The Centre welcomed one of its own this week, hosting Jake Blanc, Edinburgh’s newly-appointed Lecturer in Latin American History. This talk represented both a geographical and conceptual shift from those that have preceded it this semester, leaving behind histories of Western, urban spaces to concentrate on rural areas in the global south. Fraser Raeburn sent this report – or you can listen again to the whole talk by following the link below.
The focus of the talk was the Itaipu Dam megaproject on the border of Brazil and Paraguay. The dam displaced 40,000 people in the Paraná region of Brazil and led to unprecedented political mobilisation in the early 1980s. Blanc has done extensive research on this mobilisation and he used this talk to advance several theoretical and empirical hypotheses based on this case study of political and environmental activism.
Challenging urban-centric histories of Brazilian democratization, he pointed to the emerging protest movements not just as an effective instance of activism that succeeded in many of its goals, but as the politicisation of the countryside itself.
This movement was not just a challenge to the military regime on the question of Itaipu’s effects, but was able to articulate a positive message about agrarian reform that resonated throughout much of the country. Taking place as it did during a key period in Brazil’s democratic transition, known as abertura, the issue became a test of the government’s new-found commitment to democratic processes.
Despite the unity of purpose, Blanc also observed that there were tensions within the movement between different categories of displaced people. Landed farmers – generally of European heritage – saw the question as one of property rights, and sought fairer compensation for the land they were losing. Landless agrarian workers, on the other hand, saw the issue in terms of land reform, seeking ‘land for land’ as a replacement. Lastly, the local indigenous peoples, the Avá-Guarani, saw the lost land as a threat to their specific way of life.
Perhaps predictably, each group of stakeholders saw substantially different outcomes and post-Itaipu trajectories. Landed farmers were generally successful in gaining higher levels of compensation for their land, and were often able to purchase new land elsewhere in the region or Brazil, and this success meant an end to their participation in the political movement.
Agrarian workers, by contrast, were less successful in pressing their claims, and their continued activism spawned a wider movement still active in Brazil (known as MASTRO). This put them into conflict with the Brazilian Government, and they faced violence and repression at the hands of the police and military. Nevertheless, the mobilisation sparked a surge in rural political consciousness, as well as connecting rural struggles with urban political movements.
Finally, indigenous peoples remained marginal to post-Itaipu political movements, and were seen as apolitical actors, making their struggle as much one of recognition as legitimate participants in the political process as of land rights.
Blanc used the case study of the Itaipu Dam protests to make two theoretical observations. First, that Brazilian abertura needs to be understood as having dual realities – that of official rhetoric and promises, as understood by an urban elite, and the experiential reality faced by Brazil’s rural population. In Blanc’s view, abertura was an attempt to democratise Brazil without upsetting existing social orders, meaning that these rural campaigners for agrarian reform experienced similar problems under both dictatorship and democracy.
Blanc’s second point was that we should challenge our periodisation of Brazil’s democratic transition. Historians have tended to accept a national periodisation of the military dictatorship, with less regard to the actual experiences of the different strata of Brazilian society. He stressed, in particular, the continuities in the struggles of rural Brazilians that both predated and continued past the end of Brazil’s military dictatorship, with entrenched structural inequalities defying the neat dichotomy of dictatorship and democracy. Competing realities, in other words, produce competing chronologies, meaning that historians need to be more critical in their use and acceptance of established periodisations.
After the talk, Cassia Roth (Edinburgh) offered a thoughtful comment, in which she challenged the relevance of the rural-urban dichotomy in a Brazilian context. This was followed by an engaged question and answer session from an inquisitive – and interdisciplinary – audience.
Fraser Raeburn is a PhD student in History. He works on interwar Europe and Britain, ideological confrontation and the history of foreign fighters. His thesis examines the involvement of Scots in the Spanish Civil War. He is a member of the CSMCH steering committee.
We continue our series of guest contributions with Theo Zenou’s reflections on Harold Macmillan’s famous book The Middle Way and its continuing relevance in the febrile politics of the twenty-first century
1938, Britain. While the political class was fixated upon foreign affairs, in the hope of averting world war, a quirky Member of Parliament—Harold Macmillan—authored a socio-economic treatise entitled The Middle Way. It was his sixth book in a decade, a feat rendered somewhat less impressive by the fact he literally owns the printing presses. Macmillan is the scion of publishing powerhouse, Macmillan and Co., and a partner at the family firm.
Macmillan, the free thinker
Born at the turn of the century, Macmillan was a child of privilege but not one of luxury. The Etonian inherited his wardrobe from his older brothers—making him, already as a youngster, appear old-fashioned and out of place. Prone to ill health and bouts of depression, Macmillan found solace in the family’s book collection. He admired Benjamin Disraeli’s One-Nation conservatism, yet found much of interest in Liberal reformism and Christian socialism. Macmillan, in short, was something of a political free-thinker.
After service in the Great War, Macmillan joined the Conservative Party and, in 1924, he was elected Tory MP for the constituency of Stockton-on-Tees in the North of England. In parliament, he rapidly emerged as a rebel. But a very peculiar kind of rebel: not brash or irate, but eccentric, impertinent and, some believed, pompous. His self-restraint, stiff even by the day’s standards, irked many.
Consigned to the back benches, Macmillan spent the roaring twenties and bleak thirties honing his vision. Recognising in the great depression a breakdown of modern civilization, he castigated the Conservative government for its punitive austerity programme. He went so far as to deem his own party “dominated by second-class brewers and company chairmen—a Casino Capitalism—[that] is not likely to represent anybody but itself.” All the while he feared poverty would engender the ascent of Soviet-style socialism. By the year 1938—and the publication of The Middle Way—Macmillan, the statesman-in-waiting, was fully formed.
