Tag Archives: #history

Civic Virtue and Women’s Political Activism

9780299322908Today we are featuring a piece by Goshen College professor and author Jan Bender Shetler, whose book Claiming Civic Virtue is part of our series Women in Africa and the Diaspora.

When we think about women’s activism we imagine protest marches, banners and pink hats. But women have claimed their voice, their right to speak, in public discourse in so many different and unexpected ways over time. One thinks of The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo in Argentina during the “Dirty War,” who in 1977 began showing up in the plaza everyday to demand information about their “disappeared” children.  Another example was older women in Nigeria during the anti-colonial “Igbo Women’s War” of 1929 reclaiming their space of authority by showing up in the thousands to enact the traditional practice of “sitting on a man” which involved chanting and dancing to shame the men. In less obviously public ways, elite women in Qing China wrote and published poetry that asserted their moral authority as wives and mothers who controlled the household economy where boys were first educated and men found retreat after their travels. These are all stories of women who claimed their right as public intellectuals to contribute to civic debates based on an assertion of their virtue as responsible citizens.

But, because of the tendency to universalize our own cultural assumptions, we often miss these claims of civic virtue and see women confined to the home and domestic labor, uninvolved in public affairs.  The quintessential African grandmother telling stories to her grandchildren at night figures into popular, and even academic, culture as a quaint, but a politically innocuous, figure who entertains with animal tales.  My research in the Mara Region, Tanzania, to explore women’s historical knowledge, however, showed that here their narratives asserted a claim of recognition for the value of their own civic contribution.  They told very different kinds of stories about the past than men, who were recognized as the legitimate historians of the ethnic group.  Women’s stories, by contrast, were about the value to the community of the cross-ethnic networks they formed across the region.

During the late nineteenth century East Africa experienced a series of El Niño droughts that resulted in famine, displacement and the spread of epidemic disease from the caravan trade. In the Mara Region young women and girls were often “sold” or pawned to wealthier families for food that would allow the rest of the family to survive.  While some ended up in the slave trade, many more remained in the region and were incorporated into new families as daughters, or wives, becoming part of the family.  The interests of men’s public stories was to forget where these women came from and sever their ties to their original families.  However, the interests of grandmothers who told their stories to grandchildren at night was to preserve their honor as women with kinship ties in distant places that should not be forgotten. The distant networks preserved in grandmothers’ memories proved useful for getting help in times of trouble or finding marriage partners. Women’s counter-memory asserted their virtuous past and ongoing value to the community, precisely because of their network memory.

Does this work of elderly women telling their own versions of history qualify as activism? In order to demand change in the public arena one has to first assert the authority to speak at all. In the case of Mara women they may speak their concerns for the public good in the private spaces of grandmothers sleeping with their granddaughters or around cooking pots but they are heard in the larger public arena because of the moral authority that they claim. The dominant account remains that of elderly men who hold responsibility for “history.”  But women’s alternative narratives of the past crossed ethnic groups in building durable networks of security.  Even though hard to read in our cultural vernacular, women’s assertion of voice in the public sphere is sometimes as close as the stories they tell in defining an alternative version of the past.

Jan Bender Shetler is a professor of history at Goshen College. Her books include Telling Our Own StoriesImagining Serengeti, and Gendering Ethnicity in African Women’s Lives.

Uncovering Hellenistic Sardis

Today’s piece is written by editors Andrea M. Berlin and Paul J. Kosmin, whose book Spear-Won Land , a collection of essays on the city of Sardis during the early Hellenistic period, is featured in our series Wisconsin Studies in Classics.

For most of archaic and classical Greek history (from about the seventh to the fourth centuries BCE), the richest and most important city in the Aegean world was not even in Greece. It was an Anatolian capital famed for luxurious living, cavalry horses, and rivers of gold—Sardis. As the royal capital first of the Kingdom of Lydia and then as the primary “satrapal” center of the Persian Empire in the west, Sardis was a political and cultural center of renown. The city in its Lydian and Persian periods is well known, thanks to lengthy accounts in the Histories of Herodotus and Thucydides as well as a half-century of excavation.

