Thursday, January 13, 2011

The Wrong Side of History

Today’s Open Thread Thursday topic at Geneabloggers:
Over the next few years – with the sesquicentennial of the United States Civil War – there will be more of a focus on ancestors who fought in the conflict as well as those ancestors who supported certain causes and movements such as states’ rights or the abolition of slavery.

It is said that history is written by the winners. However, with the advent of blogging and the ability for almost anyone to have a platform where they can write and express their opinion, the stories of those on the losing side of these causes and movements are being told.

How do you handle telling such stories, especially if your ancestor was pro slavery or, for example, anti women’s suffrage? What if there is no evidence as to their opinions or positions yet they fought for the losing side in a war, such as World War II?

Is there, in fact, a “wrong side” of history?
I’ll start by providing my thoughts on the final question. No. There is a ‘winning’ and ‘losing’ side of most wars – whether they are fought on a physical or intellectual battlefield. (Sometimes there’s a stalemate.) However, those who lose these wars weren’t necessarily ‘wrong.’

I also don’t attribute the telling of the stories to the internet. The losing side has had a voice in history since Gutenberg. I read Mein Kampf in high school. Yes, it was presented in the context of the writings of a madman, but I read Hitler’s words. I also read the Communist Manifesto. I’ve also read speeches given by William Jennings Bryan. Whether a student is encouraged to read the works of those whose opinions weren’t favored by history depends entirely upon the quality of the school. However, it doesn’t depend upon the internet. It’s possible the internet is providing this information to a greater number of individuals – acting as a school-replacement for those who need one.

Fortunately, I have no knowledge of relatives who fought on the losing side of World War I or II. Since I can trace my maternal ancestry back to Germany, I can assume I have some distant cousins, but our most recent common ancestor would likely have lived during the 17th century. My Great Uncle, Sam, was accused of pro-German sympathies, but his accuser was an ex-wife, who might not be the most reliable source.

That said, there are several descendants of Thomas and Katherine Stoughton whose political beliefs are in opposition to my own. From William Stoughton, Chief Magistrate over the Salem Witch Trials to political commentator, Patrick Buchanan. I find the presence of John Kerry and Franklin Roosevelt, along with the poets Harold Hart Crane and Oliver Wendell Holmes in the same list of descendants ample balance.

I do have ancestors who fought for the Confederacy, and others who were United Empire Loyalists. I’ve blogged before about my discovery of a slave-owning ancestor.

I’m careful not to infer what someone’s thoughts or beliefs were, unless they were written down. I record the facts as they are known. My second great grandfather, Ebenezer Denyer, served the Confederacy in the State of Texas. He is not known to have owned any slaves. The Denyer family lived in Texas prior to the state joining the US. A sibling of Ebenezer’s fought for the Republic of Texas against Mexico in 1841. Was Ebenezer’s service during the Civil War more Pro-Texas than Pro-Slavery or Anti-Union? I can’t answer that. (I can raise the question, though.)

The political battles today can still get rather heated.  I have good friends with whom I disagree strongly on some issues.  I have no idea what 'side' I will be viewed on in 20, 40 or 80 years.  I don't believe in hiding information about ancestors from future generations.  I will respect  kin and refrain from blogging about some things if the relative in question has close living descendants.  But if the event in question happened 150 years ago or more, I'm not going to hesitate much blogging about it.


Susan Clark said...

Without quibbling about whether "history" has a right or wrong side I firmly believe there are some conflicts where one side was right and the other wrong. The winners of the Civil War and WWII were more than victorious - they defeated morally corrupt forces. The good guys won.

I don't feel the same way about the American Revolution, WWI or most other conflicts. But some issues are not morally neutral. We need to be as accurate as possible in researching our family's involvement in these tragedies. That includes recognizing that whatever their motives may have been, supporting the Confederacy or the Third Reich was supporting an absolute wrong.

John said...

I was careful to say "not necessarily wrong," though perhaps I should have gone on to say parenthetically (but sometimes.)

That said, what we view as moral absolutes today haven't always been so absolute. I think the time period does matter.

The mass genocide of the Third Reich clearly falls on the side of wrong, as while there would have been eras in world history where the morality wouldn't be questioned, the 1940s wasn't such an era in any of the countries involved.

The question of slavery wasn't yet a moral absolute in the 19th century as it is today. It was quickly becoming such. And I do feel those today who honor the Confederate flag are either ignorant or morally corrupt. (I tend to be nice and assume the former.) But the Abolitionists of the 19th century were progressive for their time.

Martin said...

I know you're a great guy, but this post and your followup response make you sound like an apologist. I have to agree with Nolichucky Roots that there moral absolutes, and those absolutes were there at the time period. People made choices and some of them were bad choices overtly and some were rather sins of omission rather than commission. People who hide behind the fact they fought for Germany and had nothing to do with the Shoah or fought for Texas and not slavery, were willfully closing their eyes to those evils.

True family historians who stress the historian can paint an accurate picture of such ancestors. I think most family historians, especially those online, stress family and tend to whitewash things.

John said...

I do believe in moral absolutes, but also that morality has changed over time.

Thomas Jefferson owned slaves, though most Americans don't look at him as a morally corrupt individual. I don't think it's being an 'apologist' to view him as a man of his times.

There are things today that are debated where I suspect, or at least hope, in 100 years will be decided as a moral absolute.

True family historians stick to the facts that they can find, and don't make anything up, good, or bad. If there is nothing written down as to the ancestor's thoughts, assuming anything is being a bad historian.

A family historian might present several alternate possibilities for motivations, as long as they emphasize they are only possibilities.

I know that there are many reasons today that a man or woman might choose to serve their nation in a war. I don't think it's a far stretch to assume that there might have been multiple reasons during the Civil War and WWII as well.

The reasons the governments led their nations into war are rather well documented. The varying reasons the population followed are less so.

John said...

Well, standing up to what I view as stupidity and immorality today, and arguing with my ancestors, are two different issues.

I won't argue with my ancestors, because they have no way to respond. But if a friend says something stupid, I let them know what I think.

Coates separation of Society from the Individual is similar to my separation of Government from the Individual. Coates has my difficulty with generalizing individuals as 'evil' or 'morally corrupt.'