The Middle Way
The Middle Way made the case for a mixed economy, that is one neither wholly—or explicitly—capitalist or socialist, instead striking a balance between the “unfettered abuse” of the free market and the “intolerable restriction” of the state. To Macmillan, this entailed relinquishing economic dogmas, thinking critically about the trends that led to crises and experimenting with new approaches.
He outlined the methods by which not just recovery but prosperity could be achieved: a dynamic partnership between the public sector and private enterprise, bold projects of industrial reconstruction and infrastructure works, a regulatory framework for the financial industries in order to curtail speculation and encourage investment, social programmes to limit the fallout from unemployment. If this sounds similar to the economic theories of another Old Etonian—John Maynard Keynes—that’s because it is. Macmillan, whose firm published Keynes, quoted him extensively. Yet Macmillan, unlike Keynes, was a politician and The Middle Way is most interesting if seen not as a thesis on policy, but as a work of political philosophy that also speaks to the character of its notoriously unflappable, enigmatic author.
The Middle Way was a book about ensuring the survival and continuation of civilisation and democracy. Macmillan saw them as precious but wobbly edifices in need of constant repair. He identified as the great challenge ahead the necessity to “retain our heritage of political, intellectual and cultural freedom while, at the same time, opening up the way to higher standards of social welfare and economic security.” To him, politics was a tool to liberate society from “the humiliation and restraints of unnecessary poverty”, so that individual men and women could develop and realise themselves in relative harmony.
He emphasised that the mere accumulation of material things could not be the aim of these intersecting quests. Rather Macmillan imagined a world in which happiness—he defined it as “a light which illuminates the mind and spirit of those (…) ready to receive it”—is the main business of being human. However, he did not make any false promises of utopia: his middle way wouldn’t get anyone there. Macmillan firmly believed that “happiness is personal,” and it is up to the individual—and him alone—to tread his own path.
Underscoring this humanism were the ideas of rigour and responsibility. To achieve his political vision, Macmillan reiterated throughout The Middle Way—like a mantra—the need for “conscious regulation” and “conscious direction and control.” The qualifier “conscious,” straight out of psychology, appears odd when referring to the economy. No economist has used this turn of phrase before or since. However, Macmillan’s idiosyncratic choice of adjective says much about him as a man.
All his life, Macmillan struggled with regulating his own unconscious mind. By nature, he was hyper-emotional, easily upset and dispirited, susceptible to over-thinking and doubt. Not long before his death, Macmillan confided in his biographer Alistair Horne: “I always felt that one must maintain great control, but it is very exhausting keeping it to yourself. I wasn’t really ‘unflappable,’ I just had to keep it down.” Macmillan overcame his own mood swings through a constant quest for mental balance and he saw society in much the same way: as a living organism privy to the brutal pendulum swings of the left and the right, under threat from the excesses of socialism and capitalism. To ordain and order society—that is to be in the business of politics—is a perpetual balancing act. It offers no time for complacency, demands vigorous thinking and effective action and, above all, it never ends. That was, ultimately, the message of The Middle Way.
Beyond the Middle Way?
During the Second World War, Harold Macmillan served in the cabinet of another formidable Tory backbencher, Prime Minister Winston Churchill. And at long last, in 1956, he became Prime Minister himself. By the time Macmillan reached office, his middle way had gone a long way. The post-war settlement, informed by the theories of Keynes, resulted in the creation of the welfare state and a more preponderant role for the government in economic affairs. Macmillan, then, possessed the tools to govern he so relishes. Though some experts credit global conjuncture for his economic success, his tenure nonetheless guided the return of prosperity and achieved a rise in living standards for all Britons. In 1957, in his most famous remark, often the source of mockery, he stated: “Let’s face it, most of our people never had it so good.”
Harold Macmillan resigned in 1963, on grounds of poor health, following the Profumo affair. Beyond this unfortunate turn of events, it’s clear that Macmillan was increasingly out of touch with the British public. His composure, once lauded as a sign of stable leadership, was now the object of ridicule. A new Britain was emerging, and it had no room for an archaic gentleman born in the Victorian era.
In 1979, after a decade of economic decline and poor political management, Margaret Thatcher was elected Prime Minister. She embraced the “unfettered” free market, loathed the state and preached the doctrine of monetarism, in many ways the very “casino capitalism” Macmillan had battled his whole life.
Thatcher derided, in particular, the middle way—though she referred to it by the more widely-used term of “consensus” (as in post-war Keynesian consensus). She said it is “the process of abandoning all beliefs, principles, values, and policies in search of something in which no one believes, but to which no one objects; the process of avoiding the very issues that have to be solved, merely because you cannot get agreement on the way ahead. What great cause would have been fought and won under the banner: ‘I stand for consensus?’” Thatcher’s argument was salient, and an apt commentary on much of what ails politics. She forgot, however that, in 1938, Macmillan’s middle way was far from heralding consensus.
Unlike the flabby Prime Ministers who succeeded him, Macmillan had not been a passive receiver of consensus, but rather an active shaper of it. His successors failed to achieve equilibrium in the political balancing act that is the middle way, yet that is certainly no justification to throw the baby out with the bathwater. With gusto and method, Thatcher destroyed the middle way and replaced it with her own consensus: neo-liberalism.
Harold Macmillan died, disillusioned, in 1986. As a statesman, he hailed the middle ground as the only position in politics that can be occupied “with honour.” His eclecticism was not the result of a lack of conviction, but rather the harbinger of the strength of his principles. He had the temerity to think outside of existing dogmas, and formulate his own outlook. Macmillan, too, looked to his own life to understand truths about human existence and find an ingenious way to integrate them to politics.
Macmillan may seem the stuffy relic of a bygone world, but his middle way is urgently topical in our age of brutal political polarization and dizzying technological progress. Beyond the economic ideas—many of which still sound judicious—it is his breadth of vision we sorely need. In 1938, as now, it is the “preservation of Democracy” that is at stake. In an eerily prescient passage of The Middle Way, Macmillan noted: “[Man’s] present task is to liberate himself from the dominance of the machine; to found a new civilisation in which human life is supreme, and in which new vistas of freedom open up because the machine becomes his slave.” That is but one of the reasons why The Middle Way deserves re-appraisal as a major work of political thought.
Theo Zenou is an MSc Research student in History. His research interests lie in twentieth century American politics, and the way political leaders formulate grand visions for their country and people. His dissertation centres on the communication strategies of Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan. He is an affiliated student of the CSMCH.
We were delighted to welcome Esra Özyürek (LSE) to the Centre to present some of her work on German Muslims. In front of a packed crowd – there were people sitting on the floor! – she gave a fascinating dissection of the German ‘national character’ through the lens of young German Muslims and German-Muslim intellectuals. Anita Klingler reports back on a stimulating and controversial evening.
A young child appears on the stage, sitting, blindfolded, and eagerly awaiting the surprise his father has for him. It is a toy gun. The father takes off the blindfold, the child rejoices at the new plaything. Then the father begins to instil in his son his worldview: that the Jews who surround them are bad people, evil, less than human. All the while, the father is dressed in a black leather trench coat, immediately recognisable to the audience as representing a stereotypical item of Nazi attire. The Palestinian present and the Nazi past have become one on this stage, indoctrinating the young to hate.
It was this scene, acted out as part of a campaign to teach young Muslim men in Germany about the Holocaust, that captured our speaker Esra Özyürek’s imagination early on in the conception of this research project. As would become apparent in her talk, Özyürek is sceptical that ghettoising, in particular, Muslim youth to teach them about antisemitism and democracy is the most effective way of addressing issues of failed integration, violent behaviour, and a lack of identification with the liberal-democratic values of the Federal Republic.
In examining certain strands of the public discourse on how best to ‘reform’ these youths, Özyürek discovered an interesting parallel to another re-education programme which had taken place on German soil some 70 years earlier. Drawing on the 1944 movie Tomorrow the World! as an example, she set out how the image of Germans at the end of the Second World War was that of the ‘unruly boy’; a child, misguided by Nazism, but able to be taught right from wrong and rehabilitated into the civilised world.
Most importantly, according to Özyürek, American re-education efforts, bolstered by anthropological studies of ‘national character’, focused on changing the Nazis’ authoritarian child-rearing methods and strict patriarchal family structures. Germans needed to learn from Americans how to be democratic by imitating their behaviours, and in particular by adopting a softer ideal of masculinity, rooted in trust and emotions, rather than order and authority.
This pathologization of the German ‘national character’ as a patient, who is sick but can be cured, is repeated, in Özyürek’s analysis, in modern-day Germany with regards to young Muslim men. The Germans, having learned from imitating the Americans after the Second World War, are now mature enough to teach the unruly young Muslims the same lessons. Citing, in particular, self-styled experts who come from Muslim backgrounds themselves, but have gone on to publish books which are critical of Islam, Özyürek showed how their discourses draw on similar ideas of the patriarchal family, forced obedience, domestic violence, and sexual repression as the root cause for young Muslim men’s frustrations, violent behaviours, and religious radicalisation.
She fleshed out this parallel by presenting extensive quotations from three such experts, two of Turkish origin, one with Arab roots. All of them focused on the Muslim father figure as a cruel and almighty ruler of the household, who demands obedience, forbids questions, punishes misconduct, and instils shame in his children. At the same time, he is often perceived as dysfunctional by his children, especially if he speaks only broken German or faces challenges such as unemployment, which question his authority. Thus, the argument goes, the adolescents remain forever immature and seek an alternative figure of authority in the shape of Allah, or his representatives on earth, especially radical imams who offer clear structures, answers, and welcome them with open arms.
The solution presented by the Muslim-background experts for how Muslims can learn to be democratic, respect women, Jews, and homosexuals, and adopt the values of liberal mainstream Germany, is to rebel. Again, a parallel with the German past is drawn, this time with the generation of 1968 and its rebellion against their Nazi fathers. Young Muslims today must rebel against their authoritarian fathers just like young Germans did in 1968; only then can they emancipate themselves from the undemocratic principles instilled in them by their upbringing.
Özyürek criticised how, in presenting this solution, the self-appointed experts vastly oversimplify the varied Muslim experiences within Germany and draw a faulty total dichotomy between ‘German’ and ‘Muslim’ families, the former representing an ideal which the latter ought to aspire to, to truly belong. These experts also draw heavily on their personal biographies and present themselves as having successfully completed the process of rebellion, and having embraced the liberated ways of Western democracy, just like the Germans had 70 years prior, bringing the analogy full circle.
The paper was followed by a stimulating discussion, initiated by Mathias Thaler’s thoughtful comments. He raised the question of the role of a less pro-American strand of post-1945 re-education, namely the Frankfurt School’s engagement with authoritarianism, which seems to complicate the notion of Germans having become democratic solely by following the American lead. He also asked how Özyürek’s analysis might fit with the pan-European character of the ‘Muslim troublemaker’, in light of the fact that no other country in Europe experienced denazification and American re-education on the scale Germany did.
After this, audience members questioned the speaker on the difficult definition of ‘Muslim’, which led Özyürek to speak about the ethnicisation of Islam in Germany, according to which all individuals with roots in Muslim countries were counted as Muslims, but not the around 100,000 ethnic Germans who have converted to Islam. Other questions concerned methodology, with some of the audience questioning whether by simply citing the Muslim-background experts who she evidently disagreed with, Özyürek had done enough to demonstrate their arguments’ fallaciousness. Some wondered to what extent the parallel in discourse was cogent or simply coincidental, and whether the trope of educating a ‘child-like’ people towards democracy was not one familiar from imperial contexts.
