Christmas on the Western Front, 1914

 As many of you know, this fall the History Department commemorated the centenary of the beginning of the First World War with a lecture series called “Legacies of the Great War. Watch the lectures online at

It’s fitting, then, that our traditional Christmas-time blog features the centennial of the famous “Christmas Truce” between German and Allied armies in 1914, the war’s first Yuletide. Mostly we’ll let an excellent British website provide most of the information. But first, Julius Ruff, who teaches a course on WWI and was co-organizer of the lecture series, provides a brief introduction (check out the website his class created featuring biographies of many WWI soldiers at  Merry Christmas, everyone.

Amid the carnage of the First World War, a conflict that claimed the lives of some 10,000,000 soldiers, a bizarre event spontaneously occurred on the Western Front in northern France at Christmas, 1914. On Christmas Eve, Allied soldiers noted the appearance of Christmas trees and the singing of Christmas carols in the trenches of the Germsoldiersan forces facing them. In plain defiance of military regulations forbidding fraternization with the enemy, Allied soldiers joined the German response to this most central observance of the Christian faith, and soon left their own lines to meet their enemies in the middle of the “no man’s land” that separated the opposing armies. On that killing field, up and down the front, war suddenly stopped, as the soldiers observed an unofficial truce to exchange Christmas greetings, holiday foods, and tobacco with their nominal enemies. In some sectors, the soldiers even played soccer. This cessation of hostilities endured through Christmas Day, 1914, before officers on both sides re-imposed traditional military regulations. The soldiers repeated one last, diminished celebration of this sort in 1915, before the belligerent forces resumed warfare that would continue uninterrupted until the Armistice of Nov. 11, 1918.

For descriptions, documents, news about centennial commemorations, and much more about the truce, go to “Operation Plum Puddings” at


Nigeria: Beyond Ebola and Boko Haram

By Chima J. Korieh

Associate Professor Chima Korieh reminds us of the challenges, misconceptions, and successes related to recent events in his native country. Chima’s latest book is “Life Not Worth Living”: Nigerian Petitions Reflecting an African Society’s Experiences during World War II (Durham: Carolina Academic Press, 2014).

I was in Nigeria over the summer to explore the archives for my book on Africans and the Second World War. The period coincided with the outbreak of Ebola virus in Lagos, Nigeria’s largest city of about 13 million people. Mr. Patrick Sawyer, a Liberian-American and the first Ebola case in Nigeria, had flown into Lagos from Liberia. Sawyer was already symptomatic when he arrived in Lagos on July 20. The case in Lagos brought widespread panic in the country, but the government took immediate steps to contain the spread. This included large-scale mobilization of human and material resources, the immediate isolation and monitoring of those who came in contact with Mr. Sawyer, and aggressive public enlightenment.

Nigeria is a very good example of what could be achieved with domestic expertise and capacities. It was a Nigerian female medical doctor, Dr Ameyo Adadevoh, who insisted on isolating the country’s first Ebola patient when she correctly suspected that he may have been infected by the virus. Her action saved many lives. The federal, state and local officials took the necessary steps that effectively limited the spread of the disease to other parts of the country.


The Africa without Ebola (Anthony England / @EbolaPhone)

The Nigerian experience has shown the capacity of an African country with resources to deal effectively with such health challenges as the outbreak of Ebola. Unlike Liberia and Sierra Leone, which are still recovering from long periods of civil war and where the basic infrastructure is woefully inadequate, Nigeria is in a better position to deal with such crisis. When The World Health Organization declared Nigeria Ebola-free after forty-two days of no new reported cases, only eight of twenty reported cases had died. Nigeria was very proactive when the first case was confirmed. An effective community approach using communication technology such as text messaging helped Nigeria officials to continuously keep track of every single person who had come in contact with Sawyer from the flights he boarded to the Lagos airport and his movement in Lagos after he arrived. This process known as contact tracing was dome quickly, efficiently until the last case was resolved.

However, there are conclusions that can be drawn from the outbreak of this virus. One is a new emerging discourse on Africans, survival, and disease. The other is the premium placed on foreign expertise. As a result of the outbreak of Ebola, what Nigerian writer Teju Cole characterized as the “white saviour industrial complex” or a “pathology of white privilege” in a 2012 article in The Atlantic, has reemerged. One needed to listen to a Texan government official’s remark when the first Ebola case was diagnosed in the United States. He assured the American public that the health department was in a better position to deal the outbreak because “this is not West Africa.” He basically framed African societies as backward “infantile objects” incapable of dealing with such outbreak. Additionally, the external interventionist paradigm, which has often defined Western approach to aid also came in to play. Western medical doctors who have gone to treat Ebola patients in the worst hit areas are hailed as heroes. As the Liberian author Robtel Pailey noted, “We’ve been assailed with images of mostly white foreigners flown out of the Ebola ‘hot zone”’ with the promise of expert care abroad. As spokespersons for the thousands “left behind,” they are the ones who have made the headlines. Such perspectives have ignored what she rightly called “domestic capabilities,” or what ordinary men, women, and children are doing to help their communities.

Other issues of concern are the “anachronistic” image of Africa that still prevails, as well ignorance about where the disease exists. The worst outbreak of Ebola is in the western African countries of Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Liberia. Still, the media has characterized this disease as ravaging the entire West African region—a region made up of 16 countries. It is worrisome that even the mainstream Western media characterizes this enormous region as a country—a single region. As a result every person from West Africa and indeed Africans is suspect. People have deliberately avoided anyone who has travelled to Africa even if one has never been in an area infested with the virus. Indeed, The Washington Post recently wrote that “Despite clear geographical limits to the Ebola outbreak, many Americans seem confused. How else could you explain the recent Ebola scare that kept two children who had moved from Rwanda to New Jersey from attending school, despite the fact the East African country is Ebola-free. . . . Or the resignation of a teacher in Kentucky due to a backlash to her traveling to Kenya?”

Of course, Nigeria has been in the news for other reasons, including the ongoing Islamist insurgency led by Boko Haram. Nigeria’s militant Islamist group Boko Haram (Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lid Da’awati Wal-Jihad) has been fighting to create an Islamic state. Founded in the capital of Borno state, Maiduguri, in 2002, Boko Haram has carried out several bloody bombings in Nigeria since 2009, including the Christmas Day attack in 2011 at a Catholic church that killed dozens of worshipers and the bombing of UN Headquarters in Abuja in August 2011 and of the police headquarter in Abuja in June of that year. Nigerians also witnessed coordinated attacks in the northern city of Kano in January 2012 that targeted the country’s security apparatus and civilians, killing 185 people. More than 1,000 people were killed last year in attacks blamed on the group across the country including a school bombing that killed at least forty-six students in the north-eastern Nigerian town of Potiskum on November 10, 2014.

posterHowever, the horrific abduction of 230 schoolgirls by Boko Haram April 16 this year has once again brought the dangers posed by the groups to Nigeria and the West African regions. It has also resulted in a world-wide condemnation of the group and the emergence of a movement known as “#bring back our girls.”

While these attacks pose a serious challenged to Nigeria’s security and economic development, there are growing concerns about the failure of the international community to recognize the serious danger that Boko Haram poses to Nigeria, West Africa’s regional stability, and the global attempt to fight terrorism. This is not obviously a Nigerian problem alone. The world, especially the West has to pay attention. The rest of the world needs to learn to cooperate just at the jihadist groups have historically done in pursuing their common interest and ideology. Nigeria’s Boko Haram is united with other fundamentalist groups in their disdain for Christianity and Western influences. These groups are united in their goal across Africa, Asia, Europe and the Middle East. The rest of the world needs to approach the issue from a collaborative and cooperative strategic position.

Overall, the potential for greatness in Nigeria is enormous. Nigeria has emerged from decades of military rule and is today a thriving democracy. The country is the largest economy in Africa and the economy is worth $510 billion. The country is attracting direct foreign investment more than any other country in Africa despite all odds. The current success witnessed in Nigeria is a reminder that African countries have the potential for growth despite the current handicaps.



Here Lived Herbert Frank: History, Art, and Memory

By James Marten

A few weeks ago I literally stumbled across some of the most moving historical monuments I’ve ever seen. I was attending a conference on the experiences of military veterans through the ages and around the world in Hamburg, Germany, where I stayed in a lovely late nineteenth century neighborhood unscarred by the massive bombing of this northern German port during the Second World War. As I walked the streets lined with trees just coming into full autumn color, I occasionally came across little bronze plates hammered into the concrete or nestled i10646672_10154718720320623_5441253725156192487_nnto the cobblestones; in fact, two were right outside my hotel. The simple inscriptions consisted of names, dates, and a few German words; their meaning became clear after I recognized a few words that have been seared into the world’s historical consciousness seventy years ago: Theresienstadt, Lodz. They were concentration camps, and the information etched into the brass were the names of victims who died there, with their dates of birth, dates of “deportation,” and, if known, dates of death (some simply had question marks rather than death dates). The first words on each were “Here lived . . . ,” and, indeed, the memorials have been placed outside buildings or at least addresses where the victims had actually lived when they were taken away.

A little on-line research revealed that the stones were the idea of a Cologne artist named Gunter Demnig, who installed the first fifty-five plagues as an art project in Berlin in the 1990s. Since then tens of thousands have been placed in dozens of cities across Germany and in some cities occupied by Nazis during the war. Individuals, religious congregations, schools, and others have come up with the €120 (about $150) and have done much of the work of documenting the homes, names, and fates of the people remembered on the markers. Several websites can locate stolpersteine in various cities by the victims’ names or addresses (click here for Berlin’s searchable website).

Some Jewish groups have complained that the constant traffic of humans and dogs and other urban pedestrians over the brass plates (in fact, all of the ones I saw were more or less scuffed) demean the memories of the victims. However, Demnig claims that the markers highlight the personal, individual experience of the holocaust. And they are, indeed, memorable, even riveting. They provide a specificity to our mind-numbing knowledge the millions of victims of Nazi genocide that I found extraordinarily moving.

Most of us have seen movies, documentaries, or other images of the genocides of the Jews, homosexuals, Gypsies and other ethnic groups, the disabled, Communists, anIMG_0360d other enemies of the Nazi state. They offer appropriately horrifying images that most of us probably can’t get out of our heads (the skeletal corpses stacked like cordwood, the little girl in the red coat from Schindler’s List, the weeping, confused men, women, and children waiting to be chosen for death camps or work camps beside waiting box cars.

But these tiny 4” x 4” brass markers, despite their subtlety, are equally haunting to me. They’re nearly invisible, but they mark a spot where a real person on a specific day was dragged to his or her doom across this little square of space. They don’t say much, of course, and it’s a tragic statement on how little we know about the people whose names are etched in brass. But maybe, in a small way, it’s all we really need to know about them.

For more on the “stumbling stones,” see:

James Marten is professor of history and has been chair of the history department at Marquette since 2004.

Camionetas and a Nahuatl Mapping Project

By Laura Matthew

Riding the camioneta is a classic gringo experience in Guatemala. But it can be confusing. Buses to Quetzaltenango, for instance, say that they’re going to Xela. That’s because ‘Quetzaltenango’ is a literal translation from the city’s K’iche’ Maya name ‘Xe Lajuj Noj’ into Nahuatl, the language of the Aztec empire and of the Mexican invaders who led the Spanish into Central America in 1524. Despite Maya speakers still constituting the majority of Guatemala’s population as they did in the sixteenth century, almost all Guatemala’s place names are officiallyGuatemalaBus Nahuatl. Geography is written by the victors.

But is it true that Nahuatl came to Central America mostly via invasion? The primary indigenous language of El Salvador is Nawat-Pipil, still spoken today by descendants of Nahua-speaking migrants who arrived in the region in the thirteenth century. Some Nahuatl documents produced in colonial Guatemala look like their counterparts in Mexico – but many others are written in a dialect so distinctive that Spanish friars gave it is own nomenclature and used it to create new catechisms for evangelizing the native population.

A good decade ago (!), linguistic anthropologist Sergio F. Romero and I started collecting colonial-era Nahuatl documents from Central America. I and other historians like Paul Lokken and Robinson Herrera were also noticing references in Spanish documents to Nahuatl being spoken by Nahuas, Mayas, Spaniards, and Africans. Sergio and I published our thoughts on this corpus in a 2013 article, but a lot of questions remained. We had no data for huge swaths of the region. We had not systematically looked at other sources like church records or Spanish chroniclers. And our documents raised as many linguistic questions as they answered. Indeed, some of our conclusions in that article have shifted since its publication.

Enter the Nahuatl in Central America Mapping Project, which I am creating with the help of History graduate student Ben Nestor and advice from Indiana-Purdue University’s Polis Center for geospatial informatics. We hope that visualizing the uses of Nahuatl in Central America over space and time will suggest new ways of looking at things. How consistently and for how long, for instance, was Nahuatl used as a language of translation in any given area? How did the Spanish classify different regions linguistically, and did those classifications change? Where and when in Central America do we see concentrations of texts with certain dialectical features?

The GIS component of the project is important, its collaborative character even more so. It would be difficult for any single researcher to ferret out all or most of the many references to Nahuatl that lie scattered throughout Spanish colonial archives. And as a historian, I ask very different questions of the documents than my colleagues trained in linguistics, geography, or anthropology. Putting our heads together consolidates our research efforts around this particular set of questions, pools our collective knowledge, and reveals our disciplinary blind spots. We can accomplish a lot more together than any of us could do separately.

So we begin this spring with an advisory board of specialists in southern Mesoamerican linguistics, history, anthropology, geography, and religious studies, who will help Ben and I create a rich ontology that turns our existing documents into data. The next steps will be linking that data to a series of maps and launching the project website. A broad range of scholars will be invited to join the project as official (and officially recognized) contributors, by uploading their own documents and participating in the resulting conversation as new data is transferred to the maps. I think of this as “curated crowdsourcing”: verified and academically sound, but also open, interdisciplinary, dynamic, collective – and hopefully surprising.

Colonial-era documents and geospatial humanities help us dig deep into the history of Mesoamerica. We thereby honor the living descendants of ancient Mesoamericans, millions of whom ride the camionetas every day.

LaurMatthewLASAa Matthew is an associate professor of history whose first book, Memories of Conquest: Becoming Mexicano in Colonial Guatemala (2012) was awarded the 2013 Howard Cline Memorial Prize, Conference on Latin American History and the 2013 Murdo MacLeod Prize, Latin American and Caribbean Section, Southern Historical Association.  She is the 2014-2015 holder of the Way-Klinger Sabbatical Award.

There’s a Legend on the Phone . . .

Ed Schmitt is a Marquette PhD alum who teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside.  A few months ago he received a surprise phone all from a living legend–the Civil Rights activist James Meredith.

When my cell phone began ringing early on a Friday evening last spring, I expected it to be my daughter. She and a friend had been at a local shopping mall, and it was almost time to go pick her up. Seeing an unfamiliar area code, I hesitated before answering. “Mr. Schmitt,” the caller said, in a measured and slightly weary tone, “this is James Meredith.” I dropped the car keys which I had just grabbed and, while stammering my deep appreciation for his call, began casting about for paper and a pen. I sent a letter to the legendary civil rights figure a few weeks earlier, with a request to interview him for my book project about the activist and comedian Dick Gregory. And now I was quite unexpectedly talking to him in my kitchen.

I’d conducted many interviews before, but never with someone of quite his stature, and never on such short notice. He could tell I was a bit flustered. As I thought about the best way to proceed (my mind raced between – “you don’t have your notes in front of you” and “don’t let this opportunity pass”), I mentioned the possibility of sending him some questions to consider and then scheduling another time to talk. “Whenever and however you want to do it,” he said reassuringly. What followed was a delightful hour-long discussion with one of the most famous heroes of twentieth century U.S. history, and a renewed appreciation for the value of oral history.

I contacted Meredith seeking to learn more about his relationship with Gregory, and particularly how he viewed Gregory’s role in the movement. Both men are fascinating, deeply committed, and somewhat enigmatic. Born less than a year apart, they were a bit older than most of the student activists who energized the black freedom struggle through the sit-ins and other direct action protests of the early 1960s. And both were military veterans, who continue to view themselves as lifelong soldiers in the battle for equality.

While Meredith is best known as the first African American student to enroll at the University of Mississippi, I hoped to focus on a couple of later episodes in his career that I thought might provide insight into Gregory’s significance. He was open to discussing all of these, and his memory seemed quite sharp despite the passage of fifty years since the events in question. I learned about Meredith’s high regard for Gregory despite their philosophical disagreement regarding the strategy of nonviolence, was made aware of a mutual friend I had not been familiar with who became an important Gregory ally in the South, and perhaps most importantly, I gained a deeper appreciation for the human complexity and personal relationships involved in the movement.

James Meredith flanked by federal marshals at the University of Mississippi, 1962 (Library of Congress).

Historians love written documents and have always viewed oral history a bit more cautiously. Perhaps because we are trained to be skeptical of documents, it is even easier to question the motive or memory of a living figure than something fixed in print. While it must indeed be assessed critically, oral history can provide things written documents cannot. Hearing Meredith bristle when he discussed how others tried to use his 1966 “March Against Fear” for their own purposes, or noting his tone of voice when he said that for most of his career Martin Luther King Jr. didn’t really understand poverty conveyed insights beyond what written documents may have. And to hear him gently tell his grandchild to go play in another room because he was discussing “important matters” was to be reminded powerfully of the humanity of a figure who might otherwise be relegated to a role as an iconic set piece in a too familiar tale.

The term “interactive history” has become popular in an age of eye popping technologies that bring the past alive in new ways for students. In truth, history has always been interactive, even with seemingly fixed print documents. Uncovering a pivotal handwritten note on a memo from an advisor to a president, or a viewing firsthand the artistry in an ancient manuscript allows us to encounter the past in sometimes thrilling ways. But perhaps no source is as interactive as an oral history interview. To explore topics of your choosing with an historical figure – and to be able to ask a follow up questions – is historical inquiry at its most interactive. Concluding my interview with Meredith, I asked if I might contact him again should further questions arise. He repeated what he said at the outset: “Whenever and however you want to do it.” All historians should be so fortunate as to have access to such a source.

. EdUniversity of Wisconsin-Parkside Associate Professor of History Edward Schmitt. Schmitt received his PhD from Marquette University in 2003 and is now an associate professor of history at the University of Wisconsin at Parkside.  His first book, based on the dissertation he wrote under the direction of Robert Hay, was President of the Other America: Robert Kennedy and the Politics of Poverty (University of Massachusetts Press, 2011–  He is currently researching a book on the role of activist and entertainer Dick Gregory in the social movements of the 1960s and 70s.

Michael Donoghue on the Opening of the Panama Canal


Although it is somewhat over-shadowed by the Centenary of the “Guns of August”–the beginning of the First World War–there is another centennial being observed in 1914: the completion of the Panama Canal.  A newly tenured member of the MU history department, Michael Donoghue, is in high demand these days.  As an expert on the US impact on the canal and the canal zone, Michael has been interviewed by several media outlets, including the BBC.  He has also blogged about the anniversary of the canal opening on the website of Duke University Press, which published his first book, Borderland on the Isthmus: Race, Culture, and the Struggle for the Canal Zone.  Michael is on leave in fall 2014 conducting research on his next book-length project on the relationship between Americans and Cubans living on and near the US base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.  You can read Michael’s blog on the centennial of the opening of the Panama Canal at

Guest Blog: Find the Lost Children

Today’s post originally appeared at “From the Square,” the blog of New York University Press, the publisher of Jim Marten’s forthcoming Children and Youth during the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, an anthology of original essays. You can read cropped-fromsqfinalthe blog at Marten is professor and department chair.

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