Reading Archives

With this blog, I am planning to offer, as regularly as possible, critical observations on the scholarly and popular literature analyzing the nature of archives or contributing to our understanding of archives in society. I hope this blog will be of assistance to anyone, especially faculty and graduate students, interested in understanding archives and their importance to society.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

War, Memory, and Archives

It seems worthwhile, just after the new documentary by Ken Burns on the Second World War aired, to comment a bit about some of the interesting studies on this war and American memory with implications on archives and their role in society. If one wants to understand Ken Burns and his use of documentary materials, I recommend that you start with Gary R. Edgerton, Ken Burns’s America (New York: Palgrave, 2001) and Robert Brent Toplin, Ken Burns's the Civil War: The Historian's Response (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996). Both provide interesting insights into how Burns works and how he uses documentary sources.

There is considerable scholarship about the decision to drop Atomic bombs on Japan, bringing an end to the war in the Pacific, but also creating an entire new angst-driven society after this conflict. There has been so much questioning about the decision to do this that a half-century later an effort to interpret this decision at the Smithsonian led to immense controversy. The debate about the exhibition controversy can be seen in a number of studies from different perspectives, including Martin Harwit, An Exhibit Denied: Lobbying the History of Enola Gay (New York: Copernicus, 1996), the memoir of the director of the Air and Space Museum who lost his job over this case; Kai Bird and Lawrence Lifschultz, eds., Hiroshima’s Shadow (Stony Creek, Conn.: The Pamphleteer’s Press, 1998) is a resource with various essays, both contemporary to the event and more recent, and other documentary sources with evidence about the nature of this horrific decision; Robert Jay Lifton and Greg Mitchell, Hiroshima in America: A Half Century of Denial (New York: Avon Books, 1995), describes the efforts to keep much about this event as secret as possible; Edward T. Linenthal and Tom Engelhardt, eds., History Wars: The Enola Gay and Other Battles for the American Past (New York: Metropolitan Books, 1996) places this particular exhibition controversy into the broader context of debates about the American past and its interpretation; and Philip Nobile, ed., Judgment at the Smithsonian (New York: Marlowe and Co., 1995), provides the original script for the controversial exhibition. Elizabeth Yakel, "Museums, Management, Media, and Memory: Lessons from the Enola Gay Exhibit," Libraries and Culture 35 (Spring 2000): 278-301 provides an interesting analysis of the affair from the archival perspective.

There have been controversies about the commemoration or understanding of the war in the United States, such as Nicolaus Mills, Their Last Battle: The Fight for the National World War II Memorial (New York: Basic Books, 2004); Peter Novick, The Holocaust in American Life (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1999); and Emily S. Rosenberg, A Date Which Will Live: Pearl Harbor in American Memory (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003). What these studies demonstrate is how nearly any effort to commemorate aspects of the war is likely to generate some debate, and this suggests many issues concerning the role of archives and historical evidence.

One of the great challenges in understanding the Second World War and how it has shaped collective memory is how this war has been seen and interpreted in many different nations in vastly different ways. For example, Japan has continued to resist allowing its citizens to have access to the records of the war or to understand its role in this great global conflict, while Germany has spent most of the past half century seeking to comprehend just how this nation’s part in the war had come about; this allows for some great comparison and contrast, as seen in Ian Buruma, The Wages of Guilt: Memories of War in Germany and Japan (New York: Meridian Books, 1994) and Erna Paris, Long Shadows: Truth, Lies and History (New York: Bloomsbury, 2001). There has been considerable scrutiny about the impact of this war on the German nation and psyche, such as Rudy Koshar, Germany’s Transient Pasts: Preservation and National Memory in the Twentieth Century (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998); Jane Kramer, The Politics of Memory: Looking for Germany in the New Germany (New York: Random House, 1996); Charles S. Maier, The Unmasterable Past: History, Holocaust, and German National Identity (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988); and Mark Roseman, A Past in Hiding: Memory and Survival in Nazi Germany (New York: Picador USA, 2000).

The Holocaust itself has generated considerable scholarship, ranging from studies about how archival records related to this event have been created and used to those considering how the event has been interpreted, manipulated, controlled, and so forth. In recent years, the location of the looted assets of Holocaust victims has been the topic of some scholarship as well as reports on political discussions and decisions. Some of these studies include Tim Cole, Selling the Holocaust: From Auschwitz to Schindler; How History Is Bought, Packaged, and Sold (New York: Routledge, 1999); Stuart E. Eizenstat, Imperfect Justice: Looted Assets, Slave Labor, and the Unfinished Business of World War II (New York: Public Affairs, 2003); Raul Hilberg, The Politics of a Holocaust Historian: The Journey of a Holocaust Historian (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1996); Eva Hoffman, After Such Knowledge: Memory, History, and the Legacy of the Holocaust (New York: PublicAffairs, 2004); Lawrence L. Langer, Admitting the Holocaust: Collected Essays (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995); Judith Miller, One by One by One: Facing the Holocaust (New York: Touchstone, 1990); and Michael Shermer and Alex Grobman, Denying History: Who Says the Holocaust Never Happened and Why Do They Say It? (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000). This genre of writing often includes references to the role of documentary source materials in understanding the Holocaust.

Most notable in this area was the Deborah Lipstadt libel trial in England – attacking her Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory (New York: Free Press, 1993) – and the writings that emanated from it, with much of it concerning the role of archival sources: Richard J. Evans, Lying About Hitler: History, Holocaust, and the David Irving Trial (New York: Basic Books, 2001) and Deborah Lipstadt, History on Trial: My Day in Court with David Irving (New York: ECC, 2005). Michael Palumbo, The Waldheim Files: Myth and Reality (London: Faber and Faber, 1988) describes the controversy over the issue of the files documenting Kurt Waldheim’s Nazi past, well concealed in his German and international political career.

The literature about the looting of the property of Holocaust victims also discusses the value of government, museum, corporate, and personal archives: Tom Bower, Nazi Gold: The Full Story of the Fifty-Year Swiss-Nazi Conspiracy to Steal Billions from Europe’s Jews and Holocaust Survivors (New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1997); Hector Feliciano, The Lost Museum: The Nazi Conspiracy to Steal the World’s Greatest Works of Art (New York: HarperBooks, 1997); Itamar Levin, The Last Deposit: Swiss Banks and Holocaust Victims’ Accounts, trans. Natasha Dornberg (Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1999); Lynn H. Nicholas, The Rape of Europa: The Fate of Europe’s Treasures in the Third Reich and the Second World War (New York: Vintage Books, 1994); Jonathan Petropoulos, Art as Politics in the Third Reich (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996); Jonathan Petropoulos, The Faustian Bargain: The Art World in Nazi Germany (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000); Elizabeth Simpson, ed., The Spoils of War: World War II and Its Aftermath; The Loss, Reappearance, and Recovery of Cultural Property (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., in association with the Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts, 1997); Isabel Vincent, Hitler’s Silent Partners: Swiss Banks, Nazi Gold, and the Pursuit of Justice (New York: William Morrow and Co., Inc., 1997); and Jean Ziegler, The Swiss, the Gold, and the Dead, trans. John Brownjohn (New York: Harcourt Brace and Co., 1998). The book that perhaps best describes the essential nature of documentary sources in unraveling the plunder and reclaiming ownership is Stuart E. Eizenstat, Imperfect Justice: Looted Assets, Slave Labor, and the Unfinished Business of World War II (New York: Public Affairs, 2003).

A number of historians and scholars have written about war from the soldier’s viewpoint or that of other participants, such as Samuel Hynes, The Soldiers Tale: Bearing Witness to Modern War (New York: Allen Lane, The Penguin Press, 1997), and Hynes is one of the individuals featured in the new documentary by Burns; Susan Rubin Suleiman, Crises of Memory and the Second World War (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006) is another example. Some individuals have written moving accounts of their parents’ involvement in the war based on the materials they left behind (such as letters and captured personal items), such as Louise Steinman, The Souvenir: A Daughter Discovers Her Father’s War (Chapel Hill: Alonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2001).

There is also a fine scholarship concerning the writing and interpretation of the war, including Tim Cook, Clio’s Warriors: Canadian Historians and the Writing of the World Wars (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2006) and David Reynolds, In Command of History: Churchill Fighting and Writing the Second World War (New York: Random House, 2005). Cook’s work is especially important for its sensitivity to the creation and subsequent management of documentary materials.

The role of information technology in the Second World War, with implications for corporate archivists, also has been treated in Edwin Black, IBM and the Holocaust: The Strategic Alliance Between Nazi Germany and America’s Most Powerful Corporation (New York: Crown Publishers, 2001).

This is merely a sampling of studies I have read about the Second World War, memory, and archives. It is a rich area for continuing work. The PBS site, The War, is also rich with additional materials for considering such issues.


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