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
Before hazarding my own analysis as to why this is the case in
This is not just a matter of lip service. The massive, recently built Holocaust memorial in
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
One of my German immigrant ancestors fought for the Union despite living in
They had reason to fear persecution if they stayed around, and brought their ideals of democracy and equality across the
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
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
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
Race, of course, has a whole lot to do with the idealization of the Confederacy, in
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
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
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.