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A broader perspective on the war

Leiden researcher Ethan Mark has a mission, he explains in the alumni magazine Leidraad. He wants us to take off our Eurocentric glasses when we study the Second World War. We have focused on ourselves for far too long; after 75 years, it’s about time we listened to stories from the rest of the world.

In 2015, Japanologist Ethan Mark started a major international research project: Global Histories of WWII: Imperial Crises and Contested Loyalties. The aim is to broaden our perspective on the Second World War ¬- perhaps even to change it. To date, we have primarily interpreted the Second World War as a war between countries, but it can also be seen as a transnational war between colonial superpowers. Why don’t we let the people of Java talk about the war, or the men and women in Ethiopia and India? Europeans have dominated the narrative for such a long time. Let’s look at the war from a non-Western perspective. Is it still a war between good and bad? A search for new shades of meaning; that’s what you might call his mission. 

What is emblematic of the European perspective on the war?

‘To us, the Second World War was a war in which all the good people in the world united to fight all the bad people in the world. Injustice had to be defeated! That was the slogan. Paradoxically, the U.S. Army was still segregated at that time. And although what Germany and Japan did was horrific, they weren’t entirely wrong when they said that what they were doing was no different from what Europe had been doing for hundreds of years: colonising the world. Germany and Japan also wanted a piece of the cake. People from Asia and Africa were much more aware of the painful and ironic similarities. For them, the war was much less black-and-white.’ 

To mark Dutch Remembrance Day this year, Ethan Mark gave the first ‘Hour of Remembrance’ lecture.

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But Japan was still the aggressor, and so was one of the ‘bad guys’?

‘Sure, they were the aggressors in China and eventually in Southeast Asia and the Pacific as well, but a colonial past also played a role that we’d rather forget. In Europe, we are only too willing to accept the role of victim when it comes to the Second World War, without considering what the war meant for the populations of the occupied or disputed areas elsewhere in the world. For them, the Germans, Italians or Japanese were not that much different from the last in a long line of colonial oppressors.’

Ethan Mark

How do we know this?

In Asia, for example, there is more sympathy and understanding for collaborators. The Bengali politician Subhas Chandra Bose collaborated with Japan because he wanted to liberate India from British rule. He fought during the invasion of India in 1944. It was a disaster and he died in 1945. But interestingly, to this day he is not blamed for choosing the wrong side. People in India understand that it was a strategic decision. Many countries had their doubts – and it’s not a coincidence that many of these countries were colonies. They certainly weren't on “our” side right away. If, as a colony, you were longing for independence, it might have been wiser to align with the Axis powers – the bad guys to us Europeans. But what is “bad”? There’s a great quotation from an Indian nationalist, Krishna Menon. At the beginning of the war, he was asked in London why he couldn’t pick a side. Why won’t you support us in the fight against Nazi Germany and Japan? His answer was: “You might as well ask a fish if it would prefer to be fried in butter or margarine”.’

What else will we see if we take off our Eurocentric glasses?

You will see that most Japanese weren’t just cynical and deceitful but, just like many Dutch soldiers who travelled to the Dutch East Indies to restore “peace and order”, they genuinely believed that what they were doing in Asia was right. Their war was justified to liberate Asia from imperialist Western rule. You’ll also see that in 1944-1945 between three and four million people died of hunger, exhaustion, and disease in the Dutch East Indies. Why don’t we commemorate these people on 4 May? That surprises me. They were Dutch subjects, weren’t they?’

This was the first part of the interview. Read the full interview in Leidraad (in Dutch, starting on page 11, 2020-2 edition), Leiden University’s alumni magazine.

Text: Nicolline van der Spek
Photo of Ethan Mark: Marius Roos

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