Thursday, June 16, 2011

Why do Germans Choose to Reenact the American Civil War by Playing the Confederacy?

Why the above clip? Because Werner Hernog's Bear is back, one of our resident experts for all times, and I would do a monster movie infused tag team match with him as my partner ready for a "hot tag" any day of the week as we take on the Rock and Stone Cold Steve Austin at Wrestlemania.

The Atlantic Monthly had a particularly sharp and insightful piece on why Germans are fascinated with the Civil War--and when they choose to play, the reasons explaining their choice to reenact the CSA in America's brother on brother conflict. I play in those waters but cannot swim in them. The solution: call up our favorite historian of modern Germany to get his take. As always, he never disappoints.

I really like Werner's essay. I hope you too do. As always please chime in with your thoughts, reactions, and suggestions.


Chauncey recently showed me a couple of articles about Civil War reenactments in Germany and asked me for my thoughts, which as a scholar of German history I am happy to give. I had heard a great deal about Germans dressing up like the Sioux and living in teepees on the weekend, but never about the Civil War. As in the United States, German reenactors are more likely to dress up in Confederate gray (or butternut) rather than Union blue.

Before hazarding my own analysis as to why this is the case in Germany, there are some basic facts that need to be understood. Germans have a uniquely fraught relationship with their past; to be a good German means to remember the Holocaust and feel some sense of responsibility forcommemorating its victims.

This is not just a matter of lip service. The massive, recently built Holocaust memorial in Berlin takes up an immense amount of space in the center of the city, located between the Reichstag (the capitol, essentially) and Potsdamer Platz (Berlin’s version of Time Square.) Essentially, Germans have chosen to take some of the most central and well-traveled space in their capital city, and have devoted it to remembering Germany’s most shameful crime. It would be as if the center of the Washington Mall were taken up by monuments to the victims of slavery and the genocide of Native Americans. (I, for one, would like to see such monuments in such a place.) Even the history before 1933 is often tainted as a precursor to Nazism, especially the period under the Kaisers.

It would be difficult to have any historical reenactments of moments from the German past, because they would be so difficult and politically suspect. Hence the desire to reenact the past of a different country.

However, this hardly explains the attraction to the Confederacy, especially given the fact that many German immigrants to the United States, including prominent military and political leaders like Carl Schurz, fought on the side of the Union. Even among the small pockets of Germans in the south, such as in central Texas, German Americans denounced slavery and the Confederacy both.

One of my German immigrant ancestors fought for the Union despite living in Tennessee. (On the other hand, I should note that German Catholics, like their Irish brethren, served the Union army at lower rates than the general public. That had more to do with not wanting to serve a society hostile to them and retaining white privilege than it did with love of the Confederacy.) Much of this has to do with the fact that many Germans, including Schurz, fled to the United States after participating in the failed democratic revolutions of 1848.

They had reason to fear persecution if they stayed around, and brought their ideals of democracy and equality across the Atlantic.

I get the feeling that modern day Germans are attracted to the Confederacy for the same reasons that the South has had plenty of apologists north of the Mason-Dixon line over the years: the false romanticization of the “Old South” and the depoliticization of the Civil War. In the aftermath of Reconstruction, as historian David Blight has skillfully shown, the commemoration of the Civil War emphasized reunion and the similarities between the both sides, something predicated on excluding African Americans from the story, and literally excluding them from important celebrations, like the 50th anniversary of Gettysburg (It was especially important for the racialized reunion to erase the memory of the black regiments which were absolutely crucial for Union victory) .

Fifty years after the Civil War’s end, its causes and effects had been depoliticized in the public mind. It was simply a “tragedy” without a real cause, a fight fought nobly “brother against brother.” That view has been remarkably resilient, and it colored all the Civil War books I read as a child. (It even creeps into Ken Burns’ famous documentary, especially when Shelby Foote is given free reign to put a romanticizing gloss on events.)

