Posts Tagged ‘History’

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

Americans cherish freedom.  When I ask my students what they think of, or what they think others think of, when they hear the word ‘America’,  ‘Freedom’ is almost invariably the first answer given.  From a young age, we are taught that freedom is the life-blood of America, and hence, of American history. Our founding stories are the beginning, and heart of this narrative.

National foundations have the habit to intertwine history and mythology; the American tale is no different.  From our Republic’s earliest days, the hagiography of the founders was central.  Some of this was self-created by theweems founders themselves, such as Benjamin Franklin’s ‘Autobiography'; some was conjured by the second generation of Americans who just missed the romance of the Revolution. As the Revolutionary generation began to die off, the younger men and women of post-Revolutionary America lionized the lives and accomplishments of their forebears.  Most famously, in the decade after the death of Washington in 1799, the little known Parson Weems produced a heroic biography of our first President that depicted the man as moral exemplar and ethical sage. Weems’ book became an American ‘bestseller’.

Today, Americans are generally less naive about the founders.  Washington did not ever say ‘I cannot tell a lie,’ and he most definitely is not a moral model for the 21st century. Most realize that Washington, and many other founders, were slave-owners. This paradox encapsulates American history. As the founders crafted our Constitution, their worldview was crafted by their slave society.  Jefferson, Madison, Monroe: denizens of freedom; owners of human beings.  Conversely, John Adams did not own any slaves.  But, American slave society did not draw distinctions between slave-drivers imagesand those who simply lived along side.  When Adams was in Philadelphia in 1776, calling for revolutionary independence, his wife Abigail wrote him to ‘remind him’ about the possibility of women’s rights.  Sounding like a 21st century woman, Abigail wrote ” I desire you would remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands. Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could.”

But, Abigail was living in the 18th century, and her husband was an 18th century man.  He wrote back in response that her concern for women’s rights made him ‘laugh’. He said he had been warned that the American,

‘Struggle has loosened the bands of Government every where. That Children and Apprentices were disobedient — that schools and Colledges were grown turbulent — that Indians slighted their Guardians and Negroes grew insolent to their Masters. But your Letter was the first Intimation that another Tribe more numerous and powerfull than all the rest were grown discontented. — This is rather too coarse a Compliment but you are so saucy, I wont blot it out.’

Here Adams was stating the Revolution was really only for a few.  Women, Indians, children and, of course, Negroes need not apply.

But, Adams was blind.  Even as his revolution was rocking the world, his world was being rocked by those ‘insolent negroes.’ They were making their own freedom.


How can we understand what most African-Americans thought about the American Revolution and the new American government?  Since most African-Americans were in bondage in 1776, their thoughts and words have been lost to the ages. However, their actions were recorded and these actions proved these people were revolutionaries in their own right. Thousands of men, women and children rebelled by grabbing freedom with their own hands. For these African-American revolutionaries, the British did not mean oppression; the British were a tool for liberty.  In his 2014 Pulitzer Prize winning book The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia, the historian Alan Taylor pointed out that African-Americans repeatedly fled for freedom in the early Republic. In 1812, when the United States declared war on Great Britain for a second time, slaves from the south fled to British ships, and British lines, yet again.  In other words, the slaves were not helpless victims. Like the patriots who fought for freedom against the British in 1776, these enslaved Americans were fighting a revolution for their own freedom.

The War of 1812 ended in 1815, and with it, British presence in America. Slaves now had few options for freedom. They could rise up with violence; or they could run away to a gradually emancipating north. Neither of these options held great promise. Northern states were by no means the land of freedom for African-Americans. Whereas in the South, the unjust system of American slavery was becoming more entrenched, and more caustic as the years went by. After Nat Turner’s rebellion in 1831, the world of the slave was obsessively monitored by white society.  Freedom was curtailed more and more as the Civil War drew nearer. What was needed in these dark days was a clarion call for freedom that illustrated American hypocrisy. The little remembered David Walker was the man who took the necessary stand. He would be one our nation’s most important moral voices. In 1829, he published his ‘Appeal’ and that work would inspire later radical abolitionists such as Garrison, the Grimke sisters and Frederick Douglass.  In walkers-appealincredibly upfront language for 1829, Walker’s ‘Appeal’ accused white Americans of the greatest, most horrific hypocrisy.  He wrote,

‘See your Declaration Americans! ! ! Do you understand your own language? Hear your languages, proclaimed to the world, July 4th, 1776 — “We hold these truths to be self evident — that ALL MEN ARE CREATED EQUAL! ! that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness! !” Compare your own language above, extracted from your Declaration of Independence, with your cruelties and murders inflicted by your cruel and unmerciful fathers and yourselves on our fathers and on us — men who have never given your fathers or you the least provocation’

Because of such truthtelling, Walker became public enemy number 1 in the south. He was not much liked in the north either.  In 1830, as Walker’s ‘Appeal’ was being burned in effigy, Walker was found dead in Boston of Tuberculous. It was a tragic end of an under appreciated American freedom fighter. But, Walker had opened eyes. He helped those who followed him see that slavery would not go quietly.  In April 1861, all of America came to the same realization.

The Civil War has largely been understood through the actions and memorializations of Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln has been portrayed as an American martyr for freedom; the wiseman that America needed to save the union and end slavery.  For most Americans, he is the Great Emancipator.  Steven Spielberg’s saccrahine biopic of ol’ Abe does nothing to dispel this notion. Ken Burns famous Civil War documentaries lionized the railsplitter as a stirring genius. But, the story of the Civil War, Lincoln, slavery and emancipation is more complicated than people like Spielberg or Burns lead us to believe.

As most serious historians now agree, African-Americans, and slaves specifically, were constantly forcing Abe’s 5.6.contraband-in-williamsport-camp-of-13th-MA-from-Mollushand, pushing him in a more radical direction than he hoped, or planned, on going. As soon as the war started, and as soon as Union troops invaded the south, slaves fled to Union lines. These enslaved American men, women and children wanted freedom, and just like the English army and navy in 1776 and 1812, the Union military provided an obvious opportunity.  For some racist Union leaders, these runaways were simply annoyances that should have been returned to their ‘rightful owners.’ But, for the savvier officers, the slaves were crucial to defeating the Confederacy. Not only would the runaways help the Union war effort as laborers, they simultaneously crippled the rebels fighting ability. African Americans had created the south; they produced the wealth, the food and the identity of Dixie.  Without them, the rebels would find that the war would be much harder to win on the battlefield and the homefront. Lincoln was not on board initially, and was troubled regarding these people who were taking freedom for themselves.  In 1861, he said, ‘I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the states where it exists…I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.”  However, as the trickle of African Americans taking their freedom became a flood, and as it became clear that these men and women would not be turned away, Lincoln finally took pragmatic action.  By 1863, he was ready to proclaim that the war was being fought for a ‘new birth of freedom.’ African-Americans understood this long before he did.

In 1776, 1812, 1829, 1831, 1861, and many other years in-between and after, African-Americans changed the way America understood freedom. Thousands of forgotten, and quite literally nameless men and women took revolutionary action for ideals Americans hold sacred. The freedom they fought for, and died for, should be bigger than one day in July, or one month each winter. Their actions should be celebrated all year long.

Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

I must admit, I find African-American History Month a bit problematic. Wait, let me restate that.  I find the reception, understanding and construction of African American History Month problematic. I’ll tell you why I feel this way in a bit, but first let me clarify some things.

You need to understand where I am coming from. I am not one of those people (usually white, which I am), who ponderously wonders, “If we have a Black History Month, why don’t we have a White History Month?” If you have ever said this, please stop now. You sound ridiculous, and you have just displayed either your bias, or your ignorance.  I’m also not one who feels African-American history, or Mexican-American history, or Women’s history somehow balkanizes the American people into different, competing groups.  Newsflash! The social, cultural and ethnic history turn of the 1960’s has not been to blame for the racial, ethnic and gender tensions in America during the past 300 years! To believe otherwise is to be either completely ignorant of American History, or to be arguing in bad faith.

No, I feel African-American history month doesn’t go far enough.

The intention of African-American history month is noble, and absolutely necessary. It exists for a very powerful reason. For much of our nation’s history,

A depiction of the 'happy slave' that was common in 19th and early 20th century history texts.

A depiction of the ‘happy slave’ that was common in 19th and early 20th century history texts.

the study of the past has not been colorblind.   It is an unfortunate truth that American historians have played a crucial role in creating, and furthering the notion of white racial dominance.  For years American history texts simply ignored, or worse, purposely distorted the African-American experience for political and racist purposes.  Though this is much less common now, it still exists. In addition, there has been, and there still are many politicians and cultural critics who wish to simply gloss over, romanticize or completely white-wash the deeply troubling ideologies of race and racism that have scarred our nation. Hence, for these people, African-American history itself is dangerous. They want positive American heroics, no matter what. If the truth of African-American history messes with this constructed heroic story, than that truth must be muzzled!

African-American history month is intended to rectify the injustice of past historiographical omissions, and shine the harsh light of facts on those who would forget our nation’s rocky, messy, often disturbingly unheroic past.  I am completely on board with both goals. However, I do have concerns. First,as mentioned above, I think it is unjust. One month is simply not enough to understand how important African American history is to the story of America. It may be a bit cliched to state that African-American history is American history, but it is no less true. This truth needs to be pushed beyond the four weeks of February. I am afraid it often is not.

Second, I worry about African-American history being simplified by how most ‘celebrate’ and receive the month.  I think it is very easy to perceive African-American history month as a 28 day celebration of quick biographical sketches that paint chosen, recognizable men and 2-3-2014-fox-newswomen as a-historical heroes. Of course, it is nice when TV stations provide snippet memories of Rosa Parks, MLK, and George Washington Carver during commercial breaks and station identifications, but, by repeatedly doing this year after year they often provide the public only the very surface story of the African-American experience.  New heroes get added to the American pantheon, but when March roles around, we all realize we are none-the-wiser to the deeper story of WHY these people should be considered heroic.  Americans need to remember the social structures, legal codes and political ideologies such heroes fought against; they need to remember these people literally put their lives on the line to speak out against hypocritical American injustice. They need to remember, period.

African-American history, along with the history of race in America, is crucial to understanding the American story. It must be about more than a litany of individual biographies, and it must take up more than 28 days. And so, over the next few weeks, I will write a set of blogs providing a glimpse of a wider ranging African-American history. These blogs will show how millions of forgotten African-American men and women were central in the creation of American freedom, American capital and American culture. I hope you will think about these stories in March, April, May and beyond.

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty. 

As we start another quarter at RMU, I as a history teacher try once again to inculcate students to the importance of historical understanding.  In each of my courses I usually provide the students on the first day of class with a description of what history is, and why it matters. Simply put, I try to justify taking history courses to non-history majors.

