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Daily Links

If the moon were a pixel –  A scale depiction of the galaxy, highlighting why you’ll never see a wall poster of the galaxy that’s to scale.

25 Biggest Turning Points – Short summaries of twenty-five important historical events from the BBC.

28 Surreal Interior Design Ideas – There’s something certainly fascinating about the idea of walking over the ocean to your kitchen. Not sure I’m enamoured by the idea of cleaning it.

Zoo Portraits – Barcelona photographer Yago Partal gives zoo animals a unique human face.

141 Boxers – Danish photographer Nicolai Howalt documenting the damage boxing causes in before-and-after portraits of young amateurs.

40 Idioms That Can’t Be Translated Literally – Great little list of idioms from around the world which make you sound like you’re tripping if you translate them literally.

Uncommon People: Resistance, Rebellion and Jazz

Uncommon HobsbawmUncommon People is a collection of Eric Hobsbawm’s essays spanning the majority of his long career, from the 1950s to the mid-1990s. It brings together a wide range of topics, collected under four headings: The Radical Tradition, Country People, Contemporary History and Jazz.

Under “The Radical Tradition”, there are essays addressing Thomas Paine, the Luddites, the radicalism of shoemakers, the difference between labour traditions in France and Britain, the development of a distinctive working class culture, the skilled manual wage worker in Victorian moral frameworks, the iconography of male and female representations in labour movements, the origins and history of May Day as a working class celebration, the relationship between socialism and the avant-garde, and Labour Party stalwart Harold Laski.

“Country People” includes two longer essays, one providing a general overview of peasant politics, and a second study of land occupations, as well as an essay on the Sicilian Mafia.

The rubric “Contemporary History” features pieces Hobsbawm wrote while the embers were still hot, with pieces on Vietnam and guerilla warfare, May 1968, and sexual liberation. As a result they tend to feel dated, though as contemporary reports are still of interest for this very reason.

Finally, the “Jazz” section contains half a dozen reviews and short writings on Sidney Bechet, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, jazz in Europe, jazz after 1960, and jazz’s relationship with blues and rock. A final essay, slotted under this Jazz heading, was written on the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ landing in America, and highlights the oft forgotten benefits and advances this event brought about, from the notion of a Utopia, to the development of a theory of evolution, and the spread of staple foodstuffs like potatoes and maize.

The problem with this collection is that being of such a broad spectrum, only a handful of the essays are likely to appeal to the reader. Some of the pieces, particularly the shorter jazz reviews and essays, are written in an easy, affable manner, whilst many of the essays on peasant and working class movements are far more technical and heavily footnoted, and really require a background understanding to get anything from them. Nevertheless there are plenty of gems here: the essay on the Luddites amongst other machine-breaking groups highlights how the word inherited has little to do with the motivations of those people; his coverage of the development of a distinctive working class culture highlights the symbolism of something as mundane as the flat cap; whilst the essay on the Vietnam war and guerilla warfare has interesting implications for modern day conflicts such as in Afghanistan.

Exorcising Hitler: The Occupation and Denazification of Germany

exorcisinghitlerThe period in German history following the Second World War is probably one of the most neglected in terms of popular history, far overshadowed by the war itself and frequently overlooked as a mere footnote to the origins of the Cold War. Yet the fascinating question remains as to why the peace following the First World War contributed to the beginnings of the Second, whilst the policies following the latter led to one of the longest periods of peace on the continent.

How the victors handled their policy of ‘unconditional surrender’, and what this entailed for occupied Germany, is the subject of Frederick Taylor’s book. His book covers the final stages of the war, as the Allied and Soviet forces prepared to attack and occupy Germany proper. Military actions only play a background role in the narrative, Taylor focussing only on interactions with the civilians, including the atrocities most severely carried out on the Eastern Front, as well as retaliatory attacks by Nazi fanatics and so called ‘Werwolf’ units.

