Historical Diplomacy: “It’s hard out here for a Hessian”

With this week’s readings focused on China, part of my country profile topic, it was hard not to respond solely to that subject. However, I had an unanticipated encounter today with a stranger that inspired me to write about something entirely different. (and possibly more domestically centered?) Anyways, I was walking down Wisconsin Ave, when I spot this guy:photoNo one else seemed to notice or stop and ask him what he was doing, thus being the kind of individual I am, I approached him. After I was unable to identify what army he belonged to he informed me he was dressed as  Hessian soldier and had been visiting schools to teach children about the Revolutionary War. Why a Hessian? and not an American solider? He specifically wanted to “undo the ‘scary/sleepy hollow’ image of the Hessians’ and show the positive aspects and contributions in the role this particular military group played in our nation’s history so long ago. I said to him that this reminded me a lot about what we had learned in class about cultural diplomacy, but perhaps on a very small and isolated scale. He agreed entirely, stating that it was important to reintroduce the history of a culture through different lenses in order to see the true spirit of a nation. He made this argument using the example of  how the Holocaust has, does, and will continue to impact the overall national image of Germany, usually overriding all the other major contributions of German scientists, philosophers, etc. throughout history.

This chance meeting inspired me to consider further the role national history plays in culture and the perception of a nation and its people by foreign powers. I rarely think of how non-Americans interpret our national history and the characteristics they assign to us because of our past. We’ve spoken in class of cultural diplomacy, which I feel has present and future time-oriented contest and goal, although based on longstanding traditions and values. I loved this idea, of taking back history in a way that allows outsiders and insiders both to rethink historical events, past organizations, and social groups. I’m not saying it’s the best idea to send a bunch of dressed up Abraham Lincolns abroad to roam the streets and schools…but I appreciate the sentiment that various perceptions of a nation’s history do exist, and if addressed properly through cultural diplomacy, could be effective in enriching a national reputation.

11 thoughts on “Historical Diplomacy: “It’s hard out here for a Hessian””

  1. The historian in me appreciated your post. This post highlight just the layers and complexities involved in our own history and we sometimes take for granted that our history books only take in account a very limit window into the past.

    Being able to recognize the nuances in our own history can ultimately be beneficial when it comes to interacting with others of different cultures. We sometime take for granted and forget how complex our own history is. Because of the limited perceptions of history we experienced oftentimes in high school we tend to assume that history abroad is just as flat if not more so because the average American does not know a lot about World History. The depth of knowledge of world history tends to be given the back seat to doing a general analysis of events around the world.

    It is reassuring to think that there are people out there making the effort to highlight the complexities and multiple perceptions of our own history. I would hope that stuff like these will keep people curious and asking questions long after those high school classes.

  2. This is an interesting way of looking at cultural diplomacy, for sure. It made me think about Ecuador´s attitude regarding history and its historical diplomacy. With Correa´s rise to power in 2007, a new approach to diplomacy and foreign affairs took shape, one based on stubbornly defending ideals such as “sovereignty” against the West´s (and especially the US´) “cultural imperialism.” Subsequently, a new era in the country´s marketing strategy arose, whereby cultural diplomacy is carried out by portraying symbols of Ecuador´s “authenticity” and “purity.” It relies on exploiting the exoticism of the country and using that to empower the country and situate it in a position of self–importance and independence. For instance, the figure of the indigenous peoples has been widely used for campaigns, when it has benefitted the government, naturally. Thus, it became a leading component of the campaign for saving Yasuni National Park– an appeal to the world to preserve the world´s ancient customs, values, traditions, and well–kept mysteries. Quechua, the indigenous language, became an important component of Correa´s education reforms, claiming it was part of the country´s history, even though it belongs to minorities only.
    The general strategy has been to address cultural diplomacy through the historical lens, reminding the world that Ecuador is, despite its international image, not an “insignificant country”, like Julian Assange (protected by Ecuador´s embassy in the UK) said. Rather, it is portrayed as a country that has everything to offer the world, from natural beauties and treasures to cultural legacies. Official speeches in regional and international organizations, such as the OAS and the UN, are full of “the pride discourse”, rejecting imperialism and capitalism by fully exploiting the memory of the region´s “libertadores”, particularly Simon Bolivar. Now, Chavez´s image is also exploited as a cultural diplomacy tool in the populist governments of the so–called 21st Century. The latest cultural diplomacy effort by the government, ironically, sough to sell Ecuador to the world through a campaign that uses a “Western”, internationally recognized song by the Beatles and is strikingly similar to a BBC documentary. (Google “All you need is Ecuador”, if interested).These are the contradictions of cultural diplomacy in countries that insist on focusing on the past and applying it to the future. It reminds me of the notions of propaganda, power, and the role of the state (certainly still very influential) in public diplomacy.

  3. This isn’t going to be my substantive comment for the week, I just wanted to let you know how much I love this post and this guy. It all reminded me of something that happened to me in high school that I guess in retrospect was a sort of ‘cultural diplomacy’. My high school was involved in a student exchange with a HS in Ottawa, Canada (because the U.S. ambassador to Canada at the time was an alum of my high school). We went to visit them in the fall for a week, and then they came to visit us in the spring. During that time, we went on a trip to Charleston, SC. In the early morning, we were walking along the Battery, which if you know it is lined with beautiful, old colonial houses and palm trees, and suddenly we came across this older gentleman in full Revolutionary War get-up playing ‘yankee doodle’ on some kind of…fife (?) Anyway, the Canadians thought it was hilarious and it gave them the (probably accurate) impression that Americans are both obsessed with the Revolutionary War and love dressing up in historical costumes. They still talk about it to this day. So…public diplomacy mission accomplished, I guess?

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