Confronting The Past

I am still in Germany.  Tonight the family went out to dinner while I decided to stay back and relax a bit.  It´s been quite hectic between the funeral and other assorted events.  Today we drove to Köln (that´s Cologne for us Americans) to see the famous cathedral.  It was quite impressive although the downtown area was packed with tourists for a wild celebration that will take place tonight and involve an elaborate fireworks display along the Rhine.  I am staying in a beautiful home in Köningswinter which is opposite Bonn and right along the river.  My wife and I took a scenic run along the Rhine today, which is quite low at the moment owing to the little rain and heat over the past few weeks.  As I mentioned briefly the other day, the home we are staying in sits on what was an old vineyard on a terraced hill just over the river.  The house is modern with glass windows running along the entire river side.  There is a terrace for every room and the views are simply magnificent.  Unfortunately, it´s been a sad week owing the the death of my sister-in-law´s husband – a wonderful man who passed away much too early. 

The other day my wife and I visited the Museum of Contemporary History in Bonn.  I was able to buy a guide in English as the displays were only in German.  As the name of the museum suggests, the focus of the exhibits is on the postwar period up to and through the fall of the Berlin Wall.  What I was most impressed with was the way in which the exhibit dealt with the darker chapters of the war, including the Holocaust and the suppression of political opposition under the Nazis.  One of the first exhibits that the visitor sees is a large black cube, which falls under the heading “The Ever-Present Past.´´  Here is a description from my guide:

Our eye is drawn to the massive cube of black steel in the centre of the room.  This design component is a motif that will recur in various forms in the exhibition.  It stands in the middle of the way, symbolizing the confrontation with the past resonating through German history up to the present day.  The interior is a memorial room for the victims of Nazi despotism.  The names of countless victims are projected onto screens.  A photo sequence traces the development of the brutal persecution of all Jewish citizens: from boycotts and ostracism to the murder of millions in the death camps. 

The phrase “confrontation with the past´´ and the placement of the exhibit in a way that is unavoidable strikes me as significant and an interesting point of contrast with our own tendency until relatively recently to ignore issues such as slavery in our own museum exhibits.  No doubt I need to learn more, but I am impressed with the short amount of time it took Germany to begin to seriously deal with its past following the Second World War. 

In the case of the Holocaust it may have been easier since there were so few Jews who survived the death camps.  In contrast to the period following the Civil War, most Americans harbored strong racist views and in the South the goal was not to reconcile itself with an immoral past, but to maintain a racial hierarchy.  Perhaps more importantly, the influence of the Allied Powers in forcing Germans to confront the past made a significant difference.  The museum focused a great deal on the various ways the occupying military forces controlled the newspapers, schools, and legislation.  Residents were forced to watch movies taken from the death camps.  In other words, Germans did not simply become more democratic, they were shown and to a certain extent forced. This is not to minimiz the committment of Germans to a new democratic future, but to highlight the role of an important external influence that was determined to achieve a certain result.  I venture to guess that a solid majority of Germans today believe that it is their responsibility to confront their past in order to insure that it does not happen again.  I believe that this is a healthy tendency.  Americans are not very good about confronting their past and I suspect that it has much to do with a belief in American exceptionalism.  In the case of slavery it is much easier to downplay its horror or to situate it in a progressive story that minimizes its place within the broader narrative. 

I just finished talking to a family member about these issues and she mentioned a very interesting project that is financed privately.  A great deal of research has been done to locate those homes in Bonn where Jews lived before being forced to relocate.  If it is shown that families were removed the residents of that particular street can purchase a “Remembrance Stone´´ which is placed in front of the home and indicates the names of the family members.  I was surprised to learn that this project has proven to be incredibly successful. 

Guest Post

One of this blog’s readers recently emailed some thoughts about the conference that Mark Grimsley is organizing at Ohio State.  Given that I am in the middle of a blog hiatus I thought that it would make for an excellent guest post.  The author agreed and re-worked the material for that purpose.  From the author: “I should say that this is more of a thought piece, not really intended as an airtight argument so much as a way of imagining a way that we could fit the history of the United States into a tidy paradigm of decolonization and postcolonialism.”  Comments are welcome and the author will respond.

To start with, let me say that the conference Mark Grimsley is organizing on the war for the South from 1865-1965 is a wonderful and refreshing change.  One of the major problems with history in general is how a war serves as a break in periodization.  The historian, of course, has to limit the scope of inquiry.  A war provides a clearly delineated start and finish. The convenience of this approach is immediately obvious: it makes intuitive sense.  Unfortunately, the start and the finish also limit the range of causes and effects that can be observed.  The periodization provides a discursive break that in some instances overemphasizes the impact and changes wrought by war.  In many instances a war only magnifies or accelerates trends already present.  Rather than looking at what comes before a war and what results from the war, it may be beneficial to look at a sort of trans-war period.  All this of course is to say: the way the question is asked dictates how it is answered.  By raising a different question, Professor Grimsely is in effect giving us new and different answers.

Reading Professor Grimsley’s posts and articles relating to the conference, I noticed that the conference will look at the South after the Civil War as being in an extended insurgency or protracted war of decolonization.  What I present here are some thoughts on the United States fitting within a paradigm of decolonization.  While it is clear that the conference will be examining this issue from a military perspective, focusing more on the technical aspects of insurgency or low-level conflict, my analysis here is more along socio-political lines.  Finally, before I begin, let me define the terms I will be using.  I use “colonialism” to refer to direct political control of a territory (geographically separate) by another state, with the economic relationship strongly weighted to the benefit of the metropole. “Postcolonialism” refers to any point after direct political control ends but before autonomy is achieved.  I use “neocolonialism” to mean economic control of the territory, but not necessarily overt political control (though indirect control exercised through various political factions may; Colonialism and neocolonialism should be seen as gradients of a continuum, stretching from complete political control to autonomy.

The Civil War can be seen as the last in a series of the wars of the decolonization of the United States (this does imply that Reconstruction and Civil Rights are not a war of decolonization, which I will get to shortly). The first war of decolonization would be the French-Indian War, which was also the last in the series of Colonial Wars.  The French-Indian War eliminated the French as a serious threat to the British in North America. The level of involvement by the colonies was unprecedented.  More importantly, the influx of British troops fostered a sense of distinction and difference between the colonists and the metropolitan British (there is debate on this, but I find Fred Anderson’s work convincing in this regard). Combined with the series of imperial crises regarding taxation and defining the meaning of “colony” in the aftermath of the French-Indian War led to the American Revolution.  The American Revolution saw the creation of a national identity, and one is tempted to say, a national ideology (this is not to deny prior American anxieties of provincialism).  This ideology was one rooted in a firm belief in the benefits of capitalism and trade with a commitment to republican governance (though who was received a voice under republicanism was not clear).

Also worth noting at this point is how the American Revolution was extremely different from nearly every other war of decolonization.  First, British rule in America had not depended upon a single minority group (other than whites).  Typical of a colonial system is metropolitan rule through a class of subalterns, usually a traditionally marginalized minority.  Fearful of their status within the colony, they prove pliant and often willing collaborationists.  Before, during, and after the struggles for decolonization this minority group serves as a stand-in for the distant metropolitan authorities, receiving the approbation and ire of oppresses majority.  In the American colonies there was no single minority group that filled this role, and indeed there was no foreign ruling class.  The flexibility and upward mobility of capitalism firmly prevented the establishment of a hereditary ruling class.  The elite in America was not institutionalized, except broadly along the lines of race.  Second, there was no widespread critique of European liberalism, such as that presented by Marxism.  While Whigs and Tories might debate the path to achieve the most beneficial enactment of this, the overall goal was not questioned.

After the Revolution, America entered a protracted period of neocolonialism. The domestic political struggles, and foreign affairs centered on the best way to establish and ensure economic and political independence from European powers.  The Embargo Act, Quasi-War, and the War of 1812 can all be seen as struggles to complete the decolonization of America.  An indication of how deep these fears went is the persistent belief that all Indian disturbances were the result of British intrigue (not to mention the whole Citizen Genet affair and Aaron Burr’s intrigues along the Mississippi).  The War of 1812 seemed ended the threat of British reoccupation, but it still did not end the threat of neocolonialism.

