Posts Tagged 'James Marten'

“The Troubles of His Country Were His Own”: Rev. N. A. Staples

By James Marten

This year two parts of my lives collided: my work as a historian of the Civil War era and my membership in the First Unitarian Society in Milwaukee.  First Church is celebrating its 175th anniversary this year, and I’m helping the congregation commemorate the milestone by organizing speakers and writing a monthly blog.

First Church was formed in the spring of 1842, but a few months earlier a notice had appeared in a local newspaper asking Unitarians interested in starting a church to gather at a local meeting hall “at early candlelight” to talk it over.  Although the congregation has had its ups and downs–in fact, it suspended services at least twice in the nineteenth century, and once had its mortgage foreclosed–since 1892 it has been housed in a brick church at Ogden and Astor, on Milwaukee’s lower east side.  The denomination as a whole and our congregation in particular is noted for its social activism; today it is one of the largest congregations in the denomination with around 800 members.

My January blog highlighted the unique life of one of our earliest ministers, N. A. Staples. He was an unusual character–kind of hard to live with, it seems–but he represented the radical abolitionists who helped spark the Civil War in 1861.  The blog is based largely on a biography and collection of sermons written and compiled by one of his close friends, but Staples’ complicated personality comes through as clearly as his passion for reform and his belief in the liberal Christianity promoted by Unitarians.

You can read the blog here.

Jim Marten is chair of the MU History Department and has been a member of the First Unitarian Society of Milwaukee for over twenty years.

Christmases Past: A Holiday Blog

By James Marten

It’s no coincidence that the most benign and popular of the three spirits who haunt Ebenezer Scrooge on Christmas Eve is the Ghost of Christmas Past. Although in the end Ebenezer’s journey through select moments of his holiday memories are more bitter than sweet, this first of three ghostly tours reminds us that the ways in which we and our families celebrate Christmas—or any holiday, really—create a shared history among family members that can become treasured memories or dramas fraught with ambivalence.

Part of that memory-making, at least for some of us, threads through popular culture, whether it’s the smooth jazz-infused A Charlie Brown Christmas, the jerky stop-motion animation of Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer, or the star-studded, over-the-top music specials that have flooded the airwaves since the 1950s (anyone remember David Bowie singing “Little Drummer Boy” with Bing Crosby?).

But three iconic representatives of the genre are grounded in history, and self-consciously reflected that history when they were made. Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (actually published in 1843 as A Christmas Carol in Prose, Being a Ghost-Story of Christmas), christmascarol1843_-_184has appeared in countless plays, cartoons, radio shows, and movies. Each version, in its own way, has captured conditions on Victorian England familiar to any historian: the class conflict reflected in the presence of the urban poor (the waifs revealed by the Ghost of Christmas Present), the barely-getting-by lower middle class represented by the Cratchits, the comfortable middle classes shopping and feasting throughout the story, and the wealthy folks who barely appear but are clearly present; the overburdened system of private charities and over-used work houses and prisons so loved by Scrooge; even the massive dislocation of the provincial population to London and its fabulous economic opportunities and worrisome dangers. Indeed, one of Dickens’ motivations for writing the little book was to offer not only a heart-warming holiday story, but to highlight the egregious conditions in which many Londoners lived.

Less concerned with societal ills than with individual redemption, It’s a Wonderful Life traces everyman George Bailey’s life from the 1910s through the 1940s, with major events like the World Wars and the Great Depression neatly framing the movie into three acts.  Smaller episodes reflect those times, from the druggist’s near-disastrous grief from losing wonderful-lifehis son during the WWI to the run on the Baileys’ building and loan in the early 1930s that ruins the George and Mary’s honeymoon, to the incredible energy poured into the war effort on the WWII home front.  Along the way we glimpse the effects of eastern European immigration and the development of the kind of the kind of suburban housing that would be made famous by the post-war Levittowns.  Every one of these and many other historical moments plays a role in the life George resents—and every one provides a specific kind of Christmas memory showing why his presence enriched the lives of others.

It’s a Wonderful Life appeared in 1946, as soldiers returned from war and adjusted to peace (like George’s hero brother Harry—a pilot like Jimmy Stewart, acting in his first movie since returning from several years of active duty) and as the country tried to glimpse a little optimism after the shattering destruction of the war. Eight years later, White Christmas came out at a time when, despite the Cold War, Americans felt more confident and the world was more or less at peace; filmed in living color and featuring peppy musical numbers, it occupies a place on the spectrum of Christmas movies about as far from It’s mmwhitechristmas02Wonderful Life as possible.  Yet even a bit of fluff like White Christmas is rooted in war-time and post-war America, from the GIs longing for home at the make-shift show put on by comrades just before they go into combat to the sudden rise to entertainment prominence of television to the bittersweet reunion of already aging veterans who gather to honor their old general after he’s been rejected by an army too modern to need an old-school soldier like him. Despite its modern sensibilities, White Christmas seems to have been produced to create nostalgia.

Whether these or other Christmas classics are on your must-see list, or if you simply watch a few minutes here and there while channel-surfing, for many of us these stories—and no doubt countless others—firmly meld fictional Christmases into real history and into our lives.

Happy Holidays on behalf of my colleagues in the Marquette University History Department!

James Marten is professor and chair of the history department.  He’s a little sheepish about admitting that one of his favorite holiday movies is Love Actually.

 

 

 

With Your Indulgence: Corporal Tanner Redux, for Veterans Day

By James Marten

“It was a pleasure reading . . . America’s Corporal: James Tanner in War and Peace,” the email from James Fitzpatrick of Chevy Chase, Maryland, began.  Historians rarely hear from non-historians who have read our work, so it was great to receive this kind piece of fan mail.  But it proved to be much more.  “With your indulgence,” the message continued, “this email shares something of my forebears’ relationship to Tanner, in hopes it may interest you.”

I first wrote about Corporal Tanner in February 2012, a couple of years before America’s Corporal was published (see “Reflections on a Man With No Feet“).  Tanner was an eighteen-year-old corporal in the Union army when he lost the lower thirds of both legs at the Battle of Second Manassas in 1862. He went on to become a powerful advocate for veterans and the disabled, a Republican operative, and a famous speaker at Chautauquas and other public venues. He eventually became one of the most famous men from the late nineteenth century who you’ve never heard of.  I also reported two other “out-of-the-blue” contacts.  One included three letters written by Tanner at different times in his life (see My Dear Comrade: Adventures with Corporal Tanner [continued]), while another was from a New Jersey woman named Sabrina who wondered why a letter from Tanner had showed up in her dead grandmother’s effects (see “It will sound rather strange to you…”: A Phone Call, a Letter, and the Corporal). I couldn’t help her, but the Tanner letter (one of the few surviving letters he wrote) provided a poignant end to America’s Corporal.

Sabrina had no idea who James Tanner was; she was trying to figure out how he fit into her family. The September 25 email from Mr. Fitzpatrick was quite different. So in honor of Veterans’ Day, here’s a little story about my continuing journey with Jim Tanner.

Mr. Fitzpatrick’s family enjoyed a close relationship with the Corporal during the quarter century before his death in 1927). Several documents and photographs had come down through the generations, and Mr. Fitzpatrick recalled several family stories about the Tanner family.  He hoped that I could fill him in on a few details about the Tanners; unfortunately, I wasn’t able to help much. Indeed, I’m afraid I learned more about the family from Mr. Fitzpatrick than he learned from me.  Here’s the list of the many links between the Fitzpatricks and the Tanners (the names get a little confusing—“Mr. Fitzpatrick” refers to my correspondent in Maryland):

–Tanner, who worked as a pension attorney for many years, probably helped Fitzpatrick’s great-grandfather apply for his Union army pension and, later, may have helped his great-grandmother complete her widow’s pension application;

–the Tanners (Jim, his wife Mero, and their daughters) lived in the same Washington, DC, boarding house as Mr. Fitzpatrick’s grandfather, John Fitzpatrick, around the turn-of-the-twentieth-century;

–Tanner may have served as best man at the wedding of John and Mary (Mr. Fitzpatrick’s grandparents);

btf-james-tanner–John and Mary named their son (Mr. Fitzpatrick’s father), Berchmans Tanner Fitzpatrick, after the Corporal (they are pictured to the left);

–Tanner’s daughter Ada, a long-time federal employee, sometimes drove out to Chevy Chase to give Mr. Fitzpatrick’s grandmother Mary rides in her car (Ada and Mary may also have worked together);

–on at least one occasion Mary came home to find John hosting a card party with the Corporal and other men that included drinking and smoking cigars (she poured the alcohol down the sink);

These are wonderful anecdotes, but two more took my breath away:

tanner3–James gave two books to young Berchmans, both on the Civil War; one he inscribed, “I present this little volume to my dearly beloved friend and namesake,” while in the other, written when Tanner was nearly eighty years old, he poignantly refers to the book as “Some record of the days where [when?] youth was mine.”

–Berchmans Fitzpatrick, who would later become a noted attorney in the federal government, worked for two summers as a kind of intern in the District of Columbia’s Register of Wills office, which Tanner ran for the last couple of decades of his life. Tanner wrote a heart-felt thank you note after the summer of 1925, when Berchmans returned to law school: “I cannot in justice to you let you go without saying how eminently satisfactory has been your work while you have been with us during vacation time.  I knew you had intelligence enough to discharge faithfully the duties assigned to you, but outside of that your courtesy, your readiness, your strict attention to business have been noticeable by all the members of our office force. . . . You go with the best wishes of every member of my force.  We all wish you every possible happiness that God may see fit to bestow upon humanity.”

These last two items meant that there were only two degrees of separation between the Corporal and me. This is obviously fun, and interesting, but it meant more to me than that.

The exchange with Mr. Fitzpatrick came just a couple of months after I’d completed my “Tanner pilgrimage.” A couple of years ago, while in Washington for a conference, I’d walked past the Du Pont Circle townhouse he’d shared with his daughters for two decades; his Washington apartment next door to the Peterson House, where he had taken testimony in shorthand while President Lincoln died; and the magnificent Pension Building (now the National Building Museum), where he had worked briefly as Commissioner of Pensions.  This last summer I drove to within one or two hundred yards of the spot on the Manassas Battlefield where he’d been wounded; visited the Virginia Theological Seminary, where he had been treated at an army hospital for several weeks; and Arlington National Seminary, where he and several members of his family are buried near a rustic amphitheater that was recently renamed after him (see below).

tanner-2                tanner-1

My low-level stalking of a long-dead old soldier was a personal attempt to get closer to the Corporal. Although I do feel I got to know the “legless corporal” fairly well—he was a shrewd, funny, outgoing man—I also wondered if the persona that emerged from the public documents, newspaper articles, speeches, and bits of memoirs revealed the “real” Tanner. Thanks to Mr. Fitzpatrick, I now have a few more hints as to the kind of guy Tanner was, and more information about the kind of people who admired him.

James Marten is chair of the MU history department. His two most recent books are Sing Not War: Union and Confederate Veterans in Gilded Age America (2012) and America’s Corporal: James Tanner in War and Peace (2013).

Politics and Christmas during the Civil War

 

By James Marten

A recent episode of the profane and hilarious (and also surprisingly respectful of history) television show “Drunk HistorNast 1y” featured Thomas Nast, the crusading Harper’s Weekly cartoonist. Historians know him for his efforts to bring down the corrupt “Boss Tweed” and his Tammany Hall machine in the early 1870, his cartoons attacking the Ku Klux Klan and the Democratic Party, and for any number of other political and reform-minded campaigns (some of his cartoons attacked the Catholic Church!).

Most Americans probably don’t recognize Nast’s name. But they are familiar with his most lasting creation: a drawing of Santa Claus made in 1881 that quickly became the most widely accepted version of the “jolly old elf.” It has appeared on countless postcards and posters since then; indeed, it is almost inseparable from the secularization—and, inevitably, the commercialization—of the holiday season.

But it was hardly the first time that Nast had portrayed Santa Claus for readers of Harper’s Weekly.

Almost two decades earlier, a year-and-a-half after the beginning of the Civil War, he had sketched his first version of Santa. Titled “Santa Claus in Camp,” it appeared in the January 3, 1863, issue. The Christmas season had not been a happy one in the North. Just two weeks earlier, the disastrous Battle of Fredericksburg had cost the Union nearly 1300 dead and 9600 wounded soldiers. Just after Christmas, nearly 1800 Union soldiers were killed, wounded, or captured at the ill-fated Battle of Chickasaw Bayou near Vicksburg, while Confederate raiders had threated Union positions in Kentucky and elsewhere. Just two days before the issue came out, the Union army barely won the Battle of Stone’s Creek in Tennessee, but 25,000 Confederate and Union soldiers became casualties—a third of the total number of men fighting. And to top it all off, the Republican Party, who controlled the Congress and the Presidency, was plagued with infighting, votes of no-confidence, and cabinet resignations.

Thomas Nast oNast 2ffered a pro-Union, optimistic antidote to the gloomy, bloody holiday. In addition to scenes of home front Christmases inside, the cover illustration showed Santa Claus receiving a hero’s welcome in a Union army camp. In addition to playing various games and cooking a sumptuous Christmas feast, the surprisingly chipper soldiers—“what,” they seem to be saying, “me worry?”—open the presents brought by Santa Claus, including socks and pipes; drummer boys play with a jack-in-the-box.

More importantly, unlike subsequent representations of Santa Claus, in which he is decidedly apolitical, this particular St. Nick is a determined ally of the Union. His costume features stars and stripes, and he’s entertaining the soldiers with a toy that is apparently an effigy of Confederate president Jefferson Davis. It seems to be a kind of jumping jack toy; pull the string on top and the legs and arms move as though he’s leaping and twirling. However, in this image, Santa is acting out a line from a popular bit of war-time doggerel set to a tune we now know as “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”: “We’ll hang Jeff Davis from a sour apple tree!”

The war started to go better for the Union in 1863, of course, although hundreds of thousands more American men wNast 3ould be killed and maimed in the hard fighting that lasted until spring 1865. By then, Santa was doing what he did best—giving presents to children safely at home, far from war. (Although he would make similarly patriotic appearances in later wars; see the online exhibit at the World War II Museum here).

It’s unsettling for us to see just how easily a childhood fantasy can, in effect, be “weaponized” on behalf of a political ideal. But that’s what we historians do: complicate the ways in which we can see even the simplest—seemingly simple, at least—aspects of our culture.

Despite that, the History Department offers a fairly simple wish for the season: Happy Holidays!
For more on Thomas Nast and Santa Claus during the Civil War, see http://www.civilwarprofiles.com/thomas-nast-and-santa-claus-in-the-civil-war/.
You can watch the Nast “Drunk History” segment here: http://www.cc.com/video-clips/1pqsyg/drunk-history-thomas-nast-takes-on-tammany-hall.

 

James Marten is professor and chair of the history department. Among his books are The Children’s Civil War (Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 1998) and Sing Not War: The Lives of Union and Confederate Veterans in Gilded Age America (Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2011).

My Dear Comrade: Adventures with Corporal Tanner (continued)

n honor of Memorial Day (the traditional date of May 30), and under the assumption that no one can get too much of The Corporal, Jim Marten offers yet another blog on James Tanner.

In February 2012 I posted a blog (“Reflections on a Man With No Feet,”) on a project about a disabled Civil War veteran that became America’s Corporal: James Tanner in War and Peace (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2014). A couple of months later, in a phone call I reported in another blog (“It will sound rather strange to you . . . “: A Phone Call, A Letter, and the Corporal), a New Jersey woman offered to send me a rather surprising and moving letter from the Corporal to an old comrade. I knew of only a handful of other surviving letters from Tanner, and this small find inspired a poignant paragraph in the book’s conclusion.

So America’s Corporal appeared in print in May 2014—and three months later, out of the blue, an email appeared offering a trio of letters written by my favorite Civil War veteran. Each came from a different period in Tanner’s life. (Although the author of the original email readily sent me scans of the letters, he never answered my questions about his background or his interest in Tanner.)

The first, dated mid-November 1863, was written a little over a year after the Battle of Second Manassas, where Tanner lost the lower third of both legs as an eighteen-year-old Union soldier. Tanner was writing from West Richmondville, New York, his home town jumarten bookst west of Albany, but this may be the period in his life when he was taking a course in shorthand at a business school in Syracuse. He’s writing to a James Sprague of Brooklyn, New York, pleading for news about James’s brother Jonathon, “the dearest friend I had in the army,” and one of the men, Tanner explains, who had carried him from the battlefield as the Union army collapsed around them. Someone had told Tanner that his friend had lost a leg in battle. “Can this be so?” he asked. The slightly older Jonathon had been a friend and a mentor to Tanner, who closed by writing, “Hoping to hear from you soon and to learn where he lost his leg and where bouts it was taken off and also wishing that He who offers the wind to the shore land will in His mercy restore our brother to health.” Unfortunately, Jonathon died of his wounds; Tanner would mention him from time to time throughout his long life.

Tanner wrote the second letter twenty years later, after he had moved to New York and then to Brooklyn, where he served for a number of years as Collector of Taxes. It’s a friendly letter to Arthur Spitzer, an official in the Richmond Customs House who was apparently involved with creating a badge for an organization for Confederate veterans.   Tanner offers some advice about the design and about pricing. He knew what he was talking about—by this time he had served two terms as Commander of the New York state branch of the Grand Army of the Republic (the main organization for Union veterans) and was one of the best-known Memorial Day speakers in the region. He would eventually serve as national commander and his name would be synonymous with veterans’ issues by the 1890s. Tanner also become famous for accepting the end of the war as the end of hostilities between the sections; his commitment to “reconciliation” would lead him to speak at many Confederate veteran events and at the laying of the cornerstone of the controversial Confederate monument in Arlington National Cemetery in 1912. Tanner’s specific advice is interesting: although Spitzer is working on a badge for a Virginia organization Tanner thinks bigger: he suggests that the badge “should be a badge for all the ex-Confederates.” Rather than using the Virginia coat of arms, “it strikes me that you should have the coat of arms of the Confederacy. I presume that in those days of high hope you indulged in such a trifling luxury.” Tanner managed to be encouraging and a little condescending at the same time; it seems that the Confederate veterans did not take his advice.

The third letter was written six years later, in September 1889. A lot happened in the meantime: Tanner’s rise to prominence in the GAR and in the Republican Party had led to his appointment in spring 1889 by the newly elected President Benjamin Harrison to the prestigious and lucrative position as Commissioner of Pensions. The letter is typewritten in a jazzy, italicized font, on Pension Bureau stationary. Tanner administered thousands of employees and millions of dollars in pension payments (which comprised the largest single item in the federal budget at that time). Tanner’s high-flying responsibilities were short-lived, however: he immediately got into trouble with his superiors, including the president, over certain policies and practices and his ruthless firing of Democratic clerks. This letter was written less than a week after Tanner had submitted his forced-resignation. Yet, as he declared in this fourteen-line note, “the report of the investigating Commission contained no reflections upon my character and integrity.” His only fault—this is one of those “faults” that is really not a fault at all—“is that I was too liberal and too hasty in the adjudication of just claims of needy comrades. On these charges I am willing to be judged by the boys [other veterans].” In fact, the purpose of the letter was to return an application for a job in the pension bureau, since Tanner would no longer be in charge. But he used the occasion to show that he remained unbowed and steadfast in his support for fellow disabled veterans. He would continue to work on behalf of soldiers and, along the way, make a small fortune as a claims agent for veterans applying for pensions.

Although interesting, these letters won’t require a new edition of America’s Corporal. Indeed, they have no real historical significance, other than to further confirm the sometimes conflicting character of the feisty, emotional, patriotic, and often kind Corporal Tanner. They do, however, prove the truism that the sources we have at hand for any given project are only the tip of the proverbial iceberg of sources that were lost, burned, hidden, or otherwise denied to posterity. Yet we soldier on, and when we’re lucky we get to write about guys like The Corporal, these letters let me spend another hour or two with him.

Jim Marten is professor and chair of the history department.  You can find out more about America’s Corporal at ttp://www.ugapress.org/index.php/books/index/americas_corporal.

Dear Author: Editing an Academic Journal

By Jim Marten and Phil Naylor

Between us we’ve published a couple of dozen books (monographs, edited collections, historical dictionaries), a few score chapters and articles, and well over a hundred book reviews. This has required us to talk, email, and (this dates us) exchange actual paper letters with editors, assistant editors, copy editors, and editorial assistants. (Side note: it seems important that “letter” is only a noun, but “email” is both a noun and a verb. Hmmm.) We both go back far enough that our first books and articles were typed several times, and returned to us on somewhat greasy galleys and page proofs before seeing print. Today, however, it is not unusual for articles and even books to be sent back and forth between authors and editors without ever being printed out.

In other words, when it comes to academic publishing, we’ve pretty much seen it all.

But about two years ago, after a combined sixty years of dealing with publishers and editors, we’re now on the other side of the (virtual) desk. In 2013 we each took on a new job: Jim became editor of the Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth, which is published by John Hopkins University Press three timejhcy covers a year on behalf of the Society of the History of Children and Youth. Jim also acts as book review editor. At the same time, Phil became co-editor-in-chief of the Journal of North African Studies (JNAS), which is published five times a year by Taylor & Francis (T&F) for the American Institute for Maghrib Studies (AIMS). In addition, he serves as publications officer on the AIMS executive committee, which, among other things, monitors AIMS research centers in Tunis and Oran.

We’re responsible for soliciting articles, arranging outside reviewers, copyediting, and assembling the issues. One challenge we share is mastering the website ScholarOne, the online mechanism for submitting manuscripts, communicating with outside reviewers and authors, collecting forms, and doing all the paperwork associated with running a journal. Submissions are accepted by automated emails and we simply fill out pre-written templates accepting or rejecting (or sometFNAShing in between) manuscripts, with reviewers’ comments automatically inserted into the email. It’s kind of like magic, although the structure of the site isn’t instinctive and eventually you have to get the final version of articles in WORD put them together old school (although, in fact, JHUP asks Jim to submit the completed issues via a share point site (through the dramatic sounding FTPsurfer!), and two sets of page proofs are sent back to me on the same site.

There are still parts of ScholarOne that remain a mystery; Jim hasn’t quite figured out how to delete articles that have already been published. JNAS was actually just adopting ScholarOne when Phil signed on. Although the transition has been challenging for his editors, authors, and reviewers, now with two year under his belt, Phil feels much more comfortable using the system.

scholarone

The Managing Editor’s Dashboard for the JHCY’s ScholarOne account.

But there are also more substantive challenges and responsibilities. For Jim, whose research is rooted in the Civil War era in particular and the histories of children and youth in the United States in general, the main challenge is that the journal receives submissions from scholars all over the world and about children living in ancient Rome, colonial India, and modern Europe, Latin America, and Asia. For Phil, the fact that JNAS is an interdisciplinary journal is a strength as well as a problem. Occasionally articles are quite esoteric (e.g., microeconomic sector studies of a Maghribi country). Although Phil took economics courses in grad school, he readily confesses that he lacks expertise to evaluate an article filled with econometric equations and theories! Compounding the situation, there are relatively few others who can review these topics as they relate to North Africa. Social science subjects often dominate the submissions.

Both journals are published exclusively in English, but draw readers and authors from around the world, which presents its own set of editorial problems. We frequently end up publishing pieces by scholars writing in their second or third (or even fourth in Phil’s case!) language. This sometimes to leads to rejections, as the English isn’t polished enough to appear in a professional journal; equally often, we simply have to take more time working with authors to get their research into publishable form.

The same can occasionally be said for scholars writing in their first language! For instance, we sometimes have to work overtime to help authors from the social sciences impart a greater historical sensibility into the articles and to get them to produce citations in the correct format. At times the authors are graduate students or brand new faculty members trying to get their first publications. They require a different kind of encouragement (especially if we reject their submissions, when the “revise and resubmit” option can become a powerful way to indicate that changes are necessary while at the same time providing a bit of a push to improve their work).

This latter responsibility is the best part of being a journal editor for Jim. The membership of the Society for the History of Children and Youth skews quite young, and he’s spent much of his time as a founder and long-time officer of the SHCY working with graduate students and newly minted PhDs, and it’s his role as a mentor that Jim finds most rewarding in his role as editor of the JHCY.

Phil’s favorite part of editing a journal is making contact with scholars who share his interest in promoting North African studies. This has resulted in new friendships while reinforcing others. Furthermore, by reviewing articles and the occasional books, Phil has kept not only up to date, but also poised at the cutting edge of North African scholarship. Having conscientious and collegial co-editors upon whom Phil can rely upon regarding articles and reviews is especially beneficial and reassuring. He considers being an editor of JNAS a highlight of his professional career.

Phil Naylor teaches courses on the Middle East, North Africa, Byzantium, and Rock and Roll.  His most recent book is the revised edition of North Africa: A History from Antiquity to the Present.  Jim Marten is chair of the department and the outgoing president of the Society for the  History of Children and Youth; his most recent book is America’s Corporal: James Tanner in War and Peace.

 

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:

http://www.stolpersteine.eu/en/home/

http://www.npr.org/2012/05/31/153943491/stumbling-upon-miniature-memorials-to-nazi-victims

http://www.smithsonianmag.com/people-places/memory-blocks-173123976/

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


Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 62 other followers