Making History in Berlin

Photo: Dave, Kirsty and Katie walking the Berlin Wall

Dave, Kirsty and Katie follow the traces of the Berlin Wall

How do we remember and discuss the past? It’s a complicated question for any society, and nowhere more than in Germany.

Germans are already preparing for the extraordinary ‘constellation of anniversaries’ to come in 2014: 100 years will have passed since the outbreak of World War I, 75 years since the beginning of World War II – but also the 25 years since the ‘Peaceful Revolution’ of 1989, and 10 years since the eastward expansion of the European Union.

East Germany's Ampelmännchen still feature on many of Berlin's traffic lights: Berliners campaigned successfully against adoption of West Germany's UK-style, slimmer, 'Traffic Light Men' after reunification.

Are these events linked? How can they be explained and whose account should be promoted by the state – if any? A group of Glamorgan’s second-year history students – with funding from the German Academic Exchange Services (DAAD) – are spending a week in Germany to investigate the commemoration of the past: the involvement of historians, curators, artists, and architects; Germans and visitors; state and entrepreneurs.

Our starting point is Berlin, a city bearing the mark of past conflicts. Since 1989, Berlin has been transformed into the prosperous capital of a united Germany, but features as prosaic as pavement markings, tramlines, and traffic lights still offer clues to cold war divisions – reminders which Berliners have been reluctant to lose. From state-funded institutions to roadside traders, various agents offer their versions of the past to a German public grappling to define a national identity and to tourists curious about the drama and tragedies of our shared histories.

There’s a blend of nostalgia, pragmatism, and political principle in these many presentations of the past. To learn more, we’ll make our first visit to a foundation established and funded to reappraise the East German state, where we’ll hear how the German government applies the foundation’s motto: ‘Remembrance as Duty’.
Towards the Brandenburg Gate

Towards the Brandenburg Gate

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Copper Theft: a Crime Wave from History

Photograph: Copper

Chris Evans

Here’s the good news. Crime on Welsh railways is shrinking. The bad news is that there’s one conspicuous area of growth: cable theft, which has bounded up by 168% in the last year.

Wales is not alone in this. On the contrary, there’s an epidemic of cable-related crime across the UK’s railway network. And it’s not a problem restricted to the railways. Any industry that makes use of copper cabling is vulnerable. Electricity substations and building sites have been raided, and broadband suppliers picked clean. The consequences can be serious. When criminals start stripping out wire you can be sure that rail disruption, power outages, and the loss of phone and internet services will all follow.

The surge in cable theft is easily explained. The price of copper has roared upwards in the last two years, driven up by booms in construction and industrial investment in China and India. The cash price of copper on the London Metal Exchange was less than US $3000 per tonne at the start of 2009; it’s now more than US $9000 per tonne (and breached the US $10,000 barrier earlier this year). For that kind of money criminals will take risks – even the life-threatening risks involved in stealing cables that could be carrying a live current.

Copper has always been liable to this kind of predation. As metals go, copper has a relatively high value. It’s also a metal that tends to be used in a quite pure form; it can therefore be recycled easily. In fact, most of the copper in circulation in the world today has been recycled many times. Present-day mining adds very little fresh material to global stocks. There is therefore a very active market for recycled copper, into which criminal gangs can leak stolen cabling. It doesn’t help, of course, that copper is commonly used for transmitting power or electrical pulses across long distances. If it’s to do its job it has to be exposed.

Photograph from Warrington News

Copper theft has always been a problem. Copper is perfect for conducting electricity, so it was ideally suited support the telegraph boom of the mid-nineteenth century. But stringing mile after mile of copper wire across open space brought security headaches, as a British government report of the 1860s made clear. Copper’s “value to marauders renders it inapplicable for open air lines”. Iron wire had to be used instead. It had only one-tenth the conductivity of copper but its scrap value was far lower. Copper wire was restricted to environments that were especially testing and in which only copper would do. Submarine cables, which had to carry signals across extreme distances under very testing conditions, were of the finest copper. They could be; the ocean depths offered protection against theft.

Overland telegraph lines required special security measures. This was a particular difficulty when lines were extended through parts of the world where the authority of the state was weak. The Ottoman Empire, across which the British were hoping to build a direct telegraph link to Indian in the mid-nineteenth century, was a case in point. The various peoples under Ottoman rule were not always well disposed towards the authorities in Istanbul. This was certainly the case in what is now Iraq, across which a line was to be strung in the 1860s, linking Baghdad to the Persian Gulf. Early plans to lay a cable long the bed of the Tigris were abandoned as impractical. The only way in which the wires could be protected was to organise a special security guard, the çavuş lar, who would patrol the line on horseback.

The çavuş lar were recruited locally and well paid for their trouble. The effect, as one historian has noted, was to integrate what had been seen as an alien intrusion into the fabric of local life ‘while at the same time contributing to the local economy’.

The approach taken towards modern bandits in the UK is rather different. Copper theft threatens major damage to the electrical infrastructure and modern communications systems upon which ordinary life now depends and the full weight of the state will be deployed. Combating cable theft is now a major area of activity for the British Transport Police, who are struggling to contain a phenomenon that accounts for thousands of cancelled trains. But while the overall costs of this crime are huge, the returns to individual criminals are often very small. The return can also, of course, come in the form of electrocution and death.

[For more on telegraphy in the Ottoman Empire see Yakup Bektas, ‘The Sultan’s messenger: cultural constructions of Ottoman telegraphy 1847-1880’, Technology and Culture, 41: 4 (2000), 669-696.]

Chris Evans teaches on Atlantic History 1500-1800 and the ending of Atlantic Slavery. His current research interests include Swansea copper as an agency of global change in the nineteenth century.

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Jack Johnson – the most hated black man in America

Photo: Johnson vs Pepper

Brian Ireland

Few people outside the world of boxing have heard of Jack Johnson.

However, in the early years of the twentieth century, Johnson was perhaps the most hated black man in America.

In the late nineteenth century, ‘Jim Crow’ racial segregation of public facilities and services was the norm. In every area of society, blacks were subjected to separate and unequal treatment. However, the boxing arena was one area where blacks could compete with whites on a ‘level playing field’. Throughout the nineteenth century, black boxers such as bantamweight George Dixon and lightweights Joe Gans and Joe Walcott had shown they could defeat white boxers if given a fair chance. In fact, they were so successful, a sportswriter for the New York Sun warned: ‘We are in the midst of a growing menace. The black man is rapidly forging to the front of the field in athletics, especially fisticuffs. We are in the midst of a black rise against white supremacy!’

At Heavyweight level, however, there was no level playing field. Many Americans considered the Heavyweight boxing champion of the world to be the epitome of masculine perfection, and since the champion had always been a white man, he also served as a symbol of racial superiority. Therefore, from 1882 to 1908, no black contender was allowed to challenge for the heavyweight title. For example, the first heavyweight ‘great’ of the modern era, John L. Sullivan, infamously declared ‘I will not fight a Negro: I never have and never shall.’

This would change when Jack Johnson fought his way to the top. Johnson was a technically gifted fighter, with impressive defensive skills and a mean knockout punch. By 1908 the lanky Texan had made such a name for himself, through a combination of shameless self publicity and relentless taunting of the opposition, that white champion Tommy Burns accepted Johnson’s challenge. The fight took place in Sydney, Australia, and was a humiliation for Burns, who failed to live up to his pre-match boast to ‘make it tough for Mr Coon.’ Johnson toyed with Burns for much of the fight before scoring a knockout win.

The racial fallout from the fight was instant and odious: the Sydney Sportsman called the new champion ‘a gloating coon…with only the instincts of a nigger.’ American newspapers called Johnson a ‘coon’, a ‘watermelon pickaninny’, ‘darkmeat’ and, most commonly, a ‘nigger.’

Johnson modelled his style on that of Gentleman Jim Corbett, a boxer admired for defensive, technical skills. However, as Negroes weren’t supposed to ‘think’, and instead act only instinctively and primitively, when Johnson employed his usual defensive tactics against Burns the press labelled him lazy, shifty and cowardly. Johnson, however, was jubilant. He had proven that a black man was capable of becoming the heavyweight champion and his deliberate policy of challenging white supremacy in the boxing ring was vindicated.

