Part of illustration by Katrin Stenmark.

Reviews Continuation war or war of revenge? Guilt and morality

+ Henrik Stenius, Mirja Österberg, and Johan Östling (eds.), Nordic Narratives of the Second World War: National Historiographies Revisited, Lund 2011: Nordic Academic Press, 173 pages

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds BW Vol VI, 2 2013, pp 51-52
Published on on November 12, 2013

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In a binational master’s course that I taught with a colleague in Venice last year, one of the Swedish students wrote in the draft of her seminar paper that “in Sweden the shame of our Nazi past” makes the treatment of stereotypes and historical myths a sensitive topic. I was, to put it mildly, surprised. How could an intelligent student who had successfully completed her Swedish schooling with a high school diploma and a bachelor’s degree possess such a conception of history? Evidently, the ready assumption of collective responsibility for a National Socialist history and the assumption of National Socialist guilt was the result of a politics of historiography practiced in the previous decade and a half. To avoid any possible confusion among her Italian classmates (and to counteract that of the Swedish students), in my discussion of the paper I pointed out that fascism never got beyond outsider status in Swedish society and politics.

The anthology edited by Henrik Stenius, Mirja Österberg, and Johan Östling, Nordic Narratives of the Second World War: National Historiographies Revisited, is about getting rid of the idealized picture of the time of the Second World War as it became accepted in postwar Europe. Central protagonists of the prevailing point of view were the resistance as spearhead of the general will of the people, and their governments, who were doing what they could, more or less skillfully, with the limited elbowroom that existed. After 1989, a discourse began that called for self-criticism and questioned the moral integrity of this way of looking at things, at least in Western Europe. The change in perspective was long overdue. Yet, as the example of the Swedish student shows, and as the volume under discussion here at various points suggests, the baby was frequently thrown out with the bathwater.

Guilt is “in” — and is easy to come by for those born after the Nazi era. At the same time, confessing guilt and preaching a higher morality seems to make many things attainable: in Sweden since the mid-1990s, Prime Minister Göran Persson has demonstrated how initiating Holocaust propaganda and a project to investigate the involvement of his own country in National Socialism could furnish a power politician who was not very popular domestically with the moral capital of a “good person”, and in foreign policy raise him to the rank of a statesman of international stature. The chapter on Sweden does not look closely at the political metabolism of the new morality and therefore expresses surprise that Persson, at a later date and under different political conditions, suddenly intoned once again the traditional Song of Songs of Swedish neutrality during the Second World War. Another example of how this asynchronous and to a great extent painless “self-criticism” can be utilized is Danish prime minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen. Currently the General Secretary of NATO, he secured legitimacy for his militaristic foreign policy at the side of the United States in Iraq in 2004 with a verbal frontal attack on Danish maneuvering in the Second World War. In his chapter on Denmark, Uffe Østergård interprets this as a “populist turnabout” and overlooks the fact that the generalized narrative of resistance of the postwar era at that time was itself pure populism. What he might have accomplished would have been a historicization of populistic perspectives on the Second World War. Instead, he — the only author in the volume under discussion who is caught up in the traditional version of history — repeats the well-worn patriotic narrative of history. The statement that the rescue of the Danish Jews could be attributed both to the people’s will to resist and to the government’s collaboration policy is followed by the explanation, “The policy of accommodation made it possible to delay the German action to such an extent that the will to resist in Denmark as well as the rest of Europe had increased” — which is a circular argument. Nor is Østergaard’s failure to provide an independent analysis compensated for by his quoting Rasmussen and the Danish historian Hans Kirchhoff, each over several pages. Instead of an unformed overview and platitudes of the type wherein “some Danish self-praise is justified”, one would have expected from the former director of the Copenhagen Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies a thoughtful approach and clarification of his own role in his country’s politics of history, a role that still needs to be reappraised.

As is so often the case in anthologies, articles of varying quality appear side by side; the central theme set by the editors is addressed in different ways. Even more than the title of the volume, the editors’ introductory essay focuses on the paradigm change in the national narrative about the Second World War after 1989. The “moral turnabout” in the way the Second World War is viewed and the focus on the Holocaust after the end of the Cold War is interpreted as an “Americocentric” point of view with limited shelf life. At the same time, the editors’ relief at the rebuke of the traditional patriotic interpretation of the Second World War seems to be so great that the current narratives about the political and moral lapses of that time are scarcely subjected to any further critical questioning. On the contrary, characterizing this “turnabout” as universalist and democratic, they make it appear, to be more than a simple antithesis of postwar historiography. The challenge would seem to lie in looking at current trends in writing about and interpreting the history of the Second World War critically, without falling back, like Østergård, into an apologia of the outmoded history myths of the postwar era.

