How should literature and film depict WWII? What are the problems writers encounter when depicting The Holocaust, The Blitz, Hitler Youth, And Pearl Harbor?
WWII remains an interesting topic for writers in the Anglosphere. It’s easy to see why: the impact WWII had on the world can’t be overestimated. However, WWII historical fiction and cinema often falls into ‘trends’ or even ‘cliches’ when portraying the war. Not all of these are bad: most are understandable! But as a young historian, I must point out the simplifications and inaccuracies writers make. This post isn’t about singling out a single work of fiction. I respect the artist’s right to depict history however he choses. Rather, I’m interested in understanding established trends in WWII fiction.
The Holocaust: Who Does It Belong To?
Discussions about storytelling and the Holocaust are not uncommon. Writers tackle the ethical question of whether they can ‘properly’ tell the Holocaust. This is the tension in Maus by Art Spiegelman, where the Jewish son of a Holocaust survivor tries to understand his father’s past. The reception of Maus brings up topics of authenticity, history and ownership. Should we prioritise literature done by groups the Nazis victimised?
That question undercuts nearly all discussion about Holocaust literature. Mel Brooks is ‘allowed’ to make The Producers, because he is Jewish. I disagree with this sentiment, because creating literature and cinema should be for everyone. It’s frankly nasty to prioritize a certain ethnicity, race or religion like this, regardless of how victimised they have been.
Some critics argue film, comics and books are unsuitable to capture the brutality of the Holocaust. Personally, I disagree. If someone wants to write a book about the Holocaust, they shouldn’t seek ‘permission’ because no one can grant it.
Ordinary Men vs Hitler’s Willing Executioners
Who were the SS? What were their motivations? Was it a uniquely German brand of anti-Semitism, or human traits of obedience and order? Welcome to one of the most fascinating debates in academia. Ordinary Men is Christopher Browning’s book about Poland during WWII, which argues the latter. Meanwhile, Daniel Goldhagen, wrote Hitler’s Willing Executioners in response. Goldhagen takes the side of the exceptional circumstances of German anti-semiticism.
It’s very interesting to note the public taking Goldhagen’s thesis, whereas historians take Browning’s. I agree with Browning. Goldhagen does not take into account the anti-semitic collaborators in Ukraine, or the brutality endured by Polish individuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, political dissidents or homosexuals. That complicates Goldhagen’s thesis. However, you can see his influence in cinema and literature. The Nazis in Schindler’s List and The Book Thief are defined by their hatred of Jews.
The problem with this simplification is the lack of psychology. If we are to avoid a future Holocaust, we must interrogate the human traits that lead to genocide. For those who’d like to read more into this, it’s worthy to consider works of 20th century moral philosophy. Hannah Arendt discussed the ‘banality of evil’ in ‘Eichmann In Jerusalem.’ Her conclusions are still debated today.
Going forward, I’d like more WWII books and films discussing ‘ordinary men’ and the difficulties in summarising Nazism. For now, I’ll stick to The Kindly Ones (A French-language novel).
Emphasis On Resistance Fighters In France
There’s a strange trend in publishing. Picture this: a woman is part of the resistance in France during WWII. That mental image is the heart of current historical fiction publishing. Books such as The Nightingale, Code Name Verity, The Alice Network all have this theme. Even in Quentin Tarantino’s blood-soaked film Inglorious Basterds, we have Shosanna Dreyfus!
An interesting question is: What makes ‘resistance’ narratives compelling to a 21st century audience? We can go further and think about the depiction of women and the ‘romantic’ imagery of France. However, I think the popularity of narratives about resistance fighters in France during WWII stems from a few (rather depressing) reasons. One, people like ‘relating’ to characters who show heroism in the face of evil. This is understandable, but is tragic when one considers how hard it is to be heroic. Second, people want ‘catharsis’ from WWII, and thus, simplify the tragedy into a ‘good versus evil’ fable where ‘good’ wins. Truth is, WWII was extremely brutal and lead to the deaths of millions. Of course, readers may be interested in the French Resistance because it is a fascinating aspect of wartime history.
Little To No Buildup Of Postmodernism
Most stories set in WWII may have an epilogue or aftermath, set decades later. In All The Light We Cannot See, there are chapters set in the present. Likewise, Briony reveals all in the end of Atonement. And of course, who can forget the symbolic ending of The Book Thief? All three of these novels have women living decades after WWII, with little ‘external’ tension with the outside world. However, that may reflect the ‘normal’ world of the author.
