Stalin's Genocides (Human Rights and Crimes Against Humanity) (2011)
Stalin’s Genocides provides an in-depth analysis of the horrendous atrocities -- forced deportations, collectivization, the Ukrainian famine, and the Great Terror -- perpetrated by Joseph Stalin’s tyrannical regime. Norman Naimark argues that these crimes should be considered genocide and that Joseph Stalin should therefore be labeled a “genocidaire.” He presents four major arguments to support this claim. First, the previous United Nations definition of genocide has recently been expanded to include murder on a social and political basis. Second, dekulakization—the arrest, deportation, and execution of kulaks or allegedly well-off peasants—was a form of genocide that dehumanized and eliminated an imagined social enemy. Third, during the Ukrainian famine in 1932-1933, victims were deliberately starved by the Soviet state. Fourth, The Great Terror was designed to eliminate potential enemies of the Soviet Union. Overall, Naimark’s arguments are persuasive, presenting a chilling portrait of Joseph Stalin as a sociopath bent on destroying his own people.
Naimark begins with a brief consideration of “genocide” as a legal term in international law. Although the UN’s Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide does not apply to political or social groups, he shows—rather successfully—that the original UN definition of genocide had included these groups, but that the Soviet delegation had prevented this language from being adopted. This definition, however, has been challenged since the fall of the Soviet Union. Indeed, there have been recent cases in the Baltic states where individuals have been convicted of genocidal crimes for deporting and murdering social and political groups. Because these cases are bound by the precedents of international law, they provide historians with an opportunity to analyze Stalin’s crimes within a broadened definition of genocide that includes political and social groups.
Using this broader definition of genocide, Naimark proceeds to analyze instances of mass killing in the Soviet Union. His chapter on dekulakization is particularly persuasive as an instance of genocidal extermination both planned and implemented by the state to control its rural population. He makes the important distinction that although “the kulaks” were not a conventional social group, they “became an imagined social enemy” whose members experienced the same forms of violence and dehumanization faced by other ethnic and national groups (56). In this regard, dekulakization was similar in both form and function to internationally recognized instances of genocide in Germany, Rwanda, and Yugoslavia.
Naimark’s last two arguments regarding the Ukrainian famine and the Great Terror are less convincing. Although there is a lot of evidence to indicate that Stalin and his lieutenants were directly responsible for generating both the famine and the terror, neither of these events seems to have been intentionally designed to eliminate a particular group. Repression during the Great Terror, for example, was often applied randomly throughout the Soviet Union with little consideration given to the victim’s political, social, national, or ethnic identity. Likewise, it can be argued that the famine was used as a weapon against Ukrainian nationalism, but Naimark offers no convincing evidence to suggest that Stalin used the famine as a way to destroy the Ukrainian peasantry.
In sum, this book provides the reader with deep insight into the nature of Stalin’s crimes. It helps characterize one of history’s greatest mass murderers in a new light—as a genocidaire whose crimes should be condemned in the harshest terms. Even though the term genocide may not be appropriate in all the examples cited by Naimark, the book prompts historians to discuss the issue of genocide outside the confines of the Holocaust—a topic that many scholars have been eager to avoid.
Ukranians in Kharkiv pass by a starving man during Holodomor, the Ukranian famine, 1932 (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
Mug shot of Russian theater director Vsevolod Meyerhold after being arrested in 1939 amidst Stalin's Great Purge of artists and intellectuals (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
Joseph Stalin at the Congress of the Young Communist League with two "famous" collective farmers: Praskovya Angelina (left), founder of a female tractor team and Maria Demchenko (right), an innovative beet grower (Image courtesy of Russian International News Agency (RIA Novosti) / RIA Novosti archive, image #377427 / Shagin / CC-BY-SA 3.0)
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Published on Wednesday, November 6, 2013
George Orwell: A Life in Letters (2013)
Peter Davison’s careful selection and annotation of George Orwell’s personal correspondence in provides an engrossing autobiography of a man whose work continues to resonate globally in significant ways. A Life in Letters covers the breadth of Orwell’s life and provides an intimate and detailed look at his personality, influences, and beliefs. Davison is enormously successful in allowing the letters to improve our understanding of a broadly misunderstood man and to tell the story of a truly remarkable life.
