Saturday, April 3, 2010

History Isn't Always Nice

A generous grant from 4Culture is currently funding the digitization and cataloging of several archival collections, include the letters of Minnie Wilson and Jake Schomber, Issaquah residents and sweethearts. The couple corresponded during World War I, when Jake was serving in the Army. This post is part of a series of posts about their lives and letters.

There have been a number of times while reading through the Minnie and Jake letters that I have come across a term that is unknown to me. Upon further research, I discover that the term is a racial epithet that has probably gone out use for a variety of reasons. These are the moments that pop us out of the nostalgia of historical research and into the reality of what it was really like to live in that world.

Being as Minnie and Jake were apart during WWI, one derogatory term pops up again and again. Hun. As in “Damn the Kaiser, and kill a Hun for me while you’re over there.” The term "Hun" to reference a German soldier came into vogue during World War I and was derived from a speech in which the Kaiser compared the German soldiers to those that fought under the leadership of Attila the Hun. After that speech it was common for newspapers and people to use it as a generic name for and as an expression of hatred towards the Germans. A Washington State newspaper, The Palouse Republic, ran an article Jan 4, 1917 quoting a soldier as saying “we are now quite advanced along the lines of modern Hun killing.” A number of propaganda posters (the images in this post) came out showing German soldiers as violent, scary, and unforgiving and further spread the derogatory nature of the term Hun.

In essence, we forgive Minnie and Jake because the terminology that they use in their letters was so commonplace during the time, especially the word Hun. The interesting thing here is to look at their genealogy. Jake’s parents actually immigrated from Germany. Let me say it again, his mother and father were both born in Germany. According to the 1920 Census, Henry Schomber (Jake’s father) immigrated in 1871, making him about 11 at the time. Jake’s mother, Anna, in 1875, making her about 13 when she immigrated.

So while Jake’s parents weren’t adults when they came over, they weren’t infants either. It would be interesting to know their side of the story. How much of a connection with Germany did they feel? How did they feel about their son going off to fight against their home country? Did they throw the term Hun around just as much as Minnie and Jake? Unfortunately their letters to Jake are not in our collection or we may have a small glimpse into their thoughts.

Despite the use of innappropriate terminology, I appreciate these moments for all we can learn. Just when I start getting sappy about the epic love tale of Minnie and Jake and how it overcame all odds, one of them decides to throw a nice racist remark into the mix and bring me back down to reality. History, while we can look back upon with nostalgia, isn’t always pretty. It can be ugly and gritty and remind us of how far we’ve come and perhaps how far we need to go.

9 comments:

  1. As a long-time friend of Minnie Schomber and the person who acquired her letters for the historical society, I want to urge all of us to avoid presentism--the tendency to look back at history with 2010 eyes. If we sanitize history we will never be able to understand what it might have been like to live in the past.
    Joe Peterson

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  2. Come on. Who wrote this article? You have taken our 21st Century concept of political correctness to the ridiculous -- "racial epithet", "one derogatory term", "we forgive", "innappropriate terminology". I have done a tremendous amount of research into my family's history. In my records are dozens of family members who died in the world wars on both sides and all the Americans were first or second generation immigrants. I am sure they used stronger words to characterize their cousins than Hun. It is life. Get over it.
    Jim Schembs.
    (Unfortunately I can't figure out a connection to Schomber. Our original family name in Deutschland was Schömbs, although some branches of the family became Schembs a century prior to emigration. Some became Schombs in Amerika but not Schomber.)

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  3. Joe, I certainly agree with your point. It is certainly unfair to judge the past through the eyes of the present. Unlike Jim, however, I think Julia did a great job of avoiding this trap. The article did not accuse Minnie and Jake of wrongdoing. Rather it identified a term used freely in their letters that would perhaps offend modern readers, and took the opportunity to show the readers that this term was a common one in that era, and that Minnie and Jake were simply products of their time. It certainly causes me to ponder what common terms of today will become frowned upon tomorrow!

