History on the Street: Postwar Memorials in Cologne

Originally published on May 1, 2012 on Open Salon.

I’m always struck by Germany’s lesser known postwar memorials. Structures of remembrance built on a grand scale, such as Berlin’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, have garnered much deserved popular and academic attention. However, there are numerous other memorials, built on a much smaller scale, that dot the landscape of Germany. They also deserve attention.

For the past several weeks I’ve been living in Cologne, the fourth largest German city, and the largest in western Germany’s Rhineland. I’ve come across two creative and poignant memorials that I think deserve attention. The first is a memorial to a single person, but like all memorials, it is about much more. It is in remembrance of Edith Stein. A plaque recounts her life with select information: born in Breslau in 1891, she was the eleventh child of a Jewish family. While a high school and college student, she left Judaism. She studied philosophy, psychology, history, and German studies in Breslau and Göttingen, before pursuing a doctorate degree under famed philosopher Edmund Husserl. It was at this time that she had her first serious encounters with Christianity; she decided to convert to Catholicism after reading from the autobiography of Teresa of Avila. Stein was baptized in 1922 in Bad Bergzabern. She was a teacher and university lecturer in Speyer and Münster; that is, until 1933 when National Socialist legislation that denied Jews the right to hold such positions revoked her professorship. She then entered the Disclaced Carmelite (notably also called the Barefoot Carmelite) monastery in Cologne and took the name Teresia Benedicta a cruce (Teresa Benedicta of the Cross). In 1938, she took her eternal vows, but soon after had to flee Germany and ended up in Holland, where she entered a monastery in Echt. On August 7, 1942, she was deported to Auschwitz; she was murdered there on August 9, 1942. In 1987, Pope John Paul II beatified her as a martyr, and in 1998 he canonized her as a saint.

What the plaque tells in words, the sculpture shows in images, and what the plaque cannot tell in words, the sculpture evokes in the way it forces the viewer to see. The photo below depicts the monument from a distance close enough to see the entirety of it, but too far away to notice the details.


In the following image, you see three women—all of them are Edith.


Reading the sculpture from right to left, the first representation of Edith shows her leaning on the Star of David. The depiction induces a sense of weighty contemplation, recalling Rodin’s The Thinker. She does not take the rejection of her inherited faith lightly, and that is because she is a woman of conviction, no less while adhering to Judaism than to Catholicism.


The second likeness of Edith, in the next two photos, represent the period in her life in which she did not have a faith—in between Judaism and Catholicism, she didn’t have direction. It is also a representation of a fundamental division in her identity. From certain perspectives, she appears whole, but from others, she is fragmented.



The third representation shows Edith dressed in monastic garb, carrying the symbol of martyrdom in front of her. The series does not tell the story of Edith progressing from one identity to another; she was always all three. Or, perhaps she was always divided. Maybe it is the likeness in the middle that both fuses and balances the other two.


The memorial is much more than the three images of Edith. It invites the viewer to perceive it from multiple angles and see how the rest of her story unfolds; not in representations of the woman, but in her environment and under her circumstances. The monument is elevated, and in front of the third sculpture of Edith there are numerous sets of footprints—some barefoot, others not. All of them are heading in the same direction as Edith, carrying her cross. The footprints lead to a pile of shoes, eliciting images of the footwear taken from inmates of Nazi concentration camps.


The only thing that keeps the shoes from piling down onto the street are two tablets of stone, the ten commandments—the first is increasingly burdened. Etched next to the footprints are numbers—these represent the tattoos given to inmates at Nazi concentration camps. Not all inmates of Nazi camps, in particular the four other extermination camps in addition to Auschwitz, received tattoos. Killed a mere two days after her deportation, Edith almost certainly did not receive one. The presence of the numbers suggests that the monument is also about survivors.



The only pair of feet facing Edith rather than moving with her are on a flat stone, as opposed to the rough stone of the rest of the monument. Somewhat displaced, as if it were floating in the middle of the monument, the pierced feet represent Jesus. When one stands on them, she looks directly into Edith’s face, while Edith’s divided self lingers melancholically over her left shoulder.



From Edith’s perspective, it looks as if the world is coming undone in front of her; a pile of victims’ shoes just to the left of a fractured cross, the crevice of which is hollow, with the exception of a crown of thorns.


The multiple ways of seeing the various iterations of Edith and the broad context under which she lived, and ultimately died, stays with the viewer. Historically and today, Cologne is one of Germany’s most Catholic cities. It is the home to the magnificent Cologne Cathedral, which in turn is the home of the Archbishop of Germany. The monument to Edith Stein is located in a Catholic institutional center. It is right next to Catholic libraries, offices, and archives. The abundance of Catholic imagery asks the viewer to see Edith as a martyr, even though she was victimized despite her Christianity, not because of it. She was killed because Nazi perpetrators and collaborators only saw the image of her with the Star of David—the second representation of her would have been viewed as an impossibility and the third irrelevant.

While the monument to Edith Stein is about victims, the second I want to address is about people who refused to victimize; and while the form of the Edith Stein monument is unmistakably a monument to a particular person, the Homage to the Soldiers who Refused to Shoot (designed by Ruedi Bauer, Denis Coueignoux, Vera Kockot, and Karim Sabano, and dedicated in 2009) does not stand out in the urban fabric and entreat passersby to pause a moment give their attention. One needs only to stand near the monument for a short period of time to see people pass it by. Or, they stop just long enough to point out to a companion that there are words up there, before moving along.


This monument is dedicated to soldiers and non-soldiers who refused to participate in Nazi crimes. It stands on six legs, and about ten feet in the air you see a sort of downwards looking, see-through sheet of letters that form words, distinguished by various colors, and those words form sentences. The viewer has to strain her neck to not only make out the words, but also long enough to make sense of the sentences. Imagine reading this blog post projected onto the ceiling.


The translation from German reads:

Homage to the soldiers who refused to shoot to the soldiers who refused to shoot to the people who refused to kill the people who refused to kill the people who refused to torture the people who refused to torture the people who refused to denounce the people who refused to denounce the people who refused to brutalize the people who refused to brutalize the people who refused to discriminate the people who refused to discriminate the people that refused to laugh the people who refused to discriminate the people who showed solidarity and civil courage as the majority remained silent and followed…

The form—repetitive, without punctuation, and directly above the reader—causes the viewer to interact with the monument in a compelling way. First, I found that it was much easier to keep track of what I was reading by saying it out loud. By doing so, it becomes a benediction more than a poem. This is only reinforced by the repetition. The design forces the viewer to look up, crane her neck, and strain to keep track of the words as they are being read.


It is clear to me that this is integral to the purpose of the monument. It is uncomfortable to read the monument, both in the literal and figurative sense. Germany’s Nazi past makes it strenuous to recognize deserters and civilian resistors, because once that happens there might be a sense of displacement of focus from the majority (as the monument correctly states) of perpetrators to the minority of resistors. This monument is mindful to not do such a thing, and one of the ways it does that is by making it a task to notice and consume the memorial. Even in the description of the monument, on one of its legs, it states non-emphatically that “their (resistors, seditionists, and consciousness objectors) courage deserves our respect.”

Memorials in Germany are integral tools that shape public memory, and they have the ability to influence public discourse. Recently, German foreign minister Thomas de Maziére proposed (and here) that Germany institute a Veterans Day honoring German soldiers, living and dead. When thinking about such a proposal, it would be good to keep these two memorials in mind. The problem with such a holiday should be obvious: there are too many soldiers like those involved in killing Edith Stein than those who refused to shoot.

Germany hasn’t had anything like a Veteran’s Day since 1945. Since 1991 (during the first Gulf War, which was the first instance of German military action since WWII), about 300,000 German troops have been deployed into a war-zone. I don’t think the holiday is a good idea, but there are alternatives. If de Maziére’s intention is to honor military members who have served since the reinstatement of the (West) German military in 1956, and particularly those who have been deployed, then a monument might be a good alternative to a holiday. I wouldn’t put it in a busy part of a large city like Berlin. I would also avoid Bonn, the former capital of West Germany. The memorial would perhaps be most appropriate near, but not a part of, the newly opened Milistary History Museum in Dresden. I think it would have to be specific and small scale. Attaching it to the museum, or constructing in close by, should defuse any potential controversy. Postwar memorials in Germany are sharp, evocative, and sensitive, and I think it could be done right.


Berlin’s Adequate “Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe”

Originally published on July 18, 2012 on Open Salon.

Richard Brody recently wrote in The New Yorker online that Berlin’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is “inadequate.” I would argue that the Berlin memorial is suitably adequate and that, perhaps, the high point of memorialization can only be adequacy. It’s not that anything more is undesirable, but that it might not be possible. The pursuit of something more risks turning the memorial into something it is not – it risks turning it into a museum.

Inadequate memorialization was all too common. A few weeks ago, I visited Rastatt, a small town in Baden-Würrtemberg, with a group of scholars who research German-Jewish culture and society. One of the organized events was tour of the city’s Jewish history. As we approached the building where the city’s synagogue once stood, one of my German colleagues departed slightly from the group and read a affixed placard on the wall; she responded to it with a mixture of cackle, exasperation, and recognition. This is what she read: „Hier stand die Synagoge der Israelitengemeinde Rastatt. Sie wurde am 10. November 1938 unter der Herrschaft der Gewalt und des Unrechts zerstört.“ My German is good, but after quickly reading the placard, I didn’t understand my colleague’s response. If I were asked to convey the meaning of the text, I would have said that this was the location of the Rastatt synagogue, which was destroyed by the Nazis on Kristallnacht, the most notorious and violent domestic attack on Germany’s Jews under the Nazi regime prior to World War II. I wouldn’t be wrong, but it would elide the tone of the text. The translation of words and sentiment has a different implication. It reads: “Here stood the synagogue of Rastatt’s Israeli community. It was destroyed on 10 November, 1938 under the dominion of violence and of injustice.”


This placard hopelessly lacks substance; it is also grounded in the context of lukewarm memorialization in the 1960s. It stands now as a reminder of the insufficiency of memorialization in that decade and for some years after. First, it identifies the Jewish community as the “Israelite community.” This is not as strange as it first appears. Throughout the nineteenth century and the early parts of the twentieth century, it was common for “Jewish” and “Israelite” to be used interchangeably in public discourse and even the state census. However, this was not the case under the Nazi regime, which always referred to the “Jewish” element in society and the population as “Jews.” Additionally, this placard was put up in 1964, when the Israeli state actually existed. By saying “Israelite community” the placard simultaneously avoids using Nazi language while also implying that the violence was directed toward people and an institution with ties to a foreign state, not citizens of Germany. Second, while passive voice is common in German, the effect here completely dismisses any subject or actor. Nobody did the destroying. The possessive language suggests that if there was an actor, it was an abstract regime of violence—not one constituted by actors. Finally, the language of dominion uncomfortably and sarcastically invokes the image of the wrathful god of the Hebrew bible. When I read the text now, it seems to be narrated by Samuel L. Jackson. It might as well also say “And you will know I am the Lord when I lay my vengeance upon thee!” To a contemporary observer, an obvious lack is an updated placard that explains the shortcomings of the other one.

That is what an inadequate memorial looks like. Brody’s approach and criticisms of the Berlin memorial not only highlight the vast difference between the insufficient memorialization of the past in Germany and what has appeared over the last twenty years, but his entire piece speaks to the engagement of the memorial and its fulfillment of purpose. He argues that the title of the memorial is insufficient: Denkmal für die Ermordeten Juden Europas (Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe). He asks: “Which murdered Jews? When? Where?” and follows by asking if the memorial refers to all Jews who have ever been murdered in Europe.

Usually an information plaque is sufficient to explain such questions as when, where, and who? These are rarely, if ever, integral to the design of the memorial as an architectural structure.  In the case of the Memorial in Berlin, there is an information center below the memorial that goes well beyond what any small plaque could convey. I’ll soon comment on what is in the information center, but for right now suffice to say that it is not only a necessary component of the installation, but also easy to access and free.

Brody suggest that, “the title doesn’t say ‘Holocaust’ or ‘Shoah’; in other words, it doesn’t say anything about who did the murdering or why—there’s nothing along the lines of ‘by Germany under Hitler’s regime,’ and the vagueness is disturbing.” The title is not nearly as vague as he makes it seem. In fact, it’s direct and clear. The site is designed to commemorate the Jews (object) of Europe who were murdered (by human subjects). The title is deliberate in its inclusion of victims and perpetrators, and in a memorial the naming of the former group is far more important than the latter.  It doesn’t say the phrases he suggests for a good reason. If it read, “by Germany under Hitler’s regime,” the title would truly suffer from a vague subject. “Germany” simply can’t stand in for party elites, high ranking party members, members of the German military at all levels, passive civilians, and willing collaborators everywhere from France to the Ukraine. Evoking Hitler would put a name to it, but that would de-emphasize the enormity of reach to where the term “perpetrator” applies. I don’t think the memorial needs to use terms like the Holocaust or Shoa to be adequate in its commemoration of murder of European Jews.

In fact, Brody concedes that just about all visitors will bring with them a familiarity of the subject. He argues that “the assumption of this familiarity—the failure to mention it at the country’s main memorial for the Jews killed in the Holocaust—separates the victims from their killers and leaches the moral element from the historical event, shunting it to the category of a natural catastrophe.” Reiterating his mistake that the title of the memorial is in passive voice—as opposed to the example from Rastatt, which is actually passive—he likens the catastrophe at hand to a natural disaster. I am unsure how he comes to this conclusion, given that the title has “murder” in it, which is almost exclusively associated with human action. In the same vein, Brody makes a fundamental error regarding the goal of the memorial. He states, “the reduction of responsibility to an embarrassing, tacit fact that ‘everybody knows’ is the first step on the road to forgetting.” I disagree. The first step on the road to remembering and reconciling is acknowledging that while everyone may know, few understand; and the pursuit of an acknowledged unreachable understanding is the way to never forget. In lieu of an impossible full understanding of the degree of the crimes, an adequate comprehension must suffice.

