7. Reenactments and an Assumed Lack of History
After a weak of abstinence I'm back to the list
bothering you with way too long e-mails. I'll try to be
shorter this time.
What another course participant wrote as his explanation for the strange
reenactments somehow has struck my nerve, and I would
like to disagree with his points, strongly.
> American people have also a lack of history.
This is a nice phrase, and it is a common point of criticism.
Common points of criticism are like urban legends - they
sound convincing, somehow, and are widely available;
and after a while, they tend to be accepted, having become
part of conventional wisdom. And some may - according to the
principle of a "self-fulfilling prophecy" - achieve the status of
reality. The tarantula in the exotic plant. The snake in the toilet.
Tales of Alien Abduction following the pattern of the
Betty & Barney Hill case or the latest X-Files episode.
That Americans have no history is a strange and somehow
appealing attitude. Yes, attitude, not fact. Euro-centric
attitude that is. Let's do some math.
The United States of America have been around since 1776,
i.e. 224 years. Is this the history of America? If so, then it is
longer than the history of present Germany, which came into
being somehow in 1949, or, to be more precise, 1990. For the
state named "Federal Republic of Germany" has not been in
existence before. What came before, was hell. What anteceded
hell was the strange democratic interregnum of the Weimar Republic
between 1918-1933. What anteceded this was the "Second" German
Reich, in existence since 1871, created through blood and coercion.
Before that, there was no Germany, unless you call the Deutscher Bund
something like a nation state, which it isn't. So the territorial basis
for the present nation was created in 1871, cut - rightfully - in the
aftermath of 1918 and 1945. That makes Germany even younger
than the US.
So, this of course is no pleasing answer. There have been Germans
before 1871 you will say, and rightly so. But they were not inhabitants
of a German empire. If they were inhabitants of anything, then of small
states like Prussia or Saxony or Bavaria or Austria or whatever.
If they were part of anything larger, then of the Sanctum Imperium,
(Holy) Roman Empire. "Germany" does not exist in the more distant past,
not as a unity that is. So we seem to have to transcend the nation state.
But if we do this, the entire period of colonization belongs to the history
of America as well. If that be Anglo-US, it is Jamestown, 1607, if it be
European settlements in America, the starting date is something commencing
What is history - what is being described by history? Is it the history of
the nation state, of the territorial state, of the nation forming the state?
In the first case, the US started in 1776. In the second case, somewhen
during the Wisconsin glaciation when the first Asian settlers arrived,
to be called Indians much later. In the third case, well, that's the most
It is not coincidence that Alan Brinkley called his history of America
"The Unfinished Nation". But what is a nation? Initially, a nation is nothing
else but a tribe: early Indo-Europeans, Latinos, Etruscans, Greeks, Saxons,
Scots, Irish, Francs, Cherokee, Anasazi, Guarani etc. Through "agglomeration"
of territory,nations grow to include others in forming a grander unity like
Germans, French, English etc. When they spread outward, do they retain
their nationality? The Huguenots emigrating to Brandenburg, did they become
Germans or didn't they retain certain French "features"? Which is their
history? French history up to the point of emigration, then German
history? Or both? Or none?
Does the Italian living in New York share the history of a fellow American
who happens to be a Jew, a Polish, a Russian, and Anglo, an African,
a Puerto Rican etc.? Are Native Americans part of the US nation?
If so, doesn't their history add to the histories of all the other
ethnicities in it? What about nations which are basically based upon
religious borders like Muslim, Jew, Hindu?
Can there even be something like "the" history? Isn't it rather a
history of histories, a giant discourse subsuming all the small histories
of each inhabitant of a certain place?
Even if you should still insist on limiting the history of the US to the history
of the territorial state (BTW, does Oregon have less of a history as it became part
of the union much later than say Delaware? Shouldn't it be part of Oregonian
history rather than American?), i.e., should you start with 1776, does this
mean that the length of age means a lack of history? What is length?
Is a longer history better than a shorter one? This rather sounds like a
phallic discussion. Furthermore, if seen from the eyes of Iraq, Egypt, Athens,
Jericho or Rome, what history would Germany have? None whatsoever.
On the contrary, seeing is believing. Judging the discourse of history
merely by its sheer amount, America has quite some large history -
taken into account the amount of books, journals, web sites, films etc.
portraying this history.
What do I consider to be my personal history? Do I have to identify
with German history? Of any period? I have nothing to do with the
Third Reich. Neither with Bismarck. Neither with a bleeping emperor.
The history of the GDR was forced upon me, and I take the liberty
to reject its grasp, although I have to recognize its impact on myself.
I feel more American than German anyway. What nationality do I have?
Aren't these rather artificial categories anyway?
I could go on, as you probably might have suspected. Maybe later.
No, this is not a threat.
But I agree with my colleague in one point: These re-enactments are a strange thing.
June 26th, 2000 / October 12th, 2000 [HTML Version]