Thursday, July 14, 2011

A Book Review - "Life and Death in the Third Reich"

This book review is rather longwinded in my opinion. The requirement for the class in which this was written was two to five pages. This is different from the usual requirement of only 2 pages. Fearing that a usual analyzation of the book as a whole was too short for the requirement I included in it analyzation of the four parts of the book as well. So although the review is longwinded, it is also more informative in regards to information. Enjoy.

            Fritzsche, Peter. Life and Death in the Third Reich. Cambridge, Massachusettes, London, England: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2008. pp. 307.

            In Germany from 1933 to 1945 there existed a political and military element known as the Nazi party. This militant political organization would grow into an expansive and powerful empire self-titled the “Third Reich.” This empire growing out of central Europe and spreading to the European channel is often remembered as an empire of destruction, xenophobia, and chaos. The goals and directions of the once small political party were never made secret and were flaunted openly. This begs the question, “Why would one become a Nazi?” Often than not, the Nazis are separated as a group that was ruling Germany tyrannically. American propaganda in the 1940’s was implying the same idea of Nazi control of German peoples. It is this embellishing of German victim fantasy that Peter Fritzsche wants to address in his book Life and Death in the Third Reich.
            The organization of Fritzsche’s book is divided both chronologically and ideologically into four chapters with an introduction. Each chapter advances the story in time while also representing a different approach, rationale, or justification of Nazi actions in relationship with the German people. The book opens with the explanation of German victimhood as heavily propagated by the book Death in Poland. The book continues beyond this point into the Nazi rise of power and a summary of chapter contents. This allows the reader to keep the general idea of each chapter so as to not be lost in continuous first-hand accounts. The book ends without a clear separate conclusion, but with ending remarks attached to the last chapter which covers the end of the war and a period of historical reconciliation.  By arranging the book in this manner, Fritzsche is able to follow a familiar narrative of history chronologically while representing a steady stream of arguments as the Reich progresses.
            This process allows Fritzsche to answer a self-imposed question of, “To what extent did Germans become Nazis in the years 1933-1945, and what efforts did they make?” That is not to say that all Germans were Nazis or that the Nazis’ tyrannical reign was one completely of control. German and Nazi relations, as it exists in these pages, was a much more complex concept in which the author contends that the former had a much more active role. This is justified by Fritzsche as the result of new studies outlining the legitimacy of the people’s community or volksgemeinschaft.  The author uses primary accounts of soldier, common citizens, Jews, and others that allow Fritzsche to pursue his final aim of analyzing what ordinary Germans knew and their comprehension of Nazi atrocities. The four main parts of the book, allow the author to categorize his analyzation around the premises of: Reviving the Nation; Racial Grooming; Empire of Destruction; and Intimate Knowledge. Each part contains different approaches to Fritzsche’s argument.
            “Reviving the Nation” is centered on the Volksgemeinschaft or people’s community. To do this Fritzsche has separated the chapter into five parts: Heil Hitler; How Far Did Germans Support the Nazis; Volksgemeinschaft, or the People’s Community; Consuming the Nation; and Unter Uns, or Nazism’s Audiovisual Space. Each subsection reveals new elements of how the German population gradually began to conform to Nazi ideals as a sense of community. Fritzsche points out that through the use of the “Stab in the Back Myth,” and Audio/visual outlets,  the Nazi’s were able to propagate this new notion of a strong German state. The German people are said to conform to this notion. This is supremely argued in “Heil Hitler” where so much of the German population is using this greeting “Heil Hitler” on a regular basis. Of course, as Fritzsche points out, this formal German greeting loses its appeal rapidly in some areas of the Reich and begins to become unordinary.
