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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 26, 2009

History Division News
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» Invitation to A-Level History Conference, 16th September

<image class="left" src="http://historydivision.weblog.glam.ac.uk/assets/2009/6/24/schoolsdocs300.jpg" alt="images of documents" />

Glamorgan's History Division will host its annual A-Level Conference on 16th September 2009. This event is open to A2 level teachers and students. Entry is free, but schools must book places. The conference offers a taste of university life and a selection of workshops relevant to students' work on the WJEC History syllabus.

The event consists of a morning programme, free lunch, and optional afternoon session, and runs from 9.45 to 2.30. Speakers will include Caryl James, a WJEC principal examiner, Professor Chris Evans, head of the History Division, Dr Norry LaPorte, an expert in twentieth-century German History and Dr Jane Finucane, who specialises in early modern Europe.

Caryl James will open the event by explaining how students should approach the A2-level exams and assessments to maximise their chances of success. Speakers from the history division will offer workshops on finding and using sources to solve historical problems, designed to support students' independent historical investigation. Teachers are encouraged to contact us to find out how these sessions can be customised to meet their students' requirements.

In the afternoon, students may choose to attend lectures on Nazi Germany or on the German Reformation. These lectures will be delivered by subject experts and will be relevant to the A-Level in-depth studies on these areas.

Glamorgan's History division is rated first in Wales for research quality and student satisfaction. We're expanding our schools programme to share our expertise with teachers and students preparing for exams. To find out more about this and future events, or to book a place for your school on this conference, e-mail Jane Finucane (jfinucan@glam.ac.uk)

January 28, 2009

History Division News
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» News from the classroom ... Lenin's Successor in Soviet Russia

Third Year Option: ‘The Soviet Union and Stalin, 1917-1953’

<image src="http://historydivision.weblog.glam.ac.uk/assets/2009/1/27/Stalin-Lenin-Kalinin-1919crop1.jpg" height="248px" alt="Joseph Stalin, Vladimir Lenin, and Mikhail Kalinin, 1919" width="720px">

One popular option among students studying modern European history at Glamorgan is Norry LaPorte’s third year module on ‘The Russian Revolutions and the Soviet Union, 1917-1953’. A typical class deals with the rise of Stalin to absolute power during the 1920s.

Many leading personalities in history have been more than historical actors. By writing memoirs and other accounts of the events they were involved in, they aim to frame the subsequent historical debate. Trotsky was famously one such figure. His eloquent writings on the power struggle to succeed Lenin, after his death in 1924, were influential in prompting generations of scholars to dismiss Stalin as a power-hungry thug with no understanding of Marxism. One man, not the new Soviet system, could be blamed for the degeneration of the evolution, from bright new dawn of the ‘red October’ to the dungeons of the secret police’s torture chambers. Then the fall of the Berlin Wall opened the way to new research which used newly available documentary sources to question seeming certainties. Historians became familiar with previously unknown aspects of Stalin, the Georgian poet and intellectual whose appeal to ‘workers from the bench’ with radical polices were as important as his manipulation of the party machine in becoming Soviet Russia’s bloody, undisputed leader. Trotsky – the writer of history – was shown to have been as politically incompetent as he was intellectually gifted.

Students studying this topic engage with contemporary accounts of how Stalin came to power, questioning them in the light of the new findings and interpretations of new literature – such as Dimitri Volkoganov’s monumental biographies of Stalin and Trotsky. There is only one problem with studying the fall of the Russian Empire and the rise of the Soviet Union – how do you put the books down or walk out of the seminar room?