For some historical and theological reflections on Memorial Day, Christianity Today this year turned to our own Chris Gehrz, who teaches courses on World War I and World War II and has written extensively about commemoration.
On one hand, Prof. Gehrz emphasized that “every day is a memorial day for Christians, heirs of Moses’ exhortation to the assembly of Israel: “Remember the days of old; consider the generations long past” (Deut. 32:7)” and suggested that Christians might embrace today’s call to remembrance as one more “way of loving our (temporal) neighbors and proclaiming that the grave has won no lasting victory.”
But he also wrestled with the fact that Memorial Day is “a festival of our nation’s civil religion… approached heedlessly, it will tempt us to pledge to the nation-state the ‘total allegiance‘ that we owe to nothing and no one but God.”
To read the full essay and learn how Prof. Gehrz found something potentially redemptive in American civil religion, click here.
This afternoon in HIS231L World War II: the first of a two-part film festival, as student groups presented ten-minute documentaries about topics from the war. Today we learned about everything from the Winter War between the Soviet Union and Finland to the German atomic weapons program, Hitler Youth, and attempted assassination of Adolf Hitler in July 1944. On Thursday we’ll watch films about Holocaust rescuers, Navajo code-talkers, African American pilots and soldiers, and the postwar refugee crisis.
It’s the third time I’ve assigned this kind of project — once before with HIS231L, and then the last time HIS230L World War I was taught on campus — but the first time it’s happened over a full semester, rather than during J-term. It was inspiring to see the quality of student work in a 200-level gen ed course: both the depth of research and the quality of digital storytelling, as students integrated narration, primary source readings, “talking head” interviews, still photos, newsreel clips, and background music.
For the final project in his new course HIS231L World War II, Prof. Chris Gehrz had his students work in groups of two, three, or four to produce 7-10 minute documentary films. Groups could pick any topic related to the history of the war, so long as their research took them beyond what was normally covered in class and they could creatively integrate a wide array of primary sources into the film.
Those documentaries debuted last Friday in class, with students presenting documentaries on everything from the role of German scientists in the Holocaust and in a failed nuclear research program to the internment of Japanese-Americans and the experiences of the African-American pilots known as the “Tuskegee Airmen.” Projects on the Bataan Death March and the participation of the Hitler Youth in the war received particular praise from the audience, as did a film on Bethel College before, during, and after the war.
Produced by History majors Tyler DuBois (’14) and Fletcher Warren (’15) and History/Elementary Education major Sarah Herb (’14), Bethel at War incorporates unique sources from the university archives and digital library, including back issues of the student newspaper (The Clarion) and yearbook (The Spire), historical photographs, and letters from students serving in the armed forces. Fletcher, Sarah, and Tyler even tracked down an interview with the widow of a Japanese-American student who served in the war.
See Bethel at War for yourself at Sarah’s YouTube page:
Are you a current or prospective student or a Bethel alum who’s interested in the history of the Second World War? You’re welcome to join Prof. Chris Gehrz and the students in his new course, HIS231L World War II, as they participate in some out-of-class activities this January. First, a set of three off-campus activities; second, a mini-film festival at Bethel.
For one of their three essays in the course, students have to write a reflection on their experience learning about World War II through an off-campus activity. You can take part in three of the options — without ever having to write a word! (Unless you’d like to contribute a guest post to this blog…)
If you’re interested in going with us for any of these events, contact Prof. Gehrz by Jan. 6th. (Also, please let him know if you need a ride or can help provide one for others.)
The WWII Round Table (Thursday, Jan. 9th)
Anyone interested in the war on the Eastern Front might want to join us at Historic Fort Snelling for this evening’s installment of the Dr. Harold C. Deutsch World War II History Round Table, featuring writer Dennis Showalter (Hitler’s Panzers) and veterans of that most terrible theater of the war. Meet us at Fort Snelling, or leave with us from the CLC Circle at 6:15pm. The round table begins at 7pm. Admission is free to students; $5 suggested donation for all others.
Minnesota History Center (Monday, Jan. 20th)
There’s no class on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, but we’ll have two off-campus activities:
First, we’ll tour the Minnesota History Center — focusing on two exhibits: the lauded permanent exhibit on “Minnesota’s Greatest Generation” and the traveling exhibit on the Prohibition Era that gives a different take on that generation (or its parents, at least). Meet us at the History Center just after it opens at 10am, or drive down from Bethel (leaving from the CLC Circle at 9:45am). Admission is $9 for students, $11 for most others. (Parking is $5 in the History Center lot.)
War/Veterans Memorials Tour (Monday, Jan. 20th)
You’re welcome to continue the discussion with Prof. Gehrz over lunch, then (weather permitting) we’ll segue into the second activity of the day around 12:30pm: touring a few of the many war and veterans memorials in the Twin Cities. We’ll start by heading over to the State Capitol mall, home to the state’s World War II, Korean, and Vietnam memorials (among others). Then, after a short trip west on I-94, the tour will resume with two sites in Minneapolis. Continue with us from the History Center, or meet up with us at the WWII memorial on the Capitol mall a little after 12:30. (Street parking should be free for the holiday.)
