What do the stories we tell about the Second World War say about us?

On the 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War, Natasha Moore reflects on our fascination with WWII stories.

One of the most startling moments in Tara Westover’s bestselling memoir Educated comes during the account of her first year at university. Westover grew up in a family of fundamentalist Mormons who were also doomsday preppers. She did not have a birth certificate for the first nine years of her life and was never sent to school. She taught herself what she needed to know for the university entrance exams and, somewhat miraculously, secured a scholarship to Brigham Young University in Utah.

During one of her art history classes, she raised her hand to ask the meaning of an unfamiliar word she had encountered in the textbook. The lecture hall immediately fell silent. The professor looked at her grimly and ignored the question. After the class, her friend promptly took her to task: “there are some things you just don’t joke about.”

The word was “Holocaust” — and at the age of 17, Tara Westover had no idea what it referred to.

I recently read Night for the first time, the haunting account by Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel. Transported along with other Jews from his village in May 1944, Wiesel describes the hellish journey and their arrival at a new and unknown hell:

But we were pulling into a station. Someone near a window read to us:


Nobody had ever heard that name.

Two very different forms of ignorance; before and after snapshots of a world where certain signifiers from those long few years — Nazi, Hitler, Holocaust, Auschwitz — come as close to universal assumed knowledge as any history in a world of 7.5 billion people can. Westover’s ignorance is almost unimaginable to us; young Wiesel’s ignorance is unimagined by us.

This is what happens when a story, an event, becomes the centrepiece of a culture’s self-mythology: the story we tell and retell, from a thousand different angles; the touchstone to which we appeal in political debates and social crises, Twitter spats and summer blockbusters. We configure the world around this story; we are incapable of conceiving of a prelapsarian “us” — or an “us” for whom this story could be less than sacred.

Our preoccupation with the Second World War has, if anything, accelerated over the last couple of decades, even as it recedes further into the past and the ranks of those who lived through it grow thin. The publishers’ lists, year on year, attest that this well shows no signs of running dry.

The scale of the War makes it fertile ground for storytellers. There’s always another angle: the occupation of the Channel Islands; the siege of Malta; a POW camp on the Thai-Burma death railway; the female spies of the Special Operations Executive; the Jewish man tasked with tattooing numbers onto his fellow inmates’ arms at Auschwitz. Cross-pollination between genres further multiplies the possibilities — from superheroes to time travel. I just saw advertised a new murder mystery involving American soldiers in Brisbane in 1943. I can’t bring myself to google “vampires + WWII” or “Jane Austen + WWII” but I have no doubt the search would return results.

And yet, as the range of stories told grows exponentially, the way they are told — what they mean — is curiously uniform. What can really be said about this War has crystallised, even calcified, in recent years. It serves certain functions for us, and is called upon to perform those functions over and over again. We are obsessed with the Second World War, not merely because it is interesting and important — though it is certainly both — but because of the way it has come to reflect our own anxieties about ourselves, our moment, and our responsibilities to the past, present, and future.

My argument is that this war – the War – has become a forum in which we can meet to talk about good and evil, about meaning, and about memory as a core element of justice. That these are not the only or even the most obvious implications of what happened between the years 1939 and 1945 becomes clear when we step outside of our own torrent of WWII narratives to immerse ourselves in a few alternative streams. To look at the same conflict through the eyes of a different generation, a different combatant, or a different metaphysics helps us understand the particularity of our own version, and why we need it.

Good versus evil

We may pride ourselves, in the early twenty-first century — the golden age of prestige television — on the moral complexity of the stories we tell ourselves: the flawed protagonist, the tortured hero, the sympathetic villain. But when it comes to our WWII narratives, we want these as Manichean as possible.

The historian Alec Ryrie has called the Second World War “our Paradise Lost: our age’s defining battle with evil.” In contemporary life, we deploy the tools of psychology and sociology in order to enter into the mind of the criminal, to understand what has gone wrong with or for those who do wrong. We accept, or try to, that perpetrators (with some notable exceptions, in practice) may also warrant our compassion. The Nazi, on the other hand, merits no compassion. He (less often, she) stands as a reminder that evil is a real thing, irreducible; the grit in the machine, refusing to be medicalised, psychologised, brought within the fold of the fathomable. The Gestapo officer, the camp guard, might as well be a Tolkienian orc for all that we feel the need to grapple with his motivations and experience. “Gentlemen, to evil,” he might as well toast.

Are war crimes committed only by monsters? It is a deeply uncomfortable question.

One of the most popular and beloved of recent WWII novels, Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See, takes as one of its two protagonists a young German boy, Werner Pfennig, who is drafted into the Wehrmacht and compelled to contribute to the Nazi war effort. An attempt at humanising the “other side”? If so, it is hardly a daring one. Werner is naturally gentle, brilliant, repulsed by the Nazis and all they stand for from the beginning. His orders have him on the edges of combat but hardly in it. If we were braced to understand more of the dark siren call of might, of the Fatherland, of whatever it might be that swept Germany, and not only Germany, in the 1930s, Werner is no guide for us. He is good, trapped in the cogs of the evil machine.

Are war crimes committed only by monsters? It is a deeply uncomfortable question, and over time the tales we rehearse about this history have become less rather than more willing to ask it. Hannah Arendt was willing to ask it, of course, in the 1960s, in her unflinching reflections on the trial of Holocaust bureaucrat Adolf Eichmann, published as Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil.

But one of the few novels I’ve come across willing to grasp this nettle is, notably, doubly removed from us: German, not Anglophone; and predating the current rash, not only in its publication, but in terms of its narrator’s sensibility. Bernhard Schlink’s novel The Reader (later made into an Oscar-winning film) was published in 1995 but takes us back to the youth of narrator Michael Berg who, in 1958 at the age of 15, engages in a brief but intense affair with an older woman, Hanna Schmitz. Six years later, as a law student observing a war crimes trial of a group of middle-aged women, Michael is shocked to see Hanna among the defendants. She had served as a SS guard at Auschwitz. In one of the key scenes of the trial, the judge confronts Hanna over her responsibility during the war for sending inmates no longer able to work from the factory back to the camp — which is to say, to the gas chambers. Hanna is perplexed:

“I … I mean … so what would you have done?” Hanna meant it as a serious question. She did not know what she should or could have done differently, and therefore wanted to hear from the judge, who seemed to know everything, what he would have done.

The answer the judge eventually offers — essentially that “there are things that are not done” — sounds to the whole court like a cop-out. The lines separating the prosecuted from the prosecuting, the upright and clean-conscienced from the despicable, waver and blur. For Michael, his earlier love for Hanna unbearably intensifies the dilemma of how we approach evil. To bring it within our comprehension threatens to domesticate it, to deny its evilness; yet to simply declare it incomprehensible seems a dodge:

I wanted simultaneously to understand Hanna’s crime and to condemn it. But it was too terrible for that. When I tried to understand it, I had the feeling I was failing to condemn it as it must be condemned. When I condemned it as it must be condemned, there was no room for understanding.

In the world of The Reader — the world in which it was published, but more particularly, the world to which it returns — the meaning of the war and its horrors is much more fluid, much less settled than it has since become. The narrator reflects on how the post-war generation, who are closer to the events than we are, had not yet come to grips with them:

When I think today about those years, I realize how little direct observation there actually was, how few photographs that made life and murder in the camps real … We were familiar with some of the testimony of prisoners, but many of them were published soon after the war and not reissued until the 1980s, and in the intervening years they were out of print. Today there are so many books and films that the world of the camps is part of our collective imagination and completes our ordinary everyday one. Our imagination knows its way around in it, and since the television series ‘Holocaust’ and movies like ‘Sophie’s Choice’ and especially ‘Schindler’s List’, actually moves in it, not just registering, but supplementing and embellishing it. Back then, the imagination was almost static: the shattering fact of the world of the camps seemed properly beyond its operations.

