If you could choose one personal object to represent your life, what would it be? Perhaps a crumpled photograph in your wallet? Or a diary entry from the day that changed your life forever? Or your wedding ring? How much of your story would this object reveal, and how much of its story is different from yours? How many other stories would it tell? And will it have any meaning at all when you are no longer there to tell its tales?
In his new book, My Grandfather’s Knife, the journalist and historian Joseph Pearson invites us to ponder what rich hidden stories can be gleaned from seemingly ordinary inanimate objects and how this can help us better understand the complexities of history, particularly that of the Second World War.
People’s personal belongings are not an obvious go-to for modern historians, who tend to gravitate towards the quantifiable and the universal. We prefer to trawl through the archives until we find a policy directive which once prescribed a change that affected millions. We love ledgers and records that allow us to make reasonably accurate assumptions about what life was like at a certain time or for certain groups of people. Much of this tendency is to do with the fact that we are spoilt for choice when it comes to sources. A modern historian often has got access to far more material than they could ever hope to process – endless files and records, tucked away in neatly arranged archives. Why pick a singular object, possibly unique to the individual who possessed it, when other sources are better suited to provide answers to the big questions?
By contrast, ancient and mediaeval historians tend to be much more comfortable with the idea of drawing conclusions about the past from individual objects than their modern colleagues. Indeed, in some cases these are all there is for a particular place or a particular time. A single object can even be so central to the retelling of a particular history that it defines it. Take the Sutton-Hoo helmet, for example. This ornate piece of early mediaeval armour was discovered in 1939 and immediately began to reshape our idea of what the Anglo-Saxon period in England was like. The intricate shape of the helmet’s face, its detailed eyebrows, nose and moustache, all make the object relatable and human while its complicated patterns of dragons and warriors add a sense of mystique. People were drawn to it straight away. There was a sense that the helmet had a story to tell. Who was the man buried with it? Indeed, the Sutton-Hoo helmet is so famous that it is often the first thing that springs to mind when the words ‘Anglo-Saxon’ are mentioned. It is hard to think of an object with comparable status in the modern era.
My Grandfather’s Knife makes a powerful case for those who wish to study the Second World War to become ‘material historians’, too, and use objects as hooks to uncover hidden strands of this vast and overwhelmingly complex part of 20th-century history. It argues that the objects do not have to be singular or materially valuable – ‘the line between the junkyard and the museum is a good story’. And Pearson’s objects tell good stories indeed. He picked five for his book: a knife, a diary, a recipe book, a string instrument and a cotton pouch.
The object that gave the book its title is particularly intriguing: a knife with a swastika which hung in the basement of the author’s grandfather’s house in Canada. A Canadian himself, Pearson now lives in Berlin. One day, he was shocked to find the knife that had frightened him so much as a child reappear in a book box in his flat in Germany when his family sent it over from North America together with some other belongings. The Nazi knife had inadvertently found its way back to the fatherland. Torn between the fear created by the accidental import of something that his neighbours would at best consider dangerous, at worst illegal, and the irresistible attraction of the dark family heirloom, Pearson began to investigate.
As he outlines the ‘detective work’ he undertook to solve the puzzle of how the stories of his grandfather, a 22-year-old captain in the Canadian forces in 1945, and the knife converged, Pearson intentionally lays bare the entire investigative journey with all its dead ends, wrong turns and brick walls. Conventional history does not do that. It is usually written in conclusions; the reader is presented with the end-result of the research, not the research process itself. In Pearson’s words, ‘the historian shows the front of the rug to the reader, neatly sewn up, not the messy back with the knots and corrections’. By contrast, My Grandfather’s Knife invites its readers to observe the weaving of the rug. Pearson is not even afraid to reveal the human shortcomings of the historian. He admits, for example, that the arrival of the Nazi knife in Berlin, its spiritual home, unnerved him to the point where he briefly indulged in the idea that it had followed him there for a reason, before dismissing this thought as ‘superstition’ and ‘nonsense’.
The book’s invitation behind the scenes also reminds us that historians have prejudices which can colour their research. Pearson’s knife was engraved with the maker’s mark: ‘Alexander Koppel. Solingen’. Koppel’s company had been operating out of Solingen since 1821 and Solingen itself is a town known as ‘blade city’ for its long history of knife-making. Perfect, Pearson thought, ‘for the Nazis, Solingen was a stage set: a paradigm of salt-of-the-earth German handwork and industrial prestige’. Pearson imagined how awkward it would be to travel there and confront Koppel’s grandchildren: ‘where was your grandfather during the war?’ But when he arrived in Solingen, he did not find the ‘Wagnerian fantasy’ he had expected but a modern, nondescript town that had been hastily re-erected in the post-war years as extensive bombing had destroyed most of it. He also did not have to worry about ‘pointing fingers at perpetrators’. Instead of defensive Nazi descendants, he discovered Alexander Koppel’s name on a Stolperstein – one of 75,000 bronze ‘stumbling stones’ installed in Europe’s streets which denote the last known residence of a Holocaust victim. Koppel was Jewish, a victim of the Nazis, not one of their henchmen. He was murdered at Theresienstadt camp in 1942.
Pearson is comfortable with the conflicting narratives he uncovers: a ‘Nazi knife made by a Jew’; ‘the knife survived the war, but its city of origin burned to ashes’; ‘its maker was killed by hands that wielded weapons engraved with his name’. It is precisely the power of objects to reveal such ‘grisly ironies’. Inanimate things are implacable. They don’t try to make sense or create cohesion. They are perfectly indifferent to the conflicting associations they hold for those who study them. Pearson’s approach to place objects at the centre of his research thus allows the complexities and conflicts of the Second World War to co-exist and trouble us. He makes no attempt to iron them out.
Its original approach makes My Grandfather’s Knife an intriguing addition to the vast field of literature on the Second World War. Objects from that era often carry a particular emotive burden. In the victorious nations, militaria and captured German trophies can become sacred relics of an event that is rapidly slipping out of living memory. In Germany, the dark aura of the objects that bear witness to its darkest years are still deemed dangerous and often locked away rather than displayed and studied. Pearson reminds us that the fabric of the Second World War consists of many smaller threats. The messy business of weaving the stories of seemingly ordinary objects into the rich tapestry of history is well worth it.
My Grandfather’s Knife: And Other Stories of War and Belongings by Joseph Pearson, HarperCollins Publishers, pp 320; £20