Retelling the Holocaust: Time and the Comic Strip Form in “Maus” by Art Spiegelman

Retelling the Holocaust: Time and the Comic Strip Form in “Maus” by Art Spiegelman

Maus is a graphic novel by Art Spiegelman, serialized from 1980 to 1991 and divided into “My Father Bleeds History” and “And Here My Troubles Began”. As the subtitle indicates, the book is “A Survivor’s Tale”, telling the story of Spiegelman’s father as a Polish Jew and Holocaust survivor.

Maus is a memoir, the chronicle of a family, a piece of art where writing and visual techniques are deployed to raise awareness, condemn, explain, keep the memory alive. With Maus, Spiegelman debunks the myth that the Holocaust outfaces the artistic imagination and shows us how storytelling and visual arts can teach us remembrance and give us a unique historical perspective.

The medium

Spiegelman addresses the problem around the representation of the Holocaust by choosing to adopt the comic strip form, which turns out to be a key element through which he manages to successfully blend words and pictures, past and present, history and remembrance. More specifically, he decides on a frame tale made up of black-and-white panels, purposely using a rather simple style that clashes against the complexity of its content and the delicate issues it faces.

The choice of the medium is relevant as Nazism itself had its own aesthetic stance: art was the expression of totalitarianism, the rationale behind it, and the medium through which to celebrate perfection in form - a perfection which was embodied by the purity of bloodlines. In order to spread the idea that Jewish people were an inferior race, the Nazis hung posters in the streets that showed the Jews as rats and mice.

As an epilogue to chapter one, Spiegelman includes a quote from Adolf Hitler: “The Jews are undoubtedly a race/ but they are not human” (Spiegelman, 10). And so the author purposely introduces animals, the ‘not human’ to tell the story: Jews are not portrayed as people, but as mice, vermin that must be destroyed for perfection to flourish, for nobler races to prevail. He also portrays the Nazis as cats, the Poles as pigs and the Americans as dogs.

(Spiegelman, 56)

As this picture shows, the Holocaust survivor Vladek, turned into a mouse, says: “I’m not going to die, and I won’t die here! I want to be treated like a human being” (Spiegelman, 56). The character of Vladimir is drawn as an animal to give specific form to stereotypes and yet affirms its humanity and demands to be treated ‘like a human being’.

Telling a story “the way it really happened”

At the very end of chapter one, there is one specific passage that functions as some sort of premise and that makes the reader reflect on the relationship between past and current history, between memories and storytelling:

“I don’t want you should write this in your book.”
“What? Why not?”
“It has nothing to do with Hitler, with the Holocaust!”
“But Pop – it’s great material. It makes everything more real – more human.”
“I want to tell your story, the way it really happened.”
“But this isn’t so proper, so respectful.”
...I can tell you other stories, but such private things, I don’t want you should mention.”

(Spiegelman, 25)


Despite his father’s requests, Spiegelman does not just tell his father’s experience in the concentration camp. The comic also portrays him and his father making conversations, describing what they were doing and talking about. These in-between moments occur frequently: by interrupting the telling of Vladimir’s story, they remind the reader of the temporal distance between the moment of the characters’ conversation and the time his father is talking about. By doing so, they also bring the reader back to his own present, reminding him/her of the temporal distance between the time when the graphic novel was written and the historical moment it is set in.

The Holocaust happened far away in time and no one can tell ‘what really happened’, but it is nonetheless our duty as human beings to remember and to make sure generations bear the memory of it. Spiegelman does not ignore the fact that these historical events happened a long time ago - instead, he sheds light on the fact that memory is not something stable, but rather subject to change: how people remember things might differ from time to time, and so might those feelings, emotions, perceptions attached to it. Including details about his father’s pre-war life, deciding to retell ‘such private things’ is vital to remind the reader of Vladimir’s unique point of view. In this sense, the story’s purpose aligns with its subtitle: Maus can only be the story of a survivor, and it does not even attempt to describe the complete history of the Holocaust, which would necessarily be an unattainable goal.

Spiegelman knows he might fail in the act of retelling the story of his father: he can reach neither an authentic drawing - hence the animals, inhabiting the space of fiction - nor an authentic version of the story, as he did not experience the Holocaust himself. His work cannot do justice to ‘what really happened’. The novel promotes the idea of a “fictional truth”: the survivor’s tale is the truth of him having experienced the Holocaust, but storytelling lies in the realm of fiction. The act of remembering is an ongoing process that constantly pushes the remembering further and further away from the remembered. The comic strip form and the images are the key elements to portray and convey the interruption of time and memory. 

Here are a few examples of how the comic form, drawings and photographs are used in the novel.

The interruption of temporality

(Spiegelman, 47)

In this picture, Artie is lying on the floor, writing in his notebook while talking with his father: at first glance, it seems to be an image of the present within the story. On closer inspection, Artie’s legs are not in the living room but spread into the image of Vladek in the past, in 1939. Artie’s body becomes the connection between past and present, fused as one.

(Spiegelman, 102)

Another fusion between past and present comes in the form of a comic within the comic, the autobiographical “Prisoner on the Hell Planet: A Case History”. It is a comic book drawn by Artie to process the painful loss of his mother, who committed suicide. The comic book has a style of its own: the characters are not drawn as mice but are kept as humans. Spiegelman inserts an old photograph of himself and his mother, but in this case, the drawings seem more realistic. Artie and Vladek look like skeletons: they have dark faces and look extremely thin to highlight the tragic impact that the event had on their life.

The comic strip form allows the author to visually represent multiple temporalities: there is a thumb holding the photograph in the top left corner, but also a thumb holding the comic in the bottom left-hand corner. This is another distancing strategy used by the author: the reader is simultaneously viewing someone else reading the book, and at the same time made aware that he/she is viewing himself/herself. The temporality of the text is visually amplified.

Making a timeline: processing memories

(Spiegelman, 228)

Spiegelman seems to attribute a therapeutic power to comics and storytelling, and to all the arts in general. In the book, Artie drew a comic to deal with the trauma of the loss of his mother, and he is currently drawing another comic to do justice to his father’s experience. Not only can art help to process memories but also overcome those traumatic ones.

In the example above, Artie is trying to make sense of Vladek’s story by making a timeline, determined to make order between events. This idea of making sense is a feeling that comes across quite strongly, and it is the cause of great frustration because reconstructing an exact timeline is not possible. Vladek seems quite pissed at his son, and he remarks: “In Auschwitz we didn’t wear watches”, hinting at the fact that time was somehow suspended in the concentration camps and the only time people could know of was the present, perhaps implying their lack of hope towards a different future.

As a storyteller, Artie is obsessed with giving a logical frame to those events. However, Spiegelman reminds the reader that our memory is fallible and that it is precisely that inexactness that makes storytelling similar to the workings of our memory.

(Spiegelman, 201)

In this case, Spiegelman is interrupting the temporality of the text by picturing a plausible future: he is imagining his book has become a commercial success that has commodified his father’s story. Instead of being drawn as a simple mouse, he is wearing a mouse mask and, talking from the top of a mountain of Jewish dead bodies, he admits he is feeling rather depressed. 

