Really, really complicated history… the way history ought to be!

Does this give you pause?

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A Nazi swastika with a Christian cross?  Is this the cap of Pope Benedict XVI?

This was part of a display seen during my visit to the Eisenhower Farm’s World War II weekend last summer (An excellent event, by the way… particularly if you need a breath of non-Civil War air while visiting Gettysburg).

The display belonged to a living historian portraying a German chaplain from World War II:

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But I’m fascinated at times with those who dress up in German World War II uniforms and attend the “World War II days” that seem to frequent in the summer. They are not crazy neo-Nazis. And they are passionate about the study of history. In this case, the “German Chaplain” was not a “he”… but a “she” in “he” clothing.  And before readers start dismissing that situation… she was a living historian, not a real, live soldier, on that weekend.  She was there to discuss history and use the props demonstrate her depth of research and knowledge.  That’s what living historians do. Who cares what pronoun is used in the third person.  Take the dosage of history and don’t worry about who’s holding the spoon, OK?

I’m no expert on German uniforms. Barely conversant on American uniforms of the period. So I cannot speak to the authenticity of the uniform or other particulars about the props.  But after the event last summer, I researched into the subject of German chaplains. She seemed generally right about the uniform and appearance. And, as you see on her table, she had reference books and a binder of materials to show visitors… who were always inquisitive about the role she opted to portray.

The most important take away I had from the display and subsequent research was, indeed there were chaplains in the German Army during World War II.  Did I not know that before?  Well, let’s just say that I had not considered the topic and thus not appreciated the subject.  The problem is the common perspective on World War II focuses on the Nazis as villains.  And villains are to be de-humanized to some extent.  So there is a tendency to overlook that little niche within the larger, contextualized history.  Somewhat as many attempt to do with the Civil War context – either the Confederate or the Federal soldier being de-humanized in order to serve a convenient villain.

At the event, I asked her the obvious, blunt question – why this particular impression? Certainly German chaplains had to be among the obscure.  She simply said something along the lines of, “Because it was a story to tell.”

Yes, a story to be told. How could someone wear the Nazi swastika on the same hat as the Christian cross? Well, it is complex. One has to sit down and listen to the story in order to understand and appreciate.  And it is an individual-level story.  It fits within the larger context.  Adds to that larger context, I would say.  Going as far to say it actually makes the history “human” in review.  Why would a religious person serve in Hitler’s army?  To find that answer, one need get to know the subject… the human subject… as an individual.

Now let us take things a step further.  These people who lived through those times were much as you and I.  They went about their lives just as humans before and after their times.  They made decisions about things using similar logic as any other human.  From those decisions, they acted out their lives.  Those actions played into the larger script we know as history.  Individual experiences form into an aggregate that brings living color to history.  Maybe the individual has no pull on the larger course of events, but the individual lives through those events – shaped by them, or shaping them.  Perhaps among the worst things we do as historians is attempt to simplify the complexity by pushing a context to that individual experience.  Such suffocates the rich, vivid individual story.

Does the presence of a Christian cross on a cap somehow distance (if not absolve) a German chaplain from the horrors that were Nazi Germany?  No.  Far from it.  But it does say there is more to consider and think about.  It says the human experience within those historical times requires more research before fully understood.  I say we stand to learn something important from that understanding.

You see, when you bring history down to the individual level, we see more often than not the experience is not too far removed from our own.  Maybe we would not make the same decisions. I dare say, particularly as with those who donned uniforms with Nazi swastikas on the caps, we hope never to be put in a position were such decisions have to be made.  But we can relate to that past human experience.  We can have moment of contemplation “in their shoes” and gain some insight to the times.  Perhaps even yield lessons to apply to our own experience. To me, that is the beautiful simplicity of the complexity.

So, I say, savor the complexity. Such is the nature… the context… of any life. We shouldn’t lose sight that both the good and bad elements of history are comprised of actions by men and women just like us. We are all compromises and complexities. Nothing in the scope of human experience is simple.

One thought on “Really, really complicated history… the way history ought to be!

  1. i went to a local event once with my father-in-law, who was a ww2 vet serving with the combat engineers from D-day until the end of the war. there were quite a few reenactors portraying German troops. he did not care for it at all.

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