‘The German War’, a book that sometimes makes you hold your breath

Joke Van der Leeuw-Roord Reviews

This book review was written by Joke van der Leeuw-Roord, EUROCLIO Founder and Special Advisor.

Interest in the Second World War has been part of my life, as I was born in the shadow of this war and I was made aware of it through many stories of my parents’ family and friends and by its physical legacy in my surroundings. This was similar to most of Dutch people of my generation, however at one point it was very different: I had an uncle living in Germany. He had been a forced laborer, had fallen seriously ill and was nursed back into life by a woman; he subsequently fell in love with. My family met them on a more or less regular basis, and as soon as my mother and aunt were together, they started to quarrel about their level of War victimhood. As a Dutch child I of course had no compassion with my German aunt, and for long I time experienced stories about the German suffering merely as propagandistic, to release the burden of a dark past. However eventually my professional curiosity got the better hand and in the last five years I have been intensely engaged to get a better understanding of what the war and its legacy meant for the Germans themselves. I consider The German War: A Nation Under Arms, 1939-1945 written by the Oxford historian Nicholas Stargardt as a great read for developing such insights.

The German War: A Nation Under Arms, 1939-1945 offers wide insights into the German experience from the view point of soldiers and civilians in the late Thirties and during the war time, using a wide range of source materials, among them many letters and diaries. Stargardt follows several of their authors over a longer period of time. Through this approach, the reader is able to follow the whereabouts and patters of thinking of several individuals and couples. Through these documents it becomes clear that much more was known, written or said about issues, that people outside Germany considered always highly secret in the Third Reich. Censorship of the letters from the soldiers was surprisingly minor; the fate of the Jews was therefore common knowledge. When the bombing of German cities in 1943 becomes very intense, he demonstrates that the general attitude of the public is to understand that these bombing are retaliation for what the Germans have done to the Jews.  This argument comes back, when after a break, the heavy bombing is resumed in the summer of 1944. Stargardt refutes the mantra Wir haben es nicht gewuest (we did not know about it) with ample evidence.

The German War: A Nation Under Arms, 1939-1945 looks in a manifold of aspects of German society, paying special attention to the position of women, ideological placed in the family and the kitchen but in fact a massive (voluntary) workforce and minorities, with of course a special focus on the Jews. But also the treatment and killing on the German disabled, psychiatric patients and socially deprived is breathtakingly described in the chapter Extreme Measures. In this horrible episode the German churches play a somewhat more human role, but in general is Stargardts’ judgement about their role during and directly after the war rather harsh: the Churches did not show the Christian compassion they should have stand for. Or even worse sometimes: several of their high placed members of the clergy gave full support to the Nazis.

A chilly red thread in the book is the role of Nazi brainwashing and the brilliant but disgusting manipulations of the Goebbles’ propaganda machine. It shows how important this instrument was in influencing the mind and hearts of the people in Germany. The radio and written press were pivotal for its success but also culture and art were addressed. Goebbles spend not less than 25% of his budget on culture and theater performances to make sure that critical citizens had an outlet for their possible controversial thoughts. However, even with all propaganda tools, not each programme was successful. The intended building of a national community, which was voluntary willing to sacrifice all for the fatherland, failed due to traditional localism and regionalism and massive inner migration. People kept complaining about their fate and kept accusing each other of misusing benefits.

Why should you not read this book?

The German War: A Nation Under Arms, 1939-1945 is a big book of about 700 pages, giving a dramatic and worrisome picture of how a highly civilized nation, which in a relative short time disintegrated into chaos, violence and terror. It leaves you with little hope for humanity when it encounters exceptional circumstances. So many lack moral qualities. willing to realize the consequences of what they heard and perceived.

Why should you read this book?

