Posts Tagged ‘History’

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

Many people undoubtedly have found it strange how much history has been in the news lately. Whether it is the Confederate monuments being taken down in New Orleans or the fact that Frederick Douglass and Andrew Jackson were trending on Twitter recently, historical topics are hot right now. But truthfully, Americans have always been contentious about our history, since our history is…well…contentious. Topics like the Civil War or Jackson’s role in ‘The Trail of Tears’ will spark lively, sometimes angry, disagreement.

However, there are certain historical events that mainstream Americans generally agree upon. One such non-contentious event is the Holocaust. The American public, pop-culture and politicians for the last 40 years have universally depicted the Holocaust as THE horrific event of modern times. Case closed.  No discussion needed.  For 20th century Americans, Nazi Germany has been the quintessential ‘bad guy’ of  history. We have taken this so far that the era of the Holocaust and the event itself is in danger of being portrayed in simplistic political bromides. It is easy, if no less true and unthinking, to state that Nazi Germany and Hitler were irredeemably evil. The murder of Europe’s Jews was Nazi Germany’s most horrendous crime. Who would argue with that?

This is why the last four months have been so disturbing.  Since taking power in January, the Trump Administration has had not one…but TWO ‘Holocaust’ controversies.  First, there was the strange, and evidently intentional, Holocaust Remembrance Day statement issued by President Trump which did not specify Nazi Germany’s specific war on European Jewry. Then, in April, Press Secretary Sean Spicer stuck his foot in his mouth by claiming that Hitler ‘didn’t even gas his own people’, unlike Syrian President al-Assad. After immediately being called on this outrageously false statement, Spicer sounded even more like an idiot when he referred (I assume) to extermination camps as ‘Holocaust centers’.

What is going on?  Some, like Holocaust historian and famous scholar of Holocaust denial Debra Lipstadt felt that the Trump White House’s Holocaust Remembrance Day statement was a classic case of ‘soft denialism’.  On the other hand, most commentators believed that Spicer’s slip-ups simply pointed to incredible historical ignorance. However, such ignorance and ‘soft denialism’ are not mutually exclusive.  Whether or not Lipstadt is correct in her assessment of Trump’s statement, such ‘denialism’ does exist in certain corners, and it will become easier to peddle to the general public as their inevitable ignorance of the past created by passing time increases.

‘Never forget’ can easily become an unthinking slogan, but that makes it no less true. So, with these notions in mind, I feel it is important to provide a quick reading list of books all Americans should read about the Holocaust. These are 15 works that any one with a passing interest in the topic can pick and read today.

  1. Saul Friedländer, Nazi Germany and the Jews: Volume 1 and The Years of Persecution and Volume 2, The Years of Extermination. Friedländer’s highly readable classic account. A great place to start for a thorough overview.515XRWk2Q6L._AC_UL320_SR214,320_
  2. Peter Hayes, Why: Explaining the Holocaust. A book that was just published a couple months ago. Deals with the big ‘why’ questions people always ask regarding the Holocaust. Does so with clear, jargon-free language. Read this after Friedländer’s workhayes
  3. Ian Kershaw, Hitler: 1889-1936, Hubris and Hitler: 1936-1945, Nemesis. Kershaw’s massive two part biography is still generally considered to be the definitive explanation of Hitler’s life and worldview.kershaw
  4. Christopher Browning, Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland.  Though 30 years old at this point, still a groundbreaking take on why people commit ‘evil’ acts.browning
  5. Gitta Sereny, Into That Darkness: An Examination of Conscience.  Sereny was a journalist who had the opportunity to interview Franz Stangl, the Commandant of Treblinka.  Her book investigating the man is fascinatingly horrible.sereny
  6. Wendy Lower, Hitler’s Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields. A recent book that sheds light on a topic ignored by many previous historians: Women’s role in genocide.lower
  7. Primo Levi, Survival at Auschwitz and The Drowned and the Saved.  An Italian Jew, Levi survived the war and produced some of the most important writings of the 20th century.the-complete-works-of-primo-levi-book-cover
  8. Viktor Klemperer, I Will Bear Witness, 2 Volumes.  Klemperer was a German Jew who chronicled life in Nazi Germany from the beginning of 1933 until the end of the war.  The amazing story of his survival will make you forget the 1000 pages.klemperer
  9. Art Spiegelman, The Complete Maus. I wrote a blog about this work a couple years ago. It is a graphic novel, and though that may seem like a strange genre for a Holocaust memoir, I believe it is required reading.maus
  10. Nikolaus Wachsmann, KL: A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps.  If you are looking to find out about the horror, structure and ubiquity of the Nazi camps, this is the new definitive text.images
  11. Deborah Lipstadt, The Eichmann Trial. Though Hannah Arendt’s classic Eichmann in Jerusalem is still important on a philosophical level, Lipstadt deals with the true history of the trial. She also illustrates a historically accepted truth that Arendt missed. Eichmann was not really banal, but he was evil.lipstadt
  12. Daniel Mendolsohn, The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million. Mendolsohn is a famous literary critic. In The Lost, he provides a touching, beautiful memoir of discovering his family’s Holocaust past.TheLost_4.30
  13. Rich Cohen, The Avengers: A Jewish War Story. The story of Jewish resistance to Nazi crimes is still one not often told.  Cohen’s narrative tells the story of his grandmother who fought alongside Abba Kovner, the most famous Jewish partisan during the war.cohen
  14. Claude Lanzmann, Shoah. Technically, this is not a book. But, it is a text. Shoah is Lanzmann’s 8 hour film masterpiece.  Filmed in the early 1980s, Lanzmann interviewed victims, perpetrators and collaborators.  Most of the interviews are emotionally wrenching. It may take you a couple days to get through.Editors-Pick-Shoah
  15. Thomas Kühne, Genocide and Belonging: Hitler’s Community, 1918-1945. This is the one specifically scholarly monograph I am adding to this list.  After reading and watching all of the above, tackle this one.kuhne

 

These books are accessible. They are readable. But they are not going to be ‘fun’. They can hit you in the gut, and leave you staggered.  That is what makes them all the more necessary.

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By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

Maybe I should have seen it coming. Every now and again I would have a student mention the Illuminati.  Once in awhile, a young man might argue that ‘9-11 was an inside job.’  Heck, one time a student even whispered to me in confidence that the Ebola virus was a creation of the American government.  When I asked that student what the purpose of such an invention would be, he told me very calmly that the government was trying to wipe out half of humanity.

How could I not scoff at such irrationality? Most people didn’t believe this stuff….right?  RIGHT? Such ideas would always be the territory of a small minority of Americans….right? RIGHT?

Well, maybe not.  Conspiracy theorists are boldly emerging out of their dark caverns. No longer found just on obscure chat-rooms, they now get the seat marked ‘expert’ on cable news’ shows. During the last decade or so, conspiracies have become disturbingly mainstream.

How did this happen?  Why did it happen now?  These are difficult questions to answer, and I will get to them eventually.  But first, I think some differences need to be identified. We need to categorize the types of theories sweeping our culture today.

Arguably, there are three main conspiracy theory categories.  Each share certain characteristics. None are to be encouraged, but only one has proven to be historically dangerous.  Unfortunately, the dangerous type has gained the most influence in recent years.  Here is a quick description, from most innocent, to most troubling:

  1. ‘Top Secrets’ Theories: These are the most commonly held conspiracy theories.  They center upon the notion that governments have secret, revolutionary information that they will not share with average citizens.  Of course, this is based upon a larger truth. ac992ee4bf0b19154f9c30554512c9adAll modern nation-states have ‘top secrets’ for acceptable eyes only. But, the ‘Top Secret’ conspiracy theorist takes this truth to unlikely, or fantastic proportions. Hence, to him/her, the US government is not just hiding a new military aircraft at the local Air Force base; they are also hiding alien life-forms and/or space ships!   Or, the government weather satellites don’t truly STUDY the weather; instead, the satellites CONTROL the weather! It’s is okay to laugh. The conspiracy theorist might laugh with you.
  2. ‘Secret Power’ Theories: These conspiracy theories are not as common, but they are gaining a larger and larger foothold amongst American citizens. These theories are usually based upon arcane notions of power and influence. Conspiracy theorists who hold these beliefs will argue that there is a secret group within a national eye_reasonably_small_400x400government (or multi-national organizations) that has undue, authoritarian power. This conspiracy may be connected to notions that there are world-wide government entities that control policy and have nefarious plans for either a utopian, or a dystopian future. The two most common groups associated with such conspiracy theories are the illuminati and/or freemasons. Both of these secret organizations have been connected to conspiracies for centuries.  For the conspiracy theorist, this historical tradition further proves the supposed conspiracy.  Though darker than the ‘Top Secret’ conspiracy, there is still a heavy element of absurdity in the ‘Secret Power’ conspiracy.  Beyonce, the CIA and the Pope inexplicably work together to rule the world. Hmmm.
  3. ‘Apocalyptic Power’ Theories: These are the most dangerous conspiracy theories.  The conspiracy theorists who hold these beliefs argue that a group of people, either large or small, is attempting to destroy the cultural, social and/or political world of the conspiracy theorist. The conspiracy theorist argues that he/she is not only ignorant of secrets, or out of the loop of secret power, he/she is actually a threatened victim of the conspirators. Usually, these conspiracies focus upon governments, but they also can tie into the ‘Secret Power’ conspiracies in the belief of a small cadre having control over levers of power. These conspiracies are the most dangerous because of their absolutist, zero-sum focus.  For the believers in these conspiracies, there is no middle ground. You either fight, or you die.  You gain your freedom, or become a slave. Every event that is read into the conspiracy is another sign of the endgame; the theorist’s world is believed to be crumbling down, and hence, it is only natural that violence may be necessary. Those who do not hold to these conspiracies then are more than ignorant sheep to be looked down upon. The person not accepting the conspiracy becomes part of the conspiracy.  This type of conspiracy theory promotes a Manichean notion of reality. The conspiracy theorist is not laughing. It is deadly serious to him/her.

In the next blog post, I will illustrate how some of these Apocalyptic conspiracies have caused historical tragedies, large and small. Then, I will investigate how and why these types of conspiracies are gaining such a foothold in our modern culture. To those who don’t believe, conspiracies can be funny, absurd or deluded. However, we should not underestimate the power of true believers.  History proves as much.

To be continued…..

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

The announcement first came in German, then English: Next stop Dachau.

It was a beautiful sunny day in September. It was unseasonably warm; 80 degrees or so.

I stepped off the train and looked for the bus to take me to the KZ Dachau. I was in a hurry. I had to catch a night train to Rome that evening, and I wanted to get back to Munich to ‘flaneur’ around.  Luckily, there was a bus waiting. It was slowly filling with tourists. I was one of them. We had come to see the first Nazi Concentration Camp.  I hopped on the bus, and sat down.  As the bus pulled out, I  was struck with a sense of discordance. Dachua is not just a camp. It is a surburban enclave. It is….quaint. It is beautiful.

My imagination had not prepared me for what lay outside the bus window. Here was a supermarket, there was a small restaurant. People were walking dogs, enjoying the sun on 14330127_10207732700498004_3000411190714615599_npatios and drinking coffee at the local Starbucks.  The sun and blue sky made the suburb feel alive.  The colorful houses and buildings of green, red, blue seemed incongruous with the black and white photos of the camp stuck indelibly in my mind from countless history books.

As the bus made turn after turn, I wondered how far outside this little German suburb filled with gemütlichkeit we would travel.  Surely, the camp must be far removed in distance from the pleasant scenes I just passed.  There must be woods to cross through; perhaps some empty fields?  But no.  Here a park, there an electronics’ store, and the next stop was the ‘KZ’ (Konzentrationslager).

