Monthly Archives: October 2011

Ich bin ein Berliner!

In 1963, two years after the construction of the Wall, as a symbol of U.S. support, President John F. Kennedy visited West Berlin, an island of democracy surrounded by Communist East Germany.  In a speech before thousands, he stated that all free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin, and then as a free man, he proudly proclaimed, “Ich bin ein Berliner!”  I am a Berliner! 

Kennedy’s statement was met with cheers, but also with good-mannered laughs.  He said the phrase in German as a way to reach across the language barrier, but was unaware that a “Berliner” in German is a jelly-filled donut.  The word now, of course refers to a citizen of Berlin, just as a “New Yorker” refers to someone living in the Big Apple. 

I had been looking forward to going back to Berlin, the Bundeshauptstadt Deutschlands (Federal Capital of Germany), ever since I left the city over two years ago.  When I last visited, it was with a big group of friends and during 2006 as Germany hosted the World Cup.  The weekend that we went, Germany was playing Argentina in Berlin (Germany won) and so there were millions of people packed into the capital city.  It was an incredible time, and Berlin was draped in Red, Black, and Gold, Germany’s national colors.  I had loads of fun taking part in the celebration, and it’s an experience I wouldn’t trade for anything, but ever since then I’ve wanted to go back when I wasn’t distracted by millions of screaming soccer fans.  I wanted to meet the real Berlin.

So, when my friend asked if we could visit Berlin when she came to Germany, I believe my answer was something to the effect of “YES!”  And so, during the stress of studying for finals, I would always tell myself that my reward would be a trip to Berlin.

As I’ve already said, as luck would have it, I started getting sick about four days before we headed to Berlin.  Well, when we woke up on Tuesday morning, I felt pretty miserable.  So, I went tearing through my toiletries bag and medicine cabinet to see what I had (since the medicinal tea was working too slowly); I was NOT going to be sick while I was in Berlin.  And to my surprise, I found a sleeve of Sudafed Severe Cold formula.  I had to make a decision: there was only enough for me to either take it slowly during the four days in Berlin, or just take one full day of it and hope to knock it out.

I decided on the latter choice and, the entire day I launched an assault of alternating Sudafed-Advil on my cold, and it seemed to be a good choice.  I think the cold/sickness/disease had gotten rather comfortable in my body and put its defenses down since it thought that all I had in my arsenal was herbal tea.  So, my surprise attack bombarded it and knocked it out and I felt just fine for my stay in Berlin.

After an almost two-hour delay, we arrived at the Berlin airport Tuesday evening and took a bus to the Hauptbahnhof (Main Train Station).  Oh man was I excited to step into the absolutely massive, glass complex!  It’s brand new, just finished in May 2006 to handle the influx of visitors coming into Germany for the World Cup.  The main portion is four stories tall (with the office towers on each side continuing up to 6 stories), and when you walk in, there are full sized trains arriving and departing under your feet and over your head; there is every imaginable type of shop located throughout the entire edifice.  Did I mention that it’s HUGE?  And since the whole thing is made out of glass, whether you’re coming from the subway below, or exiting your train on the top floor, the first thing you see is the city of Berlin all around you.

the Berlin Hauptbahnhof

By this time, night was falling pretty fast, so we took an S-Bahn (“Street Train” – which are different from the underground U-Bahns) to our hostel, which was in the former East Berlin.  The city of Berlin is very large and spread out, so the train ride to our hostel lasted about 25 minutes from downtown Berlin.  Once we checked in to “the Generator” (the same hostel where I stayed last time), we made our way into our room, which was painted lime green and blue.

Sandy decided to stay in the room and go to sleep early in an attempt to save up her strength for the next day.  It was only about 7pm and I knew there was one thing that I couldn’t sleep without seeing.  So, I zipped up my jacket, wrapped my scarf tight, and headed out into the Berlin night.  I squinted as the piercing wind whipped around the buildings, but grinned a little as I heard the snow crunching beneath my feet.  I hopped on an S-Bahn and a short while later arrived back at the Hauptbahnhof.

As I left the south exit, I couldn’t help but smile.  The night was terribly cold, but it felt good against my skin; it made me feel alive.   I thrust my hands deeper into my pockets and then walked with a mission.  Something was calling my name…

After several minutes, I was standing in absolute awe, in front of my goal:  the German Reichstag.  I fell in love with the building two years ago on a hot, busy July day.  And now, seeing it lit up on a freezing February night, snow all around, I was speechless.

the German Reichstag

The building was constructed in 1894 to house the Imperial Parliament (Reichstag) of the newly formed German Reich (Empire).  Today, since Germany is no longer an empire, the parliament or congress is known as the Bundestag (Federal Parliament), however the name “Reichstag” has stuck with the building.  The inscription above the entrance reads, Dem Deutschen Volke . “To the German People”

In 1933, four months after Adolf Hitler was sworn in as Chancellor of Germany, the inner governmental chambers were burned.  A radical communist was arrested as the arsonist, but there is still debate as to whether he worked alone or if there was also Nazi involvement.  The Nazis and Communists were bitter enemies, so why would they work together you might ask?  Well, Hitler used the Reichstag Fire to show that the Communists were trying to take over the German government.  So, many historians believe, with some evidence behind them, that Hitler and high-ranking Nazi officials had the Reichstag burned and pinned it on the Communist as an excuse to crack down on all political opposition and help secure total power.

Hitler restored the building, but it was again badly damaged by the bombing of the Second World War.

After WWII, the building was slowly restored and in 1999, the newest addition to the Reichstag was completed:  the glass dome.  The dome provides a 360-degree view of Berlin and from the top, one can look down into the main governmental chamber of the Parliament below. Because of the dome, some Germans call the Reichstag the “big washing machine.”

The architecture of the dome, however, has its symbolic significance. The dome is open every day to visitors, free of charge. You can take an elevator up to the base of the dome and then walk up a spiral walkway to the pinnacle.

With all of the glass, and the ability to look down into the governmental chambers, the message of the dome is that anyone should be able to walk in off the street and watch their government at work. They should be able to sit above the congressmen and watch them carry out their duties. Along the same lines, should the congressmen ever forget who they’re working for, they need only look up and see the People.  Government should be transparent. For many, it symbolizes the heart of democracy.

I had told Sandy that I would wait for her to go up into the building’s Dome, but while I was standing there, there was no line at all, whereas during the day you can easily wait several hours to get in.  I looked around me at the few people walking by; maybe they were Berliners, or maybe they were just visitors, like me.  I looked back up at the building, with its façade lit up against the dark and overcast sky, and it just felt like it was calling me in.

And so I walked up the gargantuan steps and went through the stringent security before being allowed to ride up to the Dome.  That high up, the sting of the wind was worse, so I quickly scurried to the protection of the Dome’s glass.  It provided for an awesome view of Berlin by night, and though there were no congressmen at work (it was 8pm) it was neat to see the governmental chambers from above.

After about an hour, I left the Reichstag, walked back to the Hauptbahnhof, and rode back to the hostel feeling very content.

At first I wasn’t sure why I am so fascinated and in awe of the Reichstag, but I knew that I had some kind of ‘connection’ with it.  I knew it’s not just because of the sheer size and appearance of it, either.  No, it’s something a little deeper than that.  After thinking about it for a while, I think I’ve figured it out.

To me, that building acts as a symbol for Germany and Germans.  It was built, in all its splendor, as the seat of the Reich Parliament.  In 1933, its insides were burned and the democracy of the Weimar Republic died along with it.  Hitler revived the building, but no functioning parliament resided in its halls.  Then, the building was once again mangled, but this time by Allied bombs.  Now, over 60 years later, Berlin is again the capital of a united Germany.  The Reichstag and its glass dome, in a nation plagued by its tyrannical past, now acts as a symbol of German Democracy.

And for me, the building acts not only as a political symbol; but also as a symbol of German resilience.  Germany has been destroyed more than once, and was divided for one-third of its existence, and yet, each time it faces its obstacles and then carries on.

And so, I guess that’s why the Reichstag holds me spellbound; because it embodies the German spirit.

The next day, Sandy still wasn’t feeling well enough to face the cold, so I took a day trip to a Wannsee, a lakeside region that can best be described as a suburb of Berlin.  The locality gets its name from Wannsee, a large lake in the middle of the community.  I had heard that Wannsee was pretty, but there was something very important that happened there during the Nazi reign, something that drastically shifted the course of history.  And that was what I was going to see.

The S-Bahn ride to Wannsee took about an hour, and went all around the outskirts Berlin, so I was able to see some of the more residential areas.  Once in Wannsee, I left the station and had a pleasant, twenty-minute stroll around one edge of the lake.  The entire lake was frozen over and there were even people ice-fishing out in the middle. I left the main road and began winding my way through the residential streets, heading towards my destination.  Most of the houses, which butted up to the lake, were essentially small castles.  If I’m not mistaken, Wannsee was always a place where rich aristocrats and royalty kept residence outside of the city life of Berlin.  The area still looked to be a very rich neighborhood and I imagine that these houses have been passed down through the family lines.

Finally, I stopped at a very large house and I had to ring a buzzer to be let through the large, iron gate.  The official name of this estate is no longer important; it’s simply known as “das Haus der Wannsee Konferenz” the House of the Wannsee Conference.

The house itself is beautiful; it sits well off of the road and its wooded grounds make it easy to forget that you are not secluded in the middle of the country.  The back of the house has a breathtaking view of the Wannsee Lake.

But in contrast to its beautiful appearance, the house unfortunately has a dark stain on its history.

It was here in this house, in January 1942 that top ranking Nazi officials met to come up with a “Final Solution to the Jewish Question.”  It was the first time that representatives from each branch of government met together to discuss the topic.  They sat around a conference table, occasionally taking a break for lunch or tea or a cigar, and discussed the most efficient way to kill a man.  The conference, in truth was a farce, simply a formality to help assure that each branch of government felt that they had a voice.  In actuality, Reinhard Heydrich, the man in charge, had already made up his mind and Hitler had given him free reign; he decided that shooting was too expensive, time consuming, and too demoralizing for the soldiers who had to carry out the orders.  His solution: gassing.  At the Wannsee Conference he informed everyone that they were to work towards the establishment of vast camps, apart from the concentration camps, which would be located outside of Germany-proper, and who’s sole purpose would be to efficiently manufacture death.

With this in my mind, I walked down the driveway and pushed open the heavy oak doors into the Wannsee House.  I walked into the foyer where the officials would have given their coats to servants as they arrived.  I then made my way into the room where the extensive lunch was set up for those present to maintain a full stomach, while millions in camps thousands of miles away starved. I then stopped at the open doors of the conference room and got chill bumps as I truly realized who had walked through those doors 67 years before me.

I stood where the table would have been and listened, wondering if I’d be able to hear any whispers of the past.  I then walked over to the window that looked out through the trees to the lake, and I knew that this view looked very similar to what it would have looked like on that January day in 1942.

About that time, a school group came in and the silence was broken, so I got my jacket and walked out onto the house grounds.  I sighed; silence again.  One of the things that made the Wannsee House one of the better historical sights to visit is the fact that it’s outside of Berlin, and thus away from the hordes of tourists.  I was able to stand there, in the back garden, alone and think about how that day in 1942 altered history.

But, I must admit that I was disappointed by the House’s exhibition.  It had essentially been turned into a museum; all furniture had been removed and large, modern tablets full of information had been fastened to the walls.  I know that the act of Informing is, in itself, a memorial; it’s a way of remembrance.  But every line of information which hung on that wall (apart from the series of plaques that detailed the journey of one family) could be found in any library.

