Woman in a Man’s World : Ceri Carter on Magdalen Lloyd

Photograph: Ceri Carter at Women's Archive of Wales Conference

Ceri Carter, USW History graduate and research student, spoke at Swansea today on Magdalen Lloyd, whose letters from London give us a rare perspective on early modern women’s history. Ceri used Magdalen’s letters – featuring controlling cousins, persistent suitors, and an exacting mistress described as too stubborn to die – to show that life in service in London with all of its constraints still represented a measure of independence for this seventeenth-century Welsh woman.

Magdalen, who held firm to her ambition of returning to her ‘own country’, was just one of the women whose lives were re-examined at this 18th annual conference of the Women’s Archive of Wales. The organisation was founded in 1997 by University of Glamorgan (now USW) historians Ursula Masson and Deirdre Beddoe.

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History Graduates and Prizewinners – Treforest, July 2013

Congratulations to all of our 2013 graduates.

Graduation Gallery – click on images to enlarge

Read more about the Ursula Masson Memorial Prize and about our 2013 graduates at the USW website.

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Universities in the Big Society

Where’s the best place to research the American Revolution? Boston, the urban crucible of resistance to British rule? Or Virginia, home to George Washington and Thomas Jefferson? Both have much to offer, but there’s also a wealth of material in a far less predictable location: Ann Arbor, Michigan.

This takes some explaining. Ann Arbor played no role in the Revolutionary War. Indeed, Ann Arbor wasn’t founded until 1824 and Michigan wasn’t admitted to the Union until 1837. In the late eighteenth century this was a place on the fringes of Anglo-America, a place of trappers and hunters, where Native Americans were more likely to speak French than English. Yet the William L. Clements Library at the University of Michigan can boast one of the finest collections of manuscripts from the revolutionary era.

The University of Michigan, it should be said, is Ann Arbor. The University dominates the centre of town and students, of which there are 40,000 plus, give the place a youthful buzz. Michigan has voted Democrat in recent years, with Greater Detroit area voters turning out heavily for Obama in 2008. Even so, Ann Arbor is notably liberal in politics and relaxed in tone. This is a town in which your next-door neighbours are likely to hang wind chimes in their porch, shop for organic arugula and recycle with above-average zeal.

The University of Michigan (‘UM’) is a big-hitter as US universities go, with a formidable reputation for research. That it became so was thanks to a succession of ambitious benefactors, of whom William L. Clements was one. A ‘UM’ alumnus and Progressive Era industrialist, Clements was an avid bibliophile, specialising in American-related titles of the colonial era.

He also began to acquire the papers of some of the key military figures in the Revolutionary War. At first he concentrated on Patriots, but he was not averse to picking up the manuscript remains of those who had fought for George III. Indeed, he came to appreciate that Michigan could stake out a claim for itself as the place at which the American Revolution could be studied in the round. To that end, Clements began to make trips to Europe where he found that a good many landed families whose forebears had served the British crown in the Revolutionary War were very ready to part with their ancestors’ archives for hard cash. That’s why anyone wanting to consult the papers of a senior British commander like Sir Henry Clinton must travel to Michigan.

William L. Clements was not alone in investing in scholarship. In fact, devoting money to higher learning was something that American plutocrats of his time were very keen on. As citizens of a state without a titled aristocracy on the European model, this sort of benefaction was a way of commemorating their achievements and embedding their names in public memory. The name of Ezra Cornell (1807-1874), for example, who made a fortune as a promoter of telegraphy, still resonates today because of the university he helped establish in upstate New York. Were it not for Cornell University’s Ivy League laurels its founder would be known only to a handful of business historians.

The English historian J.A. Froude, visiting New York in the early 1870s, reflected on this: ‘There is Mr Cornell, who has made all this money, living in a little poky house in a street with a couple of maids, his wife and daughters dressed in the homeliest manner. His name will be remembered for centuries as having spent his wealth in the very best institutions on which a country’s prosperity depends. Our people spend their fortunes in buying great landed estates to found and perpetuate their own family’.