14322704_10207732700778011_9022260041487163341_nI stepped off the bus, back into the sunny warmth.  There are tourists everywhere, slowly walking through a twisting wooded pass. Before entering there was a sign of notices=.  No dogs, no Neo-Nazi clothing….be serious. This is hallowed ground.  Respect the over 30,000 dead of Dachau. Remember that they faced murder, torture, malnutrition, illness.  Forget about all that world you passed through to get here.  Throw your Starbucks’ Pumpkin Spice Latte away.

The camp is large.  People walk around in a daze. Student groups mill around teachers.  Religious pilgrims go to Catholic, Protestant and Jewish memorial chapels. I really don’t 14344681_10207732703258073_5736731126016002469_nwant to take pictures, but I can’t not.  ‘Click’…the barbwire fence.  ‘Click’…. the crematorium.  Glance at the ovens. Walk inside the gas chamber. Don’t worry though, it was never used.  Look, over there!  ‘Click’….a meandering path into the shady woods. Escape 14332926_10207732704018092_5335833254930929323_nthe sun. But  there is no escape from this place. The woods hold a plaque informing the visitor that the dilapidated wall to the left was the pistol execution range. The human nightmare scars nature.  The remnants of a ‘blood-ditch’ used to easily clean up the aftermath of the executions makes that clear.  14292522_10207732704658108_8986492502300581023_n

Need to get out of these woods. Back into that sun.  It is beating down. The sky is perfect. I am sure a couple hundred yards away, some teenagers are sitting in that park enjoying the last chance for a summer tan.

As I walk out, I get a distasteful moment of shock.  A young woman wearing heels and sunglasses asks her father or older boyfriend to take a photo of her leaning against the front gate that says ‘Arbeit Macht Frei‘.  She poses.  It looks as though she is concerned about her best side. All I can do is raise an eyebrow. 14358707_10207732701458028_4311876331519568457_n

I walk back to the bus stop.  I need to get to Munich.  The bus is crowded for the ride back to the bahnhof.  I look out the window again, and life is going on as if all is normal.  I wonder how these people out for walks to enjoy the sun can live in a place like this?  How do you say you live in Dachau? ‘I grew up in Dachau’, ‘I go to school in Dachau’, ‘I work in Dachau’.  The identity of these people is connected to a name that means cruelty and death.  The KZ is central to their town.  When it was built in 1933 it was an economic opportunity.  Hundreds of jobs for the local populace; you need KZ guards after-all.  And who is going to feed all those prisoners and guards?  Bakeries, restaurants, markets saw the opportunity.

No longer do prisoners and guards need nourishment. Now it is I and my fellow tourists. Stop for a bite at a local cafe after seeing the barracks. Grab a coffee, and try to erase your memories.  If you need to, reserve a room at a local inn and find some local Bavarian fare.  A little beer never hurts.

The people of Dachau must just get acclimatized.  They are desensitized to the horror that is right next door. Or, maybe they just turn away and ignore it.  If the Nazi period taught us anything, it is that people are really good at doing that.

 

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

About a month ago, Salon.com ran a video/story that depicted today’s college students in a pretty negative light.  As explained in the short article beneath the video, a group of politically active students went around Texas Tech University asking their classmates simple questions about American history.  ‘Who won the Civil War’, ‘Who did downloadAmerica gain it’s independence from?’, ‘When did we gain our independence?’ and ‘Who is the Vice President of the US?’ were a couple of these softballs.  It wouldn’t be newsworthy if the students answered correctly, so you can guess how they responded. In the hyperbolic language of the Facebook scroll, Salon by-lined the video by warning it’s readers that it would be ‘the most terrifying thing you will see today’.

Now as a history teacher, I am appalled that any American over the age 12, much less college students, would not know these simple facts. But I try to keep an important point in mind: This video is edited to peddle the groups’ agenda.  As Stephen Colbert illustrated in his mocking of a similar series of videos done by Fox News, you really need to take these experiments with a grain of salt. People seem to love laughing at their fellow citizens’ ignorance, so, of course, you only see the most blatantly absurd respondents. But how many of the people asked these questions actually know the answers (what percentage is that?), and hence, don’t get on camera, compared to the ones who did not know the answers (the minority?).  We never will get the true numbers, and so we are left believing Americans are the most laughably ignorant of people.

