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Family Histories of World War II. Survivors and Descendants, Róisín Healy, Gearóid Barry (eds.)

Patrick Gormally
p. 138-141
Référence(s) :

Family Histories of World War II. Survivors and Descendants, Róisín Healy, Gearóid Barry (eds.), London, Bloomsbury, 2021, 204 p.

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1This book of family memories of World War II is one of a large body of literature that examines the past through a personal approach as opposed to archival sources. The family photographs on the front cover resemble “hearths and homesteads” style compilations of personal memories which enrich family lore, but which do not escape the fact that memory is subject to the degradation of accuracy and objectivity over time. There is relatively little about Ireland in this book from National University of Ireland, Galway (NUIG), although the editors and contributors live in Galway and work at the university. The editors, specialists in German and French history, brought together a group of international academics who happen to be based in Galway and who also happen to have a connection with almost a dozen countries. Such rich geographic and ethnic diversity called for skill and attention to highlight the unifying aspects of the contributions and to identify the pitfalls in assembling a wide range of personal material.

2The study of memory as applied to war raises questions of identity and the transmission of experience following conflict. The authors have done their own families and the next generation some personal service in recording and transmitting the material here. The difficulty resides however in universalising that personal experience and its unavoidable subjectivity. The editors’ introduction is essentially a commented chronology of World War II illustrated by anecdotes from the memories recounted and would have benefited from a more focused intellectual consideration of the transmission of memory and post-memory in light of Marianne Hirsch’s work for example. As a result, the collection presents a somewhat limited interpretation and a partial geographical perspective which, despite the impressive array of authorial origins, is haphazard and seems to see Ireland as an external and uninvolved observer. The NUIG base is at a remove from the actors whose experience is recorded, and that experience belongs to the authors’ own families scattered across the continent with little relevance to their accidental base or to the possible unity of their dispersed accounts. The potentially original view from an island base on the edge of the Western Europe, part of which remained neutral during World War II, is side-lined and consequently the lack of analysis of the insular perspective comes at the cost of the reality of World War II as perceived in neutral Ireland, which was far from detached despite being at a remove from the theatre of war. The possibility that the World War II experience was integral to the Irish experience per se is a perspective which seems to have escaped the editors of this volume.

3Irish citizens spent the war years in many countries and families all over Ireland experienced the daily consequences of World War II; the south remained neutral throughout and the period is referred to as the Emergency (1939-1946). At a distance from the battlefield, Irish people experienced an emotional intensity different from but comparable to the more painful first-hand experience of those who lived through the war in continental Europe. They suffered food shortages and were grateful for what they had, some families were uncomfortable with relatives serving in the British forces, the North Strand bombings by German aircraft in May 1941 terrorised the population, Allied and Axis personnel who crash-landed were officially interned (alongside IRA members) in the Curragh or were discreetly repatriated via Northern Ireland, news was censored, and the IRA and Nazis discussed wartime collaboration. Understanding World War II in Ireland, North and South, provides an apt and subtle historical illustration of how isolation can have an added value, en marge pour être plus au centre.

4The Local Security and Local Defence Forces created the opportunity to do the decent thing without identifying directly with British forces. The official state of emergency in the South, the rejection of conscription in the North and the absence of discouragement from voluntary enlistment in the British forces on both sides of the border were solutions tailored to the less than clear political and cultural sensibilities on the island and became the Irish answer to the contextual alertness required by World War II. Wartime communication, transport and trade difficulties caused hardship to Irish exiles and their families and allowed them to share the anguish of those caught up directly in greater displacement, imprisonment, forced labour and conscription. In Ireland, as in continental Europe, the fuzziness of transmitted memory and the representation of POW camps, war memorials and commemorations are far from being as clear and precise as “official” history, rendering the absence of Ireland from the current volume intriguing.

