Since the 1960s, every single even slightly educated American schoolchild has read Anne Frank’s luminous diary. During the Anne Frank lessons, most teachers spend an inordinate amount of time reiterating Anne’s most famous words, written on July 15, 1944, exactly two years after she and her family went into hiding to escape the Nazis:
It’s a wonder I haven’t abandoned all my ideals, they seem so absurd and impractical. Yet I cling to them because I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart. It’s utterly impossible for me to build my life on a foundation of chaos, suffering and death. I see the world being slowly transformed into a wilderness, I hear the approaching thunder that, one day, will destroy us too, I feel the suffering of millions. And yet, when I look up at the sky, I somehow feel that everything will change for the better, that this cruelty too shall end, that peace and tranquility will return once more. [Emphasis mine.]
Thanks to those words, Americans accept that “people are truly good at heart.” This belief creates a syllogism, one that sees Americans claiming that it must be a lie when someone dares to claim that another group doesn’t meet certain moral absolutes. How can there be moral absolutes when all “people are truly good at heart”?
The problem with this post-1960s syllogism is that Anne Frank was completely and totally wrong.Agreed. But don't blame it on Anne. Blame it on those who derived the wrong message from her diary. The brilliant author and critic Cynthia Ozick nailed it in 1997, I think, when she wrote this:
Her extraordinary diary, published in 1947 as "Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl," which records the time Anne spent in hiding from the Nazis, is a self-aware work of youthful genius. But its reputation for uplift is nonsense. The diary has been bowdlerized, distorted, transmuted, reduced; it has been infantilized, Americanized, sentimentalized, falsified, kitschified, and, in fact, blatently denied. Among the falsifiers have been dramatists and directors, Anne's own father, Otto Frank, and the public, both readers and theatregoers, all over the world. The diary is not a song to life-- rather it reveals the easy destructibility of the human spirit; it is the vehicle that has accomplished mankind's almost universal obtuseness about the dark lessons of Auschwitz. The diary's keen lens is helplessly opaque to the diarist's explicit doom--and this opacity, replicated in young readers, has led to shamelessness. The sentimentalists say that the children of the world own Anne Frank, but is that right? One can look at the astonishingly embarrassing 20-year correspondence, published in 1995 under the title "Love, Otto," between Cara Wilson, a Californian born in 1944, and Otto Frank. Wilson's simplistic identification with Anne reduces the meaning of Anne's life and work. And Otto is complicit in this shallowly upbeat view of history. If Anne Frank has been made into an "icon," it is because of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play derived from the diary--a play that rapidly achieved worldwide popularity, and framed the legend even the newest generation has come to believe in.