The German War: A Nation Under Arms, 1939-1945 shows history in its full complexity, with blur lines between perpetrators, bystanders and victims. A quote in the first weeks after the liberation written in the diary of Victor Klemperer, the German academic of Jewish origin, pictures this very well when he wrote Curious conflict within me: I rejoice in God’s vengeance on the Henchmen of the Third Reich  .. and yet I find it dreadful now to see the victors and avengers racing through the city which they have so hellishly wrecked (Dresden). With this and many other quotes from eyewitnesses we are able to have an in depth insight of dreams, expectations, feelings and behavior of many German civilians and soldiers. It leads to an adverse picture of a divided society, where many, but not all, were willing to fight until the very last moment and subsequently were unwilling to face the post war situation.

How can history, citizenship and heritage education benefit?

The German War: A Nation Under Arms, 1939-1945 offers ample opportunities to discuss about the way we talk about the blame for crimes against humanity and war crimes. It might be worth to explore this issue with examples given by Stargardt. He proves how massive the German military in Central and Eastern Europe was involved in such crimes, and how many of them looked away, despite even anti-Nazi convictions. However he also shows the lethal impact of the aerial Allied bombing on cities, and its citizens and the violence used by the liberators of the Red Army. As the book gives a wide picture of many propaganda campaigns it also offers the opportunity of deeper thinking about the use and impact of (war) propaganda.

Author Nicholas Stargardt
Original title The German War: A Nation Under Arms, 1939-1945
Original language English
Available in Already published or in preparation in Chinese, Czech, Dutch, French, German, Italian, Polish and Spanish.
Publication year 2015
No. of pages 700
Genre History

Veendammer Wind: at the crossroads of history, football, and music

Agustin De Julio Reviews

Veendammer Wind: A football opera, 28-30 June & 4-5 July 2019

The rise and fall of a club and the importance of community

Just outside the city centre of Veendam stands the Langeleegte stadium imposingly, six years after the official bankruptcy and closure of the SC Veendam. The 29th of June 2019, the Langeleegte opened its doors once again for a festive occasion, Veendammer Wind, an opera celebrating the rich history of the club, the tireless engagement of the local community, and their great achievements. Inextricably, it also tells the story of the decline of the Sportclub Veendam, pride of the east of Groningen.

It is impossible though, to reflect on the decline of the club, without considering the social reality of the Veenkoloniën, the area of the east of Groningen of which Veendam serves as unofficial capital. This region is also one of the poorest in the Netherlands. Historically, the Veenkoloniën were hit by adverse economic shocks they could never fully recover from. The decline of the peat industry, and the mechanisation of agriculture left great amounts of manual workers unemployed. Aided by globalisation, industrial production departed to areas with cheaper labour during the last century. The structural damage done to homes and historical buildings in the Veenkoloniën due to gas extraction is the latest in a long list of adverse circumstances for the area. Culturally, this region has seen a marked disconnection with the rich west of the country, and has had revolutionary tendencies well into the 20th century. It is in this context - that of the beleaguered community standing up for what is theirs - that the story of a family trying to save their local club unfolds. The attempts to revive the club through national campaigning and the recruitment of cultural ambassadors is lovingly told, with an emphasis on local stories, and interesting insights on the role of women in traditionally male dominated sports, culminating in an organised women’s team becoming more prominent than the men’s.

Despite some minor pitfalls, this opera reveals the spirit of the east of Groningen. One leaves the Langeleegte with a handful of lessons learnt. Firstly, the opera communicates well that in difficult times, community and solidarity matter. Hard times in this case show the potential for local, community solutions that can bring an entire region together. Secondly, it showcases that despite the many noxious examples of identity being used for divisive and exclusive narratives, it can also be a virtuous thing: young and old, Groningers and not, came together to celebrate a club that bound them to each other. The prominence of the Gronings dialect, both sung and spoken, is a clear indication of the intimate relationship between culture and sport. Stunning performances from the main cast, supporting actors and the Veenkoloniaal Symfonieorkest were worthy of this touching local story.

What does this performance mean for history, citizenship and heritage education?

The Football Makes History[1] project led by EUROCLIO and its partner organisations aims to tackle social exclusion and discrimination of any type via the use of football history. The rationale behind the project lies on the conviction that football, through its wide appeal, can bring people together and exact great positive societal change. Veendammer Wind shows the richness, breadth and potential of football as a source of inspiration to address these societal problems. Everywhere one looks, there are local histories that could teach valuable lessons, both in the classroom and on the pitch. It also showcases the virtues of multidisciplinarity, and encourages educators not to be afraid to innovate by mixing history with other topics, much like this performance mixes opera with football and history. The past is interwoven with everything around us, and performances like these further make the case for the use of engaging and moving local histories to teach citizenship values and raise awareness of shared heritage amongst Europe’s youth.

Original title Veendammer Wind
Original language Dutch and Gronings
Genre Opera

[1] Project implemented with the financial support of the Erasmus+ Programme of the European Union as part of the initiative “Football History for Inclusion – Innovative collaborations of school education and youth through the prism of local football history for social inclusion and diversity”

Written by Agustín De Julio, EUROCLIO trainee

War Allies but Colonial Rivals: Britain, France and the Middle East

Agustin De Julio Reviews

This book review was written by Joke van der Leeuw-Roord, EUROCLIO Founder and Special Advisor.

On New Year’s Eve 1956, I watched Television for the first time in my life. It was the annual 1956 news overview of the NTS, the Dutch Broadcasting Corporation. It was a shocking experience, the (very small) screen was full of tanks, bombardments and military planes related to the events in Hungary and the Suez Crisis. I went to bed that night asking my parents if the war would soon reach us too. They reassured me that I had nothing to fear. However I believe that my first television experience had a big impact on the rest of my life: I became interested in politics and disgusted about violence and war. Since that day I was aware of the troubles in the Middle East.

A Line in the Sand: Britain, France and the Struggle that Shaped the Middle East is one of those books that really challenge traditional historical narratives. James Barr allows us a close look into the unfolding of the War Zone Middle East, as it unfortunately is still today. The book tells the story of the rivalry between Britain and France from the violent end of the Ottoman Empire to the violent birth of Israel. It is a shocking story of the willingness to defend national and tribal interests to very high material and human costs. The Sykes- Picot agreement from 1916, in the middle of the First World War, was designed to diminish the colonial tensions between the two competing allies. These merely territorial frictions in the Middle East called for a solution, and both diplomats behind the agreement were able to literary draw a line in the sand. The line, from the Mediterranean to the Persian frontier, divided the spoils: North of the stripe was for France; territory south of the line was to go to Britain. Although the divisions along this line were far from generally accepted by the many associates during the rest of the conflict in the Middle East, the pact survived the war. Sykes- Picot agreement became the basis for the post-war division of the region, against the promises made to many of the local allies during the fighting. The negotiations created five mandates: Palestine, Transjordan and Iraq, to be temporary ruled by Britain, and France would temporarily govern Lebanon and Syria. The creation of these mandates made the two powers uneasy neighbors for the following thirty years. The rivalry continued also during the Second World War.

Why should you not read this book?

A Line in the Sand: Britain, France and the Struggle that Shaped the Middle East is not free from the usual national focus. It certainly critical about the British policy towards the region, however it is even more so about the French conduct. Reading the book, I could not escape the impression of a certain British bias. Unfortunately, I am not aware of a similar study carried out by French or other historians, which could have corroborated this interpretation of the events or could have shed some different lights on what transpired. A French translation of the book is foreseen for next year, and it will be interesting to see what sort of reactions the publication will trigger in France.

Why should you read this book?

A Line in the Sand: Britain, France and the Struggle that Shaped the Middle East shows how the First World War was also a war about territorial spoils and therefore also a colonial War. The recent centenaries commemorations of the War depict particularly the atrocities and sacrifices of the military, predominantly related to the most Western areas of the Western Front. Very little attention is paid to other fronts of the Western Allies such as those in Africa, Macedonia and the Middle East, all of these bearing colonial characteristics. Barr wrote an important book helping us transcend from the sometimes still existing simplistic antagonist picture between the immoral Central Powers and the noble Allies. He helps us to get a better understanding that (colonial) spoils of War were in the early Twentieth Century still acceptable outcomes of warfare.

How can history, citizenship and heritage education benefit?

