Burger King Fan Gives Best Eye Witness Ever, Eyewitness Testimony And Memory Biases

Passion and politics … Lenin addressing a crowd in Red Square in October 1917. Photograph: Print Collector/Getty Images
Passion and politics … Lenin addressing a crowd in Red Square in October 1917. Photograph: Print Collector/Getty Images
These stories of a tumultuous era bring to life its intimate passions and accidents as well as its overwhelming scale

One of the great fortunes of a writer chronicling Europe’s tumultuous, revolutionary 20th century is the flood of memoirs, diaries and letters that accompanied it.

Đang xem: Best eye witness ever

It is as if the massiveness of events – the Russian Revolution, two world wars, the Holocaust, great and terrible experiments in human suffering and freedom – created a duty to bear witness. Reading these accounts often feels the best way not just to get the facts, but closer to the human impulses at play, the vicissitudes of chance, the reason and unreason of it all.

The best witnesses combine the epochal and the personal, metaphysical and mundane. They speak with immediacy and natural resonance, with life’s downbeats and absurdities, the cold and chaos as well as the grand sense-making narratives. They can even make us laugh. In my new book Crucible, I wanted to tell the story of the years 1917 to 1924 – more similar to our own times than I would like – in a similar voice, in the present tense, more like a film or novel than traditional history.

There are as many different types of witness as reader: those at the centre and at the margin, Rosa Luxemburg penning letters from a prison cell and Einstein taking down impressions of Palestine, those writing accounts with an eye to posterity (all politicians) and those without the time to think. How we read matters as much as who we read. There are those paid to make sense of the world – journalists such as Hemingway or novelists such as Nabokov or Zweig – and those whose testimony moves us through the simple miracle of survival. The trouble is to choose. Here are 10 compelling examples:

1 The Russian Revolution by Nikolai SukhanovIt’s not hard to understand why John Reed’s Ten Days that Shook the World is the popular eyewitness account of the Bolshevik revolution: Reed and Louise Bryant’s immortalisation in Reds, Lenin’s endorsement, the fact Reed beat others to the scoop. But there are problems. In his scrapbooks in the Harvard archive you find a page where Reed tentatively writes his name in Cyrillic script. Here is a man learning revolution as he goes along, breathless with excitement. (He called Ten Days “a slice of intensified history”). Sukhanov, an insider who wound up dead at the hands of Stalin’s henchmen in 1940, is more balanced. He makes sense of the whole complex rigmarole of 1917, February as well as October, the politics as well as the passion and the personalities.

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2. Bureau of Military History, Ireland While books have traditionally been the format of published witness testimony, oral histories and archival digitisation have changed the landscape. The US Holocaust Memorial Museum site offers survivors’ video interviews. Audio projects document Indian partition and the Windrush experience. For Crucible, I found myself engrossed in digital records of grainy, typed-up statements from participants in Ireland’s bloody and intimate independence struggle, all at


Diplomat and dandy … Harry Kessler. Photograph: ullstein bild via Getty Images3. The Diaries of Harry KesslerKessler has it all. Born into wealth, eternally inquisitive, an insider whose sexuality gave him an outsider’s perspective, Kessler got everywhere and met everyone from Bismarck to Josephine Baker. A diplomat as well as a dandy, he understood politics as well as art and cared for both (earning the moniker the Red Count). And he wrote brilliantly. One example: describing Berlin after the failed 1919 Communist coup as continuing on “like an elephant stabbed by a penknife”.

4. The Diaries of Wasif JawhariyyehI was introduced to Jawhariyyeh while researching 1913: The World Before the Great War and was immediately captivated. An Arab Christian in late Ottoman Jerusalem who spoke English, French and Turkish and was taught the Qur’an by a local Islamic scholar, he was his city’s Harry Kesssler: a poet and musician open to all, living in a world with ever-diminishing space for such eclectics.

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5. Dateline: Toronto, 1920-1924 by Ernest Hemingway Hemingway’s articles from the 1920s read like a novelist’s prep work, his eye scanning the horizon for that single observation which conveys an infinite backstory. Their veracity is secondary. They zing. He describes a 1922 press conference where new Italian premier Mussolini affects not to notice the crush around him, so engrossed is he in some heavy work of literature. Hemingway notes the actual book he pretends to read: a French-English dictionary, held upside down. This may not be true. But it should be.

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6. The Devil in France by Lion Feuchtwanger A German-Jewish anti-Nazi author, Feuchtwanger was nonetheless interned by the French in Les Milles in 1939. While Vichy made peace with Hitler, Feuchtwanger lived in fear of being given up. (This was the time of Casablanca). Defeat, imprisonment, the need to make choices: this is urgently written political and human drama. Feuchtwanger was lucky. He and his wife made it to the US.

7. If This Is a Man by Primo LeviIt was decades before Levi’s account of life and death in Auschwitz, written in 1946 while working in a Turin paint factory, took on the significance it holds today. A testament told with simplicity and directness: the details of camp life and the visceral sensations accompanying it, the accumulation of horrors, the tenuousness of hope and then, one day: “The Germans were no longer there. The watchtowers were empty.”

8. The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr SolzhenitsynFrom the 1920s on, westerners such as Emma Goldman and Victor Serge told their tales of Soviet disappointment, experiences from behind the veil of lies already hardening into what would become the iron curtain (a term first used by the British suffragette and socialist Ethel Snowden in 1920). Solzhenitsyn’s work is in a different, higher register: both meditation on and meticulous account of the camps so integral to the mechanisms of fear and power in Stalin’s USSR: the way skin cracks from the cold, the women faced with the awful dilemmas of survival, the Lithuanians who helped him make a rosary from stale bread. A grand indictment equal to its subject.

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Joan Bright Astley. Photograph: Public Domain9. The Inner Circle: A View of War at the Top by Joan Bright AstleyJoan Bright – trained in shorthand and typing, confident, easy to trust, keenly perceptive of others – was at the diplomatic centre of the second world war. A trusted intermediary between the top brass and Churchill, she was there in Quebec, Tehran, Yalta and Potsdam. High-level war management is never just about the (mostly male) principals: generals, diplomats and politicians with fired-up egos. There are all the things that go into making sure information gets where it should, that some small mishap does not upset the whole and personal tensions do not overwhelm the common cause. Bright’s account of her “marvellous war” gives character and verve to that reality.

10. The Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana AlexievichAlexievich is the meta-witness to the Soviet experience, eyewitness to the eyewitnesses. She turns memories into folk epics and gives human scale to the awful hugeness of the “Great Patriotic War”. Here are the stories of women often drowned by what the war had become in the 1980s USSR, the stale trumpet-blare of Communist legitimacy. Then she did the same for Chernobyl, the starting point of the Soviet Union’s unravelling, as important to the century’s end as its foundation was to its start. Literature is “news that stays news”, wrote Ezra Pound. This is what Alexievich has done for her eyewitnesses: imbuing their testimony with the power of literature, thus ensuring it remains relevant for all time.

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Crucible: The Long End of the Great War and the Birth of a New World 1917-24 by Charles Emmerson is published by Bodley Head. To order a copy go to Free UK postage on orders over £15.

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