Can We Understand History Through Fiction?
This holiday I read Anthony Doerr’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, All the Light We Cannot See (2014). The book centres around two characters: Werner, a German Nazi youth, and Marie-Laure, a blind French girl. The two face the imminent Second World War from their respective, opposing sides.
While Doerr’s work deserves an entirely separate, literary analysis, I am going to offer my own, historical perspective. Indeed, reading the novel as a historian makes me wonder whether fiction is a useful tool for historians. What does a fictional account of the Second World War have to offer, compared with a purely factual, academic history?
The emotional impact of war, on both sides, is an overarching theme. At different stages, both the French and the Germans experience the horrors of war. Marie-Laure’s father is taken prisoner and he is never heard of again — the reader is not given closure even at the end of the novel. On the other hand, the German protagonist, Werner, commits suicide by running into a minefield. Werner’s sister’s fate is equally horrific, when she is raped by Russian soldiers in Berlin. Doerr teaches that there are no winners or losers in war. What remains is pure trauma, as emotions are forcibly submerged in an attempt to forget the past.
In the small French village in which the novel is set, we see female resistance fighters fighting for what they believe is right and gathering the morale to survive. In Germany, Werner escapes poverty from working in the Ruhr mines by attending a Nazi elite school. Still, he struggles to assimilate, as this would involve ignoring his conscience as he witnesses dubious events. Werner and these women call into question what is right and what is wrong; we begin to ask ourselves how we would react to these types of situations.
Whilst most of Doerr’s novel is historically accurate, there are a few minor factual errors regarding the Nazi elite schools (Napolas). As a fictional account, we might offer some leeway — Doerr isn’t posing as a historian, after all. Yet one of the most interesting aspects of his work is its post-modernist conception of ‘truth’: this is a novel in which truth can be found in every single one of the many personal accounts. Although I enjoyed reading Marie’s account, I found Werner’s most compelling because of my own research interests.
For my research, I read a lot of male memoirs, especially those of boys who went to the Napola schools. For this reason, I am startled by the brutality in the novel. In the memoirs I’ve read, there is little mention of physical beatings – although a strict hierarchy between the boys was present. Memory is tricky in its variability through time and space. Where can we find out the truth about what these schools were actually like? Is memoir a reputable source for historical enquiry? Indeed, this makes me wonder whether the brutality Doerr’s novel is a complete fiction.
The inbuilt hierarchy is barely acknowledged. In this way, the depiction of the Napolas is like the 2004 film Before the Fall, as well as the 199o film adaptation of I was Hitler Youth Salomon, in terms of characters and content, respectively. Whilst the 2004 film depicts the brutality of the Napolas, Perel’s film/novel emphasises its racist messages. Doerr’s novel contains both aspects, but focuses on the brutality of the Napola boys.
See the two trailers of these films here:
Doerr’s book is a good read, and a great piece for discussion and reflection. It certainly raises a few questions. Who really wins a war? Can we still insist that all Germans are Nazis? What is the place of the individual within the larger cogs of war? What are the emotional impacts of war? Such questions are personalized by fictional works like Doerr’s, becoming emotionally-charged topics for public discussion. Through their work, historians also can provide further insight.