This is old-hat for me. I have been justifying studying history long before teaching at RMU.  Ever since my days as an undergrad  I have been hounded by friends, peers and random acquaintances’ parents regarding the ‘value’ of a history degree.  With a smirk on their collective faces, I would hear the banal, unthinking question, ‘what are you gonna do with a BA in history?’  It was obvious to me long before entering the working world that in American society, the utility of a degree, meaning the amount of money to be made from having it, is the most important thing for a lot of people.

Of course, not everyone is so materialistically utilitarian. Some people simply don’t like history. Since I was a freshman, I i love historyoften gained unsolicited opinions such as, ‘history is my least favorite subject'; or ‘I can’t understand what you would find enjoyable about studying such a boring topic.’

This is a much more difficult challenge to face.  For paycheck-concerned-parents, I can always point to all sorts of studies that show that employers are looking for the skills taught by the liberal arts.  But, how do you answer those people who think your subject is a snoozefest? How do you change their minds?

You do the only thing you can do: Prove to those naysayers, whether they be friends, students, or whoever, that history is amazingly interesting and human. You point to Arlette Farge, the great historian of 18th century French, who beautifully stated that ‘It is a rare and precious feeling to suddenly come upon so many forgotten lives, haphazard and full, juxtaposing and entangling the close with the distant, the departed.’ For me, this statement encapsulates the study of history.

But, there is more. Those lives Farge ‘comes upon’ are often weird. They are often funny. Their lifestyles are often salacious.  Their worlds are often disgusting.  In other words, Farge’s lives illustrate that the past is achingly, tragically, amazingly human. You can discover all sorts of strange surprises in these lives.

teeth02For instance, a couple weeks ago I picked up Professor Colin Jones’ new book on 18th century French culture called The Smile Revolution in Eighteenth Century Paris.  Jones investigated a seemingly ahistorical subject: human smiles. But, as he fascinatingly points out, emotions, and their physiological manifestations (smiles), have faced different cultural receptions throughout history. According to Jones, in France, open mouth smiling was frowned upon (sorry about the pun) starting in the reign of Louis XIV.  Open mouthed guffawing was considered to be low class. Why was this so?  Well, as Jones points out, this probably had much to do with the fact that people living in the 18th century had horrendous teeth. Here is Jones describing the sad, but common dental experience of the philosophe Abbe Galiani:

“In a gloomy countdown, he recorded that he still had fourteen (teeth) remaining in June 1770, but only eight in August 1771. By then, any untoward movement of his tongue while he was talking led to his teeth springing out of his mouth. His conversation, he complained, had become a mixture of unintelligible mumbling and inadvertent whistling which baffled his friends. He began to have dreams in which his teeth grew back. …By mid 1772 all his teeth were gone; he was in his early forties.”

Can you imagine this? I can. History makes me imagine.

Simply put, learning about such topics in history makes me feel like Bill Murray’s character in the Royal Tenenbaums, when he says:

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty. 

When we hear about violence between the Israelis and Palestinians marring the Middle East, it is common to view the situation as ahistorical, or even timeless.  The news media sometimes plays this game by painting the troubles of the Holy Land as having ancient roots, as though this fight has been going on for 3000 years.  Though this may seem to be the case to outside observers, Umujyi-wa-Gaza-uri-kuraswa-nindege-za-Israel1this is most definitely a false belief.  The seemingly unending disputes in the region stem from the very recent past (relative to the history of the land where the fighting is taking place.)  To understand the crisis, we need to cover a century’s time; a drop in the chronological bucket for the ancient world of Palestine.

To grasp the complex situation, we could investigate many formative years of the crisis: 1936-1939, 1948, 1967, 1973, etc.  But, to get to the heart of the matter, we must look at the year 1917, and the war that was changing the world at that time.

In 1917, the First World War was entering it’s 4th year.  Millions had already died on battlefronts all over the globe, and the carnage did not seem to be abating.  In February of that year, Revolution struck Russia, the Czar fell, and a provisional reform government gained power, vowing to continue the fight against Germany.  France still had German troops on her soil, and fr-trenchwas facing mutiny from disaffected frontline troops who had been sent into the meat-grinder one too many times.  Britain was feeling the strain of the Kaiser’s U-Boat attacks, and was concerned that their new ally America would not get troops over to Europe quick enough to help in the war effort. 

Nonetheless, these struggles did not stop British and French policymakers from planning a new postwar order. In 1916, the two nations agreed upon dividing Mideast Ottoman holdings between themselves, with, of course, the assumption that the war was to be won.  Such plans would be moot if Germany won the war.

Victory was precarious, but oh so colonially valuable; the beginning of 1917 was the ‘now or never’ moment for the Brits. As the French were slowly crumbling, the little Island nation needed to assure themselves of allies. 

Ironically, it would be an anti-Semitic stereotype that would influence British policymakers in their quest for war assistance. Many within the halls of power in London held old, quite often offensive, and generally apocryphal notions that the Jewish communities of Russia and the United States had disproportionate power and influence. Hence, London was looking for a way to please these mythical Jews in the hope that their supposed power would ensure Russian continuation in the war, and absolute American military and financial involvement. 

Thus, with their plan of controlling Palestine after the war, the British government decided to make a promise to the Jewish people, and the Zionist movement in particular.  If Britain won the war, and gained Palestine as a holding, the Jews would be given a home land in the Holy Land.  This was the so-called ‘Balfour Declaration’, named after Arthur Balfour, the British Foreign Secretary. The declaration, which was in the form of a letter, read:

November 2nd, 1917

Dear Lord Rothschild,

I have much pleasure in conveying to you, on behalf of His Majesty’s Government, the following declaration of sympathy with Jewish Zionist aspirations which has been submitted to, and approved by, the Cabinet.

“His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.”

I should be grateful if you would bring this declaration to the knowledge of the Zionist Federation.

Yours sincerely,
Arthur James Balfour

Of course, for the Zionist movement, this letter embodied opportunity and hope.  The letter seemed to grant 220px-Balfour_Declaration_in_the_Times_9_November_1917the future promise of a national state. However, for the Arabs already living in Palestine, who the British understood as being a backward, controllable people, this letter would quickly be interpreted as a imperialistic tragedy.

According to Israeli historian Benny Morris, the Balfour Declaration, and future statements of the British government in the years immediately following WWI illustrated that Palestinians ‘were seen as insignificant “natives” and usurpers, whereas the incoming Jews were viewed both as Europeans and as the rightful owners of Palestine.”

‘The rightful owners of Palestine':  Can any words be more loaded? 

One hundred years on, the decisions made for the sake of ending the “War to End All Wars”  continues to spark bloody conflicts.

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

Most Americans don’t give much thought to the First World War.  Much like the Korean War, WWI may be considered a ‘forgotten’ conflict.  Of course, both of these conflicts have one other thing in common; they have been overshadowed by the Second World War.  WWII is the struggle Americans are most usually obsessed with; from  movies and television shows, to our dubiously titled ‘History Channel’, to national best-seller monographs, WWII gets most of the coverage.  And why not?  The war radically altered the world, and America’s place in it.

But, to understand our wider world, with it’s complexities and it’s many tragedies, we need to look back even further than 1945. After all, to understand the world created by WWII, we must investigate the World War that preceded it.
Ukraine Plane What Happened

We live in a violent, confusing world. The last couple weeks have proven this to any Pollyannas who may have forgotten such a hard ap_israel_hamastruth. For many Americans, the events unfolding in Ukraine, Iraq and Israel/Palestine are difficult to comprehend. As outside observers, we often simply throw our hands up in dumbfounded frustration. I fear such frustration leads many people simply to label the people and politics of these regions as ‘crazy’.

Of course, such an ‘explanation’ explains nothing.

True explanations are difficult. True explanations are complex. True explanations are unsettling.
But, true explanations are desperately needed.  If we are to understand what is happening in Iraq, or grasp why the Israeli/Palestinian conflict is so persistent, or why such bad blood exists between the Ukraine and Russia, we must go to the history books. Specifically, we must investigate the First World War.


Let us begin with Iraq.

As we all know, the American intervention in Iraq beginning in the Spring of 2003 did not go as planned. Though the United States quickly won a technical victory on the field of battle, the ‘rebuilding’, or ‘occupation’ of the nation was marred by, for Americans, seemingly inexplicable violence, sectarian strife, and near civil war.  The reasons for such violence are many and complex. One unarguably important cause was American policymakers’ ignorance regarding the complexity of the Iraqi past. Such ignorance, willful or innocent, is even more shocking when it is understood that the Americans had a predecessor they could have learned from. In 1918, at the end of WWI, the British made many of the same mistakes Americans made in 2003.

The_camel_corps_at_Beersheba2

The Camel Corp, 1915

During the First World War, the British were not just fighting the Germans in the fields of France. They also were at war with the ‘Sick Man of Europe’, the Ottoman Turkish Empire. In this Middle Eastern war, the British looked to rile up the Arab peoples of the area, hoping the Arabs would be interested in throwing off the yoke of their Turkish overlords. The British promised the Arabs of the region national autonomy. According to Scott Anderson however, the British did this without understanding the complexities of the area.’For nearly 400 years prior to World War I, the lands of Iraq existed as three distinct semi-autonomous provinces, or vilayets, within the Ottoman Empire. In each of these vilayets, one of the three religious or ethnic groups that predominated in the region – Shiite, Sunni and Kurd – held sway, with the veneer of Ottoman rule resting atop a complex network of local clan and tribal alliances. ‘

iraq-ethnic-mapThe British did not concern themselves with this ethnoreligious system, seeing instead one, indivisible, homogeneous Arab people.

After defeating the Turks, the British, and the French made two troubling decisions. First, they reneged on their deal with the Arab populations of the Middle East, basically replacing Ottoman rule with European Imperialism. Second, much like in Europe in 1918, the victors of the war redrew maps, and went about ‘state building’. Out of this came the imperial holdings of Palestine, Syria, Trans-Jordan and Iraq.
This situation was not only tragic, it was absurd. Last year, The Daily Show wonderfully captured the absurdity of the situation:

http://thedailyshow.cc.com/videos/kovgs5/sir-archibald-mapsalot-iii

As John Oliver hilariously illustrates, the mapmakers took no account of the ethnic, tribal and ds_18146_02religious disparities of the region. Iraq was transformed into a simmering land of tension controlled by a crumbling British Empire.  Scott Anderson points out that this was a disaster waiting to happen, and the British did not have long to wait: Iraq’s history of the 1920’s-1950’s ‘would be marked by a series of violent coups and rebellions, with its political domination by the Sunni minority simply deepening its sectarian fault lines. After repeatedly intervening to defend their fragile creation, the British were finally cast out of Iraq in the late 1950s, their local allies murdered by vengeful mobs.’

British decisions from 1918 seem to have never-ending repercussions in Iraq. With this in mind, it seems ISIS is simply another chicken coming home to roost. 

(My next blog post will deal with Israel/Palestine and the First World War. After that, Ukraine and The First World War)

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty. June 28th.  A prominent date in the history of the world. To be more precise, June 28th, 1914.  100 years ago almost to the day. If you don’t recognize this date, and if it doesn’t ring bells like December 7th, July 4th, or September 11th, let me explain. On June 28th, 1914, a young Serbian terrorist by the name of Gavrilo Princip shot and killed the

Artist's drawing of the assassination.

Artist’s drawing of the assassination.

Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand.  This assassination set into motion the foreign policy decisions of Austria-Hungary, Russia, Germany, France and England that led to the outbreak of the Great War during the summer of 1914. The Great War was in no way a ‘good war’.  Greatness signified scale, not quality.  The horror of the war made people hope that it would be the ‘war to end all war.’  In fact, the opposite was the case. The Great War would in actuality be overshadowed 20 years later by an even more extreme conflict in the Second World War.   But to understand the Second, we must investigate the First, because without it, the Second would not have taken place. With the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the The First World War approaching, I think it only right to put together a series of blogs devoted to this catastrophe of  human folly.


There are only handful of people living today who were alive during the First World War, and most were tiny children at the time. All those who fought in the war, and lived to tell the tale, have long since passed on.  For the vast majority of us today, the war lives on only in written memory and cultural imagination.  Ironically though, the war can seem completely unimaginable.   The sheer scale of the war for anyone under 80 years old (who can remember the even more massive Second World War) is beyond  reckoning.  Since 1960, the Western way of war has become localized and specialized; like much else, war has become professionalized, mechanized, and corporatized. For my generation of Americans who have not been a part of the military (the vast majority of us), war can seem remotely distant; both geographically, and emotionally. Statistics can paint the picture. Numbers will provide us perspective.

fallujah-203

American soldiers fighting in Fallujah

In the Second Iraq War, the ‘Second Battle of Fallujah” was the largest battle fought.  In this battle American, British and Iraqi forces attacked insurgents in the Iraqi city of Fallajuh. The coalition forces fought with 13,000 men. They outnumbered the 5,000 insurgents within the city.  The battle lasted a little over a month. It was deadlier than most engagements.  Coalition forces lost over a hundred killed in action, and 600 wounded, and the insurgents lost about 1500 dead. These numbers should not be belittled. But, when put into relation to the First World War, Fallujah illustrates the extreme horror of 1914-1918. Let’s compare Fallujah to the worst of The First World War; The Battle of Verdun.  The Battle of Verdun took place from February 1916, until December 1916.  The

French soldiers at Verdun

French soldiers at Verdun

battle began when German forces attacked French positions east of the ancient fortress city of Verdun.  On the morning of February 21st, the Germans inundated the French lines with over 150,000 men.  In the lead up to the attack, the Germans rained down 2.5 million shells on the French forces.  For 10 months, the two armies slugged it out over terrain that slowly became more and more nightmarishly pock-mocked.  With the dead everywhere, constantly being violently disinterred by artillery, Verdun was often described as a giant charnel house. Being sent into the battle’s front line was understood to be close to a death sentence.  Here is how two different French soldiers described the experience:

You eat beside the dead; you drink beside the dead, you relieve yourself beside the dead and you sleep beside the dead. People will read that the front line was Hell. How can people begin to know what that one word – Hell – means.

After almost a year of incessant fighting, both the French and Germans lost roughly 350,000 men each.  In this one battle alone, 700,000 men died.  To put that into perspective,

Aerial photo of Verdun fort before and after battle.

Aerial photo of Verdun fort before and after battle.

that is about the number of Americans killed in The American Revolution, The War of 1812, The Mexican-American War, The First World War, The Second World War, The Korean War, The Vietnam War and the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan….COMBINED. One battle, Ten months, 700,000 dead.  The First World War would have a thousand more battles, and would rage for over 40 months more.  Those men who died at Verdun would be joined by 9 MILLION others. It is difficult to wrap your mind around such suffering. This war’s blood-letting would form our world. In the coming weeks, we will see how.

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

A disturbing story out of California grabbed my eye last week.  In the town of Rialto, just outside Los Angeles, a school board caught flack for an 8th grade assignment asking students “to debate in writing whether the Holocaust was ‘merely a political scheme created to influence public emotion and gain’, or an actual historical event.  Facing harsh criticism, the board initially defended the assignment, saying it was a way for students to

The 8th grade assignment in question.

The 8th grade assignment in question.

evaluate evidence, and to use ‘critical thinking’ skills.   The schoolboard finally apologized for it’s poor judgement as news spread that the language used in the assignment had actually been lifted from a ‘revisionist’ website.  In the realm of Holocaust studies, ‘revisionism’ is a euphemism coined by anti-Semites and Neo-Nazis for Holocaust denial.  After such an embarrassing revelation, apologies are now flying, and amends are being made.  On Monday, the LA Times reported that the eighth grade teachers who oversaw the assignments will be going through mandatory sensitivity training, including a trip to the Museum of Tolerance.  Hopefully, the physical evidence of the Nazis’ war on the Jews displayed at the museum will illustrate to the teachers why the assignment was a horribly distasteful mistake.

Case closed?

Not quite. This story is about much more than an 8th grade assignment.  There are troubling implications here.

But first, let’s make one thing clear: I don’t think the schoolboard is run by Holocaust deniers, or Neo-Nazis. As the Anti-Defamation League stated, it seems this case is not a sign of a “larger, insidious agenda.” Instead, this is an instance of a group of people making an incredibly bad, misinformed decision.  No evil here; just banal ignorance. But, the banality of the ignorance points to the disturbance. This assignment was intended to be an attempt to get students to use ‘critical thinking skills.’  Critical thinking is a buzzword in today’s world of education. It has nothing but positive connotations, and rightly so.  But, here we see a danger.  Critical thinking skills can only be developed if we can critically recognize when thought and arguments deserve criticism. Not so simply put, we can’t be critical thinkers when we don’t have critical thoughts to critique. To recognize what stances deserve critical assessment, we need to identify what is worthy of discussion, and what is not. There are simply some opinions that are not worth hearing.  

The Rialto school board was ignorant.  They were ignorant that not all thoughts should be critically assessed, and they were even more ignorant of history. They simply took two seemingly disparate views, and told students to analyze them.  After all, to the school board, the ‘revisionist’ website used the language of a critically thought out position. It ‘seemed’ historically sound, which is exactly what the ‘revisionists’ intend. Holocaust deniers want to take advantage of such ignorance; when they do, they win the battle, and help destroy history.  

The other especially disturbing aspect of this story is the method the board used to get  information.  As mentioned, the assignment was taken almost directly from a Holocaust denial website.  The board’s ignorance is chilling, but it becomes dangerous when combined with the accessibility of extreme lies in cyberspace.  Now, I am not a luddite. The internet has  radically altered communication, and accessibility to information largely for the better. But the internet does not separate the noble from the vile. Extreme hate has found a new home on the web.

Teaching my Holocaust course, I realize this, and point out to my students to be cautious when doing research online.  There is a huge array of radical hatred that could be stumbled upon by them unwittingly as they

Nazi Anti-Semitic Propaganda poster found in search.

Nazi Anti-Semitic Propaganda poster found in search.

search out for the answers to assignments in class.  Let me just give you an example how easy this is: If I Google image search ‘Nazi Jewish Propaganda’, I get over 6 million hits.  Most images come from the holdings of Yad Vashem, or the U.S. Holocaust Museum, or some other reputable memorial institution.  But, the image search also can bring me to other, more troubling sites. The 11th image retrieved in this particular search is of a Nazi anti-Semitic poster produced during the Second World War.  If I click on the image, I see that it comes from a page called ‘Zion Crime Factory.’  The small caption to this image states, “Hitler, like Goebbels, understood the reality of Jewish warmongering against the Reich…‘ What we have here is a modern anti-Semitic, perhaps Neo-Nazi site utilizing Nazi propaganda, not to illuminate Nazi persecution of Jews, but to illustrate that the Nazis were actually correct in their persecution.  If my students were looking for propaganda for one of my assignments, they may accidentally stumble upon this site.  Hopefully they would recognize this site for what it was and avoid it like the plague. But, what about all those who had never studied the Holocaust before, and don’t know what they are looking at?

What about 8th graders researching a critical thinking assignment?

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty. 

Over the last couple weeks, my wife and I have been devouring the first season of Game of Thrones.  Yes, yes, we are behind the times.  I know the fourth season is currently on HBO.  Please forgive our pop culture delay, and don’t give any spoilers in your possible comments to this post. Thanks much.

Now, most everyone has heard of Game of Thrones by now, and realize that the series is a melange of fantasy/action/drama/political thriller.  The series is set in an imaginary land and time that is inhabited by 1434624mysterious creatures such as dragons and ‘white-walkers’.  But, the show does not revolve around magical beasts. There are no main character elves or dwarves, like in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, or Hutts and droids like in Lucas’ Star Wars.  In Thrones, all the characters are human, and the emotions, the drives, the beliefs are all too recognizable. For a fantasy series, Thrones is strangely, and brutally familiar.  However, this familiarity stems from more than just the characters; the setting, though a make-believe land, feels like earth. The imaginary time period seems like a ‘real’ era of human history.

Game of Thrones takes place in a bizzaro European Middle Ages.

Everything in the show has the feeling of the medieval world; the clothing characters wear; the weapons that they use.  The castles, and/or hovels, characters inhabit.  The social hierarchy that exists, with lords, ladies, priests, warriors and peasants (this is even the terminology.) The political factions that are constantly scheming for power.  All of this, and much more, makes Game of Thrones seem to be a strange fantastical attempt to relive a ‘true’ past. The series is a sort of Renaissance Fair writ large; and writ bloody; and writ sexualized.

Winterfell

A typically medieval scene from Thrones

Game of  Thrones‘  medievalism is not unique. References to the world of the Middle Ages are a common aspect of twentieth century fantasy tales.  The most famous example is Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.  Though mentioned previously that Rings was more fantastical than Game of Thrones, what with hobbits, wizards, orcs, etc, the overriding aura of the two stories are more similar than different.  Like in Thrones, knights, steeds, magic and castles are all a part of Tolkien’s fantasy land of Middle Earth.  Tolkien’s fantasies are not alone. J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series and George Lucas’ Star Wars, though less obvious than Thrones or Rings, has the Medieval touch as well. Seemingly set in modern Britain, the Potter tales transport readers to the more magical, hidden ancient world of wizards, trolls, castles and ghosts just out of sight of the muggles.  Taking place in a galaxy far, far away on the other hand, the plot of Star Wars revolves around a brave knight (Luke Skywalker) utilizing magic and rare sword skills (only Jedis use the lightsaber) struggling against the forces of pure evil.  To defeat this evil, Skywalker must fulfill seemingly impossible quests. It is an Arthurian legend with a space cruiser. 

Why do these modern fantasy tales so readily depend upon medieval tropes ?  If this question never occurred to you, it is probably because you have always been inundated with these cultural themes.  After a lifetime of fantasy medievalism, we now simply accept the utilization of the historical era’s ideas, language, clothing and notions as a natural part of fantasy tales. It seems so natural in fact, that to plunk down such a tale in a different historical era seems odd, if not absurd.   Imagine if Game of Thrones depended upon Ancient Greece for its influence. Picture in your mind’s eye the Starks, Lannisters, and Baratheons wearing togas. Ridiculous, isn’t it?