Following the War of 1812, the domestic politics of the United States turned more towards economic expansion and establishing economic independence.  The South and the North did not disagree so much on the need for economic independence, but rather on the best way to achieve that economic independence.  Debates centered on slavery, and whether or not slave labor was a better path to development then free labor.  Because the two systems dictated differing economic policies on a national scale, they could not exist in the same country.  Yet the idea of what America should be was not so much in question as was the best way to get there (the Confederate Constitution was not radically different from the United States Constitution).  The rhetorical war escalates to insurgency in Bleeding Kansas then spreads to full-scale military conflict with the Civil

Looking at the South as postcolonial also helps explain why so many ardent defenders of the Old South became proponents of the New South.  The struggle of the South to modernize was not radically changed by the Civil War.  The white elite wanted to modernize and throw of the chains of
economic dependence (notwithstanding cotton is king).  The new work by Genovese, O’Brien, and Carmichael pretty definitively shows that many in the South were looking to create a capitalist society that was not economically dependent on exports.  The Civil War accelerated these trends but did not change the trajectory of the South.  The goals of these developers were the same after the war as they were before the war.  Why reconciliation was so easy was because the only underlying fissure between the North and the South was the labor system used to attempt decolonization (and then the economic choices suggested by the different labor systems).  That is, the project of the North and the South (decolonization) was the same, just that the means to the end were different.  Because there was no major ideological difference about the ends of the American project, there was no impetus for a cycle of reprisal violence among whites.  When the Civil War answered the question of means, it also sparked a war of decolonization by the African-American community.

What is crucial to note, is that for the most part, from Reconstruction through the Civil Rights movement, African-Americans did not want to overthrow the existing order.  Rather, they simply wanted to claim a place within it.  During Reconstruction, for the first time, African-Americans on a large scale were able to lay claim to being “American.”  White violence directed at blacks in America, before and after the Civil War, was aimed at ensuring their continued exclusion from the definition of “American.” Slavery was one form of this instutionalized violence.  The end of slavery did not end the violence, just changed the shape it took.

A war of decolonization aims to end colonial rule.  The colony aims to retrieve its ability to make political and economic choices.  Certainly this is what African-Americans wanted, but they also wanted to compel white Americans to recognize that blacks were African-Americans too.  The white counter-insurgents did not necessarily need to apply force in any consistent manner, but only needed to demonstrate that blacks were not considered American.  Whereas most struggles of decolonization aim to exclude the metropole (politically, culturally, and economically), the struggle of African-Americans was one of incorporation.

Blog Hiatus

I am going to take a few weeks off from this blog to finish up my Crater manuscript.  It’s been a fairly productive summer thus far, but I need to take advantage of my remaining free time before the new school year starts.  I still need to look at a few archival collections which involves a little traveling and I still have large sections to write.  In short, I really need to get off my ass and finish.  Those of you who are relatively new to this blog may want to browse the archives.  You can still comment on posts and I may even respond.  See you in a few weeks.

Civil War Books: The State of the Field

The most recent newsletter for the Society of Civil War Historians includes an overview of their dinner and special session at the upcoming meeting of Southern Historical Association in Birmingham, Alabama.  Once again I will be unable to attend as their meetings take place during the worst month for a high school teacher.  I am, however, looking forward to the following year, which will take place in Richmond.  Please contact me if you are interested in putting together a session on Civil War memory and/or public history and the National Park Service for the 2007 meeting in Richmond.  The session will look at the state of Civil War publishing and the presenters include Dan Ross, Director and Editor-in-Chief of the University of Alabama Press; David Perry, Editor-in-Chief of the University of North Carolina Press; and Sylvia Frank Rodrigue, who runs Sylverlining, an editorial consulting business. 

Here is an excerpt from Dan Ross’s abstract:

[M]y discussion will be an attempt to produce indications of the level of serious Civil War book publishing in three five-year periods, 1960-64, 1980-84, and 2000-04, and the level of professional review of such works during the same periods.  The first period was chosen as matching the Civil War centennial, when presumably the publishing industry foresaw a market for books on the conflict and encouraged and perhaps even provided support for the preparation of books during that period.  With the centennial of the war established as the benchmark, the recent past of 2000-04 would test the evidence for a sense that we are now in the most active period ever seen by the Civil War book industry.  Finally the period 1980-84 was chosen as midway between the two others and to provide an equivalent span for comparison with them.

The examination of the frequency and proportion of book reviews in the two leading professional journals that would view attention to Civil War history as a significant requirement–but not as their sole obligation–permits examination of another oft-repeated bromide, although one not usually heard from Civil War specialists.  This usually appears at the rhetorical question –"How can there be anything new to say about the Civil War?"–which can be a legitimate question, or perhaps sour grapes from those who have selected such topics as the Glass-Steagall Act as their specialty.  Therefore to undertake a test to attempt to determine both newness and freshness of topic and treatment, an examination is made of the rate of reviews of Civil War books in the same periods in those professional journals that would feel obliged to review a work that had pretensions to say something new about that event.

This promises to be an interesting session – definitely something Dimitri might be interested in.