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Portraying History and Demonstrating Historical Memory Through Literature

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History, always open to interpretation, is not merely limited to the traditional sources. It can be viewed through forms such as fiction, autobiography, or journalistic memoir, as demonstrated by Erich Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz, and Timothy Garton Ash’s The Magic Lantern, respectively. These diverse platforms of portraying history and demonstrating historical memory allow for views of history’s effect on the individual and prevent the glorification of historical events in contrast to more traditional sources.

Remarque is a master of demystification: in his classic All Quiet on the Western Front (1928), there are no great heroes, no men bravely going into battle in the style of German nationalist war novels like The Storm of Steel (1920). Instead, through characterization and intimate details, Remarque unflinchingly shows the brutality of the First World War. But there is more than Remarque’s graphic war descriptions: we learn about the surprising tedium and the agony of anticipation, where our narrator, the young and once idealistic Paul tells us that “the days go by and the incredible hours follow one another as a matter of course.” In just one paragraph, there is a fixation with the concept of the day: be it “14 days,” “last night,” “on the last day” or just having the narrator, Paul, overjoyed to have “enough for a day.” Remarque shows the reader that time becomes tedious and oppressive in war. The young men Remarque shows us are also injured by brutality; they have become so dehumanized that at the death of their friend Kemmerich they only feel a desire to take the dead man’s boots, for the men “have lost track of all other considerations, because they are artificial.” As a novelist, Remarque can use symbols to make his point; the boots are more than objects, they represent the cheapness that human life acquires in an environment, which teaches men to slaughter each other.

Throughout the novel, Remarque works to preserve historical memory to prevent a terrible past from reoccurring. It is not Paul who works for such a cause, for he is as he describes his own lost generation, too indifferent to care. Again and again Remarque reinforces the idea of the lost generation in a starkness that could not be replicated except by fiction; one thinks inherently of Septimus Smith in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway (1925), wounded by shell-shock after WWI. A brief reference in Palmer to “cultural pessimism” could not drive the point home as ably and memorably as when Remarque writes “It is the common fate of our generation… the war has ruined us for everything.” Everything Remarque writes is a warning not to romanticize or glorify war. All of the novel’s characters that we grow to love die or are maimed, even the bright and resourceful Kat. And the battles that claim them are unnamed; to Remarque the war and the glory associated with its famous battles such as the Marne and the Somme mean nothing in comparison to the deaths of so many innocent boys. The more traditional textbook provided by Palmer gives us an extensive military history, chronicling battles with abstract language; instead of Remarque’s grotesque image of the men (“the belly of one is ripped out, the guts trail out”,) we have the detached “the Germans attacked Verdun in February.” By the end, the need to withdraw from the horrors of battle has extended to the novel itself. Paul’s death, the close of the novel, could be treated with nationalistic fervor as martyrdom for the country, but instead a coldly anonymous third-person narration takes over, putting more distance between the novel and its readers than Paul’s own first-person perspective. Remarque gives no chance of romanticizing war with Paul’s tragic and inexplicable death.

Writing a novel forces the readers to sympathize with characters that could in traditional sources become caricatured or, at worst, forgotten and turned into an anonymous death toll. Remarque literally puts a human face on the unknowable suffering of war, writing, “a man cannot realize that above such shattered bodies there are still human faces.” We cannot see the young men dying as martyrs for the nationalist cause, rather, they are humans going through incredible suffering, and to see characters suffering is to resent the war that causes this suffering. Characterization in a work of fiction allows for not only an intimacy with the boys dying in a meaningless conflict but also the potential for grand allegories and symbolism. Rather than explaining the cause of the war by saying, like Palmer “nationalist ideologies should be emphasized,” Remarque gives us Kantorek, the physical embodiment of the German nationalist sentiment behind World War One. Introduced as one of many “convinced that they were acting for the best – in a way that cost them nothing,” Kantorek tells his pupils to enter war for reasons of base nationalism. Remarque makes no claims to the distant objectivity of the historian in saying of Kantorek and other German nationalists like Houston Chamberlain and Johann Fichte that “they let us down so badly.” Remarque, as a novelist, is allowed to be perfectly forthright with his emotions in a way that a traditional source, under obligations of objectivity, cannot. Later, the revelation that Kantorek is “an impossible soldier” only shows how empty all the demands of the warmongers truly are: they ask the young to die and fight when they cannot, for beliefs that the young do not possess. Similarly, the cruel Corporal Himmelstoss is revealed as “a raging book of army regulations,” showing Remarque’s utter lack of sympathy for the butchers behind war.

