Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Toward Urban Dystopia

The BBC offers this interactive map on the last fifty years of urban population growth, with a look at the next eight. HT: The Map Room.

Clean Hands

What's in a name? NPR reported last week on how the Polish government wants to change the name of Auschwitz in order to emphasize that it was a German camp, not a Polish camp. According to the story, the Polish government feels that the extermination camp is mistakenly associated with Poland, because it lies on Polish soil. Much of the story concerns how UNESCO is handling the request, mostly focusing on contentious issue with regard to what kind of heritage site it is--a memorial, a museum?

For the life of me, I can't think of any time when I encountered someone who made this mistake. Sure, it was a German extermination camp, and no one would contend with that. However, NPR missed an opportunity to reveal how the current ruling duo on Poland, the Kaczynski brothers, suspected of fascist leanings, have been running afoul of historical memory, trying to draw sharp lines between victims and perpetrators, and attempting to seal Poland's victimhood.

Recently, the government required politicians and scholars to sign statements attesting that they never collaborated with the secret police during the communist era, a matter which was closed a decade ago. Historian Bronislaw Geremek caused a stir when he refused. Auschwitz itself has been used as a political chip: a Russian exhibit was closed because it did not recognize the Soviet occupation of Poland at that time.

The Kaczynski brothers' efforts raise serious questions, not just about Polish memory, but memories of collaboration, resistance and victimhood in general. How far can the Vichy paradigm be pushed? Polish resistance was virulent and organized, and consequently, Poles became special targets for German repressive measures. Resistance does not, however, cancel out collaboration. Even in this, Poles were different from French or Czech counterparts: collaboration and profiteering from the occupation occured at the lowest levels. There is no Polish P├ętain.

Most resistance was based on sovereignty or ideology, whether in France or Poland. Seldom was Nazism opposed en toto. It's fair to say that population engineering was opposed on the grounds of sovereignty and ideology, and genocide was seldom confronted directly by any resistance movement.

The Holocaust may have been an institution that Germans brought to Poland. Anti-semitism was not (something that Saul Friendlander reiterates in his new book). Despite their resistance, Poles could easily accomodate this aspect of Nazi policy. Moreover, pogroms occured spontaneously without Nazi supervision, as they did during the war, in Jedwabne, and after, in Kielce.

Victimhood and resistance has been put before less savory aspects of the war experience. Poland was hardly unique. The pattern of post-war politics in all European nations was to use them to promote one's own legitimacy. Since the 1960s historians have unpacked these myths, noting places where (minor) collaboration occurred or how resistance was closer to self-preservation than outright opposition (Bishop Galen comes to mind). The Vichy paradigm has not penetrated Polish memory. A dissertation by Anetta Rybicka was revoked largely because the Polish academy was unwilling to consider collaboration.

Polish memory already dismisses the possibility of participation in genocide. It's not clear that Poles have confronted this part of their past, but why go further? Lech Kaczynski's speech at the 60th anniversary of the Kielce pogrom seems determined to minimize anti-semitism as an enduring feature of Polish culture. Calling attention to the Germanness of Nazism may make homegrown authoritarianism less onerous.

[Crossposted at Cliopatria.]

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

My So-Called Panel

I spent much of the day working on a pamphlet by Wilhelm Kapp suggests an alternative vision of Alsatian regionalism, one which would allow Germans to mix into Alsatian society. Interesting, moderate. Now I am kicking back, waiting to pick up Elias from daycare, practicing "Grey Eagle", and annoyed that my AHA panel is already known for something other than its creativity.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Didn't they try this in Mannheim?

A proposal that scares me: a 19th-century project to rename American towns and cities according to their longitude and latitude. Do I have any recent rants about space being treated abstractly, dependently? (HT: Old is the New New)

Monday, June 11, 2007

Spinoza and the Moderns

Interesting passage from Robert Leventhal's H-Net review of Jonathan Israel's Enlightenment Contested:
I have my doubts about the basic argument of the book, stated on page 867, that the "only kind of philosoph[ies] which could (and can) coherently integrate and hold together such a far-reaching value-condominium in the social, moral, and political world" are "the monist, hylozoic systems of the radical Enlightenment generally labelled 'Spinozist' in the 'long' eighteenth century". One can reasonably advocate all of the values and moral precepts Israel attributes to the Radical Enlightenment on pragmatic grounds and not be a metaphysical monist. In other words, we do not need to believe in Spinoza's metaphysics to believe in democracy, freedom of expression, social justice, equality, fairness, and tolerance. We can, but do not need to, align historical truth with progressive values. We can, but are not required to, adopt a naturalist vision of science and philosophy to be thoughtful and moral citizens. And in fact, that is what "postmodernism," broadly conceived, is all about. Drop the meta-narrative, the epistemological and metaphysical demands, the high-minded requirements of philosophical truth and "rightness" and get on with the important concrete tasks of making the world a better place to live. In a word, as Spinoza himself argued, we don't need to believe the same things or hold the same metaphysical views to do what is urgently needed on the ground to transform society to become more just, more tolerant, more empathetic, and more peaceful.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Speaking in Italics

Over at Blogenspiel, where ADM is raising questions about gatekeeping in academia, Marc Comtois suggests that foreign language is often unfairly used to judge the quality of scholarship. He perhaps feels a little bruised after the comments that followed.

Perhaps he has a point. Many of the arguments against Marc focused on the problem of understanding sources from the perspective wherein they were written. In this sense, knowing how to read in a foreign language is not just invalauble, but critical. Original documents are not the only place where historians encounter foreign language. Works written in English routinely import foreign words and phrases that are "untranslatable."

Germanists must be the worst offenders in this respect. Words like Sonderweg, Fuehrer, and Wiedergutmachung often appear untranslated throughout texts, perhaps with cursory explanations about the complexity of the term. I am certainly guilty of this. Indeed, I often leave Land and Landschaft in German. But I do so to avoid confusion and complicated explanations when talking about regionalism. Landschaft causes special problems because landscape (the direct translation) no longer carries cultural, political and social meaning in English as it does in all other Germanic languages.

Do all terms need this treatment? Heimat seems famously beyond the comprehesion of English speakers, and numerous mini-series have been produced for German TV to explore images related thereto. Yet home and hometown are equally evocative and complex. Our home may not be equatable with Germans' Heimat, but they are both ways to use the local to see the larger imagined communities to which we belong, stirring powerful emotions in the process.

What's interesting is that I tend to use untranslated German more than untranslated French. Indeed, I might have more trouble finding an equivalent concept in French for either home or Heimat. I suspect, however, that the problem is not with the languages but the various academic traditions associated with those languages. It seems that Germans place more emphasis on Begriffsgeschichte (another German concept) than others, raising the cost of entry of discussions on German history. The proliferation of italics could very well scare off those with meager linguistic abilities. Yet I would find it difficult to say that someone without German could not make a meaningful contribution to German history--many do.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Fiddlin' Around

Another extended break has come to an end. No more lecturing, no more grading. I just came back from a short trip to California to see my parents (or rather, to bring my son to see my parents for the first time). It was fun, and maybe I'll write something up about San Diego's Balboa Park. However, the more pressing task is to write my AHA paper (Adenauer's Transient Pasts--good ole' Konnie), which I'll post here in fragments.

Anyway, I've been having fun hunting down source material in music, trying to expand my vocabulary for the mandolin. A lot of fiddle music doubles as mandolin music. I'm surprised not only by the amount of sheet music available, but the historic recordings as well. Two things to check out: The Digital Library of Appalachia and Virtual Gramophone: Canadian Historical Sound Recordings. Other online archives of interest: