Roundup: Talking About History
This is where we excerpt articles about history that appear in the media. Among the subjects included on this page are: anniversaries of historical events, legacies of presidents, cutting-edge research, and historical disputes.
Allan Hall, in the London Times (July 30, 2004):
IT IS hardly the Wild West -in fact the site used to be a part of the East and the only natural sand comes from a gravel pit 30 miles away. But tomorrow Silver Lake City will be inaugurated as a place where Germans can feel at home on the range.
Nowhere in the Western world, outside of America itself, is the cult of the cowboy so firmly entrenched as it is in Germany. Doctors, lawyers, car mechanics, teachers and civil servants, sober people who bind themselves to Teutonic rules during the week, throw off their inhibitions on Friday nights to play cowboys and Indians.
It is charades on a grand scale: there are hundreds of clubs dotted across the country with tens of thousands of members. Silver Lake City opens its doors this weekend at Templin, north of Berlin, to cater for the urban cowboy crowd from the reborn capital.
There is a main...
Philip Blenkinsop, in the Australian Advertiser (July 31, 2004):
LONG considered an ugly Nazi relic, a half-destroyed concrete fortress in Berlin has become an unlikely addition to the German capital's tourist map. Since April, regular guided tours have taken curious visitors into the vast World War II structure to see the turret interiors and the effect of two failed attempts to blow it up after the war.
It is a part of a growing trend in Germany to show a broader view of the war and include German suffering after years of sole attention on the evils of the Nazis. Tours pass thick walls that resisted bombs and Russian artillery, bare halls and staircases where civilians sheltered and deep shafts which carried anti-aircraft shells from the basement to the rooftop guns seven floors above. Visitors can also marvel at technology well advanced for its time. The gun steering, for example, was fully automated. A radar tower 300m away...
Roger W. Smith, in the Chronicle of Higher Education (July 30, 2004):
[Roger W. Smith is a professor emeritus of government at the College of William & Mary and a former president of the Association of Genocide Scholars.]
For 20 years, I taught a course on genocide: What is "genocide," why does it happen, who is responsible for it, and how could this ultimate crime be prevented? I told students that genocide -- intentional acts to eliminate in whole, or in substantial part, a specific human population -- had claimed the lives of some 60 million people in the 20th century, 16 million of them since 1945, when the watchword was "Never again." Genocide has, in fact, been so frequent, the number of victims so extensive, and serious attempts to prevent it so few, that many scholars have described the 20th century as...
Dennis Overbye, in the NYT (July 27, 2004):
When I was a young man, no two dates could have seemed more distant and unconnected than July 16, 1945, and July 20, 1969.
The first, marking the day the initial atomic explosion shattered the dawn at Alamogordo, N.M., belonged to World War II, a conflict so ancient that it might as well have been fought by a previous race. The second date, when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin put their bootprints on the fine gray lunar soil, belonged to the future, to the bright destiny of humanity. Modern history had started somewhere in between, in 1957, say, when Russia launched Sputnik, or in 1960, when John F. Kennedy was elected president.
But when I was turning the calendar near my cubicle the other day -- one of my more crucial, if unsung, duties around here -- I was struck by how close together and how similar...
From the Chronicle of Higher Education (July 28, 2004):
A glance at the summer issue of "Social Science History": Taking the measure of ourselves
If you think economics has become hopelessly abstract and disconnected from human experience, you may not know that some scholars in the field spend their time measuring dusty, 900-year-old femurs. Dozens of economic historians are engaged in a worldwide study of centuries-old skeletons, searching for evidence of disease, violence, hard labor, and nutritional deficits.
The skeleton project is one facet of the burgeoning field of "anthropometric studies" -- the analysis of height, life expectancy, and caloric consumption, among other gauges, with the goal of illuminating how various climates, political regimes, and economic systems have reshaped the human body.
The summer issue of...
Jan Dalley, in the (London) Financial Times, writing about a new book, History and the Media, ed. by David Cannadine (July 10, 2004):
History is the "new rock 'n' roll". It is the "new gardening". It is even, according to Dawn Airey when leaving her job as chief executive of channel five, the "new sex". Taylor Downing, an independent television producer and one of the contributors to this collection of essays from some of Britain's best-known telly-buffs and telly-dons, claims to have counted in a single week no fewer than 18 primetime history programmes on the five UK terrestrial channels - and that is not including the digital channels devoted to nothing else, broadcasting history 18 hours a day throughout the year.
These statistics, added to viewing figures into the millions, must seem like "the new sex" to a television executive; to the rest of us, the history boom is still a fascinating...
Scott Baldauf, in the Christian Science Monitor (July 16, 2004):
...Last week, the allies of the newly elected Congress government, the Communist Party of India, called for yet another rewrite of Indian history, this time with a broader view of India's many cultures instead of focusing on the religion of the majority.
The root of this historical conflict runs deep into the very definition of India itself. Is India essentially a secular country, where many religions and cultures coexist and blend? Or is India a nation formed on Hindu values, where non-Hindu religions must conform to Hindu values and traditions? It is this core question has unwittingly turned Indian schoolrooms into a cultural battleground.
"If these academics did things in a quiet manner, it would be better so that you don't arouse latent emotions," says Dipankar Gupta, an anthropologist at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. "Most people in India believe in...
Historian Tristram Hunt, in the Sunday Times (London) (July 18, 2004):
Following the Sotheby's auction of James Joyce's delightfully filthy mailings to Nora Barnacle ("My sweet little whorish Nora, I did as you told me, you dirty little girl..."), academics have warned that the current generation's love letters are in danger of being lost to technological advance.
With so much personal information stored on electronic devices and with e mails and text messages deleted on a daily basis, scholars fear vital insights into 21st-century British society will be mechanically obliterated. To tackle this looming "electronic deficit" in our national memory, the British Library has decided to archive snapshots of the 2004 internet along with a sample of personal websites.
... The story of mankind is, in part, the story of the democratisation of communication and, with each step forward, the cultural old guard has reacted with dire...
Jamie Wilson, in the Guardian (July 19, 2004):
Adolf Hitler bends down to look at the map laid out before him on the oak table. His piercing eyes stare intently as a general points a black-gloved hand to show troop movements on the eastern front. As the camera pans and the Fuhrer leans on his right arm to get a better view there is a blinding orange flash followed by a ball of smoke as the picture blurs.
It is the documentary-maker's ultimate fantasy: never-before-seen footage of one of the most famous moments in 20th-century history - the assassination attempt against Hitler at his Rastenburg headquarters in eastern Prussia.
The quality is such - from the colour of the film to the graininess of the images - that it could even have been taken by the Fuhrer's private cameraman, Walter Frentz. But the clip was not shot inside the Wolf's Lair in July 1944. In fact this scene was never filmed at all.
Instead it was made for the Discovery Channel...
Noel C. Paul, in the Christian Science Monitor (July 22, 2004):
There's more to Boston politics than John Kerry and the Kennedys. Now, as the city becomes America's political center for a brief moment next week, historians and others are digging through the past to glean insights into a nation's birth.
What they're finding is forcing a reassessment of how the city shaped US politics - and how the past may echo in pronouncements from the podium next week.
Already, a list of Boston's heroes reads like a roll call of America's past - from Puritans to transcendentalists to Irish bosses.
But no generation of Bostonians was more influential than that which tipped East Indian tea into the Atlantic. Yet as much as Bostonians would like to celebrate the Adamses and Otises, Hancocks and Reveres, historians have begun focusing on a long-neglected figure: the little guy.
Even here, where a coterie of agitators...
Garry Wills, in the NY Review of Books (August 12, 2004):
So far, most readers of President Clinton's book seem to like the opening pages best, and no wonder. Scenes of childhood glow from many memoirs —by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Henry Adams, John Ruskin, John Henry Newman, and others. It is hard to dislike people when they are still vulnerable, before they have put on the armor of whatever career or catastrophe lies before them as adults. In fact, Gilbert Chesterton advised those who would love their enemies to imagine them as children. The soundness of this tactic is proved by its reverse, when people become irate at attempts to imagine the childhood or the youth of Hitler—as in protests at the Menno Meyjez film Max. So it is hard, even for his foes, to find Clinton objectionable as a child. Yet the roots of the trouble he later had lie there, in the very appeal of his youth.
Another reason we...
Joseph Ellis, in Historically Speaking, the bulletin of the Historical Society (June 2004):
What is the current status of biography within the historical profession? I would say it is a bastard, or perhaps an orphan periodically adopted as a welfare case by history or English departments. The hegemonic power within the historical profession for the last thirty to forty years has been social history, which cuts against the biographical grain in multiple ways. It makes the collective rather than the individual life the primal unit of study. It privileges the periphery over the prominent figures at the political center, who become “dead white males” and their respective stories elitist narratives casually dismissed as “great man history,” even when the subject is a woman, or even when the story told undermines the entire notion...
... Some would say that the late Stephen A. Ambrose is the finest model of a historian writing for the public at large. Ambrose did fine work but, toward the end, his books had difficulties (beyond plagiarism). First, he came gravely close to ancestor worship, a pro b l e m also coloring the work of some baby boomers who, embarrassed by their earlier opposition to the Vietnam War and to their fathers, now write excessively laudatory biographies of the “ greatest generation.” But Ambrose was perhaps guilty also of what we might call pandering, that is, telling the public only what it wants to hear: a lucrative but intellectually destructive “dumbing down” of scholarship. This has also affected the quality of some university presses whose first criterion for publication of a manuscript is no...