Ultimately a work of fiction is more trustworthy than a traditional historical source because it is not indebted to historical conventions of authority and accuracy. We know that a novel is fictional, and that the story it tells should not be taken at face value. This is why the novel is so valuable: a historical work can sneak in its own biases and prejudices and they will be assumed as authority, because the historical source has the dubious honor of being assumed to be factual and impartial. A novel makes us question its own intentions for it is openly subjective, and thus allows for examination of a problem that, with a source like Palmer, might be assumed to have easy answers. Unlike a textbook which might have portrayed the determined Allies against the malevolent Axis powers and be taken as authority, Remarque’s novel forces us to confront the “other side,” and ultimately engage in an internal debate over morality and culpability that would not have occurred with the answers a traditional source, especially a textbook, presents. If the winners write history, then both sides write novels.

Primo Levi’s haunting Survival in Auschwitz (1958) functions as the exact antithesis to the Lager system it portrays. We get a first-hand glance into Hitler’s concentration camps and the warped, racist-nationalist logic that they thrived on. The Lager is dehumanizing towards all its prisoners, especially Jewish ones. Levi, an Italian Jew, learns that he is “deprived of everyone he loves…of everything he possesses.” He and his fellow Jews are reduced to numbers, and start thinking of fellow humans not by names but instead as “high numbers.” Historically, these camps were supported by the logic of the dehumanizing Nuremberg Laws (1935), which stated, “A Jew cannot be a citizen of the Reich.” The Laws defined what made a citizen and a human being, and a Jewish person was considered neither. But Levi, though the form of his memoir, is able to subvert the Nazi dehumanization and depict the atrocities of the Holocaust in a more memorable way than any traditional historical source.

Through first-person point-of-view, Levi gives us a horrifying glimpse into the Lager system. He rebels against the German attempts at dehumanization in the mere act of writing so human a memoir, one filled with determination to survive. Levi refuses the German attempts to silence him merely by writing his book. The novel’s first-person view gives us access into Levi’s mind and puts a human face on the Holocaust. There is no cold, authoritarian narration as seen in Palmer and other historical sources. Rather, there is the incredibly human voice of Levi himself; by growing with Levi we suffer with him and see the Holocaust in terms of the destruction of individuals. The small-scale nature of great tragedy comes into play often in Levi’s work, and in Survival in Auschwitz it is through the prisoners we meet there; Levi’s goal is to work on an individual level for “no human experience is without meaning or unworthy of analysis.” Instead of learning in Palmer that there were “extraordinary acts of courage and human ill among the prisoners”, instead we hear on the intimate scale from Levi of “Alberto, my best friend,” in a phrase so honest and simple as to be almost childlike. He gives us the stories of inmates, not of “seducers” or “madmen” or “criminals,” but rather the men who bear those descriptions in the Lager; rather than a clinical explanation, Levi decides that “we will try to show in how many ways it was possible to reach salvation with the stories of Schepschel, Alfred L., Elias, and Henri.” The human face is impossible to avoid, because unlike Palmer’s work which mentions only that at Auschwitz “12,000 victims a day were gassed to death,” Levi tries to tell the stories of as many individuals as possible, be it his friend Albert or the distant acquaintances of Elias and Henri.

Levi is able to work on two different levels: he tells the big story of a people, of the twentieth century’s great atrocity, but with an eye for the small details of a pair of boots or an unmade bed. Levi works to tell epic tragedy on the small scale, to see if the suffering for the entire Jewish people can be explained through giving the reader a tiny view into the Lager. In this he reaches heights that traditional sources cannot aim for, giving us heartbreaking precision in the face of historical generalizations. Levi is able to tell the readers more than any source could because of his eye for details, for putting a human face on what could otherwise become a distant tragedy of historical memory, something studied and mourned but not really experienced. Like Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Levi puts us right there, and his conclusion that “to destroy a man is difficult…but you Germans have succeeded” is all the more poignant because we have been there. We have shared Levi’s moments of hope, the final destruction of the soul where, even upon hearing of the Russian liberation of the camp, Levi can only confess “I had no longer felt pain, joy, or fear, except in that detached and distant manner characteristic of the Lager.”

