Politics and Public History in Europe’s WWI Centenary

Plastic red poppies with a photograph of a soldier.
Remembrance Day Poppies. Photo © 2007 Benoit Aubry. Creative Commons BY 3.0 License.

The year 2014 will mark the hundredth anniversary of the outbreak of World War I. With some European governments planning major commemorations, the centennial is full of opportunity for public historians — but how should we remember a devastating war of nationalist passions in today’s supposedly “transnational” age? While the animosities of World War I may seem a world away from today’s European Union, the anniversary has exposed continued divisions over how to publicly remember the “Great War” a century later, revealing the close ties between historical memory and contemporary politics.

While each country in Europe has a different plan to mark the centenary of World War I, perhaps the starkest division is between Germany and the UK. While Germany plans to quietly participate in a few international commemorations, Britain is preparing for a nationwide series of patriotic events and exhibits. These differences reflect not only the different results of the war for each country, but also their divergent contemporary views on European policy.

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The Columbian Question: A Call for a Plebiscite on Columbus Day

In 1994, Common Courage Press, a progressive publishing house dedicated to social justice and based out of the small town of Monroe, Maine, produced a manuscript entitled Indians Are Us?: Culture and Genocide in Native North America. The author of this text was none other than the Creek-Muskogee intellectual, political activist, and scholar, Ward LeRoy Churchill, who was at the time serving as the professor of ethnic studies at the University of Colorado Boulder. In the second chapter, entitled “Bringing the Law Back Home: Application of the Genocide Convention in the United States,” Churchill joined—and perhaps even surpassed—a growing number of journalists, scholars, activists, and citizens by emphatically calling for an end to the annual celebration of Columbus Day in America. “Undeniably,” Churchill wrote, “the situation of American Indians will not—in fact cannot—change for the better so long as such attitudes are deemed socially acceptable by the mainstream populace. Hence, such celebrations as Columbus Day must be stopped.”

Nowadays, there is perhaps no holiday in America culture more defined by ambivalence than Columbus Day. While most working professionals—particularly of the millennial generation—are happy enough getting a day off from work in October, no matter what the occasion, some are finding it harder and harder to memorialize the “Admiral of the Ocean” without feelings of cynicism. These people may not go as far as to agree with scholars like Ward Churchill, or the American historian Alfred W. Crosby—who ended his groundbreaking book The Columbian Exchange (1972) on an extremely pessimistic note about the consequences of European discovery—but most of them harbor at least a vague understanding that the century following European arrival in the Americas is not an historical period with which to be particularly proud or patriotic. At the same time, critics recognize that there is something undeniably important about remembering the pivotal, historical changes that occurred during this period.

The modern dilemma of Columbus Day is partly attached to the atrocities that its namesake and his companions inflicted upon the indigenous peoples of the Caribbean. Indeed, some people know about the 48-page report by Francisco de Bobadilla, the governor of the island of Hispaniola after Columbus, from 1500-1502. Testimonies in this report indicate that Columbus faced serious indictments for torturing, mutilating, and enslaving the indigenous population, most notably the Lucayan people of present-day Bahamas and the Taíno people of present-day Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

Among other things, these reports state that Columbus suppressed numerous indigenous revolts, afterward reaffirming his authority by parading dismembered bodies through the street, cutting off noses, shipping natives to the Iberian peninsula in shackles (most of them dying en route), and generally instituting one of the most brutal systems of forced labor that history would ever bear witness to. Since the rediscovery of this specific report in the Spanish archives, a series of short, History-channel documentaries, collectively entitled the “Columbus Controversy,” has attempted to integrate these atrocities into our general understanding of the famous and infamous conquistador.

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Four Views on the Shutdown and the National Park Service

From Civil War Memory.

Cross-posted at dvhunter.com

An unexpected media and political discourse has emerged as the Federal government nears a second week of being ‘shutdown.’ Access to sites under the watch of the National Park Service (NPS) became a political football. The conversation started almost simultaneous to the actual shutdown, when a squad of octo- and nonagenarian Mississippians stormed the barricades of the World War II Memorial in the middle of the National Mall. An irresistible media story, for certain. Politicians–as they do–seized on the spectacle. The next day a GOP Congressman berated an NPS ranger charged with manning the barricades, in truly a pathetic display even for Washington politics.

NPS closures became highly visible, with signs, barriers, and traffic cones juxtaposed against heritage sites and natural treasures. GOP congressmen offered the President a “compromise” that would have reopened the NPS sites while budget talks continued. President Obama turned down the proposal, and his rivals immediately attempted to seize the moral high ground. Some pundits ran with the idea that preventing access to “open-air monuments” was unconscionable, if not outright illegal.

Let’s turn to a bona fide, PhD’d historian for further discussion on the matter:

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Encounters and Crossings: The Ambiguity of African American Identity

by Pamela Johnson, Masters Student in Modern European History at Loyola University Chicago.  Crossposted from The Scholarly Wife.

