Sanitizing Historical Horror is Bad Citizenship

I was planning to write a chipper, worldbuilding focused post for tomorrow, and then this showed up on my Twitter feed:

Screen shot 2016-08-30 at 20.23.43

My first thought, I’ll admit, was that this was exaggerating for clickbait– surely no one would greenlight a book where the main message was ‘not all the Nazis were bad’. As someone who follows current events, I really, really should have known better.

Nazis and assorted awful people below the jump– consider this your content warning!

Bluntly, I am seething.
I am seething about the fact this book got published. Not only did an author think that the world needed to feel some warm fuzzies for the Nazis, but other publishing professionals did as well. Culpability also falls on the artist, who depicts the French PoWs as ‘plump and content’ according to one appropriately outraged reviewer. An editor read this and thought, in their own words:

If we never show the human face of a conflict, we can write off terrible crimes as the actions of an evil person, an evil regime.

At which point, they passed the hot potato of explaining the overwhelming horrors just outside the sanitized bubble of the story over to everybody else:

Is understanding the full picture of the war, including the Holocaust, important for children today? Of course it is. And we hope parents, teachers, and librarians will pair A Year of Borrowed Men with other books that tell those stories.

I am enraged by this insouciant response, given that this book does not exist in a vacuum. This isn’t a slice of life about a tumultuous period of history with a mixture of social gains and losses. It is a slice of life about Nazis. A slice of life against the backdrop of  at least ten million state-organized murders, of sixty million deaths around the world, of the deadliest military conflict in history. This isn’t some part of history that has faded to memory and been swept under the rug hundreds of years ago. As of 2016, there are some 195,000 Holocaust survivors alive today, along with over 850,000 WWII veterans in the US alone. And the author had the audacity to look at these people, hundreds of thousands of real humans who have seen soul-rending horror, then looked at the people who rained down that horror and are responsible for the deaths of 3% of Earth’s human population, and felt moved by the plight of the latter, who are apparently having a bit of a PR problem.

Now, this is not to say we should ignore the question of how otherwise ordinary people get sucked into supporting monstrous policies and political regimes. In fact, I would argue this is an extremely important path for self-examination; in the context of a children’s book, it is also the introduction to how we parse the conflict we experience when someone we love and admire does something profoundly wrong. I also think it is counterproductive to utterly dehumanize oppressors, no matter how inhuman their actions, because we cannot prevent and dismantle what we do not understand.

But this book is not one of those stories. It deliberately turns away from suffering, ducks ambiguity or difficult questions, and most disturbingly, unquestioningly frames the Russian liberators as ruining an idyll. There is a difference between telling a story from a child’s perspective, and using that perspective to turn the story into a pathologically self-centered narrative devoid of any association to reality. This is how the narrator describes the aftermath of the Russian army liberating her village:

Even the animals were free. Our herd of cows ran away, which meant no more milk or butter for us.

Portraying childish innocence– the simple, comforting explanations from protective adults, the misunderstandings, the unsettling details that don’t make sense until one is older– is very different from portraying a sanitized version of reality. If this book played on the conflict between a child’s optimistic perspective and increasingly grim reality, or between what the child is told and what the child observes, that would be an interesting story. But this is not the story this author chose to tell.

Instead, we get a vision of Nazi Germany as a prosperous, fertile land where the farm is full of plenty, even PoWs can live comfortably, and there is no major conflict in the child’s life greater than a damaged doll (the narrator’s mother at one point attempts to seat the enslaved Frenchmen with the rest of the family for dinner– this is what counts as a heroic act of defiance in pastel version of history, even though the potential threat or consequences are never developed). The rationale put forth by the publisher (and some horrifying Goodreads reviews) make it abundantly clear that the takeaway message of the book– whether intended or created by mind-bending authorial obliviousness– is a case of #NotAllNazis.

To publish a book that strongly telegraphs to readers– both admiring and critical– that the Nazis were deserving of sympathy and attention, and that their crimes against humanity were not so bad is an appalling act of bad citizenship. And as I said earlier, the retelling of history does not occur in a vacuum. We live in a world where an honest-to-goodness Hitler fan, supported by swarms of self-identified neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and other violent bigots, is the presidential candidate put forward by one of our major political parties. In the UK, we have a similar crew of fascists who are determined to pull apart the European Union and dismantle the EU Human Rights Act. For many of us, unlike the German-American author, there is no option to disengage, no way to run off to an idealized farm in the country because the violence is someone else’s problem. We cannot stick our heads in the sand and pretend it’s not that bad and shelter our children in a smug coccoon of denial and privilege, because we are the targets.

There are omissions due to our own privilege or our own cultural blinders, and then there is this. It is hard for me to believe that mere obliviousness could lead someone to feel that financially privileged Nazis were a group that needed historical sympathy and coddling. While the people who tortured and slaughtered and enslaved their fellow humans were not supernatural monsters, it does no good to swing the pendulum in the other direction and picture them as innocents* to be pitied and comforted. Understanding why ordinary people support acts of grotesque violence is one thing. Telling a story where the violence is sanitized and the enablers are the heroes is not.

 

*The excellent BBC series Nazis: A Warning From History  deconstructs the myth that a majority of Germans were bullied into betraying their fellows by Nazi officials– rather, Nazi officials were facilitators for Germans terrorizing their Rromani, disabled, Jewish, and LGBT neighbors.

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