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March 2, 2011

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» Wikileaks and the Pentagon Papers

Julian Assange, founder of Wikileaks, perhaps the online community’s most well-known ‘whistle blower’ website, is currently under house arrest and awaiting extradition to Sweden for alleged sexual offences. Wikileaks has revealed previously secret details about the workings of the Church of Scientology, civilian casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan, and unflattering discussions between diplomats about foreign leaders. To some, Assange is a hero, to others a criminal. For example, in 2009 he received an award from Amnesty International. However, a number of US politicians have asked for his arrest, with one -- former presidential candidate Mike Huckabee – even claiming Assange should be executed for treason. How do we put such opposing viewpoints into historical context? Perhaps there are lessons to be learned from a previous whistleblower controversy.

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This current year is the 40th anniversary of the publication of the ‘Pentagon Papers’. In 1971, Daniel Ellsberg, a former Marine officer, who worked for the Rand Corporation, and his friend Anthony Russo, leaked a number of top secret documents to the New York Times. They revealed:

- President John F. Kennedy’s role in the overthrow and assassination of South Vietnamese head-of-state, Ngo Dinh Diem.

- The US’s secret bombing of Cambodia and Laos.

- The US had doubts if the ‘Domino Effect’ -- the underlying reason for the Vietnam War -- applied to Vietnam at all.

- That President Johnson had lied persistently to the American people about the scale and scope of the war.

- That American and Vietnamese civilian casualties were much higher than those reported by the US media.

- That the war was still being fought not to keep South Vietnam ‘free’, but to avoid a US humiliation.

The ‘Pentagon Papers’, as they came to be known, was a 7000-page history of the Vietnam War, originally commissioned by Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, and completed in 1968. These documents were meant to be seen only by senior Department of Defense staff, and by members of the Johnson administration. Ellsberg had worked for McNamara as a policy advisor and was originally a supporter of the war. However, by the end of the 1960s he had become an antiwar activist, convinced that individuals had a moral duty to oppose immoral actions, even if it meant imprisonment. After failing to convince senior politicians such as William Fulbright and George McGovern to release the documents, Ellsberg contacted the New York Times, which began publishing excerpts in June 1971.

<image class="left" src="http://historydivision.weblog.glam.ac.uk/assets/2011/2/9/scotus_pentagon_papers.jpg ">

The full weight of the state was brought to bear on Ellsberg. A warrant was issued for his arrest for alleged espionage. Nixon administration employees burgled Ellsberg’s psychiatrist, hoping to find something incriminating against him. They also secretly recorded his phone calls. These illegal acts were revealed at Ellsberg and Russo’s trial, and both were found not guilty of theft, conspiracy and espionage.

If it wasn’t for Ellsberg’s moral decision to oppose what he saw as an immoral war, we probably never would have known about the duplicity and illegal behaviour of three US administrations, and in particular, the myth of Kennedy’s ‘Camelot’ administration might not have been exposed. The verdict of history therefore seems to vindicate Ellsberg’s actions. I wonder, 40 years from now, will we view Julian Assange’s whistle blowing in the same light.

Brian Ireland

February 4, 2011

History Division News
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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.

<embed class="left" src="http://historydivision.weblog.glam.ac.uk/assets/2011/2/4/Ernst_Th%C3%A4lmann_-_Wie_er_wirklich_war_3_5_2_.flv" height="400" width="600" /></embed>

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.

<image class="right" src="http://historydivision.weblog.glam.ac.uk/assets/2011/2/4/thaelmann_plaque.jpg" />

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 8, 2010

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» Speech of the Century - Vote Here

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Speeches in History


Last week saw the death, at the age of 82, of Ted Sorensen, one of John F. Kennedy’s key associates. It was Sorensen who drafted Kennedy’s landmark ‘Ask not what your country can do for you’ speech, delivered at the new President’s inauguration in Washington, January 1961. Tom Griffin, the University of Glamorgan’s media spokesperson, reflects here on Sorensen and his achievement.

Kennedy’s ‘Ask not’ speech was certainly memorable, but how does it rank alongside other great speeches of the modern era? Have a look at (or listen to) some of the other contenders at the Guardian's 'Great Speeches' mini-site and vote for your favourite. Comments - and alternative suggestions - can be entered below. Our poll closes at midnight on November 18th

Chris Evans

October 8, 2010

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» ‘Our Work Is a Mission’

The Friends’ Relief Service and Displaced People after the Second World War

<image src="http://historydivision.weblog.glam.ac.uk/assets/2010/10/8/Quakers.JPG" height="550px" width="720px" /> Image: Members of FRS 124 leaving Tilbury for Ostend in July 1945, from the Friends’ Library, London. Used with permission of the Religious Society of Friends in Great Britain

Dr Fiona Reid considers past perspectives on relief work

After the Second World War there were about 10 million displaced people (DPs) in Europe alone. The United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration was responsible for most of them, yet voluntary societies, such as the Friends Relief Service (FRS) played a huge role too.

