Distorting the History to Celebrate the Soldier or Heritage Not Hate

The Tea Party movement has given us a number of colorful candidates this election cycle.  Now we can add to the list one Rich Iott, the Republican nominee for Congress from Ohio’s 9th District.  It turns out that Mr. Iott enjoys wearing Waffen SS uniforms as a one-time member of a Nazi reenactment group.  Of course, Mr. Iott claims no sympathy with the Nazi cause apart from a respect for “a relatively small country that from a strictly military point of view accomplished incredible things.”  I’m not sure what those incredible thing included, but let’s leave that for now.

What I find interesting is the description found on the group’s website explaining why members chose to portray men in the Wiking Division.  Iott and others seem to believe that there is something historically and – by extension morally – significant about the unit’s service on the Eastern Front against the Russian Army:

Nazi Germany had no problem in recruiting the multitudes of volunteers willing to lay down their lives to ensure a “New and Free Europe”, free of the threat of Communism. National Socialism was seen by many in Holland, Denmark, Norway, Finland, and other eastern European and Balkan countries as the protector of personal freedom and their very way of life, despite the true underlying totalitarian (and quite twisted, in most cases) nature of the movement. Regardless, thousands upon thousands of valiant men died defending their respective countries in the name of a better tomorrow. We salute these idealists; no matter how unsavory the Nazi government was, the front-line soldiers of the Waffen-SS (in particular the foreign volunteers) gave their lives for their loved ones and a basic desire to be free.

Of course, historians of World War II take issue with such a characterization as unhistorical and overly romantic.  Hmm…I think I’ve seen this before:

Asked whether his participation in a Nazi re-enactor’s group might not upset voters, particularly Jewish voters, Iott said he hoped it would not: “They have to take it in context. There’s reenactors out there who do everything. You couldn’t do Civil War re-enacting if somebody didn’t play the role of the Confederates. [This] is something that’s definitely way in the past. … [I hope voters] take it in context and see it for what it is, an interest in World War II history. And that’s strictly all.”

It’s interesting to reflect on another example where the history is distorted so as to allow for the commemoration, celebration, or reenactment of the lives of soldiers without having to confront the tough moral questions.

Acquisitions, 10/09

To be honest, the last thing that I need to be reading is another book on Abraham Lincoln given everything that has been published over the past few years.  However, I have to say that I am thoroughly enjoying Eric Foner’s new book on Lincoln and slavery and I suspect that it will quickly establish itself as the standard study – highly recommended.  I will also have quite a lot to say about Earl Hess’s new book on the Crater, which is by far the most thorough study of the battle.  Hess adds quite a bit to our understanding of the racial aspect of the battle.

Shearer Davis Bowman, At the Precipice: Americans North and South During the Secession Crisis (University of North Carolina Press, 2010).

Paul A. Cimbala and Randall M. Miller, The Great Task Remaining Before Us: Reconstruction As America’s Continuing Civil War, (Fordham University Press, 2010).

Eric Foner, The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and Slavery (Norton, 2010).

Earl J. Hess, Into the Crater: The Mine Attack at Petersburg, (University of South Carolina Press, 2010).

Kate Masur, An Example For All the Land: Emancipation and the Struggle for Equality in Washington, D.C. (University of North Carolina Press, 2010).

Louis P. Masur, The Civil War: A Concise History (Oxford University Press, 2011).

Upcoming Talks

On October 26 from 7-9:00pm I will be taking part in a forum sponsored by the Brunswick County Committee of the Virginia Sesquicentennial of the American Civil War.  The event will take place at the Southside Virginia Community College, Workforce Development Center in Alberta, Virginia and will be organized into two sections.  A short segment will begin with a welcome from Marc Finney, Chairman of the Board of Supervisors, followed by Cheryl Jackson will give a brief overview of the state commission and the commemoration. Senator Ruff and Delegate Tyler will make brief comments on the importance of the commemoration.  Charlette T. Woolridge, County Administrator will then talk about the county committee.  The second part of the evening will feature a roundtable that includes yours truly, Waite Rawls of the Museum of the Confederacy and Christie Coleman from the National Civil War Museum at Tredegar.  Professor Stephen Walker will serve as moderator.  A large crowd is expected and the entire program will be videotaped by the college.  Continue reading

Teaching Confederate History Month

A great way to introduce students to the subject of historical memory is to discuss the recent controversy surrounding Confederate History Month here in Virginia.  Ideally, such a lesson would come at the conclusion of a unit on the Civil War, which would allow students to reference previous class discussions as well as any documents that were interpreted.  I was already in the process of putting together a little lesson plan for a TAH workshop that I am taking part in next week when I came across a teacher who had already organized just such a lesson.

