Nelson Menjivar ’19, a Bethel History major and Philosophy minor, was named to the 2018-2019 cohort of the INCE Museum Fellows at the Minnesota Historical Society. The program includes a fall course at MNHS, a site visit to museums in Chicago, a paid internship next spring, and ongoing mentoring after the program concludes.
In addition to letting students explore museum-related careers, the INCE program
is designed to engage students in studying the challenges related to the underrepresentation of communities of color and American Indian Nations in historical organizations and public history graduate programs. Communities need to “see themselves” in the work of cultural organizations in order to identify with their missions.
A native of West Saint Paul, MN, Nelson currently serves as a teaching assistant with Bethel’s Christianity and Western Culture program. He says that he was particularly excited about the INCE program because it offered “the chance to work with museums and professionals who not only study history, but also find a way to present it to the public… I’m excited to get the internship started and use the valuable tools I’ve picked up at the Bethel History department!”
Today we’re happy to revive our occasional series featuring students who have spent a semester abroad. Christina Sibileva ’18 is a Social Studies Education 5-12 major and History minor; she was kind enough to answer some questions about her experience of the unique Semester at Seaprogram.
How’d you decide to major in Social Studies Ed? Was it something you knew you wanted to study when you started college, or did you choose it later on?
As a freshman at Bethel, I knew I wanted to pursue a major that allowed me to work with people. During my first two semesters, I believed the way I would work with people would be in the medical field. Through trial and error of the science courses at Bethel, I realized at the end of my first year that the medical field was not for me. In the summer before sophomore year I was flipping through the Bethel catalog for a new major and found myself intrigued by the courses offered in a Social Studies Education 5-12 major. As I began my first semester of the sophomore year with a completely different course load, I realized my skills and interests lined up quite nicely with the courses being offered in my major. I began feeling confident in my ability to grow within my field and step into a career path that allows me to be challenged by learning every day. The social sciences within my major correspond well with the way I perceive elements in life and allow abstract thoughts to mingle with concrete thoughts in terms of history, geography, and the other various topics in Social Studies.
Likewise, what sparked your interest in spending a semester off-campus? Was it hard to fit that kind of program into the Social Studies Ed major?
There were days where I looked outside at the snowy campus of Bethel and found myself regretting choosing a college with a limited climate range. One day I was informed of a program called Semester at Sea, and later on, I saw some peers were currently on the study abroad program, which allowed me to commit to seeing how I could spend a semester off-campus. Due to discovering about the program well into my second semester of sophomore year there were hurdles to jump through in order to fit the program into my schedule. Fortunately, my advisor was willing and able to work with me to ensure the courses I needed would work with my major on the study abroad program and also to ensure I took required courses at Bethel in different semesters than my semester off-campus. The biggest hurdle to face is running into courses that are taught in certain semesters either in the fall or spring, but working with my advisor and registrar allowed me to create a unique schedule to fit all the pieces in and still be on track for graduation.
You picked a particularly distinctive experience. Can you just tell us a bit about Semester at Sea, how you heard about it, and why you went with that option?
Looking at the website alone for Semester at Sea gave me enough insight on wanting to pursue the program. The images on the website include a shipboard community where students live on a ship as their campus and take classes there as well. The locations the program can take you is another reason I became committed to pursuing the program right away. Scrolling through the list of destinations in Asian and African countries allowed me to realize this is a program that can provide me a unique learning experience. I can honestly say I was sold right away with the program because there was something that simply felt right about it, similar to my major choice.
[See also our earlier interview with Meloni Rudolph ’94, who worked for Semester at Sea as a student life staff member.]
What were the most formative aspects of that semester? Any particularly evocative memories of the places and people you visited?
The shipboard community stands out. There were 600 students from various parts of the world embarking on this journey together to study abroad and learn through a broad range of experiences. Within this community, there were unique conversations that occurred allowing each community member to share experiences from the study abroad program, or learn from one another through sharing each person’s story. The community allowed a space to process each experience, learn from one another, and feel refreshed to collect more experiences and memories in each new day that came.
Along the journey, the experiences that stood out the most include taking a seat in a foreign country on a bench and soaking in the new surroundings. With each day there was something new to stimulate your senses, whether that was a new language or culture, climate or season, as we were circumnavigating the globe. I especially remember trekking through Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam in various forms of transportation to have an opportunity to take a tour of the Mekong River Delta. Seeing how local communities live and rely on the river was eye-opening and breathtaking. I was able to catch a glimpse into the daily lives of the locals in that specific region and I find myself in awe of the transformative capacity of such an experience.
How did studying abroad broaden or deepen your understanding of history, or shape how you’re going to approach education?
Through this experience I found myself being able to interact with history in a new format that was unattainable at Bethel. Courses in my program were taught by faculty who have lived and experienced cross-cultural historical events or provided insight on how they learned about various elements of history.
Through visiting various countries and being able to explore classrooms in Asian and African countries, I was able to interact with students and teachers about their educational systems specific to their country. One moment from India that stands out was interacting with those students in the classroom about how much they love to learn. I was really intrigued by the passion for education within various classrooms I visited because these students shared similar passions with me. Despite language barriers and varying cultural values; our shared passion to seek and pursue knowledge through education became common ground. The students I met in these various Asian and African cultures showed me how much they wanted to learn from me and made me realize one important reason I want to be a teacher: how much I wanted to learn from them. I discovered my own passion for becoming a global citizen and bringing pieces of who I am, what I have learned, and what I desire to learn into the classroom to inspire my students to become global citizens. Semester at Sea inspired me to continue seeking these moments of being able to learn from students and families abroad simultaneously as I am able to teach students about the places I have been, the places I am going, and connect curriculum to these stories.
One of the student-athletes featured this year in Bethel’s 39 @ 3900 series of video interviews is senior History/Social Studies Ed major Andrew Fort, a forward on Bethel’s men’s basketball team and TA for Prof. Kooistra. Andrew and his teammates made the MIAC playoffs again this year, after winning the regular season (1st ever) and playoff championships last year.
A native of South Haven, MN, Andrew student-taught last fall at Mahtomedi High School. His goal is eventually to serve as a high school athletic director or college basketball coach.
Part of the Global Perspectives of Students series sponsored by the Office of Off-Campus Studies, Rachel’s presentation will cover her experience in Uganda and Rwanda, and “address the changes she experienced in her faith and worldview, her new-found understanding of community, her experience with reverse culture shock, and many other aspects of her time abroad.”
Hmm… we’re nearly a month into the spring semester and haven’t posted anything at AC 2nd since just before Christmas. Time to get things back in high gear here at the official blog of the Bethel University Department of History!
We’ll have some announcements and other posts this week and moving forward, as we share what’s been happening and what’s coming up.
But we’d also like to hear from you: our students, alumni, and other friends. For example, would you like to be featured in one of the following occasional series of interviews?
From AC 2nd to… — interviews with alumni who have entered a variety of careers. Check out the current list of interviews; if you see that your career is missing — or, if you’ve had an especially interesting path to such a career — and wouldn’t mind answering some questions by email, let us know.
My Internship with… — pretty self-explanatory: have you completed (or are you in the middle of) an internship? We’ve featured a handful of students and recent alumni who have worked with the Minnesota Historical Society and other local historical groups, but it doesn’t need to be explicitly historical.
Studying Abroad in… — no, the titles aren’t all that creative. Have you spent a semester away from Bethel? Share your experience with students who might be trying to decide whether study abroad is a good fit for them.
The AC 2nd Travelogue — I’d love to hear more from alumni who have continued to feed their passion for the past by traveling to historic sites.
…History Minor — I’d also like to hear from students who combined a minor (or second major) in History with another field of study. We’ve featured several former science students… Any alumni who majored in a professional field, or a social science or other humanity, and yet still enjoyed their studies in history?
History Plus… — finally, I’d like to revive something we tried five years ago: a series of brief reflections from students and alumni who majored in History, but were also deeply committed to something co-curricular like musical theater or volleyball. Maybe you’d like to write about being a history student who was active in student government, Vespers, residence life, Model UN, or another sport… or about interesting intersections you saw between your studies and your work-study job with facilities, the library, or Sodexo…
If you’re interested in adding to these series — or if you have an idea for some other kind of guest-post! — just email me and we’ll get you set up. Thanks for writing, and for reading!
Today we revive our occasional series of interviews with Bethel History majors who have interned with local organizations. Last fall Lauren Gannon ’17 helped the Minnesota Historical Society prepare for this year’s World War I centenary. Lauren was part of the 2015 edition of our WWI travel course with Prof. Gehrz, who will be taking a group of 25 Bethel students to the Minnesota History Center this Saturday for the grand opening of the new “WW1 America” exhibit.
Only about half of our students actually come to Bethel declaring a History major, but you made that change a little later than most. Can you tell us about your decision to double-major in Media Production and History?
I became a History major by happy accident. I came to Bethel as a Media Communication major, hoping to minor in history, and other subjects if I had room. I didn’t necessarily intentionally take History courses at first; I just took classes I was interested in, and they just happened to be history courses. I have always liked history, so it wasn’t a huge surprise that these classes interested me, but I was surprised spring of my junior year, when I realized that I only needed three more to have a History major. I was ecstatic when I discovered this because I felt that I had made great relationships with professors and students in the History Department, and it felt nice to belong there. I also like the challenge of mixing my two majors in different projects, like making films on a historic topic or adding a film aspect to my history projects and research.
How did you become an intern with the Minnesota Historical Society? Any advice for students applying for that kind of program?
To incorporate both my Media Production and History skills, I thought the museum environment would be ideal. I could incorporate visual storytelling with my love for learning and studying history. I had been encouraged by my parents, mentors, and friends to look at the Minnesota History Center since they have a great and organized internship program. Their positions are posted online and it is a relatively easy application process, albeit incredibly competitive. I applied in the summer of 2016 for about five position for the fall and was thrilled to be offered one of them: WWI Daybook Research Assistant!
I think what set me apart was my previous experience. I had studied WWI abroad with the History Department in 2015, and the memoir I wrote for the trip was published here at AC 2nd, so I had some experience writing and studying the topic. I provided a link to my memoir and described the trip in my resume and cover letter for the application, and my supervisor asked me about it in the interview.
So my advice for students applying for something like this is to not be afraid to show and elaborate on your personal interest and give examples of your work. This will set you apart from other applicants who are just simply “interested.”
What kind of work did you do for MNHS? What was most exciting or enjoyable about it? What was challenging?
As a WWI Daybook Research Assistant, I digitized historical documents and artifacts, and wrote short, descriptive blogposts for the WWI Daybook blog, commemorating the centennial of the event, that will publish every day that United States was in the war. I really loved handling the documents and getting to explore the collections of the MNHS. I especially enjoyed reading personal letters and accounts, learning the stories of these individuals from all over Minnesota and how they were impacted by the war.
Like all internships, there is an element of monotony. Finding and scanning a document, then writing a short blogpost, and repeating this day in and day out did get a little old sometimes. However, every time I felt my work getting redundant, I would remember that I am handling documents that were written by people who lived unique lives 100 years ago, and I would get excited again. If you are someone who loves that personal part of history, you know what I am talking about.
What did you take away from your experience as an intern?
I learned a lot about the museum as an institution and place of employment. If not the biggest, Minnesota Historical Society is one of the biggest organizations of its kind in the United States. People in Minnesota love their history. However, some Minnesotans’ stories are not often told by the museum. Therefore, I was also challenged to advocate for and tell the story of the people and communities that may not be represented by the museum, as well as challenged to make relationships with and gain the trust of communities that had been hurt by the museum. I am also encouraged by the effort that MNHS is putting towards doing these exact things.
Do I think I will work in the museum field one day? Perhaps. It was definitely worth exploring.
For another student’s reflection on a different kind of MNHS internship, click here.
Today we’re happy to share a photo essay by History major and department TA Connor Larson ’17, who spent Interim in Europe with Profs. Gehrz and Mulberry and nineteen other Bethel students.
The J-term trip through Europe studying World War I and its effects on society and culture was a resounding success. Here is a glimpse at some of what we did.
England: Jan. 3-11
Upon arriving in London and passing through customs we quickly unloaded our luggage at the lovely Wombats Hostel and began our journey.
Although jet-lagged and disoriented the walking tour went well, fast-walking tour guide and all.
Trafalgar Square was one of our first stops.
Despite the jet lag everyone was having a great time.
The Lion of the Midwest.
One of the amazing things about London is the vast amount of memorials and monuments for the numerous wars and events the country has been involved in throughout its history. Luckily for us that means there was no shortage of WWI-era memorials to examine.
Merchant Navy Memorial
Among the many ships and crews honored here the Lusitania is one of note for the American interest
Field Marshal Haig
Machine Gun Corp Memorial
Close up of the Machine Gun Corp Memorial
Artillery Corp Memorial
The opposite side of the Artillery Corp Memorial
For many of the memorials visited in London the students gave lessons on the importance of the memorial and influence of those honored both in the war and in the years after.
One of the highlights for many on the trip was a visit to the Imperial War Museum, and it was an experience many would never forget.
Our trip, while grounded in the First World War, spent an equal amount of time on the impact of war on society by looking at the arts (primarily fine art and poetry). Art and war are deeply connected, and through our museum visits we were able to see how the war affected society in a way that books and artifacts rarely have an ability to portray. I am omitting photos of this portion of the trip because I believe the impact of what we read and saw would be reduced in such a degree where it would be a disservice to attempt recreating it here.
On our free day many of us went and stormed Dover Castle. Here is our journey.
On the train to Dover, Brandon Sebey ’17, History and Social Studies Ed major, does reconnaissance to create a plan of attack.
On the bridge into the castle, we are surprised at the ease of entry.
The future queen overlooks her new domain. She is not impressed.
When I picture British landscapes this is what always came to mind; was not disappointed.
We have made it to the castle roof, victory!
Talking about the successful storming of Dover Castle.
The new leadership takes the throne of Dover Castle.
All joking aside, it was an amazing experience and a great opportunity to learn about both medieval and modern history, as the castle and town played an important role in both World Wars.
To wrap up our time in England here are some more photos that are neither educational nor related to World War I.
Belgium & Northern France: Jan. 11-13
The few days spent exploring the front lines of the war were the climax of the trip for most, if not all, of us. Despite our enthusiasm none of us were ready for the emotional toll this portion of the trip would have on us. Reading about casualties and statistics pales in comparison to seeing the hundreds of grave sites scattered around Belgium and Northern France, let alone the front lines throughout the rest of Europe. Here, for example, are some photos from the former military hospital near Poperinge, Belgium.
Langemark was the first German cemetery we visited. Where American deceased were sent back to the states and British troops given individual graves in the field where they fell, German soldiers were given a much different burial. German soldiers were soldiers for their fatherland first, individuals second. Individual graves were time consuming and costly to the war effort, meaning that mass graves were common behind the German front lines. This is not reducing the individual to nothing but rather putting the state in front of oneself, an important distinction to make.
As we went from one grave site to another many of us had trouble fighting off the inevitable desensitizing nature of witnessing the aftermath of so many lives. As difficult as it was to witness the amount of lives lost we would rather feel that weight than have those emotions watered down in the face of incomprehensible numbers.
The French military cemetery near Ablain-St-Nazaire includes a basilica known at Notre Dame de Lorette
Across from the cemetery is a newer memorial: the Ring of Remembrance, which includes the names of 576,606 fallen soldiers (listed alphabetically, rather than by nationality, rank, or unit)
We visited various memorials during our time in Belgium and Northern France as well, including one honoring the sacrifice of Canadian soldiers in the war, specifically at Vimy Ridge.
Along with the beautiful memorial pictured above, the Canadian government, when given the choice to do with this land what they wished, opted to preserve the landscape, keeping it in the same condition as it was immediately after the war. The only changes were in trees that had been transplanted and grass that has been grown there.
We were given the opportunity to walk through recreated trenches at Vimy Ridge, giving a feeling for the distance one would have had between the enemy and themselves.
The topography of Vimy Ridge gives a stunning picture of what war-torn Europe would have looked like in 1918
Our guide, Carl Ooghe, giving the class a very animated lecture on the importance of mortars during the war.
Straight Outta’ Belgium
The cement structure in the foreground is the “enemy” trench, a distance much shorter than one may think.
Another image showing the distance between trenches
Brandon keeps a keen lookout from his fortified bunker.
While we visited numerous other memorials and cemeteries in our time we had to move on, visiting somewhere completely different, both physically and mentally.
Paris, France: Jan. 13-18
To say that Paris was a shock after travelling the French and Belgium countryside for the past few days would be an understatement. On top of the new city and transportation system to learn, we struggled with a language barrier, general travel fatigue, and the mental drain of visiting and seeing all that we had in the past few days.
Much like our time in London, Paris occupied our time with walking tours of famous monuments and visiting various museums located throughout the city. Our museum and transit passes (included in the trip) filled our stay with fine art and exploration.
The Louvre was an incredible journey of art, history, and architecture.
Business and Poli Sci double-major Noah Fedje ’17 giving a presentation on the Palace of Versaille
Do you hear the people sing?
While the English may have created the first Tank, the French gave us the turreted top-gun.
Yet again, not all of our time was devoted to the history of Europe. Much of our time was also spent enjoying the city.
There is one last thing that we did which has a special place in the hearts of everyone who was on this trip: The Handball Tournament.
Both Dr. Gehrz and Prof. Mulberry mentioned this optional outing while we were touring Belgium and Northern France. After everyone decided to go, they feared that an overstatement was made in how great it would be. If their visions of grandeur were anything, it would be understated. Handball is easily one of the most fun sports to watch, and although the stadium was mostly empty we certainly made enough noise for everyone who was absent.
We had no ties to either team playing, confusing those around us as we cheered for everything that happened. Many came out without a voice and the events that went down in that stadium will never be forgotten.
Munich, Germany: Jan. 18-23
If one thing prepared us for coming home during our last week in Europe it was the weather. Munich was by far the coldest location we visited, although not as cold as the Twin Cities while we were away. Our standard walking tour, while cold and windy, gave our tired feet a brief respite; snow is much softer to walk on than cement.
Despite the weather Munich was a beautiful way to end our time in Europe. The food was delicious and cheap, people were nice (generally speaking), and our free day was a blast. Many of us decided to take a train to Salzburg, Austria and witness hills alive with the sound of music (spoiler alert; the hills were, unfortunately, not alive regardless of the state of music in said hills). We explored yet another castle and came closer to grasping the true meaning of the term “winter wonderland.”
The train to Salzburg was a whimsical affair.
The top of the castle, overlooking Salzburg
As the trip progressed my photography effort declined due to a combination of fatigue, overload, and a desire to be more fully enveloped in the experiences of the trip. As great as documenting a journey such as this can be you end up focusing more on getting the right shot rather than enjoying the right moments. There is a balance that I have yet to discover, but for now I am glad I can look back at everything we had been through and all that we had learned.
The flight home seemed to take twice as long as the journey taken a few weeks prior. As with all ends to great adventures the homecoming was bittersweet. I think we all were glad to be home, thankful for the experience, and sad to have it be over. I hope that as many people as possible get the chance to travel and expand their thoughts and horizons, and this trip was a great opportunity to do just that. We were able to learn more about ourselves, new cultures, and a pivotal moment in history that affected nearly every nation in the world.
As their final paper in HIS230L World War I, students write a memoir of their J-term travels in Europe – responding to readings and sites and drawing on the letters home and other reflections they recorded in a course journal. Here’s one such memoir, by Justin Brecheisen ’19, a double-major in History and Business and one of our departmental teaching assistants.
It was with a contrasting combination of apprehension and anticipation that I strode into the airport on the afternoon of our flight across the Atlantic. The anticipation was a result of months of planning, working, and researching to make the trip a reality. I had dropped the majority of my summer savings on the trip payments and spent time planning out every item and all the information I would need to make the most out of those spent savings. I had counted down the days to what I was sure would be a once-in-a-lifetime trip all semester and all of Christmas break, and it was finally here. The apprehension hit me as it usually did: right before an event that I expected to bring change to my life. I had felt the same feeling in a variety of circumstances; my first cross country race, my first day of work, moving in to Bethel. It’s only in the days after arriving home from the trip, as I look back on that moment in the airport, that I realize that mixture of apprehension and anticipation was unique and more profound than any I had felt before. Like all the other times I had felt it, it represented an ushering in of change. But unlike the other times, the change took root in deeper areas of my life, and in a way that completely took me by surprise.
I realized that true change was the result of a complete breaking of routine, a total evacuation of my comfort zone. Traveling across Europe and becoming intimately familiar with the conflict that shook the modern world a century ago ripped me from my routine in such a way that I know I came back changed. Beginning the trip in London got my feet wet, but I really began to plunge into deep historical empathy and personal change as we toured the Western Front. Viewing the sites where Nazism took root in Munich, and especially visiting Dachau had an unexpected spiritual impact that I will never forget. In the end, this trip was the once-in-a-lifetime experience I expected it to be but changed me in a way that I anything but expected.
My immediate impression of London was that it was remarkably similar to New York City. The tube system, the language, and the immense size were all familiar; sometimes cars driving on the left side of the road were the only tip-off that I wasn’t in the United States. Because of the lack of a language barrier, navigation and making purchases was as simple as it was at home, leaving me securely in my comfort zone. Within everyday activities, there was little testing of my values, little stretching of my boundaries. Touring historical sites like the Tower of London intrigued me, and reminded me why I am passionate about studying history. I was enamored with the plethora of Egyptian, Assyrian, and Greek artifacts housed in the British Museum. I was fascinated with the long timeline laid out in the Museum of London. In particular, seeing the Roman wall standing amidst the bustle of the modern city boggled my mind; I couldn’t imagine everything that wall had stood witness to over millennia. While these sites were highlights of my time in London, and caused me to think more critically about how areas change over time, they mainly served to add to the novelty of travel, and did little to change me as a person.
It was only as I toured the various Great War memorials scattered around London that I began to feel an empathetic reaction to the relics of the past that surrounded me. Seeing numerous displays of all those who gave their lives had a way of undoing the romantic perception of the past I had acquired through other historical sites. I was especially struck by the Australian memorial. Somehow, seeing the sheer number of places the Australian soldiers came from made the war seem realer and the sacrifice seem greater. While it seems that listing the soldiers’ names would be the most personal way to commemorate them, seeing all the hometowns listed was more intimate, calling to mind all the places husbands, fathers, and sons would never return, and the immense hardship those on the home front endured. The memorials in London gave me a taste of the human side of the war, and began to complicate my understanding of conflict.
As I prepared to leave London and write my first letter home I realized I had fallen into a routine. A routine of running, taking the Tube, visiting tourist destinations, to the point where I felt comfortable in this new city. It had become a place of constant excitement, and I realized that my feelings were at least somewhat similar to soldiers leaving England for the war a hundred years earlier. They were swept up in patriotic fervor just as I was swept up in the novelty of a new place, they rushed to the recruiting stations just as I rushed to historical sites, they boarded ships bound for the continent thrilled for adventure just as I boarded a train bound for the continent thrilled to explore. It wasn’t until I finally crossed the Channel and got on the move again that I began to sense a renewed testing of my values and perceptions. Though undoubtedly to a lesser extent than the soldiers, I was in for a more radical change than I thought possible.
The first afternoon we spent on the Western Front was the first time I was able to visualize the devastation of the war. Visiting the dressing station where John McCrae penned “In Flanders Fields” and reading the poem where it was written brought the conflict to life in a way I had never experienced. Suddenly, I saw the war in a completely different way than the book I was reading at the time presented it. It was no longer a series of battles but a horrid mess of devastation. The death and destruction now had names attached instead of numbers. From then on, I viewed the war through a different lens; every one of the numerous headstones and each of the names listed on a memorial represented a life that experienced terrible conditions, trench warfare, and ultimately, premature death. It was sobering, to say the least. Like the memorials in London, viewing the actual sites of battles erased any traces of glorious perceptions of war I might have had left.
I sat in the hostel that first night on the Front in a completely transformed mood compared to the day before. I felt like a young soldier thrilled for the adventure of war spending his first miserable night in a trench. Up until that point, I had felt very detached from the war, as I was separated from the soldiers by a wide gulf of time, space, culture, language and many other barriers. Walking in their footsteps forged a connection that would have been unachievable by merely reading books and names on memorials. Like the soldiers, I realized that the waging of war was anything but glorious. It was misery. As I reflected on that harsh reality that night, I struggled to reconcile the true colors of war with the perceptions I had brought with me from the US. I had always thought of war as an unfortunate but sometimes necessary aspect of life in the modern world. But seeing the utter destruction of not only a thriving modern society but so many young lives had me questioning all my preconceptions.
Touring the Somme the next day reinforced my observations. Visiting the Newfoundland memorial and the former battlefield spread out in front of it was especially impactful. Land pockmarked with shell holes and the remains of trenches displayed the war in its full-fledged futility. It took around four and a half minutes to walk the distance that was gained by the British offensive in four and a half months. How could a supposedly modern society support such meaningless death? How could anyone twist this tragedy into glory? How can we be making progress when we’re slaughtering each other by the millions?
Though I was hit hard by everything I saw along the Western Front, nothing struck a personal chord like the Ring of Remembrance at Notre Dame-de-Lorette. At every memorial, I had scoured the names, always unsurprised that no Brecheisen was printed. But as I gazed at this massive memorial where no distinction was made for rank or nationality, I picked out two who shared my last name. It was a profoundly shocking and sobering experience. I don’t recall ever seeing or hearing of anyone with the name outside of my immediate family, but here were two, a testament to the breadth and scale of the conflict. The Western Front had radically shifted my perceptions of war and erased my detachment from it. I knew I wouldn’t return home the same, yet there was more change still to come.
