The literature written today about the Nazi occupation is written by people who did not experience the war. How does that affect the stories?
The Second World War is still an important topic in Norwegian public discourse. Many authors write both non-fiction and fiction about what happened during the war.
What is new is that many of them did not experience the war.
“These books are written by the second or third-generation descendants of those who experienced the war, in addition to writers who just have an interest in the topic without having a family connection,” said Unni Langås, professor of literature at the University of Agder.
She calls the time we live in a time of past memories, “etterminnetiden”.
Langås has written the book Krigsminner i Samtidslitteraturen (War Memories in Contemporary Literature). There she looks at how memories from the Second World War are treated in Norwegian contemporary literature – in children’s and young adult’s literature, in cartoons and in novels.
In the book, she addresses seven topics:
- The nation’s heroes
- Prisoners and refugees
- Jewish war experiences
- Forbidden love
- Norwegian Nazis
- German soldiers in Norway
- The long legacy of war
Descendants on both sides
“People who didn’t go through the war are still burdened by it. The war continues to play a role in their lives,” Langås said.
Two groups, in particular, have an identity that is strongly linked to the war in a problematic way, the professor said: “The descendants of the victims and the descendants of the perpetrators.
“It is interesting to see how descendants of SS front fighters or other Norwegian Nazis express themselves in ways that give the impression that they have done something wrong.”
The descendants of the victims likewise carry a heavy legacy from those tortured and killed. “Those who survived have either remained completely silent or passed on stories that the descendants will have to deal with. These stories form part of their identity too,” explained Langås.
Hero myths from the war
In the book, she writes about the myths that were created around people during the war. These myths often live on today, even though authors want to write about the past in a historically correct way.
“Our national narrative concerns itself with how the war created heroes. People grow out of their realistic identities. That kind of myth-making still happens in fiction,” said Langås.
The professor also writes about values that can be discussed with a background in the literature about the war.
“War literature reminds us of the values that we still have to defend, but which we tend to take for granted today. Public discussions about democracy, freedom of expression and equality will continue to be important,” she said.
Stories follow the same pattern
Accounts from the Second World War have a fairly uniform structure, according to Langås. That is because those who tell these stories today relate to what has already been told.
“The authors have not experienced the war, so they have to rely on others. The stories are characterised by a repetition of conventions, narrative patterns and motifs. In a way it is natural, but it also makes certain demands on those who want to say something new about the past,” says Langås.
As an example, she mentions how first-hand accounts often had the same structure: They were picked up at home and asked to bring a suitcase. They were sent by train and dropped off at the concentration camp. There they were divided into groups. Some were immediately sent straight to the gas chamber and onto the crematoria. Others were sent to the camp. The stories end with the survivors returning home.
“The structure in these stories is very uniform and is being reused by a new generation of writers. It’s not a problem in itself, but it can result in different quality texts,” said Langås.
Researching literary representations
The book is aimed at students and teachers. It, therefore, starts with a thorough introduction to literary memory studies. While historians are interested in what happened, memory researchers are interested in how society understands history.
“Literary memory studies can help us understand what is remembered and what is forgotten, and it can give explanations for why people and the media react the way they do in critical situations,” Langås concluded.