Royal Holloway
Royal Holloway

Does the contrast Froude made – between public-spirited Americans and selfish Britons – hold water? The current Coalition government must hope not. The ‘Big Society’, as advocated by David Cameron, relies upon activism by concerned citizens. Quite how this is to happen is not completely clear. Argument continues as to whether civic activism is to complement the state or substitute for state responsibility. (In the eyes of many critics, of course, the ‘Big Society’ is little more than an ideological gloss on punitive tax-cutting.) Either way, philanthropy has to be a big part of the ‘Big Society’ agenda.

Britain has a commendable philanthropic tradition but the habit of giving to educational institutions is far less pronounced here than in the United States. There are some exceptions to this rule. Royal Holloway College takes its name from Thomas Holloway (1800-1883), a manufacturer of patent medicines who endowed a women’s college in memory of his wife. Generations of students have reason to be grateful – as do television producers who have found Royal Holloway’s main building, a French Renaissance confection, perfect for filming costume dramas. Overall though, the record is patchy. Business magnates in Britain seem to have been more comfortable aping the aristocracy, just as Froude charged. And in aping the aristocracy they were imitating a conspicuously selfish class. The landed elite, for all the talk of noblesse oblige, has ever delighted in spending money on itself, most notably by the building of rural palaces (a.k.a. stately homes).

The culture of giving in Britain is very different to that of America. The Coalition government hopes for convergence. So do university managers as they watch public funding for higher education shrink. Finance directors are hoping that US-style benefactions can make good some of the shortfall. The historical record suggests that is very unlikely. Watch out for increased courtship of the rich (euphemised as ‘individuals of high net worth’) by UK institutions, but do not expect private donation to compensate for the withdrawal of public resources.

Chris Evans

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The Glorious Dead?

Oradour-sur-Glane: Photograph

The ruins of Oradour-sur-Glane

War memorials dominate the French landscape, especially in the north where each tiny village has a statue or a plaque dedicated to men ‘Morts pour la France’. They were all built to commemorate the First World War, known simply as la Grande Guerre (the Great War) in which over 1.3 million men ‘died for France’. Yet what about the Second World War? How is that, equally momentous, event commemorated in France? In Britain the process has been relatively straightforward in that commemorations of the second war were simply grafted on to the commemorative traditions of the First World War: Remembrance Day is still held on the anniversary of the 1918 armistice; more names were added to pre-existing memorials.

France map Lambert-93 with regions and departments-occupation

Remembering the Second World War is more complex in France. In British popular history 1940 was ‘our finest hour’ and, as in 1918, a painful war ended with a straightforward military victory. We were bombed but (leaving the Channel Islands aside) the United Kingdom remained intact throughout. The French war was very different. France was invaded and occupied in 1940 and the country was largely split into two sections: those in the north lived under German occupation and those in the south lived in ‘Vichy France’ a regime which collaborated with the Nazi state. There was no clear victory and no sense of having endured the war as one nation.

For these reasons it has been difficult to create memorials specifically dedicated to the 1939-1945 war in France. The D-Day landings are widely – and lavishly – commemorated in Normandy but in parts of central and southern France you can search in vain for some official remembrance of the Second World War. One notable exception is the ruined village of Oradour-sur-Glane, a once prosperous community in the Haute-Vienne, not far from Limoges, and just inside the border of Vichy France.

The French resistance were active in this area at the beginning of June 1944, and the Waffen SS decided to instigate reprisals in response. On 10 June 1944 the Nazis rounded up the 642 residents of Oradour-sur-Glane and separated the men, women and children. First they executed all the men, then all the women and children. After the executions they burned all the bodies, ensuring that they could never be identified, and set fire to the entire village. This burned-out village has since been left to act as a memorial to those who were killed and to serve as a stark reminder of the realities of warfare.

Oradour-sur-Glane: Sewing Machine.  Photograph

Walking through the streets of Oradour-sur-Glane allows you a real glimpse into the fabric of French life at the time. The tramlines to nearby Limoges survived the fires, as did the old telegraph poles. Oradour-sur-Glane may have been rural but it was not remote. It was a small village with a thriving high street and was well-served with bakers, butchers, hard-wear shops and cafes. A surprising number of garages still hold rusting cars, and almost each house contains a collapsing – but still recognisable – Singer sewing-machine. More poignantly there are the remains of children’s toys, such as abandoned tricycles, in gardens and homes.