Postmodernism was a big development in human history. Also, WWII shaped postmodernism! Although there are plenty of debates about ‘what postmodernism is’ and ‘how it works’, it’s foolish to deny the constant cynicism, irony and morbid humour that came out of the Art world after WWII. My point is to emphasize how little commentary Anglosphere authors provide on postmodernity while writing about WWII.
WWII is a favourite of many romance writers, literary or genre. From The English Patient to The Tolstoy Estate, World War II offers romantic novelists many opportunities. Many may argue that WWII is far from romantic, and to that, I agree. But the aim of romantic novelists is to depict love thriving in difficult times. Because of that, I understand the appeal of WWII romance. However, I like how Atonement subverted ‘love thriving’ in a unique way. My point is Atonement has a place in WWII literature, just as any romance novel.
But it’s certainly interesting how WWII became conflated with romance. You don’t see it as much with WWI or the Vietnam War.
Less Focus On The Pacific Theatre
The number of books and films about the Pacific Theatre are dwarfed by the focus on Europe. The exception to this is Australian literature, where authors are keen to write about Japan and Darwin. Authors such as Trent Dalton use literature as a way to understand Australia during WWII. Of course, how could I not mention Empire Of The Sun? Both the J.G Ballard novel and Steven Spielberg film are remembered today.
A nasty side effect of neglecting the Pacific is not understanding how brutal Imperial Japan was. As we try to understand China’s so-called ‘recovery’ from the hundred years of humiliation, perhaps we need to understand the Pacific Theatre better. WWII shaped the Asia-Pacific in many ways, and I wish there was more historical fiction reflection.
The Blitz = A London Experience?
A common misconception about WWII involves The Blitz. While London, the most populated city of the United Kingdom, faced great loss, it was not the only place where The Blitz occured. Consider Belfast, Cardiff, Bristol, Manchester, etc. (Also, I suggest checking out the various history musuems in both London and Belfast!). The Blitz was truly an experience effecting everyone in Britain and Ireland. I believe the focus on London stems from Winston Churchill’s remarkable role in navigating opposition and psychological warfare (Germany). Also, it’s hard to not overestimate the damage The Blitz caused in London. But there’s another reason why I understand the focus on London in regards to the Blitz.
If you’ve seen the movie Darkest Hour, you’ll remember a scene where Churchill takes a ride on ‘the tube.’ Although rather fictional, we see the British spirit and strength of character while facing death. Personally, I like this moment, because ‘people inspiring their leader’ is quite appealing to me. The best WWII cinema and literature doesn’t ‘just’ depict warfare, it also analyses it to understand the humans living in historyy.
A Child’s Eyes
Most of WWII literature and cinema have child protagonists or children as important characters. The Book Thief is a great example of this, as is Sophie’s Choice. Yet I always go back to Schindler’s List, and the ‘girl in the red coat’ which is the only use of colour in the film.
Children have an interesting role in WWII literature, as they represent a loss of innocence. As adults, we digest these stories through the lenses of childhood, and see what is missing. However, outside of Anglosphere literature, children may take on a more brutal role. The film Come And See (1985), set in Belarus, does not hold back from the nastiness of war. Other films of note include Goodbye, Children (1987) and Ivan’s Childhood (1962).
Another unique take on childhood comes from The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe. Although not a ‘WWII’ story, it depicts the need for escapism during wartime. Part of Narnia’s magic stems from the lack of ‘magic’ during war.
Hardly Any Critique Of The Allies
I struggle to name an Anglosphere depiction of the Tokyo firebombings. Of course, many writers are fascinated about the ‘atomic’ ethics of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Less so for the German city of Dresden. My point isn’t the Allies were ‘evil.’ That’s simplistic, and frankly, wrong. But it’s okay to analyse and critique the actions of anyone. No one, no matter how ‘good’ they are, are above criticism. Many Anglosphere citizens are concerned about sympathetic portrayals of the Axis powers, because well, it complicates things.
But discussing the ethical issues raised during WWII does not take away from the horrors done by the Nazis or Imperial Japan. By all means, you can justify the Tokyo firebombings. (You decide what you believe in). My point is more about acknowledging the complex moral issues occuring in WWII, and how Anglosphere writers brush over them. Personally, much of WWII literature and cinema is simplistic, naive even. Naturally, I question how helpful such mindsets are today.