    In that vein, I think an interesting addendum to this article would be one that focuses on the use of racial epithets during wartime, as an effort to dehumanize one's enemy.
    AOS

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  4. I'm not sure Hun is meant to be derogatory, beyond a reference to the enemy. Does a reference to the enemy using a common nickname make it a racial epithet? Is it any different than today when some refer to Middle Eastern people as terrorists?
    There's an important lesson in here -- we all need to avoid stereotypes, including pinning labels on Minnie and Jake.

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  5. It didn't seem to me like the author was trying to project any political correctness, but just wanted to point out that the propaganda at the time was so strong that even people of German descent used derogatory terms to describe the German soldiers.
    I know I also have done a tremendous amount of research into my family's history. In my records are dozens of family members who died in the world wars on both sides and all the Americans were first or second generation immigrants. I am sure they used their experiences to teach their children to recognize racism, while at times common, is never appropriate.

    It is life. Get over it.

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  7. I think the original blog post is well written.

    I also think that when one studies history, or reads Literature for that matter one HAS to remember not to judge the past by today's terms.

    Also, one has to think also about the "in group" vs "out group" that goes on in ANY conflict, especially one as life altering and large was WW1 (or WW2). Our fighting forces saw things daily they had no reality to neatly fit them into -- and frequently did things they had no frame of reference for. War needs to be black / white for the fighters to survive mentally and thus physically. A world war rallys the US (or any country) together by defining terms as us vs them. So yes less than kind terms get used for the "bad guy" on all sides, that is part of war. They were killing these people to stay alive, they could not view them as the guy next door. The "kill one for me" mentally and connects serve to show the home front rallying behind the person at war (in WWI men).

    As for the man's parents being German, I suspect that they were identifying themselves as American and not German and felt that THAT (American) was more important than where they came from, that is where they were now, and who they were now. Again for their son, fighting WWI being faced with kill or be killed – thinking of his German roots is not a luxury he could afford. The battle ground is not a place for deep discussions of interpersonal relationships.

    It is hard to read literature or study the past and keep 2010 out if it, but we have to.

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  8. Part of the reason that the study of history is so very engaging and so essential is that the ways in which people thought and spoke in the past can give us insight into our present. "Hun" was, no doubt, a term used to dehumanize the enemy. Of course we have to understand the broader cultural context in which that term was used, and to avoid the pitfall of passing facile judgments on those who employed the term. On the other hand, we should also ask how this kind of dehumanization both reflected and contributed to anti-German sentiment in the USA. How did terms like "Hun", furthermore, contribute to anti-German views that continued past WWI? How was the use of this term related to other racilizing terms? Do we still practice the same kind of stereotyping today? This blog post does an excellent job in raising all of these questions, and in showing the ways in which racism that seem surprising and unpalatable today was commonplace in the past. Which contemporary terms will strike our grandchildren in same way? What do we want to do about that?
    HM

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  9. I would like to give a quick response to everything said above. It was not my intent to sanitize history – quite the opposite, in fact. Nor do I want to project 2010 viewpoints in an attempt to be “politically correct.” As neither a politician nor a historian, just simply a citizen, my goal is to be as unbiased as possible and think objectively about our American history. I considered all viewpoints made in the comments before writing my post (had I discussed all of them, it would no longer be a blog post but a dissertation.) I am glad that my small post sparked such a conversation and discussion – we should be active in our history and what it means, not just passive perusers.

    For reference, the word “Hun” was actually the nicest term used in the Minnie and Jake letters. I have run across some true racial epithets for Eastern Europeans, Jews, and others that are quite uncomfortable.

    I don’t fault Minnie and Jake for using these terms, nor do I fault older generations. I understand that people are a product of their times – but remember that there are people who consciously made a decision to reconsider and resist the trends of their times. And they are the ones that helped form the change we can appreciate today.

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