But when it comes to the city’s history in the years following Alexander the Great’s overthrow of the Persians, it is as if the lights go out. Historical sources are much fewer, and archaeological remains more scattered and difficult to piece together. Yet these were pivotal years, both for Sardis and for the wider interconnected worlds of Greece and the East. In the century after Alexander, Sardis was transformed into a true Hellenistic city, acquiring a vast stone temple to the goddess Artemis, a theater and gymnasium, and the institutions and status of a Greek polis. At the same time, the city was re-made as yet another imperial capital, this time as the western center of the vast new Seleucid Empire, the greatest of Alexander’s successor kingdoms, home to bureaucrats, royal archives, and Indian elephants.

Spear-Won Land: Sardis from the King’s Peace to the Peace of Apamea, offers a comprehensive, interconnected understanding of the transformations and effects of these centuries. A multidisciplinary research team – with expertise ranging from urban archaeology and history to numismatics and field-survey – here present up-to-date analyses of Sardis’ urban form, political history, interactions with neighbors, religious life, and foodways. It is a thrilling story that significantly enlarges and fundamentally changes what we know of Hellenistic western Asia Minor.

Andrea M. Berlin holds the James R. Wiseman Chair in Classical Archaeology at Boston University. She has written extensively on a broad variety of topics in classical archaeology, including six volumes reporting and interpreting excavations. 

Paul J. Kosmin is the John L. Loeb Associate Professor of the Humanities at Harvard University. He is the author of The Land of the Elephant Kings: Space, Territory, and Ideology in the Seleucid Empire, and Time and Its Adversaries in the Seleucid Empire.

Flamenco Nation

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Today we present a piece from author Sandie Holguín. Her recently released book Flamenco Nation explores how Flamenco dance became tied to Spain’s national identity. In this personal essay, Sandie details her journey of writing and researching the book, and the challenges of writing about a topic distant in regard to both geography and time.

If, as L.P. Hartley once said and historians like to quote, “the past is a foreign country; they do things differently there,” what happens when a scholar grapples with the history of a foreign country? Can an outsider twice-removed by time and place contribute meaningfully to a discussion of that place’s past? These are questions I have wrestled with over the years while trying to write about the history of Spain, especially about ephemeral cultural phenomena. My questions are really no different from those that underrepresented communities ask when mainstream historians write about marginalized groups, and yet as a historian, I have to believe that one can engage in historical analysis about people, places, and times far removed from one’s own experience—otherwise, why does anybody practice history? Still, there seem to be greater barriers to understanding a culture and its past when the country, society, and language are not part of your cultural patrimony. Overcoming those barriers, or at least recognizing how to maneuver around them, requires experience in historical practice, patience, a willingness to listen, and the help of insiders.

When I began to imagine a cultural history of flamenco in Spain, I was overwhelmed by the sheer amount that had been written on the subject, especially by people who were experts on the art form. Many scholars and flamenco aficionados could easily rattle off the names of performers, songs, rhythmic styles, and situate them in their places of origin. What could I, a North American with no background in music, have to say about something that seemed ubiquitous in Spanish culture (or at least in the culture that was presented to the world outside of Spain)? The only way for me to enter this study was to think in structural terms. How did cultural forms in various countries come to be dominant? For example, were there similar processes that made the tango popular in Argentina, the samba in Brazil, jazz in the United states, and flamenco in Spain? The answer was yes. Of course how those processes differed from country to country is what makes for engaging historical analysis. My grounding in nationalism studies and cultural history made it possible for me to begin to write something meaningful about flamenco and its role in Spanish history, despite the challenges present when speaking about a culture that is not one’s own.

The work of writing a history about a foreign country is fraught with danger, however.  Language might be the primary one. If one is not a native speaker, then one cannot always attend to the nuances of humor, metaphor, or slang. And although a place’s culture (or multiple cultures) may have changed over time, one imagines—wrongly, no doubt—that one’s own historical culture is accessible in a way that a foreign country’s historical culture might not be. Immersing oneself in the country’s native scholarship and culture helps to soften these barriers, but having friends and colleagues from that place help even more because they aid in cross-cultural translation and, sometimes, just literal translation.

I have begun to view the distance in time and space as an advantage to understand Spanish history.  Outsider status has granted me certain insights that might be harder to gain by those immersed within Spain’s many cultures, only because I am less personally invested in the national narratives that unfold in my research and writing and because I am at a remove from  such horrors as Spain’s civil war and dictatorship. The anxiety I feel about “not getting it right” is mitigated by the knowledge that I am trying to listen both analytically and empathetically to the voices of the past to make sense of them. It is this  journey toward cross-cultural, cross-temporal understanding that guides my work and gives me hope—however misguided—that the study of history can be used to understand our shared humanity, despite our many cultural differences.

Sandie Holguín is a Professor of History at the University of Oklahoma, where she teaches European cultural and intellectual history and European feminist thought and gender studies. She specializes in Spanish history and is the author of Creating Spaniards: Culture and National Identity in Republican Spain.

Remembering the Hometown Boys

Today’s guest-blogger is Brad Larson, director of the Oshkosh Public Museum and author of All the Hometown Boys.

As a boy in the early 1960s, I seldom saw my grandfather. He had divorced from my grandmother in the early 1930s, remarried, and moved away. His relationship with his two young sons was strained, to put it nicely. Yet, as he and my father aged, they occasionally came together to heal wounds. On one such instance, he led my brother and me to the trunk of his car to show us his old army boots.  He told us those heavy, hob-nailed boots still had remnants of encrusted mud in a few small places. “Boys,” he said, “that is the dirt of France.”

I stood there in the summer sun next to his Pontiac, just a ten year old boy, transfixed as he revealed abbreviated stories of his experiences as a teenage National Guardsman in what seemed to be a distant land and an overlooked war. Strange as it might seem in hindsight, those old boots and the stories he told made everything seem genuine. I came to realize that my grandfather, white-haired and old, was once a courageous soldier.

Brad’s grandfather, Martin Larson

My desire and determination to resurrect the stories of Wisconsin’s 150th Machine Gun Battalion might have had its roots in the stories of my grandfather. Indeed, even as a boy it seemed that I was aware that memory is a fickle thing. As I describe in All the Hometown Boys, the 150th was a household name after its creation in 1917, for it was part of America’s celebrated 42nd “Rainbow” Division, a National Guard division that brought together men from 26 states. The nation was justly proud of the exploits and victories of the “hometown boys.”  In welcome home parades, the men were esteemed heroes.

But 100 years later, who remembers the 150th Machine Gun Battalion, or America’s soldiers who released France from almost certain defeat? If 30-plus years of museum work have shown me anything, it is that remembrance of our past is weak, perhaps even fading. I think that impression is especially true for World War I, for the soldiers of America’s first world war do not even have their own national memorial in Washington, D.C.

Memory is what we make it. To honor and remember someone, or some event, requires time, dedication, and effort to ensure we discover and perhaps even pass on the story. True reverence for our past comes not from brief media coverage close to an anniversary, but rather grows in the hearts and minds of everyday Americans. They make the decision that men like my grandfather, or the men of the 150th Machine Gun Battalion, soldiers who gave of themselves, lost their youth and in some cases their life, deserve to be remembered.  We should take joy in discovering their stories.

 

Brad Larson has been the director of the Oshkosh Public Museum since 1989 and has been researching and presenting public programs about the 150th Machine Gun Battalion for many years. He is the author of Voices of History, 1941–1945.

Starvation Shore

Today’s guest blogger is Laura Waterman, author of Starvation Shore, a compelling tale based on a true story of polar explorers fighting for their lives.