Photo of Jack Johnson with Lucille Cameron, 1912

Johnson also made a name for himself outside the ring. He realised that he could use his race to his financial advantage. He deliberately inflamed white animosity by portraying himself as the villain of the piece, knowing that whites would pay good money to see him defeated. Johnson set about provoking whites by appearing in public with a series of white girlfriends at his side. He insisted on staying in rented rooms that were meant for whites only, and declared in the press that he wanted to move into a wealthy all-white neighbourhood. These tactics infuriated whites as they challenged the racial doctrine of the time. They also ran counter to the advice of black public figures like Booker T. Washington, who had previously endorsed segregation in his infamous ‘Atlanta Compromise’ speech of 1895. Rather than agitate for social equality, Washington claimed that blacks and whites could co-exist “as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand”.

Johnson’s behaviour was also of concern to the black middle class, many of whom thought boxing was a barbaric sport. However, Johnson did have the support of some prominent black leaders. W.E.B. DuBois opined that Johnson was hated by whites not because he lacked talent or grace, but simply because of his ‘unforgivable blackness’. In addition, Marcus Garvey, founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association, was a Johnson fan. Like Frederick Douglass who, in an earlier time, kept a picture of black boxer Peter Jackson on his desk, claiming ‘Peter is doing a great deal with his fists to solve the Negro question’, Garvey realized that Johnson was an affront to the racial doctrine of the time, and living proof that blacks were the equal of whites.

A search began for a ‘Great White Hope’ to defeat Johnson. Former champion Jim Jeffries was persuaded to come out of retirement, boasting, ‘I am going into this fight for the sole purpose of proving that a white man is better than a Negro.’ Jeffries had previously fought and beaten at least three black boxers before he became world champion, but once he had the title he refused to defend against a black challenger. He perhaps should have stayed in retirement. Johnson proved to be a much better, and fitter, boxer, picking apart his hapless opponent and winning by TKO in 15 rounds. Having built up the fight as the ‘great white hope’ against the ‘bad nigger’, whites reacted badly to Jeffries’ defeat, instigating race riots across the United States in which over 20 people died. Even the US Congress reacted: before the fight, Congress had refused to consider a bill suppressing motion picture films of prize fights. However, within a few weeks of Johnson’s victory, a bill suppressing fight films passed both houses and was signed into law.

Unable to defeat Johnson in the ring, his enemies sought other means to bring about his downfall. In October 1912, he was arrested and charged with crossing state lines with a prostitute, in violation of the Mann Act. He was found guilty by an all-white jury and sentenced to a year in gaol. Johnson skipped bail, however, fleeing to Europe. For the next few years he fought outside the United States, and in 1915 lost his title to Jess Willard in Havana, Cuba. He eventually returned home to serve his prison sentence, a beaten and impoverished man. After his release, he continued to fight professionally but never again reached his former heights. He died in a car crash in 1946.

In recent years, Johnson’s boxing skills have been acknowledged by the Boxing Hall of Fame. His bravery in challenging the racial doctrine of the time has also been recognised. His criminal conviction remains controversial, however, and attempts have been made to seek a presidential pardon to ‘expunge from the annals of American criminal justice a racially motivated abuse of the prosecutorial authority.’ To date, however, Barack Obama — ironically the United States’ first African-American president — has failed to respond to requests to right this historic injustice. Today, 98 years after Johnson’s conviction, his achievements remain tainted by what many consider to be a trumped-up charge, motivated by racial hatred.

For more on Jack Johnson, listen to the BBC’s Great Lives’ Podcast

Dr. Brian Ireland teaches American History at the University of Glamorgan. In his module entitled Violence in America, he helps students trace the history of Heavyweight boxing in the twentieth century, discussing such notable sportsmen as Jack Johnson, Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson.

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Tour de France (6): Sharif Gemie

En Passant

Depart des Poilus - Photograph

I got to the Gare de l’Est in Paris a few minutes early. It’s an enormous station, with over twenty different platforms, and some attempt to provide clear information to passengers concerning where they might be able to find their trains. Walking over to my platform, I was then astonished to see the picture which I’d shown to my first-year module last year: Albert Herter’s ‘Départ des Poilus’ – the departure of the conscripts. Although the picture was produced in 1926, it represents in a highly idealised form the conscripts of 1914, leaving Paris to go to east to the front. It’s a tense, dramatic picture, suggesting the rapid formation of a community of young men, leaving behind their wives, parents and children as they get onto the train. Herter lost his own son in the fighting in 1918. The picture had been displayed in the Gare de l’Est until 2006, when it was removed as the station was renovated. The French national train company, the SNCF, refused to give any information about its eventual return, leading to a public outcry in 2007. It was finally returned in 2008.

I stopped to take a couple of photos of the picture, and to admire it in its place. Perhaps predictably, no one else in a crowded station turned to look at it. We historians are funny people.

I’m coming back tomorrow. It’s been an interesting couple of weeks: fun, intellectual stimulation, good food, sleep deprivation and a moment or two of sheer panic all mixed together. Nice to see the first of summer sun: but I’ll be glad to get back to some proper Welsh rain.

Sharif, 18 April 2011

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Tour de France (5) – Sharif Gemie

Presentation - Photograph

Miles of Aisles

To Albi, way down in the south of France and a twelve-hour train journey from Nancy. I’m going in order to attend a meeting of the EXILIO network: a small research project which links researchers in Britain, France and Spain who are studying refugee history. Ideally, we’d just like to get together and chat, but in order to get funding for a meeting, we have to do something more spectacular, so we’ve organised one day of public papers, to be followed by a morning of private debate.

Albi University is gaining quite a reputation in France: it’s one of France’s newest universities, one of its smallest universities and – as all French academics comment – probably also one of its cleanest. It’s based in a converted barracks, dating from 1880: big, symmetrical, three-story buildings, typical of Third Republic (1870-1940). Today, the sun is shining, and the University certainly seems to be gleaming in order to meet the EXILIO network.

There’s an unpleasant shock as we arrive: the – for want of a better word – ‘leader’ of the EXILIO network, Scott Soo, has sprained his ankle very badly, and is unable to attend. The organisers of the conference are unwilling to just drop one paper, and so they ask me to provide a paper in French. I have just given one paper twice in Nancy and Rennes, but it’s not really on the conference theme: Anti-Fascist Refugees. I spend the day before the conference tinkering about with my powerpoint presentation, setting myself the question of considering whether UNRRA could be considered as ‘official anti-fascism’. I think I’ve got enough material to last twenty minutes.

The conference starts: Laure Humbert, who was my research assistant in 2007-10, gives one of the first papers. Her title suggests that she is going to talk about Displaced Persons in the French zone of Germany: in practice, she talks at some length about UNRRA, asking whether this organisation could be considered as anti-fascism in practice. Although she approaches the topic from a different angle, and although she doesn’t show illustrations, I can’t help thinking that her paper is quite similar to mine. Over the lunch hour, I look again at my paper, and decide that I could say more about The Search, a film produced in 1947-48 with the help of UNRRA. I speak last, and most of the conference audience is not looking for a long paper at that point. I feel quite nervous at the beginning. Afterwards, everyone is very polite about my paper at the end: Laure herself comments that I sound more confident in French. I’m not entirely convinced.

Albi University, France: Photograph

The conference as a whole seems to suggest some problems with ‘anti-fascism’ as a concept. Many refugee groups were positively attracted towards elements of Nazism in the 1930s, and many turned anti-communist after 1947 or 1948. Even those who were motivated to become anti-fascists had very varying motivations. I find myself thinking that there seem to be two interpretations present: a political analysis of refugees, and a social analysis of refugees. How can the EXILIO network survive?

By the next morning we’re all tired. There’s a certain amount of administrative formalities to complete, but we finally get on to discussing the main themes. We all like each other, and nobody is going to say anything openly critical of anyone. Normally, discussions are tri-lingual (English, French and Spanish), but as I’m the only Brit present, and as everyone can speak French, we tend to speak in French most of the time, with a few comments in Spanish. I do comment that I think we had all been rather naive before the conference in assuming that the concept of ‘anti-fascism’ would be a simple, unproblematic term. There seems to be some agreement that we could look again at the term. Things look up as the delegate from Santiago de Compostela (in Galicia) says that he thinks he could obtain funding for another conference, with Spanish as the principal language.