A Line in the Sand: Britain, France and the Struggle that Shaped the Middle East is an indispensable book for all history, social studies and humanities educators who dare to address the current situation in the Middle East in their classrooms. It gives clear insights about the relationship between the Allied colonial rivalry and the current antagonisms between Arabs and the Jews. However it also offers understanding of the origins of various conflicts in the Middle East among Arab peoples such as currently in Iraq and Syria.

Author James Barr
Original title A Line in the Sand: Britain, France and the Struggle that Shaped the Middle East
Original language English
Available in English, the French edition will be published in February 2017
Language read English
No. of pages 450
Genre History

The Background of a Terror Hype: “Child Promise me that You Will Shoot Yourself”

Agustin De Julio Reviews , ,

This book review was written by Joke van der Leeuw-Roord, EUROCLIO Founder and Special Advisor.

In the days of the Brexit, I often wondered about the emotional position of many people in the leave camp. We heard arguments that, although many reasonable people had very reasonable arguments against the Brexit, people in the exit group just believed it was better to leave the European Union: their decision making was fully based on emotions. During these agitating days I was reading Florian Hubers’ Child promise me that you will shoot yourself, the Demise of ordinary People in Germany in 1945, which gives a fascinating insight in the psychological situation of many people in Germany between 1929 and 1946.

In Child promise me that you will shoot yourself, the Demise of ordinary People in Germany in 1945 (Kind, versprich mir, dass du dich erschießt: Der Untergang der kleinen Leute 1945) the German historian Florian Huber tells the story of the wave of collective suicides among ordinary people in Germany in 1945. He also tries to give a plausible explanation for this massive, and mostly forgotten, tragedy. The book begins with the shocking events in early May 1945 in Demmin, a city in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, which, at that moment, is materially untouched, but full of refugees from the East. The Soviet Army is approaching the town, and the townspeople are in full panic about the upcoming occupation. The Nazi propaganda has for years demonized the Soviet Union and people expect the worst. As a response, many decide that committing suicide is the only solution, and many individuals, mothers with children and families kill themselves by fire arms, poisoning, hanging or drowning. After the arrival of the Soviet Army there was isolated fighting from non-regular troops, the city is set on fire and many soldiers rape women. After a few days the Army moved on leaving the city in dumb chaos.

The book shows that it was not only out of fear for the Soviets, that people committed suicide. Many in Germany felt a sense of hopelessness and sometimes even a sense of guilt, and therefore saw suicide as their only way out. It also shows that these cases of collective suicide not only took place in the areas, which were occupied by the Soviet Army, but that all over Germany complete families committed suicide.

People had the feeling that there was no future after twelve years of Nazi rule, it was the end of times. Huber's book builds an interesting narrative about the changing collective emotions over time. It starts with the desperation about the lost First World War and the difficulties of the Germans to rebuild their society and economy afterwards. The misery caused by the Depression allowed Hitler to come in as a savior, who brings prosperity and self-consciousness. And although there is a general anti-war feeling, the narrative illustrates how the many military successes in the beginning of the Second World War initially abate deep concerns about new war sufferings. The attack on the Soviet Union brings about change, and from there people lose hope and become more and more aware of reality. However, as the many fragments from diaries in the book reveal, many shelter themselves from the truth and simply carry on, until it is no longer possible to deny or ignore reality. And at that point so many saw no other solution than to commit suicide.

Why should you not read this book?

Unfortunately Child promise me that you will shoot yourself, the Demise of ordinary People in Germany in 1945 is only available in its original German language and in Dutch, Finnish and Norwegian translations. Quite amazing as the press coverage on its release was much wider, I noticed also English, Israeli and Spanish articles on the release of this publication.

Why should you read this book?

I hope that Child promise me that you will shoot yourself, the Demise of ordinary People in Germany in 1945 will be translated into English, as it gives new perspectives on a period of German history, which is generally taught in European school classes. Where many teaching resources end with the capitulation of Germany, this publication demonstrates that it is high time to acknowledge that the post war fate of the country is important for understanding European Post War developments. This flood of suicides makes us contemplate about the way our European narratives are built. The taboo on committing suicide made it easy to silence talking about it in Western Europe. In the German Democratic Republic, former East Germany, it was obviously also not allowed to talk about what had happened as it would shed an unfavorable light on the doings of the Red Army. Consequently these events did enter neither into the collective memory nor in the Post War narratives.

