Intimate Politics: Fertility Control in a Global Historical Perspective

The CSMCH was delighted to support a recent conference on the history of fertility control. Cassia Roth, who was one of the organisers, sends this report on the fascinating discussions that took place during the conference.

On 23-24 May 2018, the School of History, Classics and Archaeology at Edinburgh hosted an international conference titled “Intimate Politics: Fertility Control in a Global Historical Perspective”. The two-day event included speakers from the U.S., Canada, the U.K., the European Union, and Turkey, who discussed topics ranging from forced abortion in early twentieth-century China to child exposure in Ancient Rome.

Conference organizers Cassia Roth and Diana Paton conceived of the event as way of historicising women’s fertility control practices. Across the globe, women have always controlled their fertility through intimate efforts ultimately tied to larger political processes and gendered power dynamics. Women’s biological reproductive capabilities have been contested sites of power struggles, shaping the formation, rule, and dissolution of nation-states and political regimes throughout history.

From the concept of partus sequitur ventrum, in which slavery was passed on through the mother’s womb, to settler colonial projects that supported ‘desirable’ reproduction while restricting ‘undesirable’ migration in Australia and the United States, to abortion as the most common form of birth control in some communist regimes, the politics of the state have played out on the bodies of women. It is not surprising, then, that current debates over nationhood, globalization, and inequality continue to be mapped onto women’s bodies.

Yet the intersection of larger political, economic, and social processes with women’s intimate and embodied experience of fertility control remains understudied in the historical literature. This conference placed the intimate experience of fertility control at the heart of political and social approaches towards women’s bodies.

“Intimate Politics” explored these issues from the perspective of multiple time periods, geographic locations, actors, and methods. Some of those presenting at the conference explored how women’s individual or social practices of fertility control, including contraception, abortion, and infanticide, intersected with larger political, economic, and cultural trends. Others problematised the idea of “control” and “agency” in the history of reproduction.

What did it mean to “control one’s fertility” in different historical periods and geographical regions? How did historical actors understand, define, and practice what we now call fertility control? How can we expand conventional definitions of fertility control to interrogate ideas of infertility, menstruation, and heteronormativity?

The Q&A after Laura Briggs’s keynote

Contributors also highlighted how race, ethnicity, and class intersect with gender to shape if, and how, women and men approached fertility control.

The keynote speaker, Professor Laura Briggs (University of Massachusetts, Amherst) discussed her new book How all Politics are Reproductive Politics, which looks at the gendered and reproductive nature of issues as disparate as the foreclosure crisis during the Great Recession to social service reform.

Cassia Roth (@drcassiaroth) is a historian of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Latin America with a focus on Brazil. In particular, she examines how gender, race, medicine, and the law intersected in the lives of Brazilian women in key moments of political and economic transition. She is a CSMCH affiliated staff member until August 2018, when she takes up a new position at the University of Georgia.

Indians in Europe during the Great War

In the final instalment of her three-part series on Indian colonial soldiers during the First World War, our Erasmus+ trainee Birgit Ampe discusses Mulk Raj Anand’s novel ‘Across the Black Waters’ and the reactions of Indian soldiers to what they saw in Europe.

It is often suggested that the outcome of the First World War was decided not so much by the main powers, but by their colonies. This is especially the case for Britain and India. The latter’s contribution to the conflict was one of the main factors that helped to secure British victory. It comes as no surprise, then, that British propaganda praised the achievements of the Indian troops in France and Flanders.

Indian soldiers at rest

But what was not mentioned was how these Indian men had to leave their homes and families in order to get to the front. Many of them had hardly ever crossed the boundaries of their village, let alone travelled across the ocean. So how did they react when they first set foot on the shores of France and came into contact with Europe and its inhabitants?

One particular source that deals with this question is the First World War novel Across the Black Waters (1939) by Indian writer Mulk Raj Anand. The story follows Lalu as he arrives in France and is sent to fight at the front in Flanders. Throughout the novel, the reader is presented with Lalu’s opinions as he explores this strange new land.

One could argue that Lalu’s narrative is a fictional account and thus not a faithful representation of reality. But, as I already suggested in the second blog post, the novel stays true to the sentiments and ideas expressed in letters written by actual Indian soldiers.

The main protagonist of the novel, Lalu, was fortunate in his upbringing since he was able to attend the Bishop Cotton School in India and could therefore more or less understand English. His time at the school also made him familiar with the ideas of the West, and tales of its wealth and splendour. It is obvious that Lalu is already biased beforehand. So when the soldiers are given some spare time to explore the city before they go to the trenches, Lalu feels the need to justify everything he sees: “He had aspired to this Europe as to some heaven, and sought to justify everything in Blighty [informal term for Britain]. He was inclined to forget the good things at home” (44). Lalu goes on to praise the wealth of the city, the kindness of the people and the equality that seems to exist between men and women and the different social classes.

It immediately strikes the reader that Lalu’s praise mimics that of real sepoys, who expressed similar opinions in their letters. However, it should be pointed out that these sepoys were not educated in the same manner that Lalu was. Mulk Raj Anand might have created a semi-educated protagonist in order to allow for a more complex character whose opinions can change towards the end of the novel, as we will see later on. But more importantly, by being in-between, Lalu acts as a bridge between the Indians and the Europeans.

The other characters in the novel resemble the sepoys perhaps more. They are uneducated and do not share Lalu’s need for justification. Nevertheless, they are  intrigued by the beauty and wealth of France. They are very curious and marvel at the different customs of the French. But what they are most surprised about is the kindness of the people. The attitude of the French people stands in sharp contrast to that of the British who look upon the Indians as inferior. The French on the other hand are “kind and polite” (16), and treat the sepoys as equals. Their friendliness makes the Indians feel that “they had grown to the dignity of human beings and [makes them forget] the way in which they had always been treated as so much cattle in India” (37-38).

The sepoys especially enjoy the kindness bestowed upon them by the women. The outgoing character of the French women is new to the Indians and it excites them. This attraction is mostly sexual, as is illustrated by the men’s eagerness to visit a brothel. For Lalu, however, women are not just sexual beings. He is physically attracted to them and he enjoys looking at the French girls who are in his opinion more beautiful than the “flabby and tired” (19) women of India. But later on in the novel, when he meets a French farmer and his family, Lalu has more complex feelings. The wife of the farmer acts as his mother and so there is no sexual attraction. He is, however, attracted to the farmer’s daughter. But as a reader we notice that the feelings are more than merely sexual.