            Chapter two entitled “Racial Grooming,” explores Nazi strives to improve upon the volksgemeinschaft by making it racially pure. This chapter is divided into six parts entitled: Aryan Passports; Biology and the National Revolution; Seeing like an Aryan; The Camp; Unworthy Life; and The Assault on German Jews.  Fritzsche argues that the idea of strengthening the volkgemeinschaft through racial purity would instill a sense community with a common race. Through the use of school propaganda and community camps the Nazis were able to racially purify the volksgemeinschaft, in which Fritzsche argues that many Germans bought into the anti-Semitism.
            “Empire of Destruction” differs from the first two chapters in that it focuses on the Nazis attempt of expansion of the volksgemeinschaft and the third reich through war. Separated into the subheadings of: Writing Letters; The Imperial Project; The Expansion of the German Empire; Final Solutions to the “Jewish Problem;” The Deportation of German Jews; and the Holocaust, Fritzsche shows the new German occupation of conquered territories and also the development of the Holocaust. To improve upon his point the author points to letters from the soldiers deployed in foreign nations. An interesting aspect also pointed out is the way that these letters confirmed the efforts of Nazi propaganda at home. This works in favor of the authors arguments towards the volksgemeinschaft and all its atrocities included. The author does fail to mention Nazi censorship of mail which hinders his analyzation.
            The final chapter entitled “Intimate Knowledge,” is centered on the idea of remembrance. After war and political struggle that lasted over a decade Germans and Jews had to consider how to comprehend, interpret, and remember these events. This chapter goes into some length also to examine how the German fear of losing the war was intertwined with their fear of cultural collapse. The chapter separates itself into six subheadings to explain this in depth: Train Station; Jewish Witnesses; German Witnesses; Perpetrators and Victims; Imagining the End of the War; and Reading Catastrophe. This chapter goes into great length as well to address the notion of reconciliation that the Germans assumed at the end of the war. Fritzsche argues that these are explanations of Nazism. Assuming the victim role, the Germans defended their Nazi crimes by stating they were also Nazi victims. This chapter includes a small conclusion to some of the other arguments of the book, although it is not presented in great detail.
            The complexity of German history in the timeframe of 1933 to 1945 is translucent and often hard to comprehend. Its many layers of divisional and cultural differences even in the face of an imposed people’s community only add to delude this understanding even more. Peter Fritzsche goes in depth to explain or provide new theory in the hopes simplifying this portion of history. In this matter, Fritzsche succeeds. The author presents primary material that alters the perspective and provides new scholarship for this era. He does not state that the Germans were victims, but that they had an active, voluntary role in the misconduct of Nazi Germany. Although Fritzsche does provide ample material to make this suggestion, his efforts to solidify his arguments are often inadequate. The author often presents one or two person’s first-hand account without providing numerous other sources to reinforce this stance. In this manner he reveals the ideology of one person and not the bulk of the German populous. What could be the big weakness of the book is its lack of a conclusion to round up all points and perhaps provide reinforcement for his arguments. To his defense, Fritzsche does realize this complexity is not so easily explained even by him in his final comments, “Part of the knowledge about life and death in the Third Reich is the lasting incompleteness of explanation.” (307)