In The Magic Lantern (1993), Timothy Garton Ash provides an eyewitness report of the fall of the Soviet Empire. Much like Remarque and Levi before him, Ash is able to give us a glance behind the men who made history; we see the revolutionaries of 1989 in Eastern Europe not as iconoclastic leaders but human beings, with both greatness and flaws. In this way Ash works to demystify the current of historical memory. He does not wish to create any grand legacies or historical portrayals, especially in soviet Europe still reeling from the cult of personality surrounding Stalin and his kind. Rather, Ash wishes to give us an intimate portrayal of revolution. He forsakes early on any pretense of authority with self-dismissive lines like “My contribution to the velvet revolution was a quip.” He admits that he is no hero, and the men he describes, revolutionaries like Vaclav Havel and Miklos Vasarhelyi, are just as human. Because Ash is working on the ground, because he is able to speak closely with the men he interviews. He is able to give us an honest and direct portrait that prevents any kind of mythmaking, and in that respect Ash is a more trustworthy source than any supposedly objective textbook which, due often to a need to address many topics in a short time, could easily caricaturize the revolutionaries as mere benevolent heroes. It is natural to, when reading a source weighted with assumed authority, to see Polish Solidarity leader Lech Walesa arbitrarily described as “a national symbol of protest”, or simply state that there were doubts about Walesa’s democratic goals, without ever getting a sense of the man behind the legacy. Yet Ash is able to show us, with an almost mocking enthusiasm, Walesa’s insistent pleas of “I like democracy, I love democracy,” for as a journalist he has observed the speeches and actions of the era first-hand. Thus we learn of Walesa’s occasionally dictatorial techniques directly from his own words, thanks to Ash’s reporting. We see Czech opposition leader Vaclav Havel beyond his own writings; there is more than the poetic Havel of “The Power of the Powerless” (1979). Instead we find also a fun loving, genial man who is “a Bohemian in both senses of the word.” Ash does not show the “cult of personality” that surrounded even repressive soviet Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, but rather implies that great men like Havel and Walesa are just as human as the ordinary people tearing down the Berlin wall.

Ash is allowed not to have all the answers. He is no historian, no fountain of assumed knowledge. He uses the intimacy of the journalist, observing on the front lines with no preparation, only the realization that a great revolution is taking place. Ash can say “like all arguments about historical causation, this one can never be resolved” and the reader does not feel cheated. Instead there is a kinship, a sense of sustaining a great change in human history and being only able to report the feelings that change elicits, rather than a clinical explanation of the reasoning behind it. As Ash himself admits when discussing the Civic Forum in Prague “a political scientist would be hard pressed to find a term to describe the Forum’s structure.” But he continues on in his writing, never providing answers but instead the glimpses into the men and women behind revolt and reform.

Also, because Ash is a journalist and not a historian, he can make assumptions and look towards the future. He invents a theory for “the ingredients of the new model revolution” according to the mass peaceful revolution he witnessed. Ash provides an intensive analysis, which may have its own biases, that ascribes the success of these revolutions to the “elites” because “their countries had been historically, closer to the West, with Western Christianity, a developed civil society.” He is allowed to make these assumptions and interpretations, in fact encouraged to do so, because a journalist is different from a historian. A journalist is on the field, in the heat of the present, rather than fixed in the past. A journalist is focused on the future, even Ash’s sequel to The Magic Lantern, A History of the Present (2000) is named for that particular obligation of the journalist: a study of now. A journalist is supposed to tell us something about the future based on what he ha observed with his own eyes, rather than what he has studied.

Ash, by listening to the stories “told by ordinary men and women” is able to show something deeper than the effects of the failed soviet economic system or the lack of democratization. He can show the moral problems and failures associated with the Soviet regime. He can draw our attention to the small details of Soviet semantics, and as Havel himself said, the “devastated moral environment” these semantics caused. Ash gives us a concrete example of the abstract depiction in Havel’s “The Power of the Powerless,” of the idea of “revolt is an attempt to live within the truth.” The problem with Soviet rule in Eastern Europe was not merely a crisis of the distribution of material goods or a bloated and inefficient soviet bureaucracy; it was also the inequity and moral pain of a situation that required its citizens to live a lie. Ash makes us realize “what it feels like to pay this daily toll of public hypocrisy,” and that the damage done occurs also on an individual level, something that could be lost by a source that can only tell the big picture in generic and impersonal terms, like Palmer’s claim that dissidents desired to “live their lives free from the dictates of the state.” Ash gives us psychology and emotional relevance, while Palmer is necessarily distant.

Ultimately, these three diverse works tell us something impossible to articulate. They are at their most powerful when telling the stories of ordinary men and women put into extraordinary circumstances. Because they function on so intimate a scale, they tell us something that traditional sources, with their assumed authority and tendency to retell only the great events of history, will never be able to communicate.

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Portraying History and Demonstrating Historical Memory Through Literature. (2018, May 23). GradesFixer. Retrieved March 24, 2023, from
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