And it is comedic. The students and Bill O’Reilly have political points to make, but as far as I know, Jay Leno’s ‘Tonight Show’ was the first to really practice these question/answer maxresdefaultsessions with unsuspecting strangers.  His cringe-worthy experiment of interviewing ignorant Americans has been taken up recently by Jimmy Kimmel’s late-night show. Interestingly though, the fact that these skits are so popular and funny illustrate an important paradox. The audience find humor in these videos because we understand how absurd it is to not know these facts; in other words, the majority of the audience know the right answer to these questions, and can laugh at those who do not. If the audience was similarly clueless as the interviewees, these videos wouldn’t be entertaining.

So, these videos are no big whoop, right?  Not so fast! As I ponder these interviews, I find something much more disturbing than the obliviousness of a couple poor rubes.  I ask myself: Why is it a sign of historical intelligence to simply restate facts? Why do millions of viewers believe knowing trivia makes you ‘smart’, or well-versed in history?  What is the end-game here?

These videos hint at a much more important issue; the ignorance of the interviewees are not nearly as troubling as the assumptions made by the questioners, and thus, their audience. Jimmy Kimmel and the sunglass-wearing college girl asking questions are only symptomatic of our education culture.  Their concern with rote memorization and trivial fact retention are central to our education system, where test results are all that matter.  These results have come at the expense of understanding larger processes. We ask, ‘what were your test scores’. We rarely ask, ‘do you actually understand the subject that you were tested upon?’

In the study of history, such quantification of ‘knowledge’ is inherently destructive. When history results are graphed by the number of facts you can remember, the meaning of the subject has lost MTE4MDAzNDEwNjEwMzI1MDA2it’s central importance. Think about it: If these kids knew who won the Civil War, would it be all that edifying in regards to their knowledge regarding the event?  If they could identify a picture of James Madison, would that tell us anything in regards to their ability to be good ‘citizens’?  This seems to be the notion behind such recorded questionnaires.  If you can recognize Madison, if you can say who won the Civil War, if you can identify what country America gained independence from, then you are one of the enlightened, and our education system is working. But, this is a ridiculous assumption.  Rote memorization or facial recognition does little to illustrate your understanding of a topic.

I have an anecdote I like to tell my students that illustrates my point.

I took American history in 11th grade.  My history teacher was fine. He was funny, and the-elusive-gettysbur-newh1jpg-bb1c896ba697396dlikable. But, his notions of what proved your knowledge of history was sometimes questionable. For instance, in his course, each student was required to memorize an important speech that shaped American History.  Like many others, I recited the Gettysburg Address.  One day, I sat at his desk and repeated verbatim the words of Lincoln’s revolutionary 2 minute masterpiece.  I did this with no hesitation, and knew every word, and hence, I received an A on the assignment.  Repetition was the only thing necessary for memorization. Memorization was the only thing necessary for an A.

Though I was able to repeat Lincoln’s political poetry back word for word, I actually gained no understanding as to why the words were so important!  My teacher never dealt with WHY Lincoln’s call for a ‘second birth of freedom’ was radical in comparison to the first ‘four score and seven years’ of the American Republic. For that A,  I recited each word robotically. I was asked to be an automaton, and automatons don’t make ‘good citizens’.  Not until college did I realize that history is not only about the who, what and when questions. The litany of facts mean little compared to understanding the larger concerns: HOW and WHY.  Like so many American school kids, I rarely got either.

This is why if I had a student who showed up on one of Jimmy Kimmel’s or Bill O’Reilly’s videos, I wouldn’t really care if they could not tell you when the Civil War ended. But, I would hope beyond hope that he would be able to explain to the interviewer why it was fought.  I am sure such critical explication wouldn’t make for the greatest news blurb for viewers to laughingly cringe at, but it would be much more telling of the interviewee’s knowledge.

