Thursday, July 7, 2011

Histories of doing good

Ben Shephard is one of the most interesting historians presently writing. I am reading his third book now. A common theme is the challenge of doing good (and describing it in ways that engage our attention).

His first book was an exploration of psychiatry in military contexts in the First World War, the Second and Vietnam. the second concerned how the Allied authorities responded to the horror of Belsen and how they improvised ways of assistance to a situation both stark and novel. The third concerns the wider challenge of displaced persons left by the wreckage of World War II.

The lesson of the first that sticks in mind is that knowledge is not simply cumulative. many of the lessons painfully acquired in each conflict was lost by the next and had to be rediscovered or invented anew in a different mode. We lose understanding by lack of institutional memory, personal transmission and a lack of practice.

From the third book, ( The Long Road Home: The Aftermath of the Second World War: Relief and Refugees After the Second World War ) Shephard has already discussed how our present categories colour (and can indeed miss guide) understanding. Thus most of the Jews displaced were not, as we might think, survivors of the camps but people driven eastwards by the conflict and were now trying to return to some version of 'home'.

Nor were those camp survivors 'holocaust victims' - the Holocaust was not a category that had been invented. This was not a shared and assumed collective identity that emerged later.

One of the great virtues of his writing is to write from the multiple perspectives of the time in a way that, as far as is possible, tries to elude later categorizations. Taking us out of present lenses and putting us into past ones.

He writes both fluently about the 'events' and how people enjoyed and suffered them and on wider frames of interpretation and lesson. He is a most able historian.

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