Where this book shines is in Taylor’s ability to compare and contrast the widely differing policies and practices of the occupying forces. Despite the complexity of the subject, the book highlights the differences between those directing policy and those governing forces on the ground, between those espousing punitive policies and those wishing to see a rapidly rehabilitated Germany, and between the Soviet, American, British and French zones. It becomes clear just how much of a challenge the question of denazification posed to the victors, which ostensibly remained an inflexible goal of all parties. The totalitarian nature of the Nazi Party meant that virtually no one had remained completely aloof of the system, leaving policy planners the major task of separating hardline Nazis from ‘career Nazis’, ‘muss Nazis’ or fellow travellers. Taylor treats each of the occupying zones separately, and looks at the systems put in place and measures their successes and failures, not just in terms of raw numbers weeding out devout Nazis, but also the impact of these policies on the German population, and to what extent these changes were lasting.

Unfortunately, this book has one major failing, and that lies in its title. Subtitled “The Occupation and Denazification of Germany”, there feels to be rather too much of the former and not enough of the latter to justify the name. Taylor does spend a lot of time dealing with the occupiers’ attempts to remove Nazis themselves from positions of influence in German society, but there is little to nothing on their own and subsequent German policies as regards dealing with Nazism as an ideology. There is surprisingly little on areas such as education, the media and law, or even such mundane things as the renaming of streets or the treatment of the swastika are left out. Even the Psychological Warfare Division responsible for Allied propaganda goes unmentioned in the index (albeit some of their actions are covered). Aside from this, it is also disappointing that there are virtually no comparisons to occupation and denazification policies in other countries after the Second World War, e.g. Austria or France, or similar ‘purification’ actions during other periods (Taylor mentions the de-Ba’athification policy of the Iraq War a few times, without making any direct allusions). However given the scope of the book, the omission can be understood. Finally as another commenter pointed out, it seems that someone working for the publisher decided that the book would sell better with HITLER written in large letters across the front, which is at once no doubt true, but all the same bitterly depressing.

For all this, Exorcising Hitler is an extremely well-written and well-researched account of immediate post-war Germany. No apologist, Taylor points out appalling conditions in Western POW camps, engineered through pure legal sophistry, the mass rapes and atrocities in the East, and the sufferings of refugees and ‘displaced persons’ driven from their territories and turned back from others. A potentially bewildering subject, Taylor takes the issue of denazification apart and analyses each policy and practical element in turn, comparing and contrasting the different approaches, and examining the successes and failures of the post-war occupation. The book’s epilogue ties the whole together with an excellent summary of the reactions to and effects of these policies in post-war Germany right through to the present day.

Selling Hitler: The Story of the Hitler Diaries

sellinghitlerIn Selling Hitler Robert Harris has provided an enthralling, blow-by-blow account of one of the most infamous hoaxes in history, the alleged discovery of the Hitler diaries. A potentially convoluted plot with many actors, Harris has done a remarkable job in organising the story in a comprehensible manner, and in so doing has simultaneously written a turn-paging piece of investigative journalism, full of interesting nuggets and occasionally humourous asides.

History is always a work in progress. Sewing together the past from the scanty pieces left to posterity is a difficult task, and one which can never hope to fill all of the gaps and answer all of the questions. Hence when a new source comes to light, the potential to fill in a few holes in the jigsaw, to provide answers to some of the glaring question–even to essentially rewriting history–can be staggering. In the case of the Hitler diaries, of course, the potential was immense, not only in terms of offering a personal and uncensored glimpse into the world through his eyes, but for providing further information and evidence to solve mysteries like the ‘miracle’ of Dunkirk, Hess’ flight to Scotland, or Hitler’s role in the Holocaust.

Yet the diaries were fakes, and obvious ones. Written on post-war paper, with post-war ink, the content largely consisted of dull and banal headlines from the Völkischer Beobachter, or speeches sometimes copied verbatim, i.e. including errors, from Max Domarus’ compilation Hitler: Speeches and Proclamations. So just how did such a media farce result from what ultimately proved to be such crude and unconvincing forgeries? What drove a respected magazine like Stern to spend 9 million DM on the diaries without once thoroughly checking the evidence? And how did other reputable newspapers like The Times and Newsweek similarly come to swallow the story?