The reason this seems absurd has much to do with our understanding (or stereotypes) of the Middle Ages. Whenever covering the period my history courses, I tell my students to think about what terms and ideas they associate with the Middle Ages. They respond as you might suspect.  My students imagine kings, queens, castles, knights, serfs, etc.  But, they don’t stop there. Some students invariably enter the realm of fantasy.  They will tell me that they think of witches, dragons, magic, and wizards when they conjure up an image of the long gone world.  My students understand these things did not exist during the Medieval period, but the ivanhoeideas come to their mind regardless. They just can’t help it.

My students are dredging up more than just the fantasies of Tolkien or George R.R. Martin.  Their associations of fantasy and the Middle Ages are much older than those two twentieth century writers. The early nineteenth century, and the Romantic movement is truly to blame. The romantics’ obsession with the Middle Ages as a time of wonder, magic and heroism must be the starting point to grasping why medievalism entwines so readily with our contemporary fantasies.  Responding to the cult of rationality associated with the Enlightenment, the Romantics created a Middle Ages that was mythical, irrational and magical. These modern Europeans created a legendary memory of the Medieval period that lives on even today. Game of Thrones is just the latest rendition.

 

 

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty. 

Perhaps you have heard the name Cliven Bundy lately? Three weeks ago, the Nevada rancher made news because of a stand-off he was having against Federal Bureau of Land Management agents. The BLM had tried for 20 years to stop Bundy from grazing his cattle on federal land. Bundy repeatedly refused, and when the BLM attempted to enforce the law, Bundy took up arms in defiance and was quickly joined by hundreds of proto-militia

Cliven Bundy

Cliven Bundy

members. Or, perhaps two weeks ago you heard about Bundy when Fox News host Sean Hannity repeatedly, and loudly portrayed the Nevada native as an American hero fighting government oppression.  No? Well, if not, then I bet you heard his name last week.  On Wednesday, Bundy gave a press conference that, strangely, led the rancher to pontificate on ‘the Negro’.  Bundy proclaimed:

“I want to tell you one more thing I know about the Negro”…. Mr. Bundy recalled driving past a public-housing project in North Las Vegas, “and in front of that government house the door was usually open and the older people and the kids — and there is always at least a half a dozen people sitting on the porch — they didn’t have nothing to do. They didn’t have nothing for their kids to do. They didn’t have nothing for their young girls to do.

“And because they were basically on government subsidy, so now what do they do?” he asked. “They abort their young children, they put their young men in jail, because they never learned how to pick cotton. And I’ve often wondered, are they better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life and doing things, or are they better off under government subsidy? They didn’t get no more freedom. They got less freedom.”

Not surprisingly, Bundy supporters in Washington and New York fled for the hills.  Senators Rand Paul (R -Kentucky), Dean Heller (R -Nevada) and Hannity went from 29234calling Bundy a patriot two weeks ago, to condemning the rancher’s ‘appalling statements’.  Within a few hours, Bundy transformed from the poster child for rugged small-government American individualism, to a disturbing representation of America’s continuing race issues.

Bundy’s words have led to an avalanche of media analysis.  Much of it is directed towards who Bundy speaks for.  Does he represent a larger portion of America that agrees with his racial ideas, but has too much tact, or duplicity to state them quite so loudly? Such questions are important, no doubt.  But, most such stories are often reticent about Bundy’s actual ideas, and their provenance; their history.

Look at Bundy’s most offensive statement (arguably): African-Americans may be “better off as slaves” than living free in 21st century America.  I assume to many, this portion of Bundy’s little speech is absolutely dumbfounding. The man must be off his rocker.  After all, who in the world would believe that anyone would be ‘better off’ in a state of chattel slavery?

Well, during the last 150 years of American history, a lot of people believed such bunk.  Said bunk was so accepted that it was taught as history to American schoolchildren. Bundy’s words are a reincarnation of a past ideology, and a deplorable myth of the ‘happy slave’ that poisoned post-Civil War race relations.

In the decades after the Civil War (and into the mid-twentieth century), notions about ‘happy slaves’ in the Old South held a great deal of sway.  During these years, American culture popularized the happy slave

Aunt Jemima: The happy mammy.

Aunt Jemima: The happy mammy.

 historical narrative through films, textbooks and even children’s cartoons.  Though invented during the days of slavery, this notion of the goodness of slaveowners, and the happiness of slaves was part of a larger romanticization of the antebellum South that swept the nation during the decades of postwar national reconciliation. This narrative painted the ol’ plantation system of slave and slaveowner as one built upon social contentment and order.  Destroyed by the Civil War, the epoch of Southern slavery was memorialized as a golden age of social harmony.

Historian David Blight has illustrated that popular books  in the immediate after years of the war played a large role in revivifying this idea.  These books published in the 1880s-90s portrayed an:

….idyllic world of the plantation system, where everybody knew their place, and where blacks were essentially loyal retainers and happy darkies.