Oradour-sur-Glane: Photograph

Like much local history, this history of Oradour-sur-Glane highlights the extent to which human society is formed by movement and migration. Most of the residents had been born in the local area but others were refugees. Amongst the inhabitants were Spanish republicans who had sought French exile after Franco’s victory in 1939, there were French refugees who had come from the border provinces of Alsace and Lorraine at the beginning of the war, and there were also French Jews, many of whom had thought that they would be safer in the south than in the north.

Memorials tell us about the past but they also tell us about those who erect them. In the visitor centre at Oradour-sur-Glane the inhabitants are sometimes described as ‘victims’, sometimes as ‘martyrs’, a more active term and one which indicates the deep Catholic roots of Republican France. On the walls of the visitor centre one can read a number of quotations, many of which are personal responses to the massacre. One – very large and prominent – quote reads ‘The Germans betrayed their own mothers and all women when they did not spare the children.’ This comment (from a Frenchman in 1946) perfectly encapsulates French pro-natalism and the gendered honour system which accompanied it.

This type of massacre was very common on the Eastern front, less so in the west.

Nevertheless, atrocities accompany all wars, just or unjust. One of the most powerful images at Oradour-sur-Glane is the old First World War memorial, still intact in the ruined church. Like all such memorials it inscribed with a long list of names to the ‘glorious dead’. Yet looking around the burned out streets of the village, there is very little that is glorious about the dead of Oradour-sur-Glane.

This post was contributed by Fiona Reid, whose research and teaching areas include the social impact of the Second World War in Britain and France and the history of refugees in Europe.

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Helsinki, Sweden

If you are invited to join a gathering of Swedish historians you expect to find yourself in Sweden. So why does my plane land in Helsinki?

It’s not quite as strange as it seems. Two hundred and fifty years ago Finland was a province of the Swedish empire and Helsinki was a Swedish town called Helsingfors, so it’s an appropriate place for a meeting of COSMOS, a band of historians dedicated to interpreting eighteenth-century Sweden as a cosmopolitan place. The Sweden of COSMOS is not the ‘Saab and social welfare’ place we think of. It was a country through which wider currents of European culture flowed back and forth – a place of French opera, German theology, Dutch business leaders, and the Chinese tea that Sweden’s East India Company shipped back to its HQ in Gothenberg. In cosmopolitan Sweden the leaders of fashion spent their money on an Engelska park – a garden in the informal English style.

Swedish Empire

Sweden's Empire

Eighteenth-century Sweden was cosmopolitan in one other obvious sense: it stretched far beyond the ‘core Sweden’ familiar to us. In 1700 Helsinki/Helsingfors was garrisoned by Swedes; so was the modern Estonian capital Tallinn (then known as Reval), so too Riga, now the capital of Latvia. There were even Swedish provinces in northern Germany. Most of this is now forgotten, but in Finland the imprint of Sweden remains very visible. Swedish is an official language and street signage in Helsinki is bilingual. Thus, my hotel has a Swedish address (Norra Järnvägsgatan , or North Railway Street, to give the unlovely English equivalent) and a Finnish (Pohjoinen Rautatiekatu).

The COSMOS seminar is to take place on Suomenlinna, an offshore island that is these days a popular picnic location, just ten minutes on the ferry from downtown Helsinki. In the eighteenth century Suomenlinna was not so welcoming to visitors; then, it was Sveaborg, the ‘Swedish fort’. The Swedes began the construction of Sveaborg in the 1740s to ward off the Russians, their bitter rivals for dominance over the Baltic. It was to stand as a riposte to the Russian citadel at Kronstadt, which controlled the approaches to St Petersburg. Gradually, Suomenlinna was covered by a network of bastions, gun batteries, dockyards and barracks. The base was so big that the garrison outnumbered the townspeople of Helsingfors.

