Monday, February 17, 2014

The trouble with history

I have just come across an essay (published last November in the New York Review) by Mark Lilla on Hannah Arendt and how Margarethe von Trotta's recent film about her gets Arendt all wrong – by ignoring the fact that, as subsequent research has revealed, Arendt got Eichmann all wrong.

Von Trotta's films tend to based around strong and visionary female characters. And Hannah Arendt is presented as just such a powerful visionary.

One can see more clearly why the author of Eichmann in Jerusalem appeared to fit the bill when one considers certain aspects of the filmmaker's cultural and ideological background.

Lilla writes:

"When left-wing radicalism was at its violent peak in the 1970s, the following false syllogism became common wisdom: Nazi crimes were made possible by blind obedience to orders and social convention; therefore anyone who still obeys rules and follows convention is complicit with Nazism, while anyone who rebels against them strikes a retrospective blow against Hitler. For the left in that period, the Holocaust was not fundamentally about the Jews and hatred of Jews (in fact anti-Semitism was common on the radical left). It was, narcissistically, about the Germans' relation to themselves and their unwillingness, in the extreme case, to think for themselves."

Apart from the reference to narcissism, this seems true to me.

But I would also make the more general point (also made, if slightly more equivocally, by Lilla) that writers and filmmakers almost inevitably frame their works on controversial historical and political subjects in terms of simplistic ideologies and flawed logic.

If it didn't conjure up images of book-burning or the Index librorum prohibitorum, I would be tempted to indulge a small fantasy of mine and flesh out the notion of a world in which there would be no popular history books or films, biographical or otherwise – just easy access to a wide range of primary sources, and the minimal framework of scholarship required to authenticate, maintain and present this material to a wider public.

What would happen, of course, if one banned popular histories is that – as has happened so often in the past – enterprising writers would produce allegorical fictions which would make the same sorts of political and ideological points that popular histories would have made more directly (but not necessarily more effectively).

But, leaving aside questions about the desirability or effectiveness of censorship, there is no denying that reading letters and diaries and other documents from past eras (including literary works) is a powerful means of counteracting the myths that historians deliberately or unwittingly promote (even as they try, in many cases, to debunk other myths).