Photographs: documenting history, representing post-memory

(Spiegelman, 165, 294)

In total, the viewer is faced with three photographs. The first photograph is the one of Art and his mother, the second one portrays his brother Richieu, and the third one is of Vladek, inserted only at the very end of the novel. The photographs are used to represent the historical truth, the proof of Vladek’s tale. Maus is a work of fiction, but one of historical fiction, where the drawings and more broadly the comic strip form purposely connect the past to the present. The photographs work towards a glimpse of the history that took place. They represent both historical documents insofar as in them lies the proof of this family’s existence, but they also represent post-memory as Spiegelman has inherited memories that have had a great impact on his life.

Why should it be included in history education?

This graphic novel can be used in the classroom to teach about the Holocaust, remembrance and the concept of post-memory, as it tells a true story and it shows the interconnectedness between past and present.

In need of more inspiration and tips for how to include Maus in your teaching? Have a look at the many existing resources such as the Teacher’s Guide produced by the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre, the accompanying teacher’s guide by Penguin Random House, and the Museum of Jewish Heritage Curriculum Guide.

Written by Giulia Verdini

Related articles

For history educators who are interested in incorporating novels into their teaching...

-Find out how comics can be used in the classroom.

-Learn how literature and reading practices can turn your students into historical actors.

-Decolonise your teaching practices and foster multiperspectivity with Nella Larsen’s ‘Passing’.

Bibliography and Suggested Readings

Costello, A. Lisa. “History and Memory in a Dialogic of "Performative Memorialization" in Art Spiegelman's "Maus: A Survivor's Tale"”. The Journal of the Midwest Modern Language Association. Vol. 39, No. 2. Midwest Modern Language Association. 2006. pp. 22-42.

Ewert, Jeanne C. “Reading Visual Narrative: Art Spiegelman's "Maus". Narrative. Vol. 8, No. 1. Ohio State University Press. 2000. pp. 87-103.

Doherty, Thomas. “Art Spiegelman’s Maus: Graphic Art and the Holocaust”. American    Literature. Duke University Press. 1996. pp. 69-84.

Hirsch, Marianne. “Family Pictures: Maus, Mourning, and Post-Memory”. Discourse. Vol.15   No.2. Wayne State University Press. 1992-93. pp. 3-29.

Spiegelman, Art. Maus. London: Penguin Books. 2003.

“AfL: A secondary school perspective with Nicky Hagendyk (EAS) & Gwen Steel” – Podcast Review

Rebecca Jackson Reviews , ,

We are kicking off the new thematic month at EuroClio in tandem with our upcoming webinar series Pass or Fail? Assessing Assessment. We recommend this short podcast episode from the South East Wales Education Achievement Service (EAS) as a primer to some of the questions EuroClio will be asking and trying to answer throughout the month.

The topic of assessment in education comes with many different practices, methodologies, and terminologies. This particular podcast focuses on “Assessment for Learning” (AFL), an approach to teaching and learning that creates feedback which is then used to improve students’ performance. This practice is normally associated with “formative assessment” which includes questioning and providing feedback to students to help shape their learning journey. This is opposed to summative assessment, which typically focuses on measuring student attainment at the end of a period of learning.

In this ten minute conversation, Nicky Hagendyk from EAS discusses feedback in Assessment for Learning with Gwen Steel, Deputy Headteacher at Cwmbran High School. Steel has a background as a history and humanities teacher, but also many years of experience as a headteacher and therefore has a wider view of assessment in secondary schools across disciplines. 

Steel remarks that especially at the secondary school level, there can be too much focus on summative assessment. AFL, she finds, is crucial to a successful student learning journey, assessing not just the knowledge from class but also how students apply that knowledge and skills in different contexts. The method should be applied by teachers carefully and thoughtfully, for example planning the questions they will ask throughout the lesson in advance, instead of asking spontaneously. 

Hagendyk questions how best to implement such assessment practices across a school, when each subject has its own unique curriculum, methodologies and practices, and teachers are already very short on time to be trying out new strategies. In Steel’s experience, good guidance and clear communication for teachers was a key to success, for example thoughtful and non-judgemental feedback after a classroom observation from a colleague. Time was also needed for everything to settle in and to ensure teachers were not immediately overburdened. This allowed the AFL model to be applied thoughtfully and with purpose in the school, instead of just one or two strategies adapted ad hoc and ineffectively. 

Steel also gives some reading and author recommendations: Dylan William, a key figure in the field of formative assessment; John Hattie’s book Visible Learning; Daisy Christodoulou’s Making Good Progress?: The future of Assessment for Learning; and Doug Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion.We recommend giving this podcast a quick listen. For those interested to learn more, EAS currently has seven other podcast episodes about AFL, which are collected into a series on their Soundcloud page. These episodes are also relatively short in length, about ten to fifteen minutes per episode.

Review: UnTextbooked, a student-led podcast

Rebecca Jackson Reviews , ,

UnTextbooked is a student-produced podcast which released its first episode in October 2020. On their website, UnTextbooked describes themselves as “A history podcast for the future. Brought to you by teen changemakers who are looking for answers to big questions. We interview famous historians who have some of the answers.”

UnTextbooked is an initiative of got history?, a US-based organisation that seeks to “foster inspired civic engagement and develop the skills and mindsets we need to tackle the challenges of today”. got history? is a partner organisation of EuroClio - and since 2021 an associated member.

Season one of this podcast contains fifteen episodes. Each episode features a different “producer” who interviews a guest historian. The interviews are mainly centred on a particular book of the guest, though as the episode continues the discussion naturally extends beyond just the book. Each episode lasts between fifteen to thirty-five minutes. 

The producers who lead the interviews are all high school or first year university students, and most have a personal connection or identity tied to their podcast’s topic. For example, in the episode “Why do we forget the cruelty of the British Empire?”, Hassan Javan, whose grandparents grew up under British imperial rule in modern-day Pakistan, interviews historian John Newsinger about his book The Blood Never Dried: A People’s History of the British Empire.

UnTextbooked is not a simple student project but a professional production, with clean editing, mixing, and appropriately cool and modern sounding theme music. It was named a top pick by the Spotify Next Wave awards, and one of the podcast founders received the prize of “Global Teen Leader” for their initiative.

This podcast is a recommended listen for history educators and their students. It offers a fresh take on well-worn history narratives, and can also offer inspiration to reexamine histories local to them. 

While UnTextbooked’s topics start with a historical focus, each episode aims to take the discussion into the present day. Many episodes reveal ‘forgotten history’, such as the case of Claudette Colvin who refused to give up her bus seat in the segregated American South, months before the famous case of Rosa Parks. Colvin, an unmarried and pregnant teenager, was seen to lack the personal credibility for an effective civil rights campaign. This sparks discussion as to why the case of Colvin remains largely unknown, and about attitudes towards “respectability” in civil rights protests in the US today.

The topics explored in season are mainly centred on the history of the United States. Episodes recommended for their more global focus are those on the Golden Age of Piracy, the coup of Augusto Pinochet in Chile, how the British Empire is remembered, and Western attitudes towards the veil in Islam.

History teachers may want to use UnTextbooked’s example to inspire their own students to reach out to other historians and authors, and ask their own questions. In the conditions of the global pandemic, many historians are becoming even more active online and participating in online interviews and panel discussions. As UnTextbooked shows, renowned authors were glad to have an interview from a young reader, and appreciated their enthusiasm and thoughtful questions.

Students could, like UnTextbooked, find a book that speaks to them and then reach out to the author to ask for an interview. This interview would not necessarily need to be recorded and edited into a podcast format. From the process of the interview alone, students could benefit from interrogating their chosen book and topic closely, and share their experiences with colleagues. However if making a podcast is the goal, many free tools exist for audio editing, such as Audacity.

