Category Archives: Current Affairs

The Ghost of Karl Betts

Update: In it’s first decision since the resignation of half of its committee members, the West Virginia Sesquicentennial Commission denied a funding request from The Guyandotte Civil War Days festival committee. It turns out that the committee invited H.K. Edgerton to give the keynote address. Clearly, the WV commission made the right decision.

Karl S. Betts was the first executive director of the Civil War Centennial Commission and a successful Kansas-born businessman.  His goals were first and foremost to fashion a centennial celebration that would attract patriotic audiences and steer clear of issues related to race.  This meant battle reenactments and parades.  Most of the sesquicentennial commissions, including Virginia, have decided to steer clear of reenactments.  As I understand it, that decision has to do with not wanting to be perceived as celebrating what was a destructive and costly war as well as wanting to focus on more substantive and educational projects.

As far as I know, the West Virginia Sesquicentennial Commission is the first case of a sharp divide between those who want to entertain as opposed to educate.  This report is based largely on an interview done with Professor Mark Snell, who is the vice chairman of the commission.  [I should note that I am good friends with Professor Snell and I trust his judgment.]

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We Are Not Living in Lincoln’s House Divided

This weekend’s shooting in Tuscon, Arizona has led to a great deal of commentary about the intense partisanship that currently animates our political discourse.  I am as concerned as the next person about the short- and long-term consequences of a political landscape and media culture that seems to have little patience for rational debate.  To be honest, I don’t know where this most recent shooting fits into all of this.  That said, I tend to take a cautious view of the doomsday scenarios because I think they tend to contribute to the toxic atmosphere.

As a historian I understand the desire to place this shooting as well as broader concerns surrounding our political and cultural wars within a historical context.  Allen Guelzo gives it a shot in this interesting commentary on what the Civil War can tell us about the fine line between words and violence.  Guelzo expresses concern that “that the lids are rattling again” because the issues at stake strike at a difference over fundamental values:

This is why the political battles over specific policies have become so intense – because they are all linked to a fundamental collision of values about justice. The new health-care law, for example, is not merely another entitlement; it springs from a new way of understanding what justice is, and thus it ends up entirely rewriting the relationship of citizens to the state. Likewise with “don’t ask, don’t tell” and gay marriage. These are not merely variations on sexuality and marriage; because they represent an entirely new way of thinking about human nature, they bring into question our understanding of what Jefferson called “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.” Today’s passions are not merely the irritations of marginalized people with too much religion, too much talk radio, or too many guns. They are the sign of political pots ready to blow the lids off democracy.

First, I couldn’t agree more that the language has become overly hyperbolic, but that may not be a sign of impending doom for our democracy.  We may simply have become much too sensitive given the advances in communication technology.  That said, I don’t think the Civil War sheds much light on our current political culture.  As divided as Americans are over the issues mentioned by Guelzo not one of them divides the nation regionally.  We are not living in Lincoln’s House Divided.  As much as I find Lincoln’s appeal to “think calmly and well upon this whole subject” as well as “the better angels of our nature” it’s hard to imagine that we are headed down that road.

I find it interesting that few have compared our climate to the 1960s.  Perhaps this weekend’s shooting ought to remind us of the assassinations of King and Malcolm or that of Bobby Kennedy in 1968.  Somehow the nation survived a period that witnessed violent political protest, social unrest, and an unpopular foreign war.  Are we as a nation really in a more dangerous position than this?  I find it interesting that Guelzo bypasses this period, but I suspect that many who are concerned about our present trajectory have done so as well.  Perhaps it reflects the extent to which the violence and partisanship of that period has become legitimized.

I’ll end with Guelzo’s final thought and one that I completely agree with: “Democracy lives by reason and persuasion, not by statute or decree. Its purpose is not to give us what we want, but to free us to do what we should.”

Confederate Reenactors Are Not Nazis, but…

[Thanks to Ta-Nehisi Coates for the link.]

The ongoing debate about Republican candidate for Congress, Rich Iott’s hobby of portraying a Waffen SS soldier, raises a number of interesting questions about what we expect from people who choose to embrace the past through reenacting.  In the case of Iott, there seems to be little patience for the argument that one can reenact the soldier without acknowledging the government for which he fought.  Consider Iott’s attempt to distance himself from Nazi ideology:

I’ve always been fascinated by the fact that here was a relatively small country that from a strictly military point of view accomplished incredible things. I mean, they took over most of Europe and Russia, and it really took the combined effort of the free world to defeat them. From a purely historical military point of view, that’s incredible.

