MEMORIES OF THE SECOND WORLD WAR

History is a means to understand and to work on the past (with as much objectivity as it can be) – and on its consequences – whereas memory is a way to unify a group, and to give a specific and coherent identity to a community. That’s why the latter is inevitably biased and subjective. To what extent the “memories” of the Second World War can be linked to “history” and to historical work? Should we consider that they are in contradiction to one another – or may they complement each other?

I.                   The memory of the Holocaust

In her article written in the early post-war years, Hannah Arendt explains that this war has provoked material and moral destruction all over Europe. She focuses on the inefficiency of the Allied policy after the war and analyses some consequences of the Holocaust on European mind.

Two very important concepts are to be considered concerning the genocide of the Jews:

+ The concept of “crime against humanity” is a new kind of penalty which is an attempt to adapt the international law – facing a new scale of crimes. This penalty was adopted during the Nuremberg trial in order to judge the unthinkable horrors of the WWII. The use of gas chambers in extermination camps, as well as the mass slaughters committed on the Eastern Front (“Shoah with bullets”) require new sorts of judgments.

+ The “memory duty” is the necessity to keep alive the memory of the crimes committed during that period. It begins with the first testimonies of victims and witnesses of the slaughters, and it continues with the works of intellectuals and artists (such as Primo Levi). However, some historians and philosophers (such as Hannah Arendt, Raul Hilberg and Richard Rubenstein) have developed a new conception and a new understanding of the Holocaust – which breaks the unity of the community with thoughts on a commune responsibility and revelations about a passive complicity in the genocide. For instance, the British authorities had expulsed Jewish refugees from Palestinian territories towards Eastern Europe occupied by the Nazis (cf. Lord Moyne’s quotation on the “million of Jews” in Egypt).

II.                The triumph of Barbary : war crimes on the Eastern Front and the Pacific War

As it is mentioned in the President of Lithuania’s speech (21th century) and on a Polish poster (1970’s) that celebrates the liberation of Eastern Europe by the Red Army – the Soviet Union is one of the most important victors of the WWII. Nevertheless, we are confronted to two different points of view with these documents – insofar as the official recent speech analyses the political situation of the Eastern countries during the conflict, and also during the Cold War. For instance, the Gulags are evoked, as well as the Soviet crimes committed in the name of the anti-Nazi struggle. This aspect of the problem may remind us of a famous Orwellian phrase. Orwell said that: “Regimes in decay only want to be judged on their enemies.” Thus, the Soviet memory is based on the recollection of the Great Patriotic war (in which several millions of Russians were killed, especially at Stalingrad) and attempts to erase the present political and economic difficulties of the USSR during the Cold War (and still nowadays in Putin’s Russia).

Another aspect of war crimes may be treated through the Bridge on the Kwai River (and the extract on the “Coward’s Code”). This film deals with American prisoners who are forced to work for Japanese army. Colonel Bogey embodies the American resistance against the Japan Imperial forces and their violations of the Geneva Conventions (= that establish the “standards of international law for the humanitarian treatment of war prisoners”). The film dates back from 1957 – and may be considered a way to glorify the American Army during the Pacific War and their revenge after the attack on Pearl Harbor. However, the prosecutions of Japanese officers during the Tokyo trials in 1946 should not lead us to forget another kind of war crimes, which is the use of the atom bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, on august 6 and 9 1945. Indeed, the exposure to high levels of radiations (= to radioactive elements) provoked many more deaths after the end of the war – which is another new consequence of modern war.

III.             The Resistance during the war

The United Kingdom offered a heroic resistance to the Nazis during the Battle of Britain (from July, 1940 to May, 1941). To be precise, their “finest hour” (Churchill’s speech) happened during the bombing of London, in which British people endured hard-living conditions and continued to live a normal life (as far as it could be). Several photographs may show the country’s stubborn and stoical resistance – such as “Housewives wearing gas masks”, or “A fiancée leaving her bombed home to marry an officer”. We cannot deny that the United Kingdom has played a predominant and leading role during that conflict. Indeed, the well-known and charismatic figure of Winston Churchill embodies the British resistance to German expansion, and, to a large extent, the resistance against the Nazi dictatorship. His famous speech on “blood, toil, tears and sweat” may symbolize the struggle against Barbary he wanted to lead. However, a journalist of the Daily mail has recently written an article concerning the “mythology of the Home Front” and the “mythic Blitz Spirit”. Indeed, he explains that:

“Between 1941 and 1945, the British Council, the body which projects Britain’s culture overseas, commissioned a series of film documentaries to show that, despite the firestorms of Hitler’s Luftwaffe, the country remained intact and unbowed — that everyone was, indeed, keeping calm and carrying on.”

As a matter of fact, we may consider that the P.M. Churchill and the British propaganda machine are the main elements that gave the British people the means to endure the material destructions of the German bombs (not only on London, but all over England). This sort of propaganda was a way to keep their spirits up, among the ruins and under the threat of defeat.

To summarize and conclude, a specific memory (talking about “mythology” would be perhaps too ambiguous) has been developed so as to glorify the Allies against the Soviet Union. The main consequence of this Manichean vision (or dualistic approach) is to conceal other predominant aspects of the WWII, and to say nothing about their “passive responsibility” in some of the Nazi crimes. “Moral resistance facing material destruction” is a way to deny the real moral destruction evoked by the philosopher Hannah Arendt.

European governments cannot admit that “Europe has been covered by a cloud of melancholy” (“moral destruction” could signify the failure of the Occidental model) while “an Iron Curtain has descended across the Continent” (- opposition between Arendt’s article and Churchill’s Fulton Speech -). There’s an obvious necessity to keep alive this common memory so as to unify the Occidental side at the beginning of the Cold War. Yet, since that period, loads of historians have worked on forgotten historical facts so as to complete and to renew the (duty) memory of the Second World War.

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