Only A Fraction Of The World Is Ever Shown
Most of Anglosphere WWII fiction is set in the United States, France, Germany and the United Kingdom. But WWII was a global event, stretching from North Africa to China. The wartime histories of Russia, Croatia and Norway are worth understanding. I can’t emphasize enough the sorrow occuring in the Soviet Union during WWII. The aftermath of WWII is seen today in Russian foreign policy and government. This extends well outside Russia, but also in Ukraine. It’s fascinating how the world was shaped by WWII, and to analyse the different ways warfare impacted communities, towns, cities and nations.
If you are interested in studying WWII, try to broaden your focus outside of a few countries.
The most well-known WWII movies: Sophie’s Choice, Schindler’s List, Sound of Music, The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas are defined by a degree of ‘sentimentalism.’ Characterised by tear-jerk music and heroic character moments, sentimentalism is a frequent friend of WWII cinema. But it also has its critics: many dislike Steven Spielberg’s treatment of the Holocaust, focusing on how Schindler’s List fails to capture the brutality of the Holocaust. One of the most vocal critics of Spielberg is film director Terry Gilliam, who claimed the Holocaust was about ‘failure’ whereas Schindler’s List is about ‘success.’
I disagree with Gilliam. It’s unfair to expect a film to ‘represent’ the Holocaust fully. Secondly, sentimentalism is valuable. It can be a great tool for audience investment, and can highlight the tragedies existing. But more importantly, the Holocaust will naturally produce different works of art, approaching the topic from differing angles. Roman Polanski’s 2002 film The Pianist was remarkable, as is any Spielberg film. Sentimentalism isn’t the problem with filmmaking: it’s simplification of difficult subject matter.
Most WWII literature and cinema features characters doing remarkable things against evil. From Band of Brothers to The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, there is an underlying narrative of ordinary people doing extraordinary things.
I have two responses to this motif, one negative, one positive. For the latter, it makes sense for film to reflect the individual desire for a heroes journey. But I’m not sure WWII is the best place to find it. Committing acts of heroism is difficult, and unfortunately, not everyone unleashes their inner hero. We should be inspired by the heroes of WWII, while acknowledging their personal struggles and risks they took.
My approach is Jungian: to proceed in life, you must acknowledge your ‘shadow’ and inner darkness. It’s only when you do can you be truly heroic. The issue with WWII literature and film is the implication that characters are ‘naturally’ brave and do not have to work on it. It’s hard to do good, and WWII makes it near impossible.
I like the ending of Saving Private Ryan, because it addresses the heroic narratives present in American war history, but also shows the hard realities. My point isn’t ‘good isn’t possible.’ Rather, I call for greater psychological depth in how heroes are characterised in WWII literature. By showing us their inner turmoil, their doubts, and what they risked, the audience may respond better to them.
In 2008, a film called The Reader was released. Starring Kate Winslet and Ralph Fiennes, the film depicted the complicated relationship between a young man and a former SS officer. Although earning mixed to positive reviews, the film was labelled as ‘Oscar Bait.’ The only purpose this film seemed to serve was to win Oscar nominations. It didn’t help that the film was nominated for Best Picture, when Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight was not.
Does The Reader deserve singling out? Probably not. I haven’t seen it for over a decade. But it’s understandable that many associate WWII literature and cinema with prestigious prizes. Consider The English Patient: both the novel and film adaption won big in their respective years. (Oscars and Man Booker Prize). Other ‘acclaimed’ WWII literature includes Atonement, All The Light We Cannot See and Schindler’s Ark. However, despite these prizes, it’s not uncommon for audiences to feel manipulated by a film or novel thriving off prize-granting industries.
There’s also cynicism. Should history serve the Oscars, the Man Booker, the Pulitzers, the BAFTA, etc? Or perhaps, shouldn’t the reverse be true? When we watch The Reader, we may give it ‘serious attention’, regardless whether the film deserves it or not. And who is to say The Reader or any ‘Oscar Bait’ film takes history seriously, if it only exists for acclaim?
Such discussions exist today. I’m not commenting on the quality of The Reader, but acknowledging the fascinating debates springing out of it.
I hope this article covered the key motifs present in WWII literature and cinema. It’s not a complete list, and it’s not necessarily a ‘condemnation’ of these elements. Rather, I’m interested in discussing how artists depict WWII. I suggest not limiting your exposure of WWII to the Anglosphere. There are terrific movies and books not in the English language. Personally, I plan to watch Katyn and Das Boot sometime.
What are your favourite WWII novels and films? Comment below, especially with any thoughts on this article.