Informing is important, but it has its place.  There, at that house, the world had a gem of an opportunity:  most Nazi structures were destroyed during or after the War.  But, here is the very house in which they implemented their infamous Final Solution.  I believe that the House would be much more powerful and effective if it had been preserved and set up to look exactly the way it did on January 20, 1942; if the conference room looked like everyone in it had simply stepped out for a smoke, and food was still set out, ready for their return.  It would make the entire thing more memorable.  Perhaps those students who were too busy laughing and texting to listen to their guide would have been more interested if they could really see with their own eyes just how civilized genocide can be.

I thought all of this as I stood out back and stared at the lake.  I was standing in nearly the exact same spot that Reinhard Heydrich was when he allegedly told one of his colleagues, “This house is magnificent, is it not?  I think I shall live here when the war is over.”

He was right; the house is magnificent.  It’s just too bad that it will always be tainted by the horrific actions that transpired within its walls.

After I left the Wannsee House, I took an S-Bahn back into Berlin to find a café that Dr. Johnson had recommended to me as his favorite place to eat in Berlin.  After a little searching, I found it – Café Bleibtreu.  I walked in and started to go for a table in the back, but I stopped and decided to take the table in the window.  That way I could have a good meal and watch people walk by on the street at the same time.  I could tell why Dr Johnson loved it so much; it was decorated in American pop culture (which is one of his specialties).  Posters of James Dean and “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” were hanging above my table.  I took a walk around the place and it was filled with pictures of Dirty Harry, Scarlett & Rhett, Marylyn Monroe, and such icons.  There were a couple of antique Coke iceboxes and even a red, antique phone booth in the room next to me; the Beetles were playing over the speakers.

I spent two hours there sitting, eating, people-watching, and more sitting.  I had a delicious pasta dish named after the café and, of course, a tall, German beer.  After that was done and I sat some more and then finished the evening off with a cup of coffee.  By the time I left, it was dark, so I decided to start heading back to the hostel.

On the way back, however, I got sidetracked.  As I was riding on the S-Bahn, I noticed something out of the window, so I got off at the next stop and walked back to the building that I had caught only a glimpse of.

And when I rounded the corner and saw the building in its entirety, it took my breath away.  It was the Berliner Dom, the Berlin Cathedral.

the Berliner Dom

It is one of the most impressive buildings I’ve ever seen due to its sheer size and intricate detail.

It was built between 1895 and 1905 and is the largest Protestant church in Germany and one of the most lavish Protestant cathedrals in the world, second perhaps, only to St. Paul’s Cathedral in London.  Before my trip to Germany, I never knew the difference between a cathedral and a church.  Apparently, cathedrals are usually Catholic and are large, lavish, and extravagant.  The Catholic Church’s idea behind the cathedrals was that if you are building a house for God, it should be worthy of his glory (even if people were starving around them).  The Protestant Reformation (which was led in Germany and has deep roots here in Marburg) broke away from such ideas of the Catholic Church, and held the belief that people should live simpler lives.  That is why it is rare to see a Protestant Cathedral such as the Berliner Dom.  I wanted to go in and see the inside of the cathedral, but they were charging admission, and I didn’t feel like I should have to pay to enter a church, so I simply admired the outside of the enormous building.

Afterwards, I made it back to the hostel and that ended my first full day in Berlin.  The next morning, Sandy still didn’t want to leave the room, so I made sure she had enough medicine, juice, and soup and then got ready for my second, and last full day.  That day, Thursday, it started snowing again, and with the wind blowing so hard, it made it pretty hard to see.  Still, I took it as an adventure and walked out into the cold.

