The Past Re-Imagined or History Discarded?

“Facts can be so misleading,
where rumours, true or false, are often revealing.”
– Col. Hans Landa, Inglorious Basterds (2009)

My dissertation is almost halfway through its first draft, and thus procrastination is desperately required. When I started writing this blog it was about something entirely different, but loosely connected; Quentin Tarantino’s last two movies, Inglorious Basterds (2009), and Django Unchained (2012). As I was writing, I realised that I haven’t really discussed my dissertation topic in any great length with many people, but now that I actually have a handle on my evidence and argument, I thought that a blog might be a nice way to do it. It was an idea that came as the offspring of two (sort of) interlinked instances; a conversation with a university tutor on the sources I could actually use for my dissertation, and a fateful exam revision session that led me to a book I have mentioned before in a previous blog; Robert Rosenstone’s History on Film/Film on History.

First, the conversation. We had all been advised on the difficulties of studying a topic which might pose a language or valid source barrier to us– in my case, Operation Barbarossa and the Eastern Front in World War Two. More specifically, the experiences of Wehrmacht soldiers and the barbarisation of warfare in the East. It was a pretty good piece of advice too, because, in realistic terms, who has the time to learn a language and write 10,000 original words at the same time as studying 4 other modules and writing the equivalent to 10,000 other words in essays and exams. (okay, so I have come across another student who did learn another language…but that’s beside the point. Anyway…)

As much as I was deeply interested in this topic, I thought two things: a) Yeah, how original is another dissertation on the Nazis going to be, and b) well, surely all the valid primary sources will be in Russian or German anyway, and I speak neither. I’d already consigned myself to another (English language) topic and halfway planned another dissertation when the fateful conversation occurred, one that, perhaps unintentionally, convinced me to look at the other sources of history. In addition to a handful of autobiographical sources by German veterans, I was introduced to the work of Nobel Prize winner and veteran German soldier Heinrich Böll, concentrating for my dissertation on two of his novels: The Train Was On Time, and And Where Were You, Adam? As fictionalised accounts of the war in the East through the eyes of imagined soldiers, and perhaps undoubtedly shaped by Böll’s experiences himself, these novels are so often tossed aside into a category of, as Omer Bartov has expressed, ‘apologetic post-war literature by German veterans’, which has subsequently subverted the course of historiographical research and discussion to the point of obscurity from the truth. I don’t disagree with Bartov, and indeed his vast body of research on the topic is one of the cornerstones of my project. Böll’s books are apologetic, granted. They are also humanising and excuse atrocities that no doubt many German soldiers were complicit in. But they also reveal so much about the experiences of and the effects of the war in Russia and the East on the German soldier. Or at least, that’s what I’m hoping to convincingly argue.

So with the idea in my head of using published fictional and autobiographical accounts of German soldiers as primary sources, the exam revision period came fast upon me. In revising for a prospective question on film history, Rosenstone’s book not only provided a theoretical stepping stone into the theory for Historical Novels and literature, but it also made me realise my ‘true love’ in the realm of historical research and thought; how history is portrayed at the movies. It’s something that’s been stirring around in my head for months, and slowly gaining some ground in terms of an actual idea for a project, be it Postgraduate or, if funding should be scarce, a personal passion piece.

And so, this is where Tarantino comes in. The first time I watched Inglorious Basterds, I laughed it off, thought ‘Oh, Tarantino…’. The second time, I was utterly sold and convinced. I understood. The third viewing came a few days after seeing Django earlier this year, and in a state of what I can only describe as desperate yearning, felt the compulsive need to revisit Basterds, as it is arguably Django’s unofficial and unconnected predecessor. What these two films have done with existing history has only further grounded my own belief in the power of other sources of history in demonstrating something– whether that something is about our current society, or the state of historical knowledge and writing in general. Allow me to hand over to a far more elegant examination of these two ‘sources’.