Orwell’s letters are of particular value in depicting the changing way the world defined communism and socialism. Orwell’s dispatches from Spain show his personal, if accidental, involvement in the battle between Stalin and Trotsky. The ideological purge of the International Brigade forced him to depart Spain or face execution by Soviet proxies. Upon return, his letters demonstrate frustration with the refusal of traditional socialist journals to publish his works due to this perceived ideological taint. Later, Orwell finds he is unable to publish Animal Farm during World War II in part due to the British desire to maintain the positive image of Stalin and the Soviet Union, who were allies against Hitler. Despite finding success with Animal Farm and 1984, his letters also reveal a frustration with those who feel he is defending the status quo of western life, which is a perception of his work that still exists. Orwell claims that these people are “pessimistic and assume that there is no alternative except dictatorship or laissez-faire capitalism.” Elements of Orwell’s alternative democratic socialism are scattered throughout his correspondence, and the reader comes away from A Life in Letters with a good sense of how Orwell defined the responsibilities of government. Orwell’s letters reinforce his other writings that advocate political reform to eliminate class-based inequalities, such as access to education and medical care, while still guaranteeing individual freedoms.
Throughout the letters the mundane sits in close proximity to the profound. A notable example comes in a letter to working-class novelist Jack Common, in which Orwell first advises him on the proper thickness of toilet paper for use at Orwell’s country home before delving into a withering criticism of the “utter ignorance” of left wing intellectuals who believed they could use the upcoming Second World War to start a violent revolution in Britain. It is the mundane details that reveal Orwell’s personality. He was generous to friends and strangers alike, but was generally pessimistic about himself, his writing, and the future, and his chauvinism destroyed several friendships. Contrasts like these serve to humanize Orwell, and separate the man from the prophet.
Davison works diligently throughout A Life in Letters to ensure that the reader never loses track of the context in which Orwell wrote. Many of Orwell’s letters are indecipherable without Davison’s frequent and detailed footnotes identifying literary references, personal connections, and world events. Likewise, the inclusion of brief biographies of recipients in the bibliographical summary illuminates the broad variety of people with whom Orwell corresponded. The division of Orwell’s life into eight eras, and inclusion of a brief overview ahead of each part also helps shape the readers focus and makes finding specific letters easy. The main flaw in A Life of Letters is one of repetition. Davison often includes multiple letters from a brief period which contain the same content. There is also little correspondence from Orwell’s time in Burma, a key period in the development of his anti-imperialism. Whether this is due to a lack of available content or editorial decision is unclear.
Orwell’s writing in letters is as thoughtful and enjoyable as his prose. They show Orwell as unwilling to merely comment on the injustice he sees and his focus on tangible actions keeps the readers’ interest as easily as any thriller. The result is a detailed and intimate account that touches on the defining issues of international relations in the twentieth century and questions on the role of the state which remain topics of intense debate.
1950s dustcover for George Orwell's 1945 novel, Animal Farm (Image courtesy of Michael Sporn Animation)
Orwell at his typewriter (Image courtesy of Getty Images)
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Published on Wednesday, October 30, 2013
Hitler’s Army: Soldiers, Nazis, and War in the Third Reich (1991)
At the Battle of Stalingrad in January 1943, the German Wehrmacht looked hopeless. Hundreds of thousands of German soldiers had died, many were suffering from frostbite, and the Red Army had captured thousands more. Yet in the soldiers’ private correspondence, many ordinary troops expressed an undying loyalty and belief in Adolf Hitler. They still believed that he would somehow save them from complete annihilation. In Hitler’s Army, Omer Bartov examined how ordinary soldiers endured the Second World War. Even in the end, according to Bartov, the army remained intact, with limited mutinies compared to the First World War. In the face of complete annihilation at the hands of the Red Army, the Wehrmacht continued fighting in a “war of ideologies:” German cultural survival vs. “Judeo” Bolshevism. By focusing on the Wehrmacht’s clash with the Soviet Union, Bartov illustrates the soldiers’ greatest triumphs and horrific defeats while still maintaining their ideological ethos. Bartov concentrates on the Nazi indoctrination that happened long before the war, but, argues that, “it was during the war, and most importantly on the Eastern Front, that the Wehrmacht finally became Hitler’s army” (12). The lynchpin that kept the soldiers fighting in unspeakable circumstances was Adolf Hitler. Even when ideology and propaganda proved less effective late in the war, the soldiers believed that Hitler would still lead them to victory.
Bartov explains how the Nazis gradually eradicated many traditional army practices and transformed the Wehrmacht into Hitler’s army. Historically, until 1933, the German army remained a depoliticized separate entity from the state. He centers first on the traditional “primary groups” (soldiers that all came to the unit together) that bolstered unit cohesion and morale. Next, Bartov explains the importance of primary groups in the German army as expressions of esprit de corps and maintaining strong morale. After massive casualties during 1941’s Operation Barbarossa, replacements were too heterogeneous to form new groups and the Wehrmacht slowly lost its traditional formation. By emphasizing that primary groups only lasted a short while and most officers died, Bartov shows that these traditional roles did not play a significant part in maintaining cohesion and loyalty.