My first stop of the day was the largest remaining segment of the Berlin Wall.  There are smaller segments of the wall all around the city, but this one is probably ¾ of a mile long and is intact, except for a few driveways that now punctuate it every now and then.  I was able to see a bit of the Wall the last time I went, but it was blocked off and I couldn’t get close to it.  This section, however, you could walk right up to, touch it, add your own graffiti, essentially anything you wanted.  There were no barriers.  I walked down the sidewalk for the whole length of the Wall, pondering all of the graffiti along the way. There were many elaborate scenes painted on the concrete, but one thing that caught my attention was a simple phrase, hastily scribbled in red spray-paint.  It said, “Abschlussreise 2007.” I stopped to stare at it for a moment.  It was the equivalent of writing “Senior Trip ’07!”  To me, it underscored the stark difference of the Wall’s meaning 25 years ago, and its meaning today.

From there, I headed to a place I had really wanted to see two years ago.  But as I stepped out of the S-Bahn station and caught a glance of the enormous stadium, I knew it was worth the wait.  I had finally made it to the Olympic Stadium, sight of the 1936 Olympic Games.    By this time, Hitler was both Chancellor and President of Germany and instead of cancelling the already planned Games, he saw it as a chance for Germany to step back onto the world stage after World War One.  He had the Olympic complex built and hosted one of the most elaborate ceremonies up to that point (I believe China this past year wins the prize for best ceremonies).  During the time of the Games, Hitler gave the order to take down or hide all anti-racist and anti-Jewish propaganda. Nazi swastika banners, however, were ever-present.   (Another FYI: Hitler started the tradition of carrying the Olympic torch from Greece, around the world and to the sight of the hosting city.)

the 1936 Olympic Stadium in Berlin

The entire complex of the Olympic grounds was more than remarkable and, true to Nazi architecture, it all looked like something out of ancient Rome.  Indeed, the stadium itself looked like a slightly smaller coliseum.  Acting as the main gates to the grounds were two, enormous pillars, easily 200ft tall each, with the Olympic Rings suspended between them.  Standing there, you just felt so miniscule.  I’ve noticed that about Nazi structures that I’ve seen:  Their architecture doesn’t use intricate details; instead there are bold, powerful straight lines made of sturdy rock.  It’s usually about size and power.  And I have to say, it’s very impressive.  I can see where, if 70 years go, someone told me that such structures were for me and the glory of my nation, it would be hard not to get swept up in some kind of emotion.

Unfortunately, because of the weather, I wasn’t able to go inside the actual stadium, but I did stay and walk around the grounds for about an hour and a half before moving on to my next destination.

What I visited next is known as the Tiergarten, a huge wooded area, comparable to New York’s Central Park.  I entered the Tiergarten on its western edge and decided to walk through its heart and come out on the other side at downtown Berlin.  Perhaps I read too much into it, or over emphasize it, but I feel that the Tiergarten acts as a perfect symbol for the German reverence for Nature.  I mean, Germany may be one of the most technologically advanced nations in the world and perhaps the leading power in Europe, but in the center of their capital is the Tiergarten, a 630-acre park that runs right up to the streets of the government district.  It says to me that Germans may have the development of the Western world, but they are still going to have their trees, grass, and Nature right in the heart of their capital.

I’ve heard that Berlin is the world’s greenest capital, and not because of its eco-friendliness, but because of its color; in other words, because it has so much plant life throughout the city.  In fact, while I was walking through the Tiergarten, I forgot that I was in a city; it felt just like walking through a forest.  And the snow was just too tempting; I couldn’t help but make a snowman.

In the heart of the Tiergarten is the Victory Colum, the Siegessäule, a 220ft tall tower commemorating the formation of Germany in 1871.   *Cue history lesson*: Before Germany was united, the area that is now Germany was a collection of smaller kingdoms. The two most powerful were Prussia (in the north) and Bavaria (in the south). Prussia, especially towards the end of the 1800s was a military powerhouse in Europe. In 1864, this Tower was designed to commemorate the Prussian victory in the Danish-Prussian War. However, by the time it was inaugurated in 1873, Prussia had also defeated Austria and France. In 1871, the Minister-President of Prussia, Otto von Bismarck, united the “german” kingdoms into one nation state, and Germany was founded. The same year, a man by the name of Wilhelm was named the first Kaiser (Emperor) of the now united German Reich (Empire). So, the Victory Column commemorates the formation of the German Reich, and as such in 1871, it was decided (contrary to the original plans) to place a 27ft high, 35 ton sculpture of Victoria, the Roman goddess of victory at the top of the tower.