This mixture of feelings is also present in the sepoys’ letters. Many Indian men wrote to their families that the women they met were like mothers and sisters to them. Only a few letters revealed a sexual attraction towards the women. Perhaps the men did not want their families to know about these feelings. We can fairly assume that men felt more sexually attracted to the women than they let on in their letters. Mulk Raj Anand certainly picked up on this point and incorporated it into his novel.

Despite the kindness they receive from the women and the French people in general, the sepoys were plagued by a sense of inferiority. Colonisation had a negative effect on the colonised and it influenced the way they think and behave. Indians often felt inferior and embarrassed in the face of the coloniser.

These feelings are also present in the novel, when the sepoys feel the need to salute every white man, even a peasant. The narrator concludes that “[t]his was the most tragic element in the position of the Indian soldiers: they were face to face with death in the unknown, but they could not stare at one of the myriad faces of their French and English comrades with the impunity of human beings” (227).

Interestingly, these feelings of inferiority are hardly ever described by real sepoys in their letters. Did they hold back their opinions because they knew their letters would be read? Or did they want to prove their loyalty to the Empire by not mentioning how they truly felt?

In the novel, the difference the sepoys experienced between themselves and the French and English soldiers illustrates how they identified with their homeland and how India never left their minds. This is especially the case when they explore the city. The sepoys comment on the small rivers and are eager to visit a French farm.

I already mentioned in the previous blog post how some Indians compared certain aspects of the war to elements of rural labour, not least because most Indian soldiers were peasants before. But the novel suggests that they were also genuinely interested in agriculture. For example, when some Indians are talking to a French soldier with Lalu as an interpreter, they ask him: “Did you ask whether he owned land, whether they plough the land, like us, with oxen? Whether they use a plough to break the soil, and the scythe and sickle to cut the crop, and flail? And how they thresh? That is what we want to know” (82).

Indian soldiers marching (source: Imperial War Museum, Q 70214)

The characters in the novel generally cast India in a positive light, but Lalu, who is somewhat biased, disapproves of the outdated methods of the Indians, arguing that that “[i]n every land, even in our own country, it could be like this […] [b]ut our elders say, ‘It is not the custom to do this, it is not the custom to do that.’ Fools!” (50).

This idea was expressed by real sepoys in their letters as well. They did not use such strong language, but it is clear that they admired the West and believed that India had a long way to go before it could ever reach the same economic standard.

Towards the end of the novel, however, Lalu is forced to change his opinion of the West. The difficult life in the trenches and the meaninglessness of the war begin to take their toll on Lalu’s naive mind, and he eventually “reproached himself for his predilection for the fashionable life. … So ashamed was he of thinking of the enthusiasm which he had felt as he started out on this journey” (179).

This brief exposition illustrates the close connection between Across the Black Waters and the corpus of letters written by actual Indian soldiers. Historical sources, such as these letters, can provide valuable insight into the lives of the Indian World War I soldiers, but the element of censorship must always be taken into account when examining them. In this respect, it can be useful to look at literary sources too, since these often highlight other aspects of soldiers’ experiences and reveal new perspectives on the historical past.

Birgit Ampe is an Erasmus+ trainee and visiting postgraduate student at the CSMCH. She completed her Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in English Literature from the University of Ghent in Belgium. She intends to start a second Masters degree in library studies at the University of Brussels in September 2018.

Fact versus Fiction: Mulk Raj Anand’s ‘Across the Black Waters’

In the second instalment of her three-part series on Indian colonial soldiers during the First World War, our Erasmus+ trainee Birgit Ampe discusses Mulk Raj Anand’s novel ‘Across the Black Waters’ alongside actual letters written by Indian soldiers.

Since the end of the First World War, many novels have been published describing the experiences of the soldiers who fought in the trenches. But whereas stories about the British combatants are strongly represented, those about the Indian sepoys are notably absent. One of the few novels that does take the sepoys’ experience as a subject is Across the Black Waters by Indian author Mulk Raj Anand. Published in 1939, the novel follows a young Indian boy, Lalu, as he arrives in France and is sent to fight at the front. Throughout the novel we see Lalu mature as his service progresses. His feelings and emotions are described extensively as well as those of the other sepoys.

But how far do these feelings represent the reality? In order to find out, we must look at the letters from real First World War sepoys. Even though the letters were subjected to censorship, they can provide a glimpse into the minds of the Indian soldiers. By comparing them to the novel we can establish how close the fiction of Mulk Raj Anand lies to the reality.

The majority of the letters either hint at the war or explicitly refer to it. With this in mind, one thing that is immediately apparent when regarding the letters as a whole, is that the tone of the letters changes as the war progresses. At the beginning of the war, a feeling of optimism is present and morale is high. The Indians express in their letters a will to fight and are grateful for an opportunity to show their loyalty to the Empire.

Indian soldiers in the trenches

The same ideas are described at the beginning of Mulk Raj Anand’s novel. When the Indians arrive at Marseilles they let out shouts of joy and are very excited (11). Lalu himself believes it is “thrilling to be going out on this adventure” (13). Lalu’s excitement lasts for a few chapters and does not even diminish when he has to enter the trenches, as he feels it is an honour to be fighting alongside the British Tommies (124).

However, these feelings of hope did not last. When the first battles proved to be more difficult than imagined, the sepoys began to despair. This was reflected in their letters. Morale declined and they even wrote letters home urging their family members not to enlist.

The sepoys in the novel do not write such letters but it is clear that despair has taken hold of them. When the first attack turns into a slaughter and when they are mowed down by the Germans’ superior guns, they start to realise that they should not be part of this war:

They did not know what they were fighting for or what anyone else was fighting for. And, almost from the beginning, things had gone wrong, almost from the start they had been shattered by the bombardments, flooded by rains and frozen by the cold. (178)

When the winter kicked in towards the end of 1914, the Indians’ morale declined even further. The sepoys were not used to the cold climate of France and Flanders, and the perpetual rain and snow made life in the trenches even more difficult. Throughout the novel, references to the cold are made, but they are subtly woven into the larger emotional framework. It is mentioned for example that some Sikhs froze to death overnight, or that several sepoys got frostbite (303).

