Mixed Messages: World War II and the Uses of Oral History

by Tony Platt*

I have been teaching about the history of inequalities in the United States for more than forty years. I started off using oral histories in my curriculum when it was against the grain to do so. I still use them today, though to do so now has become something of an acceptable convention. I’m interested in how an oral history can gain and lose power depending on the contexts in which it is produced and received.

In the 1970s at Berkeley I brought labor organizers, farm workers, ex-prisoners, and Black Panthers to my classes to tell their histories. In the 1990s, I brought their voices into the curriculum via the writings of Carlos Bulosan, Piri Thomas, Studs Terkel, and Fannie Lou Hamer (via the Mississippi Writers’ Project); and the films of Marlon Riggs and Anna Deavere Smith, who draw upon the oral history tradition. But as with everything, what was once radical and revolutionary can become stale and standardized. This is true of oral history. Context matters.

In the 1970s, oral history and autobiographical histories resonated in diverse social movement that incorporated voices from below and fought for their inclusion in the national narrative, media, and classroom. As a result, Maxine Hong Kingston’s “no-name people” and “history’s etceteras,” to use Studs Terkel’s term, emerged as flesh-and-blood people with all the quirks of humanity and a counter-narrative to tell.

Today, the personal story is welcomed, cultivated, and promoted in television, talk radio, the web. The personal that used to be political is now typically commercial. So it’s more of a challenge than it was in the 1970s to locate oral histories inside a critical, oppositional, cultural politics.

I find today that many oral histories tend to be read as testimony to a depoliticized human ingenuity, to personal resiliency and persistence, and even as evidence for the American Story of hardships overcome. (We can blame Oprah for this.) The narrative swallows up the counter-narrative, the personal trumps the political, stories of exclusion and degradation become examples of individual triumphalism.

I’m interested in how the present impacts oral histories. “The past,” as historian Karen Till notes, “is always constituted by the present.” Since some of my recent work focused on the World War II period, let me provide some examples from different parts of the world — the United States, Ukraine, and Germany — about how the politics of the present shape the way that oral histories of World War II are made and received.

On public television in the USA in 2007, Ken Burns’ epic, “The War,” was very popular. The documentary is built around extensive interviews with American war veterans who speak, often movingly, about the horrors and human cost of war. Burns’ focus on personal histories is underlined by the observable fact that the World War II veterans were close to the end of their lives.

About the same time in Ukraine, a French Roman Catholic priest, Father Desbois, was traveling the country, marking the mass graves of the close to 1.5 million Jews who were murdered by the Nazis and collaborators during the war. Except for the slaughter at Babi Yar, memorialized in Yevtushenko’s poem, the Holocaust in Ukraine has been buried as deep as its corpses. The priest taped and interviewed Ukrainian witnesses who remembered what happened, sometimes as eyewitnesses. “One witness told how the [burial] pit moved for three days, how it breathed,” Desbois reports.

Ken Burns’ title, “The War” suggests that some wars are bigger than others, and more Americanized than others. It evokes old debates about whether it’s The Holocaust or a Nazi holocaust (and a more recent debate about whether what happened to the Armenians in Turkey in 1915 was genocide or “mass killings”). Burns tells the story of a world war as an American war, and locates the veterans’ stories in personal experience, at the expense of any effort to explain the causes of The War or locate them in global struggles for power. It is “history by emotion,” as one critic puts it. At the core of the story is the white GI experience, though Others (Japanese-American and Chicano veterans) fight their way into the margins of the story.

What makes these two uses of oral histories different is not only that they are examining World War II as it is experienced in two different countries, from two different local vantage points. What gives the Ukraine project its critical edge is not oral histories of the Holocaust (which are widely collected and available), but that they are being used to foment a discussion in the Ukraine about genocide and responsibility, an excavation that could have disturbing implications for the country today.

By contrast, in the United States, the Ken Burns’ story is not new: the American GI experience has been widely and sympathetically told in the US. And hearing about the “Good War” doesn’t have the same bite as it did in the early 1970s when Richard Nixon used George S. Scott’s Patton to try to make the case that the Commies in Vietnam were the descendants of the Nazis. (It didn’t work.) Here in the United States, Burns’ oral histories fit comfortably into a nationalist paradigm we know well. His history is reassuring to many, not disturbing. (Chicano protests against Burns were about being left out of the narrative, not challenging it.) In Ukraine, the stories collected by Desbois have the possible makings of a counter-narrative. The method is similar, but the cultural-political contexts make all the difference.

The next examples come from contemporary Germany. The Jewish Museum opened in 2000 in Berlin. It is as celebrated for its Daniel Libeskind design as for its contents. (It was opened for two years before any contents were added, the architecture itself such an attraction that there was even discussion of leaving the building vacant.) The building and exhibitions are slashed by voids, a bolt of lightening, gashes in the facades to represent the interruption of a normal life. The oral histories appear in the depiction of the relative normality of Jewish life in Germany prior to Nazism. The Jews entered ancient Germania with Roman legions. “So begins the story of a people in a new land.” There are oral histories of life before and afterwards (it’s not a Holocaust museum). The emphasis is on showing the humanity and diversity of Jewish life before Nazism. Interestingly, the final section provides quotes from an extraordinary variety of Jewish immigrants, who disrupt monolithic notions of Jewishness.

