This semester I’m taking my Honors Colloquium, “History, Memory, Conflict: The Second World War since 1945”. Prior to this course, my perspective on WWII was almost entirely American, from classes scattered throughout my middle and high school education and books I’d read. Within this semester, however, I’ve experienced literature and film from not just the American viewpoint, but also Japanese, Polish, and German.
The key issue in Japanese memory of WWII is the fact that they were not victors. Their picture of the war is framed with the knowledge that they lost, and they accordingly have to decide how positively or negatively to present various events of the war. This challenge has a cultural aspect as well: because of the Japanese cultural value of “face”, which has to do with pride and one’s social standing, it is difficult for them to directly admit to some parts of their culpability in WWII.
The Polish perspective on the war is unique because Poland was essentially “ground zero” in WWII: they were first to be conquered by Germany, and they were eventually occupied simultaneously by both the German and Soviet armies. The Polish government never officially surrendered to the Germans, which means that Poland can claim its victimhood without an equally large sense of guilt for the war. However, this also means that the losses Poland suffered in the war were staggering, and their memory of the war has to deal with that trauma.
My understanding of the German experience of the war mainly comes from the book A Woman in Berlin, a diary written by a German woman living in Berlin when it fell in 1945, signaling the end of the war. Her memory of the war has to deal with some similar issues as Japanese memory: finding a balance between the identities of perpetrator and victim. It’s clear from her description of 1945 Berlin that it was a time of destruction and pain for its citizens, but she also asks the question, to what extent is it deserved?
These are just a few specific examples of perspectives from countries around the world on WWII. Before this class, I didn’t think much about the nature of history and memory; I suppose I thought there was a “right” way to remember history, and assumed that any deviations from that were derived from biases and were therefore incorrect. However, after reading accounts of how the war played out in these different areas, I’ve realized that the war really did take on different characteristics in different places and cultures. The war affected each country and person involved differently; although there were varying degrees of culpability and victimization, everyone suffered in one way or another. The way a person remembers history is not necessarily wrong just because it comes from a different viewpoint from my own, or even a general American/Western one; it just means that through personal or national experience, their memory of the war has taken on a different meaning. This lesson can be applied to current events and cultures as well, not just history.