Those few images available in his youth, Michael explains, “froze into clichés.” Yet the comparative abundance of detail available to us now can as easily reinforce clichés as disrupt them. Certainly, we now imagine that we “know our way around” the concentration camps — we have heard so many stories — but do we? To go back and read Elie Wiesel, for example, or Viktor Frankl’s classic survivor account Man’s Search for Meaning, can be a strangely disorienting experience.

If we have largely discontinued the effort to seriously engage with the Nazi as a human being, equally these narratives expose the way we have come to view the victims of the war in an heroic or even saintly light. Those who were there complicate the dichotomies. “We who have come back,” writes Frankl, “by the aid of many lucky chances or miracles — whatever one may choose to call them — we know: the best of us did not return.”

Wiesel writes of the difficulties he experienced in getting Night published in the first place, and people’s disinterest in it once it did come out. Holocaust survivors were looked on with suspicion, the memories that haunted them deemed morbid and unwelcome. The protagonist of Wiesel’s 1962 novel Day — named, like the author, Eliezer — articulates an attitude towards suffering, and sufferers, that is shocking to modern ears:

I told myself: Suffering pulls us farther away from other human beings. It builds a wall made of cries and contempt to separate us. Men cast aside the one who has known pure suffering, if they cannot make a god out of him; the one who tells them: I suffered not because I was God, nor because I was a saint trying to imitate Him, but only because I am a man, a man like you, with your weaknesses, your cowardice, your sins, your rebellions, and your ridiculous ambitions; such a man frightens men, because he makes them feel ashamed. They pull away from him as if he were guilty. As if he were usurping God’s place to illuminate the great vacuum that we find at the end of all adventures.

By the time of his death in 2016, Wiesel’s work had found its way onto high school and university curricula around the world. The reversal of its fortunes looks very like the poles described here, from being cast aside to turned into a god or saint. The Holocaust remains our readiest example of “pure suffering,” and while the reverence and honour we accord to survivors today is preferable to the terrible sense of rejection many experienced after the War, it does set limits to the kinds of stories we tell about the events, even as we tell more and more of them.

What was possible for Frankl and Wiesel and their contemporaries that is no longer possible for us? What depths of human nature and experience do we leave unplumbed when the Nazi is an orc, the survivor of the camps a wise Gandalf, and there’s nary a humble mixed-up hobbit to be found anywhere?

The search for meaning

One of the reasons the Second World War is so irresistible to storytellers is that it represents the last — perhaps the only — unambiguously “good” war we have left. If the good-versus-evil narrative remains indispensable to us, this conflict fits much more readily within that template than any of the interminable and sketchy wars America and its allies have become bogged down in since.

This war effort presents itself as not just virtuous, but worthwhile.

The war’s talismanic power in this respect is not merely a soothing reassurance that “we” are, or were, the “good guys”; looking back, the chaos resolves itself into a titanic struggle encompassing nearly every corner of the globe. This war effort presents itself as not just virtuous, but worthwhile. In an age that distrusts macro-stories, an age of individual curation and self-invention, an age that worries it may be fundamentally trivial compared with the generations who came before, to be caught up in such a narrative has (from a distance) considerable appeal. The philosopher Charles Taylor articulates in his 1989 book The Sources of the Self what has only become more evident since:

We want our lives to have meaning, or weight, or substance, or to grow towards some fullness … If necessary, we want the future to “redeem” the past, to make it part of a life story which has sense or purpose, to take it up in a meaningful unity.

In this light, the way in which the Second World War has functioned for us during the pandemic comes into focus. Whether COVID-19 represents our generation’s equivalent to that conflict is open to debate. But the desire to understand it in those terms speaks to our longing to be part of something bigger than ourselves, something that demands reserves of courage and fortitude we are perpetually unsure we have. Our longing to be needed by our fellow creatures. The fact that the comparison has its incongruities — your grandparents were called to war; you are being called to sit on the couch and watch Netflix … you got this, as the first wave of lockdown memes put it — only points to the depth of the longing.

