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

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

EUROCLIO Reviews

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.

A Line in the Sand: Britain, France and the Struggle that Shaped the Middle East (2012)

 

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

 

A Comprehensive and Absorbing Narrative: Iron Kingdom. The Rise and Downfall of Prussia, 1600-1947

EUROCLIO Reviews ,

It is strange how my historical interest has developed over time. During my studies, I focused on social economic history of the 19th century and got a flavor for what in Groningen was called ‘contemporary history’, the period after 1945 till the present-day. In my time as history teacher, I was required to concentrate on the (international) history after 1917. Germanys’ history from 1914-1945 featured very strongly in my teaching and consequently also in my reading. However, what happened before or after this critical and ill-fated period of German history, was of little importance, and consequently the context of these historical periods were addressed rather superficially. Prussia and its culture featured for me in a rather simple narrative: an aggressive, militarist country, which was the clear progenitor of the Nazi state.

Christopher Clark tells in his book Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia, 1600-1947 a much more nuanced story. His comprehensive, mainly political and military, history of Prussia certainly portraits Prussia’s development as a country with big power aspirations. However, it also demonstrates that such aspirations were shared with other countries in Europe in the same period, and that what happened during this period within those countries shared many resemblances of the events and developments inside Prussia.

Germany in 1600 is a patchwork of territorial fragments, and Mark Brandenburg, in the 18th century to become Kingdom Prussia, shows a similar pattern. The book illustrates how Prussia expanded over time, due to beneficial marriage policies and conquests, and how it eventually became one of the most dynamic and powerful nations in Europe. This, however, is not a clear-cut narrative. The country was heavily affected by the devastating Thirty Year War, ending in 1648, and had afterwards great difficulty to rebuild itself due to a deficit of significant natural resources. The Seven Years War and especially the Napoleonic period had as well deep negative effects on the state of the country. The expansion of the country revealed also the challenges posed by a lack of coherent culture between the different territories. Especially the nobility East of the river Elbe and the Rhineland demanded high skilled leadership in keeping unity from Berlin.

Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia, 1600-1947 is a book true to the ideas of multi-perspectivity, based on a variety of sources in several different European languages.  His narrative tells us as well about the Prussian Enlightenment and following political reform policies, as about the conservative resistance and reversal of reforms. The chapter on Prussia between the two wars, informs us about a well led democratic state, an isle of tranquility in a very chaotic Germany. On the other hand the late 19th century on the contrary reveals a period of aggressive internal as well as international policy making. However, by looking beyond Prussia, it becomes clear how closely the Prussian experience resembles developments in other European countries. Clark refutes the special path narrative, what is so often applied to the history of Prussia, but also to German history in general. To his taste, too much of German history is written in a retrospective manner, giving significance to developments and events from a twentieth century perspective. The demise of Prussia in 1947 makes you realize how strong this imagery, created by historical and media narratives has worked: Prussia was the only German State dismantled by the Allies, due to its international reputation as reactionary, war-making and authoritarian State.

 Why should you not read this book?

Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia, 1600-1947 has a rather  traditional approach to history: it looks at the history of Prussia from a mainly political and military point of view, featuring many (aristocratic) men and very few women or people presenting other social strata in society. I would have liked to have learned more about everyday life in Prussia, hence to see more focus on cultural, social and economic history. Clarks’ use of numbers is a little careless; lots of (big) numbers are used without too much reference and without hesitation.

I also presume that I am not the only one with limited knowledge of Prussian history and therefore think that a pedigree of the Hohenzollern family would have been helpful. Especially for the early period, I found it difficult to understand which Elector, Frederick or Wilhelm Frederick was in charge. A list of the main events could have supported me to follow the main line. The edition I read provides maps, showing the extension of the Brandenburg/Prussian State and some theaters of wars. However, definitely for the earlier periods, some more and detailed maps, indicating sites of the mentioned battle fields and other events would certainly have been helpful, after all the map of this part of Europe is entirely changed. I also missed a bibliography.

Why should you read this book?

Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia, 1600-1947 is an incredibly rich book, which opens not only a panorama on the past of Brandenburg/Prussia but also on a long period of European history. It is well written and despite the fact that it covers chronologically 350 years of history, it is enthralling literature, every time asking new questions regularly reversing traditional narratives.

Clarks’ early work was on Judaism in Prussia. In Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia, 1600-1947 he applies this special research field by explaining the ambivalent and wavering attitude towards this population group over time. The Prussian Enlightenment opened the road to Jewish emancipation. However for Christian Prussians, but also for many Jews themselves, this emancipation meant to forego the Jewish religion and convert to Christianity. Consequently, as many as four out of the six children of the famous Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelsohn converted to Christianity. The late 18th Century (and also later) Prussian discourse about the Jewish emancipation and citizenship shows many similarities with the current debates about citizens of Islamic faith in many European countries.

There are also parallels with contemporary debates and attitudes in the story of the Culture War, launched by Councilor Bismarck in 1871, against the Catholic citizens of Prussia. His distrust about their loyalty to the State drove him to severely persecute them. However, the outcomes were contradictory to his goals: he only strengthened the Catholic community creating even as what Clark describes as political Catholicism. In the same period Bismarck overthrew the traditional ambivalent Prussian policy towards the Poles between tolerance and repression in favor of a harsh integration policy. The effects of this policy provide ample food for thought about current debates on integration of migrants and minorities.

How can history, citizenship and heritage education benefit?

The book offers a wealth of examples when we want to think with students about the instrumentalisation of history, Clark addresses in Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia, 1600-1947 the remembrance cultures regarding several periods in Prussian history. A special focus is on the instrumentalisation of the Wars of Independence, the struggle against Napoleon, giving insights in the way this period is remembered directly after that time as well as in later periods.  The memory about that era also reveals an interesting insight in changes but also in continuity in remembrance cultures, as many of the Prussian elements eventually became part of the German Imperial memory and also found their way in Nazi symbolism and enactments. And components even featured again in both the post- Second World War Germanys. And finally, I also think that the chapters about the way Prussia treated its minorities and migrants offer interesting materials for current classroom.

Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia, 1600-1947

 

Author Christopher Clark
Original title Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia, 1600-1947
Original language English
Available in German, Czech, Dutch, French and Polish
Language read English
No. of pages 750
Genre History

 

Free Book to Download: Teaching History in the Secondary School

EUROCLIO Reviews

This book focuses on three basic notions which I regard to be extremely important in history teaching.  First of all, which approach should a history teacher adopt? That is, what pedagogy or methodology to use. This decision is fundamental and must precede any teaching. Long gone are the days when ‘knowing the story’ and ‘telling it’ to a class is sufficient.  Effective history teaching requires a well-trained teacher who has both strong subject knowledge and pedagogical subject skills.  Making history accessible to adolescents and developing historical understanding in pupils needs specialised training.  Therefore the first two chapters debate precisely the hazards of certain approaches and the benefits of others.

Similarly to most European countries Malta today is a multicultural society and teaching any subject in such an environment needs a bit of extra thought.  All democratic politicians, educators and consultants exalt the benefits of living in a multicultural society.   However, what can a history teacher do?   I have long felt we are rich in rhetoric but poor in practical ideas of how to promote multiculturalism in any classroom let alone specifically in history lessons.  So the second part of the book is in fact presenting two personal research attempts (chapter 3 and chapter 4) in the local context to try and find ways how history can foster and stimulate pupils to think about multiculturalism.

Throughout my years as a history pedagogist I have watched and participated in various wonderful history lessons where pupils were very much engaged in learning, and participated fully in resource-rich lessons with tasks focused on interpretation and evidence analysis. Unfortunately, there were several occasions where these same lessons were followed by writing activities and it was then that the pupils floundered. The work produced by the pupils was not up to standard. I have given much thought to this anomaly and researched various work on how the writing of pupils can be improved. Anyone learning and studying history cannot escape from writing in history; it is part and parcel of the subject. Inevitably you are going to face occasions where you need to be able to read and understand fairly long and complex text, and in turn you need to produce written text. Therefore, as their dissertation tutor, I seized the opportunity to encourage two of my history teacher trainees to try out various techniques which would hopefully produce better written pupil feedback and better pupil understanding of written text. The last part of this book (chapter 5 and chapter 6) are two papers I wrote, based on the work carried out in these dissertations.  They were successful in both supporting pupils’ writing in history (Rosaline Caruana’s B.Ed Dissertation) and pupils’ understanding of history written text (Kimberly Caruana’s B.Ed Dissertation).

In sum, this book brings together my most recent research in history teaching which specifically focuses on aspects which I feel are of growing importance in my field.  While by no means offering permanent solutions, I hope this book contributes to the ongoing quest to find the best pedagogical approaches for history teachers to use.

Download the Book

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Otranto 1480 – Deconstructing Myths

In the radical position taken by the Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711–1776) we don’t get a real notion of the “self”. When I say “I” it means that I allow to a bundle of perceptions and a history of passed perceptions (our memories) to become my identity’s core idea. I.e. I am always my own on-going representation. Apparently the same process happens collectively. What is a community? A community seems to be a collection of memories. It does not depend on territory, language, ethnicity or religion. There are plenty of examples of communities without a precise territory, bi- or multi-lingual, multi-ethnic or multi-religious (though in the last case there is often a dominant religion), but all of them share somehow a pool of memory tales.

Historically speaking this has been surely the case of the community of Otranto, a small Italian town on the Adriatic Sea shore, only few miles from the Albanian cost. During the Roman and the Byzantine period its role and importance were inversely proportional to the Albanian coast distance. The oriental schism put it on the border between western and eastern Christianity. Once the Ottoman conquered Constantinople (1453), Otranto, at the time part of the Kingdom of Naples, became a defensive outpost against Turkish expansion. At least this is what one could believe according to a simplistic vision of history as clash of civilizations. Actually the king, Ferrante of Aragon (Ferdinand I) was much more involved in the Italian politics than in other geopolitical issues. Many of his military efforts were aimed to gain the greatest possible influence in Italy, leaving Otranto region quite undefended. The Ottomans, instead, after the victorious end of the first Ottoman-Venetian war (1463-1479) and conquest of Constantinople (1453) felt free to rebuild the unity of Byzantine Empire under their rule.

