History rewrites the past. It doesn’t just record what happened—it changes it. With a sweep of the pen, it labels whole nations of people as monsters and villains. It reduces soldiers on the other side to nothing more than mindless cogs in an evil machine.
But every army was made up of people. The soldiers who carried out every atrocity throughout history were just individuals with minds and lives of their own, people who thought they were doing the right thing. It can be hard to wrap your mind around how these people must have seen the world, but the letters they left yield clues.
10 The Last Letter Of A Japanese Kamikaze Pilot
Before the Japanese kamikazes went off to their deaths, many wrote letters home to their families. It was their last chance to say goodbye to the ones they loved.
Most tried to show their bravery in their letters home. They would try to convince their families that they were unafraid of the death that awaited them, that they thought only of the glory of the empire. But in one touching letter, a new father named Furukawa Takao let that mask of bravery fall.
“I find my thoughts returning continually to you and our soon-to-be-born child,” Furukawa wrote to his wife. “Every day, as I wait for my first, and last, attack, I reread the letter you wrote the day you made the jelly and gazed at the photos of you and Sister Etchan.”
He had already been sent out on kamikaze missions, but he hadn’t sacrificed himself yet. As he put it to his wife, he made it back “without doing anything especially heroic.” There were still more missions on the horizon, though, and the pressure to sacrifice his own life for the glory of Japan was mounting.
Furukawa didn’t want to die. “Now, more than ever, the fleetingness of human life astonishes me,” he wrote home. “Wait for me. I will return without fail. Until you’ve safely given birth to our child, I have no intention of dying easily.”
He didn’t go through with his promise. On April 21, 1945, Furukawa Takao sacrificed his own life in a kamikaze mission. World War II would end just a few months later, but his wife and son would have to face it alone.
9 A Letter From A Black Slaveowner
William Ellison is hard man to understand. He was born a slave and worked his whole life to win his freedom. When he finally won it, though, he didn’t share it. Instead, Ellison copied what his former master had done to him. He bought his own plantation and a team of 63 slaves.
It’s difficult to imagine how a man like Ellison could have justified owning slaves, but a letter he wrote to his son gives a little hint.
In the letter, he doesn’t try to justify his lifestyle. Instead, he just talks business. He updates his son on his finances and in particular the frustrating struggle he was having getting his clients to pay. Mr. Ledinham has insisted he “has not the money” right now, Mr. Turner admitted “it was his fault that the account was not paid,” and Mr. Van Buren wouldn’t pay unless a third party would certify the purchase. Beyond that, he listed a few tools he wanted his son to buy—tools his slaves would use to till the farm.
It doesn’t seem like much, but it reveals volumes about the man in his life. Even as a slaveowner, Ellison struggled to be treated as an equal. His clients did everything they could to make sure he didn’t get a dime. But Ellison didn’t complain once. With infinite patience, he would go through anything to earn his wealth.
For him, it seems, there was no point in fighting the inequality around him. What mattered was what a man could get for himself.
8 An Auschwitz Guard’s Letter To His Wife
“From the very beginning I was completely absorbed, in fact obsessed, by my work,” Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Hoss told his wife in a letter home in 1940. “All I thought about was my work.”
It’s a theme that carries through almost every SS officer’s account of life in the Nazi concentration camps. For them, it was work, a repeated, focused task that left them desensitized to the horrors around them.
A letter from a guard named Hugo Behncke to his wife shows just how desensitized he’d become. For him, all that mattered was making it through his long shifts without getting exhausted.
“I’ll be able to cut a few corners,” he told his wife. “I can sit down and that makes the work fairly easy.” He was relieved, too, because it was winter. “In the winter time the prisoners are disinclined to ‘travel,’ ” he told her. The word “travel” here meant “escape.” To him, a fleeing Jewish prisoner was just a pain.
He didn’t have much sympathy for his victims. “The prisoners were all sick, dirty and thin as skeletons,” he told her. “Many of them are stupid, primitive people. [ . . . ] All they were good for was to be burned in the Neuengamme crematorium.”
More than hate, though, the emotion that permeates throughout the letter is nothing more than exhaustion. “The war situation is still gloomy,” it ends. “I want to get home to you and my children.”
7 The Diary Of A Viet Cong Doctor
Dr. Dang Thuy Tram met her end in a blaze of glory and fury. The American army had reached the hospital where she treated the wounded men of the Viet Cong. They ordered her to surrender, but she refused. Dr. Dang, in a final blast of fury, grabbed an old rifle and opened fire on the troops, not stopping until they’d put a bullet through her brain.
On her body, the soldiers found a diary and, within, a disturbingly humanizing insight into the minds on the other side of the battlefield.
“How hateful it is!” she’d written in an entry reflecting on America’s presence in Vietnam. “We are all humans, but some are so cruel as to want the blood of other to water their gold tree.”
In another, she described how she’d watched a young soldier die. “A badly wounded soldier 21 years old called out my name, hoping I could help him,” she wrote. “I could not, and my tears fell as I watched him die in my useless hands.”
Her last entry might be the most tragic of all. In her last moments on Earth, she’d been overwhelmed with a crushing sense of loneliness. “Why do I want so much a mother’s hand to care for me?” she’d written. “Please come to me and hold my hand when I am so lonely, love me and give me strength to travel all the hard sections of the road ahead.”
6 A Letter Home From A Confederate Soldier
The Confederate Army had their reasons for fighting. It might seem ironic to us today, but Confederate officer and slaveowner James Griffin wrote home to his wife that he would fight “until he dies, rather than, be a Slave, Yea worse than a Slave to Yankee Masters.”
Not everyone shared Griffin’s enthusiasm, though. One of the most touching letters from the Civil War was written by a Confederate soldier named O.D. Chester to his sister in 1864. By then, many on both sides were tired of fighting.
“We go down to the edge of the river on our side and the Yankees come down on their side and talk to each other,” he told her. “The men on picket opposite are from Ohio, and seem very tired of the war.”
Though they’d been warned against it by their superiors, the Confederate and Union soldiers would sneak across the river and trade rations and supplies. And after a while, they would just sit and chew the fat.
“I asked some of them who they were going to vote for President,” Chester told his sister, recounting a riverside chat with the men he’d been hired to kill. “One of them said ‘Old Abe’ but most of them said they were for McLellan.”
It was as casual a conversation as could be. But as they talked, they all must have known that the order to fight could come at any moment. And when it did, their guns would pointed at one another once more, aimed to kill.
5 The Diary Of A Gulag Guard
“Minus 45 degrees,” Ivan Chistyakov wrote in his diary on December 10, 1935. “The train runs slowly. Only the moon, with a superior air, glides serenely through the sky. I stay indoors all day, wearing outer clothing.”
It could be any diary written on a cold winter day, but this one comes from a Soviet gulag guard. He was a man in charge of forcing political prisoners to work, part of the crushing machine of Stalin’s reign of terror.
Throughout the diary, Chistyakov never quite gives sympathy to his captives. He comes close, though. He expresses something like pity through his troubled reflections on the cold, detached man that his years in the gulag have made him.
“My heart is desolate, it alarms me,” Chistyakov wrote. “I’m beginning to have that mark on my face, the stamp of stupidity, narrowness, a kind of moronic expression.”
That was the extent of the sympathy he could offer, though. Day after day of trying to keep these people in line turned Chistyakov as cold as the world around him. After calming down a knife fight and an escape plan, Chistyakov made a quick note on what he’d done before angrily jotting down his thoughts on the prisoners:
“To hell with the lot of them!”
4 A Brit During The American Revolutionary War
“I have read somewhere, and I begin to think it possible, that a whole country as well as an individual may be struck with lunacy,” Henry Strachey wrote.