Bartov further argues that Hitler’s army endured the war through a perversion of discipline. The Wehrmacht leaders used draconian punishments and martial law to maintain order, which were new forms of discipline created by the Third Reich. The smallest infractions led to harsh penalties and any semblance of shirking or purposefully escaping death led to the death penalty. The harsh discipline resulted in a brutalization of the German army on the Eastern Front whereas the soldiers had carte blanche to terrorize the local populations with impunity. These two brutal aspects of war held the army together.
Finally, Bartov examines the role Nazi ideology played in distorting the soldiers’ perceptions of reality. Through memoirs, diaries and private correspondence by ordinary soldiers and generals, he shows that late in the war the soldiers “preferred to view the reality they knew best through the ideological factors of the regime” (8). During and after the Third Reich an inversion of reality took place. Soldiers concentrated on the physical hardships they endured while repressing and “normalizing” its inherent criminality.
Bartov posits that the army became an integral, not separate, entity of the Nazi regime. His study places emphasis on the Wehrmacht as the people’s army and a reflection of the civilian regime with its motivations, propaganda, and ideology. It became a tool of the regime and no matter the social or religious background of its members, Wehrmacht soldiers committed atrocities against those they perceived as “subhumans.” Even to the bitter end, their belief in Hitler’s “salvation,” held units together.
Adolf Hitler meeting with generals Friedrich Paulus and Fedor von Bock in Poltawa, German-occupied Ukraine, June 1942 (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-B24543 / CC-BY-SA)
Wehrmacht infantrymen in the Soviet Union, 1941 (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1989-030-27 / CC-BY-SA)
Wehrmacht infantrymen marching across the Russian steppes, 1942 (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-217-0465-32A / Klintzsch / CC-BY-SA)
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Published on Monday, October 28, 2013
Soviet Baby Boomers: An Oral History of Russia's Cold War Generation (2013)
Recalling his formative years as an American baby boomer and the influence the Cold
War and the Soviet Union had on his worldview, Donald Raleigh asks what life was like for people his age in the Soviet Union? What were their concerns about the future? How did they spend their time and what did Cold War ideological battles mean for their daily lives? As historians exhaust the biographies and psychological studies of
leaders to gain insight into authoritarian societies, scholars such as Raleigh are increasingly turning to evidence from everyday life to complete our understanding of non-democratic states. These new efforts are important because there is no denying that authoritarian governments were common in the twentieth century, lasted for several generations, and some, like the authoritarian government of North Korea, continue to affect global affairs in the new millennium. It is also increasingly evident that popular participation, and not just dictators’ decrees, helped build and dismantle authoritarian regimes.
In Soviet Baby Boomers, Raleigh borrows the US term referring to children born after World War II to examine the Soviet Union. This Soviet cohort was born leading up to Stalin’s death in 1953 and during the transfer of power to a more reform-minded leader, Nikita Khrushchev. Unlike their parents and grandparents who experienced the horrors of revolution, two world wars, Stalin’s terror and disastrous modernization policies, this new Soviet generation grew up in the “normalized” Soviet Union. The secret police, one-party dictatorship, and communism remained, but surviving the Soviet system now meant finishing university dissertations, pursuing various personal goals, and using the black market economy to improve personal fortunes. In fact, Raleigh makes the important argument that “the Soviet System’s very success at effecting social change” caused the post-Stalin generation to become cynical about the system. The Soviet welfare state provided the foundation for an educated and urbanized professional class who supported reforms in the 1980s. By that time, the enthusiasm for a normal Soviet life had withered away as Soviet citizens were increasingly able to compare their standard of living to more robust Western economies, thus highlighting the absurdities of Soviet communism. And yet, most people were not active in the dissident movement throughout the 1960s and 1970s despite widespread sympathy for it. It was not until Mikhail Gorbachev initiated the policies of “glasnost” (openness) and perestroika (economic liberalization) that the baby boomers expressed their revolutionary ideas in public, elected officials that took reforms farther than Gorbachev imagined, and prepared as best they good for the positive and negative consequences of the market economy and democracy.
Raleigh’s research centers on students who graduated in 1967 from two magnet secondary schools that specialized in English in Moscow and Saratov. Through interviews, the author examines how these students experienced events in post-Stalin Russia such as Khrushchev’s liberalization after 1956, the Cold War, the Brezhnev “stagnation,” the Soviet-Afghan War, and Gorbachev’s reforms. Many of Raleigh’s discoveries might surprise American readers. For example the interviews reveal an almost total lack of “true communist believers.” Many respondents simply claimed that by the 1970’s any sensible person could see the economic absurdities in the communist system. Simultaneously, Western popular culture, from the Beatles to consumer goods, strongly influenced Soviet knowledge of the outside world and conflicted with negative portrayals of the West. Yes, students still had classes on Marxism, but the attempt to “brainwash” Soviet baby boomers failed. Official decrees and the aging Politburo were the target of popular humor that exposed Soviet absurdities; Westerners were not the only ones to poke fun at Brezhnev. The Communist Party continued to play a role, but several interviewees claimed that they joined the Party only because of career opportunities and the residual fear of the state police and prison camps. At the same time, many admitted that they probably could have had successful careers if the hadn’t joined the Party.
