Warning: This post is long and opinionated. Please stop reading now if you are short on time or open-mindedness.
Any decent education will teach you that what you thought you knew about the history of the world was probably skewed heavily by the authors of the history book you were forced to read in high school. The truth of what really happened is often a completely different picture than the one we have formed in our minds. So thanks to a few of my college professors and an on-again, off-again reading relationship with Howard Zinn, I was aware that what I knew of world history was but a fragment of a larger story. (Don’t believe me? Read the first few chapters of Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States and you’ll find yourself wondering – or maybe outraged – why America, a country founded on principles of tolerance, equality and religious freedom, celebrates Columbus Day. Then read the rest of the book.)
Living in France has emphasized this for me, in several ways.
First is that I’m surprised not only at how much French citizens know about their own history (and accurately, from my cursory research done after some conversations), but how much they know about the history of the world, and more specifically, America. Maybe it was the quality of the history lessons I received that deprived me of this sense of accurate or worldly historical knowledge, but I’m leaning towards the idea that for some strange reason, other countries think it’s important to know about the whole world, and not just their own back yards. Amazing, right?
Second is that, as with the stereotypes we’ve all heard, there is far less censorship on TV in Europe than in the States. You probably think of naked women or steamy sex scenes in movies when I say that, but it’s true of violence as well. Just a few nights ago I was watching TV before bed and there was a program airing about Paris during World War II. It was the most violent thing I’ve ever seen.
I have seen violence in movies before, but there’s something to be said for knowing that the real actor didn’t die in the scene where it looked like his head was lopped off. Seeing actual footage from World War II doesn’t provide the same kind of subconscious relief that allows me to keep watching instead of crying or getting sick or leaving the room. When you see real men writhing in pain because they are on fire from an explosion, or people who drop lifelessly after being stood in front of a firing squad, or the excruciating death of a man who was hung upside down until he stroked and died, you really start to understand the horror of such an event (and why our war vets need and deserve psychological AND physical care after a war!).
And I learned something new about the war as I watched. Part of the programming was showing the effects of the Alliance victory over the Nazis in post-WWII Europe. (Disclaimer: for any reading this who might misconstrue my next few sentences – I am not in any way saying that I support or sympathize with Nazi beliefs or actions. Don’t even act like that’s what this means.) Of course I saw some of the punishments carried out on generals and other members of the Nazi regime who were directly or indirectly involved in the brutality against their Jewish neighbors. But I also saw elderly men and women, wives, sons and daughters be mutilated, shaved and burned with swastika symbols on their foreheads. Of course I cannot say that these people were innocent of any wrong-doing because I wouldn’t know. But the point is that I simply had no idea the backlash reached that far. Did you?
At the end of the day, while I think that a book is a great source for learning about events of the past, and film can also be just as skewed – especially when edited – as the ideas presented in books, there’s something about seeing it that really made my impression of that aspect of the second World War that much more profound. I was reminded that these were not names or numbers in a history book. All of these people were real. So many of them died horrible deaths. And much of the world today is impacted by those events.
And I think about what my impression of WWII would have been if I never explored beyond what I was told or saw this program in France. And then I realize that so many people have that same, limited, two-dimensional understanding of so many historical events that have shaped our current way of living that I would have had… it’s scary. What a difference a few seconds of footage can make.
In other news… Next Stop: LONDON! Leaving tomorrow morning to spend the next 4 days there. I’m super excited and looking forward to writing about my experiences!