When in 1915, morale reached its breaking point, it was decided to move the infantry to the Middle East. The tone of the letters of the remaining cavalry turned slowly from despair into resignation as they accepted their fate. The events in the novel only span across the year 1914, but occasionally some feelings of resignation are already present among the sepoys. They lose the joy of eating and “did not even complain about the inconvenience of changing trenches and this red-hot reception they were greeting from the enemy, as if after the hardships of the first attack they were now prepared to accept anything” (187). So although a general feeling of resignation is not yet present, some hints to it can already be found in the novel.

Besides the changing curve of emotions, the loyalty to the British Government in a context of war is worth examining. Overall, the Indians speak favourably of the Government or Sarkar in their letters. They want to show their loyalty and believe that it is their duty to fight because they have profited of the ‘salt of the Sarkar’.

In the novel, however, this image is more nuanced. Whereas the higher ranking officers keep reminding the soldiers that the Government is good and benevolent, the soldiers themselves have mixed feelings towards the Sarkar. The Government is blamed for the lack of information the sepoys receive and the fact that they have to fight in a war that is not theirs.

When they have to return to the trenches after some failed attacks, one sepoy even cries: “Oh, I won’t fight! I will not fight for this dirty Sarkar” (200). At one point, it is even hinted that there is a general “fear of the Sarkar” (266). However, when the men actually have to fight, they speak differently of the British Government. They urge each other on to go over the parapet of the trenches by saying that they should “prove true to the salt of the Sarkar” (284). This more nuanced image is very interesting and one wonders whether this could be closer to the truth since the letters by real sepoys were censored.

Indian soldiers at rest

Another aspect in the letters that is often connected to the war is religion. The sepoys often mentioned how daily religious observances were being abandoned, a concern that is also present in the novel.

A good example to illustrate this is the ‘sanctity’ of the kitchen. When the sepoys set up camp after their arrival in France, they build a makeshift kitchen and are very angry when an unsuspecting woman walks through it. Later on in the novel, when their camp has to be broken down and everything needs to be loaded into trucks, Lalu remarks:

Seeing that he himself and the other sepoys were going freely about the kitchens with their boots of cowhide skins and their leather belts, and handling food without washing their hands, he thought that if Dhanoo and Kirpu needed any more proof of the spoliation of their religion they could see it here. (70)

In the letters written by Muslim soldiers in particular, religion was mentioned in relation to Turkey. In 1914, Turkey joined the war on the side of the Germans which proved to be a difficulty for some Muslims. This is also briefly touched upon in the novel when Lalu confirms a Muslim soldier’s suspicions that the Turks have joined the war. The Muslim is horror-stricken and exclaims: “Then we have been fighting against the Khalif of Islam!” (349).

Although religion is omnipresent in the novel, the war is hardly ever described in terms of it. This was, however, the case in the letters where the war was compared to religious epics of destruction. Nevertheless, in both the letters and the novel, war is described in terms of the sepoys’ home. For example, in the novel, the sound of the artillery is compared to the drums of a marriage procession (148), and the noise of gun fire is likened to that in a cotton factory (157).

From this short comparison we can conclude that Mulk Raj Anand’s novel Across the Black Waters stayed true to the reality of the First World War sepoys. The emotions and feelings expressed in the soldiers’ letters are portrayed in a very realistic way in the novel. Even though the novel was written for an English-speaking audience, it managed to present the perspective of the colonised rather than that of the coloniser. And just as the letters gave the sepoys a voice in reality, so Across the Black Waters gave them a voice in fiction.

Birgit Ampe is an Erasmus+ trainee and visiting postgraduate student at the CSMCH. She completed her Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in English Literature from the University of Ghent in Belgium. She intends to start a second Masters degree in library studies at the University of Brussels in September 2018.

Indian Soldiers, Their Letters and the Great War

From March to May 2018, the CSMCH is hosting Birgit Ampe as an Erasmus+ trainee and visiting postgraduate student. Amongst other things, Birgit is using her time in Edinburgh to pursue research on Indian soldiers during the First World War. In the first of three blog posts, she explores some of the letters that Indian soldiers wrote during the war, and what these can tell us about the relationship between Indians and the colonial administration. 

When the war broke out in 1914, it was soon termed the Great War. It was only later that it would become known as the First World War. This more accurate term envelops the true nature of the conflict: the great powers used their vast empires to march on the enemy. This was especially true for Britain, which at the onset of the war controlled over one-fifth of the world’s land mass and held a quarter of the world’s population. In the British Empire, India was seen as the crown jewel. It then comes as no surprise that most of Britain’s colonial recruits came from India. In total, 1.27 million Indian men contributed to the war effort, including 827,000 combatants. These so-called sepoy were first deployed in France and later also in the Middle East.

The majority of the Indian soldiers were recruited from the middle peasantry, which has led many historians to conclude that these illiterate men were voiceless victims of the war. This is, however, not entirely true. In the British Library and the Cambridge University Library we can find an entire collection of letters written (or dictated to scribes) by Indian soldiers. The reason for their survival is perhaps not what one might suspect. Throughout the war, Indian inward and outward mail was translated, examined, and if needed, censored by the Indian Base Post Office to ensure no inappropriate things were written. This Office made weekly reports with extracts from the letters. So thanks to censorship these letters have survived.

Some of the letters from this collection have been reprinted by David Omissi in Indian Voices of the Great War (1999). As the title already suggests, the Indian soldiers were anything but voiceless. It is of course important to keep in mind that these letters were sometimes written with censorship in mind, but as David Omissi himself explains in the introduction to his work, most letters show genuine feelings and thoughts which can provide a glimpse into the minds of the soldiers. And that is exactly what this blog post will try to do, by means of highlighting some of the main ideas and recurrent themes as presented by Omissi in his introduction.

A scribe transcribes a soldier’s letter (source: IWM, Q 53887)

At first glance, it is immediately clear that the war has a prominent place in the letters. Although the soldiers had been given strict orders not to write about the war, it was almost impossible not to do so, because this unprecedented event had inevitably become part of their lives. Interestingly, the emotions expressed in the letters seem to mirror the developments during the war. When, for example, the first battles proved to be more difficult and the number of casualties much higher, there was a marked shift in tone from hope to despair. Many soldiers no longer believed the war would be over soon, but instead urged their family members not to enlist.

Morale began to decline even further with the arrival of winter. The Indian soldiers were not used to such harsh weather conditions and the number of self-inflicted wounds increased. In 1915, Indian morale had reached its lowest point and it was feared that it would not survive another winter. The Indian infantry was consequently moved from France to the Middle East. Immediately, we see another shift in the letters. There is a less depressing tone and – apart from some despairing letters – the soldiers seem to have adjusted to the war. However, this adjustment came with a feeling of resignation and a loss of belief in personal survival. As a Sikh wrote to his mother:

I am very happy. In the end I have to die, and to die is best. Except for resignation, there is no remedy. (351)

Perhaps as interesting as what the soldiers wrote, is how they wrote it. Many of them described the war in terms of what they were familiar with. Since the majority of the soldiers were recruited from the middle peasantry, they frequently described the war using references to rural labour. For example, a soldier wrote to his uncle:

Germany fights the world with ghastly might, harder to crush than well-soaked grain in the mill. (123) 

Religious imagery is also frequently used. Muslims refer to the war as the Karbala, whereas Hindus compare it to the Mahabharata, both tales of destruction.

In fact, religion played a very important role, not only in the imagery, but in the everyday lives of the soldiers. Daily religious observances, such as eating halal, remained important to the men, even when the war made it difficult to do so. Some Muslims complained in their letters about the difficulty to come by halal food and how other Muslims had become lax in their observance. But this was not the only challenge Muslims faced. In 1914, Turkey joined the war. At the time, this country was a great Muslim power, and fighting it meant fighting the home of the Khalifa. However, from their letters we can gather that many Muslims decided to remain loyal to Britain, writing that “Turkey is nothing at all to us” (1).

The letters do not only give us an insight in how the soldiers felt about the war, but also about what they left behind. There are heart wrenching letters about homesickness, disputes about family allowances and the strain of war on marriage. It is also worth remembering that these soldiers were peasants before enlistment. Even in the midst of war, their minds were still preoccupied with the agricultural conditions back at home, as we can see in the following letter:

He said that the wheat harvest had been utterly ruined. Please write and tell me whether this is true or not. (112)

But leaving one’s own nation behind, also meant coming into contact with a new one. For most Indian soldiers this was a positive encounter, as their letters show. The beauty of France is often praised, along with the friendliness of the people and the wealth of the cities. When compared to India, the latter seems to come off as rather backward, with some soldiers even claiming that it would “take at least five hundred years for India to attain to such conditions” (58).

One reason why the soldiers made such claims is the education of women. Many Indian men were surprised that French women were so well-educated. They even wrote letters home expressing a wish that their daughters should be educated as well as their sons. Overall, the Indian soldiers wrote positively about women. Some compared them to mothers and sisters, because of the care they received from them, while others had more sexual thoughts in mind when they wrote “[t]he ladies are very nice and bestow their favours upon us freely” (171).

A final interesting point to be found in the letters is that there is a lack of Indian identity and nationalist discourse. Instead, the soldiers seem to have a strong sense of duty towards the Government or Sirkar:

I consider it an honour that I am called to do this work, and am looked upon as a loyal subject. […] Our Government has done everything possible to make things easy for us and has provided us with every comfort, but up to date I have not been able to make any recompense. Now is the time. (585)

But perhaps even more than loyalty to the Government, there was loyalty to the King. It must be stressed, however, that this loyalty was directed towards the person of the King, rather than his office.

When examining these letters and highlighting certain recurrent ideas, it becomes clear that the Indian soldiers were not as different from their British colleagues, even though they came from an entirely different culture. They are in essence just men, with their own ideas, fears and curiosity. David Omissi’s work is invaluable to the research on Indian soldiers as through these letters we get a rare glimpse into the thoughts and lives of these often forgotten people.

Birgit Ampe is an Erasmus+ trainee and visiting postgraduate student at the CSMCH. She completed her Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in English Literature from the University of Ghent in Belgium. She intends to start a second Masters degree in library studies at the University of Brussels in September 2018.

CSMCH Discussion Group screens Goodbye Lenin

For the third CSMCH Discussion Group of this semester, the students of the centre screened the film Good Bye, Lenin! by director Wolfgang Becker as a basis from which to discuss nostalgia in post-Communist Germany and the Socialist world. Anita Klingler led the discussion by presenting the context of the film and post-socialist memory in Germany. Iker Itoiz Ciáurriz sent this report.

Good Bye, Lenin! is the story of an East German family during the tumultuous year of the Wende (“Turning Point,” the term used in referring to the events surrounding the fall of the Berlin Wall). The mother, Christiane, is a devout and active party loyalist who has been deeply committed to the socialist state since the departure of her husband to West Germany in 1978. Eleven years later, in October 1989, she is on her way to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of the GDR with party dignitaries and observes her young adult son, Alex, clash with police during a pro-democracy protest march. The trauma of seeing her son among the demonstrators, combined with the shock of witnessing the brutality of the regime, prompts her to have a heart attack and sends her into a come for the next eight months.

Friday afternoon cinema!

While she is in a coma, the Berlin Wall falls, Eastern Germans embrace capitalism and consumerism, and Germany is catapulted toward reunification. Alex loses his job in the state-owned television repair service and begins selling satellite dishes, while his sister starts a relationship with a Wessi (West German citizen) and abandons her studies in order to work at Burger King. When Christiane emerges from her coma, doctors warn her children that any unexpected shock could complicate her recovery and potentially prove fatal. Her son Alex thus resolves to recreate the GDR in her bedroom, concealing from his mother all the changes of the past eight months.

In the course of this two-hour long tragicomic film, Alex manages to reinvent the GDR for his mother to the extent that he even thinks himself that the East Germany he has created actually exists. It was this theme that provided the springboard for the post-screening discussion.