We’re all keen to meet again: we leave with the firm intention of meeting in the City of the Way in summer 2012.

Sharif, 16 April 2012

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Tour de France (4) – Sharif Gemie

Five years ago I visited the Chateau of Lunéville, located in the east of France. It was an extraordinary sight: this wonderful eighteenth-century building had been devastated in a fire in 2003. We walked through enormous, high rooms, with cinders and burnt timber on the floor and no roofs. Although the fire had taken place two years ago, we could still smell the smoke in the air. Well over half the chateau was ruined. Walking through this fine, elegant building, built in 1730, and seeing the evidence of recent destruction was a bizarre, striking experience.

I went back to the Chateau yesterday to give my lecture on UNRRA. It has been transformed. Five years have been spent in trying to re-create an eighteenth century building: the original plans have been located, and there has been a sustained effort to follow these in the re-construction. Once again, it’s a striking sight: an authentic eighteenth-century century building, but now looking as if it was built yesterday. Lunéville was built after the great royal palace at Versailles, which it closely resembles: the same vast scale, the same symmetry, and same sense of space in its rooms. The chateau is now once again open the public.

Although such buildings were the preserve of immensely wealthy aristocracy, I can’t help admiring them: I particularly like the formal French gardens, which present such a contrast with the gardens of the British aristocracy. While our national myth is rooted in the organic, natural and spontaneous. Eighteenth-century British gardens attempt to present an idea that they ‘just happened’: that they grew almost by themselves, as part of the natural world, the French aristocracy operated to a quite different code, in which they wanted their gardens and their houses to demonstrate the control over nature.

While the chateau was being restored, my friend Didier Francfort created a centre for European Cultural History in its building: he invited me to give my lecture. We were not in one of the vast rooms which were designed for entertaining crowds, but in a small, purpose-built lecture theatre. I think that I probably spoke as well as I did in Rennes, but this time the audience was more mixed, and while they were interested in UNRRA, they had less to say in response – although one woman did say that she would definitely buy our book when it was published.

Sharif, 13 April 2011

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Student Trip to Germany

Brandenburg_Gate (Photograph)

The History Division has won funding from the German Academic Exchange Services (DAAD) to bring a group of second-year students on an educational tour of Germany this summer.  Fifteen students will visit Berlin, Munich and Nuertingen to learn more about Germany’s past – from renaissance artists and witch-hunters to Nazi and Communist dictatorships.

We’ll be asking how the past is remembered today – not just in universities and museums, but in cyberspace, on the streets, and on the very sites where history was made.   Thanks to generous invitations from partners in Germany, we’ll learn how students and professionals, civil servants and entrepreneurs deal with the past in their lives and work.  Watch this space for updates.

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Tour de France (3) – Sharif Gemie

Tour de France: Blog 3

Speaking in French

I’m in the Breton capital of Rennes, enjoying an unexpected heatwave. I’m here to give a lecture in French on some of the research carried out by myself, Fiona Reid, Laure Humbert and Louise Rees for Outcast Europe. Despite the fact that I’ve been learning French for 45 years, I still find speaking French in public very difficult. The golden rule seems to be that about half your ability to speak a foreign language in an approximately correct manner disappears once you stand up in front of an audience. I’ve also learnt that the idea of just reading out a written text absolutely does not work: I just get more tongue-tied. So, my current strategy is to come with lots of pictures and almost no notes. I’ve rehearsed the paper three times, and I do know the material well: I’m going to discuss UNRRA, the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (1943-47), arguably the great-grandfather of all international relief agencies.

I’m attending a small research workshop, organised by Ronan Le Coadic, an old Breton friend of mine. The first speaker talks about Aimé Césaire, a theorist of Black culture in the Caribbean. There’s then a two-hour lunch break, with wine (this is France). Then it’s my turn. Surprisingly, I’m not really nervous. There’s a slight hitch when I realize that the powerpoint images will be projected via an Apple not a PC, but even this only takes a few seconds. As I speak, I do stumble frequently: sometimes I just forget words, and I have to think quickly of different ways to say the same thing. Quite often I forget how to say words, even though I’ve got a type of mental record of their pronunciation. But the idea of using pictures works well: while I stumble, the audience looks at the pictures.

The discussion afterwards is surprisingly positive and very long (over an hour). None of the audience has ever heard of UNRRA: they’re intrigued by my stories of earnest middle-class idealists arriving in Germany to solve all the problems left by the Second World War. They’re particularly interested in the contributions by the Quakers. It’s all over by 4.15pm; we pack up and then I walk round Rennes with Ronan.

On Monday, I’ll be doing the same thing again in Lunéville, right on the other side of France, way out east.

I’m now off to catch a TGV, one of France’s 30-year-old high-speed train network, which is thankfully air-conditioned.

Sharif, 9 April 2011

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Tour de France (2) – Sharif Gemie

Tour de France: Blog Entry 2

At Chateaubriand’s Tomb


I like Chateaubriand. I’ve got three copies of his post-humous memoirs, Mémoires-d’Outre-Tombe : a cheap paperback edition, a luxurious two-volume Pléaide leather-bound edition, and a rather erratic electronic edition on my e-reader. It’s the last one I’m reading now.

François-René Chateaubriand was a Saint-Malo boy. Born in 1768, he expected to enjoy a privileged aristocrat’s life. Then along came the Revolution, and his life was shattered. He spent years in exile (in Germany, in East Anglia, then in America), made his peace with Napoleon, but then thrived as a Catholic writer during the Restoration of the monarchy (1814-30). He belongs to a uniquely French generation of conservatives: like his contemporary, de Tocqueville, he understood that the old order was gone forever, and – without ever being in any way a progressive thinker – this made him more interested in the new society that was emerging. He was able to study it closely, without bitterness.

His Mémoires are a bewildering mixture of historical narrative, autobiography, religious and political speculations, travel-writing and score-settling. He really did intend that they would only be published after his death, but he ran into debt in the 1840s, and hence his posthumous memoirs were then published while he was well and truly alive.

He made a deal with the Saint-Malo town hall, and arranged to be buried on a small island just outside the old city, where – as he put it – he would only hear the wind and the sea. You can still walk out to this tomb at low tide, and it’s interesting to hear successive French tourists ask each other ‘But who was he?’. No one seems to remember. Today, the tomb was looking a bit grubby, so I’ve attached one long-distance view (that doesn’t show the bird-droppings). The weather today was bright and sunny: like the first day of summer. I doubt if Chateaubriand noticed.

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Tour de France (1) – Sharif Gemie

Tour de France: Blog Entry One

The Ship that Carried a Quarter of France

The Zenith : Photograph

The Zenith

I had meant to make several short trips to France this year. I wasn’t able to arrange these, so instead I’m making one fortnight-long journey to the four corners of France. I’m starting, of course, in Saint-Malo in Brittany, where most British tourists arrive. As I’m going to be giving two lectures in French, I need to remember how to speak French, and a couple of days wandering around what is still a very pleasant Breton port is as good a way of doing this as any.

I haven’t been here for a year. One thing that has changed is the re-construction of the Zenith. This little fishing boat played an important political role in June 1940. Following the German invasion and victory, Charles de Gaulle made a speech of the BBC, telling French people that the struggle was not over, and that they should re-group under his command to fight the German occupation. Most historians tend to argue that very few French people actually heard this speech: few people owned radios, and in the confusion of defeat, fewer were listening to the BBC. One little group who was listening were the people of the Breton island of Sein, out to the west of Brittany. Following his broadcast, 95 men crowded onto the Zenith. Another 33 from the island travelled on other boats.

When De Gaulle conducted his first review of his five hundred soldiers, he found that a many of them came from the Sein. Then, according to legend, he uttered the immortal words that ‘the Sein is a quarter of France’. Fifteen years ago, the Zenith was a wreck, but year by year it is being remade into the boat in was in 1940.

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