Huge sums were lavished on Sveaborg; it was not money well spent. The mighty fortress surrendered to the Russians in 1808 after what the Swedish public considered an indecently brief show of resistance by the commander. Thereafter Sveaborg was a Russian stronghold and Finland incorporated into the Russian Empire, albeit as a semi-autonomous Grand Duchy. That’s why two cathedrals dominate the skyline around Helsinki’s inner harbour: the neo-classical Lutheran, embodying the legacy of Sweden’s sixteenth-century Reformation, and the onion-domed Russian Orthodox. And that’s why the main restaurant on Suomenlinna is Russian. You’re served plenty of cured fish, vinegary mushrooms and that peculiarly Russian answer to sweet-and-sour, pickled cucumber drizzled with honey. All washed down with tumblers of vodka, naturally.

Royal Navy in the Baltic (Painting)

The Royal Navy in the Baltic during the Crimean War

Much of Suomenlinna/Sveaborg survives from the eighteenth century, but not all. I’m just the latest British visitor, not the first. In August 1855, with the Crimean War deadlocked, the Royal Navy’s Baltic squadron relieved the British public’s frustrations by bombarding Sveaborg. Long-range mortars enabled the British to devastate the fortress from a safe distance. Today, visitors to Suomenlinna can enjoy wandering around a World Heritage Site; had it not been for the British in 1855 they could enjoy a lot more of it.

This post was contributed by Chris Evans, whose research interests include material culture and industrialisaton, and who teaches on Atlantic history and the abolition of slavery.

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Sachsenhausen 1: the ‘Geometry of Total Terror’

History Student Fieldtrip to Germany, July 2011

Arbeit Macht Frei: Photograph

The gateway to Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp. Photo: Pete Driscoll

As we walked through the gates of the former concentation camp Sachsenhausen on the outskirts of Berlin, under the obscene slogan `Through Work, Freedom’ (Arbeit macht Frei) we saw the first plate of the memorial which announced that the camp was part of the `geometry of total terror’. The slogan was as chilling as it was informative. The concentration camp was expanded from its original site after the Nazis `seized power’ in 1933 until, by 1936, it held thousands of political prisoners, gay people and gypsies; after Kristallnacht in 1938, it also held Jewish people who were later transferred east to the death camp Auschwitz; and, after the outbreak of war, many POWs from the East were also confined behind its walls.

Our group of eight took the advice of the memorial’s staff to walk around the camp in any order, focusing on what we found most important. We’ve agreed to come back together to give our own accounts on the blog.

Sachsenhausen Entrance: Photograph

Entrance to the former camp, now described as a memorial and museum. Photo: Pete Driscoll

This post was contributed by Norry LaPorte, whose teaching and research interests include state terror and twentieth-century totalitarianism.

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Berlin Notes: Weimar Cinema comes home

History Student Fieldtrip to Germany, July 2011

Photograph: Sony Centre, Berlin

Sony Center, Potsdamer Platz, Home to the German Cinematheque. Photograph: Caitlin Freitag.

Potsdamer Platz. Photo: Caitlin Freitag

Twenty years ago, the Potsdamer Platz was Europe’s biggest building site. While the Berlin Wall was in place, the square was no-man’s land, a bombed-out site against the East-West border, marked by one of the ghost stations where West Berlin trains doubled through the Eastern sector without stopping. Now, the square is at the heart of one of Berlin’s richest cultural quarters, and is visited by an estimated 100,000 people daily. Its controversial architecture is strikingly contemporary, but to a historian, its effervescence is nothing new. In remaking Potsdamer Platz after 1989, Berlin’s authorities went some way to reclaiming its past: in particular, its heydey as the centre of Berlin nightlife and Weimar culture in the 1920s and 1930s.

Potsdamer Platz. Photo: Huw Edwards

The Potsdamer Platz is a particularly appropriate location for the German Cinematheque – Museum for Film and Television, which some of our group visited to investigate the place of film in our view of the past. The Universum Film AG (UFA), centre of Weimar Germany’s film industry, had its headquarters close by during its glory years, from 1917-1927. UFA’s productions offer a “window to the national soul” for the years following World War I, its story is a case study for the harrowing of Weimar Germany’s cultural life by the National Socialists. Among the many artefacts displayed in the Museum is one of the most iconic costumes of early film: the uniform worn by actor Emil Jannings in The Last Man, directed in 1925 by the legendary Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau.