The FRS was organised by the Quakers, although not all of its members were Quakers. Team members were largely motivated by the belief that humanitarian work was an expression of Christian commitment and they defined themselves against the highly professionalised model of relief work being pioneered by UNRRA. FRS teams often presented an image of themselves as simply good-hearted amateurs doing their best, yet the Quaker training and selection process was rigorous. Unlike UNRRA, FRS teams were proficient in local languages and only 1 in 10 applicants to the FRS was accepted. The Quakers clearly and deliberately understated their own training. But why? Possibly from a sense of modesty, possibly from a sense of moral superiority, or possibly because they simply felt inadequate when faced with the realities of life in a DP camp. Yet this strong world view – erroneous in itself – may well have maintained morale and protected FRS teams from some of the psychological trauma of relief work.

Fiona Reid is head of Glamorgan's History Division. Her research and teaching specialisms include the social impact of World War II and the history of refugees. This entry summarises the conclusions of her research presentation to the history division's War, Violence and Society seminar series, ‘Our Work Is a Mission’: The Friends’ Relief Service and Displaced People after the Second World War.

September 21, 2010

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» Papal Aggression in postsecular Britain?

<image src="http://historydivision.weblog.glam.ac.uk/assets/2010/9/21/ArchbishopandPoperesized.jpg " />

Dr Timothy Jones reflects on Benedict XIV's visit to Britain

In the lead up to Pope Benedict’s recent state visit to Britain, Vatican ecumenical expert, Cardinal Walter Kasper compared arriving in Heathrow to landing in a third world country and talked of Britain’s ‘aggressive new atheism’. His comments were regarded as bizarre diplomatic faux pas. They were reported with barely suppressed glee by the liberal press alongside protests against the child abuse scandal and Vatican policy on HIV-AIDS prevention, remarriage and homosexuality. Cardinal Kasper’s comments, rightly condemned as racist, nonetheless identify a real shift in the religious landscape of Britain.

Opposition to the Pope’s visit was principally from secularists rather than Protestants. While this secular anti-Catholicism had clear parallels with Britain’s historic sectarian anti-Catholicism it is different in key ways. The most interesting difference is the failure of the new atheists to tap into nationalist sentiment. As ticket sales to the Pope’s public appearances attest, most Britons were apathetic rather antagonistic to the Pope’s visit. Britain might not be especially Christian anymore, but neither is it especially secular. Secularists appeared as ideologically motivated in their irreligion as the religionists they opposed.

In their public interactions, the Pope and the leaders of the Church of England were presented on remarkably equal footing. The Roman Church claims to be the one true Church with universal jurisdiction, yet Benedict had tea with the Queen, the head of the Church of England. Perhaps more dramatically, on Friday the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury jointly lead evensong at Westminster Abbey. They processed down the aisle side by side and pronounced the benediction in unison. This ritual display of equality belies recent sectarian conflict.

Scholars are now suggesting that rather than entering a secular age contemporary Britain is better described as postsecular. Society is increasingly organised around secular principles and the country is rarely described as ‘Christian’ anymore. While Christian churches continue to play a social role (one that may be about to be dramatically expanded in David Cameron’s ‘big society’), they are more and more seen as players in a more level ideological landscape that also includes Muslim, Hindu and secular ideologies.

As the Pope's visit has illustrated, the central religious problematic in modern Britain is no longer secularisation, but multiculturalism. And perhaps the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury walking arm in arm down the aisle of Westminster Abbey on the eve of the beatification of John Henry Newman can be read as a good omen for multicultural Britain. After all, Cardinal Newman was contiguously the greatest Anglican and the greatest Catholic in nineteenth-century Britain.

Dr Timothy Jones teaches and researches modern British history and the histories of religion, fundamentalism, gender and sexuality.

July 29, 2010

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» Symbols of Oppression?

Graduate Prizewinners in History, 2010

Hijabs and headscarves have made headlines all over Europe recently. Is the Islamic veil a security threat, a symbol of oppression, a rejection of modernity? What can a historian add to this debate? In her prize-winning BA dissertation, Kara Hynes describes how French colonists stigmatised the wearing of the veil in Algeria long before twentieth-century feminism or fears of Islamist terrorism introduced new controversy. In revolutionary Iran, women wore the veil as a symbol of rebellion, even gender equality. More recently, it has been described as a "gateway to education"; adopted as a fashion item by young 'Muhajababes'; and used in performance art to challenge stereotypes concerning Muslim women.

Kara argues that veil has become the main symbol of differences between Islam and the rest of the world - and that its symbolic importance may distract us from its complex history. Catrin Isaac, the other recipient of this year's Ursula Masson Memorial Prize, confronted another powerful symbol in her BA dissertation: the nineteenth-century workhouse.