Then Prof. Gehrz’s teaching assistant, Jacob Manning, has organized a two-part WWII film festival on Thursday nights in mid-January. It’s an extra credit option for students, but others are welcome to join us at 7pm in CC 313 to watch and discuss:
The Thin Red Line (Thursday, Jan. 16th)
The other epic WWII movie made by a leading American director in 1998. For this first film in two decades, Terence Malick adapted James Jones’ 1962 novel, based on his own experiences at the Battle of Guadalcanal in 1942-1943. Starring Sean Penn, The Thin Red Line was overshadowed by Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, but mostly garnered strong reviews from critics dazzled by John Toll’s cinematography and Malick’s more philosophical exploration of war.
Patton (Thursday, Jan. 23rd)
Starring George C. Scott at the arrogant, talented American general who defeated German forces in North Africa, Sicily, France, and Germany. While Scott declined his Oscar award, Patton took home six other Academy awards, including Best Picture, Best Director (Franklin Schaffner, a veteran of the war himself), and Best Original Screenplay (Edmund North and a young Francis Ford Coppola, who made The Godfather two years later).
Prof. Chris Gehrz has been promising students a class on the Second World War since he came to Bethel in 2003. In January, he’ll finally follow through with the second of four new courses we’re rolling out in Interim and Spring 2014.
HIS231L World War II
What are some of the big themes of your WWII course?
While we’ll certainly address the American experience of the war, perhaps the central theme of the course is that World War II is best studied as international, not national, history. This was a conflict that started long before Pearl Harbor (1937 in Asia, 1939 in Europe) and affected countries from Burma to Bulgaria, Italy to India. That international sweep will show up in the narrative of the course, but also in the primary sources students encounter. Unlike the World War I class, where we read a lot of poetry, here I’m going to focus on oral histories and films. For the former, students will be reading two books: one based on an oral history project in Japan; the other featuring interviews with Minnesotans. Then we’re going to be watching excerpts from films made around the world: some American movies, of course, but also films from China, Japan, Russia, Poland, Germany, France, and Britain.
What are you most looking forward to in the course?
I’m curious to see what kind of preconceptions students bring to the course. Back when I first started talking about developing this course, ten years ago, it was still somewhat common for students to have had grandparents participate in WWII. Now that connection is fading: most of their grandparents were, at most, young children in the 1940s. On the other hand, they’ve grown up with films like Saving Private Ryan, TV series like Band of Brothers, and even video games like Call of Duty — how have those media shaped their “memory” of the war?
What do you think students will enjoy most about HIS231L? What will they find most challenging?
It can be hard to sit in a Minnesota classroom in January for over two hours a day, but I think students will find that the course moves along. Even though we’re focusing for three weeks on a relatively short stretch of time, so much happens in so many places to so many people that it will probably feel like we’re on a rollercoaster ride at times. Lest it feel too much like it’s a thousand miles wide and an inch deep, students will work together in groups to research a topic of their choice and produce their own documentary film about it.
Besides the grief and exhaustion that comes with studying an event that killed more than 60 million people… What they should find most challenging is that the idea of World War II as a “Good War” fought by “The Greatest Generation” is very much an American (and perhaps British) notion. If you’re French, Dutch, Croatian, German, Russian, Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, or virtually any other nationality, you’ll have a much more ambiguous memory of the war. And I hope students are willing to consider that even American soldiers rarely felt like what they were doing was all that “good,” even if it was necessary.
If students take away only one thing from the course, what would you like it to be?
If nothing else, I hope they come away with a heightened degree of empathy for those who participate in warfare — and not just those who fight it. More civilians died in WWII than combatants, and millions more were forced to leave their homes forever.
If you’re a World War II buff, the Twin Cities has an event for you almost every week this fall. (And then 2014 will kick off at Bethel with the premiere of Prof. Chris Gehrz’s new J-term course on WWII. Stay tuned for details…)
Reading about the War (Roseville, 7pm): A book discussion series facilitated by retired Macalester history professor Paul Solon. There are two nights left in the series: Max Hastings’ Inferno will be Thursday, October 17th (Prof. Gehrz is drawing on this book as part of his blog series on “The Second World War Before Pearl Harbor“); then Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut on Thursday, November 7th.
Warriors Behind the Legends (Roseville, 2pm): On Sunday afternoons through Oct. 13th, the U of M’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute will co-sponsor this series of presentations. Up next, on the 29th, is a talk on espionage in the war.
Then the Maplewood, Mounds View, and White Bear branches will host their own events in October and November, including film screenings and events focused on music and the experience of the Homefront.
Second, the monthly talks that make up the Harold C. Deutsch World War II History Roundtable return to Historic Fort Snelling, generally on the second Thursday of each month from now until May. Admission is $5 (free for students). This year’s topics include:
The Bombing Campaign in the Pacific (Oct. 10, 2013), featuring author Barrett Tillman (Whirlwind) and B-29 combat veterans.
Omaha Beach – The Deadliest Fighting on D-Day (May 8, 2014), with John McManus (The Deadly Brotherhood) and Normandy veterans discussing D-Day as its 70th anniversary approaches.
And the popular Minnesota’s Greatest Generation exhibit remains on view at the Minnesota History Center (admission $11, discount for students, seniors, children, and active military), with highlights including a recreation of a flight on a C-47 cargo plane, an assembly line producing artillery shells, and an M-8 armored vehicle produced at the Ford Plant in St. Paul.