You can listen to UnTextbooked on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, and other podcast players. UnTextbooked is making plans already for season two, and has an active fundraiser to support the show. 

Exhibition Review: “Nazipropaganda voor de jeugd, 1933-1945” – Nationaal Onderwijsmuseum

The Nationaal Onderwijsmuseum (Dutch National Education Museum), located in Dordrecht, organized a compelling exhibition on Nazi propaganda targeted to the youth, set to last until the 31st of October 2021. The “Nazipropaganda voor de jeugd, 1933-1945” exhibition gives an insight into the daily lives of children in Nazi Germany, warning the visitors of the dangers of subtle propaganda. For pupils and history educators alike, it offers multiple points of reflection during and beyond the exhibition. The visitor is confronted with visually appealing historical pieces of propaganda that nevertheless evoke a sense of discomfort. 


The context of the exhibition

In 2012, the Dutch journalist and professor Gerard Groeneveld (b. 1956) suggested that the Onderwijsmuseum should organize an exhibition featuring his extensive collection of Nazi propaganda material. In 2020, the Netherlands celebrated its 75th year of freedom, and the idea for such an exhibition resurfaced. Groeneveld’s latest book, Hitler’s Youngest Hope, Nazi propaganda for the Youth (Vantilt, 2019), forms the basis of the exhibition.

The curators managed to select varied historical materials from different collections, which are best suited to illustrate the exhibition's topic. As a history teacher, you might want to challenge your students by asking them to select the best collection for a historical exposition. Check out this Historiana e-Learning activity for inspiration.


A world of propaganda

The indoctrination of German society during the Nazi regime was a multi-level phenomenon that included censorship, propaganda, fear, the promise of a better future and one-dimensional education. It was vital to win the hearts and minds of children who were bombarded by messages of propaganda from a young age. 

The visitor immediately notices how colourful and visually appealing some of the displayed items are. However, it is clear that the underlying theme of the displayed items, all targeted at children, is warfare. The aesthetic aspect of the propaganda material is not accidental, as Nazi authorities were aware of the importance of the visual impact, with the aim to seduce children through subtle propaganda. For a history teacher and his classroom, it could be interesting to visit the exhibition and learn about the mechanisms exploited by the Nazi regime to indoctrinate German children. To which extent are they different in today’s context and can similar tactics be seen in contemporary regimes? 

The exhibition is organized around three thematic areas: the house, the street and the classroom. If you would like to learn more about this subject,  the unit Silencing Citizens through Censorship, on Historiana, could provide you with historical context to the theme of censorship and propaganda in totalitarian regimes.


At home

As soon as National Socialism came to power in 1933, the propaganda machine started to work, and the Nazification of Germany began. By December 1933, German families were hanging Christmas balls decorated with swastikas on their Christmas trees, and the children received their first Nazi board games, such as the Wehr-Schach (defence chess, featuring symbols of the armed forces, developed later on in 1938). 

The objects on display communicate a sense of control of the domestic space, invaded by comic books filled with soldiers and war scenes. Nothing was left to chance: even seemingly innocent images of children playing depicted symbols of the regime. On display, there are also several original items from the military equipment of the Nazi youth organizations, such as daggers and medals. 

Another interesting object on display is the collection can for the so-called Winterhilfe, or Winter Aid. Children were encouraged to collect money, and in exchange, donors would receive propaganda memorabilia, such as books about Hitler and Heroes of the Wehrmacht. 


 In the streets 

As part of the public sphere, the street proliferated with messages of propaganda. The subtle messages of propaganda learned from games and books at home were perpetuated and reinforced everywhere on the streets. 

In the exhibition, visitors can see several photographs, including one depicting soldiers and children marching together. The picture may appear spontaneous, but soldiers were encouraged to pose with children. Once again, it is striking how German children were exposed to military life from a young age. 

Swastikas could be found everywhere, on flags, billboards, along with propaganda  posters. In one of the original pictures on display at the Onderwijsmuseum, a young woman is shown posing next to an Anti-Semitic poster. 


In the classroom

One-dimensional education was a key component of the indoctrination, and the exhibition presents the classroom archetype of the regime. This section is particularly rich in historical material.

The items displayed include school books on German war heroes, such as Manfred von Richthofen, posters depicting a Nazified version of the Sleeping Beauty, antisemitic material, and falsified historical sources. This vast array of educational material could foster a conversation in the classroom around the importance of reliable sources in education. 

In youth propaganda, Hitler was presented as a friendly father figure. This image, however, was eventually shattered by reality. The last part of the exhibition is devoted to the regime’s aftermath. It was a rude awakening for the nation, as people became aware and were confronted with the horrors hidden behind the Nazi propaganda. Emblematic is the famous photograph of  Hans-Georg Henke, a child soldier, caught in tears and shock in April 1945 by an American war photographer in Huttenberg-Rechtenbach, a village north of Frankfurt am Main.

If you are interested in learning more about the representation of Hitler in propaganda and visual culture, check out this source collection on the Historiana website.


Beyond the exhibition: Beeld en Boodschap

The exhibition continues beyond the Nationaal Onderwijsmuseum, as it is designed to have a larger impact on students through the educational programme Beeld en Boodschap (Image and Message). The workshops are targeted to students in primary education ( primair onderwijs), secondary education (het voortgezet onderwijs) and secondary and higher professional education ( middelbaar en hoger beroepsonderwijs). The workshops are meant to educate students on media literacy and citizenship, with the aid of historical sources of Nazi propaganda. 

From a young age, children are exposed to all kinds of imagery. However, they are not often trained to question the (explicit and implicit) meaning and reliability of visual material. The Beeld en Boodschap workshop provides students with the ability to read images critically, for example by distinguishing advertisement from propaganda. The goal is to demonstrate how seemingly innocuous images can hide a propaganda message. 

From a history educator’s perspective, the workshop is particularly valuable. Students are learning about one of the most significant events in modern history and are learning how to read visual sources. The workshop promotes historical skills, such as critical thinking and source analyses. 

When learning about the totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century, propaganda is one of the main points of discussion. However, students do not often learn about propaganda targeted to the youth, as it is a subject usually absent from the history textbooks. The “Nazipropaganda voor de jeugd, 1933-1945” exhibition could offer history teachers a chance to start a conversation about this topic. 

The exhibition is informative, captivating and it presents an insightful overview of an overlooked aspect of Nazism.  Students will feel fascinated by the objects on display, their history, and their meaning. What kind of propaganda messages can they spot in the children's comic books? What is the overall feeling conveyed by the exhibition? What are the differences and similarities between the textbooks from the Third Reich and their modern counterparts? Many questions may arise upon a visit to the “Nazipropaganda voor de jeugd, 1933-1945” exhibition and all of them are worth answering in the history classroom.  

Upon visiting the “Nazipropaganda voor de jeugd, 1933-1945,” you might want to explore further the theme of propaganda with your students. On Historiana, you will find a variety of original quality content focussing on this topic, including learning activities such as How does propaganda work? and Everyday inclusion and exclusion in Nazi society.



Main image - STUDIO&lotte “Nazi propaganda voor de Jeugd 1933-1945” (2021). Photograph by Studio Indruk. 