How can history, citizenship and heritage education benefit?

Child promise me that you will shoot yourself, the Demise of ordinary People in Germany in 1945 offers a fitting opportunity also to address with students the rather rigid model of perpetrators, victims and bystanders, which is used in many narratives related to World War II. It shows again the complexity of the past. The diary fragments also give good insight in the psychological way people handle grueling information, not fitting into their own conviction: they just dissociate themselves. And even long after evidence became abundantly available, many were still not able to accept reality.

Child promise me that you will shoot yourself, the Demise of ordinary People in Germany in 1945 gives good insight into how difficult it is to establish reliable numbers about events in the past. I am often amazed how easily historians use numbers, without referring to reliable sources. In the chapter In the Mist of the Numbers, Huber carefully analyses the available sources and other circumstantial evidence about this tidal waves of suicides. His conclusion is that a trustworthy estimation is not possible, but that it is a number of five figures. His described method to approach the truth is a useful tool to make students understand what tremendous obstacles there are for historians to uncover truthfully the past.

Author Florian Huber
Original title Kind, versprich mir, dass du dich erschießt: Der Untergang der kleinen Leute 1945
Original language German
Available in Dutch, Finnish, Norwegian
Language read Dutch
No. of pages Approx. 300
Genre History

Focus on Africa: “Congo: The Epic History of a People”

Agustin De Julio Reviews , , , , ,

This book review was written by Joke van der Leeuw-Roord, EUROCLIO Founder and Special Advisor.

Last year I had the good fortune to be the guest of Baron Bernard Snoy et d'Oppuers at his Chateau de Seigneur-Bois-Isaac during the EUROCLIO Waterloo seminar in Belgium. In my room he had put some books from his beautiful library, among them Congo: The Epic History of a People written by the Belgian author David van Reybrouck. Snoy was very positive about the book and asked me if I had already read it. With shame I had to deny this, although the reviews in the Dutch language papers had been unison laudatory. My only excuse was that all my reading time had been devoted to the countries I had intensely been working in, and African countries were not amongst those. But my current situation is no longer an excuse and this year I dived into this impressive publication.

Congo: The Epic History of a People tries to tell the story of the Democratic Republic Congo since the arrival of Stanley and its position as personal territory of the Belgium King Leopold II. The author bases himself not only on documents and (academic) publications but also on countless interviews with Congolese citizens, some of them incredibly old. These personal stories allow the reader to reach a deeper understanding of the generally negative impact of the colonization, the decolonization but also the independence not only on the country and its citizens but also on the wider African continent. Van Reybrouck demonstrates also how big events in World History such as World War I and II have had a direct impact on the area. It was fascinating to learn that, despite the fact that Belgium was occupied by the Germans during World War II; the Italians in Abyssinia were defeated by a Belgium, predominantly black, army from Congo. New developments such as globalization and the growth of the new geopolitical power China in Africa are also leaving their imprint on the Congolese society and mercantile relations: in the big Chinese city Guangzhou there is currently a large Congolese commercial community. But Reybrouck does not only describe big history, the book gives insights in the countries’ culture and especially its pop music and pop musicians.

Why should you not read this book?

Congo: The Epic History of a People is not a quick read, and sometimes it becomes very detailed, especially about the many post-Independence wars and military operations. The rich panorama of personal experiences gets somewhat lost in the many political and war-related names and events. In this time of visual images it is regrettable that the book does only contain very good maps but further refrains from using images. Reybrouck explains this lack of photo materials due the fact that he understands ‘the medium of photo as an autonomous form of speech’, however for many of the readers, unfamiliar with the history of the African continent, visual materials would certainly have had great added value.

Why should you read this book?

