Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Erika Kuhlman's "Of Little Comfort"

Erika Kuhlman is Associate Professor of history at Idaho State University. Her books include Petticoats and White Feathers, Reconstructing Patriarchy after the Great War, and Women and Transnational Activism in Historical Perspective.

She applied the "Page 99 Test" to her new book, Of Little Comfort: War Widows, Fallen Soldiers, and the Remaking of the Nation after the Great War, and reported the following:
Of Little Comfort seeks to explain the significance of a seldom-studied, poorly-understood segment of a nation’s wartime population: the war widow.

Set against the backdrop of the waning Victorian era, nations fighting in the First World War expected wives who lost their husbands in battle to don the outward appearance typified by all widows: black gown, black veil, somber face with downcast eyes. But wives widowed during war had acted out the prescribed drama of sacrificing her breadwinning husband to the glory of the nation’s cause. She had offered her protector to the national prerogative of protecting the homeland against a perceived military, cultural, and ideological aggressor. The trick for war widows was to display the expected grief without minimizing the national glory.

On page 99, Of Little Comfort features this same dilemma: how to commemorate the nation’s sacrifices but also acknowledge the grief war inflicts. Sorrow over the dead knew no national boundaries: its expression transcended national borders. All nations were forced to acknowledge individual deaths, but they were also obligated to glorify collective military efforts. To neglect the former was to raise the ire of the dead soldiers’ survivors. To neglect the latter was to suggest that the national cause had been a hollow one.

Authorities in charge of military cemeteries—sites of individual mourning and national glory— had to juggle various national symbols in international settings, as described on page 99.

“Still other remembrances blended national symbols in transnational settings. At the cemetery in Ypres, Belgium, headstones marking German graves are in the shape of the Iron Cross.”

In contrast to the transnational nature of wartime grief seen in the art of Käthe Kollwitz:
…Kollwitz used a technique known as woodcut to create the seven images constituting the series she called simply “Krieg” in 1921 and 1922. Two of those seven pictures represent war widows. Bereft of any symbol of nationalism, Kollwitz’s art symbolized the grief families from all combatant nations expressed.
Readers will find a picture of one of Kollwitz’s war widows on page 100.
Learn more about Of Little Comfort at the New York University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue