Henry L. Roediger III: “There is little doubt that the Soviet contribution to the war effort is vastly underplayed by Hollywood, and this may have had an effect”
Henry L. Roediger III, Professor of Department of Psychological &Brain Sciences, Washington University in St. Louis, MO, USA. His most important books are:
Roediger, H. L., Capaldi, E. D., Paris, S. G., Polivy, J., & Herman, C. P. (1996). Psychology. St. Paul, MN: West Publishing Co. (4th Ed.).
Elmes, D. G., Kantowitz, B. H., & Roediger, H. L. (2012). Research methods in psychology. Monterey, CA: Wadsworth. (9th Ed.).
Brown, P. C., Roediger, H. L., & McDaniel, M. A. (2014). Make it stick: The science of successful learning. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Translated into Chinese (both complex and simple character translations), Czech, French, French for Africa and Haiti, German, Japanese, Korean, Polish, Portugese, Russian, Spanish, Turkish, Ukrainian, and Vietnamese).
Kantowitz, B. H., Roediger, H. L., & Elmes, D. G. (2015). Experimental psychology: Understanding psychological research. Monterey, CA: Cengage. (10th Ed.).
- Dear professor Roediger, as a psychologist you are studying memory for a long time from the perspective of your discipline, that means as a phenomenon of individual consciousness, but after the year 2000 you are also involved in research of collective memory. Could you tell why you are interested in that new field, which many of your colleagues receive skeptically? Which principle do you think lays the foundation of interactions between individual and collective forms of memory?
That is a good question, and some of my colleagues have wondered the same thing. Several answers occur to me. The primary reason for my beginning to study collective memory occurred in 1996, when I moved to Washington University in St. Louis and met Jim Wertsch. As you know, Jim studies collective memory with a special interest in Russian national memory. I don’t think I had ever heard the term “collective memory” before I met Jim. We became friends, and we would discuss each other’s research topics. I read some of Jim’s papers and book he wrote, Voices of Collective Remembering. As another factor, I grew up in the South in the US, in Virginia, and I was surrounded by American history from both our Revolutionary War and our Civil War. Those are both fertile areas of collective memory in the US. I have read about history most of my life in my spare time, and the idea of “history as it is remembered” resonated with me, even if the remembered history is often not as historians view it. As novelist William Faulkner, a southerner said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” In the US, that is especially true in the South.
After conversations with Jim over the years, I decided it would be interesting to try to apply some of the techniques of social science research, particularly surveys, to study collective memory. However, to do that, I needed to get some graduate students interested in the topic to help carry out the research. Initially, Franklin Zaromb, Andrew Butler, and Pooja Agarwal became interested, and others followed later.
By the way, I still carry out lines of research on memory in individuals, too, as I always have. So, I have a foot in both the research traditions of individual and collective memory.
- You were participated in an impressive international project, which outcomes were published in two papers: Abel, M., et al. Collective Memories across 11 Nations for World War II: Similarities and Differences Regarding the Most Important Events. Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition (2019) and Henry L. Roediger III, et al. Competing national memories of World War II. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. (2019). Could you tell how the idea of that research was created, what problems you and your colleagues had to solve by organizing surveys in eleven countries, and which results of those surveys were surprising?
Once again, prior work by Jim Wertsch inspired these projects. In Voices of Collective Memory, he reported a survey that he conducted in Russia with high school students. He asked them to list ten critical events of World War II. He found that the list of events given by Russians had no overlap whatsoever with those critical events that Americans listed. I thought that was interesting – in fact, amazing. Despite being allies with the Soviet Union from 1941-1945, the way the war is remembered seemed completely different for people of the two countries. I thought this issue would be worth examining in a larger survey that would also ask people of 9 other countries to provide their conception of the war by providing critical events from their perspective.
The project that resulted in these two papers was a huge undertaking. We created a survey that asked for demographic information, and we provided two straightforward tests of knowledge about World War II (or the Great Patriotic War. I am using US terminology). We also asked people to list ten critical events of the war, and then to provide an estimate of the percentage of responsibility that people of their country should receive in winning the war for the Allies or in fighting for the losing cause for the Axis countries. We included over 100 individuals in our survey from people of 11 countries: Australia, Canada, China, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, New Zealand, Russia (for the Soviet Union), the United Kingdom and the United States. The survey took from 25 to 30 minutes. We were not paying people, so we had to rely on their interest and good intentions. Another issue is that we were testing everyone in English. This worried us, but we did not have the language expertise to code the events written in Chinese, Japanese, French, Russian, etc. We do not think this skewed our results badly, because we did a later study using just some key questions of our survey for people in three counties (Germany, Italy and Japan) in their native languages. We obtained roughly the same results when people were tested in their native languages as when we had when we tested people in English in our large survey.
Of course, we did not have a random sample of people from each country. Rather, the samples were ones of convenience – we tested whoever we could get to fill out the survey if the person was 18 years or older, had grown up in the country, and spoke and read English well enough for the survey.
You asked about surprising findings. Let me discuss them primarily for the paper that is reprinted with my interview. In that one, we replicated Wertsch’s (2002) findings for Russia (the Soviet Union) and the U.S. The list of critical events in World War II that people produced did not overlap, except for one item – the one referred to by Russians as “opening of the second front” and by people in the US as “D-Day”, for June 6, 1944 with the attack on Normandy, France. We wondered if Russians listed this event only because they were answering in English, and the survey began by saying that the research was sponsored by our American university. This was not one of the most frequently cited items in Wertsch’s study when students were responding in Russian. We are planning future research in which citizens of each country will be tested in their native language, and it will be interesting to see whether Russians will continue to list the opening of the second front as a critical event in that case.
Another surprise is that people in the other 9 countries also mostly listed the events that people in the US listed. That is, they most frequently listed the attack on Pearl Harbor, D-Day, dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the Holocaust. For Americans, Pearl Harbor represents the beginning of the war, D-Day a turning point in the middle, and the atomic bombings led to the end of the war in the Pacific. This sequence encapsulates a story of American victory in World War II, and it is taught like that in most history books and in the popular media. Last year, on the 75th anniversary of D-Day, or opening of the second front, Time magazine published a special issue, really a booklet, on D-Day. On the front cover was written, “D-Day: 24 Hours That Saved the World.”. I know that kind of thinking must infuriate people of the former Soviet Union, but that is the way history is taught, at least through high school, in the US.
- The translation of “Collective Memories across 11 Nations for World War II” and your interview will be published in the same issue of our journal “The Historical Expertise”. Could you tell about the main findings of the second paper “Competing national memories of World War II”, where you and your colleagues compare different nations evaluations of their countries’ share in common victory over Nazis?
One interesting finding from both papers is that, on tests of general knowledge of the war, Russians scored higher than people from any other nation. (We had asked people not to look up information while filling out our survey). From what I understand from Jim Wertsch, the Great Patriotic War is still well remembered, memorialized, and taught in school in Russia. In the U.S., 75 years later, I think the war may have receded into the past more for our students. They know basic facts, but not a rich story of the war.
In the PNAS paper, we asked about responsibility of victory for the Allies in three different ways. First, we asked people in each country to estimate what percentage of the victory belonged to people of that country. Russians said the Soviet Union was 75% responsible, people of the UK estimated 51%, and Americans estimated 54%. So, people of these three countries claimed 180% of the victory, but some 20 other countries participated on the Allied side, losing at least 1000 soldiers in battle.
The second way we framed the question was to ask people in each of our 8 Allied countries in the survey to estimate the percentage responsibility for each of the 8 countries (their own and 7 others, with the extra category of “other”). The total of the percentages had to add to 100%. In this context, people of most countries reduced their own country’s percentage by half or by nearly half. However, Russians still estimated the Soviet Unions’ percentage of responsibility at 64%, a drop of only 11%.
Finally, we also obtained averages of the percentage that the other ten countries in the survey provided for each country. So, for example, people of the other ten countries would estimate the percentage of responsibility France had for winning the war (9% as others saw the French). The curious thing that happened now was that people from other countries rated the US contribution to winning the war as higher than that of the Soviet Union – 27% to 20%, a statistically significant difference. I discuss this finding more in response to your next question.
- According to your paper average assessment of the Soviet Union input in the common victory (75% ) made by Russian respondents precisely corresponds with the share of German losses on the Eastern front, therefore Russians did not exaggerate the Soviet Union input towards Victory, but other participants of the poll evaluated only 20%. I am sure that it is not a sign of so called Russophobia. People simply do not have enough information regarding such a historical fact. During the Cold War it was natural to refrain from promoting glorious victories of a potential enemy. Why do you think situation did not change in Western media after 1991 and people from the anti-Nazis coalition countries still do not know how big was the role of the Soviet people towards common victory?