“Wehr Schach” from Schulmuseum Collection , Bremen.  Photograph by Jozef Rutte - Wehrschach was a military board game, based on the rules of chess. The German army introduced this board game in 1938. The underlying aim of Wehrschach was to develop tactical and strategic insight in boys. 

“Soldiers marching with children” from the Gerard Groeneveld Collection- Soldiers became part of daily street life after 1933. Whenever a military exercise took place on the outskirts of the town or village, German boys would stand on the sideline watching curiously. The soldiers were ordered by higher military authorities to involve them in the exercises, rather than send them away. 

“Sleeping beauty tale” from Forschungsstelle Historische Bildmedien Collection, Universität Würzburg - This wall chart from 1936 depicts a Nazified version of the well-known fairy tale of Sleeping Beauty. At first sight, it seems as if the classic story is being told. The prince, however, does not kiss Sleeping Beauty awake, but wakes her up with the Hitler salute: "Sieg Heil!" The manual for this wall chart states that this fairy tale represents the "national powerlessness and national awakening" of the German people. 

“School book propaganda” Das Jahr voller Freude (1934) from the Gerard Groeneveld Collection – Textbook for primary reading education.  In this image Hitler is depicted as a smiling children's friend.


Written by Giulia Boschini, project management trainee at EuroClio from April 2021. She assists with the development of Historiana, and she is also involved in Europeana’s related projects. 


Another Family’s Starting Over: The Resourceful Glass Family of Paris and New York

James Diskant Reviews ,

Too often history classes only focus on the horrors of the Holocaust and of Nazi rule; there is, however, an increasingly growing iterature that details the ways in which people resisted, helped one another,  and successfully managed to survive.

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This book by Freeman is one example that will help educators rethink the ways that they teach this period or supplement what they already do and know. Freeman’s book not only details her family’s history to show how some of her relatives coped with life in France in the 1930s and 1940s, but also to allow students to grapple with the difficult questions about survival in this period when the odds were against Jewish survival. By looking at one family, one can unravel the advantages, limits, and/or shortcomings of different approaches. The book can be superb background for educators, as well as the basis for an interesting Socratic Seminar about the concepts — assimilation, passivity, defiance, and emigration — that she discusses and for students to probe into each of them in detail.  After all it would be great if one could learn from the past, wouldn’t it? 

When I was perusing a bookshelf about World War II in a bookstore a few weeks ago, I came across a fascinating book: Hadley Freeman, House of Glass: The Story and Secrets of a Twentieth-Century Jewish Family (London: Fourth Estate, 2020). Since this family has some parallels to my own in terms of an emigration pattern (see Post #1: Planned Escape(s)), I thought that I would share my impressions of it, along with my recommendation of it, here. Freeman, through the use of family memoirs, artifacts, and pictures, interviews with family members, and official documents, was able to put together a riveting account of how her Jewish relatives, that is her grandmother and two of her three grand uncles, managed to survive the horrors of World War II in the United States and in France respectively. It is remarkable how well she is able to document these personal histories and to situate them in time and in historical interpretation. The book – which is part memoir, part history, part commentary, and part family discovery –is a gripping, empathetic account of not only these three people, but also of others who were essential parts of their stories.

Typically, I first read any opening quotation (if there is one), the introduction, and the acknowledgments. And in this case after reading the opening quotation from Arthur Miller (excerpted from Broken Glass, 1994), I was hooked:

‘Getting this hysterical about [anti-Semitism] on the

other side of the world is sane?’

When she talks about it, it’s not on the other side

Of the world, it’s on the next block.’

‘An that’s sane?

‘I don’t know what it is! I just get the feeling some-

times that she KNOWS something, something that

… It’s like she’s connected to some … some wire

that goes half around the world, some truth that other

people are blind to.’

While I have not seen or read this Miller play – which takes place in 1938 – when a Jewish couple in New York reacts to the horrors of the Night of the Broken Glass in Germany, the quotation pulled me into this family story. Of course, given her family’s last name of Glass, Freeman’s use of the quotation intrigued me. Afterwards I skimmed the introduction, and acknowledgements, and I was curious to learn about the Glass family.

Wow, I was not disappointed; I read the book originally in two sittings and just re-read it!! Freeman was able not only to find fascinating details about her grandmother and her great uncles, but also wrote a touching memoir about surviving, coping, and changing. In so doing she argues that these people may represent ” prototypes”, that is different ways of coping and coming to terms with their past. The book is an inspiring journey into uncovering family secrets, unraveling different ways of moving forward (or not, I suppose), and the horrors of experiencing antisemitism in Poland and in France, and yet the importance of staying true to one’s values and beliefs.

In the book – which had originally started as a memoir of Freeman’s grandmother – one’s learns much more – about Sara (aka Sala) who was able (almost reluctantly) to escape France during the war by moving to the United States and by marrying an American. In June 1937 she started over in New York with a man whom she barely knew; it was apparently her key to survival and yet she returned to France multiple times in the 1930s and ultimately found her niche as wife and mother in New York without losing the French identity that has been so important to her. We also learn about her brother Henri (aka Jehuda) who assimilated well into Parisian culture and along with his wife Sonia, were part of the Resistance, about Alex (aka Sander), who not excelled well into that same culture and also was part of the Resistance, and about Jacques (aka Jakob), who sadly did not survive and was murdered in Auschwitz.

The story begins with Freeman sharing the contents of a shoebox of her grandmother’s memorabilia, which included papers and photos, some of which were indeed puzzling. Together they encouraged Freeman to research and to write about her family. Then with her great uncle’s Alex’s memoir, family letters, official documents and statistics, she was able to write a thought-provoking account of how in the 1920s the Glasses were transformed from the Glahses from Chrzanow, a Polish village, part of the then Austro-Hungarian Empire, as well as their lives beyond this initial emigration. In some ways she writes a typical story of immigration and how some members of the family found this to be easier than others and yet her careful prose shows the complexities that were involved in these decisions and changes.

Her careful use of these various sources gives life to these both “ordinary and extraordinary” people. One may argue with her “one word” characterizations of individuals as “passive” for her grand uncle Jacques, “defiant” for her grand uncle Alex, “assimilated” for her grand uncle Henri, and “emigrant” for her grandmother. Still they mirror sociological descriptions of different ways in which people respond to crises and relate to an extensive literature of migration stories. There may be truth to these characterizations, which helps us understand how people are influenced by their personal assumptions and niches. Not only does Freeman write about how these three siblings survived the war, but she is also able to share their intertwining stories in the years after the war – from the “ordinary and the “extraordinary” as puts it … Henri and Sara in the first category and Alex in the second – and in so doing share fascinating insights into gender, migration, and much more. These three siblings are able to continue their lives – family, children, work, travel – and in Freeman’s account we learn how these stories are connected to one another.

In different ways the three survivors assimilated into their respective culture(s) and societies; they managed to live normal lives as best as they could, which suggest that there may be lessons for the present and future from the way in which people respond to the past. Starting over is not uncomplicated – as I know from my own family history and my life – and yet Freeman shows with detail and empathy how her grandmother and her grand uncles managed to do so. She provides a nuanced and empathetic portrayal of how they all managed to survive. The book raises essential questions for all of us to ponder about the complexities relating to assimilation, starting over, Jewish identities, gender roles, unjust governments, and assumptions during a challenging period of history — the world of World War II and its aftermath in the United States and in France. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in these questions.