In Christoph Waltz, Tarantino has found himself an actor who was almost unknown to all a handful of years ago, but who is an actor that can do justice to and carry his work seemingly effortlessly. As much as it could be argued that Quentin Tarantino gets Christoph Waltz, it could be equally, if not more so said that Waltz understands Tarantino. It seems as though every time I watch an interview with Waltz, I become more convinced that he is the chosen prophet of his director’s religion. In an interview for Basterds, he had this (courtesy of subtitles) to say on the topic of playing a ‘Nazi’ in a film about the ‘Nazi Era’:

‘Allow me to object most vehemently. Tarantino doesn’t try to picture the Nazi Era at all. That’s the great thing about this movie: Tarantino understands that film as such pictures a reality. The film is not meant to be a lesson in history. It only offers an artistic alternative as opposed to your (or anyone else’s) point of view. And it is not an illustration of history, and it is not a processing of history, but through this process, which is 100 percent artistic, it has much more to do with the actual dealing with the matter than in my opinion those movies which claim to picture reality. Films are just not appropriate for doing that…to link [the fact that the film takes place in the Nazi Era] to things like correctness truth and reality is not the process appropriate to the movie.’

How many times have we all, as children or teenagers or students, been taught about the Nazis? We all know that Hitler and his main players never died at the hands of a female Jewish cinema owner, ‘The Bear-Jew’, and other Jewish-American ‘Basterds’. Col. Hans ‘The Jew Hunter’ Landa, Waltz’s character, could be a reinvented version of any of the Nazi elite who had a penchant for anti-semitism and genocide. He is right, though. There’s barely any substance of historical ‘truth’ in this film; it has the ‘right’ setting to be a World War Two film, it’s set in an unmistakably Nazi era, and it deals with a lot of the themes of the historiographical ‘truth’ of the period, but it’s entirely fictional. Though, is that enough to constitute discarding this film as a document of something, if not ‘historical truth’?

Now, let’s consider Django Unchained, another example that has visibly subverted the ‘truth’ of history. During his appearance on The View, Waltz’s response to the comment that some people after viewing Django have been ‘disgruntled that [The history of African-Americans and Slavery] has been turned into a Spaghetti Western’, was equally enlightened:

‘How do you actually transport a subject like that into the discourse, into the public discourse? You don’t do it by restricting it to a few who know about it anyway, you need to bring it out, and the best vehicle, and that’s what this culture here does so brilliantly…better than anyone else…to use entertainment to transport subjects.’

How does this have anything to do with my dissertation? Well, essentially everything prophet Waltz here had to say about these two films I’ve argued the case for in my dissertation, through the words of one historian or another, except I’ve applied it to historical fiction and literature. It’s been a journey. It’s meant a lot of self-doubt, a number of “this is all total blasphemy” moments. But then I realised why; the othering of all these sources of potential history is to blame. I can recall times when I’ve sat in classrooms at an impressionable age and been taught ‘Primary sources, good. Secondary sources, bad.’ I’ve read the work of academics who demolish the worth of ‘the post-modern turn’ in historical thought. But more recently I’ve read plenty of others who take another look. In my opinion, everyone who ever advocated the ‘right’ way to do history is wrong. History is narrative as much as a Tarantino script or a Böll novel is. That’s not to say there aren’t problems with these kinds of sources; We have here examples of plausible(ish) stories, and perhaps a version of the ‘truth’ that many would like to believe happened. ‘Authentic Fallacy’ is a phenomenon Jerome de Groot has written about, and is defined in his book The Historical Novel as when ‘the readers of historical novels want to believe that what they are reading is somehow real or authentic, provoked often by the realist or mimetic mode of writing’. In 100 years time when people have forgotten or totally lost touch with the past but remember great movies and books, will people actually believe that certain fictionalised events were a reality? Is it worth it, to give people some idea of historical context, if not actual history? It’s a huge problem in terms of historical legacy, but then arguably so is David Irving, a historian, writing a book claiming that Hitler didn’t know about the Holocaust, Revisionist historical thought that would deny the murder of millions, or perhaps on the other extreme, the implication of every single German in genocide, as Daniel Goldhagen did in Hitler’s Willing Executioners.