5Thirteen contributions of approximately thirteen pages each range widely in terms of geography, culture, ethnicity and language and present a diversity that invites delicate treatment to identify the potential underlining unity amidst the over-arching dispersion. The World War II memories belong to individuals from several countries, including Italy, Greece, France-Spain, Ukraine-Belgium and Germany. The World War II experiences of relatives from other mixed backgrounds also figure: Russian, Israeli, Portuguese, American, Irish and Guianese members of the British forces. Included for example is the story of fatherless Hermann Rasche and the ten year old boy’s wartime memoir by Enrico Del Lago’s father. Hans-Walter Schmidt-Hannisa focuses on the moral choices of members of the German forces and the later consequences for family unity. Sylvie Mossay illustrates the destiny of those caught between Nazi forced labour and the threat of Soviet retaliation if they returned to their native Ukraine. Both give witness to the annexation, distribution and re-attribution of national and linguistic territories from the German-Czech border to the borders of Poland, Belarus and Ukraine. They also share the kind of incidental detail which makes archival studies fascinating.

6Professor Hans-Walter Schmidt-Hannisa (chair of German, NUIG), a German national, examines with honesty, clarity and sensitivity the difficult questions concerning his father and his maternal grandfather who were in the Wehrmacht. His German family inherited the fuzziness common to family memories, and his frank account compensates for unavoidable unpleasantness with refreshing candour. The past invites acceptance from a point of view and a context which no longer exist and if today’s standards and criteria were used as judgement, few situations, individuals, families or institutions would survive with integrity intact. It is less a matter of claiming that the past was always right or wrong than a question of understanding how and why it was possible for reasonable people to make certain decisions. In many cases the answer is in the grave and the subsequent generation made its own decisions.

7The Belgian academic Sylvie Mossay (instructor in French, NUIG) tells the story of her Ukrainian grandparents who met as forced labourers near Bayreuth in Germany following their deportation from near Lviv in Eastern Galicia (then Lwów, Poland, previously Lemberg, Austro-Hungarian Empire, now part of Ukraine) 1,000 kilometres away. Ironically until 1945 Hans-Walter Schmidt-Hannisa’s great-grandparents were living 120 kilometres from Bayreuth near Karlsbad, Sudetenland (annexed by Hitler in 1938, now Karlovy Vary, Czech Republic), when the large family of six children was allocated a female forced worker from Belarus, also approximately 1,000 kilometres to the east and which borders Ukraine at a point 270 kilometres from Lviv. Sylvie Mossay relates the horrors of work and the ordeal of the subsequent negotiation of asylum in Belgium by her grandparents; they were among the “lucky” ones who avoided being returned to Ukraine to face Soviet persecution as collaborators. But they paid a heavy price. Their granddaughter, a Germanist, found in creative literature an understanding of the depths of human depravity. She has visited Ukraine with her family and tells her grandparents’ story of despair and hope gleaned by means of archival research amid wartime records in several countries in central Europe which testify to the careful recording of cruelty by bureaucrats during the war. The banal normality of Adolf Eichmann, which struck Hannah Arendt, sitting in the glass cage at his trial, springs to mind: he was “just doing his job”.

8It may be hoped that this wide-ranging, highly personalised and useful compilation, which missed by only six months the 75th anniversary of the ending of World War II, will find its way into the bookshops and onto the coffee tables of English-speaking households in continental Europe. The choice of topics is designed to contribute to a memory-scape of World War II and as such it takes its place constructively within the growing body of European studies that has interrogated the experience of the war from a similar perspective.

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Référence papier

Patrick Gormally, « Family Histories of World War II. Survivors and Descendants, Róisín Healy, Gearóid Barry (eds.) »Études irlandaises, 47-1 | 2022, 138-141.

Référence électronique

Patrick Gormally, « Family Histories of World War II. Survivors and Descendants, Róisín Healy, Gearóid Barry (eds.) »Études irlandaises [En ligne], 47-1 | 2022, mis en ligne le 17 mai 2022, consulté le 16 août 2022. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/etudesirlandaises/12625 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/etudesirlandaises.12625

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Patrick Gormally

Professor emeritus, National University of Ireland, Galway

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Creative Commons - Attribution 4.0 International - CC BY 4.0

https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

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