 

My novel, Starvation Shore, is based on the Greely Arctic Expedition of 1881–1884. Also known as the Lady Franklin Bay Expedition, this three-year saga of a little known American Arctic expedition can be equated with the Franklin Expedition for daring and horrific disaster.

This is the story of 25 men who find that surviving in the Arctic requires cooperation to the point of selflessness. But as darkness, vicious wind, and gelid cold confines them to what feels like a prison sentence, what gets laid bare are the fatal flaws and staggering misjudgments.

I began work on this novel in 2008. Researching and writing it has been an epic journey itself. I was drawn to this story because of the hardships that bring us face to face with our true selves. I was curious to join with these men, to see how I would react in a setting that made such physical demands, that required moral, ethical, and spiritual courage.

A group photo of the explorers

This expedition grew out of a desire to counter the enormous loss of men and ships in the Arctic over the last three centuries. In 1881 the United States was part of the International Polar Year that established stations around the icecap. Lt. Greely’s men were there to take meteorological observations and so learn about the Arctic.  They were expected to set a new Farthest North, long held by the British. The U.S. Army was in charge. The equivalent today would be a manned trip to Mars.

Sgt. David Brainard

I used the men’s diaries, particularly Sgt. David Brainard’s, the portion he wrote at Cape Sabine after the men had left the fort they had built at Discovery Harbor, farther north and only 500 miles from the North Pole. The promised resupply by ship had failed because of pack ice. The men had spent a second winter, and as the third winter drew near, Lt. Greely ordered the men into the open boats, a controversial move. They had had supplies enough to make it through a third winter, if they had stayed.

Pvt. Charles B. Henry

That this was an unhappy expedition from the start fascinated me. What was going to happen? Dr. Pavy and Lt. Greely were a mismatch of temperaments. Lt. Kislingbury wished he’d never come.  His senseless acts of insubordination caused Lt. Greely to break him. Sgt. Brainard was sure they had a murderer along, namely Pvt. Charles Henry. Lt. Lockwood, brave, strong, a gifted leader of men—he set the Farthest North record—was prone to depression.

On the other hand, Pvt. Shorty Frederick was there when you needed him. Their young astronomer, Ned Israel, took infectious delight in the mystery of an Arctic night. Photographer George Rice’s glass plates showed a frigid black and white beauty not seen before. Eskimo Jens Edwards died in his boat catching seals for them.

The six survivors on their way home in 1884

When the rescue party arrived in 1884, two thirds of the men were dead. What George Rice had feared, and Sgt. Brainard had tried to prevent, had happened: cannibalism.

I grew up reading about adventure; most children do:  Doctor Doolittle, Treasure Island, Swallows and Amazons. When I read Annapurna, Maurice Herzog’s account of the first 8000-meter peak to be climbed, I wondered, had I been along, could I have made it to the top? I began climbing on my homeground. The White Mountains of New Hampshire, the Presidential Range in winter, and learned about winds that can knock you down, visibility so compromised you’re relying on all your senses and your internal compass, and frightening subzero cold. I drew on this experience for writing Starvation Shore. I learned, as Greely’s men did, that we are often capable of more than we had thought possible.

 

 Laura Waterman is an author, environmentalist, and outdoor enthusiast. Her books include The Green Guide to Low-Impact Hiking and CampingA Fine Kind of Madness: Mountain Adventures Tall and True, and Losing the Garden: The Story of a Marriage.

The Lost Lives of Greek Vases

Today we present an essay by guest blogger and author Sheramy D. Bundrick, whose book Athens, Etruria, and the Many Lives of Greek Figured Pottery is featured in our series Wisconsin Studies in Classics.