That the war was not, at the time, or perhaps for a long time afterwards, experienced as “a meaningful unity” is another truth we cordon off from ourselves. For a version of the war that could not be written now, we need go no further than Joseph Heller’s 1961 masterpiece Catch-22. Its madcap, fuming central character, Yossarian, is buying into none of the narratives around war (even this War) as meaningful or heroic. Heller later summed up the question at the heart of the novel: “What does a sane man do in an insane society?” The chief characteristic of Yossarian’s wartime experience as an American bombardier on the Mediterranean island of Pianosa is its delightful and desperate absurdity:

“They’re trying to kill me,” Yossarian told him calmly.

“No one’s trying to kill you,” Clevinger cried.

“Then why are they shooting at me?” Yossarian asked.

“They’re shooting at everyone,” Clevinger answered. “They’re trying to kill everyone.”

“And what difference does that make?”

If Catch-22 were a TV show, it would be The Office: existential angst, not inspiration; small and ridiculous, a mere sideshow to the currents that actually change things in the world; showcasing both the endearing/bumbling and the truly hideous in human nature and its use of power. Survey the current topography of WWII stories, by contrast, and it’s more like The West Wing as far as the eye can see: earnest, aspirational, clever — and, alas, (generally speaking) fantasy.

Indeed, last year’s star-studded television adaptation of Catch-22, if anything, underlines how this landscape has changed in the decades since the release of the novel. The haphazardness of the novel is transmuted into a series of episodes with far more of a cause-and-effect through-line. Yossarian, in the novel puckish and deeply likeable in his attempts to avoid actual combat, for the twenty-first-century viewer is inescapably, uncomfortably, a coward. The bureaucratic absurdity is there still; but the gravitational pull of a conflict that for us is all but sacred is there too, altering the shape of the original in ways that reveal us to ourselves.

We crave story and structure, but reality (then and now) constantly defies our efforts to pin it down, to arrange it artistically. Theologian Miroslav Volf, drawing on the work of Holocaust scholar Lawrence Langer, notes that this challenge was a real and thorny one for survivors of the death camps:

According to Langer, written accounts of life in the Nazi concentration camps often seek to integrate the Holocaust experience into a larger structure of meaning. The Holocaust then becomes a testimony to the “indomitable human spirit” … a source of a more informed sense of ourselves as human beings, and more. In contrast, oral testimonies show that in the living memories of survivors, the Holocaust experience resists being tamed by the imposition of meaning; for the most part, the experience appears impossible to integrate into a larger narrative of meaningful life.

What gets smoothed out when we insist on the meaningfulness of this episode of history — and dismiss our own period as lumpy and trivial? Re-reading Catch-22, it is tempting to conclude, in a parody of the popular children’s books, that’s not my war … its contents are too messy.

Memory, justice, responsibility

“Justice without memory is incomplete justice, false and unjust,” Elie Wiesel said at the trial of Klaus Barbie in 1987. “To forget would be an absolute injustice in the same way that Auschwitz was the absolute crime. To forget would be the enemy’s final triumph.”

We tell stories about the Second World War, not only because it meets our psychological needs to see good triumph over evil or find in life a satisfying narrative shape, but also because we consider it a responsibility. We must not forget, not only because history threatens always to repeat itself, but because in some obscure way we believe we are responsible to the victims. Hundreds of millions of people were caught up in this global cataclysm, their lives interrupted, shattered, warped, cut short. Atrocities that in peacetime would reverberate in horror and mourning around the world were commonplace, could go unremarked in the tsunami of suffering. The work of recuperation is long, and we take up the task with solemn zeal.