David Beito and Charles W. Nuckolls, in Reason (July 19, 2004):
During the last decade, the League of the South and other"southern heritage" groups have fought to preserve the state flags of Georgia and Mississippi. Some members of the League have demanded that universities hire Southern-born professors. Others have promoted antebellum style dances. Nearly all are quick to champion their"heroes," including Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis, against any slights.
The jargon of group rights and identity politics, normally the domain of the politically correct, permeates their pronouncements. In Georgia, a member of the League boasts that"our Southern heritage celebrates true diversity...and true multiculturalism." Another from Virginia asks"in an age of political correctness, teaching tolerance of others and multiculturalism...when will the...
In the 18th century, Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab and an army of 600 troops showed up at a tomb in the Arabian Desert, where one of the companions of the Prophet Muhammad was buried under an elaborate dome. On his deathbed the prophet had cursed Jews and Christians for turning the graves of their apostles into places of worship. Yet over the 11 centuries since Muhammad founded Islam, Muslims had come to do just that, making the tombs of the religion's early disciples into pilgrimage sites.
So while the troops kept horrified onlookers at bay, al-Wahhab (whose name means "the bestower") and his followers ripped the dome down. The Wahhabis eventually went on to destroy shrines and minarets throughout Islamdom. They even attempted to raze the dome over the prophet's own tomb in Medina.
Sometimes called the Luther of Islam, Wahhab created a religious movement that insisted on a return to the...
Howard Zinn, in the Progressive (August 2004):
As I write this, the sounds of the World War II Memorial celebration in Washington, D.C., are still in my head. I was invited by the Smithsonian Institution to be on one of the panels, and the person who called to invite me said that the theme would be "War Stories." I told him that I would come, but not to tell "war stories," rather to talk about World War II and its meaning for us today. Fine, he said.
I made my way into a scene that looked like a movie set for a Cecil B. DeMille extravaganza--huge tents pitched here and there, hawkers with souvenirs, thousands of visitors, many of them clearly World War II veterans, some in old uniforms, sporting military caps, wearing their medals. In the tent designated for my panel, I joined my fellow panelist, an African American woman who had served with the...
Michael Connor, in the Australian (July 9, 2004):
[Michael Connor is an honorary research associate in the school of history and classics at the University of Tasmania.]
JUST now, the Australian past is a dangerous place to be. I pointed out in The Bulletin (August 26, 2003) that there is an error in the historiography of terra nullius (a supposed rationale for settlement without indigenous compensation) -- and I've been made out as a racist right-winger. I pointed to errors in the historiography of political narratives of the 1820s -- and they gave me a PhD.
What is going on?
The history wars have nothing to do with truth or intellectual inquiry. The history wars have everything to do with middle-class careerism.
Terra nullius, which until fairly recently teachers and academics really believed was the language of Captain James Cook and Governor Arthur Phillip, was a term almost unknown until the 1970s and did not come...
Diana McCurdy, in the New Zealand Herald (July 10, 2004):
Every week, 19 researchers and historians at the Waitangi Tribunal painstakingly unearth new information about New Zealand's disappearing past.
As they investigate Maori claims against the Crown, the researchers document aspects of history never before recorded on paper.
In an improbable twist, the tribunal - one of New Zealand's more controversial institutions - has become a nursery for the rewriting of New Zealand's history.
It seems a laudable enterprise. But questions are emerging about the academic validity of the history the tribunal is producing.
In a new book, The Waitangi Tribunal and New Zealand History, Victoria University historian Dr Giselle Byrnes lays damning charges against the tribunal, describing its attempts to write history as a "noble, but ultimately flawed experiment".
The tribunal, she says, is not writing "objective history...
David Smith and Walter Harris, in the Guardian (July 11, 2004):
INGA HAAG vividly remembers shaking the hand of Adolf Hitler - and spending the next five years plotting to kill him. Men close to her were executed after the failed plan to assassinate the Fuhrer 60 years ago next week. But Inga survived and, now nearing 86 and a grande dame of London embassy gatherings, is virtually alone in having memories of the botched attempt to decapitate the Third Reich.
On 20 July, 1944, Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg, a German count, planted a briefcase containing a bomb under an oak table during a meeting at Hitler's headquarters in East Prussia. It exploded, wounding many, but Hitler escaped with damaged ear drums, burns to his left side and a missing trouser leg. Stauffenberg was executed without trial. Other 'July plotters', including Inga's cousin, Adam von Trott, and her former boss, Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, were killed.