 

Research for Athens, Etruria, and the Many Lives of Greek Figured Pottery included an unexpected foray into scholarly detective work: recapturing the long-forgotten archaeological contexts of Athenian vases collected in the nineteenth century.  Preparing a chapter on vases used as Etruscan cremation urns, I mined volumes of the Bullettino dell’Instituto di Corrispondenza Archeologica and Notizie degli Scavi for documented examples, and I discovered four whose descriptions matched vases in American museums but which had somehow been orphaned from knowledge of their findspots.  All were sold at the time by the private landowners who oversaw their excavation.  One is now in the Harvard University Art Museums (Figs. 1–2): in the 1876 Bullettino, an amphora of exact description—down to the gestures, garments, and attributes of figures—is recorded as being from Tarquinia, found in a pit tomb where it served as a cinerarium.  Harvard curators Susanne Ebbinghaus and Amy Brauer confirmed that this was new information and suggested I consult papers of the amphora’s donor, Henry Williamson Haynes (1831–1912), at the Massachusetts Historical Society.  Archaeologist and Harvard alumnus, Haynes bequeathed his antiquities collection to the Classics Department, which passed to the art museum years later.  Haynes’ travel diary and a letter to his mother state that he visited Tarquinia on 21 May 1876 and met the Marzi brothers, who owned the land where the amphora was discovered.  No mention of buying it, but paired with the Bullettino, these documents permit confirmation of the amphora’s journey from Athens, to Tarquinia, to America.

Figure 1

Why does this matter?  Historically, it didn’t: the Athenian makers and milieu of vases were believed most important, and their Etruscan ownership a blip in time.  But attitudes and disciplines change, and in today’s more globalized, networked world, the purchasers of figured pottery—often far from Athens itself—earn as much scholarly attention as their producers.  In my book, I argue that the symbiotic relationship between workshops and consumers literally shaped the ceramic industry; knowing the biographies of individual vases encourages a better understanding of that relationship.

Take again the Harvard amphora, attributed to an anonymous potter-painter known as the Affecter for the mannered drawing style.  In her 1975 monograph, Heide Mommsen suggested dates of ca. 550–520 B.C.E. for the Affecter’s career and sorted vases into stylistic periods.  Recovering the Harvard amphora’s findspot reveals that at least three amphorae in the earliest phase went to Tarquinia, all depicting gatherings of gods.  Most of the Affecter’s surviving vases traveled to Etruria, raising questions whether he used information from traders to guide his choices of shapes and subjects.  Some of his vases even feature the apparent logos of traders under their feet.  Back in Tarquinia, knowing the Harvard amphora served as a cinerarium yields more questions.  Did the pictured gods, for example—who all had Etruscan equivalents—act as protectors for the dead?  If the deceased’s remains survived, they could be forensically analyzed for information about age and gender, but as was often the case in the nineteenth century, these were discarded.

Figure 2

Reuniting the Harvard amphora with its lost context provides a somewhat happy ending, but the overwhelming majority of vases lack known findspots, either through early discovery and rare documentation or more recent, illicit looting.  The intellectual consequences are considerable: although much can be said about unprovenienced antiquities of any variety, in missing their contexts, their story remains incomplete.  Writing my book, I often found myself challenged by what I could and could not discuss as a result, and I hope my work serves as a call for awareness as much as a contribution of ideas.

 

Figs. 1–2. Athenian amphora attributed to the Affecter, from Tarquinia, ca. 540 B.C.E. Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum, transfer from the Department of the Classics, Harvard University, bequest of Henry W. Haynes, 1912, 1977.216.2244. (Photos: Imaging Department © President and Fellows of Harvard College)

 

Sheramy D. Bundrick is a professor of art history at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. She is the author of Music and Image in Classical Athens.

The Lasting Impact of Francisco Franco

This week we have a piece written by guest-blogger Stanley G. Payne, co-author of the book Franco: A Personal and Political Biography.

 

The revolutionary movements that provoked the Spanish Civil War in 1936 created the only violent mass collectivist revolution of Western Europe in the twentieth century, but the victor in this contest was Francisco Franco, the most successful counterrevolutionary leader of the era.  He went on to create the first stable dictatorship in Spain’s history, surviving World War II and remaining in power until he died of natural causes in 1975, having defeated all comers for nearly four decades.  In the process he promoted the definitive socioeconomic modernization of his country and created institutions that after his death permitted a peaceful transition to democratic constitutional monarchy, led by liberal Francoists, though this final outcome was not his intention.

Franco was the most powerful individual figure in the more than two millennia of Spanish history, for no king under traditional institutions enjoyed the resources of an organized twentieth-century dictator.  He has been both the most widely praised and the most extensively and vehemently vituperated personality in the annals of Spain.

During the twenty-first century the country has begun to fragment.  The Spanish left, bereft of ideas or a coherent new program, has partially repudiated the prosperous, broadly decentralized democracy of 1977-2018, claiming that it was tainted by Franco’s dictatorship, even though it put an end to the latter. “Anti-Francoism” has become a central banner, crediting a dictator who vanished more than four decades ago with the power to dominate Spanish affairs from beyond the tomb.  In Spain more than anywhere else, polemics about recent history form a major part of current political controversy.

Though most twenty-first century Spaniards do not support the fantasies of so-called “historical memory,” which is neither history nor memory, the ignorance of history is as widespread in their country as in any other Western land.  These circumstances raise anew the question of exactly who was Francisco Franco and what exactly was his historical record.  The literature about him is enormous, greater than that concerning anyone else in Spanish history, but is strongly divided between encomia and denunciation.

The present biography seeks to open a new inquiry that is more balanced and objective, or at least less subject to the influence of polemics than its predecessors, based on a broad base of key primary and secondary sources.  It treats the sharply contrasting aspects of Franco’s rule, from the rigorous Civil War-era repression to the positive achievements of later years.  While investigating all the major aspects of Franco’s career over four decades, it also seeks to offer a personal portrait of the dictator, from his early career as a teen-aged infantry officer through his marriage and family life to his eventual demise in the most public (and one of the most prolonged) natural deaths of modern times.

It may be that no other Western country changed more during one lifetime than did Spain during Franco’s eighty-three years, and many of these changes were closely involved with his own biography.  The book grapples with this lengthy process of change, and with the numerous mutations of Franco’s own rule, as his regime evolved from a politics of semi-fascism to Catholic corporatism to modernizing bureaucratic authoritarianism, from associate of the Third Reich to important ally of the United States.  It seeks to provide deeper understanding of a key historical personality, and also of the dynamic evolution of Spain during the twentieth century.

 

Stanley G. Payne (right) is the Hilldale–Jaume Vicens Vives Professor of History Emeritus at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and the author of many books, including A History of Fascism, 1914–1945The Franco Regime, 1936–1975; and Spain: A Unique History.
Jesús Palacios (left) is a noted historian, investigative journalist, and adjunct professor at the University of Madrid.

Archives of Terror: Reasons for Hope

Today’s guest blogger is Seth Bernstein, translator and editor of Alexander Vatlin’s Agents of Terror. The book is to be released in paperback this week.

Alexander Vatlin’s book Agents of Terror is one of the finest exemplars of Russia’s archival revolution. At the end of the Soviet Union and especially in its aftermath, Russian archives declassified millions of files and provided public access to the records. These documents remain the basis for thousands of scholarly and popular works that have appeared since the late 1980s. Vatlin, a Moscow State University professor, based his work on an especially coveted source—investigation files from Stalin’s Great Terror of 1937-38. Focusing on the lower ranks of Stalin’s secret police (the People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs, NKVD) and their victims in one district, it reveals the motivations and logistics of mass terror through a gripping micro-history.

[Above] A home in Kuntsevo District in the 1930s. The area faced repression from NKVD officers profiled in Agents of Terror.              

 Since the mid-1990s, declassification has slowed or reversed in some cases. Reclassification of documents primarily affected access to the archives of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB). Recently researchers have revealed disturbing news that the FSB has destroyed records from the GULAG administration.

There have been less publicized archival closings as well. In 2006, a Russian law forbid archives and other institutions from releasing files containing personal information for 75 years. The nominal aims of the law are laudable. In practice, however, archival administrators have limited access to files that reflect poorly on the Soviet state because of fear or their own convictions. Among these collections are the case files that Vatlin used in Agents of Terror, a collection of the State Archive of the Russian Federation (GARF). Two years after the original Russian text appeared in 2004, the research behind the book became impossible to replicate.