Brody’s claim of inadequacy is odd considering he offers one of the most elegant descriptions I have read of a self-reflective response generated by the memorial. It is worth reading in full:

In the shallow corner of the plaza, tourists sit and chat on bench-high stelae,[the columns that compose the memorial]children climb, all enjoy wide-open and thrillingly grand perspectives on the surroundings, including the Tiergarten to the west, and the installation takes on the cast of an austerely modern yet pleasantly welcoming park. But, upon entering the narrow alleys and plunging between higher and higher slabs, perspectives are sliced to a ribbon, other visitors are cut off from view, and an eerie claustrophobia sets in—even as some visitors (not just kids) play little games of hide-and-seek in the rectilinear maze. And the title, striking against the experience, creates sparks of metaphorical extrapolation: The Jews of Europe lived carefree, as in a park, until they wandered into frightening canyons of shadows from which the escape routes were narrow and distant. 

I would add that walking through the memorial becomes increasingly haunting, as other visitors appear and disappear in the blink of an eye. They existed, and then they don’t. The feeling that you are surrounded by ghosts is compounded by the echoes of unfamiliar voices that surround you.


The names of all known victims of the Holocaust are weightily present at the memorial’s information center. In it, there is a room where each and every known victim’s name is read, along with the information known about the specific background and the location where the victim was murdered. Moreover, if the names of victims are the most appropriate way to memorialize, one needs only to walk in any city, town, or village in Germany and casually glance at the ground, where thousands of Stolpersteinecommemorate victims by name. Berlin is “heavy with history,” and it is a history that can only be conveyed through the interaction of its sites. Two other rooms in the information center explain the geographical extent of murder, answering Brody’s question of “where” with abundant educational detail. The first indicates the estimated number of Jews killed from every country in Europe. It is here that the significant but often unrecognized fact that about half of the victims of the Holocaust, three million, were Polish Jews. In contrast, while almost all of Germany’s Jews were also killed, that number was around 100,000. The other room details where every single concentration camp in Europe was; the exhaustive map might be called a constellation of death if there weren’t far too many dots to connect, rendering it almost illegible.

In what might be a tongue-in-cheek suggestion, Brody offers an alternative to the current memorial: “the restoration of that prominence [of Jewish life in Germany, especially Berlin], in a symbolic form, would make sense—maybe by way of a gigantic Star of David, occupying the entire ground and standing many stories high. That symbol would also be a fitting provocation: if it proved irritating, that feeling of irritation might stand most evocatively for the history in question.” Jewish prominence and presence might have been felt in a place like Berlin, where at its high point Jews composed ten percent of the population. Such an overbearing display would simply reiterate the Nazi myth of Jewish power and influence within Germany’s borders. Additionally, such a prominent presence would only be symbolic, which is the target of most of Brody’s critique. It’s symbolic in that the presence is not there; the Nazis accomplished their goal. The existing memorial more adequately symbolizes what was left behind of Europe’s Jewish population: an unadorned mass grave that will remain sewn into the center of Berlin’s urban fabric.

Ultimately, Brody’s critique of the memorial is rooted in his conflation of the function of a museum and a memorial. While a museum is designed to educate andn inform through various forms of narrative strategies and explanation, a memorial is designed to commemorate and elicit a self-reflective emotional response that might (should, I would argue) change over time for both the individual and society as a whole. Naming the perpetrators in a museum is necessary; naming them at a memorial risks being inappropriate. This is precisely the problem with the 9/11 Memorial and Museum in New York. The faces, names, and motives of the perpetrators have to be there because it is a museum, but what does that mean for the memorialization of the victims? In the end, Brody’s article is the type of engagement (including his radical alternatives) that I think makes the memorial successful. The conversation about the memorial should not stop, just as the conversation of the subject being memorialized should continue. This type of ongoing conversation is the reason why the placards that continue to stand in places like Rastatt are a thing of the past. Berlin’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is adequate; more might be too much.

Opening Day: The Nostalgia and Optimism of Baseball

It’s finally April, and nothing excites me more than the beginning of baseball season. The trope about baseball and spring is true: it is the time of the year for unencumbered optimism. For me, it’s always been the time of year with the most possibilities.

While growing up, I wanted to be a professional baseball player. This dream was not hindered by a critical, yet at the time overlooked, road block on the path toward fulfilling this dream: I was a terrible baseball player. Sure, I was pretty good while playing in uncompetitive parks and recreation leagues, where the equivalent of a tryout was the ability to pay the marginal entrance fee; a fee that returned a tee-shirt and a team name.

One of the things I remember most about playing on such teams was my obsession with personal statistics. Before the season, I would make a graph of all the statistics I wanted to keep track of throughout the year. I made sure that after the season was over, I would know among other things my batting average and how many runs I scored and batted in. I even took care to note minor statistics, such as assists. Looking back, it is evident that my attachment to baseball was mostly intermural. I wanted to win and play well, but more than that I wanted to know my numbers. I imagined that I could be ranked against all of my competitors and teammates. If I had spent as much time trying to keep my eyes open while fielding ground balls as making statistical charts for myself, I might have been a better ballplayer. I eventually played one year of competitive baseball as an eighth grader for the Junior Varsity team. I tried out and made the team, due to some good fortune and a gross oversight by the coaching staff. During this year, I didn’t bother much with statistics. After all, it was really easy to keep track of my .000 batting average without the tedium of daily bookkeeping, and I didn’t care to count how many errors I made. I’ve long accepted that I was not only a bad baseball player, but a bad baseball player who thought he was good.

When I think back to the time when I could call myself a ballplayer, I think about how every approaching baseball season was a time of optimism. My blank statistical charts—which I made less with the goal of measuring successes and failures than with the anticipation of being in a position to be successful and to accept failures—suggest this.

Eventually, I fully transferred by passion for baseball into fandom. Keeping track of someone else’s statistics was much easier and more fun than keeping track of my own—and definitely easier than keeping track of fly balls in the sun, a liberal use of eyeblack notwithstanding.


Baseball is a historically minded game. Before I ever knew that I would become a historian, I became engrossed with the way that the game interacted with its past. Every player and team has a historical measure, and the feats of the contemporary baseball player are more often than not estimated relative to how close a current failure came to reaching a historical success. That is not to say that the unprecedented does not happen in baseball, because it does.

There is little I can say about the upcoming baseball season that hasn’t already been said by the hundreds of quality baseball writers that populate the Internet. Suffice to say that this season I have a “wish-list” of players and teams I want to watch, often with a mind toward thinking about a measure with the history of baseball.

It is not often that teenagers force the baseball world to rethink everything that came before. The first baseball player that I ever loved watching was Ken Griffey Jr., who debuted as a 19 year old. He had the most effortless home-run swing that I’ve ever seen. Junior—the one word signifier that seems to be reserved only for ballplayers that transcend their peers and predecessors—also played the outfield with a swagger and athleticism rarely seen. I didn’t think it likely that I would ever see another player like him, all the while doing the very common thing of looking forward to the next year and waiting for “the next Junior.” Of course, that didn’t happen. Comparisons are fun to make, but no two players are the same, just as the game itself changes from year to year and players adapt. Last year, however, two young outfielders, aged 20 and 19, began their careers and reminded me what it was like to watch Ken Griffey Jr. play for the first time. What might end up being unprecedented (at least in my lifetime) about the careers of Mike Trout and Bryce Harper is that they may end up being two “once-in-a-generation” players with career arcs that almost precisely overlap. Something that probably hasn’t happened since the time of Willie and Mickey.

Not unprecedented, but it would be something comparable only to my intimacy with baseball’s past, and not my own memory. Another comparison for such story-like continuity is not overlapping careers, but a transition: 1963 was recently deceased Stan Musial’s final year as a professional baseball player, and his final hit was a line-drive past rookie second-basemen Pete Rose—that means that from 1941until 1986, two of the greatest hitters to ever play were active. The scientific half of my historian’s mind tells me that it was coincidental, but the story-teller’s half knows that such continuity encapsulates baseball as a game and cultural institution with a fluctuating, yet unbroken, past.

Dominant pitching performances are the closest thing to art anyone is ever likely to find in sports. When I was growing up, baseball’s Rembrandt was Greg Maddux, its Picasso Pedro Martinez, and its Rothko Randy Johnson. The first excelled at precision and subtlety in that his pitches blended into darkness and light to the point that hitters could know what pitch was coming, and still could not turn it into a success. Pedro Martinez, rather, pitched in such a way that the ball may have appeared to change shape as much as speed. Martinez had a vision of the one-on-one competition between pitcher and hitter that exceeded that of most of his competition. Randy Johnson, finally, intimidated and immersed hitters with the illusive simplicity of a flamethrower that left many a hitter seeing red after listlessly swinging and missing not the fastball, but the wipe-out slider. In my mind, there are no contemporary comparisons to these three craftsmen, although the four that come closest are Justin Verlander, Stephen Strasburg, Felix Hernandez, and Clayton Kershaw—and I’m going to watch them pitch as many games as possible this year. The oldest of those players is only 30, and I tantalizingly don’t know what I will witness from them in this year and the future.

The excitement of a baseball season would not be complete without looking forward to seeing what my favorite baseball team, the Colorado Rockies, will do in their twenty first season of existence. Last year, the Rockies made their own bit of history by compiling the worst record in team history. That is not to say that my springtime optimism isn’t lost on this team. I’m quite optimistic that their performance this year will not be as bad as last year, if only because it is close to impossible for it to be worse, given the context of the injuries they suffered and the fact that however disastrous last year was, the team underperformed. That is, this year they should progress to the mean. I am also optimistic that the Rockies’ best player, Troy Tulowitzki, who a year ago was widely considered one of the best players in the game, will finally play another full season and remind everyone with a short-term memory that he still is one of the five best position players in all of baseball. Finally, I’m excited to see what some of the younger players can do. Will Josh Rutledge meet or possibly exceed the expectations recently lodged onto him? Will third-basemen of the future Nolan Arenado contribute to the present when he is inevitably called to play for the major league team in June? Can the young starting pitchers Drew Pomeranz, Christian Friedrich, and Tyler Chatwood harness their raw talent into the ability to pitch at the major league level? Beyond them, will younger pitchers such as Chad Bettis and Tyler Anderson live up to the potential that they might contribute to the team beyond 2013? I look forward to finding out, even though I know that not everything will turn out the way I hope at the moment.

Optimism is future-oriented, even in a game that is as historically minded as baseball. In the present, there is reason for optimism about the Rockies, given the blank statistical charts and 0-0 record as of April 1. In any case, the most fun part of the baseball season, beyond what appear to be the known quantities, will be witnessing the unexpected—perhaps even the unprecedented.

When Marriage Makes Sense

Originally posted on Open Salon on November 11, 2012

I don’t believe in marriage—or at least I didn’t. With an oft cited divorce rate of fifty percent in the United States, why would I want to participate? Or anyone else for that matter? To me, it seemed like gambling with fake money. I considered the reasons why people wanted to get married. There is the legal reason—to legitimize the marriage in the eyes of the state, and to sometimes reap the tangible benefits afforded by the law. There were also religious reasons; I recognized that many desired that their relationships be solemnized by a religious authority, but as an atheist this did not appeal to me. On the contrary, marriage was guilty by association. Neither the legal nor the religious reason to marry was particularly compelling. I simply didn’t think it made sense.

Then I started to pay attention to marriage equality. In the last several years, I’ve begun to rethink marriage—not just individually, but as an individual participating in a much broader effort to redefine marriage. I’ve become convinced that while marriage was a failing institution, its current redefinition, represented by same sex marriage, is revitalizing it. One of my most fundamental critiques of marriage was that people did not take it very seriously. Advocates of same sex marriage are working towards the universalization of marriage as a right, and by doing so are most conscious of the need to reinvest its value. “Traditional” marriage had long ago ceased to do this adequately, and it suffers for it. Marriage equality is reinventing the institution in the United States, and that is a good thing.

The odd thing about this redefinition is that it is fundamentally conservative. Recently, Slate published Andrew Sullivan’s classic 1989 article about the conservative argument for same sex marriage. Gay culture in the United States had long disdained marriage as the single greatest representation of heteronormativity. This has altered over the last twenty years, as the marriage equality movement attests. A radical approach to marriage might be the outright rejection of it, and same sex marriage is the opposite of that. While things have changed over the last twenty years what has remained constant is that the commitment that marriage signifies and the desire to raise a family in a dual parent household is the precise definition of conservative, even traditional, marriage.

Of course, radical approaches to marriage exist, but they are generally in opposition to the traditional view of marriage advanced by conservatives and marriage equality proponents alike. Laurie Shrage recently wrote in the New York Times that there is a cadre of political and legal theorists that argue marriage should be completely privatized. That is, what were previously deemed marriages would then be categorized as “civil unions.” People could still get married, but only by a private institution, and the union would not be recognized by the state unless registered as a civil union. While certainly more radical than same sex marriage, such an approach is not as novel as it seems. At least right now, it doesn’t appear to be a viable option. For one, while the proposal appears to further separate church from state, essentially giving private religious institutions total authority over the regulation of marriage would surely result in discrimination, which in turn would necessitate intervention from the state. Additionally, some religious institutions would probably advise congregants to avoid state registration as a “civil union,” again with the likely result of legal and political quagmires, especially in the event of children and divorce. The final reason that such a proposal would prove infeasible is that marriage equality is currently validating and legitimizing marriage in such a way that makes the protection of it more pressing. It certainly is elevating it to the point where if the state abjured marriage, there would be a diverse coalition of voices demanding that it remain an institution legitimized by the state. The argument Schrage writes about is a radical challenge to marriage, while same sex marriage is adaptation. Both forms indicate that the current iteration of marriage has to change with society, because it won’t happen the other way around, and stasis would signal its eventual end.

Everyone knows that marriage is being redefined, but everyone should also realize that it is not the first time, and it certainly won’t be the last. Marriage is not a natural institution, but a constructed one that has changed in the course of history. This does not mean that marriage is without social or personal value, but only that such value cannot be derived from an idealistic form of marriage that never existed. We need to be aware that marriage will evolve in the future, just as it has changed over time. I read and write about marriage almost every single day. Not in the context of the contemporary United States, but historically and in Germany. I’m writing a dissertation on intermarriage among Jews, Catholics, and Protestants in Germany from 1875 until 1935. I start in 1875 because it was the date that obligatory civil marriage was introduced—which meant that all marriages had to first be registered at a local civil office before a religious solemnization could take place (which was optional). Such a law opened up new paths for possible marriages that had previously been regulated by religious authorities and subject to strict conditions. In Germany at the time, inter-religious marriages were problematic unions and were often perceived as morally transgressive. The state, at least insofar as state functionaries could be detached from their religious belonging, did not view the union of two people from different religions as terribly suspect. Nevertheless, myriad arguments were made, mostly by religious authorities, that the intermarriages were fundamentally immoral: spiritual alignment was viewed as the single most important matter in a marriage, and ignoring such a unity condemned the marriage to sure failure, and the family to inevitable discord. The innocent victims of the marriages were, of course, the children, who grew up in divided houses. They observed and internalized conflicting ideals from the parents. They were left hopelessly confused as to the right path to follow, and would most likely end up adhering to no religion at all. This to the detriment of society. Such a line of argument should feel familiar. Religious elites made this argument for a long time; some probably continue to make it today. However, such opinions do not get a lot of press because the problematic marriages they condemned have been normalized. So it happens in the evolution of marriage, and it is happening today. My dissertation ends in 1935, when Nazi Germany introduced the Nuremburg Laws. If anyone thinks that marriage cannot be leveraged for discriminatory purposes, the provision outlawing marriage between Jews and “Germans” should quickly dispel that illusion.

The struggle to define marriage has a different focus today. The movement for equal marriage rights has not only tempered my critique against it, but it has also caused me to want to be a part of the institution. On November, 6, Maryland, Maine, and Washington voted to legalize same sex marriage in their respective states (Minnesota’s vote was less a vote for gay marriage than it was against codified inequality), joining Iowa, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Washington D.C. as states that recognize marriage equality. The three most recent additions to the list were the first to reach it through popular vote. These states should be commended for voting for equality, but it is not enough to wait for all fifty states to pass measures providing for parity. In order to normalize marriage equality, a constitutional amendment needs to define marriage as the agreed upon partnership between two consenting adults, with all attendant rights and responsibilities that come with a marriage contract in its current form.

My partner and I had discussed waiting to get married until the Constitution extended the right to all U.S. citizens. While we both think that it will happen sooner rather than later, and certainly within our lifetimes, we decided that aging in solidarity with the marriage equality movement would not catalyze constitutional action.  So, we did the next best thing: we got married in a state that recognizes marriage equality. On a recent trip to New York City, we were married at the Marriage Bureau in lower Manhattan on the same day as an array of other couples, both gay and straight. We wouldn’t have had it any other way. While waiting at the marriage bureau, our witness spoke to a family member on the phone. “I’m at the Marriage Bureau,” he said, prompting his relative to exclaim, “are you getting married!?”  He replied nonchalantly, “No, I haven’t met the right person.” I was heartened to know that I was in a place where, if he did meet the right man, he could have gotten married on that day with us.

Alternative Museums in the Former Yugoslavia: Everyday Narratives of the Past, Present, and Future

This post was co-authored with Jovana Babovic

Museums are aimed at educating the general public about history; they are the everyday historian in society. But they also create narratives—national ones, colonial ones, cultural ones—that are too often the province of linear histories and retroactive significance. Scholars such as Benedict Anderson and Tony Bennett have long argued that museums are sites where state and institutional power manifests and is created dialectically with its audience. So while most museums can be criticized, we should also take care to notice alternative approaches to telling public history. Living and traveling through former Yugoslavia has revealed a particularly vibrant presence of museums with alternative narratives. It’s not accidental. Twenty years after the dissolution of Yugoslavia, competing narratives of the past and present run rampant as successor states struggle to define their identities in a world where their collective past no longer makes sense. More importantly, the aftermath of the 1990s wars has left a veritable historical vacuum, and most of the former Yugoslav states now face the challenge of coming to terms with the wars, as well as their social, economic, and cultural aftermath. Although more traditional museums remain conspicuously silent on the post-war decades, alternative museums have made great strides in prioritizing the topics that have remained marginalized. Belgrade’s Museum of Violence (MoV), Zagreb’s Museum of Broken Relationships (MBR), and street art in the two cities embody the necessity, possibilities, and limitations of non-normative museums. Rather than creating narratives, they provide a platform for the public to contribute their voice as donors and curators; they point toward reconciliation with recent history and allow individuals to become agents of their own past and present.

In Belgrade, alternative museums are a necessity. Visitors and residents have not had the opportunity to experience Serbia’s state-funded museums in the last two decades; the National Museum has been closed for renovations so long that locals can hardly remember its permanent collection, and the Contemporary Art Museum operates several satellites throughout the city while its central location is closed and in disrepair. In their place, private galleries and pop-up museums funded by NGOs, foreign cultural organizations, and small state stipends have taken the lead in telling the stories of Serbian history. Better yet, they have given individuals a public platform to tell their own stories.

In early February 2013, The Museum of Violence opened in the Belgrade Cultural Center’s Podroom gallery. The museum exhibits medical reports, police reports, x-rays, and photographs as tangible documentation of physical violence that individuals have anonymously donated. At times, a first-person narrative details the circumstances of the attack(s), while most documents are fragments that hint at untold stories. The museum classifies violence into five broad categories: domestic violence, xenophobia, LGBT violence, peer violence (mostly bullying), and institutional violence. MoV is commendable for taking a bold step toward heightening awareness of violence in contemporary Serbia and drawing attention to the prevalence of violence in everyday life without relying on voyeuristic imagery. But there is room for improvement. First, while the medical reports are intended to speak for themselves, medical jargon and x-ray images are not contextualized and remain mostly illegible to non-specialists. For visitors who do not speak the local language, the illegibility of the exhibit extends to the medical and police reports that are presented only in Serbian. Second, the personal narratives are the key link between the physical manifestation of violence and its meaning to the victim—the difference between a broken arm and a hate crime. However, when no narrative is present, little explanation is given about the categorization of violent acts; that is, how does an x-ray suggest the injury was inflicted by xenophobia rather than peer violence? More importantly, these categories implicitly give agency to the aggressor without ascribing accountability. Although it is debatable to what degree the attacker should be present in a museum dedicated to victims, MoV overlooks that the underpinning goal of most acts of violence is to create fear. By reducing violence to medical imagery, the museum does not account for the emotional and psychological effects of physical violence.

