Objects of War Cover

Objects of War

The Material Culture of Conflict and Displacement

Edited by Leora Auslander and Tara Zahra

Cornell University Press, Ithaca, New York, 2018, 348 pages

Book Review published on: November 9, 2018

Editors Leora Auslander and Tara Zahra have put together a collection of articles in Objects of War that each contain detailed analysis of material possessions and their significance during conflicts of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The book is divided into three sections. The first examines the way states have appropriated items of value from an occupied country and the repurposing of these materials to fit into a state’s revisionist history. The second explores the impact of objects and personal belongings on individuals in wartime internment facilities as well as the individual soldier. The third looks into the items migrants take with them when forced from their homeland and the evolution of those objects.

In the first essay, author Alice Goff asks whether an artifact helps provide a way for the beholder to see past the impact of a military conflict, or if it helps them understand the extent of the horror experienced in that same time period. Her analysis focuses on the “Adorans,” a bronze statue discovered in 1503 Rhodes, dating to the rule of Hadrian. Goff answers Auslander and Zahra’s question by detailing how each time the statue changed hands, its purpose was reimagined to fit a desired message of that state. From its home in Prussia in 1747, the statue symbolized subordination and thankfulness to the state; and once in possession of Napoleon in 1807, it was transformed into a religious symbol, exemplifying thankfulness to God for deliverance from enemies of the French state. Goff’s work is well-researched and provides the reader with a new appreciation for the transcendent nature of objects and the symbolism they provide a victor in armed conflict.

Transitioning to “an exercise in allowing objects to speak for people,” the first chapter of the second section deals with the objects of the common soldier. This consists of weapons, clothing, awards, symbols of recognition, and includes even the soldier him or herself. Author Brandon Schechter brings to light the story of Bato Damcheev, a young man fighting for the Soviet Union during World War II. Absent any first-hand accounts, much can be inferred from the medals he received and the identity he assumed as a soldier. Schechter discusses the need for an effective system of rewards, providing a soldier something to aspire to. For the Red Army, new awards and medals were established to recognize heroes in World War II. Damcheev was one such hero honored by the state as he was entered into the Order of Glory for his actions against Germany. Schechter also discusses the darker side of a soldier’s relationship with objects. Items such as watches and uniforms were often looted by Red Army soldiers from deceased Germans. Overall, the strength of this article is the general discussion of Red Army training and discipline; however, the connection is poorly made between Damcheev and whether looting or theft played any part in his legend.

Continuing the discussion of objects and individuals, author Noah Benninga argues that prisoners of Auschwitz were treated differently by guards based on social status prior to internment. Uniforms worn by prisoners were often altered and regular civilian attire was even authorized for wear. This essay is an excellent addition to the collection as Benninga brings new insight using eyewitness testimony of survivors and pictures of prisoners at Auschwitz. Whether the reader accepts the case made for the existence of a social hierarchy within a concentration camp, this is a well-written essay with smooth, natural transitions that make it very readable. Central to understanding the argument is Benninga’s assertion that the system of fashion and associated hierarchy “was enabled by the SS system, which used inequality as a tool to divide and conquer the camp inmates.”

The third section contains three essays where the authors focus on analyzing the impacts that objects have when kept in the hands of people displaced as a result of conflict. The first two essays center on the time period identified in the introduction, early twentieth-century Europe. In the third essay, and final chapter of the book, author Sandra Dudley shows how objects can connect migrants and children of immigrants, sometimes through painful memories. This work contains excellent analysis but falls short of connecting to the targeted time period and conflicts discussed in previous chapters. Additionally, the word choice used by Dudley is creative but detracts from the overall argument. Dudley reaches very logical conclusions in spite of this and effectively reveals how someone can come to understand the effect that displacement and its refugees have on objects.

Overall, this collection of essays is highly recommended for the scholarly audience. The editors have brought together a collection that show how objects are affected by people and vice-versa, when revolutions and large-scale armed conflicts displace populations.

Book Review written by: Capt. Kevin Braam, U.S. Army, Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington