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It Happened One Night

Un incident, une bêtise,La mort de votre jument grise

—Paul Misraki, “Tout va très bien Madame la marquise”1


The historical landscape is undergoing a curious change. Amid the profusion of books about the usual subjects—founding fathers, gay culture, the public sphere, memory, the Holocaust, ecology, globalization, slavery, war and peace, sex and women—a new genre has sprouted. It is scattered across so many subfields that it has hardly been noticed, but it can be found everywhere, even on the front tables of bookshops and the “required” sector of reading lists for college courses. The genre takes the form of short books on dramatic events—murders, scandals, riots, catastrophes, the kind of thing that used to be the specialty of tabloids and penny dreadfuls but now comes out in hardcovers bearing the stamp of university presses.

Despite their sensational subject matter, these books represent a serious approach to history. They deserve recognition, perhaps even an appellation contrôlée. The best name I can come up with is “incident analysis,” because for all their variety, the books share one common characteristic: they focus on an incident, relate it as a story, and then follow its repercussions through the social order and even, in some cases, across successive periods of time. They pose dizzying questions: How can we know what actually happened? What delineates fact from fiction? Where is truth to be found among competing interpretations? And they leave their readers with a Rashomon effect: the past, when seen up close, looks more inscrutable than ever.

The best-known work in this genre and the one that has served as a model for many others is The Return of Martin Guerre by Natalie Zemon Davis (1983). It takes a dramatic incident—the trial of a peasant woman accused of cohabiting with a man who had passed himself off as her long-departed husband—and peels away segments of the narrative in order to uncover aspects of gender relations and peasant life in sixteenth-century France. It also explicates successive accounts of the affair, from the original court records right up to a current movie version. Natalie Zemon Davis served as a consultant for the film and even appeared in a bit part. But after collaborating in this reenactment of the event, she warned her readers that she could not solve the riddle at the heart of it—the inside story of the Guerre ménage—and she turned her book into a reflective essay on how an incident can be known and how it is refracted over time through successive modes of communication.

Two decades later, historians are still playing with the problems of getting to the bottom of their stories. But the game is now more serious. Many of the incidents concern the blackest aspects of the twentieth century, and the scholarly difficulties are compounded by a hunger for historical knowledge that is being felt with increasing urgency throughout entire societies. While survivors sort through their memories, new generations want to know the truth about the traumas of the past.

The massacre of defenseless civilians by Japanese soldiers during their occupation of Nanking (or Nanjing as it is often put today) in December 1937 illustrates this tendency. Four recent books go back over the event in great detail, working from the assumption that if it can be understood correctly the general nature of Japanese imperialism will be revealed. The Rape of Nanking by Iris Chang (1997) dramatized the massacre before a broad, English-reading public by comparing it to the Holocaust, but the crucial book that challenged the Japanese to confront their past was The Nanjing Massacre by Honda Katsuichi. Although not published in English until 1999, it provoked a great debate in Japan from the time it first appeared as a series of newspaper articles in 1971. Katsuichi, a veteran journalist from the Vietnam War, traveled to China, interviewed survivors, and reconstructed the atrocities with such precision and passion that he forced his readers to question not only the events in Nanking but also the possibility that something like collective guilt lay behind the tragedies of the war years.

Two more recent books, Nanking: Anatomy of an Atrocity by Masahiro Yamamoto (2000) and The Nanjing Massacre in History and Historiography, a collection of essays edited by Joshua Fogel (2000), show how the debate about the events has continued to reverberate through Japanese society. Yamamoto attempted to arrive at an accurate assessment of the scale of the massacre. He argued that the Japanese troops had killed about 50,000 Chinese, most of them prisoners of war or potentially dangerous soldiers disguised as civilians. That estimate discredited revisionists, who claimed that virtually no atrocities had occurred, but it fell far short of the more standard view, which set the deaths at between 100,000 and 400,000 and stressed the defenselessness of the victims. The contributors to the Fogel volume generally supported the latter interpretation, but they shifted the ground of the debate. Instead of concentrating primarily on the massacre itself, they placed the discussion of it in the context of postwar politics and showed how the historical research had intersected with changes in attitudes and memories of the war among the Japanese in general.

This dual concern—on the one hand with the scholarly reconstruction of an event and on the other with the history of its retelling—distinguishes the new history of incidents from the old “event history” or histoire événementielle, as it was known by its enemies in the Annales school during the 1950s and 1960s. By working in both registers, incident analysts have been able to convey the significance of defining moments in the past.