My time in Paris proved to be a much needed mental vacation after the challenges of the Front. Like a soldier on leave in the big city, I briefly forgot the difficult realizations I had come to and lost myself in the mindset of tourism. It was short lived, however, as my first day in Munich brought new challenges. Our walking tour of the city brought to life the realities of postwar Germany and the sowing of the seeds of a second global conflict. It was chilling to walk in the footsteps of Hitler in the early days of the Nazi Party, to wrestle with the facts of its rise to power. Seeing the memorial to the White Rose, and reading an excerpt of their fourth leaflet, calling for resistance against the Nazi regime, challenged me in a deeply spiritual way. The leaflet reads: “But whoever today still doubts the reality, the existence of demonic powers, has failed by a wide margin to understand the metaphysical background of this war.”
I had always viewed Hitler and the Nazis as ‘evil,’ and attached that term to others throughout history, but considering the role of spiritual warfare in the past was unfamiliar and shocking. I experienced a complete shift in much of my thinking about evil in the world, and carried that perspective with me as we journeyed to Dachau a few days later.
Stepping through the iron gate that read “Work Will Set You Free” and wandering through the former concentration camp within was indescribably challenging. Throughout the trip, even at sites on the Western Front where I had felt a sacred, vaguely spiritual connection, I had taken a myriad of pictures to remember my visit. Not at Dachau. I just felt as if I couldn’t, and I knew the mental images would last just as long. Something about walking in the footsteps of the 31,000 murdered there had a way of murdering the tourist inside of me. All I could do was wander through the various museum displays and vow to never forget the memory of those who suffered there.
Though my time on the Western Front had caused me to question humanity and modern civilization, my time at Dachau took it to an entirely different level. To see the horrid atrocities humans were capable of, and then to realize Dachau was the tip of the iceberg, the model Nazi concentration camp, was thoroughly chilling. Despair washed over me as I considered the profound evil that surrounded me. Where could God possibly be in all of this? As I sat in the asymmetrical Protestant chapel on Dachau’s grounds, I remembered Jürgen Moltmann’s interpretation of such terrible evil and suffering. Moltmann posited that as we suffer, God suffers alongside us. Picturing Jesus being worked to the bone, tortured, mocked, alongside the rest of the prisoners was an image I will never forget. In that most unlikely of places, I felt God’s presence. I hadn’t felt it in the elaborate, stained-glass chapels of Westminster Abbey, or Notre Dame, or Sainte-Chapelle, or even the countless cemeteries of the Western Front; I had felt it in a simple chapel in a former concentration camp.
I have always enjoyed traveling because it allows me to step outside of routine, to venture to a faraway place and gain a fresh perspective on day to day life. Returning from the bustle of London and Paris, the devastation of the Western Front, the realities of evil in Munich, and the suffering of Dachau changed me in a radically different way than travel had ever changed me before. J.R.R. Tolkien surely understood the depth of personal change one encounters after experiencing the devastation of the Western Front. Years later, he said, through Frodo Baggins: “There is no real going back. Though I may come to the Shire, it will not seem the same; for I shall not be the same.” When I returned home, walking Bethel’s campus again, I realized the truth of Frodo’s words. Experiencing the destruction of the First World War and the inhumanity of the Second not only transformed me, but also the world around me. I am extremely grateful for the opportunity to traverse through such life-changing places, and though I have returned home, I know there is no real going back.
While our students are getting set to register for fall courses, our faculty are also looking ahead to next year and preparing to hire teaching assistants (TAs). Typically, each of our professors works with one or two TAs, and several members of this year’s group are graduating. So we’ll be hiring several new TAs for 2016-2017.
Students: if you’re interested in serving for the first time as TAs, start by clicking here to read the job description and requirements. Then to be considered for a TA position, complete this Google Form no later than April 15th.
To get some insight into what it’s like being a TA, we interviewed two of our graduating TAs — Julia Muckenhirn ’16 and Micayla Moore ’16 — for this week’s installment of our department webisode, Past & Presence. (skip ahead to 12:45 for the TA interviews)
Why did some Germans and other Europeans collaborate in the Holocaust, while others risked their lives to resist? Students in HIS354 Modern Europeasked this question last week,after having read Christopher Browning’sOrdinary 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.
Studying 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.
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.