This past semester, I wrote a paper on historian Natalie Zemon Davis entitled, “Encounters and Crossings: The Life and Work of Natalie Zemon Davis.” Known for her charming writing style and impressive archival research, Davis has gravitated towards “exposing and bringing to life the histories of those groups often suppressed in traditional historical narratives.” She is a historian of early modern France, but more recently her work has taken her outside of Europe. Her life as both a woman and a Jew has been a story of encounters and crossings, a desire to be in the center, while challenging from the periphery. In reminiscing on her time in grade school, she once remarked, “I was very eager to be a good student and to be popular and do all the other things you were supposed to do, but I was Jewish.” She went on to say, “I was certainly an outsider.” The contradictions of center and periphery have guided Davis throughout her historical career.

There are striking similarities between Davis’ life and my own. She struggled with her Jewish identity in her younger days and I have wrestled with what it means to be African American. The complexities of African American identity sometimes astound me. It’s interesting that no matter how old you get, you still never fully grasp or understand it…for the identity is a paradox in itself. It is ambiguous because it attempts to be both African and American, while simultaneously, it is neither. You’re no longer found in the motherland, abandoned instead on strange soil. Yet this is your home…but here you are often rejected, often despised, often misunderstood. You feel an unspoken separation from both localities. So, in the end, where do you stand?

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Section 106 in Action!

Section 106 handouts from the CTA. In this day and age, a link to their PowerPoint deck would have been nice.
Section 106 handouts from the CTA. In this day and age, a link to their PowerPoint deck would have been nice.

Anyone with the least amount of training or education related to the management of historical resources knows the importance of Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act (1966). Section 106 is deceptively complicated and vague, resulting in negotiations between preservation ideals, community desires, and economic development.

The head of any Federal agency having direct or indirect jurisdiction over a proposed Federal or federally assisted undertaking in any State and the head of any Federal department or independent agency having authority to license any undertaking shall, prior to the approval of the expenditure of any Federal funds on the undertaking or prior to the issuance of any license, as the case may be, take into account the effect of the undertaking on any district, site, building, structure, or object that is included in or eligible for inclusion in the National Register. The head of any such Federal agency shall afford the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation established under Title II of this Act a reasonable opportunity to comment with regard to such undertaking.—[16 U.S.C. 470f — Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, comment on Federal undertakings]

As public history graduate students, we are well-versed in the letter and spirit of Section 106. But rarely do we have the opportunity to observe the process in all its messy and contentious glory. Recently I attended a Section 106 public hearing related to the $203 million reconstruction of the Chicago Transit Authority’s (CTA) Wilson Station. The Wilson Station project is using tens of millions of dollars from the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), and sits in the Uptown Square Historic district—-thus triggering the 106 process.  Uptown is a neighborhood well-versed in community political participation, and has long served host to very diverse expectations of development, preservation, and economic and political justice (Hey, someone should write a dissertation about that). The CTA, FTA, the alderman’s office, and the City of Chicago have an enormous stake in the project that is deemed a necessary infrastructure upgrade and an essential key to the eternally-incipient ‘revival’ of Uptown. These factors, combined with the minimalist and impressionistic nature of Section 106 itself, promised to make for an interesting evening. This initial 106 meeting lived up to my expectations.

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Making The Case for Food & Public History

In so many of our public history classes the issue of relevance always seems to sneak its way into the conversation. We have been taught that the most successful museum exhibitions are those that are relevant and engaging to visitors and those that allow them to make meaningful connections between the past and the present. Yet this is much harder than it sounds – especially considering the fact that our audiences range widely in age, class, politics, ethnic identification, and so many other characteristics. How can we find a topic in history that is relevant to all members of our diverse audience?

As an open and admitted foodie (sometimes, much to the annoyance of my cohort), I have found a deep passion in cooking, gardening, and learning more about traditional foodways – from grinding my own cornmeal for tortillas to making my own ricotta cheese and everything in between. Thus, it was not all that unusual that the answer to my relevancy question revealed itself as I put the finishing touches on my mother’s best guacamole recipe.

Food. All people eat food. Food is relevant to everyone. Everyone.

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A Public History Mixed Tape: Famous Figures

My colleagues have filled the Lakefront Historian with a number of critical reviews of historical fiction films.  And this year there so were many films to choose from: Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter, Lincoln, Django Unchained, and others we didn’t even get to. But another popular medium of public history has recently caught my attention: music. I’ve been keeping a long list of songs about historical events and people. Below are just a few of those focusing on famous figures. They range from past presidents (and there are a LOT of those) to French monarchs in genres as broad as country to indie pop. How such songs both reflect and shape popular memory deserves its own line of inquiry on this blog. (In fact, read Rachel Boyle’s excellent review of Fun.’s music video “Some Nights.”) I hope you enjoy this mixed tape and keep your eyes peeled for more to come.

“Andrew Jackson” by Wallace House
“FDR in Trinidad” by Ry Cooder
“Hurricane” by Bob Dylan
“Abe Lincoln” by Best Friends Forever
“James K. Polk” by They Might Be Giants
“Alexander Graham Bell” by Sweet
“Killer Queen” by Queen
“Louis Quatorze” by Bow Wow Wow
“Eisenhower is the Father” by Best Friends Forever
“Holland, 1945” by Neutral Milk Hotel
“Sacré Charlemagne” by France Gall
“Ballad of Ira Hayes” by Johnny Cash
“Cortez the Killer” by Neil Young & Crazy Horse
“So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright” by Simon & Garfunkel
“We Didn’t Start the Fire” by Billy Joel (Sorry, I had to sneak this in.)

What are your favorite songs about historical figures and people(s)?