Street life in the Soviet Union, 1955 (Image courtesy of flickr/Malmo Museer)
Many of the interviewees are nostalgic about the past. A majority fondly remembers the good aspects of the Soviet welfare state (free education, medicine, housing, summer camps), especially when compared with the economic and social disasters of the 1990’s. Raleigh does an excellent job displaying how nostalgia is tied to the reasonable expectations of any modern welfare state and does not indicate that baby boomers would like to return to the Soviet-style governing. However, when asked about Vladimir Putin’s presidency, most interviewees spoke positively about the ex-KGB officer’s stabilizing effect on Russia since 2000. Raleigh also examines some of the darker memories of this period, such as the prevalence of Soviet anti-Semitism in society. For example, Soviet Jews were often overrepresented in the top primary schools when compared to other ethnic groups, but then experienced discrimination when applying for university or searching for a job.
The limit of Raleigh’s study is clear from the beginning: the group of students he selected to interview comes from the well-educated Soviet elite in two central cities. This limits Raleigh’s ability to draw larger conclusions about Soviet society and the reader is left wondering how commonplace such experiences and sentiments were for other Soviet citizens. The late 1940s, 50s and 60s were years of massive migration to the urban centers, but the book focuses on well-established urban families and does not offer any contrasting experiences of first generation urbanites. At other points, Raleigh highlights interesting facts, such as the underrepresentation of Tatars in Saratov schools, but then provides no explanation.
Muscovites street dancing in 1991 (Image courtesy of Abbeville Press)
In his defense, Raleigh readily admits the limitations of his sample of interviewees, and does an excellent job showing the differences between life in Moscow (the Soviet capital) and Saratov (a large, provincial city that was purposely closed to the outside world). Furthermore, the author argues that this elite cohort of students had a privileged place in Soviet society that made their actions key to giving Gorbachev’s reforms momentum. Another issue that oral histories inevitably invoke is the fact that interviewees’ memories of events change over time and people often lie. Raleigh responds to this point by asserting that he is not only interested in the facts of Soviet life, but in what the Soviet Union represents in the baby boomers’ memories today. He carefully interrogates suspicious responses to draw out misrepresentations of certain events or topics.
In sum, for Soviet historians the author provides a vital starting point for further research and comparison on Soviet life after Stalin. For the casual reader, Raleigh demonstrates how people lived their lives under an authoritarian state by maneuvering within the bureaucracy, sustaining their families, enjoying the comforts not available to earlier Soviet generations, and placing themselves in the position to help dismantle their authoritarian state.
Published on Monday, September 30, 2013
A Ferro e Fuoco: La Guerra Civile Europea, 1914-1945 (2008)
The period from 1914-1945 has sometimes been called a "European Civil War," but that concept has rarely been put to a systematic examination. Fortunately, Italian historian Enzo Traverso's recent work A Ferro e Fuoco, which can be loosely translated as Put to the Sword, offers some intriguing proposals for understanding the period as a continental civil war. For Traverso, this larger perspective is important as Europe continues to struggle with the memory of the violence unleashed by two world wars. Only by entering the moral and psychological world of the actors of the time, he claims, can we comprehend the ever increasing systems of violence that culminated in the Holocaust.
One of the focal points of the book is how conceptions of legality changed during the period. Traverso employs the ideas of the German legal scholar (and Nazi supporter) Carl Schmitt to explain how the pre-1914 liberal order fell to the harsh legality of civil war. According to Schmitt, in a civil war, the two opposing sides each represent a different legal order, which requires that each place its enemy in a state of illegality. Before 1914 this ability of a sovereign to declare enemies illegitimate had been reserved to domestic civil wars and to the colonies. But when the Bolshevik Revolution challenged the legal structure of nation-states by representing an idea rather than a political entity, many Europeans sought to not only crack down on domestic supporters of communism, but to help overthrow, and then quarantine, the Bolshevik "virus".
Marxist revolutionary and intellectual Karl Radek, circa 1930. Traverso notes that the presence of Radek, a Polish Jew and Hapsburg citizen, among the Bolsheviks at the Brest-Litovsk negotiations in 1918 shocked the Germans, who realized they were not negotiating with representatives of Russia as a state, but as an international ideology. (Image courtesy of Dickinson College)
From the beginning of the Russian Civil War (1918) until the end of the Second World War, both fascists and communists, and sometimes liberal-democrats, denied the legal legitimacy of certain groups and individuals (such as political opponents, immigrants, ethnic minorities, and others) in order to either protect the sovereignty of the state or to provide the state with tools to construct a new legal order based not on the past, but on ideological imperatives. This culminated in Germany's invasion of Russia in 1941, a war conceived by the Nazis as an existential struggle of annihilation. It is therefore not surprising that the Allies demanded that Germany surrender unconditionally, and later executed Wilhelm Keitel, who had represented the German armed forces at the surrender. Such actions would have been inconceivable in earlier wars between nations, but the European Civil War could only be resolved through the elimination of an opponent deemed illegitimate by the victors.
Russian POWs being marched to a German prison camp, 1941 (Image courtesy of The People's Republic of Poland)
Traverso suggests that our modern liberal-democratic sensibilities are offended by the ease with which many leftists and rightists turned to the legal exclusion and violent targeting of groups seen as a threat. He fears that the consequent valorization of those who stayed neutral and "above" the fray will lead us to forget how discredited the liberal order was, and how the often violent means of revolutionaries and resistance fighters were the only realistic response to the threat of Nazism and Fascism. Furthermore, Traverso argues that while not all of these leftists were communists, only the strength and conviction of communists could have spearheaded the anti-fascist movement that would grant the opportunity for aimless socialists and liberals to regain their sense of strength.
A destroyed farmhouse in Belarus or Ukraine after the German invasion of 1941 (Image courtesy of The People's Republic of Poland)
Traverso's argument is not only legal, as he describes the evolution of violence during the period, as well as the psychological phenomena of fear and hysteria. Within each he shows how the catastrophe of World War I and its aftermath laid the foundations for the greater tragedy that would follow, though he does not go so far as to say that the Second World War was a necessary conclusion to the first. More work will have to be done to demonstrate the continuum of violence and instability linked to the fear and competing legitimacies unleashed in 1914. With that said, Traverso's work pushes us to place local violence in the broader context of an international struggle, and to place the critical moments of that struggle (the Russian Civil War, the Spanish Civil War, World War II and all of its small civil wars) in a single period marked by constant structural and psychological crisis.
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Published on Monday, April 29, 2013
Co-Winner of April Essay Contest: They Would Never Hurt a Fly (2005)
In They Would Never Hurt a Fly, Slavenka Drakulic follows the stories of the Hague War criminals from the former Yugoslavia. Drakulic argues that ordinary men transformed into war criminals gradually through intensifying rhetoric containing a perfect storm of prejudice, myth, propaganda history and culture. Becoming a war criminal is a process, she claims, that does not affect only those who are “predisposed” or “inhuman.” Indeed, anyone can become a war criminal under the right circumstances. Even well meaning, civilized people like you and me.
Ordinary people become monsters, Drakulic argues, through steady alienation of the “other” group. Individuals slowly grow accustomed to hatred and absorb it into their daily lives. It begins with trivial things like refusing association with the “other” ethnicity for fear of public ridicule and evolves to accepting – and even profiting from – the ethnic cleansing of an entire town: “This policy of small steps, of everyday decisions and concessions, of a collaboration on a much smaller scale.” Propaganda made neighbors enemies, demonizing one another over ten years. The psychological groundwork for genocide was already in the works long before the war, based on “prejudices and myths rooted in reality either in history of earlier wars or in cultural or religious differences.”
When asked why Serbians carried out war crimes, Bijana Plavsic, former President of Serbia, stated that it was blind fear of repeating the events of World War II saying, “In this obsession not to become victims ever again, we allowed ourselves to become perpetrators.” Such history of conflict is hard to forget. In addition, none of the leaders of the war could have ordered the things they did without the support of the people. Moreover, the collective culture, coupled with little personal responsibility resulted in no debate regarding the means to victory. The war criminals that transformed from innocent fishermen to mass killers, Drakulic argues, did not arise from nowhere -- they came from an extraordinary historical and cultural context.
UN Peace keepers collecting bodies from Ahmići, Bosnia and Herzegovina, April 1993 (Image courtesy of the ICTY)
Drakulic continuously searched among the war criminals for a wild, bloodthirsty “look” or pathology that could explain how these criminals were non-human psychopaths capable of carrying out their horrific orders in the Yugoslav War. Instead, she found that the generals and soldiers were remarkably unassuming and articulate. Their stories includes very wrong moral decisions, but the extent and severity of their situation and indoctrination matched the crimes they carried out. In this sense, Drakulic positions the war criminals as victims to their extreme circumstances and historical context. Although the details regarding the war criminal’s biographies were clearly fictionalized to a certain extent, Drakulic conversely levies fair treatment regarding their atrocities.
They Wouldn’t Hurt a Fly is a persuasive and controversial work that delivers an unconventional moral and daring historical perspective on the Yugoslav War. The book skillfully articulates a chilling and disconcertingly candid illustration of the war’s atrocities and their perpetrators. Although Drakulic does not identify with the war criminals, she ultimately disapproves of their non-human representation because it puts them in a classification in which we ourselves can never identify. They Wouldn’t Hurt a Fly is most quintessentially a warning. Yugoslavs never thought there could be war criminals among them - but there were.
And be sure to check out the other co-winning submission from Allegra Geller
Published Monday, April 15, 2013
Good-Bye to All That: An Autobiography (1929)
Reflecting on his motives for joining the Royal Welch Fusiliers at the outbreak of the First World War, Robert Graves wrote: “I thought that it might last just long enough to delay my going to Oxford in October, which I dreaded.” So began a five year pause in Graves’ life, in which the main action of his autobiography unfolds. In Good-Bye to All That, Graves powerfully explores the horrors of the First World War, while also providing a compelling look at the inner workings of British society.
On the front lines at Cuinchy and Laventie, divisions between the men who fought became clear. Graves highlights the bravery of Welsh soldiers who, as former miners, prove pessimistic but particularly well-adjusted to the trenches, but he adds a Welsh comrade’s sentiments regarding Scottish battalions, noting that they, “run like hell both ways.” While stationed in Ireland near war’s end, Graves comes down with Spanish influenza and flees for London to avoid suffering treatment in a “horrific” Irish hospital. In this way, Graves also relays the prevalence of regarding class and racial divisions in imperial Britain.
A French soldier receives a shave in the trenches, 1916-1917 (Image courtesy of the U.S. Government)
Throughout, Graves drives the social analysis implicit in his work with a dark sense of humor. For instance, as though schoolboys at Charterhouse, soldiers roll a defused bomb through the trenches to play a cruel joke on a shell-shocked comrade. Graves finds himself naked in a public bath in Béthune with the Prince of Wales, who was “graciously pleased to remark how emphatically cold the water was.” In a burned-out French village, the troops organize an impromptu cricket match using a birdcage as the wicket – with the dead parrot still inside. These vivid images reveal men far from home and in close proximity to death, struggling to maintain the regular routines of English life. With his humor and gently sardonic prose, Graves’s autobiography yields a depiction of the First World War and its domestic aftermath that says as much about British society as it does about the author’s own life.
Following the war, Graves picked up his life almost exactly where he left it. He matriculated at Oxford and launched a long career as a writer, poet, and scholar of antiquity. Yet, like so many of Graves’s generation, the war years left psychological scars that would linger for life. Good-Bye to All That investigates those scars and gives readers a crystalline sense of the trauma that left them.
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Published on Monday, April 8, 2013
Winner of Spring 2013 Essay Contest: Survival in Auschwitz (1956)
In Survival in Auschwitz, Primo Levi depicts a life where men, under the severe conditions of hunger, cold, illness, and constant fear, are transformed into beasts, and where justice and morality become insignificant in the fight for survival. Upon entering Auschwitz, families are separated and immediately hundreds are sent to their deaths. Tattooed and given their new identity of serial numbers, many forget their own past and their names. Initially, Levi accepts his imminent death as everyone emphasizes that the only exit from Auschwitz “is by way of the chimney” (Levi, 29). But for the next year, Levi learns to live pragmatically and efficiently under the Nazis’ continuous brutality. In doing so, he discovers two very different reactions from living in Auschwitz: those that are “saved” and those that are “drowned” (Levi, 87). The drowned rarely exist in normal society, but in Auschwitz, they are everywhere. For many, the constant cruelty dehumanizes them to the level of animals, where men accept their fate and work themselves to certain death. Conversely, a few manage to push back and use their strength, intelligence, and patience to fight relentlessly within themselves against Nazi enslavement. It is only this perspective that gives men the determination and mental fortitude to survive.
Eventually, the prisoners worked their bodies to such desperate conditions that every man fended for himself. Friendships were based on pragmatism and selfish interest. Faced with utter solitude, many prisoners would lose all motivation for survival. Out of the thousands that entered Auschwitz weekly, only a few hundred would survive. These usually included the most valuable of prisoners, such as doctors, tailors, and shoemakers. Levi and many other camp veterans understood this and reacted to make themselves appear useful and not to drown in their detestable conditions. In doing so, the saved depended on the “underground art of economizing on everything, on breath, movements, even thoughts” (Levi, 132). In the process, Levi witnesses how this strategy often leads the saved to social savagery and how “the struggle for life is reduced to its primordial mechanism” (Levi, 88).
