Thinking about the American Present via the European Past

It’s been about three weeks since last I blogged here at The Pietist Schoolman. Anything been happening?

If you didn’t know, I spent most of January in Britain, Belgium, France, and Germany, where my friend Sam Mulberry and I were leading a travel course on the history of World War I. I’m sure I’ll have more to share about our studies in the days to come, but if you want some glimpses of our experience: I shared lots of photos at our department’s Facebook page and on my Twitter account.

Connor Larson and Chris in front of Big BenYou can find those pictures — and the much superior photos taken by my teaching assistant, Connor Larson (pictured here with me in front of Big Ben) — if you look for the hashtag #BethelWWI.

J-term trips take enough work that I knew I couldn’t keep up my usual Pietist Schoolman schedule, but I did write a few posts from Europe for The Anxious Bench, including this update of an earlier post on how C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien experienced the war. And as our attention turned to the aftermath of the war and its connections to the rise of National Socialism, I shared a piece on theological wrestling in the Holocaust — inspired by a chapter in the terrific Peter Fritzsche book that I’ve been reading this month.

But I also wrote two posts that found me observing present-day America through the lens of our studies of 20th century Europe:

• I was enjoying an off day in Salzburg, Austria on the 20th and so missed Donald Trump’s inaugural address. But when I got back to the hostel and read the speech, I fixed my attention on this passage:

At the bedrock of our politics will be a total allegiance to the United States of America, and through our loyalty to our country, we will rediscover our loyalty to each other.

When you open your heart to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice. The Bible tells us, “How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity.”

So the following day I tried to explain why the notion of “total allegiance” is not only incompatible with my commitments as a follower of Jesus Christ but deeply troubling to me as a historian of 20th century Europe:

We started [our travel course] in London’s Trafalgar Square, where Britons flocked in August 1914 to pledge their love of country. Even so committed a pacifist as Bertrand Russell confessed himself “tortured by patriotism” as the tide swept away a generation of young men whose names we read on cemeteries and memorials. (Notably, these sites’ designers largely kept them free of the language and imagery of national glory.)

Today, as the course nears its conclusion, we came to the memorial site for the concentration camp at Dachau. In fact, I was sitting in that museum as I wrote most of this post, listening to the testimony of Germans who were imprisoned and tortured by their own countrymen: ample evidence that love of country not only leaves room for prejudice, but often deepens it — as some seek to purify and protect the nation by eliminating persons and groups from it.

I don’t mean to draw exact parallels; 2017 is not 1933 (or 1914). But words like yesterday’s at least rhyme with those spoken by an earlier wave of self-styled populists who used the language of unity and community to ennoble the exclusion and violence that soon followed.

Seen from the perspective of a 20th century historian, it’s impossible to hear “total allegiance” without thinking of “total war.”

Munich's White Rose Memorial
Here’s the White Rose Memorial in Munich’s Hofgarten. Off in the distance is the Haus der Kunst, one of the few surviving examples of Nazi architecture in the city.

• Then for today, I looked back to a couple of readings that I’d given our students — the original conclusion to Ernst Jünger’s novel Storm of Steel and the fourth leaflet issued by the anti-Nazi resistance group known as the White Rose — to reflect on the secular and religious faiths that compel people (in Jünger’s words) “to stand for a cause and if necessary to fall as befitted men.”

Here too, I couldn’t avoid comparisons to Trump, whose inaugural address broke with well-established tradition in not mentioning how generations of Americans have sacrificed their lives for the common good and whose first days in office have done little to dispel concerns that 2017 at least rhymes with 1933. “If so,” I conclude, paraphrasing the words of the White Rose, “if we find ourselves be governed by ‘an irresponsible clique that has yielded to base instinct’ — then I can only pray that God will give me and you the strength not to hesitate, not to calculate or procrastinate, but to defend what is right without fear.”

I’ve insisted a few times that this is a blog about Christianity and history, not politics. That will remain the case in 2017.

But you’ll have to forgive me if my commitment to the first two topics occasionally leads me to comment on the third. I don’t enjoy writing about the new president, but if nothing else, my travels in Europe reminded me that this is not a time to stay silent.

3 thoughts on “Thinking about the American Present via the European Past

  1. Chris, sometime ago I read Richard Hanser’s book on the White Rose. Even though the first pages alerted me as to what was to happen, I could not stop reading it. Have you read Timothy Snyder’s book Black Earth. That is one that rather deep….I had to put it down and in some cases couldn’t remember all if it when I reread pages shortly after my first reading. It certainly added to the scope of my knowledge of the Holocaust. One of those books where I wish there were a book club about it. Likewise with When Paris Went Dark…..

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