In the end, the paper presented an interesting case study of two re-education efforts which evidently exhibit uncanny parallels. The complex issue of analysing them in relation to each other and to the challenges of the present raised many difficult questions, and will have left the audience members with much food for thought.
Anita Klingler is a PhD student in History. Her research interests lie broadly in twentieth century European history, political and colonial violence, and coming to terms with a violent past. Her thesis compares attitudes towards political violence in interwar Britain and Germany. She is a member of the CSMCH steering committee.
This week, the Centre welcomed Lorena de Vita (Utrecht), whose work on postwar German-Israeli relations formed the basis of her talk entitled ‘Democracy, morality, pragmatism: The 1952 agreement between Germany and Israel’. You can read Rosalind Parr’s seminar report below and you can also listen to a short interview Emile Chabal did with Lorena about how she first became interested in this research topic.
Lorena de Vita’s work examines the history of International Relations between Israel and ‘the two Germanys’ in the years immediately after the end of the Second World War. Although East and West employed radically different approaches, de Vita nevertheless includes them in a common frame – a historiographical innovation which, amongst other things, offers insights into the globally-wrought framework on which German-Israeli relations rested.
In her paper, de Vita examined the 1952 agreement through which the Federal Republic of Germany (FDR) paid Wiedergutmachung (‘reparations’, literally ‘making good again’) to Israel following the Holocaust. The overlapping rivalries between East and West Germany on the one hand, and between Israel and its Arab neighbours on the other, form the background to this diplomatic episode. As de Vita demonstrated, the agreement contributed to the FDR’s self-representation as a stable, responsible democracy on the world stage. In doing so, the new FDR made a conscious bid to differentiate itself from both ‘the Germany of the past and the Germany of the East.’
By 1949, Israel was reeling under austerity, inflation and the arrival of a new wave of refugees created by the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. Official boycotts prevented economic or political links with Germany but a series of secret missions took place to assess the willingness of either West or East to negotiate on the subject of shilumim (‘payments’), as well as to consider the possibility of trade links. Meanwhile, Chancellor Adenauer signalled the FDR’s willingness to ‘make good again’ by publicly pledging ten million German Marks in reparations. This laid claim, not only to the FDR’s new democratic credentials, but to its status as the real representative of Germany.
As de Vita explained, the issue could not be resolved so easily. When the Israeli parliament met to discuss whether to start official talks with the FDR, there were violent protests. After negotiations had begun, they were disrupted by explosive parcels sent by Jewish terrorists opposed to the talks. There were voices of dissent, too, on the German side amid suggestions that the FDR’s relations with Israel could undermine trading opportunities elsewhere. In Jakarta, the German Ambassador objected on the grounds that the FDR had already paid out to individual Jewish claimants. Meanwhile, the FDR had unfulfilled financial obligations to the Allies, making it difficult for the German government to commit to specific figures despite Adenauer’s earlier pledge.
As de Vita pointed out, pressure came from elsewhere too. While the British and United States governments urged Adenauer not to let the talks fail, the Arab League was deeply opposed to the prospect of payments to Israel, fearing they would boost Israeli military might. One fascinating dimension of the FDR-Israeli agreement is how, in March 1952, Arab states became prominent players in the story of FDR-GDR rivalry when delegations from the two German governments arrived simultaneously in Cairo for negotiations, raising the question of who represented Germany on the world stage.
Amid these multiple tensions, a clear theme of the paper was the history of human connections between the FDR and Israel. Over the course of the negotiations, a German and an Israeli delegate discovered, on the basis of a common accent, that before the war they had attended the same school and shared a favourite teacher.
Commenting on the paper, Stephan Malinowski was impressed by the multiple levels of analysis, ranging from domestic agendas to regional rivalries and global connections. This was something that was further discussed in the Q&A session that followed. Malinowski also provided fascinating insight into the ‘monster word’ Wiedergutmachung, drawing our attention to the subtle connotations of the term. Finally, he raised the question of the reparations model, prompting a thoughtful response from de Vita about the morality of reparations in the international postcolonial context.
De Vita’s research on the agreement between the FDR and Israeli forms part of a wider project on Israel-German relations. We look forward to the book’s publication!
Rosalind Parr is PhD student in History. Her research interests are located in transnational and global histories of the twentieth century, particularly through the lenses of South Asian and gender history. Her thesis examines the international activities of Indian nationalist women in the period from the 1920s to the 1950s. She is an affiliated student of the CSMCH
Continuing with our exciting guest contributions by Centre affiliates, we have invited Jordan Girardin (University of St Andrews) to tell us more about the fascinating work he has been doing on postcards and the visual history of modern tourism.
In September 2017, British postcard publisher J Salmon of Sevenoaks announced it would cease its activity by the end of the year. Founded in 1880, Salmon of Sevenoaks was one of the UK’s leading publishers of postcards and calendars. But it struggled to find a sixth generation in the family to run the family business. It claimed that social media had brought the postcard industry to a gloomy end, with annual postcard sales slumping from 20 million at the end of the last century to only 5 million in recent years. Indeed, social media offers a more personalised snapshot of our travel experience. It can reach many more recipients, does not cost anything else than access to the Internet, and of course, takes less than a second to receive as opposed to however long it will take postal services to deliver your postcard.
The demise of J Salmon reminds us that postcards are a creation of the modern tourism industry, which developed in the second half of the nineteenth century. This new form of travel was characterised by the development of modern infrastructures and economic models. Railways developed in order to bring higher numbers of travellers to more destinations, and in less time. And hotels were built to minimise the burden of having to find local inns or lodgers, which was a usual challenge for eighteenth century travellers visiting smaller towns and villages.
These towns often reinvented themselves in the late nineteenth century to become resorts: Alpine villages became winter resorts, where interactions with the locals were scarce and a true Alpine experience was promised to the visitor. Seaside regions reshaped their status, by calling their strip of land a “Riviera”. The birth of advertising, alongside modern capitalism, allowed for a visual promotion of these new practices: posters that you now find in any good vintage shop were a mainstream way of promoting a certain destination, travel experience, and mode of transportation at the same time. While the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries witnessed a very literary form of travel, the late nineteenth century was all about making an excellent first visual impression, in order to convince tourists to visit.
Postcards derived from that visual promotion of tourism. While many early forms of postcards exist – such as engravings attached to letters, or card-sized messages – the rise of modern postcards in continental Europe can be traced back to the 1860s. The trend followed shortly afterwards in Britain, where the tourism industry was already flourishing with resorts such as Brighton or Blackpool, and people swiftly embraced postcards as the ideal way to promote picturesque views of the English seaside.
Naturally, the postcard industry has suffered from its incapacity to modernise, or to adapt to a changing travel industry. Recently, some applications have emerged and gained popularity, allowing tourists to design their own postcard with personal photos from their smartphones. Such apps are either private initiatives (like TouchNote), or sponsored by public services, like French postal services La Poste’s MaCartaMoi. The problem is that these tools still lack temporal productivity, as the reception delay is similar to classical postcards, leaving social media and digital communications as the best ways to give an instant and personalised overview of one’s journey.
However, this situation of decline has its lot of silver linings. Postcards have become a natural part of the usual tourist hub, and it would be foolish for a souvenir shop not to display any. Postcards will remain and will keep attracting a certain public, just as letters remain a form of communication, although in severe decline.
Moreover, some of the travel practices fuelled by postcards have been transferred to the way we send digital content. By the 1930s, postcards had become a way for individuals to show off about their holiday, and for travel companies (hotels, railways, tourism boards) to promote their destinations at no cost. This attitude has precisely been transferred onto social media: people will gladly promote a holiday destination on Instagram and other social media platforms, through the use of geo-located pictures and appropriate hashtags. By embellishing our holiday photos, we send an idealised view of the places we visit. Tourism boards have understood the potential of this form and they have started to invite bloggers and ‘influencers’ to use their official social media accounts to give their own personal view on the region. These methods directly derive from the need for tourism infrastructures to promote their destination visually – a practice that rose in the late nineteenth century and was largely democratised thanks to all of us sending postcards.
Jordan Girardin is a teaching fellow in Modern History at the University of St Andrews. His main research interests gravitate around the transnational study of travel and tourism. His PhD thesis was an analysis of early tourism in the Alps, while his new project investigates networks of Esperanto speakers in Western Europe in the early 20th century. He is an affiliated staff member of the CSMCH.
The first round of applications took place this summer and we’re very pleased to announce our first fellow, Dr Rakesh Ankit, who teaches history at the Law School in OP Jindal University, Sonipat. He is from Darbhanga, Bihar and studied at the universities of Delhi, Oxford and Southampton, from where he completed his PhD in 2014. His dissertation was published as Kashmir, 1945-66: From Empire to the Cold War (Routledge, 2016) and he has also worked on the Interim Government of September 1946-August 1947 in British India.
During the period of his fellowship, he will be working on a project entitled ‘Left in a Liberal Democracy: Communist Party(s) of India, 1920-1990’. This is the first part of a project that will eventually lead to a new history of Indian Communism, to be published by Hurst.
Rakesh will be with us from early November 2017 to late January 2018, He will be organising an event while he is here and he will also present some of his research to the Centre seminar on 28 November. We’re very pleased to have a promising young scholar in our ranks and I hope you will all join me in welcoming him to Edinburgh when he arrives!
In the third paper to be hosted this semester, the Centre was pleased to welcome Malte Rolf (Otto-Friedrich Universität, Bamberg), who spoke on “‘Limits to Growth’ in Soviet Perspective: Critical Discourses on Modernity in the USSR during the 1960s and ‘70s”. You can listen to a recording of the talk below or read Calum Aikman’s report – or do both!
Malte Rolf comes originally from the field of late Russian Imperial History, but more recently he has concentrated on the history of the Soviet Union during its twilight years, with a particular focus on ‘untangling’ popular understandings of the Cold War by examining hitherto unexplored ideas and approaches. In his paper, Rolf analysed the role played by Soviet critics of the prevailing culture of modernity, and their pursuit of an alternative model – which Rolf defines as a ‘reflective modernity’ – that managed to gain ground even under state socialism.
Rolf began by focusing on the legacy of Andrei Sakharov, the celebrated nuclear physicist whose worries over his country’s future direction provoked him into publishing Reflections on the Future – now simply known as his ‘Memorandum’ – in 1968. In it Sakharov argued that although one could not stop industrial development there had to be a reassessment of how natural resources were used; placidly obeying the diktats of ‘exploitative’ bureaucracy was no longer an option. He maintained that science was necessary if further abuses were to be halted, calling for the regulation of industrial growth and the use of technical innovations to curb ‘expansionism’. The eyes of the State, however, were caught not so much by these assertions but by Sakharov’s criticism of intellectual repression, which he dubbed ‘Restalinisation’. Published shortly after the invasion of Czechoslovakia by Soviet troops, the Memorandum acted as a pretext for the Kremlin to push Sakharov out to the political margins, where he was radicalised still further – so much so that by the mid-1970s he was feted in the West as a leading Russian dissident, with a message that had widened far beyond its initial premises to embrace themes such as civil rights and democratisation.
As Rolf pointed out, Sakharov’s perspective was influenced by already existing Western critiques, such as The Limits to Growth, a book published in 1972 by the globalist think-tank The Club of Rome, which sought to explore how governments could develop strategies for growth in a world of finite resources (and which was published in Russian on the ‘grey market’). These inspired an increasingly diverse array of activists to echo Sakharov’s dissatisfaction with the ‘soulless modernity’ of Soviet culture. To show how this manifested itself in practice, Rolf cited the flourishing of architectural preservation in the late-1970s, whose protagonists saw themselves as a part of a wider phenomenon that would complement existing ecological concerns by cherishing the country’s cultural heritage.
Much of their activities centred on Leningrad and the Baltic cities; Rolf focused in particular on the Lithuanian capital Vilnius, where local preservationists were campaigning to stop the construction of a motorway in the city centre. Architects, city planners, art historians and conservators, together with writers, artists and other intellectuals – many already doubtful about Soviet plans for ever-increasing economic growth – jumped in to save their historic districts from bureaucratic vandalism, creating a broad grassroots movement in the process. After a long struggle the protesters were successful: a bureau for the protection of historical monuments was created in 1979 to stop future destruction, followed in the era of Perestroika by the cancellation of the planned motorway altogether.
In Lithuania, much of the hostility towards modernity reflected a wider dislike of Soviet repression and encroaching ‘Russification’. Elsewhere in the USSR, the impetus for change focused on the deficiencies and ‘inhospitality’ of urban renewal schemes, modern architecture and state planning. Rolf showed how these ideas were disseminated by describing the popular success of the 1975 film comedy Ironiya sudby (‘The Irony of Fate’), still celebrated today in the former Soviet republics for its wry commentary on the sterility of Soviet ‘block’ housing and the uniform, characterless atmosphere it created. Again, this reflected similar phenomena taking place in capitalist societies – Rolf mentioned developments in his own home town of Bremen – and many activists were more than willing to point to developments happening on the other side of the Iron Curtain as a means of advancing their case.
Rolf reminded his audience that these critical discourses took place under the auspices of state socialism, a situation that led to many paradoxes and surprises. On the one hand, the obvious scepticism many critics had for the ‘building of socialism’ did not go unnoticed by the Kremlin, which reacted in a predictable manner (although, as the example of Sakharov showed, their attempts at repression often provoked yet more dissidence). However, Rolf was at pains to stress that the underlying situation was far more complex than this: even during the Brezhnev regime, he claimed, aspects of the state apparatus were willing to re-evaluate their own assumptions, prompting a frequently revisionist attitude to urban development. Thus in the 1970s a number of protection zones were created, while the state-sponsored All-Russian Society for the Preservation of Historical and Cultural Monuments – which counted 10 million members by the 1980s – spent 60 million roubles on preserving 3000 monuments. At the same time, as Soviet culture grew increasingly nostalgic for the folk cultures and traditions of yesteryear, so many state scientific institutions were calling for the protection of nature in the face of aggressive economic expansion. Even Leonid Brezhnev was sufficiently inspired to proclaim himself the Soviet Union’s first ‘environmentalist’ General Secretary (this fact prompted some raised eyebrows from members of the audience).
What accelerated these developments even further was the role of Soviet critics of modernity as active participants in global and intellectual debates, rather than as mere ‘importers’ of Western arguments. Sakharov was again the leading tribune, but accompanying him were scores of less-noted pioneers: Rolf cited people such as Viktor Kovda, a soil scientist whose pioneering work led to his appointment as director of the science department at UNESCO, and Vytautas Landsbergis-Žemkalnis, a Lithuanian architect trained in modernism at Paris, who was at the forefront of the architectural preservation movement in Vilnius in the 1970s. Rolf used these examples to conclude his paper by arguing that the study of these developments should take place from a ‘transnational perspective’.
In his commentary, Iain Lauchlan (University of Edinburgh) noted that the disintegration of urban life is an important theme in the history of the 1970s – British cities such as Coventry and Manchester, he suggested, endured similar problems to Soviet ones. He felt that in Russia there was an understanding of the divisions between rural and urban life; the latter had historically not even been seen as ‘permanent’, but Soviet revolutionaries fervently believed that the countryside was inherently reactionary and that cities were ‘the future’. Lauchlan also wondered if many of the problems Rolf mentioned were cyclical, pointing to waves of ‘progress’ and ‘reaction’ in Russian architectural circles throughout the twentieth century. Audience members also showed their appreciation of Rolf’s ideas, but managed to bring their own interpretations to the table, emphasising the existence of several competing discourses and the failure of some preservationist movements, and the need to look further into how the critics of modernity were viewed from a political standpoint.
Calum Aikman is a PhD student in History. His research mostly focuses on twentieth-century British and Scottish politics, trade union history and the fortunes of the Labour Party in the post-war era. His thesis is on the political thought of the Labour Party’s ‘revisionist’ right wing in the 1970s. He is a member of the CSMCH steering committee.
On Thursday evening, the Centre was delighted to host Vincent Tiberj (Sciences Po Bordeaux), whose reputation ensured one of the largest seminar audiences in the Centre’s (admittedly brief) history. Fraser Raeburn was there to bring us this report of the event.
Vincent Tiberj’s work sits at the often problematic juncture between history and political science, but as pointed out by respondent Jim Livesey (Dundee), this was a methodological masterclass in how such these disciplines can be combined.
Tiberj’s thesis was simple: generational change is an inescapable fact for any established democracy. As he pointed out, 59% of French voters today were not alive or able to vote in 1981. This means that when discussing shifts in allegiances – such as former Communist strongholds turning to the far-right Front national (FN) – we aren’t necessarily talking about individuals changing their views, but a generational shift. Trying to measure and account for this effect is, however, a substantially greater challenge, in part due to the competing effects of age (due to position in the life cycle, such as compulsory military service at 18) or period (something that affects the entire population at a particular moment).
Using a series of opinion polls conducted throughout France since 1973 as a base, and taking neutral, decade-based cohorts as a starting point, Tiberj was able to present a series of graphs and diagrams showing how different generational cohorts had been shaped in France. There is no doubt that at times this data was a blunt instrument, obscuring potential divides across class, region and gender, but nonetheless providing a useful holistic picture. Intergenerational changes in religious beliefs, educational attainment and employment history were all clearly visible.
These social changes formed the basis of his explanation of changing political attitudes. Although he lacked the time to take the audience through each of his approaches to this data, his discussion of citizens’ relationship to politics and political participation based on his data gave a substantial insight into his work on the subject.
Using this approach, Tiberj identified what he saw as three key political cohorts in contemporary France. The first was those born before the Second World War. These citizens did not engage with or discuss politics frequently, but nonetheless voted at a much higher rate. Tiberj characterised these as dependent voters, who saw participation in democracy as a duty, had high levels of faith in politicians and institutions, and tended to exhibit high levels of partisan loyalty.
Baby Boomers were the next generation, and Tiberj identified the impact of the protests of 1968 in not just mobilising youth at the time, but ensuring that this mobilisation lasted a lifetime. These were critical citizens, more interested in and knowledgeable about politics, and more independent than the previous generation. This cohort retains a relatively high level of political participation, but driven more by knowledge and interest than a sense of duty.
Finally, the post-Boomer cohort appear as remote citizens, who felt themselves distanced from the political system. Thanks to higher levels of educational attainment, they are more informed about politics, but less engaged with the process. Tiberj hypothesised that the connection between political knowledge and interest had been broken – after all, cynicism and distrust towards politics and politicians is hardly an irrational response in France or anywhere else. This cohort is willing to participate in politics, but only when they could see that it was important, with high participation in Presidential elections, but much less in European elections.
Tiberj put forward this analysis with a note of optimism. Rather than heralding a collapse of democratic legitimacy, these new generations exhibit a willingness to participate in politics in nontraditional ways, and in many ways are simply demanding more of their political system than previous generations. With an important caveat: this optimism applies only to the educated. The post-Boomer working class has not yet found a political voice.
Tiberj’s analysis throughout deserves the attention of someone more attuned to political theory, not least because he engaged with ideas like those of Ronald Inglehart on the impact of postmaterialism on politics. Fortunately, other members of the audience were less constrained, asking numerous perceptive comments and questions. And, even as a relative newcomer to such debates, I could see that Tiberj has contributed important new insights about modern French politics.
Fraser Raeburn is a PhD student in History at Edinburgh. He works on interwar Europe and Britain, ideological confrontation and the history of foreign fighters. His thesis examines the involvement of Scots in the Spanish Civil War. He is a member of the CSMCH steering committee.
One of our affiliated staff members, Hugh McDonnell, attended a conference on the Algerian War held at the University of Leeds on 7-8 September 2017. Here he reports on some of the things he heard.
Newcomers to the conference organising scene will have good reason to resent University of Leeds PhD student Beatrice Ivey and her colleague Dr Daniel Hartley for having set the bar quite so high with their hosting of ‘Rupture, Repression, Repetition? The Algerian War of Independence in the Present.’ That said, their debut was no doubt facilitated by the exciting offering of papers, spanning the spectrum of French and North African studies. Particularly satisfying was the constructive and sympathetic engagement between historians and those speaking from more theoretical or text-oriented backgrounds. The event did justice to the ambitious range of topics underlying the call for papers, ranging from French and Algerian wars of memory, and past and present states of emergency on both sides of the Mediterranean, to historical temporality in the thought of Alain Badiou.
Pinpointing particular papers inevitably fails to reflect the quality and insights across all panels, not least in the welcome roundtable for current PhD students. Nonetheless, personal highlights included offerings on cultural transpositions from the Algeria’s war of independence to its décennie noire; the war in contemporary Algerian literature; Nina Wardleworth’s exposition on the Algerian war in the French detective novel; Maria Flood on Jacques Panijel’s documentary on the Paris October 1961 massacre, Octobre à Paris; Patrick Crowley’s ‘Temporalities of War, Figurations of the Present: Literary Afterlives of the Algerian War of Independence’; and Andy Stafford’s insights into Mohammed Dib and the responsibility of the writer.
These were complemented by penetrating historical analyses of the same period. Stand-out contributions here included Tom Hunt on the unrecognised legacy of Algeria in the invention of Late Antiquity; Selim Nadi on the Algerian Revolution, the French State and the Counter-Colonial Strategy of the Holy Republic; Dónal Hasset on the narration of Algeria’s First World War through the lens of the War of Independence; and Claire Eldridge’s talk on generational change and memory transmission within the Algerian pied-noir community.
Emblematic of this exchange between literature and history were the two keynotes from Jane Hiddleston and Natalya Vince from Oxford and Portsmouth Universities respectively. Hiddleston’s compelling interpretation of ‘revolving memories’ in the work of figures from Boualem Sansal to Kateb Yacine was counterpoised by Vince’s stylish paper on ‘The Permanent Reinvention’ as a lens through which to view the Algerian Revolution in recent pasts. Nicely weaving together questions considered over the two days, Vince’s conclusion pinpointed the importance of memory as refracted, repackaged, repurposed. She stressed the periodisation of memory post-event and critiqued the notion of “Franco-Algerian” “memory wars”. At the same time, she urged scholars to avoid methodological nationalism, by encouraging them to reflect on Algeria in an international and local memory context. She ended by questioning the dichotomy between ‘public’ and ‘vernacular’ memory, which seemed an appropriate way to end a stimulating conference.
Hugh McDonnell is currently a Postdoctoral Fellow in Politics and International Relations on the European Research Council Starting Grant project entitled: Illuminating the ‘Grey Zone’: Addressing Complex Complicity in Human Rights Violations. He has recently published ‘Europeanising Spaces in Paris, c. 1947-1962’ (Liverpool University Press, 2016). He is an affiliated staff member of the CSMCH.
The Centre recently sponsored an excellent PhD and early-career workshop on the place of ‘The Troubles’ in Irish history (8-9 September 2017). This guest post from Thomas Dolan summarises some of the discussions that animated the event.
The incursion of Arlene Foster, the DUP and, by extension Sinn Féin, back onto the centre-stage of British politics has produced an upsurge of interest in the political situation in Northern Ireland reminiscent of the darker days of its long-running conflict. A fake news article circulating on social media during the fallout of the general election satirised the situation wonderfully: a London ‘hipster’, it was reported, had proudly proclaimed that he had been reading-up on the religious and conservative ethos of the DUP long before it had become fashionable to do so. The sold-out (a happy first for HCA’s Irish History Group) public lecture ‘Scribes, Sectarianism and the History of the Northern Ireland Troubles’ delivered recently at the University of Edinburgh by Professor Richard English (Queen’s University, Belfast) evidences how such events nourish a need for contemporary Irish and Northern Irish history in Britain.
The lecture was associated with the Writing the Troubles Workshop organised by members of the Irish History Group (Tommy Dolan, Roseanna Doughty, and Rachael Thomas), with the support of the Irish Government’s Department of Foreign Affairs and the Centre for the Study of Modern and Contemporary History. It brought together doctoral and early-career researchers scattered throughout these islands to reflect upon the challenging methodological and conceptual issues thrown-up when writing about the recent history of Northern Ireland. A key aim was to foster a relaxed, informal atmosphere conducive to discussion. Consequently, we opted for pre-circulated papers, with attendees delivering short ten-minute presentations on their work, followed by debate. The workshop then concluded with a reflective round-table discussion chaired by Professor Enda Delaney,
The format proved inspirational, the first panel setting the tone in terms of quality and feel. Martin’s McCleery’s vision of an ‘intimate history’ of political killings provoked much debate. His focus on the micro-dynamics of killings as a means of understanding the various ‘pathways’ many paramilitaries must adopt to overcome their instinctual aversion to murder complimented Rachael Kowlaski’s call for micro-studies of ‘nodal’ violent events during the conflict so as to better understand the intentions of the paramilitary organisations involved. In contrast, I suggested that historians try and generate conceptually-driven understandings of the evolution of a now relatively peaceful and political stable Northern Ireland, but that doing so could prove problematic for a historical community who, unlike, say, their British counterparts, have long been predisposed to the study of violent conflict and political impasse.
The second session reflected upon groups hitherto marginalised within the historiography of ‘the Troubles’. All found Adrian Grant’s vision of a ‘meso-history’ of Belfast’s working-class communities intriguing; an approach melding ‘micro-studies with the grand narrative approach’. For example, Adrian demonstrated how focusing on the effects of deindustrialisation on these communities can generate better understandings of the origins of ‘the Troubles’, while allowing for reflections on ‘wider, global economic trends’. Aimee Walsh and Eli Davies supplied much-needed insights into the experiences of women. Considering female republican prisoners in Armagh Gaol during the late 1970s and early 1980s, Aimee forcefully demonstrated how the ‘female body has not been thoroughly considered in relation to the conflict’. Eli on the other hand, considered neglected literature produced by female authors during ‘the Troubles’, observing how the ‘daily, lived experiences of women’ have been silenced largely because they do not fit in with the ‘bigger male cultural narratives’. Discussion was further facilitated by Jan Freytag’s call for more nuanced understandings of the differing social and political roles played by individual Catholic clergymen during the conflict, as opposed to thinking of the Catholic Church as simply a monolithic institution.
The final session saw Roseanna Doughty and Rachel Thomas consider media representations of the conflict. Roseanna assessed British responses to the Peace Process, ably challenging a view widely held, especially amongst republicans, that the press merely parroted their government’s line. Rachael focused on the reaction of the American press to the 1981 republican Hunger Strikes. She argued that although these generated much Irish-American support for the republican movement, there were limiting factors, such as (interestingly) memories of the British-American alliance during the Second World War, and Reagan’s decision not involve his administration in efforts to resolve the protests. Lastly, Sarah Feinstein reflected upon contemporary representations of the Maze and Long Kesh Prison and the difficult task of dealing with the traumatic legacy of the Hunger Strikes. She focused on story-telling initiatives such as the construction of the Prison Memory Archive. As she observed, ‘what is unique among the footage is the many stories of the mundane…the everyday aspects of life where small moments of resistance, solidarity and compassion stand out…This brings a texture to both the site and the individuals who populated it’.
During the round-table Professor Delaney highlighted key issues generated by both the workshop and Professor English’s lecture. Above all, he noted a tension between the need to produce micro, local histories of ‘the Troubles’ and broader, conceptual studies. As Richard highlighted, ‘the Troubles’ were ‘intensely local’ and it is probably more accurate to think of ‘seventeen different conflicts’ as opposed to one. Yet he also urged us to be alert to the way in which much wider themes consistently intersected with, and impacted upon, the situation. The need for greater sensitivity to the role of religious belief in the recent history of Northern Ireland was also flagged, so too the need for more biographical literature. For example, we still lack good, scholarly biographies of Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness!
Perhaps most importantly, Professor Delaney observed how although the idea of interdisciplinary scholarship is typically lauded in academia, historians rarely ever talk to each other formally, let alone with scholars working in other disciplines – and this is certainly true with respect to those focusing on Northern Ireland. In fact, the workshop evidenced how all our scholarship was heavily influenced by location; scholars based in Northern Ireland tending (on the whole) towards micro-histories: those working in Britain veering towards conceptual studies. Apparent to all, however, was the need for regular, reflexive dialogue between scholars dealing with the violent history of Northern Ireland in the post-Good Friday Agreement era. Consequently, we hope to build upon this highly successful and, indeed, very enjoyable workshop by maintaining dialogue between participants and staging further discussions in settings throughout these islands. Watch this space…
Thomas Dolan recently completed his PhD in the School of History, Classics and Archaeology under the supervision of Alvin Jackson and Owen Dudley Edwards. His thesis was entitled ‘Visions of History in the Thought of the Architects of Peace in Northern Ireland: Gerry Adams, John Hume and David Trimble’.