North Georgia College and State University

Robert L. Baker

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

A Book Review-"Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War"

 UPDATE: I apologize for the typos, I am in the process of revising this post.

Horwitz, Tony. Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War. (New York: Vintage Books 1998). 432 pages.

            There is an existing element, especially with those from the Southern United States that comes with the remembrance of the Civil War. This anomaly exists separate from scholarship, instead being reinforced by oral tradition, propaganda, nostalgia, romanticism, personal belief, cultural adherence and many other reasons. This seemingly infinite amount of possibilities directing memory can be negative, positive, and absolutely radical. This memory however, is very much real, dividing, and manipulative. This remembrance of the Civil War and how it affects some Americans, is the object of study in Tony Horwitz’s exciting novel Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War.  In the novel, Horwitz goes on a pilgrimage that takes him from the holiest of holy Civil War sites, the most obscure of Civil War shrines, and some of the most unscrupulous towns and people. In this ‘holy march’ through the South, Horwitz takes the time to reflect on the people, the culture, and the sites of the Civil War; not only what they are, but how they affect us today.
            Horwitz’s book is divided into fifteen chapters, which each chapter designated around the events of a particular trip or event. The majority of Horwitz’s chapters, are the detailed descriptions of Horwitz’s trips through southern states. Among these states are South Carolina, Kentucky, Virginia, Tennessee, Mississippi, Georgia, and Alabama. Maryland and Pennsylvania are the exception here. Each trip comes with its own small towns, with characters too big to fit inside the city limits. Whether these characters are the most luxurious of southern belles, or the most psychotic of bikers, and radical of Alabama school teachers Horwitz’s encounters provide in-depth knowledge and objective observance of the diverse population of the Southern United States. Horwitz comes across those that believe in conspiracy theories to the extreme and radical racists rallying around the slaying of a young man that adhered to neo-confederate tendencies. 
            Probably the most interesting parts of Horwitz’s journeys came from his friendship with a hardcore reenactor. This reenactor, known as Robert Lee Hodge, allowed Horwitz to become one with the culture he was merely observing (whether he liked it or not). Hodge, is by far the most colorful character in the novel and is whoem Horwitz becomes most attached to in his journeys. So much so that Horwitz often partakes in re-enacting events such as marches and camp of instruction or COI. COI is a simulated camp in which re-enactors march and train as the soldiers of the 1860’s would have. Horwitz and Hodge’s relationship takes a new direction when Hodge convinces Horwitz to accompany him on the “Civil Wargasm.” These two men traveled in 19th century unforms, whool pants, kepis, brogans, and other garb to as many civil war sites as they could possibly see. The gasm represents an escape from the 20th century and an attempt to experience what Hodge calls, ‘the rush.’ The “rush” is the closes simulated experience one can feel, as though they are actually there. From the outside looking in this may seem like an odd, perhaps fanatical thing, but as Horwitz writes about the encounters, readers can see the purity and beauty in remembering History. Of course this realization comes as a result of direct conflict with obscured History, and those that have commercialized it.
            Horwitz’s journey takes him to Stone Mountain, Georgia where he sees firsthand, the commercialized view of history. The enormous carving on the granite rock is shrouded in commercialism from the laser show accompanied by music from different walks of life.  Other towns such as Montgomery, Alabama are cashing in on the stories of the past advocated Civil War and Civil Rights tours. Horwitz shows some condemnation of the “New South,” and only then realized the beauty of what Hodge already knew. Of course this did not depreciate the fact that there is a difference between passion and radicalism. This radicalism was evident in Todd County Kentucky early in the book just as it is in Rose Sander’s Classroom, a small black school in Selma, Alabama. Horwitz highlights the notions of “you keep your ‘x,’ and I’ll keep mine.” This is a reference to the confederate flag and the ideology of Malcolm X. Horwitz is confronted with a different aspect in this classroom, and a different type of history that is radical and anti-Civil War. The teacher felt Civil War figures on the South were criminals. In this,  Horwtiz realized after private discussion with the teacher, he had found the opposite end of the spectrum.
            Confederates in the Attic is an incredible tale of ideology. It is a handbook of remembrance for some because it gives an outside perspective to the common practice of some people’s everyday lives. Horwitz realizes there are different sides of the argument with validity and in the end even comes to respect the passion of some. His closing statements seem to call out as to why Americans see this conflict as such an important part of their lives, quoting from a Robert Penn Warren Essay he states, “A high proportion of our population was not even in this country when the war was being fought. Not that this disqualifies the grandson from experiencing to the full the imaginative appeal of the Civil War. To experience this appeal may be, in fact, the very ritual of being American,” (389). The Civil War is a part of the ideology, perhaps it is a badge of citizenship. Or maybe it is just the grandeur of the stories.

North Georgia College and State University

Robert L. Baker

Monday, July 11, 2011

Legislative Measures: The Arming of Slaves

Andy Hall has written a terrific account of the issue of arming slaves as it pertained to the state of Texas. According to documentation provided by Hall, Texas seemed to never actually take the idea of arming slaves as a serious matter.  The topic seemed to be so unthought-of in Texas, that it generally did not merit debate as Hall points out.

Also at Civil War Memory, Kevin Levin highlights state legislature resolutions of the state of North Carolina regarding the arming of slaves. This is further research accomplished in the quest to debunk the myth of the “Black Confederate.” For more information on that myth, I would direct you to Kevin’s site as it is his tireless aim to sort fiction from fact in that very concentration. 