Several issues arise in this comment. Let me try to separate them.
First, you say that the 75% of casualties corresponds with Russian losses on the Eastern front, so that Russians did not exaggerate the victory. However, in the US and probably in most other countries, World War II is taught as two wars, or two theaters of war. The war in the Pacific, from the attack on Pearl Harbor, with the Battle of Midway, the Doolittle Raid on Tokyo, the fighting through all the islands in the Pacific (Iwo Jima, Okinawa and many more) to the final bombings of Japan. Americans and others are probably considering these contributions more heavily than would Russians who, I am guessing, focus more on the war in Europe.
I agree that the estimates of Americans and people from other countries is not an issue of Russophobia. It comes from the way history is taught in the US, but I suspect how it is taught in every country. That is, the history focuses on how one’s own country participated in any international event. Besides history books, the same is true in novels and movies about the time, and about stories people tell about the event. For example, my father was involved in World War II, so I learned opinions about the war from him. Because people in different countries learn different aspects of the war, it is not surprising that events of other countries may be given short shrift and events involving their own country are enlarged. For example, two events listed by many French people for their ten critical events in the war were first, a speech Charles de Gaulle gave in 1940 (from England) to rally the French people, and then second, the French resistance. Now, both events may loom large to the people of France, but neither of these events was particularly important in the larger scheme of things to the outcome of the war. This is an example of what we refer to as national narcissism: We think contributions of our own country may be more important than others do. As another example, in listing the ten most important events, Russians list none in the Pacific theater of the war.
For the last part of your question, I’m not sure the Cold War had much to do with the issue of how history of the war was taught in the US. That might be why teaching did not much change after 1991. And the mainstream media in the US today simply do not focus much on the past. For example, when Russia was not able to hold its annual celebration of Victory Day on May 9th of this year, that story made the US evening news. However, no one here in the US seemed to wonder why there was no celebration in the US itself on what we call Victory in Europe Day, or VE Day. As usual, the day went by unremarked, except perhaps on the back pages of some newspapers and at the end of a few TV news shows. I am writing this essay during the days of the 75th anniversary of the US dropping the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The bombings are being covered, but only the back pages of newspapers. There is no widespread discussion of those events.
- Both papers show that the Russian memory of the Second World War differs from the Western one. We cannot explain that by so called “clash of civilizations” principle because from one side Russia and Western countries are parts of the same Christian civilization. On other side your survey shows that memory regarding the Second World War of Chinese and Japanese respondents, who are not parts of Christian civilization, is much closer to memory of people from the West. Why do you think Russians have unique memory of the Second World War?
I really do not know the answer, so I am only guessing. Certainly, one big reason, as mentioned above, is how history is taught in the US. But then why do the history books of the other ten countries not focus more on the Soviet Union’s great contributions to the war? I don’t know. Even people China, the ally of the Soviet Union for many years, provide events that align with the American view of the war.
Because people in the US and most other countries tend to see World War II as two wars, and because the soldiers of the Soviet Union did not play much of a role in the major fighting in the Pacific, then people in the west may underweight the Soviet contribution to the war.
Another possibility is the reach of American popular entertainment. The US has produced dozens, perhaps hundreds, of movies about World War II, and yet very few are about the eastern front and Russian sacrifices and contributions. There was a western movie, Enemy at the Gates, recently, about the Battle of Stalingrad, but it is one of the few I can think of. From what I know, American movies seem to be watched in many countries, even China. So, it may be that people obtain their knowledge of the war in part from watching movies with their captivating stories. And most of the movies coming from Hollywood are about western contributions towards winning World War II. Whatever the explanation, there is little doubt that the Soviet contribution to the war effort is vastly underplayed by Hollywood, and this may have had an effect.
- In my opinion this promising comparative project should have a continuation. Maybe not only as surveys of public opinion, but as a research in mass media and textbooks. What do you think about that?
Yes, that would be an excellent idea. I would love to see such a project. There is one book, by Keith Crawford and Stuart Foster, that considers textbook coverage of World War II. Entitled War, Nation, Memory: International Perspectives on World War II in School History Textbooks, it provides a number of fascinating chapters with comparisons of how various aspects of the war are considered. However, the book does not reach to the former Soviet Union in its coverage. So, much more work remains to be done on this front.