Once slavery’s centrality to the Civil War was removed from the story (and it still is in the minds of most reenactors today) a very southern rendition of the antebellum South began to insinuate itself in the North, and even around the world. This vision of the Old South presented a bucolic, orderly society full of genteel men and beautiful, virtuous women. Their human property did not resent their state, but were loyal and happy. It was a world of cotillions, hoop skirts, and mint juleps, carefree and pleasing. Of course, this is all complete bullshit. (I don’t have the time to get into all the reasons, but the fact that ten percent of the Union army at the end of the war was made up of black soldiers fighting to eradicate slavery, when black people were only one percent of the North’s population, just about says it all.)

In my mind, Gone with the Wind is even more nefarious a film than The Birth of a Nation. The ugliness of the naked racism displayed in the latter is obvious to modern audiences, but Gone with the Wind takes a horribly brutal society and drains away its violence while puffing up the hoop skirts. It presents a seductive idyll, especially for White people who secretly yearn for unquestioned mastery and racial hierarchy.

We tend to think of the romanticization of the Old South as a southern tradition, but it has long been embraced in the north. Although Margaret Mitchell wrote the initial novel, it was primarily northerners who acted in and worked on Gone with the Wind the film. It was a British actress, Vivien Leigh, who played Scarlet O’Hara. As the articles about German reenactors note, it was a popular book and film in Germany as well. Its vision of the Confederacy seems very much alive, and much of the attraction for German reenactors to dressing up in gray and butternut.

I see two deeper reasons for this: modernity and race. As far as the former is concerned, northerners and Europeans living amidst the upheavals and displacements of modern industrial life were and are eager to romanticize a pre-modern society like the Old South, and to eradicate its many problems and brutalities from their minds. That flight from modernity, which has a very strong and troubled cultural tradition in Germany, also explains the Native American reenactments as well. By taking the side of the Confederacy, German reenactors can thus fight the onslaught of modernity, as embodied in the Union army. Of course, seeing the Civil War in this way requires draining away slavery and African Americans from the story.

Race, of course, has a whole lot to do with the idealization of the Confederacy, in Germany as well. Most Americans are unaware of this, but one of the best selling books in Germany last year was written by a man named Thilo Sarrazin, who argued that the immigrants from Muslim countries living in Germany are genetically less intelligent than white Germans. (His more recent comments are even more inflammatory.) A growing portion of the German population is made up of recent immigrants and their descendants, with Turkey being the most prominent country of origin.

Despite recent positive changes, they have been excluded from mainstream German society, and have been the targets of violence. Germans have been very resistant to seeing Germany as a multi-ethnic state; even Chancellor Merkel declared multiculturalism to be a “failure.” I found that statement rather comical, since multiculturalism hasn’t really been attempted! In a country full of people lapping up Sarrazin’s racialized nationalism and blaming all of their problems on racial others, it’s hardly a surprise that many would be attracted to the Confederacy. After all, states like Mississippi and South Carolina included statements about the superiority of the white race in their declarations of secession.

This is not to say that all Germans who dress up like Confederates are hardcore racists. However, we should still be disturbed by such a phenomenon, since it shows how the past can be manipulated in order to support horrible ideas in the present. As a historian, I think we, in this 150th anniversary of the Civil War, need to combat the depoliticized narrative of the conflict which is so easily bent to the most odious political purposes.

We need to stress the centrality of slavery, as well as the agency of the slaves themselves, who did a great deal to bring the institution to an end. We need to stop romanticizing the South, and view it for what it was: not a unique paradise but one of many slave-based staple-crop plantation societies in the New World (just like Brazil, Cuba, etc.) reliant on unspeakable cruelty to its African American bondsmen and bondswomen. We need to remember the Fort Pillow Massacre and other events that show men like Nathan Bedford Forrest not to be noble warriors on horseback, but racist war criminals.

In short, we need to show history in all its bloody reality, not a fashion show drenched in sweet tea. It simply a tragic misunderstanding, the Civil War was a war between two competing visions of America’s future, and the vision that more fully (but not yet completely) embodied the American promise of freedom thankfully won out. The romanticizers and apologists are out in full force, we must get out there and expose their myths.


ish said...

CDV, do you ever read the "Unrepentant Marxist" blog? I know that's not where you're coming from but check out this post, it's relevant and interesting:

THEN, check out the comments. It was descended upon by a pack of "Southern Nationalists." It's a parallel universe freak fest.

Plane Ideas said...

I cannot quarrel with Werner's analysis except it does provide much more details and reasons for German's love of the CSA that I would articulate..

From my perspective it is a simple equation Germans like the majority of whites will always relate to themes of white privledge in any venue from America civil wars to South Africa's wars ....

Plane Ideas said...

Wolfgang Hochbruck, a Professor of American Studies at the University of Freiburg and a Union reenactor, "I think some of the Confederate reenactors in Germany are acting out Nazi fantasies of racial superiority," "They are obsessed with your war because they cannot celebrate their own vanquished racists."

Christopher Sharp said...

It's definitely an exciting time to be a civil war historian and as we see from this article, we are still feeling the effects of the war 150 years after it "ended." In reality, it never did end in the minds of many Southerners ( I happen to live in Florida so I know this first hand), and now that they have captured the hearts and minds of the Republican party, we are starting to see a return to some of the same divisive racial and economic issues that led to the Civil War.

If you don't think it could happen again you definitely need to educate yourself. Most of the Civil War literature gives a lightweight treatment of the armies and the various battles, a la Shelby Foote, without ever touching on the politics and sectional issues that boiled over in 1860 after Lincoln was elected without a single Southern electoral vote. Instead of Foote, people wuld be much better served to read Uncle Tom's Cabin, the Dred Scott decision and the Lincoln-Douglas debates. However, that might challenge people's assumptions about what the war as really about, so I'm not holding my breath. It also assumes that people have an attention span that is long enough to read a book and then critically interpret it on their own, which is becoming a lost skill in the 21st century.

As for the Germans, it is indeed ironic to see how they have adopted the "Lost Cause" view of the civil war, even though few if any Germans fought for the South. As the article states, the Germans were perhaps the most virulent, hard-core, free-labor,anti-slavery ethnic group in the country at the time, and they almost single handedly waged a civil war in Missouri (with virtually no support from the federal government) that kept that state from going with the South.

You would think they might want to emphasize this proud history in light of their Holocaust shame and self-loathing, but instead they pretend to be the same people that they hated and fought so hard against 150 years ago. I guess it's a good example of what happens when people don't learn from history, or just don't bother to read it. Unfortunately, it seems that our country is moving in the same direction on this
150th anniversary of the Civil War, and despite this fantastic opportunity to learn from (and not repeat) the past, most people will get their "history lesson" from the likes of Ken Burns, Shelby Foote and Gone with the Wind, with all of its happy subservient slaves. For those of us who do know something about the real cause of the war, it's a good time to make our voices heard.

Vesuvian Woman said...

Aside from the obvious (GWTW is a romanticized account of The Great South b/c by no means was anything great about the time nor the tale) the film, specifically, is a form of entertainment. It was never presented or marketed as an accurate portayal of pre-war southern living anymore than Star Wars is an accurate portrayal of space travel.

Everyone has something they romanticize about America, we're the winners, remember? We win battles, we win wars, we win democracy for those who deserve it. The Civil War, amongst others, is proof of how resilient we are b/c we fight each other for the greater good and come out stronger for the effort.

Our cousins in foreign deserts haven't been so lucky. I wager, Germans are sick with jealousy. No matter how challenged Blacks may be, we continue to herald our cause in the face of our enemy. For a renagede country with no history, we pack alot of resistence to BS and hundreds of years later our worst enemies have gained no headway other than lessen themselves in an attempt to make Us look bad ; )