There is recent news that should encourage those who wish to see post-Soviet archives become more open, especially those who would like to see more research like Vatlin’s Agents of Terror. With the passing of 75 years on the dates of most of the archival files, a group of graduate students at Moscow State University (MGU) and the human rights organization Memorial agreed with GARF to digitize the entire collection of case files. Vatlin used roughly 500 case files from the terror from one district as a microhistory of Stalinist repression. In contrast, the MGU students are leading a team that will digitize approximately 100,000 files. The digitized collection will be published at the site Open List, a collaborative database of victims of Stalinist repression.

The project has great potential as a scholarly database, of course. For scholars working on the history of state repression, the history of Stalinism or using quantitative methods to explore other aspects of history and society, the collection promises to be a major source of data. More importantly, though, the database helps to fill a moral void that Vatlin exposed in Agents of Terror. In the conclusion, he states that his work is just a “fragment of an immense tragedy”:

 “In the fairy tale of the snow queen, a kingdom fell into an age of
darkness when a cursed mirror broke into myriad pieces, sowing
frosty indifference among its people. As in this fable, the living
fragments cast asunder in Soviet power’s war against its people
will weigh upon us until they are retrieved and placed into the light
of day—to the very last person.” (144)

Open List is one example of a group working to put these pieces back into place. Even as archival access has become more difficult in some instances, researchers, NGOs and state employees continue their work to bring new evidence to light about the Soviet past.

 

 

Seth Bernstein is assistant professor of history at Higher School of Economics in Moscow. He is the translator of Agents of Terror: Ordinary Men and Extraordinary Violence in Stalin’s Secret Police (University of Wisconsin Press, 2016) and Liudmila Novikova’s An Anti-Bolshevik Alternative: The White Movement and the Civil War in the Russian North (University of Wisconsin Press, 2018), and the author of Raised under Stalin: Young Communists and the Defense of Socialism (Cornell University Press, 2017).

 

The Other Paris

 

Post-Colonial Paris: Fictions of Intimacy in the City of Light, a new book by today’s guest blogger Laila Amine, is published this week in the series Africa and the Diaspora: History, Politics, Culture

When I meet new people and they hear my French accent, the conversation often veers to Paris, its beauty, its rich culture, or to the dream of one day visiting the City of Light. Their fantasy of Paris (and France more broadly) and my experiences as a child of North African immigrants in government subsidized housing could not be more different. In the cultural imaginary of Paris, there is little room for the working class multi-racial outskirts, unless the subject is Islamic culture and the subjection of women and queer subjects.

The Paris imagined in Maghrebi, African American and French immigrant cultures was both invisible in the scholarship and hypervisible as the “Badlands of the Republic” in French mainstream media. Like the city of the Francophile tourists, this other Paris is largely an imagined territory, albeit associated with crime, unbridled patriarchy, and violence.

Un-shackling the sensational and the Paris outskirts, this book chronicles everyday life in the impoverished sectors of the French capital in various contexts and cultural traditions. We find versions of Postcolonial Paris in post-World War II Maghrebi and African American expatriate fiction, 1980s beur fiction and cinema, and contemporary French immigrant cultures. Together, works by Driss Chraïbi, Mehdi Charef, William Gardner Smith, Faïza Guène, J.R., and Princess Hijab register the shifting politics and grammars of race in a nation where it does not appear on the census and where the public overwhelmingly condemns it as an Anglo-Saxon importation.

Spanning 1955 to 2015, authors of African descent have pondered the French tyranny of universalism and interrogated the myth of Paris as a space of liberation for the African diaspora. Some of the most well-known Francophiles, such as James Baldwin, also wrote about a French capital marred by colonial exclusion. By desegregating the cultural study of Paris to include its impoverished outskirts, the book reveals that writers and filmmakers have deployed Franco-African intimate encounters to articulate the political exclusion of racialized subjects. In the colonial and contemporary eras, their narratives of intimacy can help us better understand the ways in which gender and sexual difference work(ed) to construct, maintain, or challenge racial boundaries.

