World War II accounts and the proliferation of historical fiction
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I’m a big fan of historical fiction, and I believe it has the power to speak volumes about our times, if done well. I started my historical fiction journey with epic romantic tales of heroism and sacrifice, which were very enjoyable but, at the same time, could be too simplistic and divisive. Over the years I have been able to find great works of nuanced historical fiction that augment or encourage a better understanding of the complexities of the past. There has been an increase in the number of historical fiction books since the 2000s, and a considerable number of them have focused on World War II. As a fan of historical fiction, I’m curious about the factors that might be driving these trends.
Why do war stories appeal to writers?
War stories have been prominent in literature since time immemorial. The purpose that war stories can serve is multifaceted. They can be told to legitimize war – to establish it as a means to achieve heroic status, or to legitimize political violence by turning it into a story of bravery and adventure, as often seen in the epics romantics. Literature can Also be used to speak of the unthinkable horrors of war, embodied in the deeply moving poetry of war poets writing during and after the First World War. in addition, fictional narratives can be used to explore the whys of wars – to understand why humans have, time and time again, engaged in these socially sanctioned acts of violence and brutality. And probably the most unfortunate use of war in literature is as a prop – a compelling, high-stakes setting. for stories that maybe fundamentally have nothing to do with war and that could be transplanted into a different context without much modification.
Of all the wars in human history, World War II seems to hold special appeal for writers and readers. That’s, at least in part, because of the neat good versus evil model it provides, with one of two countries in the world teaming up to defeat the Nazi regime. Thus, WWII has been featured in everything from superhero comic books (which were hugely popular in America during WWII and were used as a vehicle for wartime propaganda) to romance novels. It should be noted that the good versus evil narrative of World War II is retrospective – although news of the extermination of the Jewish people by the Nazi regime was known to the world as early as 1939 and was condemned by international organizations. and allied governments. in the early 1940s, there were small public outcry. The Holocaust and the extent of the violence unleashed against different groups of civilians were only publicly acknowledged towards the end of the war.
The Ethics of Holocaust Fiction
The Holocaust, which killed six million Jews, is one of the darkest episodes in modern history. In the decades following the Holocaust, the world was still coming to terms with the horrors it had allowed to happen, and the subject was treated with great care in literature. Fictional accounts of the tragedy were not common, although survivors’ memoirs were published. Among these, Primo Levi’s If it’s a man and Elie Wiesel Night are considered most notable for their literary merit as well as their depiction of life in the concentration camps.
However, as the actual event of the Holocaust receded further into the past, since the late 1990s, interest in literary explorations of the tragedy grew. In 1995, a memoir on the Holocaust by Binjamin Wilkomirski was published in English under the title fragments, critically acclaimed. It was later debunked as fake by a journalist Daniel Ganzfried, triggering a debate on the importance of authenticity in depictions of the Holocaust in literature.
The 2000s saw a proliferation of fictional Holocaust accounts. This is a trend that has been observed in books aimed at both adults and younger public. While the tragedy must be remembered and the trauma of violence must be addressed in literature, especially in this age of misinformation, commentators have concerns about the interdependent enthusiasm of readers and publishers for Holocaust fiction. Some of the books have been called out for historical inaccuracies. A notable example is the hugely popular novel The Auschwitz tattoo artist, which is supposed to be based on a true story, but errors were highlighted by the Auschwitz-Birkenau Holocaust Memorial Museum. Other concerns with these stories include privileging the non-Jewish savior narrative, as well as defining Jewish identity based on the Holocaust alone.
World War II has also been an attractive subject for the big screen, and many books from this era have been turned into blockbuster films, which in turn whet the public’s appetite for stories set in this era. An example is The boy in the striped pajamas, which has since been critical for its inaccurate depiction of concentration camps and life in Nazi Germany, which may have diluted readers’ understanding of the subject. However, the rise in interest in Holocaust literature is not an unambiguous negative development – it has sparked interest in an event that should never be forgotten, among a generation of readers who do not had no direct experience of it. Night by Elie Wiesel was featured on Amazon’s bestseller list several times since 2015, sometimes outselling popular WWII fiction.
General time lag in literary fiction
Many literary commentators have commented on the general rise of historical fiction in recent years. James F. English attempted to distil such a “retemporalisation” of the settings of popular and literary fiction over more than 50 years, from 1960 to 2014. He found there a clear evolution towards historical settings of literary fiction (for which he referred to the shortlists of major literary prizes), while popular fiction (represented by Amazon’s bestseller lists) moves away from historical fiction. I repeated the exercise from 2015 to 2021, using Amazon’s top ten bestsellers and the Man Booker Prize, Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award fiction lists. My results were broadly similar, with plenty (almost half) of recent literary fiction featuring historical settings. The proportion of historical settings was considerably lower for popular fiction, although there appears to have been a significant increase since 2010-2014, the last period analyzed by English.
English talks about possible explanations for this trend of increasing numbers of works of literary fiction with historical settings. He points to Fredric Jameson for a large-scale explanation – the proliferation of historical novels is a reaction to our inability to “organize the past and the future into a cohesive experience” under late capitalism. Historical fiction achieves this by blending the past, where the story takes place, and, since the writer and reader both interpret the stories within the context of their own time, the writer’s present as well as the reader’s. .
English also offers its own small-scale explanation. The time composition of some literary fiction settings began to change in favor of the past around the 1980s. In 1981, Salman Rushdie’s novel The Midnight Children, a magical realist exploration of India’s post-independence history, has been published. It will win the Booker and Best of the Booker awards. English posits that the acceptability of literary historical fiction is the result of the revamping of well-known literary awards, the success of Salman Rushdie, and the emergence of postcolonial studies as an academic field.
The more recent increase in the number of historical accounts in literary fiction coincides with the rise of nationalist politics of exclusion and the decline of democratic freedom in the whole world. the Aggressive peddling doctored versions of history that support a particular political narrative has been a common strategy for hyper-nationalist leaders. With this renewed interest in history in politics, an urgent need to reassess our past to understand the present is felt all over the world. While majority regimes seek to homogenize by obscuring the contributions of marginalized communities, historical fiction allows these communities to find their rightful place in history.
Marginalized accounts of World War II
The history of World War II has been widely written, but primarily from the perspective of white men. Accounts of the Eastern theaters of war, the experiences and contributions of women and the colonized were largely absent from popular narratives. With the resurgence of interest in historical narratives, many writers have found the space to write about these aspects of warfare. Popular and critically acclaimed books like The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah The night watch by Sarah Waters, and Elizabeth Wein’s heartbreakingly brilliant YA novel Codename Truth Centering women’s experiences during World War II. Novels were also written about the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II, including the popular When the emperor was divine by Julie Otsuka, while books like The King of Shadows by Maaza Mengiste chronicles the war experiences of African and Asian countries.
The story, however, is far from complete. The dominant perception of the Second World War is still Eurocentric. Winston Churchill is still seen as a hero who won the war on behalf of the forces of good, and the greater acknowledgment of any contrary opinion often earns him the status of “problematic fave”. The contribution of other forces to the outcome of the war is ignored. The horrifying irony of the man who warned that “famine and pestilence have not yet followed in the bloody ruts of Hitler’s tanks” causing, with his war politics, a famine that killed three million people in my home state of Bengal in India is not recognized.
I hope that new explorations of historical fiction will help change perspective, that our rage will find expression, and that we won’t have to deal with carefully made, critically acclaimed films like Dunkirk, which erases the input of the Indian soldiers and ends with a speech by Churchill which leaves a bitter taste in the mouth.