This masterpiece, Der Letzte Mann (The Last Man or The Last Laugh, 1925) is acknowledged by cinema historians as the seminal example of a period in the development of German film in the Weimar years that concentrated on minutely realistic studies of everyday life. The film deals with the fall from grace of a haughty and opinionated doorman at a plush Berlin Hotel. An elderly man, he is demoted to lavatory attendant as he is considered too old to be the symbolic face of the hotel and has been seen to have taken an unauthorised break. The symbol of his authority and status, his garish uniform, is symbolically stripped from him in a superbly staged scene. The unnamed doorman’s world falls apart and the respect previously shown to him turns to malice and mockery, especially in the dire tenement building in which he lives. In allegorical terms, the film can be seen as a warning of the dangers of complacent, pompous authority and a reminder of the humiliation suffered by the outmoded and uniformed ‘old order.’

Innovative and allegorical German cinema produced during the turbulent Weimar period acutely reflects the prevailing socio-political ethos between 1919 and 1933. The era contains three recognised cinematic periods: the Expressionist (1919-1924), exemplified by films like Dr Caligari, Der Golem and Nosferatu; Kammerspiel Film (Intimate Theatre or Chamber Theatre, approx 1924-1929), such as The Last Man, Faust, Tartuffe and Metropolis; and Strassenspiel (Street Realism, 1929-1934) eg Dr. Mabuse, Pandora’s Box, and Asphalt.

All three periods speak of the prevailing changes in culture and national mood from the paranoia, humiliation and depression at the end of World War One, through the decadent mid-twenties and the temporary affluence of the “Dawes Plan period, to economic decline and the rise of the National Socialists. They reflect the national collective psyche of each specific period.

Photograph from "Last Man"

The Doorman at the peak of his authority

In a speech in the Hotel Kaiserhof in Berlin on March 28, 1933, the principal features of the Nazis’ proposed film policy were revealed by Josef Goebbels to representatives of the film industry. He had been named as ‘Minister of Popular Enlightenment and Propaganda’ only two weeks earlier, six weeks after Adolf Hitler had been named as Reichs Chancellor. Goebbels now stated that the German people were to be subject to the intervention of the National-Socialist Reich “in the economy and in general cultural affairs and that includes film.” Cinema was to reflect the “the contours of the Volksgemeinschaft [people’s community] and be allowed only to reflect art that has taken root deep in the bedrock of National Socialism”.

Last Man: Photograph

The Doorman, uniform and social standing gone, cowers in his lavatory

Hitler was to ban Jews from working in the film industry soon after Goebbels speech at the Hotel Kaiserhof, prompting some 800 film stars, directors and cinematic technicians to leave the country. Murnau, Lang, Jannings, Meyer and Pommer, were amongst those to flee as well as Billy Wilder, Hedy Lamarr, Peter Lorre, Fred Zinnemann, Joseph von Sternberg, Marlene Dietrich and Otto Preminger. Virtuoso cameraman Karl Freund was also amongst the émigrés, taking with him a wealth of technological expertise and fellow cinematic craftspeople. Hollywood’s gain was Germany’s loss – a loss now placed in relief by the siting of the Cinematheque in the flamboyant Sony Centre at the new Potsdamer Platz.

If anyone doubts early German cinema’s deep and lasting influence on film, here are a few stills to add to the debate:

This post was contributed by Huw Edwards, student of history, film and literature on the BA Humanities programme.

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History through a Lens – German Film

History Student Fieldtrip to Germany, July 2011

Visit to the Deutsche Kinemathek – Museum für Film und Fernsehen (German Cinematheque – Museum for Film and Television)

Along with history, film has always been one of my greatest passions. One of the sights that I was most looking forward to seeing in Berlin was the German Film Museum. Some might argue that the German Film Museum has no place on a history field trip, but it is a mistake to think that. Where better to gauge the reactions of the country during and between war years? As Huw Edwards, a fellow film enthusiast, will discuss more thoroughly in our next blog post, German cinema is a tool used both to reflect and influence the mood of the nation. The museum not only exhibits the history of film in Germany but in doing so displays the changing politics of the country and the effects that these political changes had globally.

