Coming to Terms With Germany and Its Past

Old Warehouses and canal in Hamburg, Germany

As many of you know I spent my Christmas break with my wife in Germany.  This is my third trip and with each visit I’ve grown more attached to the people, the landscape, and the culture.  I find myself completely absorbed by my surroundings when abroad, especially in Germany.  My passion for the history of the Civil War is replaced by an intense interest in the German experience in World War II.  My visits always include a good book about the period.  This time around I put a major dent in Richard Evans’s The Third Reich at War.  I have little problem imagining the battles, lines of advance and ruins of places like Bonn and especially Koln owing to that iconic image of the bombed-out city center, including the cathedral and nearby railroad bridge.

My interest in the period, however, is not purely military.  Even though I do not live a religious life I was raised in a Jewish family and my education early on was filled with survivors of and stories about the Holocaust.  I don’t just bring that personal past with me to Germany, I am forced to confront it on a daily basis.  It manifests itself in the form of a puzzle or set of seemingly contradictory perceptions.  On the one hand I am married to a wonderful German woman.  Her family has accepted me with open arms.  I have never felt from anyone in my wife’s family – or for that matter anyone else in Germany – any feelings of Anti-Semitism.

At the same time I can’t help but acknowledge the brief span of time between today and the 1940s.  For historians 70 years is a drop in the bucket.  It’s impossible for me to ignore the fact that just a few decades my presence in this very same country would have been met with disgust, anger, and worse.  I know this and at times it colors how I view the people around me.  At times I find myself playing with the faces in the streets.  I can imagine the elderly in their youth – young enough to have lived through the Nazi era and perhaps somehow contributing to the extermination of the Jewish people.  I can imagine them forcing me onto a train.  But what troubles me is how easily I can imagine younger male faces in German/SS uniforms.  I can’t help but feel a certain amount of guilt and shame for doing so.  After all, why saddle a younger generation with the past?  The mental act is my way of trying to come to terms with what Hannah Arendt called the “banality of evil.”  Why would my presence have been so revolting just a few decades ago when now I am welcomed with open arms?  I’ve read plenty of philosophy and social scientists on just this question, but they provide me with little in terms of answers.

For me, the past and present collapse when in Germany.


USPS Commemorates Emancipation Proclamation 150

Unfortunately, this may be the closest we get to any formal acknowledgement of the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation by the federal government.  I love the broadside/poster theme and the use of one of the oldest letterpress print shops in the country to create the image.  In addition to the stamp, you can also purchase a limited number of signed copies of the poster.  Planning on picking up a sheet today.

Update: Thanks to the Virginia Civil War 150 Commission for reminding me that the White House released a Presidential Proclamation acknowledging the EP 150.

emancipation stamp


Abraham Lincoln: War Veteran Projection, 2012

From the video description:

For thirty two days, voices of veterans of the Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan wars animated a bronze commemorative statue of Abraham Lincoln that has stood silently in Union Square Park since 1870.

The memories and feelings of ordinary Americans spoke through Lincoln as part of an outdoor public art installation by Krzysztof Wodiczko, an artist renowned for his large-scale light projections on architectural facades and monuments. Abraham Lincoln: War Veteran Projection marked a return of sorts to Manhattan for the artist, whose last monumental work here was the influential and still often cited Homeless Project (1988).

“As our troops withdraw from Afghanistan, this commemorative statue, commissioned just a few years after the Civil War, again becomes a place for dialogue about war,” says Micaela Martegani, founding director of More Art. More Art, an eight-year-old organization devoted to bringing new and innovative works of art into public spaces in New York City, is the organizer of Abraham Lincoln: War Veteran Projection.

In collaboration with many New York City veterans organizations, Wodiczko has engaged with dozens of veterans and their family members over the course of several months. He filmed fourteen of the veterans and their family members for the installation of Abraham Lincoln: War Veteran Projection, recording conversations about their war experiences and the toll of duty on their family life. It was these points of views, presented in each person’s own words, voice, and gestures, that were projected via sound and light onto the figure of Lincoln.

In 1988 Wodiczko used the monument at Bunker Hill in Boston to share the stories from local mothers who lost sons to street violence.


Where Slaves Were Immediately Freed by the Emancipation Proclamation

Map Emancipation Proclamation

In response to my last post Al Mackey referenced a North and South magazine article from back in 2001 by William Harris on the Emancipation Proclamation.  Al correctly noted that Harris’s article addresses the long-standing myth that the proclamation did not immediately free any slaves in the South.  I’ve made use of this particular article (December 2001) on numerous occasions in my courses on the Civil War.  What I especially like about the article is the accompanying map, which is incredibly helpful in visualizing the reach of the document.

You may also want to read a recent Disunion essay on emancipation along the Sea Islands of South Carolina by Blain Roberts and Ethan J. Kytle.


Today Should Be a National Holiday: Emancipation 150

For a nation that prides itself as the leader of the free world, I’ve always found it curious as to why this day is not set aside as a national holiday.  On this day 150 years ago President Abraham Lincoln did what he promised he would do 100 days earlier by issuing his final Emancipation Proclamation.  We can quibble about whether the proclamation ought to be understood narrowly as a military or moral document, but what we are always left with is the fact that it paved the way for the eventual freeing of 4 million slaves.  That it did so can and should be celebrated by all Americans.

Click here for Eric Foner’s excellent Op-ed column on Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation in the New York Times.


Happy New Year!


Just arrived home from a wonderful 10-day trip to Germany.  My wife and I spent time with family in Bremen before moving on to Bonn/Koenigswinter and Frankfurt.  This was my first trip to Germany during Christmas and I have to say that this Jewish kid from New Jersey was impressed.  There really is something special about the way Germans celebrate the season, from decorating their trees with real candles to meeting friends and family at the local Christmas market.  It’s much less commercial and much more family oriented.

The food was simply amazing.  I could easily hibernate for the rest of the winter on the amount of Bratkartoffeln and German meats that I ate during the week.  And let’s not even go into the pastries, chocolates and cookies.  Every morning started with a relaxing trip to the local cafe.  No one bothers you with a check or with having to vacate your table.  You can sit as long as you like.  My kind of place.  As always I am sad at having to return.  I find Germany to be completely absorbing and I can even envision spending a year abroad if the opportunity ever presents itself.

On this 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation I want to wish all of you a Happy New Year.  Let’s make it a good one.

For now it’s off to bed.