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September 28, 2009

History Division News
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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.

July 15, 2009

History Division News
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» Dangerous Times?

Norry LaPorte speaks to BBC History Magazine

The Great Depression of the late 1920s and 1930s has been back in the news this year. Commentators have been pondering the link between economic crises and political extremism, dwelling on the collapse of the Weimar Republic, which fell to Nazism a few years after the crash of 1929. Glamorgan Historian Norry LaPorte has been studying protest and violence in the interwar period, looking at divergent experiences in Britain and Germany. In an interview published in the BBC History Magazine in association with the History and Policy network, he considers the possible consequences of the current downturn. Here are five reasons not to expect the worst:


<image class="left" title="Bundesarchiv_Bild_146-1978-096-03, 1932" src="http://historydivision.weblog.glam.ac.uk/assets/2009/7/15/444px-Bundesarchiv_Bild_146-1978-096-03__Mecklenburg__Wahlpropaganda_der_NSDAP.jpg" height="473" alt="Electioneering, 1932" width="350" />

1. Historical Background – We've entered this crisis from a situation of stability, whereas Germany in 1929 was already struggling with the consequences of military defeat, civil war and hyperinflation.

2. Political Violence - Most of Germany's political parties already had paramilitary wings by 1929 – democracy was a new and shaky system and political violence was systemic.

3. Mass Protest – Governments were terrified of mass protest in the 1920s and 1930s – what we've seen recently in Britain have been protests from marginalised groups like the antiglobalisation protesters at the G20 summit.

4. Political Alternatives – We're seeing challenges to the governing party, not to the system. Britain reacted to the crash of 1929 by electing a Conservative government, and looks set to respond the same way again.

5. Learning from the Past – Today's world leaders have learned from the Great Depression and aren't opposed to any kind of fiscal stimulus – their attempts to stop the slump from becoming a crash may or may not succeed, but they have more options then their predecessors.

To read Norry's thoughts on the current crisis in full, buy a copy of July's BBC History Magazine.

June 18, 2009

History Division News
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» Glamorgan Historians work with Welsh Museums

<image class="left" src="http://historydivision.weblog.glam.ac.uk/assets/2009/6/18/museums.jpg" alt="Photographs, Museum Storehouse and Cardiff City Centre">

Two of Glamorgan's historians, Dr Jonathan Durrant and Dr Andy Croll, are working with Welsh museums as part of the Strategic Insight Programme (SIP). The programme enables staff in universities to build relationships with external partners.

Jonathan Durrant has been working with The National Museum of Wales at St Fagan's on the interpretation of space in its early modern buildings, particularly Hendre'r-ywydd Uchaf and the merchants' house from Haverfordwest which is currently being re-erected there. This secondment will lead to a workshop drawing together the expertise of historians, museum professionals, archaeologists, re-enactors and architects.

Andy Croll is working with museum experts who are setting up the 'Cardiff Story', a new museum dedicated to presenting the city's history. The museum is to be based in the Old Library in the Hayes - the former home of Cardiff Municipal Museum which closed its doors in 1922. Since that time, Cardiff has been without a civic museum dealing with the city's own history. The 'Cardiff Story' will fill that gap when it opens in the summer of 2010. Dr Croll has been joined on the museum's Academic Panel by two other Glamorgan historians - Professors Chris Evans and Gareth Williams.

History students will also benefit from the experience gained by Jonathan and Andy. Second-year students already visit St Fagan's while learning about different approaches to history. With these new collaboration, there are opportunities for student placements with the two museums and exciting courses in Public History can be developed that build on the insights gleaned in both Cardiff and St. Fagan's.