Metropolis: Photograph

Ceri, Jonathan, Huw and some doppelgangers in the German Cinematheque, Berlin. Photo: Ceri Carter

As you walk into the main exhibition you are greeted with a surreal scene; the floor, ceiling and walls are covered in mirrors with a white, winding walkway through to the other side of the room. Amongst the mirrors are several large screens at jaunty angles flashing clips from various films linked to the German film industry. A feeling of dread and terror sweeps over you as it feels as though you are walking on the set of Metropolis (Fritz Lang, 1927.)

The cityscape of Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927)

Each display echoes the period from which the memorabilia is from; for example, The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (Robert Wiene, 1920) display incorporates the jagged, twisted shapes synonymous with the German Expressionist movement. The museum chooses to commemorate film history through a variety of different memorabilia, such as original film scripts, notebooks, telegrams, costumes, Oscars, etc. There is a huge section of the museum dedicated to probably Berlin’s most famous actress, Marlene Dietrich. Any Marlene fan would get a thrill from seeing a collection of her costumes displayed so elegantly, or the ‘love’ telegrams sent to her by Josef von Sternberg and Fritz Lang.

Photograph: Marlene Dietrich Display

Marlene Dietrich Display - Photograph from the website of the German Film Museum

It is becoming apparent that film can be a useful source for historians, whether it is for portraying the past or as a reflection of social and political climates at the time of production. Not only can film tell us about the past but the history of film as a technology is a research area in its own right. In line with our general theme of remembering the past, any visitor to the German Film Museum will be struck by the various ways in which the museum has chosen to display the collections that they have. By showing the exhibits chronologically they are illuminating the cultural and political story behind the making of these films. Snippets of the development in technology are trickled between the memorabilia to remind us how innovative the film-makers truly were. The use of mirrors, shadows and angles throughout the museum enhances the whole experience and allows the visitor to almost experience firsthand what the directors envisaged when making their films. As you wander through the collections you are made acutely aware of the impact that National Socialism had on a global scale in driving directors such as Fritz Lang and F.W. Murnau and actors like Marlene Dietrich and Peter Lorre from Germany and to Hollywood.

On the whole the museum was a massive highlight for me, satisfying my love of both film and history. It is a must see for any film buff or any cultural historian interested in German film. The innovative way in which the museum displayed its exhibitions and took you on a journey through the history of German Film made the visit an all round exhilarating experience. I, for one, felt like a child in a sweet shop.

This post was contributed by Ceri Carter, a rising final-year history student and secretary of the Glamorgan University History Society.

Photo: Inside the German Film Museum

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Shifting Perspectives: Berlin’s Jewish Museum

History Student Fieldtrip to Germany, July 2011

Axes of Jewish Experience. Photo: Pete Driscoll.

The axes of experience at the beginning of Daniel Libeskind’s controversial annex to the Jewish Museum in Berlin disorientate the visitor. They are below ground and dark. Some narrow as they progress and seem to tilt as strips of light draw the eye away to a corner. And there is no clear route to follow. This is a clever way to evoke the precarious and transitory nature of the history of the Jews in Germany, particularly during the 1930s and 40s. The disorientation is given poignancy by the mundane remnants of lives displayed in the walls: an uncollected parcel of belongings, a sewing machine, a set of keys from suitcases that were confiscated and sold. The chamber at the end of one axis is a provocative statement of the horror Jews faced during the Holocaust. The visitor is shut in and the size of the chamber, the cold, the silence, the unreachable ladder that ascends nowhere induce apprehension. This is the closest one can get to empathising with the deported Jews’ last moments. It is an apprehension underlined by the police presence outside the Oranienburger Strasse Synagogue in the city.

Woodcut showing the counting table

Woodcut: counting table

Another axis leads up to a history of Jewish life in Germany. Our tour took in the later medieval and early modern periods. Medieval Jews traded spices and other goods with Christians and acted as money-changers, but they remained excluded from European society. The explanation of the money-changers’ counting table revealed how the use of the Arabic numerical system, the one we use now, reinforced the Jew’s status in European society as the devil’s accomplices. If God created everything, the devil stood for the opposite: nothing, a concept symbolised by the number zero (or cipher), which Jews used, but Christians did not.

Church and Synagogue. Synagogue (right), is blindfolded and bareheaded: click for detail. Photo: Caitlin Freitag.

