What Bothers Me About History

Not everyone in power or seeking power is doing so out of greed or mania. There are those sincere and oppressed ones who fight for rights, who struggle for justice, who plead for peace. I have no quarrel with their place in the narrative of human civilization, that thing which we call “history.” But, almost exclusively, the history we have preached to us in our schools is written by those who seek to clothe themselves as the oppressed for their own greed and aggrandizement – or by those who simply need a good story to justify their lofty perch and keep the rest of humanity in its place. History then becomes a justification for inequality, injustice, and wars in the hands of that lot.

We become comfortable in our national myths and, in that comfort, fail to question the inequality around us. True history should never reassure us, except when it advances the standards of the nation towards true equality. For the record, true equality has nothing to do with a group or class that is in power or which enjoys social and economic privileges making demands to preserve those powers and privileges. History shows us that, in fact, we are most at risk of inequality, injustice, and war when groups holding powers and privileges cast themselves as victims in their mythology. They cast themselves as victims so that they might justify murder to get gain.

The true history of World War Two has more in common with Catch-22, with all its insanity and brutality than it does with the high school history book. The American Army did not move as a band of green-clad angels across the face of Europe, cleansing it of evil. It moved as any army would, with increasingly frequent incidents of discipline breaches as the war deepened. American bombs fell on babies, American soldiers raped children, American interests excused Nazis from their crimes. As a nation, we have to own that. We have to own that our armies were racially segregated – an extension of the brutality in our home country – and that many of the richest men in America made themselves richer by trading with the enemy regimes.

American politicians refused to disrupt the flow of victims to the Nazi murder camps, claiming that they didn’t want to be accused of making the war all about the Jews. Well, why not make the war for such a purpose, unless one was himself somehow prejudiced against Jews? And those same politicians, as a body, made it all but impossible to truly go after their rich supporters who profited from sending American resources to Nazi Germany, by way of loopholes in neutral nations. As a body, they also stood against the moves to end racial segregation and discrimination for many years before, during, and after that war. Yet, we call them “The Greatest Generation” in a fit of nauseating myth-making.

Don’t misunderstand me – the Germans, Russians, French, Japanese, Chinese, British, Polish, Czech, Romanian, Yugoslavian, Greek, Ukrainian – the list of nations too long to enumerate fully – they have their national crimes to atone for, as well. The truest victims of wars are the civilians. And even in their numbers are those who collaborated with evil, making them into criminals. It’s easier to think of a human as a victim, so we can lazily accept any excuse that comes to us so that we don’t have to comprehend the enormity of our collective wretchedness.

A statement such as “World War Two in Europe ended on VE Day” is ludicrous. The fighting between men wearing uniforms came quickly to an end, it is true, but the violence directed towards prisoners of war and civilian populations did not suddenly abate. Jews who survived an attempt to return to Poland spoke of how it was safer for them in the chaos of Germany than in their former homelands. The Slovak government forcefully and violently ejected hundreds of thousands of Hungarians from their lands, somehow managing to claim victimhood when their nation had joined with the German cause even before the formal war started. Many of the millions of Germans being driven from Eastern Europe cursed the Poles for starting the war, clinging to an idea of victimhood that allowed them to ignore the complicated, gory reality. The Poles themselves were exterminating Ukrainians in their nation – but lest we pity Ukrainians too much, let us remember that during the war, pro-Nazi Ukrainian groups were exterminating Poles.

But, ah! Am I not myself guilty of a historical felony? Did I not just now assign collective guilt to entire nations? Am I not perpetrating lies by my over-generous labels?

Not all American soldiers were rapists or sadists, but the number of incidents that we know about shows that a disturbingly significant percentage of the American soldiery was, in fact, engaged in horrors visited upon non-combatants.

Not all Germans supported Hitler or were antisemitic. But enough were of that description to empower the Nazi regime to execute its horrors.

Not all Poles were bent upon killing or driving out Jews, Ukrainians, and Germans, but enough were to empower their postwar regime to do just that. And so on.

… and so on. Were I to catalog everything, I would exhaust myself before drawing to completion. And that is just from the Second World War, with no consideration for the organized murders before and since.

It is in the national mythos that we find the illusion of justification for inequality, injustice, and war. When we accept the details that deconstruct our myths, we place ourselves on a path towards accepting the changes necessary to bring about true equality, justice, and peace.

1 thought on “What Bothers Me About History

  1. Rita Webb

    I’m reading “Savage Continent” right now. Became interested in the revenge so prevalent after WWII, affter I met a German lady from East Prussia who was a little girl when the Germans were forcibly run out of Poland after the war. It’s quite a contrast to the open arms with which the Nazi scientists were received in America, in the name of “fighting Communism.”

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