Waterloo Verdun Auschwitz
De liquidatie van het verleden
An impassioned and elegant pleafor historical writing to take on again its social mission
Some historical events are beyond any powers of imagination. The massive destruction of the Jews during World War Two was such an event. Historian Eelco Runia wonders how society nevertheless succeeds in moving on from such catastrophes and in incorporating them in its own history. In Waterloo Verdun Auschwitz he examines the experience of World War I and the French Revolution as well as the Final Solution (Endlösung).
Runia doesn’t stop at theoretical speculations. He goes to the places where these catastrophes took place. This yields penetrating descriptions of Verdun, Waterloo, Auschwitz and Birkenau, as they appear now. Runia insists that in order to give these events meaning, historians must also take their own experiences seriously, and he shows how this has happened in historical writing. For example, the Dutch historian Presser didn’t find words to describe the destruction of Dutch Jewry until he had freed himself from a historical style that was too objective and had found a new language in writing his novella De nacht der Girondijnen (Night of the Girondists). Nineteenth-century French historians had to find a new way to describe the reality of the French Revolution and the Empire before they could comprehend these events.
Waterloo Verdun Auschwitz is an important book because it reminds historians of their task to give the past meaning and a place in the national or collective consciousness. Historical writing should not just remain an academic discipline. When the past which it describes is intolerable, historical writing is forced to look for new literary forms to express its meaning
This task is all the more urgent because the memory of the Final Solution still awaits adequate expression. Historians have mostly recoiled from giving this, and therefore it remains undigested in society’s consciousness. Waterloo Verdun Auschwitz is an impassioned and elegant plea for historical writing to take on again its social mission.