Monday, June 13, 2011

corners of history

[Warning: Contains spoilers about the movie Inglourious Basterds. I haven't seen it.]

The Internet recently fed me this New York Times piece comparing Quentin Tarantino's World War 2 film Inglourious Basterds [sic] to reality. There's never any end to the surprises, is there?

Many of us know about Operation Paperclip, the project to bring German scientists to the U.S. after the war, to make sure their knowledge and skills went to the U.S. instead of the U.S.S.R. We took what could charitably be called a realpolitik approach to this, scrubbing the dossiers of various war criminals, apparently without President Truman's knowledge. For those of us a bit more distant in time, Wernher von Braun is probably the famous one, thanks to Tom Lehrer.

New to me was Operation Crossword: future CIA director Allan Dulles secretly negotiated with SS General Karl Wolff for the surrender of German forces in northern Italy. Wolff was a slippery bastard, and managed to avoid not only execution, but even serious prison time, somehow convincing everyone that despite being a senior SS general, he totally didn't know about the death camps. Russia was specifically disinvited to the negotiations.

(Russians? What Russians? We're supposed to be allies with the Russians?)

Some people mark this as the beginning of the Cold War. Russia, as sanguine and forgiving as ever, made a still-popular miniseries called Seventeen Moments of Spring in 1973, a version of events as skewed from reality as you might expect. (Have you seen it? Is it any good?)

We only know the past as a fixed story, so when we look at history, it seems inevitable that things should have turned out that way. We learn from history books, so as we breeze through the 1950s in a textbook, we lose the scope of detail we would have gotten from reading the newspapers just for a single week in 1953, when we would have read about the overthrow of the democratically-elected government of Iran, which destabilized the Middle East in an anti-Western direction up to the present day. Being an American citizen in the early 50s, before Vietnam brutally reminded everyone that governments can't be trusted, would we have known or believed the coup was triggered by the CIA and the world's oil companies? I don't know, but you definitely won't learn it from American history books.

I wonder what other surprises are waiting for me to find out about them?

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