by: Maitreya and Ruadh
Hindsight bias is an issue especially with social and cultural change and emotive events. In our own projects regarding the ICRC during the Second World War and the discourse and social attitudes towards condoms around this period as well we are encountering the issue of hindsight bias.
With the ICRC, it’s very easy to look back at the organization’s actions, or lack thereof, as a massive failure on the part of an important global organization. I have decided to look specifically at the ICRC’s responsibilities and actions towards concentration camp and prisoner of war camp inmates during the war, as this formed the bulk of the committee’s actions during World War II. The Red Cross’ ability to inspect prisoner of war/concentration camps was enshrined in the Geneva Conventions of 1929, which means that perhaps it could have and should have done something for the people who suffered in camps during the war, and it’s easy to look back, seventy-odd years later, and say that the ICRC failed spectacularly in its goal of protecting prisoners of war and innocent victims of conflict. It’s easy for us, as observers and historians, to stand on our historical pedestals and say, ‘well, of course it makes sense that they should have gone into the concentration camps, and it should have been easy for them to speak out against the appalling humanitarian conditions and the clear moral injury caused by mass murder.’ However, this ignores the reality of the political and social circumstances which might have circumscribed the Red Cross’ ability to speak out on humanitarian issues. The links between the ICRC and the Swiss government were, at the time, much closer than they are now, and the officially neutral position of the Swiss government, partnered with the ICRC’s commitment to neutrality, often stopped the organization from speaking out on wrongdoing by the belligerent parties in the war. As well, both the USSR and Japan weren’t signatories to the 1929 Geneva Conventions, and with both countries not exactly functioning as paragons of democracy with vibrant and healthy civil societies, limited the ability for national Red Cross societies to intervene in humanitarian matters concerning POWs. Similarly, the ICRC has not always had the best relationship with national Red Cross societies, and this hampered cooperation with the German Red Cross, which would routinely violate the Geneva Conventions and allow the deportation of Jewish prisoners to concentration camps. As well, it’s somewhat (though I’m not precisely certain to what degree) debatable what the Red Cross knew about events in Europe. In the end, it’s easy enough to condemn the actions of the Red Cross during the war, but we have to be careful to be objective about Red Cross actions and try and look back on the war with a more objective eye. I’m still struggling somewhat with finding a transnational story in this, per se, beneath the obvious look of a global reach of an international organization, and I’m somewhat worried about forcing transnational trends where there aren’t any (again, there’s the hindsight bias operating).
In the modern day we think of condoms as part of a selection of contraceptives but during the first half of the 20th century they were regarded (at least in official publications and the public language of advertisements) as a method of disease prevention more so than as a way of preventing pregnancy as the notion of preventing pregnancy was analogous to an extent of modern moral concerns regarding abortion and emergency ‘morning after’ methods. At least in Britain during this period, and probably across a lot of nations, condoms and the issue of family planning was seen as a more male concern. This is evidenced by government propaganda regarding VD and condom use during World War II being targeted at male military personnel and not at civilian or indeed military women and this applied across most countries and indeed despite being standard issue for their male comrades female military units were not issued with condoms. Civilian adverts for female douches (a method of contraception that was often marketed as for ‘feminine hygiene’) showed a woman as being ignorant of their use and of a husband as being concerned about this. Ignorance was seen as a display of feminine innocence; after all women were not supposed to be having premarital and extramarital sex. In the present day West, family planning and contraception is seen as being more of a female issue largely due to the impact of the contraceptive pill as a female controlled method introduced in the 1960s. It is difficult to continually remember that people in the decades immediately prior to the 1960s did not known that reliable female controlled contraception was coming, that the baby boom may not be a positive thing and that venereal disease/sexually transmitted infections would cause a threat to global health again before the end of the century.
In transnational history in particular there is the issue of imposing a transnational lens or perspective on a period or trend that to those experiencing it was profoundly national in scope. It’s important to look at how people at the time were experiencing these events and trends, and to try and not look back on emotive events or controversial trends with too much in the way of hindsight. On the other hand, it’s also important to analyze the impact of a given event and be able to offer some sort of moral judgement on history – so perhaps there is a bit of benefit in hindsight, whether it’s looking at the relationship between the baby boom and contraception, or fairly assessing a Red Cross failure during the war. From a methodological standpoint, it’s also important to acknowledge that while transnational trends may not have always been obvious to the people impacted at the time, it’s important for us as historians to see these transnational trends and comment on their existence. There’s a concern that we might be imposing a transnational trend where there wasn’t one before, and trying to figure out how parallel national developments influenced each other and whether there was a cross-national awareness in the first place.
Another concern that we both have is that our projects might turn into comparative history, rather than transnational history, and that instead of looking at trends which transcend borders, we’re only looking at purely national developments that may have resulted from a common event, but from that point, don’t have particularly obvious links. Finding a transnational story in disparate events can be difficult, but no state, no event, and no person exists in a vacuum, whether or not they’re necessarily aware of the transnational network in which they exist. This brings us back to the issue of hindsight bias – does our recognition of this connectivity as historians lead us to make connections that aren’t actually there?
On the other hand are transnational historians, rediscovering and constructing forgotten about or overlooked connections. Indeed even in moments of more nationally confined developments if these originate from a common point and later again converge are these national developments still of transnational importance? For example the Second World War could be seen as a common moment in the history of sexual concerns relating to disease which occurred again with the AIDS crisis of the 1980s onwards. Between this common point of widespread and encouraged condom use during the Second World War and the discovery of the AIDS virus in the 1980s national attitudes towards condoms and the newer forms of contraception diverged and separated out. With the knowledge of these transnational developments at either end of this period this period of arguably more national rather than transnational events is still of interest to transnational historians.