A major theme of the discussion involved the tensions and gaps between appearance and reality, between fact and fiction. One question that arose was the way Alex rewrites the official history, like when he explained the presence of Wessies (West Germans) in East Germany due to the opening of the frontiers for the West Germans running away from the country through Czechoslovakia and Hungary.

Also, a relevant aspect of the film is how Alex’s mother believed in Socialism, but at the end of the film confesses to her children that their father had not fled to the West for another woman, as they had been led to believe. Rather, his departure had been planned with the intention of having the family follow him as soon as possible. After he went, she tells them, she lacked the courage to go through with the plan. This raised a discussion about the extent to which she was a believer in the Socialist Regime. It also raised the question of the experience of exile from a dictatorship and the consequences of this action.

A second point discussed was how the film handled the question of democratisation in East Germany with the expansion of consumerism and sexual liberation, notably with the appearance in the film of symbols of late-capitalism or globalisation like Coca-Cola and Ikea. The discussion honed in on the empty buildings abandoned by East Germans which were occupied after the fall and most of them re-used, especially as spaces for alternative cultures and consumerism. A final theme was how the film explained the union of both Germanies through the role that football played politically during the World Cup in 1990, whose victory united both West and East in the joy of celebration.

Finally, we discussed the enduring nostalgia for the Socialist past, or Ostalgie, a term that plays with the German words for East, Ost, and nostalgia, Nostalgie. Anita reminded us how in today’s Germany, along with the official memory of this past promoted by the State, the people who lived in East Germany have their own memories, which tend to emphasize the positive aspects rather than the negative. We discussed this phenomenon not only in East Germany and other ex-socialist countries, but in other places such as Spain where part of the population idealises Francoism.

To sum up, this fantastic film allowed us to have an interesting debate about memory and nostalgia in post-communist societies. Our main conclusion was that the emotional memory of a regime could shape the way we see our own present, not only in the context of post-communism, but also other dictatorships, such as Spain.

While this is probably the last event of this academic year, we will continue our discussion group next semester. We expect to continue this exciting and lively forum for debate, with many overlapping perspectives. Everyone and all ideas are welcome. Do not hesitate to write to us (either Iker or Anita), and stay tuned for more news soon!

Iker Itoiz Ciáurriz is a PhD student in History. His research interests lie broadly in the history of the European left, political theory, political violence and historical memory. His thesis focuses on the political commitment of Eric Hobsbawm and his passion for politics in a transformed world (since 1977). He is a member of the CSMCH steering commitee.

Felix Boecking book launch

Last week, the CSMCH hosted the launch of Felix Boecking’s new book, ‘No Great Wall: Trade, Tariffs, and Nationalism in Republican China, 1927-1945’ (Harvard University Press), in the company of esteemed China specialist, Rana Mitter. Our intrepid reporter, Fraser Raeburn, joined the packed audience on a snowy spring day – you can read his report and listen to the full audio of the event below.

How does one make the history of tariffs interesting? This is clearly a question that Felix Boecking (Edinburgh) has been pondering for quite some time. He was the first to acknowledge that current events made this task considerably easier, as China and the United States fire the opening shots in an incipient trade war, but even had the present been less tumultuous, the large crowd that crammed into a small seminar room to hear about his new book would not have left disappointed.

No Great Wall is premised on the idea that tariffs offer insight into more than just trade and economics. Rather, China’s unique situation in the mid-twentieth century meant that tariffs assumed a great deal of importance – fiscally, with Nationalist China’s revenues disproportionately reliant on customs duties, but also intellectually and politically. The tariff system was a legacy of European informal imperialism and ‘unequal treaties’, which made regaining control over tariffs desirable. But Western involvement also guaranteed that tariffs could be applied across all of China, lending the Nationalist Government reach well beyond the boundaries of their actual territory. The question of tariffs therefore reflected wider tensions in the Nationalist project – what sort of state was it, and what kind of state did it aspire to become?

Felix introduces his new book

The finer detail of day-to-day practice also sheds fascinating light on the construction and maintenance of sovereignty – were regional smugglers, for example, evading import dues or choosing to recognise, and thereby legitimise, different authorities than the distant Nationalist Government? How could the Japanese attempts to undermine the custom system on the northern border destabilise and delegitimise the Nationalist state?

Felix tied these issues back to what he sees as the two central questions regarding Chinese history in this period: the decline of the Nationalist state and its eventual replacement by the current Communist regime; and the impact of the Second World War. By keeping the tariff system largely intact, the Nationalist regime opened itself to criticism that they were perpetuating the legacy of Western imperialism and interference in Chinese affairs, lending the Communists a powerful propaganda device. The advent of war, however, exposed the fragility of the Nationalist state. The Sino-Japanese War saw the loss of most Nationalist trading ports, and with them the ability to collect tariff revenues. The Nationalists were forced to rely on ever more brutal methods of tax extraction to fund the war effort, undermining its legitimacy and goodwill throughout much of China.

After this short introduction, Felix handed over to the day’s celebrity guest, Rana Mitter, whose job it was to respond to the book. The first thing Rana did was to place the text within a much wider context. He pointed to a key conclusion – that states which rely on a single revenue stream are more vulnerable and less resilient – which might usefully be applied well beyond China and East Asia.

He also pointed to the importance of the book for scholars of political science and international relations, for whom concepts of ‘partial sovereignty’ have gained traction, positing that rather than being absolute and indivisible, sovereignty might best be understood as a spectrum. Nationalist China thus offers a fascinating case study of how partial sovereignty worked in practice. In pointing to sovereignty – and contested understandings thereof – Mitter tied the contemporary relevance of Boecking’s book not just to trade wars, but to the tense debates over the nature of British sovereignty with relation to the European Union and Brexit.

Felix and Rana in conversation

Content for the moment with establishing the scope of the text’s relevance, Mitter also pointed out the important historiographical interventions made, notably with regards to Fairbank’s ‘logical but inaccurate’ account of Chinese customs. This was not, after all, traditional imperialism – raising the key question of who Chinese customs agents worked for, and were perceived to work for, as well as the complexities of the complicity of indigenous civil servants in empire. Boecking’s work raised further questions about longstanding assumptions about the Nationalist finances – has, for instance, their reliance on practices such as tax farming been overstated? Such questions are vital in considering the nature of the Nationalist state – a corrupt regime doomed to failure and replacement, or a flawed developing state that might have eventually been successful were it not for war?

The event ended with a rather chaotic distribution of sandwiches to the hungry audience and a fascinating question-and-answer session, which ranged across a number of topics in Chinese and global history. The whole launch was a fitting way to celebrate the work of one of our own historians – and, at the same time, showcase what economic history has to offer to scholars of political change in the twentieth century.

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.

Rana Mitter on postwar reconstruction in China

Our final week of CSMCH activities had a decidedly Chinese tinge to them. In the first of two China-related events, the renowned historian and broadcaster Rana Mitter (Oxford) discussed the postwar reconstruction of mainland China – and why it did not lead to the economic modernisation and democratic politics of postwar Europe, as some hoped it might. Rosalind Parr, who gives us this report, was part of a very large and curious audience.

As the world considers what role China might play in the twenty-first century, Rana Mitter’s paper on post-war reconstruction explored how Chinese nationalists responded to this question in the war-ravaged 1940s. In Chinese history, the post-war/pre-Communist moment is usually associated with Nationalist failure, while the global history of world governance tends to overlook the East Asian story. But Rana suggested that it was time to revisit this period. In his talk, he argued for a new narrative that reinstates Chinese agency and depicts 1945-47 as a dry run for the Asian developmentalism of the 1950s.

Rana draws parallels between present-day dilemmas and the postwar moment

He approached this history through the figure of Jiang Tingfu, the leftist scholar-turned-diplomat who represented China at the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) from 1943 and headed up the national parallel organisation, the China National Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, in 1945/46. In exploring Jiang’s thought, he argued, we may gain insight into Chinese international relations in the present day.

He began by sketching the post-war context, drawing our attention to China’s position as the only autonomous non-Western actor involved with the new international organisations that emerged in the 1940s. At the same time, Chinese nationalists contributed to constitutional and political debates about social welfarism and liberalism in both the global and national contexts.  Although we now tend to view the 1945-49 moment in China as one of civil war and failure, the assumption at the time was that the Nationalist government would remain a significant player for some time to come.

He then moved to the figure of Jiang Tingfu himself. In his early career, he was a historian who completed a PhD in the United States before returning to China. A liberal and a social democrat, Jiang variously expressed admiration for the USSR, for the Tennessee Valley Authority, and for the Attlee government in Britain. He was also a critic of Chiang Kaishek yet, despite this, was appointed by Chiang to UNRRA and as Director of the China National Relief and Rehabilitation Administration. The levels of destruction faced in China in the 1940s brought comparisons with the Belsen concentration camp and famine-decimated Bengal – one UNRRA report stating that ‘people need everything’. Jiang’s response to this massive crisis combined short term relief measures with longer term reconstruction and rehabilitation planning.

The victory of the Communist Party in China in 1949 has obscured the brief history of this nationalist-led reconstruction.  Rana argued that we should reinstate this period as a means of accessing alternative Chinese post-war visions of progress and of China’s role in the new regional and global order. In the 1940s, Nationalist visions existed in conversation with Communist ideology and, although Maoism triumphed, Jiang Tingfu’s pro-liberal, anti-imperial stance holds contemporary relevance. In particular, the history of ideas relating to modernisation, China’s role in the world, and her anti-imperialist legacy speaks to current, unresolved issues that play into international relations in the present day.

The thoughtful comment by Konrad Lawson (St Andrews) emphasised the great significance of Rana’s paper for historical scholarship. Not only does it suggest an otherwise obscured narrative, but it opens up areas for further study. In particular, studies of Chinese intellectual history and of relief and rehabilitation in a global context, as well as those located at the intersection of the two, may productively draw on this research and, in doing so, further inform wider debates about China and the world.

Rosalind Parr is a 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.


Malcolm Petrie on Scottish politics and the European question

This week, the Centre welcomed Malcolm Petrie, a former Early Career Fellow here at Edinburgh and now a lecturer in Modern History at the University of St Andrews. After a truly global year of talks and events, his discussion of Scottish politics and the European question brought us much closer to home. Calum Aikman sends this report.

Campaign material for the 1975 referendum on UK membership of the European Economic Community

The main focus of Malcolm’s paper was the hostility of the Scottish National Party (SNP) to the attempts by successive British governments to enter the European Economic Community (EEC) in the 1960s and early 1970s, and the positive impact this stance had on the party’s overall prospects.

Coming at a moment when the governing unionist tradition was already under severe strain, many historians have concentrated on the effects of several prevailing structural factors – most notably the discovery of oil fields in the North Sea and Britain’s comparatively poor economic performance – to explain the SNP’s upturn in fortunes during this period. But Malcolm argued that opposition to ‘Europe’ provided an equally important rallying point for the party: not only were its leading figures able to portray EEC membership as a ruse that would leave the Scottish people still further from the centre of power (on ‘the periphery of the periphery’, as a contemporary slogan would have it), but the subsequent campaign for a referendum on the issue helped return attention to the question of what Scotland’s constitutional status within the United Kingdom should be.

The position of the SNP, Malcolm contended, was initially characterised by pragmatism as much as by principle. Having welcomed the Treaty of Rome when it was signed in 1957, the party’s instincts began to shift away from pro-Europeanism towards the end of the following decade. During a by-election in Hamilton in 1967 the victorious Nationalist candidate, Winnie Ewing, repeatedly highlighted her opposition to integration with Europe, describing it as akin to ‘national suicide’.

That same year, Gordon Wilson, a future leader of the party, urged a ‘hard, intransigent attitude’ towards the EEC, citing the loss of nationhood and sovereignty that membership would entail together with a more esoteric claim that entry would contravene the terms of the 1707 Act of Union. In 1970 the leadership, with a keen eye for publicity stunts, sent a delegation to Brussels to let the European Commission know what it thought about their project, and in the General Election that followed soon after the SNP ran on an unambiguously anti-EEC platform. At a time when both the Labour and Conservative parties were theoretically committed to joining (despite significant opposition among their respective memberships), this was a distinctive policy that generated enthusiasm from within a somewhat Euro-sceptical public.

Malcolm suggested, however, that this was far from the whole story. While the party’s antipathy to Europe was at times motivated by tactical opportunism, what really catalysed such feeling was an underlying populist, anti-establishment spirit. This emerged in the rhetoric of William Wolfe, leader from 1970 to 1979, whose antagonism towards the overmighty state, whether it was located in London or Brussels, drove him to advocate the twin measures of localism and decentralisation as a suitable antidote.

Another prominent Nationalist, Dr Robert McIntyre, made similar arguments by suggesting that only an independent Scotland outside of the EEC could properly enshrine human values, thereby echoing the ‘small is beautiful’ concept then being popularised by E. F. Schumacher. Such doctrines are often associated with the political Right, and Malcolm noted that the party performed particularly well in areas, such as the North-East of Scotland, where the Tories had traditionally been dominant. But the SNP also used their opposition to a remote European bureaucracy as a means of transcending the binary political divide: at a senior level the policy attracted support from libertarian-minded socialists on the Left as well as the anti-statists of the Right.

The party’s strident defence of the right to self-determination soon found an outlet in the campaign for a national referendum on the European question. First articulated in 1970 by the anti-EEC Labour politicians Douglas Jay and Tony Benn, the idea to place the decision ‘before the people’ gained significant traction throughout Britain during the following year, when the vote to join the EEC was passed in the House of Commons with much rancour on both sides. In Scotland, a poll suggested that 75 per cent of the public supported the concept.

For the SNP, which unlike the two major parties was united in its refusal to support entry, this was too good an opportunity to miss. Over the next four years the party used the referendum campaign to develop its own perspective. Arguing – as other anti-EEC politicians also did – that no government can surrender common privileges without popular consent, the SNP’s leaders went further by suggesting that, as there was no provision in place for member states to leave the EEC, entry would effectively freeze Scotland inside the confines of the British state for good. A Declaration of Rights was therefore proclaimed, and Wilson wrote to the sitting President of the European Commission, François-Xavier Ortoli, to defend the unique nature of Scotland’s constitutional framework.

Malcolm pointed out that the focus of Nationalists on these issues successfully diverted attention away from economics, and played on existing discontent with the political system. Despite this, when the EEC referendum was finally staged in 1975 it proved to be something of a disappointment for the SNP. Although there had long been a widespread perception that the British public were not keen on joining the EEC, once the decision was made and entry officially ratified (on 1 January 1973) there was an equally strong feeling that membership was now a fait accompli that could no longer be resisted.

The result was a majority in all four nations for staying in; but with a ‘Yes’ vote at just 58 per cent and a comparatively low turnout, it was Scotland that seemed the least enthusiastic about the decision. Malcolm wondered if voter apathy indicated an even higher level of opposition than has been assumed; more importantly, he argued that the precedent set by the referendum was useful to the SNP in the long run, as it led to further referendums – including one on the establishment of a Scottish Assembly in 1979 – and entrenched notions of popular sovereignty in  British political debate, to the extent that it is now taken for granted that the union itself can be dissolved constitutionally.

Summarising Malcolm’s paper,  Ewen Cameron (Edinburgh) pointed out its value in reminding us of the difficult relationship that has long existed between Scottish nationalism and the idea of ‘Europe’, contrary to the common belief that Scotland as a whole has a settled tendency to be pro-European. He felt this to be particularly important when considering Winnie Ewing – whose anti-EEC propaganda in Hamilton perhaps belies her subsequent ‘internationalist’ reputation as ‘Madame Ecosse’ – and argued that greater distinction should thus be made between internationalism in Scotland and the narrower specificity of the European question.

Ewen also noted that the SNP’s anti-statist rhetoric, and its ability to use it to promote a particular view of Scottish identity, was reminiscent of the political formula that the Tories had earlier deployed to ensure their own political success in Scotland. A lengthy – and at times quite lively – discussion then ensued, with questions raised concerning the pre-eminence of pragmatism over ideology in determining the SNP’s actions, the position of the few pro-Europeans inside the party, and the need for an examination of historically Liberal areas vis-à-vis Nationalist strongholds in the context of the referendum result.

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.

Sonja Levsen on authority and democracy in postwar Western Europe

In solidarity with ongoing UCU strike action, this week’s talk was moved out of the university into the Brass Monkey pub’s back room, trading rows of seminar desks for cosy sofas and cushions.  The session was adapted into a less formal ‘teach-out,’ aiming to emphasise the possibilities for an accessible and non-hierarchical educational culture. Aptly, the discussion centred around visiting speaker Sonja Levsen’s research into conceptions of democracy and authority in postwar French and West German educational policy, inviting comparisons with educational attitudes and policies today. Mathew Nicolson sent this report.

Sonja summarises her research

Sonja began the discussion by introducing some of the central themes of her research.  Teaching styles and society’s attitudes towards young people underwent a significant shift across much of Western Europe during the postwar years.  One such notable development proved to be the ‘permissive turn,’ characterised by dialogue within parent-child and teacher-student relationships, greater toleration of youth sexuality and a growing distaste of corporal punishment.

In attempting to understand such a rapid social transformation, historians have tended to focus upon European consumer society, 1960s youth culture and developments within social sciences as key drivers of change.  However, these approaches have yet to fully explain how this shift in attitudes occurred and often lack transnational perspectives.  In her work, Sonja has added further insight to these debates by offering a comparative analysis of France and West Germany in which she highlights growing perceptions of young people as citizens and democratisation in education.

As Sonja noted, the history of education can provide a particularly useful contribution to German history.  Since the 1960s, one leading historical interpretation analyses German history through the prism of authoritarianism.  In this view, modern Germany has been defined by its authoritarian society of which Prussian militarism, nineteenth-century imperialism and National Socialism were all simply different manifestations. Accordingly, it is argued that, after the Second World War, West Germany retained these authoritarian trappings, beginning its transition to a more democratic society only during the 1960s, at which point teacher and parent attitudes similarly democratised.

Sonja situated the origins of this concept of authoritarianism in the occupying powers’ ‘diagnosis’ of Germany’s problems and associated anthropological ‘national character studies.’  This led to a major push for democratic reform which reached down to educational establishments.  By the 1950s, West German schools and universities had created student councils, preceding those formed later in France and Britain. In contrast, despite recently emerging from the Vichy regime, there was little inherent contradiction between authoritarianism and democracy in postwar France, particularly within the sphere of education.  Indeed, even the student activists of 1968 spoke more in the language of anti-capitalism than anti-authoritarianism, while in West Germany much of the focus remained on tackling the vestiges of Nazism and authoritarianism.