Hopefully, the class will have integrated documents that give voice to a wide range of perspectives from the Civil War Era, which must serve as a foundation for any understanding of a proclamation about this event.  I plan on providing my teachers with copies of the Governor McDonnell’s original proclamation:

Confederate History Month Proclamation

WHEREAS,  April is the month in which the people of Virginia joined the Confederate States of America in a four year war between the states for independence that concluded at Appomattox Courthouse; and

WHEREAS, Virginia has long recognized her Confederate history, the numerous civil war battlefields that mark every  region of the state, the leaders and individuals in the Army, Navy and at home who fought for their homes and communities and Commonwealth in a time very different than ours today; and

WHEREAS,  it is important for all Virginians to reflect upon our Commonwealth’s  shared history, to understand the sacrifices of the Confederate leaders, soldiers and citizens during the period of the Civil War, and to recognize how our history has led to our present; and

WHEREAS, Confederate historical sites such as the White House of the Confederacy are open for people to visit in Richmond today; and

WHEREAS, all Virginians can appreciate the fact that when ultimately overwhelmed by the insurmountable numbers and resources of the Union Army, the surviving, imprisoned and injured Confederate soldiers gave their word and allegiance to the United States of America, and returned to their homes and families to rebuild their communities in peace, following the instruction of General Robert E. Lee of Virginia, who wrote that, “…all should unite in honest efforts to obliterate the effects of war and to restore the blessings of peace.”; and

WHEREAS,   this defining chapter in Virginia’s history should not be forgotten, but instead should be studied, understood and remembered by all Virginians, both in the context of the time in which it took place, but also in the context of the time in which we live, and this study and remembrance takes on particular importance as the Commonwealth prepares to welcome the nation and the world to visit Virginia for the Sesquicentennial Anniversary of the Civil War, a four-year period in which the exploration of our history can benefit all;

NOW, THEREFORE, I, Robert McDonnell, do hereby recognize April 2010 as CONFEDERATE HISTORY MONTH in our COMMONWEALTH OF VIRGINIA, and I call this observance to the attention of all our citizens.

as well as the revised version and finally his most recent statement issued at the recent conference on race and slavery at Norfolk.   I am hoping to engage the workshop’s participants in a discussion about how they can use these documents in the classroom.  A quick online search will bring up a wide range of commentary.  I plan on using some video from YouTube as well as the recent issue of CWTs that included a number of brief responses by historians and bloggers.

The lesson should impress students with the extent to which Americans are still divided over the scope of the Civil War as well as its outcome and meaning.  More importantly, it raises a number of important questions that students can consider and debate:

  • What, if anything, should we expect of our public officials when it comes to issuing proclamations about the past?  Do we need such statements and, if so, why?
  • What did McDonnell’s original proclamation reflect about his particular and/or what he believed important for Virginians to remember?
  • Did the governor’s original proclamation accurately reflect the material covered in class on the Civil War here in Virginia?
  • Were the criticisms of the governor justified?  If so, why?  Were those who supported the governor’s original proclamation justified?  If so, why?
  • Was the governor’s revised proclamation an improvement?
  • What does the governor’s most recent statement reflect about the evolution of his own thinking on how the Civil War ought to be remembered and commemorated?

Finally, students will write their own Civil War proclamation.  In addition to the formal statement students should be asked to reflect on specific references made in their proclamation.  References to specific events, individuals, and concepts must be explained.  Finally, students should reflect on the intended consequences of their proclamation.  I need to work on this a bit more, but you get the idea.  Most of the students who are currently taking my Civil War course will also be in my second trimester course on Civil War memory.  This will be their first assignment and I promise to let you know how it goes and I may even try to share some of their work.

A Responsibility To Take Care of the Past

If you haven’t done so already, I encourage you to read Andy Hall’s analysis of the DeWitt-Weeks saga.  I tend to agree with Hall that there is no reason to believe that Ms. DeWitt’s goal is to intentionally mislead her young readers or distort the history covered in her book.  However, as we now know she is, in fact, doing both.  I am not familiar with the rest of Kevin Weeks’s books in the Street Series collection, but I have no reason to believe that these books are inappropriate in any way.  It just so happens that the subject of Entangled in Freedom has been on my radar for quite some time and for very good reasons.  I’ve been just as critical with white proponents of this myth as I have with African Americans.  That said, I don’t mind admitting that I am much more disappointed when the target of my criticism is black.  Let me explain.

As all of you know my primary interest in the Civil War and American history generally is centered on questions related to historical memory.  Much of that interest revolves around the broad subject of slavery and race.  My recently completed manuscript on the Crater focuses on how Americans chose to remember – or in most cases forget – the participation of black Union soldiers in the battle and my new project will address the evolution of stories related to the black Confederate narrative.  As a result of my extensive reading and research into these areas I would like to think that I have some grasp of the challenges associated with correcting /revising a collective memory of the Civil War and broader historical narrative that up until recently either ignored the subject of black history or included a grossly distorted version of it to suit the political and racial agendas of certain groups.  We can see this at different points in our history from the Dunning School in the 1920s and 30s to the continued hold of the Lost Cause narrative and its imagery of loyal and contented slaves.  I have nothing but the highest respect for those black historians such as John Hope Franklin, who worked tirelessly to correct this racist narrative and ultimately inspire countless others to continue to research topics related to the history of race and slavery in America.  Let’s face it, it’s only in the last two decades that we’ve seen significant changes to textbooks and other curricular materials used in classrooms across the country.  We should never forget what it took to bring this about.  And we should not forget that it took the hard work of both black and white Americans. Continue reading