In fact you could argue that the reconciliation of the Civil War, and even the reconciliation of much of the bitterness of Reconstruction, in the popular imagination, happened as thousands upon thousands, hundreds of thousands of American readers, most of them Northerners, [heard] the voice of loyal happy slaves in their ear, narrating these stories about this idyllic, romantic old South that had now been crushed by this unfortunate if necessary war. Oh, and maybe it’s even good — the stories would say — that slavery was ended. It was good for the nation that slavery was ended. But look what else we lost. We lost this ordered civilization, this hierarchical society, this sense of a nation where everybody knew who they were and where they should be. And after all, what were they living in, by the 1880s and 90s, but an urbanizing country, a modernizing country, a complicated place, now full of all kinds of new immigrants…. new ideologies…., and an expanding economy full of technology that people didn’t grasp and couldn’t understand. And when the world gets confusing, and it changes rapidly, they did what most of us do. They harken back to another time. They find another world to live in.

Let me remind you that Blight wrote these words a decade ago; he was analyzing responses to modernity in post-Civil War America.  The idea of the ‘happy slave’ was useful for those who feared the real world in the 1880’s. 130 years on, Bundy obviously took this old wine, and put it into a new bottle, finding some perverted sense in this ‘happy slave’ narrative.

Is Cliven Bundy the only one who holds to such notions?  Hopefully he is….but, I doubt it.

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty. 

If there is anything I have learned from studying history the last twenty years (my goodness, I can’t believe it has been that long since I began my undergraduate studies), it is that the past affects every aspect of our lives. This took me awhile to grasp, since as a teenager and twenty-something, I assumed my worldview was a self-created thing; I thought that I had the power to pick and choose what I wanted from the ideas and memories of yesteryear.  Studying history in all its guises has made me see that I was a foolish kid. All our lives are molded by the most idiosyncratic remnants of days long gone.

With this in mind, let me give you a odd historical example illustrating how mentalities don’t die, though humans do.

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Voltaire

François-Marie Arouet, better known as Voltaire, died May 30th, 1778.  A playwright, philosopher, novelist, political thinker, and much more, Voltaire was, and still is, understood as being a giant of the 18th century era known as the Enlightenment.  Though not an outspoken political radical, Voltaire was a champion of revolutionary cultural ideals.  Most infamously in his day, he was an often harsh critic of organized religion and, specifically, the Catholic Church.  Here is one of many of his anti-clerical statements:

Every sensible man, every honest man, must hold the Christian sect in horror. ‘But what shall we substitute in its place?’, you say. What? A ferocious animal has sucked the blood of my relatives. I tell you to rid yourselves of this beast, and you ask me what you shall put in its place?

In 18th century Europe, holding such opinions, much less stating them, was a dangerous proposition.  Voltaire played with fire, which made him one of the most admired, most feared, and most despised men of European letters at the time of his death.  It would take 11 years, and the anti-clerical French Revolution to redeem Voltaire’s memory.

The Revolution of 1789 and its adherents waxed and waned in their feelings towards religion.  Some were outright atheists.  Some were deists.  Some were romantic Christians.  As a whole however, the Revolution as a political movement would try to control religion, either by making the church subservient to the nation, or even by transforming the revelatory nature of Christianity into the naturally rational cult of a faceless Supreme Being.  Hence, by 1791, Voltaire was transformed from being a dangerous, though popular rebel, to a nationally recognized prophet of the French nation.

The French Revolution and the French nation had martyrs and saints.  Voltaire would become the latter.  He didn’t die for the cause, but he did face persecution for his beliefs by a ‘tyrannical’ French pre-revolutionary state, and he would need to be recognized as such.  What better way to do so than moving his mortal remains to the Revolutionary state’s temple, the Pantheon? Nothing really new to all this hullabaloo.  Each nation recognizes those early forebears, and seers who foreshadowed the nation.  America is no different. Think Lincoln, Washington, and their respective monuments.  However, this story veers in an unexpected direction.  Friends and enemies of the Revolution began to fight regarding Voltaire’s state of decomposition.

Simon_Charles_Miger,_Translation_de_Voltaire_au_Panthéon_Français,_1817

Moving Voltaire to the Pantheon

As the French historian Antoine de Baecque points out his book, Glory and Terror: Seven Deaths Under the French Revolution, the state of Voltaire’s remains was controversial.  After disinterring the body of the great man, two conflicting sets of rumors began to spread. Amongst the friends of the Revolution, it soon became gospel that Voltaire’s body was perfectly preserved, 13 years after being buried (he had been embalmed, so this makes some sense).  But there was more: The Voltaire lovers relayed seemingly miraculous stories.  Not only was Voltaire’s remains perfectly preserved, but they also smelled….good.  The body was not decomposed, and had a sweet bouquet.  On the other hand, those enemies of the Revolution, and the haters of Voltaire gossiped the opposite.  Voltaire was actually a disgusting, rotted piece of decomposed flesh that was embarrassingly earthly.  The smell of the remains in this story, instead of being sweet, were radically worst than one would expect. It was as if the infidel’s remains had the whiff of hellish brimstone about them.

What in the world was this all about?  Well, to understand this ghoulish argument, we need to realize that this discourse of bodily remains was much older than Voltaire.  The Catholic church, going all the way back to its earliest days, argued for the incorruptibility of their saint’s bodies.  It would be proof of sacredness if a saint’s body was incorruptible; it would be a sign of God’s love if the dead saint smelled not rancid, but delightful. So, when the argument over 60835932Voltaire’s body arose, it was done so in the discourse of Catholicism. What the what?  Superstition’s most famous enemy was now being turned into a saint by those whom he influenced. History does indeed repeat itself.

I love this story for two reasons. First, it is just weird and unforgettable tale, showing the strange beliefs of humans.  Second, and more importantly, it is a perfect example of what effect the past can have on all of us.   Even the French Revolutionaries, those who hoped to create the world anew, and in many ways did so, still could not escape their bygone forerunners.  They were locked into a rut of history. You and I are no different.