Congo: The Epic History of a People pays tribute to the importance of the country Congo with a fascinating narrative of much and fast change and also some continuity, especially when it comes to the exploitation of the many natural resources of the country. This example of African past and presence forces the reader also to contemplate about the future of the African continent. The book gives also many ordinary people men and women a voice and offers insights in their everyday lives, due to the testimonies he acquired while traveling extensively through the country.

How can history, citizenship and heritage education benefit?

Congo: The Epic History of a People is a great resource to dive into the history of a continent, which does not generally feature in European history curricula, but is daily news for educators as well as their students. The book is also inspirational for European educators with many refugee and migrants children in their classrooms, as it offers elaborate insights why so many of their parents, and sometimes even their students on their own, left the continent in search for peace and a better life. An informing and elaborate bibliography supports further reading.

 

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Author David van Reybrouck
Year of publication 2010
Original language Dutch
Language read Dutch
Available in Danish, Dutch, English, French, German, Norwegian, Swedish. Under negotiation: Chinese, Finnish, Korean, Polish.
No. of pages Approx. 680
Genre History, literature (non-fiction)

Secondhand Time: A Book that Really Hurts

Agustin De Julio Reviews , ,

This book review was written by Joke van der Leeuw-Roord, EUROCLIO Founder and Special Advisor.

I worked for more than 10 years in ex-Soviet States and had therefore the opportunity to experience the optimism of many ex-citizens, believing in better times. However I also observed from my Hotel room in Hotel MIR, opposite the White House in Moscow, the daily demonstrations of the Communists. With all sorts of Red paraphernalia they protested loudly against the new political realities. And despite all discussions, Lenin was still at the Red Square and there were many red flowers laid in front of the Square’s Wall. It was clear to me that the fall of the Soviet Union was assessed very differently by its former citizens. Belarusian Nobel Prize Winner Svetlana Alexievich’s Secondhand Time, The Last of the Soviets is a magnificent mirror of the wide specter of stories and emotions related to the Soviet Union, its ending and the emergence of a new Russia. In interviews spanning 1991 to 2012 people were asked to share their memories about recent events or their memories of the Soviet Past. The stories show immense confusion, shock about lost values, anger about own ignorance and the lies told by the Soviet authorities and many more. With this approach Svetlana Alexievich is giving us a panoramic portrait of ordinary people in Russia and Belarus with their black memories of violence, famine, oppression but also believes in a better world, although positive expectations diminish gradually in the course of the book. The mess of the sudden collapse of the country and the chaotic and uncontrolled developments afterwards have influenced all interviewees’ lives and left them with little expectations for a better future.

Why should you not read this book?

Second-hand Time, The Last of the Soviets is a book that really hurts, it shows unmercifully the negative sides of humankind, how cruel, unhand, unreliable and evil it can be. There is very little to laugh about, it is a black book. I was reading it while I was ill and I literally wept loudly several times. The book offers no consolation and shows how hard the live was and is for many of the interviewees.

Why should you read this book?

This is a must read book, as it offers an unbelievable deep insight in contemporary Russian society, far from the mainly political, and often rather mono-perspective, news we receive almost daily through the media. Here we meet people of flesh and blood who have to cope with so many, often negative memories and big and generally difficult changes in their lives. They lost their certainties and believes, from whatever background they came, and rarely found positive alternatives. It is not possible to come more near to what people in Russia and Belarus have experienced and thought over the last twenty years, than through reading this book. It is a monument for everyday life history.

How can history, citizenship and heritage education benefit?

Second-hand Time, the Last of the Soviets is composed of longer and shorter ego documents and is therefore a multi-perspective evidence treasure of personal reflections on a multitude of issues such as the World War II, the political oppression, the financial problems of ex-Soviet citizens and the violence after the collapse of the Soviet Union. These different experiences and perspectives can also very well be used as basis for citizenship discussions about the benefits and drawbacks of political and economic systems.

 

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Author Svetlana Alexievich
Publisher Penguin Random House (2013)
Original language Russian
Language read Dutch
No. of pages Approx. 500
Genre Literature (non-fiction)