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Monday, June 13, 2011

World War II: The importance of continued scholarship

Several weeks ago, the New York Times' Sunday Book Review published a review of several World War II history books. Written by Adam Kirsch, the review notes that a new crop of books, written by historians now more than a generation removed from the war, complicate our common understanding of World War II as, unequivocally, a "good war." These historians do not challenge historical fact; rather they seek to expose and to evaluate the moral implications of a wide variety of actions—from Churchill's complicity in the Bengal famine to Allied aerial area bombardments of German cities.

In addition to reviewing scores of books, Kirsch provides a thoughtful analysis of the importance of historical scholarship—especially scholarship that makes us see the past with fresh eyes. Many of the new books about World War II remind us that with war comes moral challenges—yet we cannot turn a blind eye to injustice. Kirsch writes:
After all, the present is always lived in ambiguity. To those who fought World War II, it was plain enough that Allied bombs were killing huge numbers of German civilians, that Churchill was fighting to preserve imperialism as well as democracy, and that the bulk of the dying in Europe was being done by the Red Army at the service of Stalin. It is only in retrospect that we begin to simplify experience into myth—because we need stories to live by, because we want to honor our ancestors and our country instead of doubting them. In this way, a necessary but terrible war is simplified into a “good war,” and we start to feel shy or guilty at any reminder of the moral compromises and outright betrayals that are inseparable from every combat.

The best history writing reverses this process, restoring complexity to our sense of the past. Indeed, its most important lesson may be that the awareness of ambiguity must not lead to detachment and paralysis—or to pacifism and isolationism, as Nicholson Baker and Pat Buchanan would have it. On the contrary, the more we learn about the history of World War II, the stronger the case becomes that it was the irresolution and military weakness of the democracies that allowed Nazi Germany to provoke a world war, with all the ensuing horrors and moral compromises that these recent books expose.

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