Does our remembering — our telling, historical or fictional — matter? In one sense it obviously changes nothing. We are now beyond the time of remembering for the sake of punishment or reconciliation. What difference can it make now to those crushed beneath the wheels of this war that their stories are retold, their contexts reconstituted? Yet instinctively, to remember, to imagine, feels like doing honour to those who are gone. To dedicate our attention and our tears to these reconstructed selves, who could not have known if anyone would ever know or care what they suffered or achieved or lost, feels meaningful.

But no matter how many the bestsellers, no matter how unabated the appetite for this kind of vicarious suffering, how can it be anything but a whisper into the whirlwind? We do not know what we will never know, which stories are utterly lost to us, which horrors left no survivors to tell any part of their tale, which victims we can only fail. This, I suspect, is part of what the WWII novelist in particular is doing on our behalf: cradling with the tenderness of a parent the small, under-the-radar experience of some imagined individual — a blind teenager in occupied France, for example — making it breathe and shimmer in tribute to those whose lives we simply cannot recover.

In this respect, the omniscient novelist stands in for an omniscient God. The remembrance of the Second World War constitutes a form of secular religion in this specific sense. Monotheism carries with it an implication of the “universal memory of suffering,” in the words of Johann Baptist Metz; this is “nothing other than the moral application of the statement of the equality of all men and women.” Quoting Peter Rottländer, Metz declares, “There is no suffering in the world that does not concern us.”

What makes this burden bearable is that it is underpinned and guaranteed by the consciousness of God. Truth lives somewhere absolutely complete, no crumb lost between the cracks; absolute justice is promised, supplementing and overwhelming our important but feeble attempts at it. If we no longer believe in the eternal and unblinking and tender consciousness of this God, then the duty to remember is ours alone, and our inadequacy for the task is crushing. How much of the contemporary flood of WWII stories is a necessarily never-ending attempt to shoulder this Atlassian load? The displaced tradition, the possibility of resting in the divine memory, has rarely been articulated more potently than by Jürgen Moltmann:

God is “the great companion – the fellow-sufferer who understands,” said A.N. Whitehead, in a moving phrase. God experiences us. God goes with us, God suffers with us, God rejoices with us, God understands us. So our life is eternally present to him, and remains eternally present for him. But the divine remembrance in which we are eternally held is not a photographic record “which can be used in evidence against us,” in judgment. Nor is it an unfeeling monitor. It is a loving and healing remembrance that puts things to rights: “Remember me according to thy great mercy.”

I do not hold up our prolific tellings of the Second World War against other versions of the past — the product of previous generations, or German writers, or a religious sensibility — because I think them by comparison uninteresting, or inferior. I love a good WWII novel as much as the next person (though there are lots of bad ones).

We have not exhausted the depths of what this conflict has to tell us about evil or suffering, heroism and goodness, the meaning and shape of human life, or the nature of justice.

To quote Elie Wiesel once more:

Sometimes I am asked if I know “the response to Auschwitz”; I answer that not only do I not know it, but that I don’t even know if a tragedy of this magnitude has a response. What I do know is that there is “response” in responsibility. When we speak of this era of evil and darkness, so close and yet so distant, “responsibility” is the key word.

I do not want us to stop mentioning this War. Rather, I would love to see these stories break the banks of the deep but narrow channel in which so many of them currently run. We have not exhausted the depths of what this conflict has to tell us about evil or suffering, heroism and goodness, the meaning and shape of human life, or the nature of justice. Revisiting these other perspectives hints at disused tracks that once led to territory both wild and fertile. There continue to be responsibilities aplenty here for writers of courage.

Natasha Moore is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Public Christianity. She is the author of For the Love of God: How the church is better and worse than you ever imagined, which is the 2020 Australian Christian Book of the Year, and most recently of The Pleasures of Pessimism, as well as a co-host of the podcast Life & Faith. She holds a PhD in English literature from the University of Cambridge.

This article first appeared at ABC Religion & Ethics.