A few days ago I drove to a nearby trail on preserved land that I visit infrequently — another mucky, rainy mosquito-day but still and always a day to be out.
The trail is named after a supervisor who died of cancer; it rises to a high plateau dominated by a pair of microwave stations. The woods are at least third generation and probably fourth and maybe even fifth. The oldest tree is no more than 30 or 40 years old. Off in the greenery, I can see old stone walls, evidence of cleared fields and thus of another kind of use of this land.
History is close to the surface of my thoughts no matter where I am; here I wondered about the prior history of this patch – pasture, hay fields, a woodlot harvested again and again? Like theatrical scrims lowered briefly one after another from the fly tower, images of past lives flickered around me. Who walked here? How did they live? What drama filled their thoughts? What stories grew out of this place? Would anyone still know those stories? Is there anyone buried here? Did anyone love this land? What did he or she see from atop the hill stripped of trees? The view must have been the best in the township.
This is how history works for me. At its mildest infatuation, it is a mix of images and questions, idly thrown out; I might be looking for a hook or I may just be allowing my curiosity to wander. At its most intense history becomes, paradoxically, a provocation of a memory I do not possess.
This provocation is not a matter of simply seeing in the mind’s eye the images described by an author or an old-timer telling a story. It is authorial sight and feeling shaped by slips of the reader’s own memories and felt experience. To love history, we have to feel something of its lost emotions. How does one do this when history by its very nature presumes loss?
We can do it through music and images and skillful narration. For example, documentary renditions of the attack on the Twin Towers on 9/11, resurrected again in TV specials, became powerful time machines of indelible pictures and a 10 year progression of sorrow and regret for me. Then add to those many remembered snippets, a visit in November of 2001 to the perimeter of Ground Zero where my wife and I walked blocks around the devastation, both of us confronted, even two months later, by piles of smoking rubble the size of buildings themselves. We witnessed and were a part of whispering crowds awed by what filled their eyes; we stood with crowds again, encountering a block of copied photographs and typed pleas for news of missing loved ones attached to the iron fence surrounding Trinity Church on Wall Street. As was common and as remains common, when we looked into the sky above the ruins, we could see the Towers still there, as we had once known them, as they had been preserved within our catacombs of memory. This is one method of keeping history alive. Another lies in the empathetic leap.
In this definition empathy means not just a sense of compassion for others, a sense of their experience filtered through our knowledge of pain, love, etc. It has to occupy a broader emotional and visual space and for me takes the form of an answer to these questions: What did it feel like to do X? to live in Y? to experience Z?
For example on page 537 of Roberts’ great history of World War II, he describes how Polish fighters during the Warsaw Uprising of August, 1944 used the sewers to maneuver against SS troops, and to mass for attack but “on September 1, 1,500 defenders had to retreat from a position at Stare Miasto (Old Town), using the sewers accessible from a single manhole in Krasinski Square.”
How does one see that? How does one do that?
“Slowly, very slowly, the queue of waiting people disappeared…. Each person held on to the one ahead. The human serpent was about 1 ½ miles in length. It moved slowly. There was no time for rest periods…. …the mud had been replaced by a thick slime which gripped their legs up to the calf. … The last soldier in the queue entered the manhole just before dawn.”
How do I begin to see and feel this?
I must go back to childhood when three of four of us would walk under the train tracks to a scrub lot where we had discovered the entrance to a storm water pipe a good 4 ½ feet high that was buried under the streets of West Wyomissing and curved for several miles until it emptied into a creek. We were, of course, forbidden to enter it. We ripped off the wire netting that covered its mouth and walked, single file in deep shadows, from storm drain to storm drain, feeling like the keepers of a great secret, keeping quiet lest we be caught, eavesdropping on sidewalk conversations, scaring up big rats, hoping that a thunderstorm did not come calling, worrying when the pipe went on and on, worrying that there was no escape except to go back (and how long ago had we left?), almost panicking when we hit a long stretch of darkness except for a pin-point of light far ahead, fighting off feelings of claustrophobia and entrapment.
When we finally emerged miles away from the entrance, smelly and relieved, we felt as if we had survived a great adventure, that we had been removed from the busy world and that we had been close to some sense of life and danger that we could not articulate.
Of course, there is no moral or experiential equivalency between my experiences in a storm drain and the Poles’ experiences in Warsaw’s sewers under threat of death, but my small adventure gives me a hook upon which I can begin to feelingly imagine their experience — their controlled fear and discipline, the ferocity of their concentration, their courage and camaraderie, their intensity of life, like barely restrained fire in glass bowls.
Of the whole War itself, Roberts’ has taken the infinite volume of information available and compressed and chosen details better than anyone I have read. His descriptions of the great Russian victories of Kursk and Kharkov make the whole eastern Front of 1943 and after sensible. He is superb in his explanations of strategy, not only with what was planned and how it worked but in alternative histories as well – if Hitler had done X, if the Imperial War Council had done Y, etc. He makes the almost incomprehensible shift of populations, both armies and civilians, easy to understand. He writes with clarity and simplicity about the enormous geographical expanse of the war, and of its terrible, inhuman cost. He knows how to superbly balance the general and the particular.
For example, the general: “…out of every five Germans killed in combat – that is, on the battlefield rather than in aerial bombing or other means – four died on the Eastern Front. It is the central statistic of the Second World War. The full cost to the Russians amounted to … twenty-seven million dead soldiers and civilians….(603).”
The particular: during one part of the battle of Stalingrad, the German and Soviet lines were so close “that soldiers could call out to each other. ‘Rus,’ one German joked about the Russians supposedly unreliable Uzbecki troops, ‘do you want to swap a Uzbeck for a Romanian?’ (326).”
The particular again, most passionately — in a graveyard outside of Anzio: “The gravestone of Private J. R. G. Gains of Buffs, killed on 31 May 1944 aged 30, says: ‘beautiful memories, a darling husband and daddy worthy of Everlasting Love, His wife and baby Rita.’ … If one then multiplies each of those tragedies by 50,000,000, one can begin to try to grasp the sheer extent of the personal side of the composite world-historical global cataclysm that was the second World War (579).”
I am left with this impression: in one sense, a history-ending, nihilistic catastrophe visited upon Europe, the Soviet Union, East Asia and the Pacific, the murderous aggression of the Nazis and Japanese, was overwhelmed by a salvation-catastrophe, a rescue-catastrophe of the Allies making. Stalin and his apparatchiks, the NKVD and their lackeys, did not deserve rescue in any moral universe, except the one we inhabit, where a Nazi victory in the War would have been far worse. Hiroshima and Nagasaki and Tokyo did not deserve to be annihilated by two atomic weapons and a firestorm in any moral universe, except the one we inhabit, where the most conservative estimates of Allied combat deaths to be endured in an invasion of the Japanese home islands stood at one million.
To engage us fully, History, I think, must answer these questions: Who walked here? How did they live? What drama filled their thoughts? What stories grew out of this place? Would anyone still know those stories?
Roberts’ book is filled with stories and drama, with landscapes and movement, with sweeping motions of life and death, and he delivers it all in concise, memorable prose.