On Book Exhibits and World War II Material Culture (#AHA19)

Megan Jones of The Pingry School offers one more post from the floor of the annual meeting of the American Historical Association in Chicago.  In this post, Megan reflects on her last day of the conference with a nod to the book exhibit and a panel on visual culture and the end of World War II. (Read all of Megan’s posts here).  Enjoy!  –JF

The book exhibit is one of the best parts of an academic conference, particularly for someone who does not have the time to keep up with book reviews in academic journals. A scholar browsing the exhibit hall for new titles is like a child perusing a candy store, and the feeling of ecstatic curiosity is probably about the same. Kevin Gannon (@TheTattooedProf) had a great GIF of the wizard from Disney’s “Fantasia” to represent his analysis of historians in book exhibits. I spent about two hours walking through the hall. Here’s a screenshot of my camera roll showing the books I found particularly appealing:

megan pics

I’m going to (hopefully) be teaching a course on American environmentalism, Atlantic World and modern European revolutions, and Modern World History in the future, so my selection is fairly broad. I even persuaded a few publishing reps to send me free samples. Score.

The best panel I attended on Day 3 was session #173, “Visualizing Victory, Visualizing Defeat: The Material Culture of Occupation in the Wake of World War II.” Two PhD candidates at the University of Wisconsin-Madison gave fascinating talks on the afterlives of visual artifacts in the postwar period. Abigail Lewis discussed the various uses and changing meaning of photographs taken by French photographers during the Vichy regime. These images depicted a relatively happy and peaceful France under Nazi occupation, which can be best explained by the fact that only photographers who agreed to abide by Nazi rules could obtain material with which to actually shoot photos. These images were used after the end of WWII to depict occupation in a blockbuster show at the Grand Palais in 1946, and also during a 2008 retrospective.  Jennifer Gramer spoke about German war art and the confiscation of such work by the American Captain Gordon Gilkey with the Roberts Commission, and the choices made to determine which art was deemed potentially capable of inciting violence in the future.

Both Lewis and Gramer discussed how the images and works they studied had different meaning for the French and Germans depending on the time under consideration. Both also questioned how the meaning of images changes depending on the context – should we look at an image divorced from its historical context and deem it “artistic” as in the case of German war art, some of which is objectively beautiful and clearly drawn by a talented artist? Do the images taken by French photographers indicate their complicity with the Vichy regime, or were they subversively collaborating with the idea that their images would serve as a documentary record for posterity? Who gets to determine the meaning of an image? The questions Lewis and Gramer posed, which I am probably doing no justice to, speak to a broader question of who owns history and who has the right to interpret historical artifacts.

Thanks, Megan!

Is Bavaria a Christian State?

Bavaria

On Tuesday of this week I spent the afternoon with Seth Perry of the Department of Religion at Princeton University and Dave Krueger of Temple University working with international religion scholars from Argentina, Azerbaijan, Romania, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Indonesia, Sudan, India, Ukraine, Slovenia, Russia, Burma, China, Bulgaria, Tunisia, Mongolia, and Cameroon. They were selected by the U.S. State Department to spend six weeks in the U.S. for an institute on religious pluralism run by Temple University’s Dialogue Institute.

Our session was titled “Christian Nation or Nation of (Mostly) Christians: A Panel Discussion on the Role of Christianity in Founding Documents and the Early Formation of American Culture.” We had some great conversation and discussion about what it means to call America a “Christian nation.”

I thought about this conversation when I learned that the German state of Bavaria just passed a law requiring a cross to be placed at the entrance of service buildings.  The crosses are meant to serve “as a reminder of the historical and cultural influence of Bavaria.”

Here is Griffin Paul Jackson’s article on the new law at Christianity Today:

Markus Söder, premier of Germany’s Christian Social Union party (CSU), was the driving force behind the new law, which went into effect on June 1 and has caused a schism between church and state leaders.

Söder called the ruling an “affirmation of our cultural and historical, as well as spiritual values.” He acknowledged the cross is “primarily a religious symbol,” but also said it is foundational to the secular German state.

The law is viewed by many as an effort to lock down conservative voters in the run-up to state elections this October. The CSU currently dominates the state’s legislature, but some of its core constituency has been lured toward the anti-immigration Alternative für Deutschland party (AfD) in light of more than 1 million refugees—most of them Muslims from the Middle East and North Africa—who have flooded into Germany over the last few years.

The decision, which was accepted in April and has now been implemented, is a key component in an attempt to bring voters back.

In Bavaria, where more than half of the population is Catholic and 1 in 5 are Protestants (while 4% are Muslim), the move to promulgate crosses in public spaces is popular. More than 56 percent of residents favor the decision, though only 29 percent of Germans nationwide do likewise, according to a poll for the Bild am Sonntag, Germany’s largest Sunday newspaper, and cited in the Independent.

Read the entire piece here.

 

The “America First Exhibit” at the Holocaust Museum

US Holocaust Museum in Washington

My forthcoming book Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump devotes several pages to Trump’s use of the phrase “America First.”  The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum‘s exhibit “Americans and the Holocaust” was not yet open when I was writing these pages, but if it had been open I am sure a quick trip to Washington D.C. would have inspired some of my writing on this topic.

Over at The Atlantic, Eliot Cohen reviews the new exhibit. Here is a taste:

This might all be an occasion for mere brooding about the past, were there not some jarring echoes for today. The isolationist organization America First gets its share of attention here, and deservedly so. Launched in September 1940, it soon built up a membership of over 800,000. Led by the retired general and business executive Robert Wood, its most charismatic spokesman was the heroic aviator Charles Lindbergh, a strange but inflammatory hero for the isolationists, who was not beyond the occasional Jew-baiting himself. America First opposed the Atlantic Charter issued by Roosevelt and Churchill in August 1941 after their meeting off Newfoundland, presumably including clauses like the pledge to respect the right to self-government. It captured the imaginations of some privileged young men, to include a couple of future presidents and assorted intellectual luminaries. It vanished into thin air after Pearl Harbor, and many of the young men who supported it, like John F. Kennedy and Gerald Ford, changed their views in later years.

America First is, because of its discreditable history, a disreputable slogan, which has not prevented President Trump from embracing it and subordinates who know better from defending it. In so doing, they unwittingly undermine their other slogan, “Make America Great Again,” because the America of the 1930s was not all that great. There were—as we have been reminded by the opening of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice—the pitiless murders of African Americans by lynch mobs. There were scores of such killings in the 1930s. There was casual and open bigotry and discrimination against Jews and other religious and ethnic groups. If Roosevelt proclaimed the Four Freedoms in his 1941 State of the Union address—freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear—the great objectives of the struggle that impended, it was not because America was contentedly enjoying them and wished to share in their bounty, but because he knew that they had to be fought for, at home and abroad simultaneously.

Read the entire review here.

*Fire and Fury* Surges to the Top of Best-Seller Lists

hansenMichael Wolff’s Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House is currently ranked #1 at Amazon.  But this post is not about that book.

According to The Huffington Post, a Canadian historian‘s book on World War II–Fire and Fury: The Allied Bombing of Germany, 1942-1945–also seems to be doing quite well these days.  His name is Randall Hansen and he directs the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto.

Here is a taste of Liam Casey’s report at The Huffington Post:

“The book is 10 years out and it had been languishing for years and suddenly it was on three bestseller lists,” Hansen said.

Wolff’s book about Trump was the only logical reason for the sales bump, he thought. So he shared that thought with his Twitter followers and went to bed. When he woke up, the tweet had been shared more than 1,000 times and in came interview requests from international media.

He said he won’t know how many people ordered his book by mistake until his royalty cheque arrives in about a month’s time. But he only had a few people complain to him on Twitter that they meant to buy Wolff’s book instead.

“It’s not my fault people can’t tell the difference between a book about Trump and a book about the bombing of Germany,” Hansen said. “But most have been jovial and appreciated the moment of levity.”

Read the entire piece here.

Angela Merkel and the Future of Christianity In Europe

Mother AngelaI recently asked historian Benjamin Brandenburg to take some of his recent tweets on Brexit and Christianity and write them up for The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  I am glad he agreed to do so.   

Brandenburg is an International Historian at Montreat College in North Carolina. His current project, “Evangelical Empire: Billy Graham’s Good News in the American Century,” investigates the politics of the gospel in the Global North and Global South. He tweets @benbrandenburg. Enjoy! –JF

As the aftershocks of Great Britain’s Brexit vote continue to reverberate across the globe, initial reactions focused on the future of capitalism, world order, and globalization.  The religious dimension was nowhere to be found. Contrary to what is often claimed on this side of the pond, Christianity continues to matter in European politics. When the returns signaled that a fear of immigration tilted the referendum towards Leave, it became obvious that voters had Mutter Angela on their minds. Europe’s current impasse was in no small part launched by the decision of German Chancellor Angela Merkel to invite over one million predominantly Muslim asylum seekers from the Middle East into the heart of the European Union. David Cameron, Britain’s lame duck Prime Minister, admitted as much.

So it is worth taking a deeper look at the ways Merkel’s Immigration Revolution of 2015 reignited Europe’s on-again off-again discussion about Christianity’s role in public life.

Europeans, it seems, have never quite stopped discussing the meaning of Christianity in Europe. Following the Second World War, debates about the future the European system resulted in the political phenomena of Christian Democracy. Harvard historian Samuel Moyn recently argued that this Western European ideology understood Europe to be nothing less than a Christian Civilization. Often misunderstood in the United States, the Christian Democratic movement is perhaps the most important ideological innovation of the postwar period.  With a surprising mixture of pan-Europeanism, Catholic social teaching, and anti-communism, the party took hold in Germany, France, Italy, and the Benelux countries in the immediate aftermath of the war.  When Christianity began to lose its firm grip on postwar society Christian Democrats sought to push the conversation by inviting Billy Graham to the stadiums of Europe. Europeans debated whether America’s most iconic religious export could re-Christianize Cold War Europe. They later used Graham’s satellite TV events as a yardstick for discussing religious pluralism. More recently, the failed attempt at crafting a European Constitution in the early 2000s was dominated by discussions, with an assist by Jürgen Habermas, about whether Europe had an explicit Christian identity.

Enter Angela Merkel. In her eleven years in office, leaders within her conservative CDU (Christian Democratic Union) criticized the mild mannered politician for underemphasizing the “Christian” part of her party and for supporting relativism as she moved the party leftward. Her strongest belief, it appeared, was her effervescent love for Die Mannschaft, Germany’s national soccer team. Still, one can understand her reasoning for broadening the base, her CDU was one of Europe’s few remaining Christian Democratic strongholds.

And then Merkel made a momentous decision that would land her the cover of TIME’s person of the year.

She opened the German borders for Syrian refugees who were in limbo in Hungary. And she has stuck to her plan even as the price tag reached €94 billion. Some called the move a reaction to her upbringing in closed-border East Germany (Merkel’s father was a Lutheran official who earned the nickname “The Red Minister”). Others suggested it was a last ditch effort to save Europe’s borderless Schengen Zone or to bring in low wage labor. Perhaps a more accurate reading is to admit that Merkel attempted to reinvigorate a Christian Democratic understanding of politics on the continent. Merkel is forcing Christians in Europe to choose between her vision of Compassionate Conservatism and the Christian Nationalist vision of Fortress Europe that is cresting in Viktor Orbán’s Hungary, Jarosław Kaczyński’s Poland, and Nigel Farage’s Britain. In response to a question on the Islamisation of Europe, Merkel responded:

We all have the opportunity and the freedom to have our religion, to practice it, and to believe in it. I would like to see more people who have the courage to say ‘I am a Christian believer’. And more people who have the courage to enter into a dialogue with our guests…Fear was never a good adviser. Culture’s that are marked by fear will not conquer their future.

This Wilkommenskutlure should be interpreted as a distinct vision of Christian hospitality. Historians will need to wait for decades to see how this conversation plays out, but it could lead—to borrow a phrase from Robert Wuthnow—to a Restructuring of European Christianity.