Historians writing about WW II find all the questions are about Iraq

Historians in the News

When historian Giles MacDonogh submitted the 600-page manuscript for his book After the Reich this year, he thought that he had written a comprehensive history of Germany in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Instead, he has realized in recent weeks that what he has written is a book about Iraq.

While his book doesn't say a word about Iraq or the Middle East and focuses rather heavily on the minutiae of daily life in Bavaria and Saxony, he has discovered, as have many other authors of books about America's postwar occupation of Germany, that his words have become very live ammunition in the rhetorical war over a far more recent American-led occupation.

“Mostly, Americans have wanted to use the book, essentially, to attack the present war in Iraq,” he told me this week with an evident sense of bewilderment. His book has appeared in dozens of non- scholarly blogs and gets mentioned in U.S. talk-show debates about Iraq.

He recently learned that someone had posted a video on YouTube that used his book as ammunition in an argument about Abu Ghraib prison.

This is unfamiliar terrain for a specialist in modern German history. And his publisher seems to have commissioned the book precisely because the Iraq war had made this once-obscure topic fashionable.

Mr. MacDonogh's book isn't alone. Other works dealing with the difficult European years after the war and the American comportment there, such as Greg Behrman's excellent new history of the Marshall Plan, The Most Noble Adventure, have become deeply tied up in the Iraq debate, to the surprise of their authors.

The horror of Iraq is leading to a complete rewriting of the Second World War – and, most significantly, of the difficult years of occupation afterward. A new history is being forged from documents that have languished in obscurity for years.

War may make better movies, people seem to have discovered, but it is in the postwar that the deeper truths lie – although the meaning of those truths varies widely, depending on the perspective of the person discussing it.

This is a Second World War that we have not heard much about, but one that still sounds very familiar.

In Germany, the Americans operated prisons on the sites of former Nazi concentration camps that often adopted the torture techniques of their previous masters....

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