This is the background to the Ottoman expedition that took Otranto in 1480 and to Vito Bianchi's book "Otranto 1480 – Il sultano, la strage, la conquista" (Otranto 1480 – The sultan, the massacre, the conquest). Mehmet II the Conqueror (1432-1481), calling himself also Qayser-i Rûm (Roman Emperor), planned to be the new Justinian. He was a multi-layered, multifaceted and very complex figure to whom religion was not as important as it was to future generations who shaped the narrative of what happened in Otranto in 1480. Vito Bianchi describes vividly in this book the scenario of the Ottoman attempt to conquer the former Byzantine territories, Ottoman tactics as well as Otranto's defenders' strategies.

The invaders came prepared with huge amount of soldiers and warfare material, weapons, siege machines and logistics. Led by Gedik Ahmed “Toothless” Pasha (?-1482) they tried to impress the besieged in order to offer them an honourable capitulation instead of a bloody fight. The defenders, after a brief consulting, decide to resist at any cost, waiting for promised reinforcements that never appeared. After couple of weeks Otranto had to surrender, which led to plundering, pillaging and killings. As is usual after a fierce siege, the Ottoman killed in cold blood, with a solemn ceremony, those inhabitants of the city that were unfit for slavery and useless as prisoners to be ransomed. This theatrical enactment was surely aimed to terrorize the population of possible future targets.

More or less eight hundred people were implacably beheaded on a hill just outside the city.  After a long-lasting canonization process, Pope Francis proclaimed them saints on 12th of May 2013. The Catholic Church stated that they were killed because they refused to abjure. However, Vito Bianchi shows that according to evidence, “there wasn’t any conversion request at all, no faith blackmail or Christian martyrdom: at that point events were beyond the no return”.

But there was the memory. Firstly, the beheading accounts, handed out by the witnesses: a tale full of various prodigies concerning the victims' bodies. Secondly, the story of the remains, venerated openly, at least from the moment the Ottoman were forced to withdraw (mainly because of the plague): a narrative taken as a proof of sanctity of the dead people and somehow of the Otranto community as well. And finally the political account of the crusade against the infidels who invaded the Italian peninsula.

“The bulk of the massacred bones rest in Otranto Cathedral, where the local familiarity with the slaughter victims of the Turks and the sincere piety toward the fate of many known and remembered people, will keep alive feelings of deference, mingling martyrdom and simple emotion for the loved ones. Spontaneous, popular and firm, this intensely religious communal bound is engineered by the Roman Church to mean what it did not really mean, i.e. a symbol of the fight between the Cross and the Crescent”.

Why should you not read this book?

I quoted this passage because anyone could see that nowadays such a statement is, or could be highly controversial. It seems that the Otranto popular sentiment is not very keen to dismiss the actual sanctity of their martyrs.

Why should you read this book?

Even the Church had some doubts about this martyrdom. The canonization process was opened in 1539. The massacre victims were proclaimed “servants of God” only in 1771, very likely under the pressure of Ferdinand IV of Bourbon, King of Naples. But the full consecration happened only later, after the 500th massacre anniversary. During this half a millennium the town and its community venerated those dead people and, by means of this veneration, nurtured its own identity.

How can history, citizenship and heritage education benefit?

This book is very fine example of multi-perspective history and source interpretation. In the end the historian can ask about this historical episode: was it a clash of civilizations? Was it a symbol of the eternal fight between “us” and “them”? The answer seems to be negative. After all, it was firstly and mainly a question of secular politics on both sides.

Unfortunately the book is available only Italian, but perhaps this review could encourage translations in some EUROCLIO languages.

Otranto 1480 – The sultan, the massacre, the conquest

 

Author Vito Bianchi
Original title Otranto 1480 – Il sultano, la strage, la conquista
Original language Italian
Available in Italian
Language read Italian
No. of pages 310
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

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

EUROCLIO Reviews , ,

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.

CHILD PROMISE THAT YOU WILL SHOOT YOURSELF, THE DEMISE OF ORDINARY PEOPLE IN GERMANY IN 1945

 

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.

 

Have you read a book that you feel other history professionals should know about? Leave us a message and your book review might be next!
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)

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

Joke Van der Leeuw-Roord Reviews , , , ,

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 Belgium 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.

Have you read a book that you feel other history professionals should know about? Leave us a message and your book review might be next!

Congo: The Epic History of a People

 

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

Joke Van der Leeuw-Roord Reviews , ,

This book review is 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.

Have you read a book that you feel other history professionals should know about? Leave us a message and your book review might be next!

Secondhand Time, The Last of the Soviets

 

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