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He who controls the present, controls the past. He who controls the past controls the future.
Erna Paris quotes George Orwell in her book, Long Shadows: Truth, Lies and History. Of that quote from Nineteen Eighty-Four, Paris writes: "Although I first read Orwell's novel as a adolescent, I was well into university before I thought about what he might have meant." Paris feels that Long Shadows is a culmination of a journey that began with that very thought and that led her to write books with names like The Garden and the Gun: A Journey Inside Israel and Unhealed Wounds: France and the Klaus Barbie Affair. Clearly, Paris has thought a great deal about war and how it shapes societies.
While Paris' work is not widely known in popular culture, over the last two decades a half dozen well researched and deeply thoughtful books have brought the author wide acclaim and respect from her peers including seven national and international writing awards.
Paris' most recent book, Long Shadows, deals with the struggle to shape a country's history in the aftermath of war as well as the scars inflicted in this struggle. As Paris writes in Long Shadows, "The stories of countries are much like the stories of our own lives: filamented, partly illusory and threaded through remembered fact and fantasy."
In researching Long Shadows Paris traveled alone to "the stricken lands of unresolved event," including South Africa; Nagasaki, Japan; France; Germany; Bosnia; Yugoslavia and the American South over a period of three years. Paris was struck by "how fiercely people will fight to chronicle their personal and collective experience in the face of an official history that has been falsified."
Linda Richards: Was Long Shadows a difficult book to write? I know some of it was quite close to your heart.
Erna Paris: Well, it was a fascinating book to write. It came right out of all my interests and commitments and things I'd been thinking about for decades. Also out of one of my other books, because I'd been working on this theme of public historical memory and how populations change their consensus about various things. The political consensus: how it gets altered over time. And I've really been working on that in my last four books. Interestingly, to me, anyway -- I only realized that I was doing that in the last one. Sometimes it takes a long, long while before you understand why you're doing what you're doing.
Which was the last one?
The End of Days: Tolerance, Tyranny and the Expulsion of the Jews from Spain. That was a book about how the most open and tolerant country of early medieval Europe became -- over 400 years -- the most closed and intolerant. I wanted to explore that process because I thought it had tremendous implications for contemporary society for the world today. I still think it does: the process is unchanged.
That book was almost like a prelude to Long Shadows, then.
Well, yes. I started with Unhealed Wounds: France and the Klaus Barbie Affair, it started this thematic work. Then I did a book about public memory in Israel [The Garden and the Gun: A Journey Inside Israel] and the shift of ideologies. Then I did The End of Days, which I've just described. And then [Long Shadows] seems to have grown out of all that work. Like so many things that are important to one, it kind of happened by accident but it wasn't an accident. I just happened to be in Japan with my husband who was giving a series of lectures. I thought: Well, I'm interested in memory. I'm going to go to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And when I got there bells started ringing: This is my subject. And that grew in my mind to the possibility of something much bigger in other places in the world. And then I had to figure out how I was going to handle something so huge.
It is a huge chunk. Almost any one of your chapters could have been developed into a whole book.
I realized I had to focus very, very carefully. And also I had to choose in terms of themes. I chose themes that I thought were important to the end of the 20th century. I had felt for a long time that the Second World War is a completely unresolved issue in western memory. Because it's something that I have been particularly interested in, I thought: Well, I'll start with that. I already know about France because I've written a book [Laughs]. It helps to already know something when you start research. And, Germany: I've done writing about the Holocaust and I've thought about it. Then I happened to be in Japan when I was starting the book, so that struck me as a very interesting subject: To look at how those countries dealt with the history -- the memory -- of this period of crisis in their history.
The second theme that I thought was really important to our time was that of race. That these are unresolved issues. That the 20th century [was] a time of colonialism and the racism that has gone with that. Everyone knows that endemic racism is the most important social problem of [the United States]. And, from the time of the Civil Rights movement, when I was very young I was very interested in it and it's been a puzzle in my mind about the unresolved implications of American slavery. And in South Africa, of course, they were handling these race issues very differently. All of that led to questions about national identity. Which is why I chose to look at the politics of Holocaust memory. And finally, again, a subject very close to my heart, that of the Nuremberg Tribunal and what its importance was. Not just to that war memory but really to the 20th century in terms of international human rights laws.
Long Shadows deals with the way history treats recollection. Do you feel historical memories are fudged through people's perception or that memory changes over time? Or that they're forgetting things? Or coming up with their own things? Or protecting themselves against the horrors of the memories?
Yeah: there's a lot of that. But I'm talking largely about official memory. How the leadership of countries shapes historical memory after difficult times. After crisis.
That's what I was expecting going into your book. But there are elements of the other things, as well. Not just official memory, but personal memory as well. Collective personal memory, perhaps?
Collective memory and the memory of the people who've been directly involved. I really wanted to talk to ordinary people whose lives had been affected. I didn't want to write an academic study. I wanted this to be a book where I was making very intimate contact with people in different countries. What I hoped I could do was build a big story from this series of grassroots conversations with real people. Some of them completely unknown. Some of them powerful people. But mostly people who aren't powerful and who in fact are quite powerless. Many of whom had been victims.
What do you feel is the most important part of Long Shadows?