Aside from being a report into this particular hoax, “Selling Hitler” tells a sobering tale of greed and ambition over rationality that could apply anywhere. The atmosphere of secrecy and conspiracy, combined with the promise of acknowledgement and riches, allowed a poor quality forgery to hoodwink a media corporation and ultimately tarnish or even destroy the reputations of the journalists and experts associated with the find. A surprisingly large number of people who heard of or came into contact with the diaries soon suspended their disbelief on hearing the most rudimentary supporting evidence. Even excluding the evidence of flawed handwriting tests, to most of the people asked to check the diaries’ authenticity it simply didn’t seem plausible that someone would go to the trouble of forging over 60 volumes of diaries and sundry other papers. Ironically enough, the whole episode rings like a quote from Hitler’s Mein Kampf, often attributed to Joseph Goebbels, that the more colossal the lie, the more likely people are to believe it.

Harris’ book is a superb summary of the whole affair, covering every angle and explaining each step as the fiasco house of cards was gradually built up, before being dashed to the ground. The lives of the chief culprits are portrayed, along with the roles played by people such as historians Hugh Trevor-Roper, David Irving and Gerhard Weinberg, as well as people like Rupert Murdoch (who has some amusing quotes). Whilst not totally devoid of personal opinion, Harris clearly showing sympathy for the Stern editors who were in his view forced to take the fall for the scandal, none of the characters are openly demonised, and the facts are objectively presented. The only small complaint to make would be that the book, first published in 1986, now feels incomplete and a little dated. My copy was printed in 2009, and it would have been nicer if a revised edition had been produced, if only with an extra chapter on what happened to such characters as the forger Konrad Kujau, the gullible and corrupt journalist Gerd Heidemann, or historians such as Irving, whose reputation gained a temporary boost by being one of the first to publicly denounce the diaries as forgeries.

Nathaniel’s Nutmeg: How One Man’s Courage Changed the Course of History

Nathaniel's NutmegDieser Eintrag ist auch auf Deutsch verfügbar.

In a similar vein to Dava Sobel’s Longitude, Nathaniel’s Nutmeg revolves around the story of one of history’s largely invisible protagonists. Whilst this isn’t history on the same scale, it sits very nicely with something E. P. Thompson said, about rescuing characters “from the enormous condescension of posterity.” The major characters in this book will be unknown to most people, as will most of the events, but their importance for the modern world will be clear to everyman.

The book’s title is, however, a complete misnomer. The subject matter is very ambitious, dealing with the spice trade and the age of navigation, including forays in the Americas, attempts to find passages to the Indies via the Arctic Ocean, and all of the misadventures, wars, successes and political intrigues of the English and Dutch East India companies. Ultimately, Milton’s premise with the book is to tie the exploits of the English East India Company officer Nathaniel Courthope in with the fate of New Amsterdam/New York, but by trying to cover this from all angles, the book is left feeling rather thin and superficial. In the end, the titular Nathaniel makes only a relatively brief appearance near the end of the book, all the space that was left to deal with the book’s allegedly main focus. Finally, with such a broad range, the book throws up many interesting questions about the companies, their officers, the spice trade etc., most of which remain unfortunately unanswered, despite its near 400 pages.

Despite these setbacks, the book does have its strengths. It is clearly very well researched, and despite the relative paucity of sources available to fill in the gaps, the author avoids the obvious temptation to speculate wildly. As a piece of decidedly ‘popular’ history, the book is structured like a page-turner, with hints and references dropped to tease the reader into the coming chapters, focusing on a history driven by characters and concrete events, which makes it an easy book for reading on the go or with other distractions. And although the subject matter is really too broad for a book of this size, Milton does at least concentrate solely on the Dutch and English adventures, paying relatively little attention to Portuguese and Spanish goings on at the same time.

Nathaniel’s Nutmeg is a pleasant and interesting diversion, particularly for people whose interest would not normally be piqued the idea by a history book. It is clear that a good deal of research has gone into the book, and the breadth of the subject matter makes this no light task. Yet the impression left is one akin to scoffing fast food empty calories; in order to tie Couthorpe to New York, the author has chosen too broad a subject matter for so short a book, leaving the text too shallow and unfocused. A different title, a less ambitious aim, or a more vigilant editor, and this book could have been an all the more satisfying read.

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