How to Commemorate World War I This Month

As many of you may remember from one of our courses, World War I ended 100 years ago this month — at least, on its most famous front. On the eleventh hour of the eleventh hour of the eleventh month of 1918, the guns finally fell silent in Belgium and northern France.

If you’d like to take part in commemorating the centennial of that armistice, here are a few events coming up in the Twin Cities:

Silent Night

The Pulitzer Prize-winning opera about the Christmas Truce of 1914 comes home to the Minnesota Opera for a run at the Ordway Center in St. Paul. There are performances this weekend and next, plus the 13th and 15th. (I was part of a panel previewing the production last Monday; here’s a blog post inspired by one of the questions I received: “What misconceptions do we have about World War I?”)

State Veterans Day Event

The Veterans Memorial Community Center in Inver Grove Heights will host the state’s Veterans Day event on Sunday morning, 9:30-11:30. The keynote speaker will be Nancy O’Brien Wagner, editor of a new collection of WWI letters from her great-aunt, one of the many women who volunteered for service in the war.

Bells of Peace

Around the country on Sunday, there will be bell-ringing ceremonies to mark the centennial of the Armistice. In addition to local churches, there will be a state Bells of Peace event on the University of Minnesota campus at Northrup Auditorium. The ceremony will start at 10:45am, with 21 bells rung at 11am, and then the reading of the names of all 1,432 Minnesotan soldiers killed in the war. (Presumably including at least a couple of Bethel’s fallen alumni.)

The Great War Symphony

Then at 4pm, Northrup will host the American debut of composer Patrick Hawes’ Great War Symphony (simultaneous with a production at Carnegie Hall in New York). While you’re at the Lest We Forget concert, you can also see David Geister’s mural, World War 1 America, which he painted during the run of that exhibition last year at the Minnesota History Center.

That mural now resides in the library of the Minnesota Military Museum at Camp Ripley, which is open Thursday-Saturday and has a special exhibit through next year, In the Fight: Minnesota and the World War.


How You Can Hear Prof. Gehrz Talk about World War I — and Maybe Opera

Next month marks the 100th anniversary of the Armistice that ended the First World War on its famous Western Front. As part of the international commemoration of that event, the Minnesota Opera will be performing Silent Night, a dramatization of the 1914 Christmas Truce, at the Ordway Center — November 10-18.

As a preview event, the Minnesota Opera, MinnPost, and the University of Minnesota’s School of Music are presenting “Silent Night: A Soldier’s Humanity and the Impact of WWI” — Monday, October 29, 7pm at Westminster Hall in downtown Minneapolis. I’ll be one of the panelists discussing soldiers’ experiences of the war, plus a member of the cast will perform selections from the opera itself. The event is free, but click the link above to register.

To put you in mind of the subject… Enjoy these photos from Monday night’s meeting of our J-term WWI trip participants. Bethel alum Jenna Kubly ’02 joined us to share some of her extensive collection of WWI artifacts, including everything from swords and uniforms to medals and postcards.

Some Back-to-School Inspiration for Teachers

If you’re one of our many alumni working as a teacher or professor — or you’re teaching in other contexts — and you haven’t yet seen Prof. Mulberry’s Why We Teach documentary… I recommended it this morning in my weekly post at The Anxious Bench blog on Patheos.

Why We Teach titleBethel BTS alum Sara Misgen ’13 (now finishing a PhD in theology at Yale University) told me why she resonated so strongly with Why We Teach. Perhaps some of you would respond similarly:

I rarely find myself nostalgic for Bethel, but this film got at the heart of what I loved about that place, and what I still love about it. I loved that my professors took an interest in me as a person, that they make space in their busy days to listen to the stories of their students, as so many of the teachers of this film point out. I love that my life was changed through their courses, that I’m still in contact with so many of you five years after my graduation.

…Bethel’s distinctiveness isn’t in the campus, in the buildings, or even in some of its more obscure traditions. It’s in the relationships of faculty and students, and I’m so glad to see that was captured here.

If you don’t need convincing, skip my post and just go straight to Sam’s movie. It’ll only take an hour and a half of your time.

Happy preparations for the start of a new school year!

Why We Teach

Last night Bethel hosted the premiere of Prof. Sam Mulberry’s documentary film, Why We Teach, featuring interviews with fifteen recipients of Bethel’s Faculty Excellence Award for Teaching (including Prof. Chris Gehrz). If you couldn’t be there, the full film is now available to stream:

Filmed and edited over the course of Prof. Mulberry’s spring sabbatical, Why We Teach is available at his CWC Radio Films website. In addition, there you’ll find the original faculty interviews and a searchable database of topical clips. For example, here’s Prof. Gehrz trying out some metaphors for teaching the liberal arts, including a moving story from HIS231L World War II that made the cut for the final draft of the film.

The WWII Film Festival

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.

Mitch De Haan introducing his group's documentary film
Mitch De Haan ’17 introduces a film on the legendary Finnish sniper Simo Häyhä, made in a group with fellow History/Social Studies Ed major Brandon Sebey ’17 and Biokinetics major Andrew Zwart ’18

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.

– Chris Gehrz

Modern Europe Journal: Collaboration and Resistance

Why did some Germans and other Europeans collaborate in the Holocaust, while others risked their lives to resist? Students in HIS354 Modern Europe asked this question last week, after having read Christopher Browning’s Ordinary Men, watched the 2005 German movie Sophie Scholl: The Final Days (about the arrest and execution of the students in the White Rose, an anti-Nazi resistance movement) and visited an online exhibit from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum entitled “Some Were Neighbors.” One of the many excellent responses came from History major Elizabeth Hynes ’16, who was kind enough to share this revised version of her essay with us.

Browning, Ordinary MenStudying the events of the Holocaust truly pushes my limits of “imaginative understanding.” It is especially difficult for me to resonate personally with the millions of ordinary citizens in Germany and other occupied countries who seemingly stood by as Hitler and the Nazis carried out genocide on an alarming scale. The “final solution” was enacted with the precision of a well-oiled machine and required many civilians to tacitly aid in the disposal of thousands of Jews and other Nazi targets. Hitler’s success in implementing the final solution was contingent upon the fact that no one in Germany or other occupied territories would go to great lengths to stop him. In fact, scenes from Sophie Scholl: The Final Days almost seem to indicate that people may have been brainwashed into thinking that Hitler’s xenophobic vision wasn’t all that awful, or at the very least that his actions were a necessary evil: that Germany would never flourish without a bit of initial violence.  At any rate, a very large percentage of the population had to be complicit with Hitler’s actions in order for the Holocaust to happen.

It is almost impossible for me to put myself in these people’s shoes. I tend to look incredulously at people who seem to have so much hate in their hearts. I struggle to find common ground or empathize in any way with people who leaned out of a schoolhouse, cheering as hundreds of Jews marched by on the way to their deaths. As a Christian, I want to believe that people have the capacity to be good; I want to believe in the prospect of seeing “the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living” (Psalm 27:13). But I’m finding it really hard to maintain hope in a world where people can be so complicit in the maltreatment of others, a world where hate often seems to prevail.

In light of this, I find that it is ever important to constantly recognize and remind myself of how my own biases could be coming into play. It is easy for me to say that if I lived in Europe during the reign of Hitler that I would have been like Sophie Scholl — I would have stood up and done something. With hindsight bias, it’s easy to point fingers at people and call them bystanders to murder and say that they should have done more. It is easier to pass judgment on others and point out the ways in which their actions are flawed than to admit the commonalities between their attitudes and my own. In an event as gruesome as the Holocaust, the line between the “good guys” and the “bad guys” often seems so clear. However, after looking at the Some Were Neighbors online exhibit and reading Ordinary Men, I think that it’s entirely reasonable to come to the conclusion that there was more going on than just blind hatred or laziness: factors other than some intrinsic heroism or superior moral scruples may have been at play and contributed to complicity in the Holocaust.

As we saw in Sophie Scholl, direct force was one of the main tactics used by Nazis to quell potential resistance. People who stood up to Nazism usually wound up dead. This fact alone probably provided enough deterrence to quell most dissent. Normal citizens could not reasonably go about their daily lives or maintain any semblance of peace of mind without conforming to Hitler’s vision for society. As we saw in Ordinary Men, people could also be forced to contribute more passively to Nazi violence through threats and coercion; people were probably more likely to submit to Nazi activities if they honestly believed that their jobs and livelihoods depended on it. No one wanted to return to the post-Versailles days of economic oppression or abandon their leadership in wartime. Additionally, Hitler may eventually have been able to rely on more insidious forms of power. By 1942, when Nazi violence began to escalate, Hitler had already been in power for nine years. By that time, people in Germany especially had grown accustomed to that way of life. In the face of extreme violence, the natural human response is often to go numb, especially if the violence has a certain air of inevitability. I think this certainly applies in this case. Although some German civilians and other Europeans openly expressed hatred toward Jews and others, many more may have passively accepted anti-Semitism as commonplace.

Picture of Martin Niemoeller
“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”
(Image: Dutch National Archives)

The troubling truth still remains that not everyone was passive or complicit. A not insignificant amount of people in Germany and other European countries did stand up to Hitler, even in small ways. I cannot possibly make any judgment about why those people found the strength to do so, while so many others did not. If anything, I think the lessons that I can draw from this entire situation focus on something akin to Martin Niemoller’s “First They Came…” poem (see right). It is really easy to look at this situation and say that I would never be blind to such obvious evil or to passively accept such oppression of an entire people group. But, people at the time likely did not see themselves as conspirators to murder, and it may be unfair of me to look at them in that light.

However, though many were not intentionally taking part in the Holocaust, their thoughts and attitudes resulted in the necessary complicity for the Holocaust to happen. Sometimes society subtly tells us to think a certain way about a group of people and we absorb stereotypes and prejudices without even realizing it. People use all kinds of beliefs and social constructs to justify their judgments of other people and I think that the dangers of such thinking were just as prevalent in the 1940s as they are now. If society seems to be telling us to look skeptically at an entire people group, we should probably question why we are being pulled toward such thinking, even if there seems to be no immediate consequences for us in the quiet marginalization of others.

Lately on social media, there have been posts circulating that compare the refusal of many governors to welcome Syrian refugees to the refusal of the U.S. to welcome Jewish refugees during the Holocaust.

This easy correlation is perhaps not entirely valid, but it is certainly something to think about. Too many people learned about the Holocaust in school and came away with the lesson that “Hitler was a bad man” but not much else. I think that we cannot lose sight of the fact the Holocaust shows us just how awful circumstances become when (for whatever reason) people lose sight of their common humanity with others. This timeless lesson is relevant both in the study of the past and in making sense of the present.

–  Elizabeth Hynes

What Are the Best Cold War Movies?

Having already done similar posts on the two world wars, Vietnam, and the Civil War, Prof. Gehrz wondered this morning which Cold War movie stands above the rest…

The Pietist Schoolman

The recent release of Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies, starring Tom Hanks as the Eisenhower era lawyer tasked with defending a Soviet spy (played by the awesome Mark Rylance), got me wondering:

What are the best Cold War movies?

I actually dedicated a three-post series to the question of the best war movies back in 2013, so I thought I’d start by reviving that methodology…

  1. I made a list of all films with the key word “Cold War” in the Internet Movie Database (IMDB) and recorded the ratings for any that had been reviewed by at least 5,000 users.
  2. Then I added the critics’ ratings from the Rotten Tomatoes (RT) aggregator and discarded any film from the IMDB list that hadn’t received enough critical reviews in RT.
  3. I combined the two ratings, giving a higher weight to IMDB because the RT sample varies so significantly. (More recent films might have…

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Wednesday’s Webisode: History in Popular Culture

Students in Introduction to History are preparing presentations on how Americans outside of the academy make meaning of the past, so we thought we’d dedicate an episode to history in popular culture. Profs. Poppinga, Kooistra, and Gehrz talk about films, TV, video games, historical fiction, etc. — both how such media can inspire interest in the past and promote misunderstanding of it. Then to echo our emphasis on popular culture, Prof. Gehrz hosts the episode as a kind of walking tour of F. Scott Fitzgerald sites in St. Paul.

Also in episode 11, we interview History alum Mike Bumann ’06, who teaches English in China for the organization ELIC, and we offer previews of the Oregon Extension program and Bethel’s master’s in teaching program.

Should History Be Used for Advertising?

Thanks to Prof. Thostenson for drawing my attention to a special Christmas ad recently produced by the British supermarket chain Sainsbury’s. Made one hundred years after the start of World War I, the three-minute film is set during the Christmas Truce of 1914, when soldiers on both sides of the Western Front set down their guns to celebrate the holiday by playing soccer, sharing photos of loved ones, and trading goods in No Man’s Land.

The ad concludes with a British soldier giving a chocolate bar to a German, a chocolate bar that you can buy in any Sainsbury’s for £1 — proceeds going to the Royal British Legion, the UK’s largest veterans organization.

While the ad has proven hugely popular, it has also been hugely controversial. Writing in The Guardian, for example, Addy Fogg castigated Sainsbury’s for “co-opting the events for a purpose as crass as flogging groceries.”

I shared my own response to the ad, and to Fogg’s critique, at my personal blog this morning. But here I wanted to pose some questions for our students and alumni:

Can you think of an American ad similar to this?

Honestly, I’m not even sure what event in U.S. history would come closest to approximating the feel of the Christmas Truce. (It’s probably from the Civil War… Gettysburg Address?) But if you can come up with an analogue, how would you feel about a company turning that event into the setting for an ad campaign?

I’m asking in part because I had planned to spend some time next spring asking students in our new Intro to History course to keep their eyes open for commercial uses of history. So I’d love to have some examples cued up and ready to go! And that leads to the second question…

Sainsbury's chocolate bar from 2014 Christmas advert
The chocolate bar featured in the Sainsbury’s ad

What do you think, in general, of history being used for advertising?

It’s been interesting to see the spectrum of responses to the Sainsbury’s ad. It seems that, for some, certain episodes in the past have a sacred quality. Bringing commerce into a temporal holy of holies strikes people like Fogg as “crass,” and they tend to respond like Jesus to the money-changers in the temple. Others, who feel just as strongly about the symbolic power of the event, think that the ad pays tribute to it, or at least raises awareness of it.

Then there’s my Facebook friend who had “no problem with this ad because it happened.” He didn’t elaborate on the “it happened” response, but given his training as a lawyer, I wonder if he had intellectual property issues in mind. After all, one could argue that events that took place in a historic past, unlike those stemming from the imagination of an author or artist, can’t be copyrighted — the past belongs to us all. Which, of course, prompts a third question:

Who has the authority to decide what is an appropriate use of history?

In the broadest sense, “history” is simply the act of making meaning of the past. That activity isn’t solely the privilege of members of an academic guild or other credentialed professionals. Seen in this light, a three-minute film “flogging groceries” can be as much a work of history as a journal article, museum exhibit, or Ken Burns documentary. It’s up to the audience to judge its merits as an interpretation.

But do we want so free a market of ideas? Shouldn’t there be some regulation of what is appropriate and legitimate? But if so, who does the regulating? Clearly, Sainsbury’s had some sense of this, since it had professional historians consult on the making of the film and sought the imprimatur of the Royal British Legion. (But is that group the owner of the event, or its guardian?)

Please comment below or at our Facebook page!

– Chris Gehrz

Watch the Opening Titles to Our New Intro to History Webisodes!

Last week Prof. Chris Gehrz wrote at his blog about starting to plan our new course HIS290 Introduction to History, which, starting this fall, will be required of History majors and minors. It won’t be offered until Spring 2015, but this summer he and Prof. Sam Mulberry are beginning to develop the online portion of this hybrid course: a weekly series of half-hour webisodes featuring interviews with faculty, students, and alumni and conversations about the thematic questions that run through the course.

Perhaps putting the cart before the horse, Prof. Mulberry spent this past weekend producing a Mad Men-inspired title sequence for the webisode series, to be titled Past and Presence. Check it out!