I was reading the social media feed of an email acquaintance a few days ago, a prolific and well-regarded historian of the Civil War Era, who noted that he was starting to believe that the memory and historiography of post-Civil War Reconstruction seem to be supplanting our remembrance of the actual fighting that occurred between 1861-65. That is becoming my sense as well. How could it not given events of the past several years? We have seen the same phenomenon with the popular memory of the Second World War over the past three quarters of a century. Battles make for riveting narratives filled with interesting characters behaving shamefully or courageously, often at the same time. War’s aftermath however is always complicated and, in comparison to tales of the battlefield, almost always unheroic. No one wants to study shabby compromises. I can’t help but think of all these things this January 27th, International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
I don’t wish to go too much into the details at the moment because it’s still a ways off, but some colleagues and I are working on a project related to the Shoah that will come to fruition sometime in the future. Specifically our project covers the American response to the war and Holocaust before, during, and after the conflict. It’s a fascinating topic and we intend to cover it thoroughly. The historical memory of the Holocaust began before the war ended: on April 12, 1945–four weeks prior to what became V-E Day–Generals Dwight D. Eisenhower, Omar N. Bradley, George S. Patton and Troy H. Middleton toured the Ohrdruf labor and concentration camp. Benjamin Runkle wrote a piece for Tablet magazine two years ago about Eisenhower’s role in not just ensuring the documentation of the liberation of the camps, but his work–mistakes and all–in accommodating displaced persons after the war’s end. The 75th anniversary of the Second World War’s end was last spring. That was only part of the story; as in post-1865 America, post-1945 Europe was hardly at peace. These next few years are an opportunity to examine what came immediately after Germany’s surrender, in all its complexity.
(image/photographer, William Newhouse; United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration, College Park)