Charlottesville and the kitsch of history: The U.S. Civil War was not initially about abolishing slavery at all.
Not Orry Maine, but General Robert E. Lee. Statue, Charlottesville Photo: ap
As is well known, it is the victors of historical conflicts who write history. The modern keyword is interpretive sovereignty. However, this does not mean the same thing as truth or justice, as is currently evident in the controversy over the correct view of the US Civil War.
In the face of the racist mob in Charlottesville and a president who winks at fascists, it is hard to criticize those, of all people, who oppose the extremists on the road to barbarism. But it is necessary. For these days we can see how myths are created.
If you’ve never heard of the War of Secession, it’s – seemingly – easy to fill in the gaps in your knowledge at the moment: Evil slaveholders in the South unlawfully revolted against upright opponents of slavery in the Northern states in 1861. In 1865, the good guys won. So clear, so simple, so beautiful. So wrong.
Marx was right
To begin with, the U.S. Civil War was not at all about the abolition of slavery. Rather, surprise surprise, it was primarily about economic issues. Bill Clinton – "it’s the economy, stupid" – and Karl Marx were right after all.
Playing war. The U.S. Army rehearses the real thing in the Franconian troop deployment camp. Read what it’s like to live as an extra in a staged war zone in the August 19/20 edition of taz.am wochenende. Also: Terror has arrived in Spain: How people in Barcelona experienced the attacks and what they mean for the Catalan independence movement. And a reckoning: The winners of the Nobel Prize in Economics meet in Landau. Do they deserve the honor? At the kiosk, eKiosk or right away in a convenient weekend subscription.
Industrialization in the northern states and the resulting increased need for wage labor collided with the interests of the agricultural states in the South. The conflict was exacerbated by tariff policy. Northern states wanted higher protective tariffs in order to increase sales of domestic industrial goods. Southern states, which had to import these goods, feared massive inflation.
The human rights of slaves? Well. U.S. President Abraham Lincoln wrote as late as 1862 in an open letter to the New York Tribune, "My primary object in this war is to save the Union; it is not to save or destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing even one slave, I would." It was not until the following year that his proclamation declaring all slaves free went into effect. The United States has some experience with myth-making. To this day, those settlers are celebrated as the true pioneers who landed in Plymouth – now the northern state of Massachusetts – in 1621. The keywords are well known: Mayflower, fight for religious freedom. And somehow for freedom in general.
But the truth is that the – undoubtedly – first permanent English settlement on North American soil was founded in 1607 in Jamestown, in what is now Virginia. Its inhabitants were interested in quick profits for their trading company, the Virginia Company, in the New World. Historians treat these settlers as somewhat embarrassing relatives, who are gladly ignored. Southerners, that is.
I can live well without worshipping military men. Apparently, this is not true for the majority of the U.S. population. Recognition of military achievements is part of everyday culture there.
Southern General Robert E. Lee was a gifted military leader. And a child of the contradictions of his time. He was a slave owner – and he still called slavery a "moral and political evil." But now he is the bad guy, and Lincoln is the good guy? Anyone who isn’t a racist must think it’s great that his monuments are being removed from small towns by night and fog?
It’s all pretty mendacious. And should – among other things – cause even many Southerners who aren’t racists to switch to stubborn. Because they feel discriminated against by the official historiography, rightly so, by the way.
Who benefits from that? Right. People like Donald Trump.