Jews from the Carpathian Ruthenia region arrive at Auschwitz, May 1944 (Image courtesy of United States Holocaust Memorial Museum)
Auschwitz represented a period of incomprehensible extremes, where the terms hunger, “tiredness, fear, pain,” and winter do not characterize their normal, societal notions (Levi, 123). Levi “entered the camp like all others: naked, alone, and unknown” (Levi, 93). However, he quickly learned the importance of defiance. By maintaining his humanity and individualism, he avoided becoming part of the drowned anonymous mass of beings marched into the gas chambers. Shipment after shipment, men worked themselves to death in silent desolation. But for Levi, these men had already died. Their names and memories left this world the moment they arrived. Through the crematorium’s smoky black ash their existence was forever forgotten, never even known by the few who witnessed their fate. Fortunately for Levi, rescue came before his breaking point. However, towards the end, even he showed signs of the “drowned.” As French prisoners tell Levi of the German’s retreat, he “no longer felt any pain, joy, or fear” (Levi, 152). By now, it was only a matter of fact.
And be sure to check out Adrienne Morea's honorable mention submission to Not Even Past's Spring Essay Contest.
Published on Monday, February 25, 2013
State of Virginity: Gender, Religion, and Politics in an Early Modern Catholic State (2004)
Munich’s central square, Marienplatz, is best known today for its magnificent Rathaus-Glockenspiel that delights tourists and townspeople alike with its melodies. But until the nineteenth century, the square’s main attraction was a golden pillar adorned with the Virgin Mary known as the Mariensäule. Still standing today, the Mariensäule is a reminder of the religious reformations Bavaria endured as well as the Bavarian state’s early attempts at centralization and modernization in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
Erected in 1638 by order of Elector Maximilian I of Bavaria to thank the Virgin for protecting the city from an attack by Protestant Swedes during the Thirty Years War, the Mariensäule not only represented Maximilian’s fervor for Catholicism, but, as Ulrike Strasser writes, also represents his use of “virginity as a master metaphor to elaborate ideas about good governance and a functioning society.” Usually used to imply innocence, purity, and occasionally frailty, images of virgins and virginity were among Maximilian’s strongest metaphorical tools. State of Virginity explores how Maxilimilian employed female virginity to increase patriarchal power and limit female agency and facilitate Bavaria’s centralization.
Drawing on a wide variety of archival documents including Bavarian laws, civil court records, ecclesiastical court documents, and select convents’ records, Strasser investigates the ways in which marriage, family organization, and female religious life changed as a result of the new emphasis placed on virginity as the female moral and political ideal. Strasser explains that judicial records are useful to her study because they show how individuals explained their own behavior, emotions, and identities under the eye of powerful institutions. These records permit her to observe the state or the church at work, and to see how people reacted to mandates from above.
Starting with an examination of Bavarian marriage, Strasser notes that people explained their attitudes toward marriage and sexuality in the context of competing religious and secular judicial discourses. The Catholic Church wished to have all couples marry, regardless of social status, in order to affirm their respect for the sacrament in marriage and avoid licentious behavior. The state, on the other hand, took a rather paradoxical approach to marriage with its establishment of Munich’s marriage bureau. Of the utmost importance to the marriage bureau was a bride’s virginal status. If a woman was not a virgin, the union was unlikely to be approved by the marriage bureau. The state saw this virginal prerequisite to marriage as a way to prevent poor people from procreating outside of marriage, and reduce sexually licentious unions. However, in addition to virginal status, the marriage bureau also scrutinized the financial stability of couples. On top remaining chaste, the prospective spouses also had to prove they were capable of providing for a family. For the poor couples, this was often difficult to achieve. Therefore, the creation of the bureau resulted in marriage becoming a type of social status reserved for the upper echelons of society.
By making the prerequisites of marriage so strict, Bavarian authorities required women to “uphold the boundaries of a new social and sexual order” that made virginity a moral obligation, among both upper and lower classes. When wealthy women remained chaste, their families’ economic interests and possible alliances with other wealthy families remained intact, benefitting both the families and the state, which relied on these families for money and support. When women from the lower sorts remained chaste, the state believed the number of illegitimate children and single mothers would greatly decrease. This would also further strengthen the patriarchal household that the Catholic state viewed as being essential to an orderly and stable society. Although virginity became the female moral and political ideal, as Strasser argues, that was often difficult for women of the lower sorts to achieve. With marriage being denied to poor couples, these couples entered into nonmarital sexual relationships that were not sanctioned by the state. Strasser hints that the “perpetual state of virginity” that the state advocated for women who were denied marriage by the bureau, was simply an unrealistic goal. One of the only institutions that guaranteed a perpetual state of virginity for women was a convent. However, just like marriage, in the seventeenth-century, Bavarian cloisters turned away poorer women and increasingly became depositories for elite, unmarried women. Though groups of unmarried, uncloistered virgins, like the English Ladies, were established, they too consisted of “honorable women,” meaning those from the upper-middling classes or the elite. Although poor women may have remained chaste, the Bavarian state began to view unmarried and uncloistered poor women, regardless of their individual virginal status, as a “social and sexual threat” to the Bavarian state.
