Malleability and Imagined Possibilities

By Lauren McCoy

An interesting theme from this week’s readings was the malleability of history, where shifting cultural/political contexts and individual interpretations can heavily shape how we represent the recent past. Added to the pliability of memory, it seems impossible for us to create a stable view of the past, especially when the subject is as complex and morally-charged as the Holocaust.

An interesting pattern across the readings was how the past was employed or re-invented to meet the needs of present actors – ranging from Nazis trying to reconcile their involvement in the Third Reich to American directors trying to take the moral lessons of German history and connect it to his own national challenges. Though for different purposes, both cases forward a plausible but ultimately inaccurate version of the past, deviating from “historical fact” to better fit a simplified narrative or to serve their needs in the present.

 While I think it’s easy for us to be suspicious of representations of the past that aren’t “accurate”, I think there is an interesting space here for “imagined possibilities” of the past. I’m not trying to suggest that representations or understandings shouldn’t be grounded on factual evidence or to encourage people to falsify the past for their own benefit (which, as previous classes have shown, is common in fascist regimes). However, I think it may be useful considering the complexity of Holocaust experiences to use “imagined possibilities”, where perhaps an event didn’t occur exactly how it is represented but is grounded in real history or combines several historical experiences for a more “complete” narrative. The film Judgment at Nuremberg showcases this, straying from official trial transcripts to create a plausible situation that spoke more to the American context. I think this is common within the history of slavery, where the lack of resources by enslaved peoples has forced historians to use what evidence is available and “fictionalize” historical experience.

I’d be interested to hear what you guys think!

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