Berliners, with their fondness for giving nicknames to famous buildings call the statue Goldelse, “Golden Lizzy.” The Column was originally located in front of the Reichstag, but its location got in the way of the Nazi’s plans for the remodeling of Berlin, so they moved it to its present day location.  During WW II, the column was relatively unharmed because during that time, radar was nowhere as good as it is today (and there definitely wasn’t such thing as a satellite guided bomb) so the tower acted as a guiding point for Allied bombers to make their way down the main street and bomb the city.

Two girls and I were the only ones brave/stupid/eager enough to climb the 275 spiraled steps to the top of the tower.  The view from the top was a good one, but you couldn’t stay up there for too long, unless you wanted to become a human popsicle.

After I climbed down the tower, I finished walking down the main street that divides the Tiergarten, and ended up at the base of the Brandenburg Gate, perhaps Germany’s most recognizable structure.   *Time for another short history lesson*:  The Brandenburg Gate was built in 1788 and was commissioned as a symbol of peace. It is a former city gate of Berlin, and during the division of East and West Berlin, it acted as a main checkpoint.  On top of the gate is the Roman goddess of Victory, in a chariot, being led by four horses. When Napoleon conquered Prussia (the sight of modern day Berlin) in 1806, he took the statue back to Paris as a trophy. When Prussian forces defeated France eight years later, they brought it back to Berlin.  During the Nazi’s time, the Gate was used as a symbol of power.  And in 1987, President Reagan stood at the Gate and called, now famously, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”

After seeing the Gate, it was getting kind of late, and I decided that I probably should go back and check on Sandy.  But, instead of using the S-Bahn station that was only a few blocks away, I decided to take a “detour” and use the Hauptbahnhof; that would take me by the Reichstag again.  I stopped for a while and watched the people make snowmen on the lawn in front of their nation’s capital and then I headed back to the hostel.

The next day was Friday and our last day in Berlin.  Sandy had to get out of the room because we had to check out at 10am and our flight wasn’t until 7pm.  So, she decided to take a tour-bus around the city; at least she’d be warm.

I, on the other hand, had one more thing to see; something that I had left for the last day.  I made my way under the Brandenburg Gate and towards Postdamer Platz.  After only a couple of minutes of walking, I reached my goal:  the national Holocaust memorial.

I had seen pictures of it, so I recognized it at once:  an entire plaza full of 2,711 concrete  stelae, or columns, of varying height.  There is no entrance or exit to the memorial; one may enter or leave the grid of pillars at any point.

a picture of the memorial, from the Internet, to show the grid pattern

If you didn’t already know it was the Holocaust memorial, you wouldn’t be able to tell just from looking at it.  In fact, that’s the point.  The memorial doesn’t dictate what you should think.  It is a break from traditional memorials in the fact that it doesn’t use symbolism; you must simply experience it.  And it doesn’t matter how many times you leave or enter the memorial, or how long you stay amongst the pillars (some of which reach 13ft tall), you don’t get any better understanding.  After all, how can you truly understand something like the Holocaust?

I had read that the pattern of columns is only a grid at first sight.  And I have to say that when I was first saw the memorial, I was a little perplexed, because even though I knew to look for something other than a perfectly aligned gird, that is all that I saw.  But once I entered the memorial and made my way deeper into the pillars, a chill ran down my spine; it became unsettlingly apparent that the columns were neither straight nor level.  Some leaned towards each other while others slightly angled themselves away.   This uneven layout is no mistake.  The architect, on the layout: It suggests that when a supposedly rational and ordered system grows too large and out of proportion to its intended purpose, it in fact loses touch with human reason. It then begins to reveal the innate disturbances and potential chaos in all systems of seeming order.”   To me, this symbolizes the bureaucracy of the Nazis, the way they orderly and methodically carried out everything they did.  It was an Order that had lost touch with humanity and reason; it was an Order based on efficiency – the efficiency of killing.  It was an illusion of Order; it was essentially veiled chaos.

Even though you are in the busy government district (the memorial is built on the ruins of the Nazi Chancellory) of Berlin, the columns block out all of the sound, and once you are inside, it becomes eerily quite and you can’t help but to feel alone.  The only sound to penetrate the silence was the crunching of the snow beneath my feet, echoing off the pillars.  I found myself wondering if that’s how the people in the Camps felt:  cold and alone.

One of the reasons I think the memorial is so effective is because there are no plaques of information visible.  The memorial is not a museum.  The Information Center is located underground, below the memorial.  So, visitors do have the ability to receive information, but it is not the main focus of the memorial.

I have to say that the memorial is very powerful, and though I know nothing of architecture, I think that the architect of the memorial is a genius.  The way that the memorial is open and doesn’t tell people what they should think sparks discussion.  And discussion is a way of remembrance and a way to help assure that something like that, on that scale, doesn’t happen again.  In that sense it’s not the 2700 concrete pillars that are the actual memorial; in that sense, the true memorial is what’s in the mind of the visitor; it’s what the pillars inspire.

the Reichstag, Brandenburg Gate, and Holocaust memorial

And so, that was my trip to Berlin.  I can honestly say that Berlin is my favorite city that I’ve ever been to.  It offers so much:  The city itself is large and spread out.  And it’s so diverse.  You can see relics of the forging of the German Reich alongside some of the most modern buildings in the world.  The city is a History student’s heaven, and is full of culture:  cafés, universities, museums, operas, and symphonies.  But it also provides for its young, student inhabitants as well by offering some of the best nightlife in the world.  You can take a stroll through a forest, or step into its Hauptbahnhof, an edifice of steel and glass where one steps off the train and feels that you’ve arrived in the future.

Those four days in Berlin were some of the most exciting, humbling, and deeply fulfilling of my life.  I’ve found that for me, traveling is almost a religious experience.  You leave your Home, your sphere, and you venture into a new area, a foreign sphere, and you are at that city’s mercy.  There is so much excitement and adventure, and yet at the same time a little anxiety or reserve.  And it’s all caused by the same thing:  there are new, unfamiliar things to uncover.

That is why I enjoy traveling alone.  I need (at least once) to get to know the city; to see what it has to offer.  I need some one-on-one time to discover the city’s unique persona and aura.  I can go at my own pace, and not just take from the city, but interact with it as well.  Luckily, I was able to do this with Berlin and it made its way into my heart.

I know I could now go back with friends, maybe even to party, and I’d feel right at home.  But that’s only because I was able to spend some time alone with the city.  I feel that Berlin and I now share some type of unseen, perhaps unknowable connection.  What I do know is that a piece of me will always reside in Berlin.

46 years after Kennedy, I visited Berlin.  As I rode to the airport to head back to Marburg, I already found myself missing Germany’s capital.  Though my motivations and those of the young U.S. President may not have been exactly the same, in my heart, I proclaimed: Ich bin ein Berliner!

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“Ich bin ein Berliner!” by W. J. Newsome is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

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Say What?!

One of my friends at the Audiology Department at the University of Florida sent me a video that they made.  The message?  Protect your hearing!  Yeah, that song sounds awesome right now, pumped so high from your iPod that others can hear it…with their iPods on – BUT, will it be worth it when you can’t hear anything in 20 years?

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Scorn in the USA

Jon Stewart calling out the Republicans on another inconsistency of their arguments:  When it’s for their goal (say, to block or repeal Obama’s healthcare law), then they call upon Americans to stand up and fight; make their voices heard!  But when the shoe’s on the other foot?  When the American people are protesting them and their constituents?  Then it’s class warfare, and then it’s going to divide America.  

Oh jeez.

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A Billion

The next time you hear a politician use the word “billion” in a casual manner, think about how much money that really is…

A billion seconds ago, it was 1977.

