The director Akira Kurosawa talked often of the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, which devastated Tokyo, killing almost 150,000 people. In its aftermath, his older brother took Kurosawa, then in middle school, to see the carnage.
When Kurosawa tried to look away from the corpses strewn in the streets, his brother admonished him to look directly at the horror. The director tells the story:
When that night I asked my brother why he made me look at those terrible sights, he replied, “If you shut your eyes to a frightening sight, you end up being frightened. If you look at everything straight on, there is nothing to be afraid of.”
That advice stayed with him and influenced his powerful use of the camera. It’s stayed with me, too.
Now, in the late summer of 2017, as Americans discuss, argue, insult and fight over the presence of monuments to Confederate soldiers and leaders in our institutions, it strikes me that what we’re really doing is avoiding looking at the frightening sight.
This eruption of enmity that took hold over the summer reminds me that the rewriting of history is all around us. This revisionism, in its way, allows us to avoid facing the thing we fear. How much easier is it to venerate a losing cause than to examine its source and roots, not to mention the real harm and suffering it caused? How much more comforting is it to declare that both sides had validity, especially if your ancestors were among those who were recruited to fight (or who volunteered) for the losing side?
I’m half-German. In my family, there are two ancestors who fought for the Nazis as conscripted soldiers. One was killed in action at the age of 19. The other survived the war, but lost his arm fighting in the Battle of Berlin as a 15-year-old. Talk about a lost cause!
I never met the first relative, obviously, but I was very close to the second and loved him dearly as a child. He was deeply haunted by his experience and is one of the reasons I began to write about the aftermath of the Second World War.
I remember once asking my grandmother why there were so few old men in Germany back in the 1970s. “The war,” was all she said. She never talked about the war again, until reunification took us both back to where she’d spent those years, in a small town in what had become East Germany. Setting foot there nearly four decades later, she recalled only the day she watched American tanks roll through her town. After that, she never spoke about that time again. She’s another reason I set my novels in the months after the war was over.
For years, it was understood that Germans had been made to face their guilt and shame, and that the Nazi stain had been removed. But the reality is that the confrontation was never complete. For sure, we know much about the Holocaust (and continue, to this day, to learn more), including who perpetrated it and how.
History’s always happening
I write books about the Second World War because the research forces me to confront the thing that scares me: the reality that I’m only one generation removed from the perpetrators.
To separate ourselves from the evil in others is to ignore our own ability to do harm. To ignore or misunderstand the past is to fail to see it coming back for us. To not face the thing that scares us is to let the wounds fester under the surface until they can’t be contained. And by definition, that’s a process that’s never finished, because history is always happening.
When the German soldiers began returning from the front and from their Prisoner of War (POW) camps, the German people made an implicit deal with them: don’t expect to be treated like heroes and we won’t ask what you did. That Faustian bargain held for a long time, even until the eventual deaths of these men. But it was a short-sighted cure, because with them died the opportunity to confront their pasts—and for us to confront ours.
Monuments aren’t a way of processing the past, they only serve to commemorate or mythologize certain aspects of our shared experience. I write books about the Second World War because the research forces me to confront the thing that scares me: the reality that I’m only one generation removed from the perpetrators of the war. People I love were involved … complicit. That’s my history.
The fight we’re having over monuments abdicates the responsibility each of us has to reconcile ourselves with the truth of history. Kurosawa used his camera to force his audience to look at things they’d rather not see. Likewise, we have to keep our eyes open and be unafraid. Perhaps that honours those who lived the history more than any monument could.