Henrik Meinander’s chapter on Finland is instructive in this regard. In his essay, which examines the complexity of the Finnish political-historiographical situation, the topics of a Finnish military campaign, separate from the German war, of Finland as driftwood propelled by events determined by the major powers, and of Finland as a skillfully guided rowboat, are discussed with scientific detachment. It is noteworthy that in Finland there are nationalistic and anti-Soviet parallels to post-1989 Baltic and Eastern European discourses (and also corresponding parallels in the way experiences were interpreted nationally during the Second World War). However, in the past decade in particular Finnish historians have taken a closer look at their country’s connections to the Third Reich — a development that Meinander misses in other Eastern European countries. The problem that he sees in current Finnish historiography is that it is in danger of exhausting itself in disparate microstudies that lose sight of the Second World War in its totality. This might suggest that the fashionable American–Western European fixation on the Holocaust could signify a similar limitation. In this respect, Meinander talks about universalism only indirectly, as something that is absent. In fact, he sees the necessary deconstruction of the national history narrative of the Second World War leading to disconnected academic fragments of history. Certainly, this conclusion might also have its origin in the fact that the coming generation of Finnish historians has not yet been radical enough in its actions: in the past 70 years, representatives of every scientific and political hue were able to use (and also apply internationally) the illusory concept “continuation war” for the Finnish-Soviet confrontation in the years 1941—1944 without being offered or asking for alternative terms. Now that the separate-war thesis has been scientifically discarded, the Finnish fraternity of historians faces its second great challenge: the replacement of the chauvinistic and excusatory term “continuation war” (in which, if we look at it closely, the separate-war thesis is preserved) with the more appropriate term “revenge war”. Not until it frees its national vocabulary from its grand delusion can Finnish historiography completely regain its integrity.

As Guðmundur Hálfdanarson shows in his chapter, “The Beloved War”, Iceland, which was occupied by the Allies for strategic reasons, was a special case that profited economically and politically from the Second World War. Icelandic historiography on the war is nevertheless limited, as the war’s role as promoter of the country’s independence does not fit into the national self-image. Equally interesting is Synne Correll’s essay on the completely different case of Norway: despite a series of controversies about the Second World War in the 1980s and ’90s, he diagnoses a national conception of history that continues to hold sway today. It would have been desirable to continue the study into the 21st century, but unfortunately, this has not come to pass.

Finally, the case of Sweden is analyzed in Johan Östling’s essay on the rise and fall of the interpretative framework “small-state realism”. This is a term borrowed from the field of international relations, a term of insightful suggestiveness, one that could have been used in reference to the other Nordic countries, in which case — depending on the country’s geopolitical situation  — it would have meant something different. Typical for Sweden is the smooth transition from small-state realism to “small-state idealism”, an eventuality that derives from its peripheral geopolitical situation and the neutrality it ultimately maintained. The moral turnabout in Swedish historiography about the Second World War in the 1990s was important and necessary, yet, it seems to me, less hegemonic and at the same time more problematic than is made clear in Östling’s perspective.

The final chapter of the volume, “Nordic Foundation Myths after 1945: A European Context”, was written by Bo Stråth. In it, “European” is understood exclusively as Western European: Germany in particular, but also France and Italy, are cited as typical examples. It remains questionable to what extent the German metaphor for 1945, “Zero Hour”, can be applied to other countries and other times (namely 1989). The merit of the essay, however, lies in the fact that it steers the reader’s attention away from historical discontinuities and toward longer-lasting, uninterrupted intellectual processes. In doing so, Stråth transforms Germany from a country frequently designated as a special case whose path was determined by various political, social, and economic factors to a model that “stands for an alternative view to those who discern sharp divides and interruptions of historical flows in 1945 or around 1990”. To this extent, Stråth shows that the assertion of a “zero hour” is misleading, even for Germany.

All in all, Nordic Narratives of the Second World War offers an important introduction to the relevant historical narratives in the Nordic countries. It will surely stimulate much discussion. ≈

  • by Norbert Götz

    Professor at the Institute of Contemporary History, Södertörn University, Sweden. Conducts research on transnational history, spatial imagination, humanitarian efforts, and global civil society. Leads a project on regionalism in the Baltic Sea and Mediterranean regions.

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+ Henrik Stenius, Mirja Österberg, and Johan Östling (eds.), Nordic Narratives of the Second World War: National Historiographies Revisited, Lund 2011: Nordic Academic Press, 173 pages