With marriage, family, and the convent all becoming elite institutions, what happened to the unmarried, poor, virginal woman? Are we to believe that she merely succumbed to “the sins” of the lower sorts and entered into profligate relationships? Strasser suggests, without much evidence, that the new marriage regulations and convent restrictions may have strengthened the state’s control over noble society but actually led to more relationships outside of marriage among the lower classes. Despite this lack of evidence, State of Virginity is an innovative piece of scholarship. Other studies have focused solely on the impact that this new “virginity” had on women’s experiences, but while Strasser does include the effects on women, her most poignant arguments explain how the state’s regulation of virginity brought about changes in societal structure, specifically the centralization of the Bavarian state. State of Virginity successfully repositions the role of the female sexualized body as a factor in the strengthening of Bavarian patriarchy and the process of state building under Maximilian I.
Maximilian I, Elector of Bavaria, with his wife Elisabeth Renée of Lorraine, 1610 (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
Hand colored illustrated of Maximilian I at the age of 11 (Image courtesy of Penn Provenance Project)
Munich's Rathaus-Glockenspiel (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
Published Monday, February 18, 2013
Winner of 2012 Undergraduate Essay Contest: The Memory Chalet (2010)
The Memory Chalet stands apart from most memoirs. Written by Tony Judt, renowned British historian, best known for his work Postwar (2005), after becoming quadriplegic as a result of Lou Gehrig’s disease, the memoir began as a simple memory exercise meant to distract himself from the discomforts of insomnia. While lying in bed, Judt sifted through thoughts and memories until encountering people, events, or narratives he could “employ to divert [his] mind from the body in which it [was] encased.” Soon he discovered that whole stories started to emerge during these nighttime sessions. Unable to write, Judt used the mnemonic device known as the “memory palace” to store these recollections in his mind, though he opted to house them in the quainter, cozier Swiss chalet he remembered from childhood visits to the Alps. Only later did he dictate these stories to an assistant, resulting in the beautifully composed and insightful memoir of an indomitable historian.
The memoir spans Judt’s entire life, combining autobiography with social history. Each chapter focuses on a certain moment from his past, explains its significance, and situates it in the broader history of postwar Europe. For instance, his father’s obsessive compulsion to buy cars reflected the intrinsic nature of his generation (those born in the interwar years) to find solace in the individualism and freedom one experienced in driving on the freeways of postwar Europe, a sentiment Judt’s generation never quite shared. Judt also touches on various other memories from his childhood: living in austerity in postwar England, spending entire Saturdays exploring the London Underground, learning German from a terrifyingly misanthropic teacher everyone in school called Joe. Judt recounts each episode with remarkable ease and carefully explains the importance of each in his life. For example, Joe’s highly disciplined approach to learning German, however terrifying it might have been, helped Judt discover a method for learning languages, which came in handy when he decided to study Czech in his forties.
The most interesting moments in his memoir come from Judt’s criticism of beliefs he held throughout his life. In his youth, he enthusiastically supported left-wing Zionism, spending three summers in the 1960s volunteering at an Israeli kibbutz and proselytizing Labour Zionism as an official of its youth movement. At the same time, Judt embraced Marxism and participated in the student-led revolutions of 1968 in London and Paris. However, communal life in the kibbutz strained his need for individualism and his experiences in the aftermath of the Six-Day War furthered his falling out with Zionism. Years later he would recant Marxism as well, stating that the real revolutions were happening in Prague and Warsaw. Both revolutions sought to topple the very ideology that Judt’s generation embraced. Distracted by grandiose theories of history, Judt concluded, they had “missed the boat.”
Piccadilly Circus, London, 1966 (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
The Memory Chalet offers a glimpse into Tony Judt’s development as an historian and as an exceptional thinker. Reading such a unique memoir will surely leave readers with a new appreciation for a greatly missed historian.
Jacob Troublefield is a fourth year History major. Last year he participated in the Normandy Scholars Program. He is currently working on his History Honors thesis about the Congo Reform Movement in Great Britain between 1895 and 1910. His thesis will focus on the various people who led the movement and their influence on the changing character of the movement.
Published on Monday December 10, 2012