 

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

It is difficult to decide what Star Wars’ fans like to do more: Watch Star Wars, or identify all the influences and cultural references within the Star Wars film universe? Countless books, articles and blog posts have attempted to decipher the shoulders that George Lucas stood upon in making his space opera. Most people by now have heard that Lucaskuro9 created a tale that fit Joseph Campbell’s meta-myth structure, or that he gave life to characters similar to those in the samurai films of Kurasawa, or that he sometimes blatantly copied old Flash Gordon television serials.

Star Wars’ fans devour this seemingly arcane information, and I am a Star Wars’ fan. As such, I have always been intrigued with the sometimes obvious, sometimes obscure cultural references contained within Lucas’ masterpiece. But, as a student, and now professor of European history, one reference/influence has always struck me above all others. George Lucas obviously created his evil Empire in the guise of the ‘fascist aesthetic’ most infamously formed by the German director Leni Riefenstahl, and her 1935 Nazi propaganda film ‘The Triumph of the Will.’
Leni Riefenstahl was a famous, talented, groundbreaking German filmmaker in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s. And like many of her German cohorts of the era, Riefenstahl became a follower of Adolf Hitler and his Nazi party. She used her immense talents for the party, directing a number of full length propaganda films. ‘The Triumph of the Will’ is her most influential and troubling work. ‘Triumph’ is a roughly two hour celebration of the 1934 Nazi party rally in the Medieval city of Nuremberg. 120 minutes of Nazis goose-stepping and cheering the ‘Führer’. If you have in your mind’s eye an image of fascist spectacle, it has probably been molded by Riefenstahl’s film.

Riefenstahl’s films were as artistically influential as they were politically abhorrent. Filmmakers could not ignore her innovative cinematography. Her techniques of wide Triumph-of-the-Will-2shots, crane shots and sweeping cameras were co-opted by many after her. When I first saw ‘Triumph’ as a sophomore in college, I realized Lucas was one such director. Riefenstahl made the 1934 Nazi rally look massively popular and powerful by setting a camera high above the whole parade grounds, recording thousands upon thousands of Nazi party members lined in rows. In such shots, the Nazi hordes are a man-made sea, being parted by the all- powerful leader, Adolf Hitler. In the same film, Riefenstahl records Hitler high above the masses, standing upon a giant concrete viewing station and watching stoically as his SA and SS march by on the parade ground. When viewing such scenes, it is impossible not to see Darth Vader 7dafa3515f1704408b38da906ceba044and the Emperor marching through masses of Imperial Stormtroopers. Lucas made such scenes even more powerful by using John Williams’ ‘Imperial March’. In this, he was no different than Riefenstahl, who used music in much the same way. Of course, the music she chose for her celebratory film made the Nazi Stormtroopers seem heroic, whereas Williams’ march makes Vader’s Stormtroopers dreadful. For Lucas, the Empire and its’ leaders become the personification of political evil by being the reincarnation of Riefenstahl’s Nazis. The empire is fascism revived.
With such thoughts in mind, I must say I was excited to see if J.J. Abrams would continue utilizing the ‘fascist aesthetic’ of Riefenstahl for ‘The Force Awakens’. I was not disappointed. With modern computer graphics, Abrams was able to do so even more effectively, and spectacularly than Lucas.


Abrams’ ‘First Order’ feels fascist. The military outfits, the giant image of the supreme STAR-WARS-THE-FORCE-AWAKENS-First-Order-Bilderleader and the symbology that surrounds the movement illustrates that Abrams continued the fascistic look of evil from Lucas’ galaxy. Like Lucas, Abrams used Riefenstahl as the ‘First Order’s’ reference point. Just look at the apocalyptic speech by General Hux, as he prepares his troops for the destruction of the Republic. Wearing military haute couture, Hux stands on a massive concrete platform with red ‘First Order’ banners hanging behind him. He speaks to thousands of ‘First Order’ troops lined in formation. When he is finished, the troops raise their left hands in salute. Hmm, that definitely looks familiar, doesn’t it?

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Riefenstahl and fascism are living on in this new Star Wars galaxy. Happily, Rey, Fin, Chewy, Leia and Luke will be fighting it in Episodes VIII and IX. We must do the same in our own galaxy.