A statue of blind Synagoga demonstrated the basis of this exclusion, that the Jews had rejected the Messiah; stories of the desecration of the host, blood libel and the Wandering Jew showed how Christian culture held the Jews (rather than the Romans) irredeemably responsible for killing Christ, refusing him even the dignity of helping to carry the cross to Golgotha. Our tour finished with the Jew as a wandering pedlar, before Enlightenment figures like Moses Mendelssohn and David Friedländer began to argue for Jewish emancipation and integration into a broader German identity.

What this tour showed was that the Jews have a history of exclusion from and, at times, inclusion in German society. Exclusion in medieval and early modern Germany differed from that in the early-mid twentieth century in being motivated mainly by religion rather than race. In this sense, it placed the well-known horrors of recent Jewish experience in a broader, more complex historical context. Interestingly, the museum’s agenda fitted well with our previous visit to the Bundesstiftung zur Aufarbeitung der SED-Diktatur. Public history in the Jewish Museum is not a dry narrative of irrelevant, if often shocking, past events; it is used to prompt visitors to think about how the past shapes a present full of religious, parochial, cultural, intellectual and ideological tensions. It is also used to prompt visitors to think about how identity can be constructed in this shifting environment, how one can be both German and Jewish, given the long history of exclusion from mainstream society suffered by the Jews.

Jonathan Durrant researches and lectures on early modern history: in particular gender history, the history of witchcraft and deviance, and history as entertainment.

Jewish Museum, Berlin
Inside the Jewish Museum, Berlin. Photo: Caitlin Freitag.

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Aufarbeitung – a new word for history

History Student Fieldtrip to Germany, July 2011

Visiting the Foundation for the ‘Aufarbeitung’ of the SED Dictatorship


With Dr Ulrich Maehlert (far right): Gary Brady, Pete Driscoll, Huw Edwards, Ceri Carter, Linda Graham, Dave Pennell, Jonathan Durrant, Kirsty Pullin, Norry LaPorte, Katie David, Sam Evans, Jane Finucane, Lucy Dunham, Caitlin Freitag (l-r).

History is important in Germany – so important that vast sums of government money fund a wide range of research into the country’s troubled past before reunification in 1990. And the funding is not just to facilitate research projects, but to take history to the wider public.

Our student visit met with Dr Uli Maehlert, who is in charge of the section of the Foundation which allocates funding to relevant projects (Leiter Arbeitsbereich Wissenschaft). Paradoxically as he spoke almost perfect English, he told our visit of his one-man campaign to have the word ‘Aufarbeitung`enter the English language to join German loanwords like ‘Autobahn’ and ‘Kindergarten’. We discovered that there were good reasons for this as the term not only means to `work up’ our knowledge of the past, but implies a much deeper coming to terms through engagement with it.

‘Aufarbeitung’ is seen as a public duty, a kitemark of the country’s commitment to democracy after the experience, firstly, of the Third Reich and then the communist dictatorship from 1945 until its collapse in the ‘peaceful revolution’ of 1989.

Berlin Scene: PhotographDr Maehlert began by outlining the Foundation’s work, notably explaining that, although political bias belongs to the study of contemporary history, it can be overcome by funding a plurality of research covering the political spectrum. Thus the Foundation is government-funded, but so are similar institutes for historical investigation managed by political parties, churches, localities, and special interest groups, including the former governing party of the GDR. We also learned of the choices that the Foundation has to make in communicating its work to the public, often by identifying areas of wide-ranging consensus and constructing a narrative based on this. Our group became aware of how different pasts influence how we remember different aspects our history. For example, while in Britain public recollection and memorialisation of the First World War is prominent, it falls far behind the Second World War in Germany.

Perhaps the single most important realisation to come out of our discussion was how cultural differences are built on the past and how this influences the country’s political culture and resolute commitment to democracy and pluralism.

We’re pleased to tell Dr Maehlert that we’re now signed up to ‘Aufarbeitung’: an approach which we’ll keep in mind for the rest of our visit.

This post was contributed by Norry Laporte, who teaches and researches on the history of communism, revolution, and cold war.

Photograph: Checkpoint Charlie

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