My eldest grandson was talking about his school work in a critical year of his education. He said, ‘have you studied the Second World War?’ ‘I was there!’ I said; ‘I don’t need to study it’. I was wrong, of course, and he was right to ask the question. Living is not the same as studying.
History must always try to take a distant view of events. As a boy moving from childhood to adolescence, I was embroiled in the consequences of war and the prejudices that accompany it. I confessed to my grandson that I was still affected by those prejudices. Absorbing an atmosphere of hatred towards Germans- ‘The Hun’ as Winston Churchill’ demonised then – it was not easy to distinguish the people from the Nazi regime that had capitalised on a national sense of inferiority following the harsh peace settlement at the end of the 1914-18 War. I still have to pause and think rationally about Germany. One of my best friends is German. He is a pastor caring for 500 elderly people living in various Lutheran homes in Frankfurt.
He grew up in the devastating post-war years, when more and more was learned about the monstrous regime with which Adolf Hitler tried to exterminate a race and overwhelm the western world.
Hosted by him in the Spring of 1996, I was one of a group of eight of his friends meeting for a meal in his home. One of them had been an associate of Oskar Schindler. He told us that in the last few days he had given over 40 interviews on radio and TV, the film ‘Schindler’s List’ having just been released in Germany. Unwelcome facts were meeting memories- buried for some, still raw for others – and history was beginning to form, not as convenient myths but as uncomfortable truths.
My grandson is studying what was once part of my life and that of millions of others, and can do so in a more dispassionate way than perhaps I can.
Contemporary historians however argue amongst themselves about their discipline. Once presumed to be a scientific search for historical facts, history is often now recognised as an approximate study from which the writer’s own personal judgement and experience can never be absent. So perhaps the personal judgement of my grandson and the experience of his grandpa need each other!