The Politics of Retribution in Europe

It’s an old and acknowledged saw that “to the victors go the spoils”. What should be added to this splendidly commonplace bit of street lore is the similarly well-acknowledged fact that it is indeed the victors who get to write and thereby promulgate the official version of history, interpreting it to their advantage, giving it such spin, direction, and body language as needed to serve the perceived needs and political purposes of the present. In this sense the historical treatment of the past, especially the recent past, tells us volumes about what forces exist to warp into particular forms and modes today. This is especially true in this absorbing and well-edited series of essays by a number of noted historians and critics relating to the subject of the relative merits of the retribution process in Europe following the conclusion of the Second World War. As is likely true for all conflicts, the punishment delivered in the aftermath of the war was by no means fair, equitable, or necessarily deserved by those it was haphazardly visited upon, and some who deserved to be punished walked away unblemished, while others who did nothing wrong were falsely accused and punished. Indeed, one of the consistent themes in these essays is the degree to which the captive people of Europe engaged in what has to be recognized as being a widespread accommodation and cooperation with the Nazi authorities and their lackeys. Yet although their were obvious many who escaped getting their just desserts, and many more who were unfairly castigated and punished, by and large the effort at social retribution after the war appears to have served a wider and more useful role in expiating the collective guilt and anxiety that literally permeated the continent in the wake of the war’s end. This is a fine collection of essays that seek to address the complex welter of needs, drives, and issues that had to be settled in the postwar period, and among the competing strands of thoughts and arguments one finds that the historical interpretation of the past was indeed manipulated and bastardized, often at the expense of specific groups and individuals, who had to suffer the continuing social indifference to the injuries they had suffered, or worse, the accusation and punishment for deeds they either did not commit, or that they had committed in such a strange and sordid set of constraining circumstances that to make an issue our of it was existentially absurd. It is in this sense that a kind of selective amnesia overtook many of the survivors, such that they repressed the ugly truth in favor of more palatable and pleasing fictions. Of course, many of the issues discussed here are neither fully resolved nor completely played out. Just as many of the events of the war itself found their genesis in attitudes and cultural predispositions formed long before the war, so too, do many of the issues and dilemmas of the present find their antecedents in facts and circumstances located in postwar activities, and these may never be resolved. Whether talking about ethnic differences within a specific country or cultural predispositions existing between reviving cultures, many of the complex issues and concerns threading through these essays may never be resolved. This is a fascinating and quite worthwhile book, and one I am sure you would benefit from. Enjoy!

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