Archive for the ‘World War II’ Category

Usable Pasts

June 21, 2013

Much of history—emphasis on story and, yes, too often it does still belong to a him—is not about what actually happened, but what it is useful to tell ourselves happened. Here is an exemplary and well-told NYT story about the collapse of a “usable past” which had held in place in postwar Italy for decades. What held it in place was the degree to which it served the myth that, during WWII, most of Italy—its institutions and its mostly heroic individuals—resisted the worst encroachments of the Nazis.

Once you start seeing much of official/national/textbook history as driven at least in part by this search for a usable past—think: World War Two was fought to save the Jews; Rosa Parks was just a tired black woman looking for a place to sit down; Reagan ended the Cold War—it can function in the manner of a key to unlock what’s most fascinating about the unknowable past: the role it plays in our present.

Image below: the bed of Procrustes. Should the legs of the bed’s proposed occupant prove too long, they would be rudely shortened in order to fit the fixed dimensions.