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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.

April 27, 2009

History Division News
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» Study Day: Women, Work, and Memory

In Response to War: Women, Work, and Memory in the Twentieth Century

<image title="Women's Study Day" src="http://historydivision.weblog.glam.ac.uk/assets/2009/4/27/womens_study_group_edit.jpg" alt="Photograph of participants">

The South West and Wales Women’s History Network and the Outcast Europe research centre held a study day on Saturday 25 April. This day was also part of a wider initiative in which University of Glamorgan historians aim to develop broad discussions on war, violence and society.

Study days are an ideal opportunity to discuss new projects and to present work in progress. Gill Abousnnouga (University of Glamorgan, English) presented a multi-modal analysis of war memorials. This is one of the many areas in which inter-disciplinary research can be fruitful and we hope very much to hear more about this project in the future. Sharif Gemie (University of Glamorgan, History) discussed the work of UNRRA in the Displaced Person’s camps of post-Second World War Europe. We were also pleased to welcome colleagues from the universities of Cardiff and Swansea. Tracey Loughran, (University of Cardiff) who has done much work on First World War shell shock, spoke about gendered interpretations of hysteria; Helen Steele (University of Swansea) talked about her research into the everyday lives of women in National Socialist Austria.

We hope that these study days promote greater collaboration both within and between university departments. The Women’s History Network Annual conference will take place on Saturday 4 July at the University of Wales, Newport. See the South West and Wales Women's History Network for further details.

April 20, 2009

History Division News
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» Study Day Invitation, 25th April: Women, Work, and Memory

In response to War: Women, Work, and Memory in the Twentieth Century

<image class="left" src="http://historydivision.weblog.glam.ac.uk/assets/2009/4/20/womenwarlogo1.jpg" alt="Photograph" />

The West of England and South Wales Women's History Network and Outcast Europe will host a study day on Saturday 25th April 2009 at the Treforest Campus of the University of Glamorgan, Rooms G305 and G304, from 10.30 till 3.00.


Gill Abousnnouga, (University of Glamorgan)
‘The representation of women in the war monument’ 

Sharif Gemie (University of Glamorgan)
‘Women, Welfare and Refugees: Displaced Persons and UNRRA (1944-48)’ 

Tracey Loughran (University of Cardiff),
‘The historiography of trauma and gender in the First World War’ 

Helen Steele (University of Swansea)
‘Daily Life in National Socialist Austria’  

Admission is free and all are welcome. Refreshments will be provided, but please bring a packed lunch. Click here for campus maps. For further information, contact Fiona Reid (freid1@glam.ac.uk), University of Glamorgan.

January 13, 2009

History Division News
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» The eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month: 11 November 1918

<image src="http://historydivision.weblog.glam.ac.uk/assets/2008/10/14/armistice_i_1.jpg" height="274px" width="448px">

Image: communiqué announcing the armistice

In November 1918, delegates from the main combatant powers met in a railway siding at the forest of Compiègne in France. There they drew up the details for the armistice which signalled the end of the First World War. The cease-fire was scheduled for 11.00am but Parisian early-risers had the news before dawn: the message was transmitted by Morse-code from the Eiffel Tower in the small hours of the morning.

This is how Lloyd George, the British Prime Minister, delivered the news to the House of Commons later that same day:

Thus at 11 o’clock this morning came to an end the cruellest and most terrible War that has ever scourged mankind. I hope we may say that thus, this fateful morning, came to an end all wars.

Clearly this was not the case. Contrary to popular expectations, this war did not end all wars. At the time, the conflict was described as the ‘Great War for Civilization’ but in retrospect we now associate it with much that was brutal and deeply uncivilized. This was the first total war and it brought previously unimaginable casualties: nearly 10 million men died and countless others suffered serious mental or physical wounds.

During the 1920s the Royal British Legion began to organise an annual poppy day to be held on the anniversary of each armistice. Veterans were employed to make and sell poppies, the proceeds from the sales then went to support wounded ex-servicemen and their families. In addition the symbol of the poppy came to signify the public remembrance of the war and the war dead. Now, poppies are used to signify the remembrance of all British war dead, and are a central part of the remembrance ceremonies at the Cenotaph and other memorial sites around the country.

Wearing a poppy is a politically controversial statement in many ways. BBC presenters and politicians are all obliged to wear them. This smacks somewhat of a state-imposed ritual. We are instructed to wear our poppy ‘with pride’. Why pride? Why not sorrow? Why do we officially remember only British war dead? Why not all war dead? Sometimes the remembrance services can seem too much like a glorification of war – although the services in this country strike me as considerably less celebratory than the ones I have witnessed in Paris. So does wearing a poppy glorify war? Some people have long argued that it does. Certainly in the inter-war years, and again during the 1980s, pacifist groups used to wear white poppies to encourage people to remember war without glorifying the killing.

I have not seen a white poppy for many years and I have no desire to glorify war. Yet wearing a poppy for a week in November does at least remind people of one simple – but strangely forgettable – fact, namely that people get killed in wars. Given that the current conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq seem to rumble on despite the credit crunch, we could all benefit from remembering that, whatever else they may do, wars always result in people being killed or maimed.

Dr Fiona Reid, History Division, University of Glamorgan

Fiona Reid’s book, Broken Men: Shell Shock, Treatment and Recovery in Britain 1914-30, will be published by Hambeldon in 2010.