The Things They Carried: On “Objects of War: The Material Culture of Conflict and Displacement”

By Ashley ValanzolaSeptember 26, 2018

The Things They Carried: On “Objects of War: The Material Culture of Conflict and Displacement”

Objects of War by Tara E. Zahra and Leora Auslander

PICTURE A SMALL white tea towel. On the towel, there are three half-inch stripes in parallel with two hand-embroidered letters in red above the stripes: “M. K.” Apart from these initials, the towel is quite ordinary. Why, then, is it a subject for historians?

In Objects of War: The Material Culture of Conflict and Displacement, Jeffrey Wallen and Aubrey Pomerance tell us why. Margarete Kuttner (M. K.) gave the towel to her son when he left Berlin in 1939 on a Kindertransport — one of the rescue missions to save Jewish children from Nazi persecution by transporting them to the United Kingdom. Her son, Paul Kuttner, held on to the towel as one of the few tangible links he had to his mother, whom the Nazis murdered during the Holocaust. Sixty years after the towel left Germany, it made its way back to its home city as part of an exhibit at the Jewish Museum Berlin. At the museum, the towel tells a story of displacement, loss, and survival.

The Kuttner towel is but one of many objects explored in this remarkable book on material culture hardened in the crucible of war. Edited by Leora Auslander and Tara Zahra, professors of history at the University of Chicago, Objects of War contains 10 chapters on the battle-hardened life of objects in Europe, the United States, Thailand, Algeria, and India. The essays span the 19th and 20th centuries, and the objects range from château and fine art to everyday items such as clothing and a piano. In a feat rarely accomplished in an edited volume of such breadth, the chapters in Objects of War are in conversation with one another throughout the book. Together, the chapters make a compelling case to move beyond the battlefield and examine the objects so easily tossed aside by war.

In their introduction, Auslander and Zahra explain that material culture (a term used when human-made objects are the focus of study) provides another way to understand war and the people who experience it. During times of extreme violence, “the meaning of things to individuals is often magnified or transformed entirely.” People form a heightened connection to objects during violent conflict, and in turn, these objects become embodied through the lives of those they touch. By looking at, feeling, or smelling remnants of war, people form an emotional connection to objects from the past they may never make by just reading about the event.

Divided into three parts, Objects of War explores the material culture of conflict through the state, the individual, and in the aftermath of war in private collections and museums. Part one demonstrates how objects play a central role in the legitimation of new states or rulers — Louis XIV’s Versailles is a perfect example. In hopes of strengthening his monarchical power and reducing threats to his authority, Louis XIV erected a magnificent palace and gardens that sought to inspire reverence in his subjects. By building Versailles and relocating the royal court there, Louis’s château construction progressed in conjunction with his state centralization projects.

States place heightened importance on objects during conflict, whether by plundering objects from their enemies or destroying them altogether. As states command objects to perform legitimizing functions, the objects rarely bend to the new regime’s desires, as shown in Part I’s essays on the Napoleonic wars, French colonialism in Algeria, and three regime changes in 20th-century Bohemia (modern-day Czech Republic).

Part II contains some of the most insightful chapters in the entire volume as the focus shifts from the state to the individual. Many prisoners of war (POW) and concentration camp inmates depended on objects to retain a sense of humanity in the face of violence. Thus Iris Rachamimov explores how World War I POW officers in Russian, German, and British internment camps recreated civilian domestic comforts in captivity. Woodcarving became a popular pastime as prisoners created gifts for their wives and children, improved camp fittings, and made boxes to transport their belongings home. Handiwork kept prisoners busy throughout their captivity while recreating a sense of home and connecting them with faraway loved ones. Conversely, there are situations when humans are reduced to the status of property or objects, demonstrated in the chapters by Sarah Jones Weicksel, Brandon Schechter, and Noah Benninga. Schechter explores how the Soviet Red Army reduced the individual soldier to “readable, usable components” through the bureaucratized Red Army booklets that contained information on a soldier’s equipment, medals, and weapons. These booklets allowed commanders to expend soldiers, just like material, when and where they needed them in battle. The chapters by Weicksel and Benninga on the American Civil War and World War II focus on material taken from corpses, such as clothing, letters, or shoes. Stripping dead bodies of identifying clothing or brutalizing concentration camps inmates, as the editors point out, blurs the boundary between subjects and objects during times of war.

Unfortunately, the contributions in the third part left me scratching my head. The three essays, which focus on the afterlives of objects, seem incongruent with one another, and the rest of the volume. Jeffrey Wallen and Aubrey Pomerance’s chapter on the Jewish Museum Berlin is a well-written and insightful exception, but the other two essays were hard to follow due to their awkward structure and lack of historical context. As Sandra H. Dudley explores the “inherent possibility” of Paku Karen skirt-cloths, I was victim to the all-too-real possibility of losing myself in a vast maze of ethnographic vocabulary. For better or worse, I reemerged without learning the significance of skirt-cloths for Karenni refugees in Thailand.

All that aside, two chapters in Objects of War stand out from among the rest. The first, by Sarah Jones Weicksel, invites us to think beyond recent battles over confederate monuments to a different type of material culture during the American Civil War: the plunder of bodies and homes. Neither side had a monopoly on virtue in this particular activity. Soldiers and civilians from the Union and Confederacy were both implicated in theft (against official policies). “[T]he war itself,” Weicksel explains, “entailed a redefinition of the relationship between people and property through debates over confiscation and the destruction of the institution of American slavery.” Within this context, “peeling” the bodies of dead soldiers occurred regularly; “peeling” was a term for skinning animals that came to mean theft from cadavers. The range and scale of battlefield plundering defied necessity as soldiers mailed these newly stolen morbid mementos back to their families. Looted objects stored the memory of the conflict and “performed powerful cultural work in the United States during and after the Civil War.”

The real destruction caused by looting bodies occurred not from the “cultural” work the stolen objects performed, but from the dehumanization of soldiers’ bodies. Looting from bodies made the identification of corpses more challenging. The failure to identify bodies resulted in the loss of individuals’ identities, robbing them and their families of any lasting closure from the violence they endured. Looting bodies is just one of the many themes Weicksel manages to touch upon in her contribution to Objects of War; she also discusses issues of class, gender, and slavery within the context of the Civil War. In her exploration of wartime material culture, Weicksel gives us another medium through which to think about this frequently contentious era of the American past.

As Weicksel expands our knowledge of the American Civil War, Noah Benninga unsettles our understanding of prisoner life at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp during World War II in his chapter about camp fashion among elite male inmates. Prisoners in designated camp positions (administration, block seniors) strove to improve their appearance to avoid looking physically weak and earn respect from other prisoners and camp guards. Elite prisoners had their uniforms tailored by other prisoners serving as camp tailors, wore their caps cocked on the side of their heads, and obtained nicer shoes. Benninga emphasizes that prisoner fashion

was enabled by the SS system, which used inequality as a tool to divide and conquer the camp inmates, and by the specific conditions at Auschwitz-Birkenau, which put the possessions of a million murdered Jews within reach of over a hundred thousand starving inmates.

Nazis built the concentration camp system in a way that facilitated inequality in order to better exercise control from a distance — prisoner elites accomplished what Schutzstaffel (SS) guards could not, by propagating Nazi values in the innermost reaches of the camp.

In Benninga’s chapter, the value of examining material culture and violence becomes strikingly clear by one of the questions he poses at the end: “Was Auschwitz qualitatively different or ‘just’ a clearer, more extreme example of the role that fashion plays in social competition and power struggles?” Auschwitz was a horrific microcosm of a corrupt society with a vendetta for racial violence, but it is not the only place where fashion may be nefariously employed.

Ever relevant, Objects of War begins and finishes by discussing the ongoing conflict in Syria. As war continues to ravage the region, we are witnesses once again to the migration of people and objects on a mass scale. The editors express concern over what seems to be the “willful conflation of the movement of bodies and the movement of violence” as certain governments seek to keep refugees out by whatever means possible — including walls. The themes in Objects of War become frighteningly relevant when we consider the experiences of Syrian refugees through the prism of material culture. By considering the things they lost or carried, perhaps we can better understand the individual experiences of those affected by violence in our own times.


Ashley Valanzola is a PhD student in modern European history at the George Washington University in Washington, DC.

LARB Contributor

Ashley Valanzola is working on her PhD in History at The George Washington University in Washington, DC. Originally from Massachusetts, Ashley attended the Naval Academy in Annapolis where she first discovered her love for French history. During her time in the Navy, she obtained her MA in Diplomacy from Norwich University. She researched the role of institutions in cultural property theft and restitution as part of her MA thesis. After spending six years as a Naval Officer, Ashley resigned her commission to pursue a career in academia. Her current research focuses on Jewish women in post–World War II France.


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