Sunday, 13 August 2017

Nazis, Memory, and the Gospels

I've long dreaded what will happen when the Greatest Generation, with its wealth of experience, passes away. And we are fast reaching that point. The last veteran of World War One passed away in 2012, ninety-four years after that conflict ended (the last veteran who saw actual combat died a couple years earlier). Taking that as a measure, the last World War Two veteran should pass away around 2039. The last Holocaust survivor will probably pass away a few years later, as these included children. But we have already reached the point when these women and men are no longer active members of civil society. Towards the end of the war Germany was forcing boys in their young teens into uniform; a boy of thirteen in 1945 would today be eighty-five, likely saw little to no action, and probably retired from his post-war career a couple decades ago. Older veterans--such as my grandfather, who served from '39 through '45--would be well into their nineties (my grandfather volunteered in '39. If he was still alive, would have turned ninety-five this year). A lone Dunkirk survivor showed up, in uniform, at a screening of Nolan's Dunkirk, and made international headlines; he was ninety-two. Again, we have Holocaust survivors who are a bit younger, but still into their seventies and eighties (and those with the strongest memories of that time will of course be towards the upper end of that range; a survivor who was three years old in 1945 would have a valuable story to tell, and we would do well to listen, but it would differ qualitatively from that of a survivor who was fifteen. But even that three-year-old would turn seventy-five this year). In many ways, the Greatest Generation's collective wisdom has already in large part disappeared from public life. At the very least, it's nowhere as prominent as it was when these women and men were in their prime. I am just old enough to have had schoolteachers who lived through those years. No one much younger than me could say the same.

This weekend brought home very strongly what a loss this truly is. Persons present in Charlottesville report that the majority of the Nazi losers who gathered there were Millennials. One friend who was there estimated that persons in that age range accounted for about 90% of the white supremacists who showed up. These are the great-grandchildren of the Greatest Generation, some probably the great-great-grandchildren. And I think that significant. I don't know about anyone else, but I can say that I know my parents and their lives very well (if forced, I could probably tell you almost down to the month what city or town my parents lived in), my grandparents and their lives reasonably well (I can certainly give you the broad outlines of at least what countries they lived in and when), but my great-grandparents and their lives barely at all. In fact, of my eight great-grandparents, I have memories of meeting just one, my mother's maternal grandfather, and really when I think about him all I can recall is a visual image of his face. I know nothing about my great-great-grandparents. And that for the most part is what the Greatest Generation is to the Millennials: people they can barely remember if they met them at all. No wonder such persons do not share my deep, instinctual horror of Nazism. They did not grow up surrounded by the women and men who suffered most from those years, who fought and lost in the struggle to stop the terror.

It is with this experience that I think about a particularly fruitless debate in recent historical Jesus scholarship, regarding how well eyewitnesses remember things. This debate is fruitless in that it rather misses the point of history. The debate views history as a game of Chinese Whispers, wherein the transmission of eyewitness experience is a matter of transcription. The historian's job, under such an understanding, is to identify transcription error in the transmitted information. But of course that's not how it works. When my grandfather would tell me stories about the war, he wasn't just relaying factual information. He was relaying an experience, or really an entire Gestalt of experiences. He was relaying his fears and his convictions about the matter. And frankly, when thought of from that perspective, does it matter if he made small errors, or if I did? I remember him talking about watching tanks burn at the Battle of Monte Cassino. What if that experience actually took place at the Battle of Anzio, and either he or I remember it wrong? Would that make a difference to how I understand the sheer horror that he communicated to me, about his realization that the crews were trapped inside, burning to death? I remember him talking about how my great aunt's first husband died thirty minutes after first seeing combat. What difference would it make if he was killed after forty-five minutes, or twenty-four hours, or three days? I remember being told that he was killed in the Netherlands. But what if it happened in Belgium? What difference would that make? The central point remains: my grandfather had at that point been in and out of combat for  years, and he couldn't get over the unfairness that someone he knew lasted so little time in the war zone. And that survivor's guilt is not a fact subject to transcription error, nor is the message that fascism and hate are awful because fascism and hate are exactly why he and so many of his generation had to suffer through such horrors.

This is one thing that I think that the scholars who work on social memory in the gospels have gotten very right: what matters most is the experience that is communicated, not the minutiae thereof. Of course, the details do matter. For instance, there have been persons who have claimed to be Holocaust survivors, who cynically even sought to profit off of such claims, but whose claims were shown to be false precisely because of the minutiae. That's an altogether different matter. It is an invaluable contribution. It is nothing less than the discernment of truth from error. Equally invaluable is the work of those historians who seek to calculate just how many were killed in the camps, or how the Nazis actually, concretely carried out their genocidal scheme. But none of that can be permitted to obscure the real importance of listening to persons who lived through those times, nor of preserving and passing on their stories. The real importance lies in the dramatic reality of human experience that they sought to convey, the horror and destructiveness of hatred and warfare. Likewise, the gospels seek to communicate a particular set of human experiences, all of which converge on those of Jesus's earthly followers, namely the experience of Jesus himself. These were experiences that changed them, and that change compelled them to change the world. And if history is to be anything more than pain-loving antiquarianism, it is to such experiences that we must attend.

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