Written by James Diskant

This book review was originally published on James Diskant's blog: "Chronicles from Berlin: Anecdotes About Starting Over, Coming Out, and History Teaching", where, among other things, Dr. James Diskant also provides reflections on lessons from many years as an educator in history education.

Book review: White Privilege: The myth of a post-racial society

Alicia Rijlaarsdam Reviews , ,

‘If we believe that education is a right and not a privilege then every individual, regardless of their race, gender or socio-economic background, has a right to a quality education’

White Privilege: the myth of a post-racial society explores how race operates as a form of disadvantage in modern-day society. Kalwant Bhopal argues that individuals from Black and minority ethnic backgrounds, by virtue of their racial identity, are positioned as outsiders in a society that values whiteness and ‘white privilege’. Neo-liberal policymaking in its attempt to be inclusive, has portrayed an image of a post-racial society. However, in reality the vast inequalities between white and black and minority communities continue to exist. Bhopal argues that policy making has worsened inequalities which result from processes of racism, exclusion and marginalisation rather than addressed them.

How does whiteness manifest itself in the classroom? How are black and minority ethnic groups disadvantaged in their schooling experience? Are there ways to move forward and if so, what can educators do?  

White privilege and intersectionality

‘Whiteness and white privilege dominate all aspects of society and suggest that those from non-white backgrounds, because of their identity, are positioned as inferior to whites in a society in which white identities predominate’.

Bhopal argues that the identity of whiteness is the first determinant of how groups are positioned, followed by other markers such as class, gender, religion, age and sexuality, among others. In the US, the historical dimensions and understanding of whiteness stem from the history of slavery and the dominant construction of whiteness as the norm. This has resulted in the manifestation of positioning the black identity as inferior and the white as superior. In the UK, understandings of whiteness stem from processes of structural racism working to disadvantage blacks and advantage whites. 

To examine the hierarchical structure of whiteness, Bhopal demonstrates how despite having white ethnicity, Gypsies and Travellers continue to be victims of discrimination because of their outsider status.  She argues that the social stigma attached to belonging to this group is due in part to an ‘unacceptable’ shade of whiteness leading to their needs rarely being addressed or recognised. 

Class and gender also play a key role in the positioning of black and minority ethnic men and women and stereotypes operate to marginalise minority ethnic groups. Within higher education this is illustrated as universities ‘play the diversity card’, while  in practice changing little as white privilege continues to dominate.

Whiteness in education

‘Education is a space in which the norms of whiteness are reinforced and reproduced’ 

Drawing on case studies and interviews, Bhopal argues that the school's space is used to maintain and privilege whiteness while asserting dominance over black and minority ethnic groups. Whiteness works to perpetuate and reinforce white racial superiority. When discussing the failures of the education system to meet the needs of black and minority ethnic students it is often replaced by a rhetoric that blames the ‘other’. Bhopal argues that there is a great deal of evidence to suggest that white teachers are not fully equipped to understand the experiences of black and minority ethnic students in the classroom. Many teachers from white backgrounds fail to recognise their own whiteness and their own privilege and how this affects their teaching in the classroom. 

In higher education the number of students from ethnic minorities have steadily increased in the last decade. However, inequalities in higher education continue to persist. Universities are key spaces in which whiteness and white identities predominate. Not just in the representation of white groups occupying decision making senior roles, also evidenced in the curriculum and approaches to diversity, inclusion and social justice. Universities remain spaces reserved for the privileged few.

Moving forward

‘How can we move forward in a society that continues to reinforce inequality based on skin colour?’

Significant changes are needed in order to address and challenge racial inequalities. Bhopal argues that while racism may never be eradicated it doesn’t mean we cannot actively challenge white groups occupying positions of power who use white privilege as a means of protecting their positions. Complaining about racism often results in victims becoming labelled as villains. Schools, colleges and universities are required to demonstrate inclusion, meaning that social justice and equity are being taken seriously rather than continuing the myth of a post-racial society. 

While Bhopal focuses mainly on the UK context and to a lesser extent on the US, the book is an excellent investigation into white privilege in contemporary society. While confronting at times, Bhopal clearly and concisely examines the empirical evidence about the recently popularised term, ‘white privilege’. She concludes her book with a number of suggestions which can help us move forward:

  • Implement policies with concrete outcomes that improve the inclusion of Black and minority ethnic staff and students. Bhopal mentions the Race Equality Charter as a positive move in the right direction but it is too early to tell if it will make a difference for universities addressing racial inequalities. She suggests that the UK government develops a specific policy that addresses inequalities in the application process by introducing name-blind applications for universities. 
  • The Education system should acknowledge institutional racism and white privilege; a failure to acknowledge racism results in a failure to act upon it and to instigate change. 
  • Implement specific institutional frameworks that facilitate changes at both a local and national level; an example can be the clear monitoring of racist incidents which will need to include a clear strategy for how educational institutions should address racism. 
  • Introduce unconscious bias training as mandatory for all (educational) staff. 
  • Greater visibility of black and minority staff in senior positions.
  • Introduce a more diverse curriculum for students.
  • Formal mentoring and training of staff who wish to progress in their careers designed specifically to address the needs of Black and minority ethnic groups. 

Bhopal, Kalwant. White Privilege: The Myth of a Post-racial Society. Bristol, UK; Chicago, IL, USA: Bristol University Press, 2018. doi:10.2307/j.ctt22h6r81.

Kalwant Bhopal is a Professor of Education & Social Justice and Director of the Centre for Research in Race & Education (CRRE) at the University of Birmingham. Her research explores how processes of racism, exclusion and marginalisation operate in predominantly white spaces with a focus on social justice and inclusion.

Book review: Hard Questions – Learning to Teach Controversial Issues

Matej Matkovič Reviews , ,

In this book, Judith L. Pace examines the work of four teacher educators from Northern Ireland, England, and the USA as they show their graduate students’ different approaches to teaching about controversial topics. The author claims that the area of preparing preservice teachers to teach controversial topics is not sufficiently developed. This is why one of the key questions in modern teaching is “How can new teachers learn to teach controversy in the realities of the charged classroom?”

The book also compares how the teaching of controversial issues is interpreted in different national and educational contexts. It demonstrates how risk-taking can be contained, constrained, and supported in a wide variety of classroom and school settings. A limitation pointed out by the author herself is that the research centred on national contexts of countries with less restrictive political systems.

In the beginning, the author highlights the importance of dealing with controversial issues and introducing them in school lessons. Referencing various sources, she points out the lack of adequate preparation of beginner teachers for exploring controversial issues with students. The introduction of conceptual and practical tools that teachers can adopt in the classroom, modelling the use of these tools and creating opportunities to rehearse them are all crucial for preparing to deal with controversial issues.

In the following chapters, the author presents four different teacher educators and their graduate students from Northern Ireland, England, and the USA.