I think the most important thing that I've done is to try to build this big story from the bottom. The big story being, how do countries remember their history after difficult times? From the bottom, by talking to victims, by talking to ordinary people and by actually traveling. By trekking around the world: I was on four continents and sometimes in iffy situations -- like a little village in Bosnia -- because I wanted to get in there. I wanted the texture of this experience of ordinary people who may have been left out of the narrative of their countries for political reasons. The reasons [they'd be left out] are related and they have to do with the kind of spin a country wants to put on what happened after it happened. That's what every one of these things is about. And there are people who get left out of this story and they're usually minorities or the people who were victims or the people who somehow were not conforming with what was happening when it was happening. So I wanted the texture of that experience: to talk to people and see if they would talk to me. And they did. People were enormously open to me. So that's what I set out to do: to create the big picture from the bottom. Then, as I built it, I was looking at: What are the techniques that get used by various leaderships when they're trying to shape the narrative of the past? And I actually found that there aren't that many. And also that every country will shape its history. To mythologize the history is being done every day in every country.
The technique is denial?
That's the least sophisticated technique: Straight out lies, denial, it didn't happen. The next common technique is mythologizing. Creating a heroic story or mythologizing the path the way the French did. So the first is denial, the second is myth-making the way the French did and, you know, the French had very good reasons for doing that.
What did the French mythologize?
They mythologized the Resistance. The truth was that when the Germans occupied France in collaboration with the government most of the French -- 98 per cent of the French -- supported that government that collaborated with the Nazis. We know that historically from the research now. One per cent of the population fought in the active Resistance. One per cent of the population fought in the active collaboration. Everybody else supported Vichy without getting out there and murdering people or actually fighting the Nazis. But at the end of the war General de Gaulle knew that he had to create a republican future. The Vichy past was pro-Nazi, collaborationist and so you come back and you have to create republican future and you have to say that the real France was with the Resistance, in other words was with de Gaulle in London. Whereas everybody else back on the Continent, that was illegitimate, that wasn't real and that was the mythology that was taught to schoolchildren and is only now shifting after over 50 years.
So you had this myth of an all-encompassing Resistance and that's another way of shaping the past when you feel you have to move on. Amnesties are another way. You just say: OK, we just wipe out the past. No trials. We want to start again. Turn the page. Clean the sheet and we start from zero. Well, memory doesn't work that way.
And that's kind of denial too.
And you'll always have people who will say: No, we should deal with this.
Like the victims. It never goes away.
It doesn't go away, but is it supposed to? Can it?
Well, when the leadership of a country invents history or shapes it, yes: it's supposed to go away and that's a very interesting question. It is supposed to go away and it doesn't. It actually gets bigger exponentially: the children of victims have children have children. I like to think this is an important conclusion I've come to in creating this big picture: What is necessary to have this kind of conclusion or reconciliation or even the beginnings -- not saying that it can ever actually happen fully. That would be silly. The beginnings of it are acknowledgment. Facts. And some kind of, I think, justice of some sort. Whether it's trials or whether it's truth and reconciliation.
Although I guess, historically, this is what people have always done. Not just in the last 100 years, but for time out of mind. Maybe that is how we deal with it as humans: denial and forgetting... I mean, short of bringing in a shrink for a whole country -- which is kind of what we're talking about: it's like dealing with all of your issues -- maybe people just don't.
Well, obviously acts of war aren't necessarily war crimes and they're certainly not crimes against humanity. When [a country] sends soldiers to fight in a war and the war is legitimate. We're talking here about things that are defined in law as war crimes or crimes against humanity. We're talking about things like genocide: not your ordinary run of the mill decisions that are taken in war. There are rules to war. And one of the things that I think when you're dealing with war crimes and crimes against humanity it's really, really important to acknowledge that these things have happened. Because, when you don't, the impunity -- the fact that this is never acknowledged [or] dealt with in any way is corrosive. And the thesis I'm arguing is that it never goes away unless there's some way of a society deciding for itself that there has to be an airing of what happened. It has to be aired. and it is kind of psychiatric in origin. Again, not to say that this is going to be enough. I argue that Nuremberg, after World War II, was really important. For one thing, in the chaos of war, people don't know the details of what has happened. They don't. They can't. It's just too chaotic: it's anarchy. What a trial does is, with all the straits of due process of formality -- provided it's conducted fairly -- the facts of what happened can emerge and people can actually learn. So I think that the trial helps to separate the past from the future.
Yes. It's cathartic in some ways. It helps people learn. It increases understanding and, in that sense, it allows people to distance themselves from it if necessary and allows them to understand what was done in their name. And then, of course, there's the aspect of punishment, whatever it is, but it's important. There has to be consequences in some way.
One of the things that Nuremberg did and why it was so important in the 20th century was that for the first time it brought into international law this notion of crimes against humanity as individual responsibility. That's why those war criminals at Nuremberg were hanged even though they said: We had orders. Because Nuremberg brought in, for the first time, the idea that orders -- even orders coming from above -- can defy what we all know to be criminal acts. And if there's a moral choice, we are obliged not to go along with them. I mean, that's an incredible thing to have said.
You must have had certain ideas going in to the book. What was the biggest surprise for you?
The biggest surprise to me was how strongly people will fight to have their story known. And how many generations they will continue fighting and how crucial this is in the body of a nation. That the truth be told. This was the great surprise to me: the depth of the passion, even generations afterwards, when justice hasn't been done. | October 2001
Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine.