Category Archives: Uncategorized

Evil and Everyday Life: Interpreting Nazi Heritage

The "We Were Friends" exhibit

The “We Were Friends” exhibit

In June, 1941 the German military arrived in northern Finland as part of the Operation Barbarossa offensive against the Soviet Union.  The Germans became co-belligerents with the Finns, jointly waging war on the Soviets between June, 1941 and September, 1944 in what is known in Finland as the Continuation War.  At its height, 220,000 Germans were based and living in Finnish communities.

IMG_8567The Arktikum Museum and Arctic Science Centre’s exhibit “We Were Friends”: Finnish-German Encounters in Lapland, 1940-1944 revolves around the premise that in many ways the Finns and Germans experienced all the human relationships common between people anywhere: in various contexts, Finns and Germans were friendly colleagues, indifferent peers, or romantically involved.  “We Were Friends” departs from conventional Nazi narratives dispensing familiar moral judgments and instead plumbs everyday life between Finns and Germans.  That focus delivers a novel if potentially unsettling humanization of Finnish and German people living alongside each other amidst war.  It is an enormously challenging ambition to render the Nazi soldiers in Finland as prosaic and even banal people since the Nazis’ broader legacy has dominated historical pictures of German foot soldiers.  Inevitably, the exhibit also uneasily illuminates the historical implications of the Finns’ reception of the Germans.

The Haus der Komradeschaft in Rovaniemi in 1943 (image SA-Kuva).

“We Were Friends” casts Finns and Germans as utterly recognizable people negotiating difference and their circumstances as nearly any of us would.  The exhibit aspires to humanize the relationships between Finns and Germans, not Nazis and the German military writ large, a mission that may be impossible, naïve, refreshing, overdue, or something anywhere on that continuum.  The exhibit perhaps on some level aspires to salvage German soldiers’ humanity from narratives fixed on the Nazi war machine or caricatures of the German foot soldier as an ideological automaton.  On a novel, fascinating, and potentially unsettling level “We Were Friends” avoids weaving any especially judgmental moral or ideological narrative of the war, Nazism, or wartime Finns, instead painting a picture of everyday life distinguished by its recognizable banality.

Perhaps "We Were Friends"' most interesting juxtaposition of the banal and unsettling is this image of Finns and Germans at a football match (image Provincial Museum of Lapland)

Perhaps the most interesting juxtaposition of the banal and unsettling in “We Were Friends” is this image of Finns and Germans at a football match (image Provincial Museum of Lapland)

The exhibit deploys utterly prosaic everyday experiences to depict Germans who found themselves waging war in Finnish Lapland.  For instance, Finnish elders’ oral histories remember mundane expressions of humanity, like German gifts of candy or holiday parties.  Everyday life in home front communities like Rovaniemi remained rather quotidian, with hockey and soccer played between Finnish hosts and German guests, and Germans visited Finnish homes for coffee and shared a sauna.  The community gathered for concerts and new German movies at the Haus der Kameradschaft (House of Comradeship).  Germans were an aesthetic and physical presence in towns like Rovaniemi (which had about 6000 German residents), with one exhibit placard concluding that “Officers on horseback in their uniforms were a handsome sight.”

An image of a marriage request between a German soldier and Finnish woman.

An image of a marriage request between a German soldier and Finnish woman lies beneath letters between the couple.

Inevitably some Finns and Germans had sexual and romantic relationships, and those relationships have often been an unsettling wartime legacy held as family secrets.  “We Were Friends” paints romance circumspectly, with heartfelt passions and genuine attachments that mostly dissolved in unresolved uncertainties when the Germans left in September, 1944.  About 700 children of German soldiers were born to Finnish women (compare the 2015 Deutsche Welle story or a 2011 Swedish article).  Like much of “We Were Friends” the post-war uneasiness if not outright contempt for these relationships stands at odds with the picture of prosaic everyday life the exhibit paints for the co-belligerence period.  In this sense, much of the force of the exhibit is its unexpected banality, which is heightened by knowing the Finnish postwar history but may be confusing to visitors unschooled in the Finnish war experience.  “We Were Friends” avoids much resolution or any focus on historical consequences—Finnish-German couples are cast to the wind and the eventual fates of the people and places in the exhibit largely unaddressed.  It remains largely in the hands of visitors to make narrative sense of everyday life in the midst of the war.

Generaloberst Dietl, eversti ja ""Lapin keisari"" Villamo y.m.

Generaloberst Eduard Dietl in 1942

Among the mostly anonymous Germans, none secures more attention than Generaloberst Eduard Dietl, the highest-ranking German in Finland for most of the Continuation War.  Ville Kivimäki’s 2012 study of Finnish wartime memory argues that Dietl looms somewhat awkwardly as a “good German” who respected his Finnish brothers-in-arms and hosts and sought amicable relations between Finns and Germans.  In contrast, Dietl’s successor Lothar Rendulic spearheaded the Germans’ scorched earth tactics during the 1944 German withdrawal from Lapland, and he is looked on with much less appreciation (Dietl died in a June, 1944 air crash).  Dietl is a difficult figure to humanize, though, given his devotion to the Nazi cause since the 1923 Munich beer hall putsch.  Casting Dietl as a dashing figure distributing bon-bons in Rovaniemi hazards ignoring the brutality inflicted on his watch (Hitler described Dietl as a “fanatical National Socialist”).  “We Were Friends” does complicate Dietl’s facile caricature, delivering that blow with Dietl’s own damning words on racial purity: Dietl instructed German officers assessing marriage applications between Finns and Germans that “with only a few exceptions, the submitted applications unfortunately concern quite inferior representatives of neighbouring peoples, who can barely be called close relatives.  The attached photographs show almost solely racial driftwood, from girls with clearly eastern features to an ugly and stunted `bride,’ who cannot be considered as suitable German mothers.”

IMG_8578The Dietl example shows how “We Were Friends” is perhaps surprisingly circumspect, somewhat clinically documenting everyday life while eschewing a linear narrative confirming the obvious.  Those visitors seeking historical background for co-belligerence or details on what happened in 1944 after the co-belligerent status ended are seeking a conventional, conclusively interpreted historical narrative that “We Were Friends” largely avoids.  The reluctance or disinterest in fabricating a clear narrative may reflect the distinctively Finnish memory of World War II.  The war may be the single most consequential event in Finnish national heritage, and it is enormously complicated by caricatures, romanticization, and evasion that persist despite an exceptionally rich public understanding of the war’s more-or-less objective facts.

The Haus der Kameradschaft ruins in 1944 (image SA-Kuva)

Many non-Finns in particular may find “We Were Friends”’ detailed exposition of everyday life unsettling and even dangerously apolitical in its unwillingness to simply cast the Finnish-German relationship as unadulterated darkness.  It may be that the popular memory of the Nazis’ war as pure evil strikes a satisfying moral tenor to frame wartime narratives, and at some point we must implicate Germans—including the foot soldiers in Rovaniemi—in that historical judgment.  “We Were Friends” risks disconnecting the German war in Finland from the well-documented barbarity wrought throughout Europe, and its treatment of Dietl and subjects like sexual violence by Germans might deserve a more heavy-handed political voice.  The curators’ motivations for mounting such a challenging and important exhibit pass unexamined in “We Were Friends” as it delivers a fine-grained exposition of everyday life that leaves interpretation of those lives and the war to us.

Nevertheless, “We Were Friends”’ tale of everyday life is a provocative, thoughtful, and compelling examination of easily caricatured German soldiers and Finnish hosts.  The exhibit appears to have been enormously popular even as some of us may feel some anxiety admitting our fascination with the Nazis’ experience in Finland.  The attraction of the exhibit perhaps reflects our fascination with evil and how it captures the imagination of everyday people: in this case, can we reconcile Nazi ideology and deeds with the banality of gifts of German candy or the unsettling image of Christmas parties hosted by Nazis?  Perhaps the challenge of comprehending evil is that it defies such simplistic narrative resolution, and while some audiences will chafe at its apparent failure to pass judgement on the Third Reich’s cause, “We Were Friends” avoids “making sense” of the war itself.  Instead, it ponders the human dimensions of Finnish-German relationships and leaves the unsettling dimensions of the Nazi agenda and Finnish bonds with Germans simultaneously at the heart of the story even as they remain unspoken.

 

References

Anu Heiskanen

2008 A Useless War Memory: Erotic Fraternization, German Soldiers and Gender in Finland.  In The Gender of Memory: Cultures of Remembrance in Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century Europe, edited by Sylvia Paletschek and Sylvia Schraut.  University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

 

Eva Kingsepp

2006 “Nazi fans” but not Neo-Nazis: The Cultural Community of “WWII Fanatics.”  In Returning (to) Communities : Theory, Culture and Political Practice of the Communal, edited by Stefan Herbrechter and Michael Higgins, pp. 224-240. Rodopi, Amsterdam.

 

 

Ville Kivimäki

2012 Between Defeat and Victory: Finnish memory culture of the Second World War.  Scandinavian Journal of History 37(4):482-504.

 

Ville Kivimäki and Tuomas Tepora

2009 War of Hearts: Love and Collective Attachment as Integrating Factors in Finland During World War IIJournal of Social History 43(2):285-305.  (subscription access)

 

Sandra Wallenius-Korkalo

2010 Remembering and Forgetting the Second World War in Finland: The politics of Memory in Online Discussions.  In Progress or Perish: Northern Perspectives on Social Change, eds. Aini Linjakumpu and Sandra Wallenius-Korkalo, pp.65-82. Ashgate Publishing Group, Burlington, Vermont.

 

Lars Westerlund

2011 The Children of German Soldiers: Children of Foreign Soldiers in Finland 1940–1948, Volume I.  Nord Print, Helsinki.

 

Images

Haus der Kameradschaft Rovaniemi 1943, Haus der Kameradschaft 1944, Eduard Dietl 1943 images from Finnish Wartime Photograph Archives SA-photo archive

Class and Lycra: Style, Wealth, and Cycling Apparel

David Miller in a jersey from his Chpt.III line by Castelli.

David Miller in a jersey from his Chpt.III line by Castelli.

This week cycling insiders are heralding a new line of bike apparel from fabled Italian cycling manufacturer Castelli.  After decades of cycle clothing innovations, Castelli has partnered with recently retired pro rider David Millar to produce an “ultra high-end” clothing line for “discerning cyclists” seeking “sartorial elegance.”  The brand hopes to appeal to a “new breed” of cyclists attracted to “the cutting edge of fashion,” and the first jersey in the line retails for £190; assessing the line’s prices, Bike Radar dryly concluded that “it’s a fair bet that if you have to ask, you can’t afford it.”

Cycling producers are by no means alone in their branding appeal to consumers seeking exceptionally high-end sports garments and gear, and cultish brand appeal has complicated implications on how we view sport in general and cycling in particular.  A massive industry has made cycling an increasingly lucrative industry, and it is attempting to remain profitable and accessible to the masses even as brands like the new Castelli line cultivate social and class exclusivity. Read the rest of this entry

The Boredom of Dark History: Women’s Histories and Jack the Ripper Narratives

Neighbors were startled last week when this facade was unveiled for the Jack the Ripper Museum.

Neighbors were startled last week when this facade was unveiled for the Jack the Ripper Museum.

Last week neighbors in London’s East End were dismayed that a planned women’s history museum had taken an unexpected turn.  Rather than “retell the story of the East End through the eyes, voices, experiences and actions of the women that shaped the East End,” the renamed Jack the Ripper Museum will narrate the lives of late 19th-century women through the familiar but hackneyed legend of a murderer.  The Jack the Ripper story has been told incessantly since the murder of five women in London’s Whitechapel neighborhood in the late 1880s.  The murders are a fascinating tale of extraordinary evil heightened by the murderer’s ability to remain anonymous and escape an analysis of what delivered him to such unthinkable darkness.  Nevertheless, the Ripper’s story seems an especially challenging starting point to narrate the agency of women in 19th-century London.  The Museum awkwardly argues that it “discusses why so many women had little choice in their lives other than to turn to prostitution”; that only seems to confirm that they will tell another theatrical tale about the Ripper instead of reflectively study the scores of women who negotiated the late 19th-century East End. Read the rest of this entry

Gardens in the Black City: Landscaping 20th-Century African America

In July, 1937 Louise Terry was married in the garden at her parents’ Indianapolis home, and her mother Mary Ellen and father Curtis were likely proud of their daughter and garden alike.  In the days leading up to the nuptials the Indianapolis Recorder rhapsodized about the Terrys’ garden: “A beautiful rock garden and lily pond bordered with flowers of variegated hues against a background of Sabin Junipers, Oriental Golden Arbor-Vitae, Colorado Blue Spruce, Virginia Glanca, Blue Junipers, Japanese Cedars, and stately Poplars will create a celestial atmosphere … at the Terry residence, 1101 Stadium Drive.”

Dorothea Lange's 1939 image of a North Carolina sharecropper's cabin indicated "Note also flower garden protected by slender fence of lathes" (Farm Security Administration,Library of Congress).

Dorothea Lange’s 1939 image of a North Carolina sharecropper’s cabin indicated “Note also flower garden protected by slender fence of lathes” (Farm Security Administration,Library of Congress).

The Terrys’ garden lay in the heart of the city’s near-Westside, part of an overwhelmingly African American neighborhood that was routinely caricatured as a “blighted” or “slum” landscape.  In the summer of 1937 that Louise Terry was wed, construction was nearing completion on the city’s first major urban renewal project, Lockefield Garden, just blocks from the Terry home (the segregated African American community accepted its first tenants in February 1938).  There was indeed genuine impoverishment and material hardship in much of the near-Westside, yet the African-American city was dotted with ornamental gardens like the Terrys’ home.  The archaeological scholarship on African-American landscapes includes fascinating analyses of plantation spaces and food gardens, but there is far less scholarship on the scores of ornamental African-American gardens in 20th-century cities and suburbs. Compounding the dilemma in cities like Indianapolis is the reality that many of these gardens have been erased.  Nevertheless, ignoring them allows racist stereotypes of longstanding urban ruin to pass unchallenged, and it risks ignoring that many similar gardens and gardeners remain scattered across the contemporary city. Read the rest of this entry

Heritage Exposed: Nudity at Historical Sites

Tourists at Angkor (image from Poso a poco).

Tourists at Angkor (image from Poco a poco).

In February American tourists Lindsey Kate Adams and Leslie Jan Adams were among the crowds at Cambodia’s Angkor, the 9th-15th century Khmer city and temple complex that UNESCO hails as the most famous archaeological site in southeast Asia.  The World Heritage Site sprawls over about 400 square kilometers, making it among the world’s largest archaeological sites and one of the most visited historical sites in the world.  The Adams sisters were among the thousands of visitors trooping through Angkor in February, with scores of them providing pictures of their journey and the astounding complex.  When the Arizona sisters reached the Preah Khan temple, they likewise documented their visit, yet like a modest but growing wave of contemporary tourists they departed from the conventional monument pose:  the women dropped their pants for a shot of their butts in the ancient temple, only to be nabbed by the authorities.  These increasingly common nude or partially disrobed pictures at historic sites tell us something about the aesthetic power of heritage even as they reveal its irrelevance to many of the Western tourists who are actually visiting historic places.

The Arizona travelers are not alone in their ambition to commemorate their historic site tourism with nude pictures.  In January three French tourists were deported after being caught in Angkor’s Banteay Kdei temple stripping for pictures of their Cambodian trek.  Five days before pictures appeared on Facebook depicting topless women at Angkor as well as Beijing’s Forbidden Palace.  In May a group of ten tourists posed naked in Malaysia on Mount Kinabalu, a World Heritage site distinguished by its botanical diversity (5000-6000 plant species can be found on the mountain).  Israeli traveler Amichay Rab’s My Naked Trip blog documents his tour of South America, where he stripped at a series of sites including Machu Picchu, Cuzco, and Monte Verde.  The facebook page and blog Naked at Monuments document sun-starved butts at sites including the Great Wall of China, Machu Picchu, and Athens. Read the rest of this entry

Imagining the Racist Landscape

The Avenue of Oaks at Boone Hall Plantation (image Jonathan Lamb).

The Avenue of Oaks at Boone Hall Plantation (image Jonathan Lamb).

Boone Hall Plantation bills itself as “America’s most photographed plantation,” and the Mount Pleasant, South Carolina plantation’s moss-draped oak approach and grounds are indeed magnificent.  The most dramatic aesthetic feature of the plantation may be the nearly mile-long “Avenue of Oaks” approach, which is draped in southern oaks planted in 1743.  Photographed by a legion of tourists whose images crowd the likes of Pinterest, Instagram, and Trip Advisor, the space has also appeared in films including North and South and The Notebook.

Captives quareters at Boone Hall Plantation (image Rennett Stowe).

Captives quarters at Boone Hall Plantation (image Rennett Stowe).

In April the visitors photographing the Boone Hall landscape included Dylann Roof, who later murdered nine African Americans in a Charleston church on June 17th.  In March and April Roof visited a series of South Carolina historic sites such as Boone Hall and included the images on a website accompanying a racist manifesto.  We may find it impossible to fathom the mind of a racist killer and determine how he went from the mimicry of xenophobic talking points to mass murder, but his historic site visits illuminate the somewhat “placeless” historic landscape of the racist imagination.  Dylann Roof’s imagination of these historic spaces is impossible to conclusively interpret, and his online manifesto and pictures did not deny the historical narratives of African-American heritage sites as much as he simply evaded them.  It appears that Roof ignored the complex heritage of all these places even as he felt strangely compelled to visit them. Read the rest of this entry

The Trinkets of Evil: Eva Braun’s Underwear and Dark Heritage

The underwear that may have once belonged to Eva Braun are $7500 (image from Daily Mail).

The underwear that may have once belonged to Eva Braun are $7500 (image from Daily Mail).

Few artifacts associated with dark historical moments are more perversely fascinating than a pair of panties for sale in an Ohio antiques shop.  The lace underwear embossed with the monogram “EB” were reputedly recovered in 1945 from Berchtesgaden, where they were said to grace Eva BraunThe provenience for the $7500 knickers is not clearly established, but the interest in the skivvies of Hitler’s mistress is a telling reflection of our deep-seated curiosity in the human dimensions of evil.  The fascination with such a prosaic thing illuminates our desire to comprehend (if not explain) the most evil people by focusing on their banal humanity.

Few collectibles provoke more anxiety than Nazi artifacts, whose exchange is strictly regulated throughout most of the world.  Many of the codes regulating Nazi memorabilia attempt to keep them from falling into the hands of contemporary neo-Nazis, but many observers simply see the profiteering on Nazi symbols as ghoulish if not immoral.  Harry Grenville, whose parents died at Auschwitz, called a 2015 auction of wartime memorabilia “hugely offensive,” lamenting that “this auction house is set to make a tidy sum of money from the sale of items that are hugely offensive to a lot of people.  It raises again the question about freedom of speech – you can’t force people to stop selling Holocaust memorabilia and making money from it but you can deplore it.”  Grenville is not alone in his uneasiness that Nazi material things have become “collectibles” traded like any other other good.  Nevertheless, this aversion to the trade in Nazi collectibles stands somewhat at odds with the pervasive presence of Nazis in popular culture, where Nazism and Hitler are nearly universally recognized stand-ins for evil. Read the rest of this entry

Burying Fans: Material Culture and Ritual at Fandom Funerals

Star Wars fan Gordon Deacon's funeral carriage was escorted to the church by stormtroopers (image from Wales Online).

Star Wars fan Gordon Deacon’s funeral carriage was escorted to the church by stormtroopers (image from Wales Online).

In February lifelong Star Wars and Liverpool Football Club fan Gordon Deacon died of cancer, and the 58-year-old’s funeral commemorated his passions.  The Cardiff father of four was escorted to St. Margaret’s Church by a phalanx of stormtroopers who then oversaw his pallbearers, who were themselves clad in Liverpool jerseys.  Deacon’s funeral was distinctive, but he is by no means alone embracing his fandom for his final earthly ritual.  For instance, the widow of Pittsburgh Steelers fan James Henry Smith requested that he be placed in his favorite reclining chair as if “he just fell asleep watching the game,” covered by his beloved Steelers blanket and facing a television showing a Steelers game (with the television remote in his hand).  When Doctor Who fan Seb Neale died his family and friends arranged a service at which Neale’s coffin was a TARDIS with a blue flashing light; the service program was a picture of Neale cosplaying as 10th Doctor David Tennant; music from the show was played; and instead of scriptural verses “the funeral consisted of quotes from classic Who scripts, including William Hartnell’s famous speech from `The Dalek Invasion Of Earth’: ‘One day, I will come back.  Yes, I shall come back.  Until then there must be no regrets, no tears, no anxieties.  Just go forward in all your beliefs, and prove to me that I am not mistaken in mine.’” Read the rest of this entry

Faith at the Brickyard: Ritual, Fandom, and the Indianapolis 500

Ray Harroun in his Marmon Wasp after winning the first running of the Indianapolis 500 in 1911

Ray Harroun in his Marmon Wasp after winning the first running of the Indianapolis 500 in 1911 (image from Indianapolis Motor Speedway Collection)

Memorial Day weekend is among the most cherished holidays in racing fandom, with the Indianapolis 500 culminating a month of racing and community events.  For legions of followers the Indianapolis 500 is an annual rite, and for many fans the journey to the speedway is a pilgrimage to one of racing’s most hallowed spaces.  In 1973 the New York Times celebrated the event and place when it intoned that “the 500 is more than a race.  It is a folk festival, a happening.  Its pageantry, spectacle and corn make it Middle America’s counterpart to France’s pilgrimage to Le Mans.”

The speedway experience involves systematic ritual, intense desire, and visitation to an important place, all of which have some parallels to pilgrims’ religious travel in particular and broader religious experience in general (compare Jean Williams’ 2012 study of pilgrimage to the IMS).  Religious characterizations of sport fandom perhaps risk hyperbolizing the consequence of sport, and some observers have ridiculed the hackneyed definition of sports’ “hallowed ground.” In 2008, for instance, sportswriter Andrea Adelson complained that “There is nothing sacred about Augusta National, Yankee Stadium and Wrigley Field.  So why are these places referred to in the same way we talk about the Sistine Chapel, St. Patrick’s Cathedral and the Wailing Wall?”  Adelson argued that sporting places should be characterized as being “steeped in tradition.”  Adelson’s distinction between sacred and secular places reveals a wariness of projecting sacred authenticity onto the prosaic reality of sporting venues, if not sport itself. Read the rest of this entry

Racing Along the Color Line

A July 31, 1926 advertisement in the Indianapolis Recorder for the third running of the Gold and Glory Sweepstakes.

A July 31, 1926 advertisement in the Indianapolis Recorder for the third running of the Gold and Glory Sweepstakes.

This month the massive crowds at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway appear to confirm its confident claim to being the “motor racing capital of the world.”  Racing began on the oval in 1909 and the 500-mile race first ran two years later, with the 99th running of the 500-mile race approaching on Memorial Day weekend.  The speedway is a National Historic Landmark, and its fascinating social history reaches well beyond the obsessive statistics and biographical minutia that motorheads have compulsively detailed for a century.  The IMS dominates American racing mythology and is as much a pilgrimage destination as a race track.  Like so many shrines it invokes a host of American traditions that are perhaps more firmly rooted in our imagination and hagiography than especially concrete history.

The imagination of the speedway’s history has recently begun to contemplate historical racial inequalities in sports.  This year the 500 Festival parade before the race will be marshalled by the 1955 state high school basketball champions from Indianapolis’ segregated Crispus Attucks High School.  The Attucks champions’ place in the pre-race parade celebrates Indiana’s two most adored sports, basketball and racing, but of course the implications of sport and the color line extend beyond the hardwood and the speedway.  No 20th-century Indiana institution escaped anti-Black racism, and the speedway and the Indianapolis 500 was long a segregated space and has included very few people of color on the track or in the pits.  The prominence of the Attucks players makes a modest but potentially important concession of racism in sports, though the concrete social effects of such discussions remain to be evaluated. Read the rest of this entry

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 18,335 other followers