  • Mark Drummond, a teacher educator from Northern Ireland and his Citizenship and History courses. Mark has encouraged his preservice teachers to try different tools such as walking debate and role-play, political murals, and analysis of primary and secondary sources. Student teachers faced various challenges such as students’ reactions to controversy, their own emotions sparked by teaching controversial issues and limited time. But they experimented with various ways to get post primary students to consider different perspectives on history, human rights, and politics. Mark’s preservice teachers learned the most from his example and his principles of practice, such as developing a trusting classroom environment, using evidence to think critically, and using rich resources and dialogic pedagogies.
  • Paula Barstow, a teacher educator from Northern Ireland and her Citizenship course. Paula stresses that potential risks of teaching controversial issues can be contained through careful planning proactive communication, and thorough reflection to keep both students and teachers safe. Teachers need to use inclusive discussion such as a walking debate, deliberation (Structured Academic Controversy), carousel conversation and written conversation that encourage all students to participate. Preservice teachers reported they learned the most from structured small group activities, careful curriculum design, preparation for teaching, and exploration of the teacher’s role. The student teachers’ efforts were constrained by limited time and low status of citizenship, the pressure to cover curriculum and mentor teachers who interfered with their autonomy.
  • Ian Shepherd, a teacher educator from England and his History course. Ian’s approach to preparing preservice teachers to teach controversial issues chose to embed the practice in class sessions rather than addressing it discretely. His idea was that everything in curriculum had the potential to be sensitive or controversial. The overall approach to preparing preservice teachers was to integrate controversial elements in course sessions and assignments. He believed that when preparing to teach controversial issues, preservice teachers first need to develop their subject matter knowledge, be willing to experiment with provocative sources and experimental methods, and to reflect on teaching and learning in their classroom. Preservice teachers learned that teaching controversial issues first demands structuring a progression of conceptual change in which the teacher elicits students’ prior knowledge, gets students to deal with inquiry questions that often are moral, and helps students to arrive at new understandings. Although student teachers were constrained by their timetable, curricular demands, and traditional school culture, they were supported by SoW (scheme of work) assignments, encouragement from peers, mentors, and department heads.
  • Liz Simmons, a teacher educator from the USA and her Social Studies course. Liz believed that teaching controversial issues and teaching difficult history are distinct practices, but both are served by making classroom discussion the central pedagogy and content of a teacher preparation course. Tools that Liz introduced to her students were Structured Academic Controversy, Socratic seminar, Town Hall, and Case Study, as well as curricular programs such as the National Issues Forum and Brown University’s Choices. Liz stressed that preservice teachers need explicit modelling of discussion facilitation, opportunities to practice discussion preparation and facilitation, and feedback as well as self-assessment of their practice. Liz’s students most appreciated practice teaching and discussion of issues in the methods course. They used Structured Academic Controversy and other discussion methods in their teaching, but in one case, teaching controversial issues was constrained by the teacher’s professional learning community and evaluation of first year teachers.

In conclusion, the author emphasises that all four teacher educators, although working in different contexts and school subjects, emphasised three cornerstones for open classroom environment – issues content, pedagogical methods and tools for modelling democratic inquiry and discourse, and creation of a supportive atmosphere. They taught eight strategies to prepare novices for contained risk-taking: cultivation of warm, supportive classroom environments; thorough preparation and planning; reflection on teacher identity and roles; proactive communication with parents, other teachers, and administrators; careful selection, timing and framing of issues; emphasis on creative resources and group activities; steering of discussion and dealing with emotional conflicts. Preservice teachers agreed good preparation of lessons, choosing right pedagogical methods and tools, and creating supportive atmospheres were crucial for addressing controversial issues. The biggest constraints they had were time restrictions, mandated curricula and exams, and lack of support in schools.

Judith L. Pace believes that the book brings new knowledge on how to strengthen practices at all levels of schooling. She believes that addressing controversial issues would be most impactful with students from different communities. Also, her research indicates that more structured university involvement during student teaching could be a vital source of support. Ideally, teacher educators should be working with mentor teachers in the school to jointly support novices.

I agree with most of the conclusions the author wrote in this book. Teaching controversial issues is important for strengthening democracy, especially in a time when manipulation of facts and violation of human rights is done on a daily basis. But it can only be done with well-educated and trained teachers who have support in their schools and communities. A responsible society should do its best to support young teachers. Also, teacher educators should have a bigger role in guiding the teachers not only through their preservice time, but also during the first few years of their career. The research presented in this book shows mainly conclusions derived from the teaching in Northern Ireland, England and the USA, but in many cases, they can be linked to other countries in Europe. In my belief, it is very important to know who you are teaching. However, although controversial issues may vary from country to country, they should all be addressed in a way to strengthen democracy.

Decolonising Literary Canons and Fostering Multiperspectivity through Fiction: why Nella Larsen’s “Passing” should be used in history education

Giulia Verdini Reviews ,
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Nella Larsen’s ‘Passing’ was first published in 1929. The title refers to the practice of “racial passing” which meant crossing the colour line between blacks and whites: the attempt to claim recognition in a different racial group than the one people belonged to was a quite common practice in the US of the 1920s. 


The novel belongs to the heyday of the African American literature in the 1920s: after the disillusionment of World War I and in a milieu of racial segregation, the black community stood out and developed its art through the motif of "Négritude". Intellectuals of the New Negro Movement claimed their roots and did their best to represent their ethnicity: what followed is what is known as the Harlem Renaissance, which gave voice to a new African American consciousness. Passing reflects upon African Americans' crisis of identity in a white environment and their need to retrieve their ethnicity, but at the same time it also calls into question the very notion of race, which is represented more as something ambiguous rather than a defining feature. It depicts the complicated intersection of race, gender and social class, and the clashes between personal freedom and social obligations.

The epigraph

The reading of the novel begins with its epigraph. Before diving into a story, the reader is confronted with a short poem. Passing’s epigraph is an original paratextual element and it is an allographic epigraph as it was written by Countée Cullen, one of the most representative authors of the Harlem Renaissance. The short poem introduces the theme of Africa, the meaning of roots and ethnicity: the speaker asks himself "What is Africa to me?", a question which guides the poem and its ongoing reflections. The original, full-length poem is part of a collection, Color, published in 1925. The decision of omitting the original title of the poem, Heritage, hints at an understanding of the act passing as a loss rather than a gain, in particular the loss of heritage - the title of which the poem appearing in Passing is deprived of.


The story is set in the Harlem neighbourhood of New York City. The plot revolves around two African American women who see each other again after a long time. Irene Redfield is the mother of two sons and the wife of a black husband: as he is too dark to pass, she occasionally passes as white when she is alone. She is passing as white when she meets her old friend Clare Kendry: the two women pretended to be white to enter a Chicago hotel and enjoy the sunny day on its rooftop. Clare immediately recognises her friend and her ethnicity, but Irene cannot the same. From the novel’s opening, race is slippery and terribly unstable.

Irene learns that Clare is currently living her life mostly as a white person and that she is married to a rich, white husband who is unaware of her racial roots. Irene would like to avoid further engagement with Clare, but she is too intrigued by her: eventually, the two women dangerously resume their childhood friendship.

Despite being a novel, the narrative is built as in a theatrical piece, where chapters can be understood as different acts and characters constantly perform a role and act as actors of comic yet dangerous scenes - until Clare Kendry dies, leaning backward in a window, in the final act. Whether she fell accidentally, committed suicide or was pushed by Irene or someone else, is up to the reader’s imagination and interpretation.

And so is the question of whether the theatrical piece is a tragedy or a farce.

Crossing the colour line: a tool of convenience?

Why would an African American pass as white? Making a political statement? Defying white supremacy? Or more simply, gaining a better social position?

People were undeniably passing as white in order to obtain something better, something that they would never get by 'staying black': crossing the colour line meant being eligible for a well paying job, living in a fancier neighbourhood, being allowed in whites-only environments, enjoying a multitude of privileges. 

