Melissa Weiner discusses how poorly Dutch children are taught about the history of slavery in the Netherlands. From simply ignoring the topic to approaching it from what she calls a racist neoliberal perspective, the subject is framed to positively distort the past. While I agree with much of her argument, I challenge the degree to which she uses a fine tooth comb to nitpick and frame some educational tactics as racist. For instance, she criticizes a textbook for saying that life was difficult for slaves without explicitly blaming the slave owners. This strikes me as grasping at straws as that conclusion is implied. I fail to see how this exemplifies a dramatic attempt to white wash history.
Weiner is also angry that many textbooks mention the thinking of white slave owners. She criticizes the mention of slave owners believing Africans made better slaves than South Americans and indigenous peoples and that they were more effective workers in hot weather than the local Dutch. Offering this perspective of the slave owners is critical in understanding the history of slavery as a whole and giving a perspective a platform is neither condoning nor accepting said position. Would Weiner argue that discussing the underlying ideology that justified the Final Solution by the Nazis distorts history in favor of the National Socialism? Without this context how can one truly understand the Holocaust? Furthermore, it is critical for students to learn that the dehumanization of Jews and other “non-desirables” contributed to the ease with which common SS soldiers murdered thousands in death camps. We must understand that, according to research conducted at Stanford by Professor Milgram, 97 percent of the population is capable of murder when merely directed to do so by an authority figure. Without studying the thinking behind Nazism, children will be unable to recognize its modern resurgence and may fall victim to the same psychological underpinnings that led a generation of Germans to perpetrate the greatest crime against humanity in all of history.
This analytical approach, often adopted by the liberal historical establishment, also forbids mention of those within the ruling class that resisted such thinking and action. While Dutch slave owners did indeed commit evil crimes against humanity, it is important to recognize that this does not make the indictment of all white Dutch citizens as racist criminals appropriate. Several years ago, I wrote a paper about Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg who tried unsuccessfully to kill Adolf Hitler on July 20th, 1944. My overall thesis examined the Wehrmacht leadership’s increasing frustration with Nazi leadership. I portrayed Stauffenberg, a more committed Wehrmacht officer and conservative nationalist than a National Socialist, as a positive figure and an example of internal German resistance. He was, however, a Nazi nonetheless and I was harshly criticized by fellow students for portraying a Nazi in a positive light. I find this moral absolutism, implicitly advocated by Weiner in this piece, an affront to the true aim of historical analysis and blatant politicization of the past.
Jennifer Hansen-Glucklich focuses her discussion on how aesthetics and differentiation shape the narrative projected by a museum. She explains how a single item, such as a shoe, displayed alone is meant to emphasize the object and focuses attention on a single lost life. While touring Auschwitz last week I was particularly moved by a single glass display with the clothes of a female toddler. My niece recently turned two and this image still burns in my mind and elicits a very personal response. Anger, sadness, and confusion: how could someone tell a mother to take the clothes off of her toddler, send the mother to a gas chamber, and inject the child with poison and watch them die? Conversely, exhibits that house a great number of objects, particularly the same type of object, highlight the enormity of an event like the Holocaust. The exhibits I saw of three tons of scalped hair, thousands upon thousands of shoes, and thousands of eye glasses offer a glimpse of the magnitude of the Holocaust. Much of the tour I was trying to picture 1.5 million (the number murdered at Auschwitz) dollars; I could not do this let alone 1.5 million human beings. The grouping of shoes and glasses, however, allows for some context in this realm.
Hansen-Glucklich says, “Color also plays a key role in how museum displays create meaning” (7). I did not notice at the time, but all of Auschwitz is dark grey and black which contributed to the chilling effect of viewing the exhibition. She goes on to highlight the power of personal stories in eliciting more empathy. A number is just a number; six million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust, but what does this actually mean? Without personal stories this number remains just that. For me, the little details elicited the most emotion. Learning about the man who told an SS officer he would take the place of a fellow prisoner ordered to the starvation pits or the story of the small group of men who escaped the camp shortly after its construction makes the experience more real. For me, the little details were what elicited the most emotion. The Nazis told the Jews to leave their valuables behind; this was a devious use of reverse psychology to ensure that they could completely strip them of all of their possessions upon arrival. They told soon to be prisoners to pack a suitcase and upon arrival had them paint their names on the baggage. The bags were sent to a warehouse to be looted and the prisoners to the gas chambers, many believing the Nazi lie that they would soon begin a new life with their old possessions.
Hansen-Glucklich is far less critical than Weiner in her description of how history is presented to the general public. She praises while Weiner criticizes. Hansen-Glucklich strikes me as a more responsible historian who has less of an overt political agenda. The images I have chosen to display for this assignment are photographs I took at Auschwitz. It’s noteworthy that Weiner would likely approve of the museums layout and would particularly like the placard that reads, “For ever let this place be a cry of despair and a warning to humanity, where the Nazis murdered about one and a half million men, women, and children, mainly Jews from various countries of Europe.” I have also included a picture of the memorial to Col. Stauffenberg located at the site of the explosion at the Wolf’s Lair which I visited earlier this month, located in northeastern Poland. The memorial reads in part, “The world must know that we were not all like him. We resisted.”
Larry Beasley’s most profound statement is that city planning is politicized art. I had not once considered this before, but he makes a very compelling point. Unlike a painting or a sculpture, city planning is a collective project that includes the public as a whole. It is therefore complicated, as it is essentially the act of designing one big house for every inhabitant of a city. I assume that Professor Troutman’s inspiration for the title of this course was derived in no small part from this reading. I struggled to connect this to Weiner’s writing, but did see parallels to Hensen-Glucklich’s writing. In fact, Weiner struck me as someone advocating against diversity of thought in historical analysis while Beasley emphasizes the significant role diversity of thought and compromise plays in city planning (politics, after all, is the art of compromise). Beasley describes the city as an agora where people come together to learn and interact.
I was particularly struck by Beasley’s example of the “Red Box” constructed in Berlin shortly after the Wall fell. I saw this building while visiting Berlin last year, but failed to recognize its significance. This, as Hansen-Glucklich discusses, elicits emotion through the simple act of color selection. The choice of red, the color associated with Marxist, Soviet, and East German ideology, is an overt reference to the areas’ history. Another area where Beasley potentially differs from Weiner is his mentioning that many were fearful of the future after the collapse of communism prompting the construction of the Red Box. Weiner’s approach seems clear: identify an evil (communism in this case), ignore the ideological roots of that evil, and ignore anything that could possibly be construed as justifying that evil. Yes, this is a straw-man simplification, but as my travel throughout Eastern Europe has taught me, many were happy under communism despite what we’re taught in the west. Many have fond memories of communally watching television in their apartment complexes and sharing a variety of foods. Others have fond memories of marching in parades during annual celebrations on the 1st of May. Just as white washing history is damaging, capitalist washing history is also unfair. History is the pursuit of truth, not the pursuit of truth that supports one’s political agenda.
Weiner, Melissa. (2014). (E)racing Slavery, 11(2), 329–351. https://doi.org/10.1017/S1742058X14000149
Beasley, Larry. (2013). The City as Museum and the Museum as City, http://omnimuseum.org/the-city-as-museum-and-the-museum-as-city.html
Hansen-Glucklich, J. (2014). Holocaust Memory Reframed : Museums and the Challenges of Representation (pp. 85–118). New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.