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

The other day, I made a commitment. Since I will be teaching a Civil War history course in the Fall, I wanted to take a look at the over 4 hour, seriously mini-series-esqe 1939 Hollywood classic Gone With Wind. Yep. Scarlett O’Hara, Rhett Butler, gone_with_the_wind_smTara Plantation and all that jazz.  It may seem strange, but I had never seen the film.  Since Gone With Wind is probably the most famous, and most watched Civil War film ever made, I figured I better spend some time viewing it to see what all the fuss is about, and to see if the movie had any classroom usage.

I must admit, I came into this experience with some prejudices.  Though I had never seen it, I knew that Gone falls between the poles of beloved pop-culture icon, and disturbing Hollywood racism.  On the icon side, lines such as ‘Frankly My Dear, I don’t give a damn,’ and ‘As God as my witness, I’ll never go hungry again’ are part of movie lore.  However, you can only romanticize so much. Gone is now famous, or perhaps infamous is a better term, for it’s racism. Racial caricatures are central to the film.

I knew this going in. Coming out the other side, I was even more disturbed than I thought I might be.

First, I want to say that I am no movie critic.  However, I thought the film was really

pretty atrocious.  I have watched films from ‘Hollywood’s Golden Age’ and I would have to say Gone is not one that really holds up well to the modern viewer. I will be honest, I got through about 3 hours, and I had had enough.

But, perhaps the early turn off had to do with the level of offensiveness in the film? Even though I realized the film was racially insensitive, I had no idea just how obscene it really was.

Obscenity may seem like a strange word to use when talking about Gone. The word itself is usually still regarded as a descriptive term of sex or smut, and Gone is lacking in those regards. However, as French historian Joan DeJean pointed out in 2002, the word ‘obscene’ has begun to take on a different connotation in our society.

Of late, obscene seems to be moving beyond the meaning it slowly acquired in early modern French — ‘immodest’, ‘indecent’ — and to be taking on two new meanings: first, any subject that we find hard to look at and therefore do not want to see represented….; second, as a semantic catchall for actions we consider morally indecent.’

And, just like all words, ‘swear words’ change over time.  As Melissa Mohr illustrated in her extremely interesting book, Holygone-with-the-wind-shouldnt-be-romanticized Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing, the most taboo words in our society are no longer words to describe sexual acts, or bodily functions. Instead, over the last twenty years, racial epitaphs have become the unholy of unholies. Racialized attack language has the power to disgust, anger and enrage. It has the ability to destroy friendships, get people fired, or ruin political careers. The obscene of today is open outspoken racism.

By this definition, Gone With the Wind is incredibly obscene.  As mentioned, caricatures of African-Americans abound in the film. Black men and women are depicted as fools, cowards and buffoons. Related, and just as disturbing is the historical mythology the film furthers using such stereotypes. The bold-faced lie that African-Americans were happy-go-lucky simpletons who stayed with their masters gladly after emancipation, or gullible tools of aggressive white northerners has a long sordid history. Gone reinforced these harmful, hateful myths for American film goers in the 1930’s. Even more disturbingly, many historically illiterate Americans still undoubtedly accept the film’s depictions of race-relations as truth. With this in mind, you can understand why Chuck D would sing ‘Burn, Hollywood, Burn’.

And, if it’s obscene racism is not enough, the outright sexism in the film is nearly as disturbing.  The women in Gone are depicted as foolish children who need to be told what to do. They sit at home waiting for their men to come home from war, twiddling their thumbs and crying into their pillows. Once their men return, all life has meaning again. Of course, if they get too uppity, such as Scarlett, they need to be knocked down. Rhett will take care of that.

As I watched this horror-show, all I could think was, ‘my goodness, I don’t want to let my girls see this.’  My daughters are 8 and 6 respectively, and this is the type of obscenity I want them to avoid until they are older.  But, oh, the irony!  Gone With The Wind is a ‘classic’. It’s not late night TV for mature audiences only.  Heck, I am sure a great deal of Americans would think the film wholesome.

But, it is not. Not at all. It is marked with an obscenity that I don’t want my children to see.

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.