On 12 December 2020, an article entitled ‘In Support of Difficult History‘ was brought to my attention in a tweet by Professor Jennifer Evans (@JenniferVEvans). The article detailed how Dr. Anna Hájková had been subject to legal proceedings because of her Holocaust research. A daughter of one of the people that Dr. Hájková wrote about objected to the revelations that her mother might have used sexual relations as a ‘survival strategy’. That those relations may have occured with a ‘female guard and with a male Kapo at Auschwitz’ was apparently an insult to the ‘”reputational dignity” of the deceased.’ Sensationalist reporting in a mainstream British newspaper did not help matters. The article finished with an appeal for support:
We express our strongest support for our colleague Dr. Anna Hájková, who has been subject to arbitrary and unfair attacks for her pioneering and courageous work in the field of Holocaust Studies. We invite people to join us in signing the attached letter (available here) by sending a note to firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.
The letter now has ten pages of signatures, approximately 400 names, supporting the idea that historians ‘have a responsibility to go where our investigations lead us, and sometimes to ask questions that may be painful or troubling.’
Revealing the truth about the past can be difficult, hence the title of this blog #difficulthistory
In her book, ‘Reckonings‘, Professor Mary Fulbrook also addresses #difficulthistory. Using the vehicle of Irene Eber’s memoir, Fulbrook relates how the young Irene did not understand how a neighbour had managed to put on weight when everyone else was suffering food shortages. The judgement was that the young lady’s ‘brother was pimping for her.’
What both these Holocaust examples of #difficulthistory tell us is that in the face of terrible circumstances which most of us can’t even imagine, people did what was necessary to survive. It reminds me of the scene in Schindler’s List when the Jewish girl pricks her finger to rouge her lips with her blood. This implication of using sexuality for survival is not therefore new in popular consciousness, but should there be a line between implication and what some might perceive as unpalatable, lurid detail?
It is clear, however, that #difficulthistory can come in different ‘categories’, for if the examples above relate to sex and survival, the example raised by Professor Robert C. Engen (@RobertEngen) in his thread showcasing part of his edited volume ‘Why We Fight‘ is about sex for other reasons. Dr Claire Cookson-Hill’s chapter in ‘Why We Fight’ is titled ‘Sexual Violence as Motivation’. The chapter begins ‘Rape is an uncomfortable topic for academic study’. The rapes that Dr. Cookson-Hill has researched were committed by the Canadian Army in 1945 as they liberated Germany.
While the rape of approximately 100,000 Berliners by the Red Army has received plenty of publicity, the behaviour of Western Allies in this regard has been (perhaps) curiously missing. ‘We’ are supposed to be the ‘good guys’, with strong morals and going to war to ‘fight the good fight’ against the dark forces of Nazism. It seems not a day goes by where someone who served in the Second World War is venerated as a hero. The truth is, we simply don’t know all the details of their wartime experience or actions.
Also in December 2020, Andrew Thornton (@TheKnotUnites) was moved to write a short but heartfelt blog post which he titled ‘Why I write my blog‘. Evidently, someone had contacted him to complain about his ‘unpalatable’ research. His response was that he would continue to present his research of Great War soldiers as honestly as he could ‘without purposefully misrepresenting them or their experiences.’ As Alison Atkinson-Phillip (@dralia_p) tweeted, ‘We all find it hard to hear those stories that disrupt our sense of how the world is.’ Does this mean that historians should shy away from #difficulthistory, because someone might find it ‘unpalatable’ or ‘difficult to hear’, encouraged to do so by the 4000 Euro fine and the legal proceedings experienced by Anna Hájková?
While there is obviously a need to be sensitive to those who might be embarassed by the conduct of their relatives, #difficulthistory can and should be faced head-on. It is already being easily overcome by providing anonymity in some works, and most research is conducted within an evolving ethical framework. What is perhaps more pressing is the need for confidence in sharing the #difficulthistory we expose, as @Cumberlandlodge put it: ‘Lack of confidence is a key barrier to the teaching of #difficulthistory well.’ In Covid times, teaching #difficulthistory well has its own online dynamic, but that’s another conversation.
The thing is that #difficulthistory is subjective and time constrained. Today’s #difficulthistory is tomorrow’s normal history, similarly today’s history can be exciting/interesting/intriguing where yesterday it was #difficulthistory. This thread by Jake Holliday (@J_O_Holliday) is a good example of what family would have found to be #difficulthistory, but 100 years later and with, for example, children born out of wedlock normalised, it an interesting story rather than a scandal.
Similarly, in my research into the SOE in Burma, I have found things that would certainly not have been spoken about in the post-war years, but with the focus on mental health in recent years, has (is) become (ing) normalised. Where once there would have been shame, there would now likely be approbation for honest disclosure. There are at least two cases of officers suffering so badly with the trauma of war that they shot themselves in the head with their service revolvers whilst on leave. One survived, miraculously, and one left behind a wife and young children. Another man became addicted to morphine, and stole it from his comrades. Others became addicted to benzadrine tablets. Another officer was accused by his sergeants of making up reports to get himself decorated, which he succeeded in doing. The sergeants faced the wrath of the authorities for smearing an officer’s reputation, but the officer kept the glory. There’s also the accusation of rape in the Burmese jungle – by the same officer who may have fraudulently got himself a gong. There’s a sergeant who allegedly went AWOL, with a reference to ‘the defection of Sergeant [XXX]’ who seems to have just had enough of being behind the lines. Suidcide, drug addiction, theft, rape, and false heroism – all #difficulthistory? If it ‘counts’ as #difficulthistory, where should we place it?
If there are categories of #difficulthistory, we could also agree to levels? #Difficulthistory can be personal, family related, community related, national in scope, or international in scandal. These are not necessarily exclusive, of course.
The bottom line is that in extraordinary circumstances, people will act in ways that are out of the ordinary. We either tell these stories and try and understand the past with full disclosure; reveal the #difficulthistory within ethical and thoughtful, respectful parameters; or we sweep them under the carpet and turn a blind eye. In time, it is more than likely that the full discloure will come anyway, but that should be when the time is right. In the meantime, we should have some respect for families, and for the people themselves if they are still with us. What we should not do is hide from what we all are: human. In the week where it was announced that British LGBT service personnel can reclaim honours that they were stripped of because of the ‘scandal’ of their sexuality, let’s continue to face #difficulthistory, but do it with courtesy and respect for all involved.
There is undoubtedly a lot of #difficulthistory out there.