Presentation Details

The Second International Conference on New Directions in the Humanities

Remembering World War II and the Problem of Human Rights: A Comparative Perspective

John Bodnar.

World War II produced both the founding document of the modern Human Rights revolution—the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and a highly politicized and nationalized memory of the war that undermined the declaration’s idealism and spirit of universal brotherhood. This paper will explore the way the key combatants in World War II, including Germany, Japan, Russia and the United States, constructed public memories of the war and the reasons why those memories fostered ideals and values antithetical to the Universal Declaration. The relationship between war, remembrance and political values will be probed in order to understand how moral and political values came to be grounded in historical communities that were increasingly narrow in their construction. For instance, veterans claimed a historical experience and communal spirit that privileged their claims to rights and sympathy over those of many others. The experience of suffering, moreover, an experience that had the potential to create a shared memory of the war was invariably claimed more by certain groups or submerged completely at times in some forms of national remembering. Ultimately, I hope to suggest why the very experience of war and remembrance invariably creates problems for any effort to ground moral and political values in the realm of human nature and how those problems are connected to the way contemporaries understood the war they fought.


John Bodnar  (United States)
Professor of History
Department of History
Indiana University

Specialist in modern American history. Recent books include Remaking America: Public Memory, Commemoration, and Patriotism (1992); Blue-Collar Hollywood: Liberalism, Democracy, and Working People in American Film (2003) and “Saving Private Ryan and Postwar Memory,” American Historical Review (2001).

  • War and Memory
  • Human Rights
  • World War II
  • Human Suffering
  • Veteran Politics
  • Cultural Memory
  • Violence

(Virtual Presentation, English)