In West Germany, concerns about authoritarianism intersected with new developing attitudes towards sex and youth sexuality.  Taking inspiration from the research and ideas of Wilhelm Reich, by the 1960s ‘diagnoses’ of authoritarianism increasingly attributed Nazism to repressed sexuality.  Thus, democratisation and sexual liberation should occur hand in hand. As this idea gained traction, West Germany became the second country after Sweden to introduce sex education which acknowledged sexual pleasure, moving beyond a solely biological approach.  To better understand the connection between attitudes to sexual liberalisation and authoritarianism, Sonja’s upcoming research project intends to extend her transnational analysis into sex education.

Finally, Sonja engaged with the argument that social change naturally followed economic change in postwar Europe – that liberalisation accompanied consumerism and prosperity.  She questioned this sense of inevitability, highlighting regional variations despite similar economic contexts as evidence of a more complex reality.  Instead, she suggested we focus on the importance of influential actors in political and public life, viewing social change as contingent upon the possibilities for different social groups to be visible and vocalised in the public sphere.

Commenting on Sonja’s research, Anita Klingler (doctoral student in history at Edinburgh) provided some further points for discussion.  She highlighted the possibility for other transnational comparisons in educational policy, such as with Britain or Italy, and raised the question of whether Saarland, administered by France until 1956, adopted French or West German ideas of democracy and authority within educational systems.  Responding to these points, Sonja acknowledged the lack of research into other countries’ education policies and argued that from a German perspective, British and American schools and universities represented a democratic ideal to aspire to, even when the reality – for example, British public schools – fell short of this image.  In the case of Saarland, Sonja added that student newspapers only proliferated after the transition to German administration, further emphasising the importance of political context in driving democratisation within education.

The session ended with a wide-ranging discussion, which lasted for over an hour. Sonja was grilled about the methodological and empirical foundations of her work, and she responded superbly to the many different questions. The very open discussion between staff, postgraduates and undergraduates was proof that, under these unusual circumstances, it is possible to break down some of the hierarchies of the university. Long may this continue!

Mathew Nicolson is an MSc by Research student in Scottish History. His research interests focus on the politics and culture of postwar Scotland with particular emphases on its ‘peripheral’ island groups and imperial connections. His dissertation explores Scottish responses to the Apartheid regime in South Africa.

Czechoslovak New Wave film screening series

In honour of the 50th anniversary of the Prague Spring in 1968, the CSMCH put together a Czechoslovak New Wave film screening series. Unfortunately, the poor weather meant that we had to cancel the second of our screenings, but the first one went ahead. Those who braved the snow were treated to a rare screening of the classic film ‘The Valley of the Bees’ (1967) by director František Vláčil in the cosy back room of the Brass Monkey pub on Drummond Street. Birgit Ampe was in the audience. 

Tereza Valny preparing to introduce the film

The film was introduced by Tereza Valny, Edinburgh’s very own Czech historian. She began her discussion by briefly outlining the political climate of post-war Czechoslovakia. After the Second World War, a communist coup in 1948 had led to the establishment of a communist totalitarian regime. The Communist Party infiltrated not only economic and political structures, but also cultural, religious and social ones. Teresa highlighted the Sokols as an example of this process. The Sokol was a gymnastic organization that had its roots in the 1860s. During the 1950s, the Communist Party tried to replace the gymnastic festivals hosted by the Sokols with mass exercises for propaganda purposes. In that way, they used already existing structures for the spreading of their own ideals.

But all this started to change in the 1960s. Moscow, the bulwark of communism at that time, realised that the Czechoslovakian economy was deteriorating and it was decided that an economic reform was needed in the country. The reform would only apply to the economy; no other reorganisations were allowed. However, it soon became clear that this was an illusion, as reforms quickly started to take root in many other fields as well.

Tereza argued that the opening of Czechoslovak society was mainly due to these new reforms, and more specifically the artistic renaissance of the 1960s. This renaissance began in 1963, when the Kafka writers conference was held. Choosing the Prague author Kafka was in itself an act of rebellion because the themes he explored in his work, such as alienation, go against the communist ideals. This conference marked the beginning of a broadening of culture and an artistic revolution in Czechoslovakia.

The artistic renaissance also had an impact on filmmaking. Teresa recounted how people could go to the cinema and watch films that criticised the system in an covert way. One of these films was ‘The Valley of the Bees’ by František Vláčil. Like other directors, Vláčil was able to avoid censure by disguising his critique and placing his story in the past. In ‘The Valley of the Bees’, Vláčil explores the inevitability of life crushing the individual, which leaves the entire film in a gloom of impending doom. By examining the strict cloister life in the Middle Ages, he is able to criticise dogmatism within the contemporary communist system.

The film is set in the 13th century and focuses on Ondřej. As a boy, he grew up in the castle of his father. The film opens with the marriage between his father and his new wife. Ondřej plays a cruel trick on the bride, for which his father almost kills him. Out of regret, his father promises to devote his son to God if he survives, which he eventually does. That is how Ondřej ended up in a religious order. There he meets Armin, who becomes his friend and teacher. However, the strict life is not for everyone and a brother of the order tries to leave. He is captured and fed to the hunting dogs. This event triggers something in Ondřej and he decides to flee as well. Armin takes it upon himself to bring back Ondřej. But nothing can convince Ondřej, who eventually arrives back at his father’s castle. There he learns that his father has died. He becomes the lord of the castle and marries his stepmother. Armin cannot condone this act, so he slits the woman’s throat. As a punishment, Armin is devoured by hunting dogs. But before he dies, he begs Ondřej to go back to the order. The film ends with Ondřej eventually returning to the order.

Birgit Ampe is an Erasmus+ trainee and visiting postgraduate student, who will be based in the CSMCH for three months from March to May 2018. Birgit completed her Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in English Literature from the University of Ghent in Belgium. During her stay at the Centre, she will be helping to manage some of the administrative tasks, as well as pursuing her own research on colonial soldiers during World War One using archival collections in the National Library of Scotland.