The Rashoman Effect of History
For the last year and a half, I have been studying WW2. I’m working on a novel set during that period. Actually, I’m working on two novels set during the period, both in the European theater. But I started with one story and I wanted to get the details accurate. I also enjoy in-depth research.
I didn’t realize, at the outset, that to understand WW2 one must delve into WW1. But that’s another issue.
Books, old news reels, documentaries, and people are resources. In Paris recently I started asking people, “What was your family doing during the war? What did your parents and grandparents tell you?” Responses were fascinating.
I’ve been querying people for over a year now. Americans, Germans, French, British. What’s become clear is that history even this recent has been shaped a certain way. It’s been predigested. The victors write history, yes?
But it’s not so simple as winner vs. loser. There are subtleties in the way events have been metabolized.
For instance, Paris during Occupation and Liberation and the years immediately following. I once told a friend who is a rabid Francophile that the French had, in cowardly fashion, handed Paris over to the Germans.
Poor guy almost blew a gasket. You know that vein that stands out on someone’s forehead when they get really mad? Well, it bulged, and then he gave me an earful.
Now in the midst of this unending research, I can admit: rightly so. I deserved the setting-straight. Now, I’m a huge fan of Winston Churchill, but the context within which France formed a collaborationist government must be taken into consideration. France was not a large country, and at the end of WW1, it had lost one-tenth of the adult male population. That’s a catastrophic loss. Moreover, the men who survived were ravaged by mutilation, disfigurement, and severe psychological trauma. Many couldn’t work. The country was, literally, devastated for a generation.
Also, after the vicious way Poland was annexed, the French were pretty clear that the Germans meant business.
These factors must be taken into consideration when considering the collaborationist government’s invitation to the Germans.
I mention these facts, also, as part of an example of the duplicity of history which I encountered recently. By duplicity, I mean doubleness.
In Paris, at the end of a walking tour about the Occupation and Liberation, the tour guide spoke of how American soldiers came to Paris and treated the city like their personal playground. They got drunk, they got rowdy, and they got women. This behavior, she noted, was in contrast to the German soldiers, who behaved with correctness. They were loathed. The people who openly consorted with them were loathed more. But the highly disciplined German soldiers were under orders to be respectful–not to Jews, gypsies, Slavs, Jehovah’s witnesses, or homosexuals, of course. But to the French and to Paris itself. And so they were correct, while the liberating American soldiers were not.
I took notes and wondered about the behavior of American GI’s in Paris at that time.
Then I came home and read the memoir of an American soldier who was in Paris during liberation and then for r & r several months later. He wrote of the thriving black market post-Occupation, and of the Parisian’s willingness to rip off American soldiers. He implied, with little subtlety, that Parisian women actively solicited American soldiers, who had money to spend and the impulse to be generous. And, you know, general horniness which made them ripe for the plucking. Those mademoiselles knew exactly what they were up to, they planned it, and they were good at it.
Having recently been ripped off in Paris myself, including rather gallingly by a medical doctor at the Hôpital Américain, and having an idea of the tough times Parisians had been through for thirty years prior to Liberation, I was inclined to believe the soldier’s memoir.
But it is probably also true that American GI’s, many of them farm boys out of the US for the first time, and exhausted by battle, were out for vice and vim.
The moral of this story is, well, there are two:
One, NEVER go to the Hôpital Américain. If you get sick in Paris, find an English-speaking doctor somewhere in the city and ask about the fee ahead of time, or if your French is good enough, call SOS Médecins. A bout of strep throat cost me too dearly, and I’m not talking about the two feverish days I spent with aching swollen glands.
Two: Question the first interpretation you get about any historical event or trend, especially if it is a state-sponsored version or generally accepted wisdom.
Do your own digging and see what your shovel turns up.