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  • Gary Toyn

Embracing Historical Messiness: The Power of Historical Fiction




Summary: Reading historical fiction can be challenging because it compels us to confront our cognitive biases and embrace the messiness of history. Good historical fiction not only helps us discover untold stories, but also break free from oversimplifications, unveil new perspectives, and cultivate empathy.


As I finish the initial draft of my next novel, I keep shaking my head because of the messiness of WWII history. In many ways, I find this messiness delicious. In other ways, it’s causing some cognitive dissonance.


Conducting research for this and other projects often makes me increasingly uncomfortable because I keep bumping into historical facts that challenge what I’ve always thought about World War II.


With it all, I keep being drawn back to a non-fiction book that changed my life. It’s a book by psychologist Daniel Kahneman called Thinking Fast and Slow.” It enlightened me to consider my cognitive biases, and why all our brains take shortcuts by oversimplifying complex concepts at the expense of truth and accuracy. It seems our brains aren’t too keen on ambiguity, so it avoids it at nearly any cost. Our brains use these coping mechanisms to avoid being over-taxed, should some life-and-death event suddenly arise.


We know of 188 cognitive biases that our brains use to help us cope with the complexities of life. The problem is these cognitive behaviors deceive us into believing that our assessment of the world is 100% accurate. And we all know being 100% correct would take, well, uh, divine power.


Take for example the cognitive bias called the Ikea Effect. Technically, it’s the result of our placing a disproportionately high value on products we are involved in creating or building, such as some furniture from Ikea. Our bias kicks in when we look at two similar items, and we give greater value to the item for which we had a part in making. Another bias is the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon. You know you’re experiencing this cognitive bias when you buy a new car, then all of a sudden you start seeing the same make and model everywhere.


Cognitive biases have been demonstrated in countless studies. The funny thing is, even scientists who study cognitive biases and understand how they work and their negative impacts can very much be influenced by their cognitive biases unless they make special efforts to overcome them.


The Connection Between Cognitive Bias and Historical Fiction

Which brings me to the topic of historical messiness.


One of the things I most enjoy about writing historical fiction ­­– especially about World War II history ­­– is how relevant it can be in teaching us how to deal with our own contemporary messiness.


We have a lot of messiness to deal with. From social media’s impact on public opinion to government-sponsored censorship, disinformation campaigns, and FBI collusion to suppress health information. The list of messy issues is far too long for this post. Political and social messiness is something we’ve always dealt with. And we’ll continue to deal with it in the future. The question will be: can we learn to embrace the messiness?


Having an open and intellectually honest encounter with history requires us to put aside our brain’s powerful tendency to oversimplify events, ignore conflicting data, and arrive at “black or white” narratives that make us feel good.


Those simplistic historical narratives usually ignore nuance, or just about any other fact or event that conflicts with a simple narrative. And it’s all because our brains fight against any effort to work too hard.


Identifying and assessing our own biases is a real challenge. Most of us (myself included) find it difficult to first admit, identify, then overcome cognitive biases.

When it comes to learning from history, it’s even harder to be willing to accept the ambiguity that often accompanies a different historical narrative than the one we’ve come to believe.


That’s where good books about history can be so helpful. Especially a good historical novel, as it can help us learn from history, often by helping us view history through a new lens. It can compel us to consider unflattering facts about the agreed-upon narrative of our social “tribe.” Whether that tribe is our country, our religion, our political leanings, etc.


Japanese vs. German Internment During WWII

Take for example the story from my first novel about the internment of Americans in “concentration camps” throughout the western states.


Most people are well aware that over 100,000 Japanese Americans were interred during WWII.

This is a topic often taught in our schools, and we’ll frequently see documentaries where survivors are interviewed and they describe the horrible ways they were treated. And rightfully so. It was an unflattering and shameful episode in our history, and a prime example of government overreach, abuse of power, racism etc. After years of trying to sweep these disgraceful events under the rug, the U.S. government eventually compensated 80,000 victims with an apology and a check for $20,000.


German-American schoolchildren pose with their teacher at Crystal City Internment camp in Texas during WWII (source)


But did you know that the U.S. government similarly interred over 10,000 German-Americans?

One of the most frequent comments I receive from people who review my book “For Malice and Mercy,” is that they were completely unaware that the U.S. government interred Germans. Many of these were citizens, born in America. But they were likewise arrested, stripped of their constitutional rights, and had their property and belongings confiscated. They were detained in the same internment camps as the Japanese, and over 2,500 were forcefully deported to Germany. The FBI was found to have “advised police and employers about how ‘dangerous’ these German-Americans were to local communities. The effect was these German-Americans were convicted of nothing but guilt by association, and they were often unable to get and keep a job.


After the war, many German-Americans in Germany applied to return to the USA but were denied entry unless they signed an oath of secrecy, promising they would not talk about what the government did to them, what they suffered, or the property they lost. If they did, they were threatened with instant re-arrest and permanent expulsion. The oath of secrecy was among the biggest reasons most of us haven’t learned about this whole German American internment episode in school. The government also suppressed most of the official documents regarding how they treated German (and Italian) Americans. It took the power of the Freedom of Information Act to release incriminating documents. Now there’s incontrovertible evidence that these German-Americans were victims of systemic government abuse.


While Japanese internees have received billions in reparations, not one German American has received an apology or a single dime of compensation. Even though the Germans endured the same, unconstitutional denial of their rights as the Japanese, their injustice remains mostly forgotten and ignored.


I wrote about this incident in an article here, so I won’t go into all the details, but I use it as an example of how historical fiction can bring to light new aspects of history that don’t necessarily fit the official narrative.


Good historical fiction should challenge us.

It should lead to a more colorful, rich, and interesting view of history.

It should lead us to reconsider the views of those with whom we disagree or oppose.

But it’s even more than that.

When our comfortable view of history is challenged, we become vulnerable to learning new things.

We become susceptible to becoming better listeners.

We become more open to experiencing the world from someone else’s viewpoint and on someone else’s terms.

We're likely to become more empathetic.

We're likely to become less contentious and confrontational.

We're likely to become less afraid of what we don’t understand.

We could all use a lot more people like that.

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