Herstory at its fucking finest.
“Though for me, my perception of World War II was filtered through the Bomb and The Diary of Anne Frank.” Just Kids, Page 70, Patti Smith.
It’s unsurprising that the stories of the powerful monopolise history; for a very long time it was the powerful who wrote history. Monetary power, political power and family power all bought you pages in a textbook or a gauche memorial plaque somewhere public. These stories, while they are undoubtedly an important part of our historical narrative, can be uninspiring, unrelatable, unfairly loud.
Occasionally, an underdog makes some historical noise. Someone who, in their life, had very little or no power. Someone whose power has been acquired entirely posthumously, through the repetition of their story and their unrelenting relevance. It’s important to have these historical underdogs, because an underdog is to history lovers what a chicken drumstick is to the Tudors; the taste that masks the unhealthy mucus which will eventually kill us… Or at least our passion for the past.
WWII is defined by three figures – Hitler, Churchill and Anne Frank. Now the first two, while their stories are considered remarkable, it’s pretty unremarkable that their lives continue to provoke interest. Politically powerful men, educated, able-bodied, whose charisma saw them thrive at a time of deep moral austerity, is conducive to the power normative depiction that justifies the really specific way our powerful look today. Anne Frank’s story is, sadly, unremarkable. In terms of the Holocaust she’s one of millions whose life was taken by a horrific genocide which served the powerful. In world history, she’s one of billions whose life was taken by a horrific genocide which served the powerful. But the fact that her story has survived, has come to encapsulate the Holocaust, the war, is remarkable. She is the ultimate underdog.
Naturally, we become quite protective of our underdogs, the ones whose stories truly touch us, whose lives and hopes and dreams resonate with our own. With Anne, this has become particularly so. We couldn’t protect her from the Nazi regime, but we can do our utmost to protect her legacy.
The comment made by Justin Bieber after a visit to The Anne Frank House wasn’t, in itself, offensive and folk aren’t synthetically outraged because her legacy is at stake. In the decades since the publication of her diary, Anne has been the subject of many a less than artistic musing, many a distasteful joke. She’s had an asteroid named after her, she’s featured in South Park, other cartoons and sitcoms and comedy shows. She starred in her very own alien web comic, countless pop and rock songs, even a musical. Douglas Coupland used her to inspire one of his characters, Erin Gruwell and The Freedom Writers were inspired by her too. She’s endorsed the work of many who, for various reasons, were trying to prove their own respect for the most famous teenage girl in the world.
That’s not to say society doesn’t admire Anne. We do, and not just because she was brave, witty, spunky. Not just because she represents the Holocaust in a way that doesn’t make us feel like we might choke on our own misanthropy. We admire her because she possessed a lot of fantastic qualities that we don’t usually attribute to young people.
Bieber’s indiscretion left a bad taste in our chicken-drumstick-stuffing-mouths because we see him as everything that Anne wasn’t. Him with his bad hair, and bad music and bad attitude, how dare he have any kind of feelings towards our Anne. Bieber could have written a sonnet depicting how amazing he thought Anne was, a beautiful, eloquent sonnet, a sonnet so profound it gave Shakespeare conspiracy theorists a boner, and we’d still have retaliated with indignation, we’d still have said something along the lines of “well duh, you don’t need to tell us that BIEBER.”
Eva Schloss, Anne Frank’s stepsister, said “She probably would have been a fan. He’s a young man and she was a young girl, and she liked film stars and music.” And she’s right, one of the things we know about Anne is that the radio kept her company, became a friend, throughout her years in hiding. But Eva’s response hones in on more than just the sensibilities of someone who knew the real Anne, experienced what Anne experienced, and can afford to speak with some detachment. The way in which we use someone’s age either to excuse, condemn or praise their behaviour is what makes this whole non story so infuriating. Bieber made a mistake because he is young. Anne’s humility is incredible because she was so very young. She probably would have enjoyed terrible pop music because that’s what YOUNG girls like. Fifteen year olds aren’t moronic. They don’t always make smart decisions, but they’re definitely not a breed of hysterical young sweethearts whose taste in everything is sub par. And they sure as shit don’t need protecting.
The Diary Of A Young Girl is, to a certain extent, a marketing ploy. It’s what makes Anne’s story different from all the rest. Only, anyone who’s read Anne’s diary as a young woman, knows that that just isn’t the case. Jenny Diski explains why she loved The Diary Of Anne Frank in LRB, and while she relates to her teenage insecurities, she doesn’t patronise Anne for being a young girl;
“She may have personified the Holocaust for millions of adults, but for me, aged 12 or 13, she simply told the story of what it is like to be 12 or 13 in a world where no one seems to be listening to you. Read the diary without hindsight (impossible for any adult, of course, but not so difficult when you are a child looking for a literary friend) and it is a masterly description of the sorrows and turmoil of any bright, raging, self-dramatising young girl. Read in this way, in the way I first read it, the sequestration becomes peripheral, the fear of capture secondary. ‘I don’t fit in with them’ is an early and continuous complaint that for me, at the time, quite overrode Anne Frank’s particular circumstances.”
When I read it, also somewhere around the cusp of puberty, what struck me was the way that Anne Frank felt about being a woman. You can’t, by any means, manipulate her diary into a feminist text, but Anne’s awareness of the injustices that women faced in the 1930s is present at multiple points throughout the book.
“Men are held with great esteem in all parts of the world, so why shouldn’t women have their share?“
Reading work by American-Dutch microbiologist Paul De Kruif, Anne writes passionately about the uncommended hardships of childbearing and being a mother:
“In the book Men Against Death I was greatly struck by the fact that in childbirth alone, women commonly suffer more pain, illness and misery than any war hero ever does. And what’s her reward for enduring all that pain? She gets pushed aside when she’s disfigured by birth, her children soon leave, her beauty is gone. Women, who struggle and suffer pain to ensure the continuation of the human race, make much tougher and more courageous soldiers… I don’t mean to imply women should stop having children… What I condemn are our system of values and the men who don’t acknowledge how great, difficult but ultimately beautiful women’s share in society is.”
Knowing how much she loved music and how strongly she felt about recognition for women’s achievements, if I had a jam with Anne I’d want to play her some Patti Smith, Joni Mitchell, Stevie Nicks. Show her some YouTube clips of Kim Deal and Kim Gordon. Prove to her that, while things aren’t perfect, in the years after her short life women did begin to get their share.
All the flutterings and worries that Diski highlights, the fact that she might have fancied a crass popstar, none of it should be explained by her age. While her diary is our only connection to her, it isn’t what made her Anne. Had she survived the Holocuast, she’d have matured into an adult woman who retained the same admirable qualities that young Anne displays.
Eva describes Anne as “very lively, intellectually developed” and “quite interested in clothes and boys“. That description, to me at least, is not just the description of a young girl, it’s the description of a remarkable girl, who knew all girls are remarkable.