But the storytelling is highly selective. Jewish stories appear in isolation from others stories, so it is impossible to make comparisons or to ask: In what ways was the Jewish experience similar to or different from other “peoples” who came to Germany? There are no stories of Jewish German leftists in a country where Jewish leftists figured prominently. And the oral histories focus on distinguished Jews, not the majority who lived in poverty. The museum is highly Americanized in its staffing, technology, and glitz. James Young, an American Jewish historian, was very influential in the selection of the final design. The director, Michael Blumenthal, is American; the architect is American; a major memorial in the basement is by American designer, Peter Eisenman. Is there a connection between selective storytelling and Americanization? Perhaps the oral histories are designed to reassure visitors, increasingly foreign, that Jews have a place in contemporary Germany and that the void will be filled. This is backed up by government policies that facilitated Jewish immigration from Russia and binational citizenship for Israeli Jews.

The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe opened in the government district of Berlin in 2005 after at least a decade of arguments and debates. The memorial itself is huge, somber, and monumental: 2,711 concrete stelae fill a huge plaza like a crowded abstract cemetery. An American architect, Peter Eisenman, designed it. The oral histories can be found under the stelae in an underground, bunker-like documentation center, reminiscent of a crypt in a medieval church. Here you can read or hear the stories and histories of Jews who were in the concentration camps. The overall effect is numbing, quieting, a privatization of grief.

The memorial itself focuses attention only on Jewish victims. The international propaganda value of the memorial trumps the stories; and its monumentalism trumps the everyday. It is more of an international than a national statement, aimed at American and Israeli audiences, and Jews from France and the UK.

The Topography of Terror Foundation opened in Berlin in 1992. It is located on the grounds of what used to be the headquarters of the Gestapo and Nazi state. Until recently, most of its exhibitions were outdoors under a temporary wooden roof, pending the construction of a building to house the collections. Here you can see a timeline of Nazism, read the words of Nazi officialdom, and hear the stories of those who survived to tell their tales of torture and terror. Topography documents the perpetrators. It was only possible to do this, in a political sense, after the victims had been fully recognized and humanized.

What makes the oral histories chilling is their location — the headquarters of Nazism — and the accessibility of the design. This used to be “the end of world” for millions. There is no entry fee, no formal entry point, no hovering guards or guides (but there’s information and a library in a nearby building). Like the Jewish Museum and the Memorial, Topography also stands at the heart of the new Berlin, but this is a message for German as well as international consumption.

In 2005 the newly reunified Germany opened the Sachsenhausen Memorial Museum on the site of the notorious Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp, about an hour’s drive from Berlin. First opened in 1936, it was Himmler’s vision of “a thoroughly model concentration camp,” as well as a place to train elite SS troops. The local town was an important part of the prison and SS life. Built for 10,000, it started with political prisoners, Gypsies, homosexuals, and later the first 6,000 Jews to be forcibly removed from Berlin. It soon became used primarily for Jews and Soviet prisoners of war.

Some 10,000 Soviet prisoners were murdered here, as well as tens of thousands of Jews. Ironically, it was not a mass extermination camp like Auschwitz, but a place where techniques for killing individuals were perfected. From 1945 to 1950, it was controlled by the USSR and housed 60,000 low-level Nazis, political opponents, and others. Some 12,000 died, mostly from malnutrition, but also neglect. At Sachsenhausen, you’ll find layers of memorials (East German and German), the ovens, burial grounds, as well as several exhibitions spread over its huge grounds. Oral histories can be found in the exhibitions on medical experimentation, on the role of bystanders/collaborators in nearby Oranienburg, and on the victims of the Soviet period.

What is unusual about this site is that the visitor must handle personal stories representing different vantage points, all presented sympathetically — first-class victims, second-class victims, bystanders. You have to work out what you think of these perspectives; you have to engage the contradictions. If you were a young woman living in Oranienberg and you were invited to a dance to meet upwardly mobile SS officers, what would you do? Does the Soviet neglect of postwar prisoners evoke the moral equivalency of Nazi murders?

All the sites of World War II that I have mentioned — American television, Ukrainian burial pits, German memorials and memory centers — employ techniques of oral history. My preference is for the ones that make memory an active process, require visitors to figure out what they make of the experience, and provoke controversies about the present. As Günter Grass puts it in his recent memoir, I want the “the present, this fleeting nownownow [to be] constantly overshadowed by a past now….”

* This is a revised version of a talk given at the Oral History Association Annual Meeting, Oakland, October 27, 2007. Tony Platt (amplatt27@gmail.com) is a Visiting Professor in Justice Studies at San Jose State University.

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