Although unfortunately located cities apart, the exhibit at the MoV can be read in dialogue with Igor Grubić’s two-channel video “East Side Story” (2008) displayed at Zagreb’s Museum of Contemporary Art. Grubić pits two streams simultaneously against one another on perpendicular walls: one shows documentary footage of violence during Gay Pride parades in Belgrade in 2001 and Zagreb in 2002, while the other channel plays a modern dance re-interpretation of these events. The footage shows protestors, mobs, and—most pertinently—individual violence against parade participants, bystanders, and the police. At the same time, it is difficult to decipher who is attacking who, and why, leaving us to further question MoV’s typology; for example, how do we categorize the violence against the police or vandalism of the city? In the other projection, dancers are dressed in street clothes as they perform in the urban locations where the violence occurred—while in the background, urban life goes on without interruption. Although they are shown in a continuous sequence of individual performance for the majority of the film, they come together at the end to enact their movements together. This is the first time that the choreographed dance appears violent, not unlike the documentary footage—the solitary dances become volatile in a group setting.

How do these two exhibits function in the post-Yugoslav space? In “East Side Story,” we see the violence—the victims, the aggressors, the setting, and the act—in contrast to an emotional reinterpretation. Grubić’s project reminds us that the psychological effects of violence in the early 2000s linger on the city streets a decade later. However, “East Side Story” also elicits a visceral reaction, but may end up being more voyeuristic than educational (it is hard to look away). Additionally, the projection is nestled in a large art museum far from Zagreb’s center—its relative inaccessibility and lack of contextualization is disarming. Belgrade’s MoV, on the other hand, appears in a downtown location on the Republic Square, meters from the closed National Museum; it is accessible and free. The MoV prioritizes the theme of violence and lends individual victims a platform to share their experience. Yet, by reducing violence to its physical manifestation, the museum leaves the visitor with many unanswered questions. These two different approaches to coming to terms with violence are positive steps toward nurturing civil society in the former Yugoslavia, and they should be viewed side by side. Both hold that violence is foremost a violation of human rights; both aim to promote violence awareness and prevention; both are critical of local society. And both aim to make them better.

Zagreb’s Museum of Broken Relationships contends with a similar agenda of individual voice in a cultural space where it has been generally devalued. This museum is built around objects contributed by donors who remain mostly anonymous. The exhibits are intended to tell the story of “failed relationships and their ruins” through everyday objects that mark their legacy—from clothing and letters, to gifts and seemingly mundane trinkets endowed with personal meaning. Loose categories like distance, death, and elusive foundations organize the collection thematically, while the objects are paired with the narratives of the donors, some short and some detailed, sometimes witty and at other times tragic vignettes about the relationship’s failure. Although the museum claims to offer its contributors “a chance to overcome an emotional collapse through creation,” many voices point rather to the persistence of cumbersome emotions, unresolved endings, and a distinct lack of closure. Broken relationships, after all, continue to shape individual action, for better or for worse, and likely also inaugurate future relationships. A second critique is that the museum accepts a simple definition of a relationship, one between two heterosexual people and based on either love or lust. MBR could certainly move beyond its novelty if it approached relationships as more diverse, as well as dynamic in their afterlife. Finally, for a museum that was developed in the former Yugoslavia and deals with failed relationships, it is noticeable that the exhibit makes little point to consider the weightier issues of inter-cultural, inter-national, or inter-religious relationships that remain the defining traits of Yugoslav history. The legacy of the broken state, likewise, haunts some of the donated objects, but Yugoslavia remains the elephant in the room.

Beyond the walls of museums and galleries, the streets of both Belgrade and Zagreb can be considered alternative platforms for critical individual voice. In Belgrade, the living gallery spans the city and the suburbs, while in Zagreb it is localized on the walls of the downtown train yard. The lively presence of street art like graffiti, murals, and stencils is emblematic of societies where the voice of the individual remains marginalized and where alternative expression is allowed little room. In both cities, the streets constitute the last resort for individuals and sometimes communities, and serve as a testament that traditional museums and galleries are not yet equipped to serve as a mouthpiece of diversity in post-war societies. It is on the streets of former Yugoslav cities that residents voice political discontent, point out social paradoxes, splash color on the otherwise gray-scape buildings, and effectively integrate themselves into the urban texture. Artists preserve the agency to curate their own work—they choose the location, the medium, the theme. More importantly, street art is visible, accessible, and active: it invites the passerby to look, to photograph, to engage, and to alter. Although it remains largely unsanctioned, the very presence of street art in Belgrade and Zagreb is a living alternative museum of societies-in-crisis, but also proof that they are becoming increasingly more integral, aware, and engaged communities.

In making the case for the powerful role of non-traditional museums, it is not our intent to undermine the place of traditional museums. Rather, we argue that alternative museums play a critical function in filling the post-war political power vacuum in the former Yugoslavia. Where traditional museums are struggling to re-retell the narrative of the state and nation, they continue to overlook the individual voice in societies that remain burdened by the dissolution and its effects. The Museum of Violence and the Museum of Broken Relationships, much like the streets of Belgrade and Zagreb, are important new spaces for coming to terms with the past—of the failed Yugoslav relationship, as much as the 1990s wars and their consequences—but also for building new civil societies and endowing citizens as agents of their own futures.

Beale Street: No Fun Zone

Originally posted on Open Salon on May 28, 2012, this post was co-authored by Eric Garcia and Jovana Babovic. 

Memphis’s Beale Street has a place in America’s popular history as ground zero of the blues, and later rock’n’roll.  In the latter half of the nineteenth century, travelling musicians began to perform in the neighborhood, and by the turn of the century, Beale Street began to flourish as an entertainment district. Many legends of blues crossed paths—and many stayed on Beale Street in the 1920s and 1930s—when the neighborhood’s heyday rang in the style dubbed the “Memphis blues.” However, by the 1960s, two of the densest blocks were sectioned off as a National Historic Landmark in an effort to halt the spread of urban decay that was afflicting the region. Beale Street was designated for investment and re-building, but the urban renewal was not successful until the 1980s. It is now billed as one of the central tourist attractions in Memphis; as visitors to the city in 2011, we were eager to see how Beale Street was integrated into the urban fabric. In an unexpected twist, we didn’t have fun on Beale Street.

In a recent article, Will Doig wrote about “blocks where no one has fun.” These portions of a city, he argues, are products of a single visionary (usually a billionaire) or a developer who attempts to impose a particular function onto urban space. They are “swath[es] of cityscape whose character has been pre-ordained by a city council vote and is now identified by brightly colored banners affixed to lampposts.” Using Dallas’Arts Districts the case par excellence of a block where no one has fun, he then contrasts it to places such as Water Street in Milwaukee. According to Doig, the latter developed with governmental assistance and represents an example in which art and culture might develop organically in urban spaces that already have (or had) a place in the city’s fabric. The “blocks were no one has fun” moniker does not fit Memphis’ Beale Street. Beale Street is neither hyper-planned, nor is it an organically developing center of culture; it’s in between. It is a place that is supposed to be fun because history attests to it having been fun. Yet, the joy feels manufactured, much like the history of Beale Street, and it is therefore no fun at all. Beale Street becomes more akin to a Disneyland of Blues, where you purchase your fun at an inflated price: cover charge at every bar, $12 pints, and garage parks by the hour. These costs are circularly justified—after all, it is Beale Street.

