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August 8, 2011

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» The Glorious Dead?

The ruins of Oradour-sur-Glane War memorials dominate the French landscape, especially in the north where each tiny village has a statue or a plaque dedicated to men ‘Morts pour la France’. They were all built to commemorate the First World … Continue reading

July 31, 2011

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» Helsinki, Sweden

If you are invited to join a gathering of Swedish historians you expect to find yourself in Sweden. So why does my plane land in Helsinki? It’s not quite as strange as it seems. Two hundred and fifty years ago … Continue reading

July 28, 2011

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» Sachsenhausen 1: the ‘Geometry of Total Terror’

History Student Fieldtrip to Germany, July 2011 The gateway to Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp. Photo: Pete Driscoll As we walked through the gates of the former concentation camp Sachsenhausen on the outskirts of Berlin, under the obscene slogan `Through Work, Freedom’ … Continue reading

July 27, 2011

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» Berlin Notes: Weimar Cinema comes home

History Student Fieldtrip to Germany, July 2011 Sony Center, Potsdamer Platz, Home to the German Cinematheque. Photograph: Caitlin Freitag. Twenty years ago, the Potsdamer Platz was Europe’s biggest building site. While the Berlin Wall was in place, the square was … Continue reading

July 13, 2011

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» Aufarbeitung – a new word for history

History Student Fieldtrip to Germany, July 2011 Visiting the Foundation for the ‘Aufarbeitung’ of the SED Dictatorship With Dr Ulrich Maehlert (far right): Gary Brady, Pete Driscoll, Huw Edwards, Ceri Carter, Linda Graham, Dave Pennell, Jonathan Durrant, Kirsty Pullin, Norry … Continue reading

July 9, 2011

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» Making History in Berlin

Dave, Kirsty and Katie follow the traces of the Berlin Wall How do we remember and discuss the past? It’s a complicated question for any society, and nowhere more than in Germany. Germans are already preparing for the extraordinary ‘constellation … Continue reading

February 2, 2011

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» He who controls the past…

The Politics of the Past: How Germany forgot its most prominent communist leader

Norry Laporte

Over the last couple of years, Glamorgan historian Dr Norry LaPorte has been working with Hamburg curator Sabine Brunotte & Central German TV (MDR), which broadcasts to the form East Germany, to recover the forgotten past of communist leader Ernst Thälmann. Below he discusses why history – its uses and abuses – is so important to states and the politics they want their citizens to believe in.

Two decades after the end of the Cold War, an exhibition and book of short biographies dedicated to the victims of fascism in Hamburg finally includes the leader of the German Communist Party (KPD) during the troubled Weimar Republic. But why was Ernst Thälmann, one of Hamburg’s most prominent sons from the 1920s and early 1930s, forgotten until the second decade of the twenty-first century? The answer lies in the division of Germany throughout the Cold War, when it stood on the front-line of the ideological struggle between capitalism and communism.

Norry LaPorte appears as historical commentator in the MDR documentary Ernst Thaelmann, Wie er wirklich war’ (The real Ernst Thaelmann). In this excerpt, he consider’s Thaelmann’s initial response to the rise of Hitler.

In 1925 Thälmann had stood as the communist candidate in the presidential elections, bringing him to national prominence. Radicalised by the war and then the localised civil war in Germany following defeat, he joined the communist movement and rose rapidly in its ranks. From 1919 he was a municipal councillor in Hamburg and in 1924 he took up a seat in the national parliament, the Reichstag, in Berlin; in 1924 he was appointed to the Executive Committee of the Communist International, making frequent visits to Moscow, and became the chairman of the KPD the following year. It was a rapid political rise which ended just as abruptly after the Nazi ’seizure of power’ in 1933. After almost 12 years in prison – including being tortured by the Gestapo – he was shot by the SS in Buchenwald concentration camp in 1944. To the communist Germany after 1945, he became a hero – a model antifascist who had fought against Nazism and war.

Thaelmann Memorial Plaque: Photograph

The politics of cold-war West Germany demanded a very different way of interpreting its recent past. The communist East Germany (GDR) was a ‘totalitarian’ state, just like the Third Reich before it. Thälmann and the German Communists had not been antifascist but merely another enemy of the first German democracy, the Weimar Republic. They had acted as Moscow’s marionettes, doing Stalin’s bidding abroad. The two Germanys had constructed two histories, one the mirror image of the other. In the East, Thälmann gave his name to the communist youth movement, the Young Pioneers, films trumpeted his heroism and leadership in the fight against fascism and even school classrooms had a corner dedicated to his memory. In the West, including his home town of Hamburg, he was dismissed as Stalin’s sidekick, a name to be expunged from the public sphere. In 1956 a street in the city taking his name was renamed ‘Budapest Street’ to indicate West German hostility to communism. Only since the mid 1990s has there been a ‘Thälmann Place’ in Hamburg, which runs a few meters along the pavement where he used to live.

But why should what to remember or forget in history be important to states and their citizens alike? One recent example is what happened in Soviet Russia during the Gorbachev period in the 1980s. Permitting historians to criticise Stalin and Stalinism led to the questioning of Lenin and Leninism and within a short period the regime collapsed amid a crisis of legitimacy. It is a lesson the Chinese have learned from. Even although communism as a political project has been abandoned in the new China of markets and consumerism, the Communist Party keeps a tight grip on how the past is remembered. Censorship ensures that the public read and hear only of a party and movement which ended the exploitation of the ‘imperialist’ Western Empires and freed the country from this bondage. To be a ‘communist’ is, therefore, to be a patriot.

Germany is proud of its long political journey to the ‘West’ – by which it means political democracy and a high level of redistribution through the welfare state – and it has good cause to be. Extreme nationalism is all but pushed out of mainstream political discourse and social inclusion is a genuine national aspiration. But the very fact that it took two decades after the end of the Cold War to remember one of Hamburg’s most famous communist politicians shows just how important history is. As George Orwell told us in his dystopian novel 1984, ‘he who controls the past controls the future’.

November 10, 2009

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» From First Remembrance Day to Remembrance Today

<image title="The first remembrance ceremony at the Cenotaph, as pictured in the Manchester Guardian" src="http://historydivision.weblog.glam.ac.uk/assets/2009/10/28/Guardian.jpg" alt="photograph of 1919 memorial service">

Fiona Reid talks to BBC History

Listen to Fiona Reid on BBC History Podcast

The armistice which ended the Great War came into effect at 11am on 11 November 1918, and ninety years ago Britain came to a standstill to honour the dead of the Great War. The first remembrance ceremonies were commemorative rather than triumphant: ‘Today is Peace Day’ announced the Manchester Guardian and a reporter for the Times described the ‘great awful Silence’ that descended on London at 11 o’clock on November 11 1919. During the war approximately 750,000 British servicemen had been killed and about 500,000 had been wounded. About 10% of the population had lost someone very close to them, for example a son, a brother or a husband, and many more had lost friends, acquaintances and more distant relatives.

King George V had suggested that people observe two minutes of respectful silence to mark the first anniversary of the armistice: people were asked to remain silent at 11 o’clock, to cease activity, to stand with bowed heads and to think of the fallen. Yet to unite the whole country in a moment of contemplation required some organisation, especially given that times were not fully standardized throughout the UK. The silence was announced by maroons or church bells and it was universally observed. Everything and everyone stopped: buses, trains, trams and factories halted; workers, students and pupils stood still. Court cases stopped, even the ships of the Royal Navy were stopped.

<image class="left" src="http://historydivision.weblog.glam.ac.uk/assets/2009/10/28/poppies.jpg" alt="photo of poppies" />Other Remembrance Day traditions developed throughout the 1920s. In November 1920 the Unknown Warrior was buried in Westminster Abbey and over a million people visited it in its first week. There had long been a practice of wearing flowers to indicate a donation to charity and from 1921 artificial poppies were sold to raise money for wounded ex-servicemen. Now the Flanders poppy has become a uniform, universal symbol of memory but in the 1920s there were different types: expensive silk ones and cheaper cotton ones. The 1920s was also the period in which local war memorials were constructed. Over 5,000 of them had been built by 1920 and these were especially important given that so many men had died overseas. The French government gave permission for bodies to be exhumed from the Western Front and re-buried in family graveyards but British families were not allowed to do so and British war dead remained abroad.

Armistice Day was not always unifying. Often it provoked controversy. Wounded ex-servicemen sometimes protested at remembrance ceremonies – they were tired of the attention being paid to the dead when they were trying to live on inadequate pensions. During the mid to late 1920s bright young things held big parties on 11 November: after all that fighting it was just good to be alive. Later, in the 1930s, the Peace Pledge Union began to sell white poppies (symbols of pacifism) in contrast to what some saw as the more militaristic Flanders poppy.

During the Second World War, Armistice Day became less important and in the post-war years the 11 November commemorations were replaced by services held on Remembrance Sunday. As the First World War receded rapidly in popular memory it was widely assumed that it would be increasingly insignificant. Yet in the mid-1990s the British Legion effectively lobbied for a return of the two-minute silence and Armistice Day ceremonies became increasingly well-attended towards the end of the twentieth century. On 11 November 2009 there will be another significant turning point in the history of Armistice Day. Last year there were three Great War veterans at the Cenotaph but this year there will be none because the last veteran, Harry Patch, died in August.

Armistice Day is often presented as an unbroken tradition of patriotic remembrance. This is not the case. Over the years Armistice Day has provoked sorrow, anger, political protest, celebration and reverence. The ceremonies at the Cenotaph can be seen as overtly-militaristic yet Armistice Day also allows for the expression of pacifist sentiments. Do these official commemorations simply provide the space for a safe - and thus disempowered - pacifism? Or do they provide an opportunity for a broader discussion of war and its meaning?

<image class="right" src="http://historydivision.weblog.glam.ac.uk/assets/2009/10/28/WhitePoppy_copy.jpg" alt="photo of white poppy" />

Dr Fiona Reid discusses the history of Armistice Day in November’s BBC History Magazine

October 7, 2009

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» The History Boys and the Bayonet

Investigating the Butcher Blade

<image class="left" title="Bayonet found in Abercynon" src="http://historydivision.weblog.glam.ac.uk/assets/2009/10/7/smallbayonet_copy_1.jpg" height="900" alt="Photo of Bayonet" width="150">

Imagine the scene: students moving into a shared house in Abercynon.

A van full of furniture, an empty house awaiting the house-warming party.

After much puffing and panting we get the furniture in and get ready to dash for the pub (Ian’s forgotten the milk and coffee, so the pub is the only answer).

Peter hands me a rusty piece of metal. “It’ll look good on wall above the fireplace“, he says.

When I get home I am amazed to find the object is a military bayonet.

Although I'm not an expert restorer I begin to clean off the rust and paint (someone had been using what later turned out to be a significant historical artefact to stir paint) to find a series of numbers and symbols etched into the blade and hilt.

The symbol was of a crown surmounted by an arc in which was written the word Wilhelm. Also clearly embossed on edge of the hilt was the letter P with the number 15.

The thing that stood out about this 18 inch Bayonet was the serrated or sawback edge to the weapon. Our research revealed that the symbol of the crown surmounted by the arched word Wilhelm represented Kaiser Wilhelm II. The number 15 related to its year of issue, 1915, and the letter P to Prussia, where a German Pioneer Regiment was raised. That in itself was worth recording.

But the most striking issue was the sawback edge on the blade of bayonet which extended approx 12-14 inches along what would normally be described as the blunt edge of the bayonet. Continued research established that it was in fact a “German Sawback Butcher Blade”. British and allied media spun great political propaganda from these weapons. They gave readers details of injuries allegedly inflicted with this weapon as proof of the levels of atrocity commited by the 'Bestial Hun'. There were unconfirmed reports of German prisoners who were caught in possession of this fearsome-looking weapon being summarily executed. |ndeed the great anti-war classic All Quiet on the Western Front includes a scene where two German soldiers discuss the risk of being executed on the spot by 'British Tommies' if caught in possession of the dreaded sawback blade.