Thursday, July 7, 2011

The Civil War in the Classroom: One Michigan Narrative

              With numerous outlets existing which interpret history differently it is interesting to see the results of such pseudo education. With the sesquicentennial events of the Civil War quickly approaching, I thought it intriguing to take a look at how this event in America’s past was being interpreted, remembered, and in this case taught. Adding an interesting twist, this account is from interviewing random students in a northern setting. Joey Andrews, a law student in Michigan, has recently come into contact with how one education system treats this mark on the nation’s past. Acknowledging that this is not a survey examining the broad scope of the state of Michigan’s school system and how they teach the war, it is still an interesting read in the perspective of some local students, and what they gained from that knowledge acquired. I take no credit for this writing as it was all Mr. Andrews' drive to seek out information and as always I hope that it inspires debate. Perhaps some other northern representative would be willing to give his personal take as well; it would be more than welcomed. I thank Mr. Andrews' for his time and dedication, and for his willingness to allow me to post his thoughts.  

      In order to facilitate the discussion regarding the modern interpretation of the Civil War in various parts of our country, I decided as a member of the great north (read: state of Michigan) I would do my part to see how the civil war is being treated up here in the high school classroom. I remember quite fondly from my youthful days of high school barely even touching on the topic of the Civil War. We went through the basic rubric of slavery, Lincoln the great defender of the Union, freedom for all, and then promptly moved on to more pressing issues like the Great Depression (since apparently the 50 intervening years of history don’t count for much).
      It turns out in the 5 years since I graduated high school, and the 8 years since I had a high school level American History class, not much has realistically changed. If anything has changed, it’s that the Civil War is even less emphasized and talked about than before. In conversation with high school students who have recently completed A.P. U.S. History at a local high school I discovered that not even a week had been devoted to the topic of the Civil War. What is worse than that is the reality that the Civil War as it is being taught is fairly misrepresented. The students recounted the Civil War as this sort of anecdotal moment in American History where some backwards southerners who were slave owners were rebelling against the northern states for trying to take away their slaves. It was clear that the bias being presented favored the Union perspective to the point of making the southern perspective sound like total irrational nonsense. They were vaguely familiar with the various congressional “compromises” that attempted to regulate new states on the issue of slavery, and most of them had heard the words “Manassas”, “Shiloh”, “Gettysburg” and “Appomattox”. They weren’t exactly clear on what those battles meant, or who won or lost them, except for Gettysburg where everyone was quite clear that the North won and then the war ended promptly there-after as a result.
Joey Andrews, Wayne State University
                There was no understanding of the economic state of the time, no real discussion on the other issues that faced the south outside of just slavery. No knowledge what-so-ever of the international perspective on the war, and a lack of understanding of the principals of the constitution and the founders that led the southern states to believe they had the right to secession. As far as I could tell coming away from these discussions, if I were an outsider with no prior knowledge to the Civil War I would know this: In the mid 1800’s America became so divided over the sole issue of southern farmers owning slaves that the south began to feel under-represented in congress due to a larger northern population and angry over the northern sentiment of freeing the slaves decided to leave the Union, which was an entirely rebellious act that was clearly wrong, but were then soundly defeated by the industrial might of the north, railroads, and Abraham Lincoln’s decisive ideology and General Grant who was the greatest general the north ever had. Afterwards the North was feeling generous and rebuilt the south fast forward to 1930 when more important things happen. Anyone who is actually familiar with some of the intricacies of the Civil War or has taken much time to study it at all will quickly realize how absurd the description I just provided of the war is and how entirely off base it is.
                The topic of the Civil War has clearly become a non issue in the northern states, it’s almost as if the northern states would rather delegate it to the position in class that the war of 1812, the Mexican American, and Spanish American wars have; which is to say not mentioned at all. Considering the profound changes that the politics of the pre and post Civil War environments caused on our country and the impact on our modern way of viewing the constitution and the Union, this seems like a grave error in judgment but none the less this appears to be the course we are taking.

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