Postcolonial Paris would not have been possible without the numerous scholars of Postcolonial French Studies, Paris Noir, and Black Europe who paved the way, including Sylvie Durmelat, Anne Donadey, Nacira Guénif-Souillamas, Trica Keaton, Alec Hargreaves, Jarrod Hayes, Michel Laronde, Neil MacMaster, Adlai Murdoch, Mireille Rosello, Paul Silverstein, Tyler Stovall, and Benjamin Stora.

Laila Amine is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She was born and grew up in France.

How Nazis co-opted German folklore studies

Our guest blogger is James R. Dow, whose new UWP book is published today: Heinrich Himmler’s Cultural Commissions: Programmed Plunder in Italy and Yugoslavia.

Traditional costumes, Folk Art Museum, Innsbruck. Photo by Reinhard Bodner.

“Oh, what a wonderful career you must have had, a specialist in German folklore! All those fairy tales and legends, beautiful folk songs, charming costumes , and those delightful buildings we’ve seen in open-air museums.”

Well, it’s more complicated than that. German folklorists and linguists included world-famous scholars, beginning with the Brothers Grimm and continuing well into the twentieth century. As the Nazis rose to power, however, these disciplines were distorted into racist pseudoscience. Under the direction of Heinrich Himmler’s SS-Ahnenerbe (Ancestral Inheritance), folklore became a tool for constructing a unified German realm and a manufactured lineage from ancient and “pure” Germanic and Nordic blood.

German folklorists and linguists were certainly not alone in selling out to the National Socialist regime, but they were called on to provide the ideological base for Heinrich Himmler’s SS-Ahnenerbe (SS-Ancestral Inheritance). A total of fourteen men and two women, mostly highly educated, became part of cultural commissions sent on a mission to two German-speaking areas: the province of South Tyrol in Italy and Gottschee in Slovenia.

Himmler assigned them to research “the space, spirit, deed, and inheritance of the Nordic races of the Indo-Germanic realm.” The commissions adhered to a belief in a stream of blood, but it proved to be nothing more than a popularized concept of “race,” with everything based on the self-deluding construction of a unified Germanic realm. This was pseudoscience masquerading as hereditary science.

The commissions found pre-Christian tales, ancient Germanic customs, worship sites, architecture, songs sung in parallel fifths, and the last remnants of a Gothic language still very much alive in the mountains, valleys, and villages of the Southern Alps.

Cow decorated with a floral swastika. Photo courtesy of Josef Rainer.

Why is this important? Himmler’s project was arguably the largest field investigation of traditional folklore in history, and the depth of the research carried out on that “Gothic” language, Cymbrian, is unparalleled. But the research was done as part of multiple projects of the SS-Ahnenerbe, which also included conducting medical “research” on prisoners in the concentration camps at Dachau and Natzweiler. When Wolfram Sievers, the business director of the Ahnenerbe, stood trial in Nürnberg in 1946, one piece of evidence brought against him was his collection of Jewish skulls, most likely from Natzweiler. You can view part of his trial on YouTube.

This was state-sponsored research, and some of the researchers were from the same universities where German excellence in scholarship had been unquestioned. The entire undertaking in Italy and Slovenia became nothing less than an affront to honest and responsible scholarship, state-mandated or otherwise. Public sector folklore studies and linguistic documentation today can learn much from this unprecedented and unparalleled occurrence in the annals of the humanities and social science scholarship.

James R. Dow is a professor emeritus of German at Iowa State University. He is the author of German Folklore: A Handbook and The Study of European Ethnology in Austria. He is the editor of numerous books, including The Facts on File Encyclopedia of World Mythologyand Legend and The Nazification of an Academic Discipline.