This emphasis also sets them apart from “micro-historians,” their closest relatives among professional scholars today. As developed by Giovanni Levi, Carlo Poni, Carlo Ginzburg, Edoardo Grendi, and others in Italy, micro-storia focuses on small units such as peasant villages where it is possible to study phenomena that cannot be seen at higher levels of abstraction. It deals with the constraints on the daily lives of ordinary people and the strategies that they improvised to cope with them. It aims to reconstruct social worlds systemically, even to make inferences from the micro to the macro scale of history.2

Not incident analysis. Because it concentrates on events, it seeks to understand the way people construed their experience rather than the way they fit into structures. In practice, therefore, the analysts of incidents generally study modes of communication, public opinion, and collective memory. And they find their richest material in accounts of catastrophes, the kind that appear in newspapers and court records.

For example, in Martyred Village: Commemorating the 1944 Massacre at Oradour-sur-Glane (1999), Sarah Farmer studied a military atrocity, the massacre by the Waffen-SS of 642 innocent French townspeople in Oradour-sur-Glane on June 10, 1944, and she showed how competing narratives of the event exposed fissures in memories of the German occupation. In The Collaborator: The Trial and Execution of Robert Brasillach (2000), Alice Kaplan also reopened scars left by the occupation. She recounted the trial of one of France’s most notorious collaborators, Robert Brasillach, the pro-Nazi propagandist and poet, showing how the arguments on either side corresponded to divisions within postwar France and how Brasillach’s execution by a firing squad (after General de Gaulle refused to pardon him) still echoes in different ways among French political groups, especially on the far right.

Bloody Saturday in the Soviet Union: Novocherkassk, 1962 by Samuel Baron (2001) tells the story of the massacre of strikers at Novocherkassk on June 1, 1962, and also of the attempts to stifle or exploit it, from the initial cover-up by the Communist authorities to cold war broadcasts from the West and the samizdat narratives that surfaced during glasnost. An Absolute Massacre: The New Orleans Race Riot of July 30, 1866 by James Hollandsworth (2001) pursues the theme of massacre into American history. Hollandsworth showed how a struggle to dominate municipal elections in New Orleans erupted in an orgy of violence, which left at least thirty-four dead and a hundred wounded, exposing racism as the most important ingredient in the politics of Reconstruction. An Ordinary Atrocity: Sharpeville and Its Massacre by Philip Frankel (2001) treats an equally deadly incident, the slaughter of defenseless Africans in the township of Sharpeville, South Africa, on March 21, 1960, which became the defining event in the history of apartheid. Frankel sifted through complex and contradictory testimony in order to explain how the massacre happened and how competing versions of it became entangled in the subsequent politics of South Africa.

The most important of all the retrospective anatomies of incidents was Jan Gross’s Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland (2001). By scrupulously piecing together all the surviving evidence, Gross demonstrated that the massacre of 1,600 Jews in the town of Jedwabne during the late summer of 1941 was not orchestrated by Nazis. It was executed for the most part by Poles. In a phrase that has now become famous, Gross concluded: “Half of the population of a small East European town murdered the other half.” His conclusion provoked a profound debate within Poland, for the Poles, like the Japanese, tended to see themselves as the victims of the war.

The parallel does not extend very far, because the Japanese were aggressors while the Poles suffered horribly from aggression on two fronts, the Nazi West and the Communist East. But World War II devastated Poland in ways that were more complex and damaging than anything that could be conveyed by the standard postwar view that pitted native victims against foreign oppressors. By meticulous study of one incident, Gross forced a whole country to confront the complicity of some Poles in anti-Semitic atrocities and to reassess the course of its history throughout the twentieth century.

Despite the variety of their subjects, these books demonstrate a common concern that runs through all analyses of incidents: the ambition to tell stories about events in such convincing detail that they will modify the general understanding of the past. Many other examples could be mentioned, not all of them about great catastrophes like massacres. Two recent books concern incidents in labor history—the Fulton Mills strike of 1914 in Atlanta, which exposed the plight of workers in the industrializing South, and the general textile strike of 1934, which challenged the program of the New Deal. Two others concern extraordinary events that tested the cohesion and fixed the memories of small communities—the collapse of a meetinghouse under construction in Wilton, New Hampshire, in September 1773 and the abduction of a trainload of orphans bound fortwo small Arizona towns in 1904. One particularly well-done study concerns a catastrophe that never happened—the poisoning of the wine served at communion in the cathedral of Zurich on September 12, 1776. Although it eventually became clear that the wine had only gone bad, the enormity of what at first had seemed to be a sacrilegious attempt at mass murder provoked a broad debate about the nature of evil at the height of the German Enlightenment.

  1. 1

    Les grands succès de la chanson française, Vol. I 1930–1940, issued in 1935 by Disques festival, distributed by Musidisc-Europe, Paris.

  2. 2

    See Giovanni Levi, Inheriting Power: The Story of an Exorcist (University of Chicago Press, 1988) and Jeux d’échelles: La micro-analyse à l’expérience, edited by Jacques Revel (Paris: Gallimard Le Seuil, 1996).

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