THE SECOND WORLD WAR is, in a sense, too big for history. It’s a subject too massive and unwieldy, comprised of too many branches of more-local histories, for any standalone account to comprehend. The historian understands this, at least implicitly: any World War II history is an attempt of organization, of curation; is a commitment to a more or less narrow perspective. History isn’t concerned only about what factually happened, which (hopefully, eventually) gets worked out; it’s also concerned about the telling of those happenings, their narrative corraling and shaping. This makes less claim on accuracy — historical scholarship is a sort of useful myopia, a way to filter out what’s not immediately necessary to the story and hone in on what is. It’s an imposition of story.
Thus the narratives of our history books, courses, and museums, which tend to be organized nationally, ethnically, militarily, socially, politically, religiously, thematically — anything, really, that lends a coherent structure. (There are, of course, many — and a few excellent — overview books, but these are usually about the military side of the war, which is less the essence of than the catalyst for the bulk of World War II history.) An exhaustive examination of, say, the political structure of the Third Reich, or the wartime economy of peasant Ukrainian Jews, will be much more relevant to one narrative than another.
The selection and formation of these narratives — the context, scope, frame, emphases, etc. — is the extrahistorical, or historiographical, aspect of historical scholarship. Though it’s not often examined closely, it’s here that biases and under-, over- and misrepresentations are played out; what the historian leaves out can be far more significant and telling than what she puts in. How the story is told, in other words, can be much more politically and even morally complicating than the story itself. Holocaust denial is different than a World War II history work that omits or barely mentions the murder of Jews, the latter might beget a touchy discussion, but it isn’t necessarily the blatant and blatantly insane anti-Semitism of the former.
So when it comes to the period of the Second World War — because “World War II” as a phenomenal (or even temporal) indicator is way too loose — what are the narratives? America by and large has adopted a relatively straightforward and rather easy-on-the-conscience narrative: World War II is known as the ‘good’ war (as opposed to Vietnam, Afghanistan, Korea, Iraq 1 & 2...). There were aggressors (Germany), defenders (US + allies), and victims (Jews, or at least Jews as synechdochal of victims). The Holocaust, as well, understood as a sort of narrative of the war (which it is, even if that feels icky), is even more morally irreducible: here, the victims are, of course, the Jews, the Nazis the closest the world has known to pure evil, and the countries where the murders took place charged with varying degrees of complicity and/or insufficient action.
Let’s put aside Germany (whose narrative hews remarkably close to the American/Jewish one) and Russia (whose war history is almost comically revisionist), and focus on the very crowded space between them. These Central and Eastern European countries (and this is a far less obvious observation than it seems) have produced their own, divergent narratives. As a rule, the more characters and mot...read more