Dealing with historical tragedy

This week I read a book for my 20th century foreign policy class called The Bitter Road to Freedom by William I. Hitchcock. It details the manifold sufferings visited on Europe during the liberation of Europe by the Allies in World War II. I’ll post my full review at a later date if it seems appropriate, but what I’m interested in here is how a historian (or any scholar) deals with tragedy in their research. Let’s be honest: this book was horrifying, on many levels, and not just because it included detailed accounts of the liberation of various concentration camps. If I had to say what this book was about in one word, I would choose the word  suffering. There was certainly plenty of trial, tribulation, difficulty, danger, and hardship in this book, but it was epitomized by tragic suffering, especially of European civilians, including children. My wife can attest that I was distressed by the prospect of finishing this book.

I think discomfort was part of Hitchcock’s aim in writing this book. He wanted his readers to come face to face with brutal, inhuman violence, to understand that “The Greatest Generation” killed 500,000 German civilians in aerial bombardment, and that strategic decisions about the war prioritized defeating Germany over stopping mass starvation in the Netherlands. I think Hitchcock is too polemical at points – especially when he accuses the Allies of doing some of these things on purpose – but his emphasis on suffering is justified.

In the class discussion about this book today, I asked a question of my classmates and professor. I wasn’t sure if it had any place in an academic setting, but it was one I found myself wrestling with as I read and wrote about this book. It went something like this: “How does being confronted with suffering like this humanize or contextualize the liberation of Europe? Does it make one a more sensitive scholar? Does its emotional impact change the way one writes about WWII or change the focus of narratives about the war?” In short, how should the historian deal with historical tragedy?

To be perfectly honest, I felt a little weak because I was so affected by this book. At least one of my classmates claimed to “really like” the book, which I found odd considering it made me want to pray and vomit at the same time. Should historians develop an air of detachment from their subjects, so as to foster “objectivity?” Will further interaction with historical tragedy inure me to these feelings? I have no answers for these questions, but I wonder. Would I want to lose the revulsion and horror that gripped me this week?

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