In theory, archives preserve the stories of history’s winners and losers without forwarding an ideology or serving a fight for power. Over the last few months, the archive stories that struck me most related to the aftermath of misdirected political decisions and times of social turmoil. The first story, about volunteers who relay the trauma of Hiroshima survivors, made me think about the long term impacts of war. The second, a look inside remnants of Cold War era East Germany, seemed poignant given the current fears of a growing police state in the U.S. Both stories brought to mind the importance of archives in military and political history.
Summer 2015 marked the 70th anniversary of the only two nuclear weapons ever used in war. Coverage in the New York Times introduced me to a special oral history project in Japan that involves denshoshas – volunteers who tell the stories of aging Hiroshima survivors. Before telling stories on their behalf, denshoshas spend at least three years shadowing the survivor. Giving the past a messenger keeps memories alive and human. The same way families pass down stories from generation to generation.
Japan’s Shinzo Abe is their first Prime Minister born after World War II. It is one thing to read about war in history books and another to have experienced war first hand. The Pacifist movement that came from the traumatic events of the war may be threatened by Abe’s reach for more military action with allies. In the U.S. I’m seeing a lot of politicians talk flippantly about the use of military force and weapons. In an Iowa stump speech, Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz spoke brutally about bombing ISIS. “We will carpet bomb them into oblivion. I don’t know if sand can glow in the dark, but we’re going to find out.” This draconian tone underlines the need to consider history, and the repercussions of military action on civilians.
Wars leave behind stories of people and survivors. Wars also leave behind stories about governments. The Cold War archive at the Wende collects these messages together and preserves them. While others were leaving the old German Democratic Republic, Justinian Jampol went deep inside, collecting remnants of the old Socialist Unity Party in East Germany. Jampol crept into abandoned nuclear bunkers and found propaganda and secret police materials. The Cold War archive now lives in Los Angeles. L.A. is an unlikely home for European spyware but many donations came from perpetrators who fear being outed in Europe.
“People don’t like to think about our past and sometimes how we behaved,” said Jampol. “But we need to because it’s only by that process of discovery can we understand ourselves and remember why we did the things we did.” The survival of these stories could serve as cautionary tales; proof that oppression and war have long lasting effects. We like to think these stories are history, but the language and proposals of today’s powerful say otherwise. Archivists should collect stories of those persecuted around the world and collect the voices of governments as they try to sway the public and create their own versions of history.
Artwork by Natalie Pantoja based on pin archived at The Interference Archive.