He was talking about the United States of America. To Strachey, the American War for Independence was nothing more than an act of sheer madness.
“The people are beyond nature as well as reason,” Strachey wrote about the American revolutionaries. “They might at this moment have peace and happiness, but they insist upon having their brains knocked out first.”
That peace and happiness, as far as Strachey concerned, would come from acknowledging King George as the rightful ruler of America. To the Americans, of course, that idea would have seemed disgusting—but as far as Strachey was concerned, that was just a trick the American government had pulled on them, convincing them of what he called the “imaginary oppressions” of England.
“Alas!” Strachey complained, after the Americans refused to surrender. “They still continue obstinate.”
3 Black Police Officers During South African Apartheid
While Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress were rising up and fighting for equal rights in South Africa, thousands of black-skinned men and women stood against him. They were the police officers of apartheid-era South Africa, the armed muscle of a government that was actively suppressing their own rights.
A New York Times reporter named Christopher Wren interviewed some of them in 1990, trying to understand why they would actively fight against their own rights.
“I thought in order to help society, I should become a policeman,” a police officer named Franz Nikelo told him. Crime, he said, was the biggest problem in Africa, especially in black communities. That was what South Africa needed to focus on, he felt.
They didn’t see themselves as supporters of the government, even if most of the people they were trying to protect viewed them that way. “It’s stupid to think that black policemen are collaborators,” another officer named Col. Zwane said. “I don’t think we can be a police force if only whites are policemen. We need blacks to investigate. We understand our own people better so it’s important that we be there.”
Nikelo agreed. They weren’t supporting the system, he said; they were just focused on the immediate problem. “When the rate of crime has been lessened, we can look at apartheid.”
2 An Abolitionist Who Learned To Embrace Slavery
Sarah Hicks Williams had her reservations about her new husband Benjamin. Sarah was a Northerner and a strict abolitionist, but the man who had swept her off her feet was a Southern slaveowner.
“There are but two things I know of to dislike in the man,” she wrote home. “One is his owning slaves. [ . . . ] The other is not being a professing Christian.”
To her family, it must have seemed like a terrible match. Nobody could have imagined that this young idealist would ever become a brutal slavemaster, but her letters over the next few years show a young advocate for freedom slowly declining into cruelty.
Within a few months, she was starting to write about slavery as something that wasn’t so terrible. Whether it was a few calm weeks or just the rose tint her love for her husband filmed over her eyes, she wrote home that the slaves weren’t treated too badly. “Indeed,” she said, “I think they are treated with more familiarity than many northern servants.”
The slaves clearly disagreed. Several tried to run away or to steal their freedom, and within a few years, Sarah was as brutal as any other slavemaster in the South.
“Three have run away during the last few months,” she ranted in a letter written after years on the plantation. “They are an ungrateful race, they drive me to be tight and ‘stingy’ with them.”
1 A Wounded Knee War Criminal’s Letters To His Lover
Sergeant Michael Conners was court-martialed and imprisoned for his role in the Wounded Knee Massacre. He was part of a cavalry that gunned down 300 members of the Lakota tribe, many of whom were helpless women and children. He would go down in history as a monster.
In his letters to his wife Lillie, though, Sgt. Conners spoke like nothing worse than a doting husband worried for his young bride’s heart. “Don’t be alarmed,” he promised her in a letter before the massacre, “as there are enough soldiers here to do up all the Indians here.”
When the massacre was over, he felt he’d done something great. “The men behaved very good and done splendid,” he told her, for having run down the Lakota tribe. “They made a break, and we shot them down. We followed them for miles and killed them all quick.” They would call in more troops tomorrow, he assured her. “We will exterminate all the Indians in the country.”
To the modern reader, Conners’s letters are the signed confession of a mass murderer. For Conners, though, it was nothing more than justice served.
“Some of the eastern papers give us the Devil for killing the poor Indians,” he told his wife. “I wish they were out here for a while. I think they would change their opinion.”