More recently, Iott had this to say:

I think that it’s an important thing to do because we need to constantly educate people and remind people about the tragedy that happened 70-some years ago…. A lot of time is spent talking to the public, setting up exhibits. It’s a way to keep the public aware of what happened and keep it in their minds so that we don’t forget…. They were doing what they thought was right for their country,” he said. “They were going out to fight what they thought was a bigger evil.

And the reenactment unit in question offers this as a justification, which I quoted in my last post:

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.

Iott’s own justification for his reenactment preferences as well as his organization’s rationale for focusing on this specific unit can be seen in much of the discourse related to Civil War reenacting.  How often have we heard that it’s much easier to find reenactors willing to portray the Confederate soldier even outside of the South?  There is a lingering element of the Lost Cause that romanticizes the Confederate soldier as standing up against an overwhelming enemy as well as the continued insistence that the soldier be judged apart from the stated goals of the government for which he fought.

There is a blatant double-standard at work here between what we are willing to tolerate from Iott and his Nazi fetish and Civil War reenactors.  I’ve been to a number of living historian events and I’ve never witnessed an honest and sympathetic portrayal of a discussion of the tough questions of race and slavery.  Most of what I’ve seen focuses on the experience of battle and camp life.  And for those that do take on such issues we tend to praise for their honesty and bravery.  These rare instances can usually be found at museums and other historical sites.  Do we really expect reenactors from  Nathan B. Forrest’s unit to openly and honestly discuss what happened at Fort Pillow or the men who reenact in regiments that served with Mahone at the Crater?  When was the last time you heard a Union soldier discuss his racial attitudes after hearing that African Americans were to be recruited into the United States Army?  Even the movie “Glory” needed to bring the racist comments of a few white Union soldiers to a close as the 54th marched through the dunes in preparation for their final assault.

We don’t question these reenactors about their choice of uniform and interpretation and we certainly don’t question their own racial attitudes. From this perspective our collective outrage regarding Iott’s choices make little sense.  Some are emphasizing the distinction between reenacting a Wehrmacht as opposed to a Waffen SS member, but no one has argued convincingly as to why it matters.  As far as I can tell the distorted history of these men quoted above is just as prevalent in our Civil War reenacting community as well as our collective memory of the war as a whole.  For most Civil War enthusiasts the soldiers were apolitical and both sides fought for equally laudable goals.  My guess is that Iott is no more a Nazi sympathizer or an advocate of some of their methods than a Confederate reenactor yearns for the days of slavery.  The controversy not only reflects a blatant double-standard in the way we view historical reenactors, but reflects our continued belief in the exceptional quality of our own civil war.

Finally, I find it curious that most of us don’t for a minute wonder what all of this looks like from the perspective of black Americans.  Perhaps this double-standard is deeply embedded in our continued embrace of a “reconciliationist” and predominantly white memory of the war.

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.

Historical Fundamentalism

Today I decided to kill a few minutes by browsing a bit at my local bookstore.  To my surprise I noticed a new book by Jill Lepore, who happens to be one of my favorite historians.  Her latest book is titled, The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle Over American History.  Of course, I bought it and I am glad I did.  It’s a quick read and Lepore does a wonderful job of illustrating the various ways in which the Tea Party Movement is using (and often abusing) the past for their own present purposes.  Early on she introduces what she describes as historical fundamentalism:

Historical fundamentalism is marked by the belief that a particular and quite narrowly defined past-”the founding”-is ageless and sacred and to be worshipped; that certain historical texts-”the founding documents”-are to be read in the same spirit with which religious fundamentalists read, for instance, the Ten Commandments; that the Founding Fathers were divinely inspired; that the academic study of history (whose standards of evidence and methods of analysis are based on skepticism) is a conspiracy and, furthermore, blasphemy; and that political arguments grounded in appeals to the founding documents, as sacred texts, and to the Founding Fathers, as prophets, are therefore incontrovertible. (p. 16)

Along the way I’ve learned that the term ‘Founding Fathers’ wasn’t coined until 1916 by Warren G. Harding in his address to the Republican National Convention.  And I was surprised to learn that in 1798 John Adams signed an “Act for the relief of sick and disabled Seamen”.  Both state and federal officials were, as a result of the legislation, permitted to tax shipmasters in order to construct hospitals and provide medical care for merchant and naval seamen.