The character of Clare Kendry embodies a different perspective on the practice of crossing racial boundaries. In the novel, passing is framed through Clare’s sense of playfulness. Her life is a theatrical piece and she is the protagonist on the stage, performing whatever identity she needs or wants to perform. Whilst Irene comes to wish she had not been born black, Clare does not take race seriously: she doesn't feel burdened by the yoke of race as Irene does. Clare plays with her own identity and laughs at danger.

After her father’s death, his bigot aunts treated Clare like a servant and forbade her from seeing or even talking about 'Negroes' - this is how African Americans are referred to in the novel. She was consequently also forbidden from revealing the truth about her race. But what is the truth about her race? Throughout the novel, Irene’s black perspective reminds the reader of how white Clare is. When she says that she desperately wants to see Negroes and be with them again, she is somehow acknowledging her belonging to another world - and she sounds irremediably white. She does not want to socialize with blacks because of racial belonging and solidarity, rather for the sake of excitement. Clare did not hate being black, nor she hated being white. On the contrary, she loved being both.

Passing was generally perceived as the required practice to gain opportunities for personal advancement, and it was consequently often dramatized as a mere class question. Larsen frees herself from the conventions around the theme of passing and its sole interconnectedness with climbing social classes. Passing is a tool of convenience, but for Clare it is not merely driven by material ambition. The term ‘passing’ itself usually refers to passing for white, whilst it is never used to mean ‘passing for black’: Clare is the one character that enables this shift in meaning, as she rather dreams of inhabiting different social classes at the same time and she is not concerned about moral implications. Moreover, here the focus is not on how the person passing is perceived by whites, but on how he or she is perceived by blacks. 

The novel revels in this ambiguity and does not clearly take a position: passing is a symbol of gain and loss at the same time - gaining respectability but also losing any bound with your ethnicity. The character of Clare suggests that race is something that can be manipulated and also acquired: the narrative ultimately perceives race not as a matter of identity but of performativity. By questioning the meaning of belonging and the idea of loyalty to a race, the narrative raises a problem of representation but more than anything disrupts the conventional way of thinking of them.

Decolonising literary canons

The theme of passing was a very recurring topic in American popular literature since the mid-19th century. Most of the fiction available was written by white men and told the story of an unfortunate black girl born from a tragic event. This girl was usually compelled to pretend to be white for her entire life; an aristocrat would fall in love with her beauty and marry her unaware of her racial status, but he would eventually find out or the girl would just confess. In the end, the girl usually dies of fever - but also of deep internal suffering, discomfort and social uneasiness. This regular path of the novel contributed to the creation of the leitmotif of what is known as the tragic mulatta figure”, a stock character in early African American literature. These types of accounts highlighted the feeling of social exclusion of the ‘Negro girls’, as this exhaustion would be the main reason for depression and suicide.

Nella Larsen’s novel portrays passing as a choice, and not as a constriction. Furthermore, the act of passing is neither condemned nor praised. There is no real judgement: the reader is enabled to make his/her own statement. This is reinforced by the unexplained death of Clare: it is the reader’s duty to make sense of what he has read and understand the conclusion of the novel as an act of crime, fate or suicide.

Clare Kendry’s character does not correspond to the tragic mulatto figure: she is a provocateur and a manipulator. Ultimately, she is a performer. Passing successfully for her means having no restraints. She is never hiding, but “stepping always on the edge of danger” (Larsen, 1). Does her race doom her to an already written fate?

The theatrical piece might have the form of a tragedy, but turns out to be a farce. Clare is not scared and does not demand pity, her death is not the consequence of her fear. Clare dies because fatalism must be at the core of Larsen’s work: the author acknowledges the literary tradition and yet breaks the boundaries, canons and limits. On the surface, the novel seems to conform to the stereotype of the mulatta figure. Nevertheless, the narrative resists the conventions of the genre and gives innovative treatment to a very worn racial subject.

How does the novel help decolonise history and why should it be included in history education?

The novel can be used in history education to teach the history of African Americans and to tackle the issues of race, social boundaries and belonging. More specifically, the novel deeply engages with the question: “where does race reside?” and suggests different plausible yet equally incomplete answers - blood, emotion, ancestry. The concept of race is ultimately understood as a function of science as much as of law and politics. It is primarily a function of history and as such, it has been subject to Western biases.

The novel should be included in the curriculum as

  • it is written by and focuses on a black woman, but more broadly on the lived experiences of African American people in the 1920s;
  • it promotes multiperspectivity via the two characters of Clare and Irene;
  • it reflects on the meaning of race and racial belonging;
  • it decentres hegemony established by colonisation and westernisation by challenging Western constructs;
  • it offers a new perspective on the practice of passing and disrupts the concept of identity;
  • it can be read by students, adults and young adults;
  • it questions how narrative history has privileged one version of the story and dismantles systems that privilege certain widely accepted narratives over others.

From fictional characters to historical accounts

Passing is a work of fiction, but it is also the telling of a world that truly existed, the world where its author lived. The fact that Nella Larsen has a lot in common with the character of Clare comes as no surprise. Larsen’s parents were Danish immigrants- her father specifically originated from the Danish West Indies and died when she was young. Her mother remarried, but her new family members disregarded her heritage and the ties that bound them. Furthermore, Larsen grew up in the vice district of Chicago, where there were very rigid boundaries between blacks and whites. 

For history educators who are interested in using the author’s life story, more information about Nella Larsen can be found here.

Specifications about the book:

  • Date of first publication: the book was originally published in April 1929 - USA;
  • Genre: Novel;
  • Sub-Genre: African American;
  • Age Range: Adult and Young Adult Literature;
  • Suggested edition: Chemeketa Press, 2018.

Written by Giulia Verdini

Bibliography and Suggested Readings

Larsen, Nella. Passing. Chemeketa Press, American Voices Collection. 2018.

Rafia Zafar, “Black Modernism.” In The Cambridge History of American Literature. 1st ed. Vol. 6. Cambridge University Press, 2002. 348-352.

Wertheim, Bonnie. Nella Larsen - A Harlem Renaissance-era writer whose heritage informed her modernist take on the topic of race. The New York Times.

About Giulia

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 Giulia Verdini is a trainee at EuroClio from February 2021 and she is working at the Secretariat on outreach and project management for Football Makes History, In Europe Schools, Contested Histories and Historiana. Giulia holds a BA in Western and Eastern Languages and Cultures from the University of Macerata and a MA in English Literature from Uppsala University, where she graduated focussing on questions of representation and specifically addressing the derangements of scales and the ethical challenges that the advent of the Anthropocene and globalization have unmasked. She previously interned as a teacher in Sweden and she is currently doing a Master in Global Marketing and Communication.

Book review: An almost forgotten European War

Joke Van der Leeuw-Roord Reviews ,

This year it is 150 year ago that the German Empire was founded on 18 January 1871 during an improvised and sober proclamation ceremony in Versailles. The authors Hermann Pölking and Linn Sackarnd describe in their book Der Bruderkrieg 1870/71, Deutsche und Franzosen, how reluctant the Prussian King William I was to receive this imperial crown, and that he only, after much discussion, agreed on ‘Emperor of the German Realm’ as title instead of on ‘German Emperor’. They also demonstrate that, despite the military victory of the troops representing the different German States, creating a united German Empire was not a step applauded by all other monarchs, with Ludwig II of Bavaria particularly reluctant. Only after considerable concessions, which are still the basis of the present-day Bavarian exceptionalism, did the King agree that Bavaria would become part of the Empire. Only ten days later an armistice was agreed in the war between Germany and France.

