14. November 2012 · Comments Off on The First Draft of History · Categories: Random Book and Media Musings · Tags: , , ,

While pursuing a BA at California State U. Northridge, yea on several decades ago,  I began a self-directed history project, beginning in the periodical stacks, where a hundred years worth of old magazines perfumed the air with the smell of dusty paper. From there, I went down to the basement where the newspaper archives lived, two weeks worth of dailies on each microfilm reel. I would thread the reels through the microfilm viewer, and turn the crank to move the pages steadily while I skimmed, every day of every week from 1935 to 1945. It was a semester-long project, taking in a whole decade in daily bites. To go back and read about an event as it happened, to see it as people would have seen it happening, made me realize what a small, limited view we have of events day to day. It’s like looking at the Sistine Chapel through a pin-hole.

This was my grandparents’ era, of sportster cars with wide running boards, where ladies wore gloves, and hats, and fur stoles, where dress patterns cost a quarter, the bad news came by telegram and bicycle messenger, before air conditioning and the Bomb. A two line story, buried on a back page early in my venture noted that the atom had been split, while the front page that day concerned a tragic natural gas explosion in a consolidated rural school in Texas. Politicians politicked, Hollywood produced glamour, the economy slowly recovered from the Great Crash, Hitler annexed the Rhineland and I became addicted to Milt Caniff’s Terry And The Pirates.

(Wonderful comic strip, WHY has no one ever done a movie of it?)

Crime and bad weather made as big a splash on the front pages then as it does now, even when Big Media meant a handful of radio stations and Life Magazine. And war crept closer. Squabbles on the editorial pages gave way to debate on the draft, on Lend-Lease, on staying out of European squabbles, until one December Sunday morning it all crashed in, and neutrality was as dead in the water as the USS Arizona and sunk even farther down.

Occasionally, stories about what was happening in Germany and in Occupied Europe to Jews would bubble up to the surface. It was clear that something very bad was going on, but the consensus reflected in the newspaper was that Nazi mistreatment consisted of ghettoes and forced labor, interspersed with degrading laws and now and then some deportations and maybe a massacre. Every time a story hinted at something much more sinister, the responsible sober editorials, and the letters to the editor urged skeptical caution: remember, we were taken in by false atrocity stories in the First World War. Don’t be fooled by propaganda, take it with a grain of salt, the Germans are a civilized people, they couldn’t possibly be doing this, the people telling these stories have their own motives.

And then, May 1945: Allied forces began liberating the camps, and finding the ovens and gas chambers, the bales of human hair, warehouses of neatly sorted personal possessions, the meticulous records and the few survivors, and trying to get a grip on the idea that the worse stories were true. No, worse than that: the most fevered imagination of the most dedicated anti-Nazi propagandist still didn’t come anywhere what the Allies found behind the barbed wire and guard towers. Soldiers and generals, reporters and editorial writers, and the folks at home all tried to get their minds around the fact that a civilized country, the home of Bach and Goethe had turned science and technology to the systematic, orderly extermination of those persons designated as sub-human.

But all the clues had been there all along, trickling out of Occupied Europe and published in the papers. With a bit of hindsight, anyone could have put it all together, but an evil this enormous defied imagination. Even to think it possible somehow violated people’s sense of human decency. One doesn’t like to think that the next-door neighbor may be a serial killer, or the next country over is committing genocide.

In the last 60 years we have gotten better at disseminating information, and possibly better at sifting it for the truly important stuff. Anyone with internet access has information sources available on a score undreamed of in 1945. One thing remains unchanging: we still have trouble with acknowledging the existence of evil. Only when circumstances force us, can we recognize it and deal accordingly.

The more things change, the more some things remain the same. It was just a curious coincidence that as I was coming down to the end of the project, some few stories about the Cambodia and the atrocities being committed by Khmer Rouge were trickling out into the media… and I saw the exact same reaction in the letters to the editor, and in the editorials, the same “Don’t be fooled by propaganda created by insidious agencies, the people pushing this line have their own motives!” party line. And I felt the same kind of “Oh, oh,” feeling.

When they actually began liberating camps. in the spring of 1945 and found it all… it was absolutely stunning, to the reporters and the newspaper readers. There was no way around it, the evidence was just so irrefutable, and spread everywhere across Germany. All the awful rumors that tricked out during the war were not only true, they were the smallest part of the horror.