Our research shows that the sawback blade was issued to only 6% of German troops and indeed, the sawback serration was intended to be used by pioneer corps NCOs for cutting fence poles and barbed wire etc. But such was the power of propaganda that German Command recalled all sawback bayonets and had their edges ground down in 1916. This helped us narrow down the date the blade was captured. Clearly it must have been captured before 1916 when these blades were recalled, but after 1915 when it was made.

Hopefully further research will help us establish in which battle or skirmish this bayonet was actually taken and identify its rightful owners. The bayonet itself has been verified by the National Army Museum as an authentic ‘sawback butcher blade’ used in the bloodiest of conflicts.

As good history boys, we started our research by contacting the leader of foundation history, Dr Andy Croll, who proved to be a mine of valuable information. He put us in contact with Dr Fiona Reid, Glamorgan History Division's expert on Word War One. She has since lent the ‘sawback butcher blade’ to a secondary school as a teaching aid.

For us, most importantly, as history students, it shows that history is all around us and historic puzzles appear in some of the most unlikely situations. Stay tuned to the History boys for sequels. You can find us on the facebook group site of Glamorgan University's History Society.

Gary Brady

September 28, 2009

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» Politics of Memory in Germany

Remembering Ernst Thälmann: Antifascist or Stalin’s Henchman?

<image title="Ernst Thälmann Monument in Halle, Saxony. Source: Deutsches Bundesarchiv (German Federal Archive), Bild 183-71968-0001, licenced according to http://tiny.cc/kWMwb" src="http://historydivision.weblog.glam.ac.uk/assets/2009/9/28/ThaelmannHalle1960.jpg" alt="Ernst Thaelmann Monument in Halle, Saxony" />

The politics of memory may not have been an explicit theme in Sunday’s German elections. But for the Brandenburg village of Borkwalde, like the rest of the former communist east, the nationwide success of the post-communist Left Party (Die Linke) ensures that the topic will not go away.

Glamorgan’s Norry LaPorte is the author of a forthcoming biography of the leader of the German Communist Party in the 1920s and early 1930s, Ernst Thälmann. He was invited by the Left Party to give his views on the vexed question of whether German communists had been the nation’s foremost antifascists or anti-democratic Stalinists. The question had a concrete local basis. Borkwalde's memorial to Ernst Thälmann is protected under the terms of German reunification, but offers no information about his life. Should a plaque be added so that visitors can find out more about Thälmann, and if so, what should it say?

To the villagers who grew up in the communist East, this seemed a straightforward issue. In the former German Democratic Republic, they had learned that Ernst Thälmann had fought against the rise of Hitler and, rather than renounce his beliefs, had been executed on Hitler’s orders in autumn 1944 – as the Red Army advanced toward Berlin. The film shown at the beginning of the discussion – Ernst Thälmann: Leader of his Class (1955) – seemed to validate their view.

There was just one – crucial – issue. Their new neighbours, who had moved into Borkwalde from West Germany since reunification, did not share their political memory. In the old, cold-war West Germany, Thälmann symbolised the Stalinisation of the interwar communist party and the Soviet occupation of eastern Germany. They looked to another historical construction – or ‘collective memory’ – of the German past. When they spoke of Hitler's opponents, they, emphasised the quiet dissent of politicians like Konrad Adenauer, who retreated from public life during the Third Reich and returned to politics after the war as a champion of German democracy. Or they remembered the July Bomb Plot and the resistance of army officers like Claus Stauffenberg who attempted to kill Hitler and break with Nazism as the war turned against Germany.

To use an old metaphor, Glamorgan’s communism expert was on the horns of a dilemma and the bull it was attached to was charging towards him! There was only one possible answer – the ‘truth’. Neither version of the past was true. Both were the sort of ‘myths’ that all states use to forge collective identities and foster patriotism. I had to tell them that the unloved Weimar Republic was desperately short of democrats.

But, to ensure the full ‘truth’ be told – and to ensure the dilemma could run past without causing too much damage – they were reminded that Germany today is one of the world's most successful democracies.