Con­fed­er­ate flags fly world­wide, ig­nit­ing so­cial ten­sions and in­flam­ing his­toric trau­mas

Chicago Sun-Times - - OPINION - BY JOR­DAN BRASHER Jor­dan Brasher is an as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor of Ge­og­ra­phy at Colum­bus State Univer­sity.

The United States isn’t the only coun­try de­bat­ing Con­fed­er­ate sym­bols. The Con­fed­er­ate flag can be seen fly­ing in Ire­land, Ger­many, Brazil and be­yond. Some­times, the red-white-and-blue­crossed flag is seem­ingly dis­played as kitsch, a kind of Amer­i­cana. Other times, its dis­play con­veys a po­lit­i­cal mean­ing more re­flec­tive of the flag’s ori­gins in the slave-hold­ing, South­ern Amer­i­can repub­lic.

Wher­ever the Con­fed­er­acy crops up, con­tro­versy usu­ally fol­lows. My aca­demic re­search as a cul­tural ge­og­ra­pher traces how Con­fed­er­ate iconog­ra­phy gets stitched into the cul­tural fab­ric of places thou­sands of miles from the United States.

Ir­ish ‘rebels’

In Cork, Ire­land, fans of the lo­cal hurl­ing and soc­cer teams have long flown the Con­fed­er­ate flag, some­times called the “rebel flag,” from the stands. Both teams are called “The Rebels,” and their team col­ors match those of the Con­fed­er­ate flag.

Af­ter NASCAR banned Con­fed­er­ate flags in June, a Gaelic Ath­letic As­so­ci­a­tion ad­min­is­tra­tor an­nounced that it would ban the flag at Cork soc­cer games, too. Some Cork

Rebels fans had al­ready soured on the flag. In 2017, a de­fender of Con­fed­er­ate stat­ues killed anti-racism ac­tivist Heather Heyer in Char­lottesvill­e, Vir­ginia, ce­ment­ing for many the flag’s as­so­ci­a­tion with white supremacy.

But the Red Hand De­fend­ers, a right-wing para­mil­i­tary or­ga­ni­za­tion in Ire­land, still bran­dishes the Con­fed­er­ate flag be­cause of its po­tent po­lit­i­cal sym­bol­ism.

The Protes­tant hard­liner group emerged in the Ul­ster re­gion in 1998 to op­pose North­ern Ire­land’s pos­si­ble se­ces­sion from the United King­dom and re­uni­fi­ca­tion with Ire­land. To thwart this “home rule” cam­paign, the Red Hand De­fend­ers ex­e­cuted a se­ries of deadly bomb­ings and in 1999 killed the Catholic hu­man-rights lawyer Rose­mary Nel­son.

Ire­land’s con­nec­tion with the Con­fed­er­acy dates back to the Civil War. Many of the Con­fed­er­ate gen­er­als whose stat­ues dot the U.S. South, in­clud­ing Stonewall Jack­son and Robert E. Lee, were Scots-Ir­ish. Their fam­i­lies came from Ul­ster, which in­cludes parts of both Ire­land and North­ern Ire­land.

In a 2008 post called “War of North­ern Ag­gres­sion,” the Belfast-based pho­tog­ra­phy web­site Ex­tra Mu­ral Ac­tiv­ity fea­tured some mu­rals in the Ul­ster re­gion, in­clud­ing one cel­e­brat­ing the Ul­ster her­itage of Gen­er­als

Lee and Jack­son.

“The Con­fed­er­ate at­tempt to se­cede from the Union is put in par­al­lel with loy­al­ist re­sis­tance to Home Rule,” it ex­plains.

Brazil’s Con­fed­er­ate roots

Like Ire­land, Brazil has an an­ces­tral con­nec­tion to the Amer­i­can Con­fed­er­acy.

Af­ter the Civil War ended slav­ery in the United States, some 8,000 to 10,000 Con­fed­er­ate sol­diers left the South and mi­grated to Brazil. There, farm­land was cheap, and slav­ery was still le­gal. His­tor­i­cal re­search sug­gests that as many as 50 Con­fed­er­ate fam­i­lies pur­chased over 500 en­slaved Black peo­ple in Brazil.

