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There is another side of the historical interpretation of WW2 with some historians seeming to play down the actions of the Nazis. One German historian, Ernst Nolte downplays the Holocaust as he believed that “It was in essence a riposte to Bolshevism”3. Indeed these differing sides to the debate became known as the “Historikerstreit” or the “historians’ quarrel”. Given the heatedness of this debate between the two schools of thought, what we see is evidence of how language influences the way that the German reader would understand the Holocaust and WW2.
The way in which German historians on the rightist side of the Historikerstreit present the Holocaust is one in which, whilst never fully justified, was often presented as being understandable. However, the leftist side completely abhorred the events and so this would present a German person with a dilemma. Whom do they choose to believe? The fact that these historians would share a common language with the German people means that there would be little room for linguistic misinterpretation. However, since there may be some bias with the rightist view, perhaps the most logical step would be to use the leftist view of the Holocaust as a stepping stone towards understanding WW2. This is where reason comes in.
The German term, “vergangenheitsbew ltigung” describes the process of dealing with the past, best translated into English to mean “struggle to come to terms with the past”4. This is especially targeted at schools in Germany where they are made to learn repeatedly about different aspects of Nazi Germany from the 5th grade when the students are aged from 10-11 onwards and visit various concentration camps and Holocaust survivors5. This logical approach of confronting the past by addressing the issue to students at a relatively early age is advantageous as it is done at a time where students are able to begin to understand the events of WW2 but also be of an age where they take their teachers’ word for it.
Therefore, what happens is that students are constantly fed the idea that the Holocaust was evil so that when confronted with something like the Historikerstreit, German students are most likely to side with the leftist view. However this would have to depend on how they are made to understand the event on their own outside of education. Furthermore, the fact that these people would not have had a firsthand account of the events (nor would most Germans who were not even aware of the Holocaust until the end of the war) could be a problem. This lack of sense perception could mean that such people would still not be able to fully comprehend the events of WW2 and so could be potentially swayed in opinion.
If we now look at the way in which the Kamikaze attacks are potentially taught in Japan, one can see differences to the attitudes of the German people. The Kamikaze attacks occurred during the latter stages of the Pacific operation of WW2 and involved Japanese pilots flying their planes into Allied naval vessels. These attacks are mostly taught as being an example of the horrors of WW2. However, the journalist Gregg Erickson has noted that upon a trip to Japan, he noted that children are being taught that the kamikaze pilots represent the highest expression of the Japanese character6.
This is a view backed up by a Japanese foreign exchange student who attends my school, whom I questioned about these events. The reason for this could be said to stem from the name itself. “Kamikaze” translates into “divine wind” and this seemingly celestial description of the suicide attacks gives a somewhat honourable aura to this event. Indeed this may be why the Kamikaze attacks are not seen as a suicide as a result of being mentally unstable nor did Erickson, who is a Western journalist7. Therefore, fundamentally speaking, the only reason why the different societies hold different views stems from the interpretation of the reasoning behind such events. It is believed that these people were willing to give their lives due to their love of their country, and so is perhaps different to other events associated with suicide.
As someone who studies history, I have encountered these events from a British perspective, and given the fact that the British were on opposite sides to the Germans and the Japanese, one is right to assume that these events have been taught to me in a negative light, admittedly with some potential bias. The reason behind this is the fact that the British are generally unanimous in their view that they were on the side of the “good” and the Japanese and Germans were “evil”.
One could then perhaps argue that the reason for this stems from our own interpretation of the relationship between ethics and war, as opposed to the fact that we are British. Language-wise, however, we do not have any unique words associated with these events and so that perhaps is the reason why we are unable to fully comprehend the views of the Japanese, and to a lesser extent, the Germans. However, the British view of WW2 is perhaps one that would be echoed in other societies, be it American or French.
Given my investigation, I believe that language and reason both have significant impact on history as it is these ways of knowing that we use to analyse such events. Without language, we simply would not be able to have history as this area of knowledge is something that I believe is the result of language, as well as important events, over many generations. I also believe that reason is part of history because I believe that every individual is able to give their own personal interpretation of events, although this will always be open to possible bias, be it culturally or ideologically.