Review of Book on German-North American Ethnicity

Barbara Lorenzkowski, Sounds of Ethnicity: Listening to German North America, 1850-1914. Studies in Immigration and Culture 3. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2010. ISBN: 978-0-88755-716-3
In this finely crafted cultural history of ethnicity, historian Barbara Lorenzkowski explores the making of German-Canadian and German-American identities between 1850 and 1914. Using the local and regional press as well as other sources, she investigates how people in the transnational Great Lakes borderlands between Waterloo, Ontario and Buffalo, New York used German music and language as sites of ethnicity as an everyday practice. Unlike anthropologist Frederick Barth, Lorenzkowski does not set out to trace a pre-defined group’s establishment and maintenance of ethnic boundaries; rather, following Rogers Brubaker, she explores men’s and women’s actions as a transcultural praxis of “doing” or “enacting ethnicity” (6-7). Writings about language instruction and pedagogy (part one) as well as singers festivals (part two) help us understand a transcultural world of German sounds – both spoken and sung language. Taken together, the case studies trace the development of the culture and politics of language and music across six decades.
Reading through decades of the Berliner Journal, the main German-language paper in southern Ontario in the sixty years before the Great War, Lorenzkowski identifies the editors and journalists as “self-proclaimed guardians” of German language who, although bemoaning German-Canadians’ continual language “loss” and German-English mixing, unwittingly helped preserve some of this vernacular of the time (chapter 1). The journalists held the same convictions as some of the local businessmen, German teachers, and clergy. Lorenzkowski admits that her focus is on the middle-class and in particular on the (male) “ethnic gatekeepers” whose outlook was conservative and increasingly nationalistic. Sources other than those created by middle-class teachers and pedagogues, politicians, and journalists are rarely available. Yet, indirectly, these sources shed light on popular, working-class sounds of German ethnicity through the language guardians’ complaints about unrefined music and impure German language.
The ethnic guardians of German language were conservative in their aspirations but, especially when it came to language instruction (chapters 2 and 3), modern and progressive in their methods and rhetorical strategies. Motivated by the desire to retain German culture through German migrants’ ability to speak “pure” high German, they re-cast German as a modern language of culture and science that would benefit every Canadian and American, not only those of German heritage. They adopted progressive teaching methods that focused on the child and communicative language skills. In both countries, teachers and other language guardians bemoaned parents’ and children’s disinterest in the German language. They lamented the fact that while German was still spoken in private and public in Berlin and Buffalo, it had become a hybrid of German and English. One of the strengths of these chapters is that Lorenzkowski here paves a new path to studying ethnicity and language in terms of hybridity and cultural agency rather than language decline and loss.
Singing in nineteenth-century North America was not simply a form of entertainment. It was a multifaceted public performance of ethnicity, infused with the political aspirations of reformers and revolutionaries who had escaped into American exile after the failed German revolutions of 1848-49, and shaped by the expectations of diverse audiences. German men and women sang often and in many different contexts, be it at home, in church, or in public. Lorenzkowski focuses on the latter, and in its organized form of singing associations that formed all-male and mixed choirs. Music, more so than the spoken word, worked as a bridge rather than a border; singing could be enjoyed and practiced without knowing German. Thus, in Buffalo in 1860, thousands of North Americans – of German and many other backgrounds – gathered at a Singers’ Festival to hear dozens of formal and informal performances, culminating in a choir of 500 men singing German classics (chapter 4). Ten years later, singing, performing, and parading again were at centre stage as Berlin and Buffalo hosted peace jubilees to celebrate the end of the Franco-Prussian war and, at a time of increasing nationalism, Germany’s victory over France (chapter 5).
Male bourgeois German-American and German-Canadian gatekeepers fantasized that the new German unity would also lead to unity among German migrants. Here, Lorenzkowski carefully teases out the gendering and ethnicization of “German” “national” symbolism and rhetoric. While much more modest in the public display of their culture than their American “brethren,” German-Canadians in the Waterloo region boasted of their love to the Fatherland much more confidently than their cousins across the border, who felt compelled to clearly demonstrate their loyalty to American values and the American nation. The cross-border differences only increased as German-American society in Buffalo grew not only in size but also in class differences. From the 1880s to the outbreak of the First World War, singers’ festivals in Buffalo became an upper-middle and upper-class event that sought to discipline both people and culture, silencing audiences into the quiet and increasingly expensive appreciation of classical German music as high art (chapter 7). In Berlin, in contrast, the singers’ festivals continued to be the popular pastime of the lower middle and middle classes that enjoyed the lager beer and mirth at least as much as the popular folk tunes of their old home (chapter 6).
The abundance of male bourgeois sources, especially newspaper reports, allows for a rich depiction of male, urban, bourgeois ethnic culture – both imagined and lived – and throws spotlights on more marginalized groups’ experiences. It also demonstrates that we need to look for other sources if we want to better understand how women, workers, and rural folk “enacted ethnicity” in their everyday lives. Lorenzkowski must be applauded for writing a rich cultural history of German ethnicity in North America and developing a new and exciting path for future research.
Alexander Freund, University of Winnipeg


Review of Book on Canadian Mennonite Women’s History

Marlene Epp, Mennonite Women in Canada: A History. Studies in Immigration and Culture 2. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2008. ISBN: 978-0-88755-706-4
This book tells the multifaceted history of Mennonite women in Canada by documenting their experiences as migrants, mothers, missionaries, citizens, and workers. Despite the long development of women’s history and feminist theory over the last half century, much of Mennonite history – like much of Canadian and other national histories – continues to be written from a presumably non-gendered but usually male perspective that subsumes women’s stories under men’s “universal” history. Thus, Marlene Epp, a historian at Conrad Grebel College in Waterloo, Ontario, who has published several historical studies on Mennonite women in Canada, treads carefully as she attempts to convince her presumably mostly conservative Mennonite readers that a feminist reading of Mennonite history is nothing to be feared.
As a social historian, Epp is interested in the interplay between prescribed and lived roles. She explores Mennonite women’s everyday interpretations of, submissions to, and rejections of predominantly male prescriptions of their roles in the household and family, church, work, and education through a great range of sources, including women’s diaries, fiction, cookbooks, oral histories, and denominational newsletters.
Using a great abundance of ego-documents, ranging from diaries and letters to memoirs and oral histories, Epp surveys the diversity of Mennonite women’s settlement experiences. Whether early nineteenth-century pioneers of late twentieth-century return migrants, Mennonite experiences were similar to those of other immigrants and refugees. At the same time, Mennonite women’s experiences were often significantly different from those of men, being, for example, fully excluded from the decision to migrate in the first place. Although migration became a site on which gender roles became destabilized, more often than not, rather than changed and challenged, they were reinforced and even rigidified. Here, a brief case study may have perhaps shed more light on how exactly gender relations were negotiated in times of insecurity.
Mennonite women’s lives were predominantly shaped by family reality and family ideology. Although Epp claims that “the centrality of family to Mennonite community life offered women a venue in which they had substantial influence,” and that “a woman’s family was thus a source of comfort, enjoyment, and sometimes empowerment,” (61) Epp provides mostly evidence to the contrary, viz that family “could also be limiting and constraining, and indeed a site of fear and danger” (61-62). Most Mennonite women married young and became mothers, often of a dozen or so children. Family size decreased – along with mortality rates and – during the 20th century but lagged behind the Canadian average. Epp details girls’ and women’s experiences from childhood via courtship and wedding to childbirth, the use of midwives, and birth control (or rather, lack thereof). Single women had an even more difficult life. Most common among single women were those who did not marry, whether by choice or not. They found somewhat secure niches in Mennonite society (or outside of it), living together in households of sisters, caring for parents or other kin, choosing careers, and being invited to take on administrative roles in church. But there were always two sides to the coin: “While single women themselves often flourished in their independence, career success, and non-marital relationships, lifelong singleness was historically viewed in mainly disparaging ways” (103). Infertile women and childless couples were often stigmatized. Single mothers and other women who had children outside of marriage were ostracized, humiliated, or even excommunicated (98).
Family relationships were shaped by biblical teachings about women’s duty to submit to and obey her husband. Some women believed that “true liberation is found in voluntary submission to divine authority” (115). Many others, however, “resigned themselves” to the hierarchical order and an unsatisfying marital relationship (114). Strong religious objections kept divorce rates among Mennonites low until the 1980s. At the same time, some Mennonites acknowledged that Mennonite beliefs were “contribute to domestic violence.” It was thus more difficult for Mennonite women and their children to escape “severe corporal punishment towards children, wife-battering, incest, and sexual abuse” (112).
Although church and religion profoundly shaped women’s lives, they were nearly completely shut out of church administration until late into the twentieth century. They could work as minister’s wives, but not as ministers; widows contributed to the church budget, but had no vote and had to learn about church decisions from their sons; with a large influx of Mennonite women after the Second World War, sex-ratios became skewed, leaving a large majority of church members (the women) ruled by a minority (the men). Only mission work allowed women to preach and prophesy, albeit “far from home” (145).
Mennonite beliefs and culture were characterized by the principles of nonresistance (pacifism) and nonconformity (living separate from the secular world). Men and women lived these principles in gendered ways. Epp states that nonconformity to the outside world required a high degree of in-group conformity, and this was based on a double-standard for men and women. Male church leaders sought to display Mennonite nonconformity through women’s dress. Women contested such practices at various points throughout the twentieth century, but through disapproving stares at church and other occasions, women also enforced the rules of women’s expected conduct. While nonresistance was highlighted by men’s refusal of military service, women could live out this central tenet of their religion through relief work, auxiliary services, and even military service as well as new paid employment opportunities at the Canadian home front. Both men and women had to decide how to relate to the political world: would they seek political office? Would they vote? Would they accept state support such as family allowances? Practices ranged widely.
In the arenas of homework and waged labour, Mennonite women largely followed Canadian trends. They were, like all women, caught between their community’s and society’s negative views of women’s, and especially mothers’, employment outside of the home, and financial pressures in times of migration, economic crisis, or personal dire straits. In both arenas, homework and waged labour, women found ways of expressing their creativity. They did so too through other art media such as painting, music, and writing.
Rather than a radical manifesto against Mennonite women’s oppression, Epp’s history is the careful yet effective documentation of Mennonite women’s resistance and submission to as well as creative engagement with complex and often subtle forms of silencing, marginalization, stunting and shunning, abuse and violence. Much of this oppression has been the result of the “Mennonite ethos” that values notions of subservience (being “the quiet in the land”), passive acceptance of pain (“Gelassenheit”, yielding to God’s will), serving others (“discipleship,” following Jesus’s example of bearing the cross), rejecting the material world, and the hegemony of the community (Gemeinschaft).
A clear and fine prose is one of the benefits of the author’s awareness that it is not only her academic peers but also the wider Mennonite community who will read this book. Unlike many other studies in Mennonite history, the book does not only speak to readers interested in Mennonite history. More broadly, this is a history of “religious” women that contributes greatly to the largely ignored social history of religious lives in Canada. A major strength of this survey is the depth of detail that is provided through hundreds of individual life stories, captured in oral history interviews, diaries, memoirs, and other ego-documents, mostly from the Kitchener-Waterloo-south Ontario and Winnipeg-south Manitoba regions. Mennonite Women in Canada will be the standard work on this topic for a while, serve as an important reference work for women’s and religious history, and may become a springboard for further research.
Alexander Freund, University of Winnipeg

Review of Book on Climate Refugees

Collectif Argos, Climate Refugees. Singapore: MIT Press, 2010. ISBN 978-0-262-51439-2
The ten journalists of the French Collectif Argos published this book in the hope that the testimonies of those most severely affected by global warming—climate refugees—will move readers to help those in need and to prevent further displacement. The stories and photographs of climate refugees in Bangladesh, Chad, China, and Nepal, the Indian and Pacific Oceans, and in the United States and Germany tell in graphic detail of the effects of our accelerating destruction of the world.
What and who are climate refugees? Twenty-five-year-old Mohammed Abdul Hamid grew up near the market town of Munshiganj Bazaar in south-western Bangladesh. Hamid’s home region is flat, like all of Bangladesh, criss-crossed by gigantic rivers, and bordering the sea. One third of the country is regularly flooded during the monsoon season. Although the 165 million Bangladeshis are used to annual flooding, global warming has dramatically increased the magnitude of floods, led to drought in the country’s northwest, and “tides driv[ing] saltwater farther north, contaminating fields and groundwater along the way” (55). Increased salinity forced the farmers around Munshiganj to abandon rice paddies and cattle herds and compete for jobs on shrimp farms or go fishing in the beautiful but dangerous Sundabarns, one of the world’s largest mangrove forests. When fishing in the crocodile and tiger infested Sundabarns became too dangerous, Hamid decided to leave his wife and two children and move temporarily to the megalopolis of Dhaka, the sprawling capital of Bangladesh, a twelve-hour bus ride north of his birth place. Following his brother-in-law and an increasing number of young men from his home region, Hamid spends ten-hour days as a rickshaw wallah. With the earned income, he wants to build his own shrimp farm back home. But Maudood Elahi, who studies internal migration, knows that the odds are against Hamid: “It’s a classic scenario. The head of the family arrives first. At the outset, he sends money back to his family, thinking that one day he’ll return and settle with them, but usually the opposite happens” (64). Dhaka, however, is also exposed to the effects of global warming. Internal migration, Elahi believes, is not a long-term solution. Migration to neighbouring countries like India, faced with their own population problems, could lead to violence. In his view, “countries with larger land areas will have to change their immigration policies. If we believe that climate change is a global problem, then we must look for global solutions” (64-65). One major obstacle, however, is that the 1951 Geneva Convention defining refugees excludes climate refugees (65). The authors of this book make a powerful case against this narrow and out-dated definition. They also make clear that climate refugees are only the canaries in the mine: within a generation, we will all be affected by global warming.
The essay on Bangladesh is followed by sixteen photographs. In this chapter more so than in most others, the photographs constitute an essay in itself. While the text about Bangladesh tells the story of men, the photographs tell the stories of women. Their lives too have changed, but in different ways. Zohura, a peasant woman, explains, “Every garden used to have its own fresh-water well, but now the water is salty and we can’t use it anymore. We have to walk to the bazaar [three kilometres away through thick mud] or take a boat across the river to get drinking water. It’s exhausting” (59). The photographs tell of this dramatic change in women’s lives, depicting them in their daily chores of carrying water, fixing buildings, chopping fire wood, or working at shrimp farms. Text and images are equally successful at documenting people’s attempts to preserve their livelihood and dignity in the face of danger and insecurity.
The first to be affected by global warming are people like Hamid and Zohura, men and women whose lives are already precarious and are now pushed “from poverty to destitution, from a rooted existence to exile” (14). But global warming affects everyone. From the low-lying archipelagos of the Maldives, Polynesia, and the Halligen in the North Sea to the Himalayas, from developing countries to the highly industrialized world, the lives and livelihoods of children, women, and men of all ages are already troubled. Already, and increasingly more so in the future, they are dealing, as Nobel Prize winner and vice president of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Jean Jouzel writes, with “increased precipitation in high latitudes and decreased precipitation in subtropical regions, changing wind patterns, the likelihood of more intense tropical cyclones, heat waves, heavy precipitation, melting of the snow cover, reduction of sea ice and an irreversible rise in sea level” (8). Hurricane Katrina brought this message home to Americans in 2006, especially the long-term displaced or permanently resettled people of New Orleans. The 15,000 melting glaciers in the Himalayans, leading to overflowing lakes and breaking dams, are threatening not only the villagers and ecosystems of large valleys but also one of the world’s most important fresh-water supplies. In China, 2,500 square kilometres turn into desert each year, displacing large numbers of people.
Climate-induced displacement is a collective phenomenon. Sometimes, whole villages become climate refugees, especially if they are located on islands. The community of Shishmareef, Alaska, is located on an island in the Bering Strait that is slowly sinking. Eventually, the families will have to relocate, whether individually or as a village. Ensuring the continued residence of the 300 inhabitants of the ten Halligen, tiny islands rising barely above the water line of the North Sea and regularly submerged during storms or full moon, is ensured through massive subsidies by Germany and the European Union. In the case of the Maldives, an archipelago of 1,200 islands in the Indian Ocean, a whole nation may be displaced if sea levels continue to rise. To deal more effectively with the increasing storms and rains during the dry season, the 1998 El Niño that damaged two thirds of the coral reef and the disastrous 2004 tsunami, the government has devised a plan to concentrate the population of 400,000 on 80 rather than the current 200 inhabited islands. These are, however, stop-gap measures; in a worst-case scenario the whole population would have to be resettled to Australia or another country. The 10,000 people of Tuvalu, a scattering of tiny islands in the Pacific Ocean, face the same issues as Maldivians, but at an accelerated pace. The children of Tuvalu are growing with the knowledge that they will eventually have to leave.
If we do not act quickly, there will be, according to United Nations estimates, 150 million climate refugees by 2050. According to the IPCC, hundreds of millions of people will be affected by flooding. The warning of Hubert Reeves, an astrophysicist and president of the French environmental group Ligue ROC, is ominous: “Current immigration patterns provide only a minor glimpse of the problems that will be triggered by climate-change migration” (5). While much needs to be done, Collectif Argos argues strenuously to have climate refugees accepted as a category of refugee under the United Nations mandate. That is currently not the case. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, UNHCR, seems to put its head in the sand. A search for the term “climate refugee” on the UNHCR website yielded seven hits, all of which referred to documents in which the reality of climate refugees was outright denied. It can only be hoped that António Guterres, the current High Commissioner, reads this book.
Alexander Freund, University of Winnipeg