Unlike Dallas’ Arts District, the problem with Beale Street is not its inauthenticity, but its insistent authenticity. Its revitalization meant new venues and businesses that fit within a clearly demarcated idea of what Beale Street meant historically and ostensibly also what it should mean today. The “authentic” experience one now gets on Beale Street is something that had never existed before. It does not have the problem of unused spaces, which plagues Dallas’ Arts District, but contemporary Beale Street has a similar problem. Doig argues that Dallas’ empty spaces create a “vacuum [that] has made the district itself a museum of sorts, something impressive to observe but strangely inert.” Beale Street has also become a museum, but it is not because it is abandoned or empty. Instead, it is something akin to a reanimated historical relic and a lived museum of blues history. Beale Street is crowded, and it’s evident that the majority of its patrons are tourists: college kids, families, and older couples. People come to Beale Street because of its past. Yet, the street is inert precisely because of this: in the attempts to capture history—a zeitgeist—Beale Street only captures the tourist market.

The legacy of Beale Street, but also its contemporary reiteration, was one of the things that attracted us, too, to Memphis. And, indeed, you hear blues’ standards on Beale Street. However, it’s difficult to hear anything else; the commodification of Beale Street into the historical blues epicenter of the country has excluded all other genres from the area. The music remains good—whether a singer-songwriter in third-floor lounge or an energetic five-man band pumping out Sam & Dave covers—but it’s hardly possible to enjoy it on Beale Street. Crowds of inebriated tourists snake in and out of bars seemingly unaware of the different performers, families with unhappy toddlers sit down for dinner at B.B. King’s, and the flashes of cameras are frequent enough to induce blindness. Everywhere we looked, people were racing to “experience” Beale Street—to drink in the zoned off street (an additional novelty), to eat fries, and to document all the fun they had while the blues played in the background. But, just steps outside the marked Beale Street area, Memphis becomes a ghost town.

In order to take in more music, we tried off Beale Street venues. In Cooper Young, we were met with a local band rendering Radiohead-esque interpretations of the blues. But, unlike Beale Street, the audience at this show was so scant that the band delayed their set several times, apparently hoping that more patrons would arrive. Despite the fantastic performance, we were disheartened by the lack of an audience. On another evening, we walked on empty streets and under a highway overpass for the specific purpose of listening to a local performer who came highly recommended, only to be disappointed that the show—at another small and empty venue doubling as a pizza parlor—had been cancelled.

On and off Beale Street, music was hard to enjoy in Memphis. Part of the problem is the demand. Because Beale Street is essentially a tourist destination—a historical site of the blues—it’s trapped in commercialization. Other sites of music in Memphis, such as Graceland and Stax Studios (now theStax Museum of American Soul Music), have been transformed into museums where the experience is geared towards learning about the history of music, rather than participating in it. Yet, unlike Graceland and Stax, Beale Street professes to be a space where the blues can be experienced live, not where it is memorialized or historicized. This feeds into the other part of the problem—supply. Beal Street has an official website, a Facebook page, and daily tours. It is branded as “the home of the blues” and “the birthplace of rock’n’roll,” while an unselfconscious advertisement professes that “Beale Street was built on memories.”

But Beale Street was not built on memories. It was built by the energy of the Delta blues, the communities of musicians who jammed together, and the intersections of American history. It might be better said that Beale Street today is being built on commercial aspiration. Here is where Beale Street, like the Dallas Arts District, falls into a similar trap Doig outlines. Why didn’t we have fun on Beale Street? As a place of tourism, Beale Street comes at a high price. As a place of history, Beale Street capitalizes on an undisclosed, yet static, moment in blues history. And, as a place of entertainment, Beale Street hardly makes an effort to veil its mass-consumption fun. We didn’t have fun on Beale Street because fun entailed participation in commercial consumption, and hardly had anything to do with history, and much less music.

How could Memphis’s Beale Street be transformed into a music district that lives up to its promises of being “the home of the blues?” An obvious suggestion is to make the area more affordable, and thus more attractive as a lived neighborhood for local residents and local musicians. Another consequence of Beale Street’s commercialization is that it has excluded music incompatible with the “blues” label; the city would do well to open a more inclusive repertoire that might promote an organic development of a new Memphis sound. And, finally, instead of cordoning off music into several blocks, Memphis might benefit from supporting music outside the Beale Street limits—its visitors surely would.

What is This Place?

This post originally appeared on Open Salon on February 27, 2012

How much of a role does place—a physical, geographic location—play in the way we conceptualize history, others, and ourselves? Places do have importance, but it’s not intrinsic. The historical significance of a place, I think, has less to do with an effortless emission of ‘history,’ but with the ability of people to weave history and place together. Place might function as a short-hand to understanding history, but it is important to concede that the understanding is limited. Sometimes, this limitation is self-imposed; like an almost knee-jerk reaction to the way we relate to foreign places.

I am currently a history graduate student living in Berlin. In the time I’ve been here, I’ve had numerous conversations with people—Germans and non-Germans, but mostly other US citizens—where the question of my presence in Berlin came up (with fellow US citizens, this is a mutual question that always arises). After explaining that I am a graduate student in history, the response, almost without exception, is: “well, this is the perfect place to be to study history.” In a sense, they are right. This is the perfect place for me to be, and one of the central reasons for that is because the relevant archives are here, as well as large collections of materials at the State Library that are not very easy to secure elsewhere. But that’s not what they mean. What I think they mean is that place exudes history. That one can better understand because a lot of stuff happened here. Again, this is partly true. Berlin (for example, although I think similar sentiments would be expressed in other places in Germany, Europe, and elsewhere) has been described as a ‘city of ghosts,’ whose contested buildings, streets, and monuments contain layers of historical change that do in fact enable historical understanding. However, I think that this has less to do with Berlin as a place in which historical events took place than with the evolving nature of historical consciousness in Germany and the necessity of making German history a part of public discourse.

This vernacular perception of place is by no means limited to everyday conversation. In Ruth Kluger’s memoir, Still Alive (German edition published in 1994; English edition 2003), about growing up in Nazi occupied Europe, experiencing concentration camps and dealing with the shifting legacy of what we now call ‘the Holocaust’ ever since the end of World War II, she criticizes the importance that we invest in particular places in history and in everyday life. Her example is Auschwitz. Auschwitz as it exists today, she argues, is a museum that attempts to capture time in place, an impossibility with questionable goals (who wants to recreate a death camp?). At best, the rebuilt camps of Auschwitz and the visitors they attract function as an attempt to provide its visitors with a connection to those who died there and a semblance of the feelings that they might have felt; at worst, according to Kluger, they function as a site of fetishizing death by circuitously making the visitors feel better about themselves, their humanitarianism, and the ‘human spirit’ of survival. Place cannot capture time, and better understanding of history follows from making this concession.

Kluger contrasts her feelings of Auschwitz as a place to Claude Lanzmann’s extensive 1985 documentary Shoah. Lanzmann is obsessed with recreating the places of the Holocaust, as if knowing how many steps taken by a prisoner or a guard from one place to another will make it easier to understand precisely what happened. Lanzmann also employs aggressive interviewing tactics. He asks and re-asks questions of those he interviews—mostly former camp guards, officers, and inmates—pushing for more and more detail, as if he can finally access the subterranean experiences that will eventually make the places make sense. Lanzmann’s approach suggests that historical places can and should be reconstructed in order to facilitate understanding.

Of course, place can also be considered with a bit of levity: a 2000 headline from the satirical website The Onion reads: “Woman who ‘Loves Brazil’ Has Only Seen Four Square Miles of It.” The article then tells of a woman who spent her twentieth anniversary in a sheltered resort four miles south of Rio de Janeiro, well away from the urban center’s poverty and crime. The critique in the satire should be clear: tourists tend to extrapolate regional ‘authenticity’ from minimal and controlled experiences in a foreign place. Clearly, there’s no real understanding in that. However, the assumption of understanding and authenticity (the resort has four authentic Brazilian restaurants!) leads to the oft-uttered phrase of the tourist: “I love this place!” Beyond the realm of satire, Paul Thereoux recently wrote in the New York Times about Nogales, Mexico, a border town. He assures his readers that there is more to Nogales than dentistry (you just have to read the article), and he implores everyone to “stay longer, travel deeper, and overcome timidity” in the places they visit.

I’ve found myself making such declarations. In the first meeting with my German tandem partner (where we get together to practice our respective foreign languages, English and German; tandem bicycles are not involved), I was telling him about myself and how I ended up in Germany studying German history. Not the first time I had this conversation, I knew to discount the requisite question of German lineage before he could even ask. But, somewhere during my explanation, I said: “and I just love Germany!” I immediately felt like as if I were a middle aged tourist on a resort in Brazil; finding it ‘neat’ that although Carnival only comes around once a year, Brazilians at the resort lounge Vedas Secas (translation: Barren Lives; I’m not sure to whom the joke is directed) mask on stage for ‘mini-Carnival’ every Friday night. Surely he didn’t read this feeling through my facial expression, but he did ask me why I ‘love Germany.’  I think I rambled on for a bit about there being a lot of bakeries, which evidently is a quick way to my heart. He was satisfied with the answer, if perhaps a bit confused.

What I did not say, however, was anything about there being ‘a lot of history here.’

The Vagaries of “Religious Freedom”

This blog was originally published on January 7, 2013 on Open Salon, and it was cross-posted on the Religion in American History blog on January 13, 2013 

This is a story of two fabricated scandals. The first is that religious freedom in the United States today is being violated through the mandatory inclusion of contraception in health care packages. The villain is not only Obamacare, but the notion that the structure of the healthcare law provides the state with undue authority to intervene in religious matters. The second is historical. It involves a legal redefinition of marriage in nineteenth century Germany. The law indicated that all marriages needed to be registered civilly. Some interpreted this to mean that civil servants would then have the power to marry monks to nuns, nuns to priests, or any other combination of two avowed celibates. The villain was the state and its intrusion upon religious authority. In both, the relationship between church and state is the central issue.

In 1875, the German governing body debated the implementation of obligatory civil marriage for the entirety of the newly unified German Empire. The separation of church and state and the protection of religious liberty were two of the most pressing issues in the debate because the law transferred the regulation of marriage from religious institutions to the state. In decrying such an infringement on religious liberty, some dismayed German Catholics postulated on a few of the nefarious consequences the law would have. They were right about them. Of course the state would marry a priest to a nun. Unspoken but all important, however, was that of course nuns, monks, and Catholic priests self-regulate their celibacy and vows not to marry. Obligatory civil marriage meant that it was compulsory for those who desired to marry; it didn’t make marriage, civil or otherwise, mandatory for citizenship. I suspect that any county clerk in the United States today would also knowingly allow a nun to marry; unsurprisingly, the issue doesn’t come up.

Individual autonomy, however, is not enough for some religious institutions in the United States (mostly the Catholic Church). The Catholic Church claims that the compulsory inclusion of free contraception to employees, especially those working for religious institutions, is a grave violation of religious freedom. Because Catholic doctrine and a tiny minority of practicing Catholics (based on past contraceptive use) find contraception to be against their religious beliefs, the availability of it infringes upon their religious liberty, they say. Smartly and pragmatically, the Obama administration compromised. Religious institutions would not have to pay for contraception as part of the health care plans offered to employees, but instead contraception would be available, still free of charge, through the insurance provider. Providers are all too willing to offer contraception for free because it is much cheaper than covering childbirth or abortion, both of which increase when contraception is unavailable. The Catholic Church still rejected it as a violation of religious freedom. What the Catholic Church never seems to acknowledge openly is that self-regulation should be enough for Catholic parishioners to abstain from taking contraceptives. The required availability of contraception does not mean that women are compelled to take them any more than obligatory civil marriage mandated that a nun marry a monk.

However fabricated, these scandals approach the core of the conflicted relationship between church and state. Defining the appropriate bounds of this relationship goes beyond easily resolved issues such as prayer in public schools or the Ten Commandments decorating courthouse lawns. The state should not violate the autonomy of religious institutions; that is, it should not violate it until those institutions begin to intrude upon the individual autonomy of their parishioners or, in the case of contraception under Obamacare, employees at non-profit, religiously affiliated organizations. In such cases, freedoms are being suppressed, and the oppressor is the religious institution. In such cases, “religious freedom” stands in for the ability for religious institutions to limit actual freedom. This argument has recently been taken to a new level of absurdity, as Domino’s Pizza founder has sued the United States government over the issue of contraceptive in healthcare, and Hobby Lobby’s owners have indicated that they would rather pay a million dollar fine a day than adhere to contraception mandates. The reasons put forth are that contraception is “immoral” and that the requirement violates someone’s “religious beliefs.” The existence of such claims is directly tied to the claims made by religiously affiliated institutions, and it thus exposes the claims as disingenuous political maneuvering concerned only with the “religious freedom” of those in a position of power.

These comparative “scandals” illuminate something about the relationship between church and state. Previously, I thought that the strict and complete separation of church and state was the progressive opinion. In this case, that isn’t true. For Germany in the nineteenth century, as well as the contemporary US, the purveyor of a complete separation of church and state is the Catholic Church. The reason for this is that the separation is perceived to lead to an increase in institutional autonomy, which in turn provides the church with more authority in regulating the practice of its members (tax-exempt status is another benefit in the contemporary context). I have found that it is more progressive to advocate for the necessarily incomplete separation of church and state. The reason is because religious institutions sometimes have to be regulated from an outside authority in order to protect the individual rights of its members. At best, the Catholic Church in the US today doesn’t trust its parishioners to follow prescribed religious precepts, so they have to circumvent individual choice in order to secure institutional regulation; at worst, they don’t trust parishioners (mostly women) to regulate their own bodies. The latter suggests that the Catholic Church has broader political aims. Nineteenth century Germans had the good sense to dismiss nuptial nuns and matrimonial monks as fabricated panics with an ulterior motive—to be autonomous from the state. I suspect, and hope, that today’s US citizens will similarly disregard appeals to “religious freedom” as intellectual sleight of hand. Otherwise we risk losing a central component of actual religious freedom: freedom from religion.