece focuses on a counter-factual about a possible “second D-Day” along the Western Front. Chance to end the war a few months earlier. Potential glory for the Americans. Wash. Rinse. Repeat.

Sigh.

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There’s an interesting story in the Slovak daily Sme about the former Communist leader Gustáv Husák.

On Friday night, the Institute for the Nation’s Memory organized a discussion of Husák in light of a recent proposal to place a memorial plaque in the Dúbravka neighborhood of Bratislava, where Husák was born.

It drew a standing-room crowd, though as the lead and illustrative photo indicate, most of the folks who came to listen to the discussion were retirees.

Milan Zemko, a historian at the Historical Institute of the Slovak Academy of Sciences, said Husák was basically a committed Communist, even after his torture, trial and imprisonment in the 1950s. But according to Zemko, if Husák wasn’t guilty of the ostensible charge of fomenting a “bourgeois nationalist deviation within the party” and other “treasonous” offenses, he was still guilty for his role in constructing the Communist regime and the trials of non-Communists.

Jan Rychlík, a professor at Charles University in Prague, claims Husák offered his services to the Kremlin when he went to Moscow in the first days of the occupation, when the top political leaders of Czechoslovakia had been abducted and spirited off to the Soviet Union. However, I’m not sure that characterization accurately reflects the reality of what happened in Moscow. Based on some of the documents that have come out in the last fifteen to twenty years, it seems that Husák never explicitly offered himself up to the Kremlin. He certainly sought to make a favorable impression on the Soviet leaders, and seemed to sense that a moment had come for him to reach for more power. But it’s more likely Husák sufficiently impressed the Soviet leaders with his level-headedness and reasonableness — at least compared to the reformist leaders like Dubček who had gone mad in the minds of Brezhnev and Co. — that the Soviet leaders decided Husák was the kind of politician with whom you could do business.

Rychlík also placed full blame for the political purges and the process of “normalization” that occurred on Husák’s watch beginning in 1969, stating that “A historian judges people according to the real results and not by what they wanted to do.” I’m not sure that’s an accurate description of how many historians try to work, because most historians — or at least those trained in American universities — generally give a lot more consideration to the context. Perhaps Rychlík was just oversimplifying things for the sake of the non-academic audience, but I think even a bunch of non-historians can grasp the importance of the circumstances in which individuals operate and how that context affects choices and constrains the degree of choice.

But, based on the article, Rychlík doesn’t seem like the type of historian interested in understanding motives and contingency. One of the pull-out quotes from the story has Rychlík remarking, “After his own experienced in the 1950s [when he was a victim of Stalinism], he [Husák] must have seen that it [communism] was aberrant.” In other words, Rychlík is less interested in empathy for Husák and more interested in condemnation.

Fair enough. It’s easy enough for me to understand Rychlík’s perspective, since he lived through a good chunk of the Communist era, including the Husák  years, and probably has plenty of reasons to want to condemn Husák for the crimes and distasteful policies of that era. I’d probably be the same way if I wrote about the Dubya years; it’s difficult to disentangle personal experiences and judgments from dispassionate analysis.

Still, I’d like to think this is one of the reasons it’s valuable for someone like me to study this period, since I don’t bring the same baggage.

Of course, if I really want to maximize my audience, I’d better hurry up and publish before the pensioners who are still interested in it die off.

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