This war began in the summer of 1870, when both Prussia and France had interests in fighting a war against each other and believed that an easy victory would be at hand. The authors demonstrate, contrary to the common myth, that it was certainly not only Bismarck who orchestrated the beginning of the war. Many within the political and military leadership and public opinion leaders from both countries welcomed an aggressive and violent competition. What followed was a savage war, which led to the death of approximately 200.000 soldiers and left many more wounded and deformed. 

This sizable and rich publication goes deep into the political developments during the war. The French Emperor Napoleon III surrendered quite early in the war and became a – well nurtured – prisoner of war, and left France without a legal counterpart for the Germans. The new French Government of National Defence, based in Tours, was not considered as representative for the whole country by the Germans. This fact contributed considerably to the continuation of the war, as did the German demands for Alsace and parts of Lorraine as war booties. 

The many bigger and smaller battles and the sieges of Metz and Strasbourg are described in too much detail for my taste. Unfortunately, such detailed descriptions also rarely go with situation maps, which could certainly have enlightened this poor reader. But what makes the book really interesting –  and useful for school education – are the many ego documents (or personal life story sources) of soldiers and civilians giving insights in the state of warfare in 1870 and their social consequences. While the German High Command found, as high noblemen, suitable headquarters in Versailles, their troops continued fighting and struggled with a lack of appropriate shelter, clean clothing and food. Many quotations from letters make the reader aware of how difficult the situation was for ordinary French and German soldiers and often even for their officers. The French civic population fell victim to the military violence but even more through the food and goods requisitions by both the occupying and defending armies. Despite the suffering of the ordinary people, the French population continued to stand behind their leaders and supported their decision to keep fighting.

A special feature of this war was the fact that the combatants made prisoners of war, basically for the first time. This happened at both sides but most prisoners of war were made among the French troops. Almost 400.000 of them were interned in Germany, often under very difficult circumstances. In the end of the war soldiers fled across the French borders and almost 100.000 were interned in Switzerland and more than 5000 ended up in Belgium. The International Committee of the Red Cross created a special tracing agency for these prisoners of war.

This publication offers a genuine cross-border narrative, despite the fact that both authors are German. It uncovers the story of a war, mostly mentioned as a minor conflict, which was in fact the prologue and final rehearsal for the First World War. For those who read German, a really good read!

Hermann Pölking-Eiken and Linn Sackarnd, Der Bruderkrieg, Deutsche und Franzosen 1870/71 (2020) (686 pages). Available also as a film documentary in three parts by ARTE. 

Hardcopy 38,00 €; eBook (PDF) 29,99 € eBook (EPUB) 29,99 €

Joke van der Leeuw-Roord founded EuroClio in 1992, and since then she has acquired recognition as an international expert on innovative and trans-national history, heritage and citizenship education. Currently, Joke van der Leeuw-Roord is special advisor for EuroClio. 


Video Game Review: Red Dead Redemption II

Anna Ivanova Reviews , ,

Setting the scene(-ry)

Red Dead Redemption II (Rockstar games – 2018) is a one of a kind western game where you can discover a variety of landscapes of America in the year 1899 on the back of a horse. Halfway through the story you can make one of the most wonderful rides possible in a game. Starting at the east coast of a fictional America, you ride inland on a horse with no name, heading home, crossing different kinds of landscapes. You cross little industrial towns and big empty plains, and ride on wooden paths through the swamps, along endless railroads and through the foothills of the mighty mountains in the north. This decor is one of the main characters in the story of Arthur Morgan, key figure in Red Dead Redemption II (RDR2). This moment in time symbolizes the closure of the era of the Wild West. There is no more frontier and every corner of this new continent is mapped. You can clearly feel the transformation from the age of the lawless into the incorporated industrial States. Arthur Morgan, as an outlaw and member of the Van der Linde gang, is one of the last in his profession. As a player, you have to deal with the disadvantages of being a gunslinger at the dawn of modern times.

The creators of RDR2 designed a landscape as a parallel universe of the United States at the end of the nineteenth century, but implemented countless analogies with the real geography and history. There are, for example, references to the Philippine–American War, the ruins of the Civil War, the gold fever, the difficulties surrounding the Indian reservations and the German migration wave (the most famous family within this wave has to be the Trump family). Therefore, the game has two strong assets: a rich narrative and a gorgeous decor. The latter is certainly interesting for the use in the classroom.


An open world

The game has a relatively large map that is roughly comparable to different regions in the United States. The story of Morgan starts in the north, where the snowy mountain ranges lie and you can encounter a wandering pack of wolves or a grizzly bear. If you descend to the south later in the game, you end up on the large steppes where long railway lines cross and bison herds roam. Visit the south of the map that looks like Louisiana and go into the bayou for a crocodile hunt. In the east lies the large harbour city Saint-Denis which is comparable to a mixture of New Orleans and New York around the turn of the century. You can spot trams and visit barbers, factories, dinner shows, saloons, restaurants and Parisian flower gardens. You will also notice the French influence throughout the city. Saint-Denis is an interesting contrast to the wide-open plains and valleys where you can wander about.

RDR2 is an open world game (or sandbox game) in which you can step out of the main storyline of Morgan and his gang at all times and explore the area on your own. This aspect is an added value for using the game in the classroom. For example, you can give the students a comparison task in which they have to investigate different elements of daily life anno 1899. After all, a lot of European history curricula deal with subjects like modern imperialism, industrialisation and the associated social consequences, plantations, migrations, and so on. Just make sure that the students can move freely through the game and make decisions of their own. You can also use the game as a kick starter for a discussion about games as secondary sources.


A (hi-)story

The other aspect for which the game is praised, is the rich narrative of the main character gunslinger Arthur Morgan and his position in a gang of outlaws. Despite the lively storyline, this aspect is less suitable to play with your students. It is, after all, a story of violence and multiple confrontations with other gangs, bounty hunters and the Pinkerton National Detective Agency - none of which are resolved peacefully. The Pinkertons still exists as a private detective agency and were originally founded in the mid-nineteenth century as a response to the large number of gangs at the Midwest frontier. They had to track down these itinerant gangs that were guilty of train, postal and bank robberies in these widespread areas.

Occasional episodes based on historical facts occur during the story of Arthur Morgan. With a well-chosen selection of chapters, you should be able to play these episodes with your students and relate them to elements of American history or explore the game's historicity together. Examples of these historical facts during the game are the encounters with the Suffragettes, a group of women fighting for equal rights, and the chapter in which Morgan is part of a slave revolution on a Caribbean island. This refers to the Haitian Revolution (1791-1804) and is a nice intermezzo during the game that mostly takes place in The States.

Red Dead Redemption II is a game for PC, Playstation and Xbox and a wonderful window to the geography and history of the United States at the end of the nineteenth century. As it is an open world game, I advise you to wonder around with your students and experience the last days of the Wild West and the dawn of the United States in modern times.


Written by Daan van Leeuwen

Daan van Leeuwen is a teacher educator at the InHolland University of Applied Sciences Rotterdam (The Netherlands), teacher, historian and editor at Kleio, the magazine of the Dutch association of history teachers. He has written several articles on the use of games in the classroom.


Title: Red Dead Redemption II
Author: Rockstar games
Year of publication: 2018
Language: English
System Requirements:  PC, Playstation, Xbox
Average Play Time: 6 hours
Cost: € 34.99