To­day, the de­scen­dants of these “Con­fed­er­a­dos,” as the Amer­i­cans came to be known, hold an an­nual fes­ti­val in São Paulo state cel­e­brat­ing their her­itage. Dancers clad in an­te­bel­lum and Civil War at­tire square dance to Amer­i­can coun­try mu­sic on a stage em­bla­zoned with the Con­fed­er­ate flag while vis­i­tors en­joy South­ern fried chicken and bis­cuits and pur­chase Con­fed­er­acy-themed sou­venirs.

The fes­ti­val, held in the Protes­tant ceme­tery where many orig­i­nal Con­fed­er­ate set­tlers were buried, be­gan in 1980. Since the 2017 killing in Char­lottesvill­e, the Con­fed­er­a­dos’ event has met re­sis­tance from Black Brazil­ians, who find its ro­man­ti­ciza­tion of the slave-hold­ing South and its Con­fed­er­ate iconog­ra­phy dis­turb­ing.

White supremacy in Ger­many

For Neo-Nazis in Ger­many, the white supremacy em­bed­ded in Con­fed­er­ate iconog­ra­phy is use­ful. It’s a stand-in for the swastika, which has been banned in Ger­many since the Holo­caust. And dur­ing Civil War reen­act­ments in Ger­many, Ger­mans who side with the South are of­ten act­ing out “Nazi fan­tasies of racial su­pe­ri­or­ity,” Wolf­gang Hochbruck, pro­fes­sor of Amer­i­can Stud­ies at the Univer­sity of Freiburg, told The At­lantic in 2011.

In those sit­u­a­tions, the Ger­mans fly­ing the Con­fed­er­ate flag clearly un­der­stand its his­toric ori­gins and mean­ing. That’s not al­ways the case. A Con­fed­er­ate flag spon­ta­neously ap­peared in the crowd at the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, for ex­am­ple.

There, it may have been un­der­stood as a sym­bol of anti-com­mu­nism. A re­cent study shows that Ger­man schools, like many in the United States, teach the Civil War as pri­mar­ily a bat­tle over South­ern states’ de­sire to re­main “free” from fed­eral in­ter­fer­ence — not over their de­sire to pre­serve slav­ery.

His­to­ri­ans have de­bunked this “states rights” the­ory of the con­flict. But many in Ger­many may still view the flag as a sym­bol of free­dom or in­de­pen­dence.

Some­times, peo­ple in Ger­many and else­where seem to see the Con­fed­er­ate flag as sim­ply part of Amer­i­can cul­ture. The Con­fed­er­ate iconog­ra­phy spot­ted at a coun­try mu­sic fes­ti­val in Geisel­wind in 2007, for ex­am­ple, was prob­a­bly seen as kitsch.

Cul­ture wars

Though Con­fed­er­ate iconog­ra­phy takes on dif­fer­ent mean­ings in other coun­tries, re­search shows it of­ten crops up along those coun­tries’ own po­lit­i­cal frac­tures, re­li­gious con­flicts and racial di­vides. Fly­ing it tends to in­flame sim­mer­ing so­cial ten­sions, re­open old wounds and spur de­bates about his­tory like those un­der­way in the United States.

For Amer­i­cans, who are al­most evenly split on whether the Con­fed­er­acy rep­re­sents racism, the Con­fed­er­ate flag is to­day an un­mis­tak­able sig­nal of a deeply di­vided so­ci­ety. Fifty-two per­cent say they sup­port re­mov­ing Con­fed­er­ate mon­u­ments from pub­lic space.

That’s up 19 per­cent­age points since 2017, when mod­ern blood was shed over the 19th-cen­tury Con­fed­er­acy. Char­lottesvill­e has forced peo­ple ev­ery­where to con­tend with both the his­toric re­al­ity of the Amer­i­can South and, in­creas­ingly, its sur­pris­ingly world­wide 21st-cen­tury legacy.


The Con­fed­er­ate flag can be seen fly­ing in Ire­land, Ger­many, Brazil and be­yond. Some­times its in­tent is be­nign Amer­i­cana. Other times, its in­tent is far less in­no­cent.

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