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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 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 21, 2011

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» History through a Lens – German Film

History Student Fieldtrip to Germany, July 2011 Visit to the Deutsche Kinemathek – Museum für Film und Fernsehen (German Cinematheque – Museum for Film and Television) Along with history, film has always been one of my greatest passions. One of … Continue reading

April 17, 2011

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» Tour de France (5) – Sharif Gemie

Presentation - Photograph

Miles of Aisles

To Albi, way down in the south of France and a twelve-hour train journey from Nancy. I’m going in order to attend a meeting of the EXILIO network: a small research project which links researchers in Britain, France and Spain who are studying refugee history. Ideally, we’d just like to get together and chat, but in order to get funding for a meeting, we have to do something more spectacular, so we’ve organised one day of public papers, to be followed by a morning of private debate.

Albi University is gaining quite a reputation in France: it’s one of France’s newest universities, one of its smallest universities and – as all French academics comment – probably also one of its cleanest. It’s based in a converted barracks, dating from 1880: big, symmetrical, three-story buildings, typical of Third Republic (1870-1940). Today, the sun is shining, and the University certainly seems to be gleaming in order to meet the EXILIO network.

There’s an unpleasant shock as we arrive: the – for want of a better word – ‘leader’ of the EXILIO network, Scott Soo, has sprained his ankle very badly, and is unable to attend. The organisers of the conference are unwilling to just drop one paper, and so they ask me to provide a paper in French. I have just given one paper twice in Nancy and Rennes, but it’s not really on the conference theme: Anti-Fascist Refugees. I spend the day before the conference tinkering about with my powerpoint presentation, setting myself the question of considering whether UNRRA could be considered as ‘official anti-fascism’. I think I’ve got enough material to last twenty minutes.

The conference starts: Laure Humbert, who was my research assistant in 2007-10, gives one of the first papers. Her title suggests that she is going to talk about Displaced Persons in the French zone of Germany: in practice, she talks at some length about UNRRA, asking whether this organisation could be considered as anti-fascism in practice. Although she approaches the topic from a different angle, and although she doesn’t show illustrations, I can’t help thinking that her paper is quite similar to mine. Over the lunch hour, I look again at my paper, and decide that I could say more about The Search, a film produced in 1947-48 with the help of UNRRA. I speak last, and most of the conference audience is not looking for a long paper at that point. I feel quite nervous at the beginning. Afterwards, everyone is very polite about my paper at the end: Laure herself comments that I sound more confident in French. I’m not entirely convinced.

Albi University, France: Photograph

The conference as a whole seems to suggest some problems with ‘anti-fascism’ as a concept. Many refugee groups were positively attracted towards elements of Nazism in the 1930s, and many turned anti-communist after 1947 or 1948. Even those who were motivated to become anti-fascists had very varying motivations. I find myself thinking that there seem to be two interpretations present: a political analysis of refugees, and a social analysis of refugees. How can the EXILIO network survive?

By the next morning we’re all tired. There’s a certain amount of administrative formalities to complete, but we finally get on to discussing the main themes. We all like each other, and nobody is going to say anything openly critical of anyone. Normally, discussions are tri-lingual (English, French and Spanish), but as I’m the only Brit present, and as everyone can speak French, we tend to speak in French most of the time, with a few comments in Spanish. I do comment that I think we had all been rather naive before the conference in assuming that the concept of ‘anti-fascism’ would be a simple, unproblematic term. There seems to be some agreement that we could look again at the term. Things look up as the delegate from Santiago de Compostela (in Galicia) says that he thinks he could obtain funding for another conference, with Spanish as the principal language.

We’re all keen to meet again: we leave with the firm intention of meeting in the City of the Way in summer 2012.

Sharif, 16 April 2012

April 5, 2011

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» Tour de France (1) – Sharif Gemie

Tour de France: Blog Entry One

The Ship that Carried a Quarter of France

The Zenith : Photograph

The Zenith

I had meant to make several short trips to France this year. I wasn’t able to arrange these, so instead I’m making one fortnight-long journey to the four corners of France. I’m starting, of course, in Saint-Malo in Brittany, where most British tourists arrive. As I’m going to be giving two lectures in French, I need to remember how to speak French, and a couple of days wandering around what is still a very pleasant Breton port is as good a way of doing this as any.

I haven’t been here for a year. One thing that has changed is the re-construction of the Zenith. This little fishing boat played an important political role in June 1940. Following the German invasion and victory, Charles de Gaulle made a speech of the BBC, telling French people that the struggle was not over, and that they should re-group under his command to fight the German occupation. Most historians tend to argue that very few French people actually heard this speech: few people owned radios, and in the confusion of defeat, fewer were listening to the BBC. One little group who was listening were the people of the Breton island of Sein, out to the west of Brittany. Following his broadcast, 95 men crowded onto the Zenith. Another 33 from the island travelled on other boats.

When De Gaulle conducted his first review of his five hundred soldiers, he found that a many of them came from the Sein. Then, according to legend, he uttered the immortal words that ‘the Sein is a quarter of France’. Fifteen years ago, the Zenith was a wreck, but year by year it is being remade into the boat in was in 1940.

February 4, 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.

<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’.

February 2, 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.

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’.

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.

March 15, 2010

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» History Cinema: "The Search"

Introduction and Screening: Thursday 18th March

<image src="http://historydivision.weblog.glam.ac.uk/assets/2010/3/15/search.jpg" />

By the end of World War II, Europe faced a refugee crisis involving seven million people. This was a major challenge for the allied victors. Their response can be reconstructed through the memoirs and official records, but what can historians learn from the way their work shown to the wider public?</>

‘The Search’ (1948) is a unique example of a film concerning post-war refugees. Filmed on location in still war-devastated Germany, it depicts relief workers, American soldiers and Displaced Persons. Some of its child actors came from refugee camps, and the film was made with cooperation from the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA), one of the subjects of Glamorgan's Outcast Europe research project. But 'The Search' was not just an obscure docudrama; it was a box-office success, a classic Hollywood film which triumphed at the Oscars.

Sharif Gemie invites all students and staff to a screening of "The Search" on Thursday 18th March 2010, 5.00-7.00pm, Room J132.

Contact sgemie@glam.ac.uk for further details.