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.
Images used under Fair Use Guidelines
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
Saint and Nation: Santiago, Teresa of Avila, and Plural Identities in Early Modern Spain (2011)
In 1617 King Phillip IV of Castile controversially elevated Teresa of Avila as patron saint of Spain, joining the current patron saint, Apostle Santiago the Great. Teresa de Avila (1515-1582) had been a sixteenth century Carmelite nun and reformer of the Carmelite Order. There is no doubt that in the early seventeenth century, amidst Spanish Catholic tensions with northern Europe, Teresa’s theological focus on heresy and the Counter-Reformation seemed relevant to the contemporary needs of Spain. In celebrating Teresa on a national scale, Phillip IV was also continuing his family’s devotion to Teresa, as his grandfather and father had campaigned for Teresa’s beatification and sanctification in Rome. Phillip IV’s appointment of Teresa as patron saint, however, triggered a fierce letter writing campaign led by devotees of Santiago. Santiaguistas wrote hundreds of letters from 1617 until 1630, when a Papal decision revoked Philip IV’s decree. The number of writers involved and the speed with which letters were exchanged in such a short period of time illustrates the dawn of new printing technologies that allowed wider dissemination of letters and pamphlets throughout Castile and the Kingdoms of Spain.
In Saint and Nation, Erin Kathleen Rowe investigates the arguments used by the Santiaguistas and the Teresianos in the letter writing campaigns of 1617-1630. Rowe demonstrates that these high stakes debates on sacred issues produced an early modern discourse on the nature and meaning of the Spanish nation. The letter writers asserted different types of geographical jurisdictions, national unities, and imagined communities by employing varying terms to designate the nation, such as: “Spanish monarchy" (Monarquía Española), Spains (Las Españas), Spain (España), Hispania (Hispania), The Crown of Castile (Las Coronas de castilla), and the kingdoms of Castile (El Reino / Los Reinos de Castilla).
Spanish King Philip IV with a court dwarf (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
Writers representing each saint sought to define the Spanish nation by drawing on their saint’s unique features. Santiaguistas argued that Santiago was already widely perceived as the patron saint of Spain. They argued that along with his popularity as a “Moorslayer” (Matamoros), who had heroically aided Castile’s centuries long Reconquista in numerous decisive battles, Santiago was also the founder of Christian Spain. According to his supporters, Santiago had converted the people of Spain to Christianity in biblical times. The fact that his martyred relics had travelled to Galicia upon his death, further illustrated his close affinity with and loyalty to the Spanish nation. Santiaguistas foresaw that sharing patronage threatened Santiago’s dominant position in Spain and vigorously argued that since Santiago perfectly represented Spanish history and nation, he should fulfil the role of patron saint alone. While the Santiaguistas were conservative in their claim that antiquity was the most important condition for patronage, Teresianos radically reconceptualised the nation by attaching importance to the modern over the ancient. They argued that because Teresa was both new and contemporary, she offered better guidance to the problems of the seventeenth century, such as the Reformation and Counter-Reformation. They argued that because Santiago was such an old saint, he could not possibly understand Spain’s contemporary woes.
Copy of a 1571 painting of Teresa de Avila (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
Rowe provides a particularly interesting analysis of gender conceptions of the nation employed by the different writers. The Teresianos either represented Teresa as a female with male attributes, for example with military clothing, or as the perfect female companion to either the King or to Santiago the Great. Sometimes they represented the two co-patrons as married. Inevitably the Santiaguistas found such notions abhorrent and tended to criticize the idea of a female national patron, thereby conforming to Renaissance conceptions of gender. However when the Archbishop of Seville criticized the Teresa’s saintliness based on her gender and used a vocabulary with double meanings in sacred and secular life in order to represent her as less than respectable, he was sternly criticised by Teresianos who argued that the Archbishop had verged on heresy.
Santiago Matamoros, or "Saint James the Moor-slayer" (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
Rowe concludes that while this debate about the nature of the Spanish nation was multifaceted, it only represented the voices of intellectuals, politicians, and theologians in Castile. Those in the surrounding kingdoms, such as Aragon and Portugal, paid little if any attention to the “great debate” on co-patronage. While Rowe could be criticized for exaggerating the importance of the co-patronage debate and its relevance to definitions of early modern Spanish nationhood, given the complete lack of interest of those outside of Castile, the case study has significant resonance throughout Spanish history. Who exactly defines and imposes the idea of Spain? The central region of Spain has found it necessary throughout its history to forcibly insert the peripheral regions into definitions of the nation, even though those in the periphery may have been ambivalent or even opposed to becoming part of the Spanish nation. Both Santiago’s and Teresa’s lasting importance in narratives of Spanish nationhood also illustrate the centrality of these early seventeenth-century debates in contemporary society.
A frescoe depicting the 1431 Reconquista Battle of Higueruela (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
Rowe’s study of the origins of Spanish national discourse in sacred debate is beautifully written, well crafted, and coherently organized. It is intriguing, highly informative, and original. Not all scholars will welcome Rowe’s argument that the earliest definitions and debates about the nation rested on discussions of scared and spiritual matters, but it is a courageous and highly important study.
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Chloe Ireton's review of Boundaries: The Making of France and Spain in the Pyrenees and Zachary Carmichael's review of Bárbaros: Spaniards and Their Savages in the Age of Enlightenment
Published on Monday November 26, 2012
Boundaries: The Making of France and Spain in the Pyrenees (1989)
To what extent is national identity directed from the political center of a nation? Do individuals living on the periphery of nations have agency in defining their own national identities? Peter Sahlins’ Boundaries: The Making of France and Spain in the Pyrenees departed from previous scholarship on national identity by arguing that national identity formed both on the localized level among individuals responding to local communal or personal issues and on the central, political level, where national rulers sought to incorporate peripheral communities into the national fold and impose a national identity through polity, education, law, lingua franca, and religion.
Sahlins’ study focuses on the Cerdanya valley, on the border between eastern France and Spain. His interdisciplinary study uses sociological, anthropological, ethnographic, and political and social historical approaches to identity formation. It is rooted in extensive research in archives across the Pyrenees on varied themes such as migrations, political disputes, marriage records, and criminal activity. Sahlins weaves together macroscopic and microscopic histories: the political history of the French and Spanish negotiations over the Pyrenean border alternates with studies of local responses to boundaries and nationhood from the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries. The changing focus -- from macro to micro, and political to local -- allows the readers to contextualize the significance of national policies in these peripheral borderland regions and the importance of local definitions and uses of nationhood. This movement between the two historical lenses has led to many probing questions about the effects of national policies on local community politics in other regions of the world, and how localized events affect national identities.
The French Pyrenees town of Cauterets, between 1890 and 1900 (Image courtesy of Library of Congress)
The French Pyrenees town of Lourdes, between 1890 and 1900 (Image courtesy of Library of Congress)
Throughout the study, Sahlins probes the relationship between local and national identities. He concludes that locals on the borderland often drew on national identities when defending local community interests against an invading enemy or significant “other.” They did this for example when confronting foreign property owning elites who did not pay taxes to the community, or when faced with an attack from a national army. In such cases, locals chose their nationality based on serving their own interests. Therefore a local from the French side of the border may claim to be both French and Spanish at different junctures in his lifetime, depending on local circumstances and interests. Sahlins also explored localized relationships across the national border in economic, familial, political, cultural, and linguistic terms. These investigations complicate the notion of a single national identity on either side, since locals travelled across the border regularly, often changing abode depending on economic or political circumstances. Sahlins also pointed to the importance of trilingual communities in questions of national identity. While locals from across the border may have spoken different languages for different purposes, and may have had different political affinities, they all shared the ability to allow their nationality to be permeable and changeable by code switching.
The French Pyrenees, 2010 (Image courtesy of Nicolas guionnet/Wikimedia Commons)
This book is without doubt a masterpiece. The study illustrated the fragility of national identities and borders in the Pyrenees from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries. It gave agency to local actors for defining their national identities, while showing how local definitions can have serious impacts on a national level.
Published on Monday October 22, 2012
Curzio Malaparte's Kaputt is a morbid and often surreal examination of the descent of European civilization during World War II. Malaparte’s description of Axis Europe during World War II is not the most accurate, but it may be the most telling. His extravagant writing style and excellent use of symbolism provide several haunting and powerful images that sum up the horrors of the war like few accounts have. As one of the more famous Italian cultural figures, Malaparte was connected to the elites of Axis Europe, including aristocrats, diplomats, and Nazi leaders. This is an insider's account that comes from a man who had a long, troublesome history with fascism. Malaparte's description of total moral collapse is so powerful because he participated in it personally.
One can guess at Malaparte's (born Kurt Eric Suckert) moral ambiguity from his pseudonym, which was a sinister play on Napoleon Bonaparte's surname. Though he was an early supporter of the Italian Fascist movement, he spent time in jail in the early 1930s for a controversial coup d'etat how-to guide. Later in the decade, Malaparte sought to once more ingratiate himself into the regime. At the beginning of the war, he managed to obtain permission to visit various fronts in an Italian officer's uniform as a war correspondent for the Milanese newspaper, Corriere della Sera. It is likely that he initially believed in an Axis victory, though his articles still warranted censorship. As a German victory appeared less likely, Malaparte began changing his early (and secret) manuscript for Kaputt into a devastating indictment of Axis Europe. In this dangerous context, Malaparte described Kaputt as a novel, altered parts of it for political reasons, and included elements of fiction throughout. Despite these alterations, the themes and indelible images of the book make it an extremely interesting and thought-provoking read.
A German officer eats "C-rations" in Saarbrücken, Germany, 1945 (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
Symbolism plays an important role throughout Kaputt. Malaparte splits the book into six parts named after animals -- Horses, Mice, Dogs, Birds, Reindeer, and Flies – and relates his experiences with these animals during the war to broader problems in European society. In the section on horses, for example, he compares the smell of dead horses on the Eastern Front with the new, industrial smell of burned-out armored vehicles. Then he describes a horrifying scene on the northern shore of Lake Ladoga, outside of Leningrad, in which hundreds of Russian horses froze to death in the lake, with their heads sticking out of the ice. For Malaparte, the indifferent attitude of Europe to the slaughter of so many horses represents the final death of any sense of nobility in European culture.
Paris after bombardment, April 21, 1944 (Image courtesy of German Federal Archives/Wikimedia Commons)
In another powerful scene, Malaparte describes a German general in Finland who is obsessed with catching a large salmon. In the final struggle, the general, decked out in his uniform and watched by many spectators, tussles for hours with the salmon. Frustrated and facing a blow to his dignity, the general orders his aide to shoot the salmon in the head with a pistol. Malaparte argues time and again in Kaputt that Nazi violence is a product of fear and weakness. The very thought that the "lesser beings" of the world could even challenge the always triumphant German demands the destruction of the "pitiful" challenger. Thus the valorization of strength leads to an intensive fear of the weak, which alone has the power to unmask the hollow, naked truth of the real German. While one cannot say whether the salmon story is true or not, it effectively encapsulates Malaparte's explanation of Nazi violence.
Ruins along the Pegnitz River, Germany, April 20, 1940 (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
Malaparte's symbolic descriptions of the front would make for a powerful account in their own right. Yet the true weight of the book comes from the immorality of those behind the front. In a clever literary technique, Malaparte describes elite social gatherings in which he tells his stories from the front. The reactions tell us much about the moral depravity of the decadent Axis elite: laughter, jokes, evasion, justification, and sullen acceptance are the norm, while true outrage and empathy are nowhere in sight. Malaparte is so disgusted by this cold and hardened response to the destruction of Europe and its people that he is shocked to hear the word sangue (blood) uttered with reverence by poor Italians in Naples. Malaparte can scarcely believe that blood could be a sacred and dignified object after he has seen so many Nazis speak of mass death in such scientific terms and expressionless tones. This blasé attitude to the horrors of war is best seen in Malaparte's intimate conversation with the Italian Foreign Minister, Galeazzo Ciano. While Ciano believes there is a chance he can survive by siding with the Allies, Malaparte frankly tells him that the Italians will want him dead for his actions during the war and that his only option is to wait for Mussolini or the Italians to kill him. Malaparte implies that Ciano did not risk his life for fascism, or against fascism, but on a failed bid for personal power, and now he will die for nothing. Ciano glumly returns to eyeing the beautiful women who frequent his court.
Soviet infantrymen marching through Kiev, 1943 (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
Though segments of Kaputt are either fictitious, exaggerated, or self-serving, Malaparte's ambiguous involvement with fascism allows us to hear from someone who knew the movement from the inside, and who could offer profound insights into the moral decline of Europeans during the war. For anyone who is interested in a powerful literary account of the Eastern Front and an unparalleled description of the social life of the Axis elite, Kaputt is a must-read.
Published on Wednesday October 17, 2012
The Politics of the Veil
Joan Wallach Scott introduces The Politics of the Veil, about the 2004 headscarf debates in France, with a telling sentence: “This is not a book about French Muslims; it is about the dominant French view of them.” Writing in highly accessible prose, Scott examines the political firestorm surrounding the official French ban on headscarves for girls under the age of eighteen in public schools. She challenges the government’s assertion that headscarves represent chauvinism, sexism, repressive patriarchy, and "anti-modernism" and that they are therefore antithetical to the egalitarian ideals of the French republic. In reality, Scott contends, the headscarf ban typifies the roiling undercurrents of anti-Muslim racism endemic to contemporary French society.
Scott explains that the headscarf ban was justified by appeals to the French republican ideal of secularism. In the French legal system, unlike the American or British, differences of religion (as well as race, sex, etc.) are formally unacknowledged. Instead of being given legal protections based on differences, all are considered first and foremost French citizens, with the underlying ideal that French nationality comes before any other marker of identity. Secularity is designed to protect French citizens from any claims of institutionalized religion (in contrast to the American and British systems, which protect religion from the interference of government). Because of this, “[N]o official statistics are kept on the ethnicities or religions of the population. If differences are not documented, they do not exist from a legal point of view, and so they do not have to be tolerated, let alone celebrated.”
Scott notes that very few girls - a tiny minority - were wearing headscarves to school. There was not a sudden influx of veiled immigrant girls filling French schools. In addition, several of the girls who were involved in setting off the debates had voluntarily adopted the headscarf. These young women had not been pressured into hijab by their fathers, brothers, imams, or local community, but instead had selected to wear the headscarf as an individual choice. Their use of religious garb as a form of pious expression was both fully autonomous and entirely personal. Finally, these girls were wearing a form of hijab that only covers the hair and neck; they were not wearing niqab, the burqa, or other forms of the veil that obscure the face and render the wearer difficult to identify.
The reasons for outrage over the sartorial choices of such a small subset of the population can be traced to French colonial history, Scott contends. Explaining the internal contradictions inherent in the French mission civilisatrice, Scott argues that the assimilationist goals of the French colonizing mission – essentially an attempt to “Frenchify” the colonized – were fundamentally unattainable because the colonized peoples were perceived as un-civilizable. Formal policies of racial and ethnic segregation and discrimination accompanied the French colonial venture in Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco, further distancing the colonizers from the people they were seeking to “civilize.” Nowhere, Scott argues, was this discursive colonial project of “Othering” more evident than in the French treatment of Muslim North African women. Muslim women were figured in a binary opposition as either oppressed, harem-bound victims or the exotic, hyper-sexed prostitutes. Historically, then, the headscarf has long served as a symbol of alterity within France. Contemporary France, dealing with an influx of mostly poor North African immigrants - who are officially citizens - from the former colonies fares little better, as the ban on headscarves, rather than “liberating” young women, perpetuates racist and sexist stereotypes of the Muslims within its midst.
Posted Monday, September 10, 2012