<image class="left" title="Kara Hynes, Helen Molyneux, Catrin Isaac" src="http://historydivision.weblog.glam.ac.uk/assets/2010/7/29/prize2.jpg" alt="Photograph - award of Ursula Masson Prize" />

Until now, historians had barely touched upon the treatment of pauper children in nineteenth-century Wales. Catrin discovered that records preserved in the archives challenge the Dickensian image of the workshouse as a place where children were subject to unabated cruelty. Wales lagged behind England in funding alternative, family-style accommodation for destitute children, yet there is evidence that trustees were anxious to provide their charges with a 'sense of home'.

A third History BA graduate, Daniel Robinson, received the Alison Waite Memorial Prize (shared with Tiffany Oben, BA graduate in Art Practice). This prize rewards the students who achieve the highest average grade for third-year work in Humanities and Languages. Dissertations by history's three prizewinners will feature in a collection of outstanding undergraduate work to be published by the history division later this year.

June 23, 2010

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» Panzers in Pembrokeshire?

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Cold War Wales and the Labour Party

Why did a Labour government send British soldiers to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan?

According to Glamorgan's Norry LaPorte, the Labour Party's development since the 1980s has brought supporters of 'realpolitik' to the fore. Foreign affairs and military strategy shaped Labour's development in the UK - and in Wales. From the spectre of German tanks in Pembrokeshire, through the founding of the Greenham Common Peace Camp, to Michael Foot's disarmament campaign, Wales and Welsh Labour engaged vigorously with Cold War politics. But the British public's response to unilateralist policies finally convinced the party that a pro-American stance was the route to electoral success.

Experts will gather to discuss Cold War Wales: Peace, Politics and Culture at the University of Glamorgan on June 26th 2010. This is a Centre for Modern and Contemporary Wales event, organised by Dr Norry LaPorte, Dr Fiona Reid, and Professor Gareth Williams of Glamorgan's History Division. Download the programme and registration form here, and read more of Dr LaPorte's analysis at the Western Mail.

March 25, 2010

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» Re-reading the Past

<image src="http://historydivision.weblog.glam.ac.uk/assets/2010/3/25/Screenshot.png" height="425px" alt="screenshot" width="712px" />

Saving Cardiff's Rare Books Collection

For decades, Cardiff Council Library hid a treasure – a collection of 18,000 rare books purchased and donated in the nineteenth century for the benefit of the people of the city. During the twentieth century, the books were almost forgotten – the catalogue which had recorded their existence destroyed; the hoard presumed to be an insignificant, lesser copy of greater collections elsewhere.

In fact, like any rare books, the Cardiff Council holdings were truly distinctive. Industrialised printing, developed in the nineteenth century, produces identical copies. Print with moveable type, used in European book production from the mid-fifteenth century, created books as part of a slower and more flexible process. Binding and colouring vary from one exemplar to the next , and even the text itself can vary within one print run, as the manufacturers modified text in response to political events and censors' reactions. Readers frequently added their own notes in ink, even to lavish and costly books: this was seen as a way of adding value to the material. Every item in a rare books collection is a unique artefact, offering new information about the past.

There's more still to the Cardiff collection. After it was announced in 2007 that the books were to be auctioned off, scholars protested and began a long overdue investigation of the collection. Among recorded holdings, they found 175 incunabula – the most treasured of rare books, printed before 1500: estimates for the number of incunabula editions worldwide are only 28,000. They found rare seventeenth-century editions of Shakespeare's works, with copious handwritten notes from early readers. Other highlights include scarce civil war tracts, atlases and herbariums, Welsh-language material and art-house prints. We have much more to learn about this collection: statistically, it's highly probable that it contains titles unknown anywhere else in the world. There's no doubt that its contents can help to update and revise our grasp of past events. But its mere existence is significant for Cardiff's history: the donors and purchasers of these books firmly believed that the city needed a truly world-class library, and that the books they collected would be appreciated first and foremost by the general public.

For this reason, the Cardiff Heritage Friends group campaigned for the books to be kept in Cardiff and made available to its people as the donors intended. We were delighted to learn, earlier this month, that the collection will now be preserved for the city thanks to a shared initiative between Cardiff Council, Cardiff University, the Welsh Assembly Government, and the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales (HEFCW). For more on the books and the campaign, see the Cardiff Heritage Friends website.

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 5, 2009

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» Historian visits Cursed Earth

Brian Ireland writes for 2000AD

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Dr. Brian Ireland has written a short article for 2000AD about the epic Judge Dredd story 'The Cursed Earth'. Brian is writing a book about movement and mobility in the United States, and is particularly interested in the road genre in cinema, literature and music. In this short article, Brian discusses the Cursed Earth story in the context of road genre films and novels, and focuses on the recurring plot theme contrasting urban and rural America -- the city versus the frontier motif. The article is scheduled to appear in 2000AD Prog 1659 (on sale 28 October).

A longer academic article by Brian, entitled 'Errand into the Wilderness: The Cursed Earth as Apocalyptic Road Narrative', has been accepted for publication by the Journal of American Studies (Cambridge).