Moral Histories of World War II

Furst, Mission to ParisI’m still eighteen months away from teaching my new World War II history course for the first time, but I’ve been thinking about it this week after reading an interview with master spy novelist Alan Furst (whose new book, Mission to Paris, will surely appear on my summer reading list when it comes out next week). Speaking with the Wall Street Journal, Furst shared several insights about writing his brand of historical fiction, focused on the years just before and during World War II in Europe, that made me reflect on how I teach the same period of history:

• When asked why he shows only “glimpses” of Kristallnacht (the November 1938 pogrom that signaled the deepening persecution of Jews in the Third Reich), Furst answered:

I want the reader to experience it like most people experienced it at the time. Most people didn’t actually see it happening, but they could hear it, they could smell it; they knew something terrible was going on. Also, I’ve become averse to graphic depictions of violence. It was a much more brutal period than people really understand. Unimaginably bad things, unspeakable things happened. I have a very serious censorship office inside my head; it censors things that I could tell you that you would never forget, and I don’t want to be the person to stick that in your brain.

Furst is pointing to a basic paradox for history teachers. On the one hand, we want them to ask questions and answer them using the full array of sources available (including the perspectives of historians who have spent careers studying and interpreting events), which gives students of the past a much broader perspective than what was available to anyone living at the time. So it would seem counterintuitive to consciously limit the evidence available. On the other hand, we want our students to approach the past with empathy, which fits well with Furst’s aspiration that his readers “experience it like most people experienced it at the time.”

So I’m intrigued by the idea of adapting Furst’s method to teaching: at least at the beginning of any unit, one would intentionally limit the information available to students — e.g., give no framing lecture or textbook assignment and simply have them read eyewitness accounts and other primary sources — in an attempt to immerse them in the historical moment.

Furst also speaks to the kind of sources he uses in his own research. The WSJ interviewer naturally wondered if the author interviewed people who had lived through the 1930s/1940s:

No. Never. My feeling is that if they tell me their story and I don’t use it, in some way I’m communicating to them that their story isn’t sufficient. I just depend on personal accounts and journalists of the time, which are a damn good source. Also, I watch newsreels and see a lot of movies from the period. It’s interesting to see how different people were. They’re all thin, for one thing—nobody had a lot to eat. Plus, the music of the era. You can’t hear Glenn Miller and not feel what it was like to be alive then; it washes over some evocative part of the brain.

• Second, Furst explains why he writes about the WWII era rather than the Cold War, which so inspired one of the authors to whom he’s often compared, John Le Carré:

What you get in the Cold War is “the wilderness of mirrors” where you have to figure out what’s good and what’s evil. That’s good for John le Carré, but not me. For me you know who was good and who was bad; you don’t have to explain anything to people. I don’t really write plots. I use history as the engine that drives everything.

“For me you know who was good and who was bad”? Now, this is at least slightly exaggerated. Josef Stalin and the secret police of his Soviet Union loom over just about every Furst story, constantly complicating the question of how his characters will respond to Nazism. And by virtue of setting his novels in Europe and populating them with Europeans (the new being a minor exception, as its protagonist is an American actor, albeit one born in Vienna), Furst avoids the temptation to moral triumphalism so dangerous to those of us whose country sent its Greatest Generation to fight The Good War.

At the same time, Furst’s protagonists are not anti-heroes. They’re not conventional (cartographers, merchant ship captains, filmmakers, and journalists as often as soldiers or police) and they’re not simplistic, but each has a moral compass that functions well enough to direct them into the face of Fascism, where they act with self-sacrificial courage. When they reach the end of their story’s line, they remain both alive and (relatively) uncorrupted.

So his statement that “you know who was good and who was bad” brought to mind Donald Yerxa’s recent essay entitled, “The Moral Imperative of History” (published in the current issue of Books & Culture — you need to subscribe to read the whole piece), which reviews Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin, Timothy Snyder’s landmark study of political mass murder in eastern Europe between Hitler’s advent of power and the end of WWII, and Michael Burleigh’s Moral Combat: Good and Evil in World War II. Yerxa praises Bloodlands as

Snyder, Bloodlandsa depressingly important book. It is a scholarly and moral act of the highest order to get this history “right” — as far as that is humanly possible. Similar, it is an act of moral and intellectual cowardice to ignore such horrific aspects of human sinfulness — a theological category the author does not employ — because of their manifest unpleasantness. To his credit, Snyder prompts up to attempt to understand the logic of the perpetrators along with the suffering of the victims. In fact, he argues that it is “morally more urgent to understand the actions of the perpetrators.” There is never the “moral danger” that one might become a victim, but it is indeed possible that someday under some circumstances “one might be a perpetrator or a bystander.”

Likewise, Yerxa enthuses that Burleigh’s attempt to examine the “prevailing moral sentiment” of societies and leaders and the “moral reasoning of ordinary individuals who had to make choices under the most difficult of circumstances” manages to avoid moral abstraction and preachiness. Instead, Burleigh

masterfully shapes his historical narrative in such a way that the reader cannot miss how the war strained conventional morality, frequently ripping it to shreds. For Burleigh, while no war has ever been good, World War II was necessary. And without whitewashing its many moral compromises or dismissing the monstrous conduct of the Soviets, he defends the overall Allied war effort.

Burleigh, Moral CombatIn the end, Yerxa concludes, Burleigh succeeds in “confronting the moral complexities of [World War II] without resorting to triumphalist nonsense or facile arguments of moral equivalency.” He (and Snyder) show, for Yerxa, “the value of intentionally approaching history from a moral perspective.”

In their different ways, I think that Furst, Snyder, Burleigh, and Yerxa all lend credence to Tal Howard’s admonition (in an essay in the book Confessing History that I’ve now cited admiringly at least three times) that historians “think more seriously about ethics and its relationship to historical scholarship and teaching” and “forsake wraithlike detachment for the examined life,” which “entails historical knowing as means of learning to live thoughtfully, wisely, and well” (Howard, “Virtues Ethics and Historical Inquiry,” in Confessing History, p. 86). Howard encourages historians to remember that they “are not, and can never be, in Nietzsche’s felicitous phrase, ‘spoiled idlers in the garden of knowledge’ but are always already participants in ‘life’ — a wonderful, tragic, complex, hopeful moral life” (p. 92). Howard argues for a kind of prudence that resists thoughtless dismissal of complexity, but at the same time (and echoing Yerxa’s plaudits for Burleigh), scorns “deliberation and judgment tumbling uselessly into futility, into moral paralysis or jaded amoral sophistication, instead of into the finality of a decision, a right way of being, thinking, or acting in the world” (p. 93).

As I think about how to teach World War II to 18- and 19-year old Americans, I know that one of my major challenges will be to problematize their “Good War” assumptions with stories of Americans mutilating Japanese soldiers in the Pacific and turning away ships packed with Jewish refugees, not to mention atrocities committed by their allies in the Red Army. And I fully agree that there’s great “moral urgency” to help students understand the perpetrators of injustice, lest they become perpetrators themselves. But at some level, we know who was good and who was bad and should not step back from such judgments, lest we fall backwards into “moral paralysis or jaded amoral sophistication.”

Click here for an earlier post on Furst and his spy novels.

3 thoughts on “Moral Histories of World War II

  1. Enjoyed your piece (I am a history teacher – and certainly found it all relevant and thought provoking – so thanks). As to the mention of “Bloodlands” which I shall have to look up, I wonder if it mentions the very shortlived nation of Ruthenia (just to the east of what is now Slovakia) and the sad tale of the Uniate Christians and Bishop Romzha facing Stalin and his minions after WW II?

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