Where do I stand now, halfway through a dissertation, and with a semi-developed set of historiographical skills? Well, I’m not going to turn to Tarantino’s next offering to find out the ‘truth’ about whatever era he chooses to depict, but neither am I going to shrug it off as a silly filmmaker’s grandiose and farcical interpretation. I know that my knowledge is limited, my ideas in their infancy, and my argument, at the moment, equally as young. This debate-with-myself isn’t over yet, but still, my opinion currently stands:

Primary sources, excellent. Secondary sources, sometimes even better.

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5 Comments

Filed under Books, Film, history

5 responses to “The Past Re-Imagined or History Discarded?

  1. I honestly don’t understand how you get from point a to point b in this discussion without completely redefining “secondary source.” Historical fiction, including Tarantino’s visions, sits between primary and secondary sources, or perhaps “sits with both” is closer to the truth? Not all secondary sources are equally grounded in primary sources and reasonable historical logic — I’m sorry, but I am one of those old souls who believes in right ways to do history (not one way, but definitely a distinction between right and wrong ways) — but they are simultaneously primary sources for the historical understanding and contemporary purposes of their creators.

    • Completely fair comments, and I think any discussion of what we mean by ‘sources’ is so important and interesting. What I mean when I refer to secondary sources, is (admittedly very loosely and generally) sources which aren’t primary sources, and I define them as such in this blog within the context of what I, through childhood education, was taught and brought up with– that they are unreliable and stigmatised. I totally agree, many of these kinds of sources have no consideration for historical ‘truth’, even though they pretend to, and certain sources take more care to preserve some kind of sense of the past than others. There does need to be a redefinition of ‘secondary sources’, but I also think that, more importantly, they way they are perceived and examined should be revised so they are not totally discounted of any worth. Thanks for reading anyway!

      • Ironically, your description of secondary sources as unreliable is precisely what I try to instill in my students about primary sources as well: both should be treated critically, carefully. Sources lie, but they’re all we have.

        I don’t think the primary-secondary binary is all that useful beyond a certain rough understanding. You could expand the classification to Tertiary sources — and most historical fiction really falls into that category — as the most unreliable, but I’m not sure it actually helps.

  2. Speaking as a student, the fact that all sources are of different degrees of unreliability is a baseline for any historical knowledge and how we are taught to critically analyse. And I also agree, I have a problem with binary primary/secondary sources past the compulsory school education where a rough understanding is all that is necessary. However, I wouldn’t call the published diary or autobiography of an ex German solider a ‘tertiary’ source, even if it was published after the fact, and neither would I classify one of Böll’s novels as this, because yes, while they are fiction, it’s fiction shaped by experiences and bears uncanny resemblances to the themes and issues discussed by the broader ‘traditional’ historiographical discourse on the Eastern Front.

    I’m not saying a Tarantino film is on the same level. Perhaps we might classify Inglorious Basterds or Django Unchained as ‘tertiary’ sources somewhere between truth and fiction, as you put it, but then who would actually use these films as a depiction of the Nazi Era and Slavery? I wouldn’t argue for using these sources to teach students about either, because they are quite clearly not documents of what actually happened. Therefore, reliability in terms of what it depicts about the past is, to a degree, irrelevant. When you add something as loaded as ‘reliability’ into the mix, the question about classification of sources only compounds itself even further, however I would argue that what these sources can be used for is to discuss how the past is represented now, how it is viewed and rewritten about by artists or writers, rather than the era itself. They’re all sources that can lead us to a deeper understanding of something, we just have to learn how to read certain sources for what they are, and realise their limitations in terms of what they can and try to depict.

    • In a sense, you’re saying, all sources are primary sources: the question is, primary sources regarding what?

      I wasn’t suggesting relegating autobiographies or fiction by contemporaries of an experience to the tertiary category: they’re clearly primary sources.

      And the question with Tarantino (or Last Samurai, etc.) isn’t whether an historian can or should use them as primary sources (for anything other than understanding QT in context), but they are unquestionably part of the historical consciousness of our students, our readers, our other audiences. Students may not cite them directly – if you can get them to cite anything – but their mental map of the historical world includes that mythology.

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