A billion minutes ago, Jesus was alive.

A billion hours ago, our ancestors were living in the Stone Age

A billion days ago, no one walked on the earth on two legs.

A billion dollars ago was only 6 hours and 20 minutes, at the rate our government is spending it.

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From Zzzzzz’s to $$$$$$’s

For some reason I woke up thinking about finances…So, here are a couple of things that caught my attention this AM:

I can’t remember where I got the following cartoon (NY Times, maybe?  NPR? – either way, I’m not claiming to have drawn it and I wish I could give credit to the artist now) – but I posted it on Facebook and a colleague made a very observant comment on it.  You can see his observation below the picture.

“The biggest flaw with the entire argument in general is that it’s contradictory: “a smart consumer saves for the future; a good consumer spends to stimulate the economy.” So people are, on the one hand, told not to “hoard” money and to spend it to help the economy. Actively encouraged to spend, in fact. Then when things go to hell, they are scorned for having not saved any money.”

Wise words.

Since we’re in the economic mood, I stumbled across a preview for a new movie that’s based on the true events in 2008 that triggered the current economic disaster.  The movie, “Margin Call” is directed by J. C. Chandor, and starring Demi Moore, Stanley Tucci, Kevin Spacey (and several other good actors), is due out soon.

To read the NY Times review of the movie, click here.

Categories: Politics/Current Events | Tags: , , | 1 Comment

No Wonder Women’s Liberation Came About

This is an excerpt from a 1950s Home Economics Textbook:  

“The Good Wives Guide”

Have dinner ready.  Plan ahead, even the night before, to have a delicious meal ready, on time for his return.  This is a way of letting him know that you have been thinking about him and are concerned about his needs.  Most men are hungry when they come home and the prospect of a good meal (specially his favorite dish) is part of the warm welcome needed.

Prepare yourself. Take 15 minutes to rest so you’ll be refreshed when he arrives.  Touch up your makeup, put a ribbon in your hair and be fresh-looking.  He has just been with a lot of work-weary people.  Be a little gay and a little more interesting for him.  His boring day may need a lift and one of your duties is to provide it.

Clear away the clutter.  Make one last trip though the main part of the house just before your husband arrives.  Gather up schoolbooks, toys, paper, etc, and then run a dustcloth over the tables.  Over the cooler months of the year you should prepare and light a fire for him to unwind by.  Your husband will feel he has reached a haven of rest and order, and it will give you a lift too.  After all, catering for his comfort will provide you with immense personal satisfaction.

Prepare the children.  Take a few minutes to wash the children’s hands and faces (if they are small), comb their hair, and if necessary, change their clothes.  They are little treasures and he would like to see them playing the part.

Minimize all noise.  At the time of his arrival, eliminate all noise of the washer, dryer or vacuum.  Try to encourage the children to be quiet.  Be happy to see him.  Greet him with a warm smile and show sincerity in your desire to please him.

Listen to him.  You may have a dozen important things to tell him, but the moment of his arrival is not the time.  Let him talk first – remember, his topics of conversation are more important than yours.  Make the evening his.  Never complain if he comes home late or goes out to dinner, or other places of entertainment without you.  Instead try to understand his world of strain and pressure, and his very real need to be at home and relax.

Your goal.  Try to make sure your home is a place of peace, order and tranquility where your husband can renew himself in body and spirit.

Don’t greet him with complaints and problems.  Don’t complain if he’s late home for dinner or even if he stays out all night.  Count this as minor compared to what he might have gone though that day.

Make him comfortable.  Have him lean back in a comfortable chair or have him lie down in the bedroom.  Have a cool or warm drink ready for him.

Arrange his pillow and offer to take off his shoes.  Speak in a low soothing and pleasant voice.

Don’t ask him questions about his actions or question his judgment or integrity.  Remember, he is the master of the house and as such will always exercise his will with fairness and truthfulness.  You have no right to question him.  A good wife always knows her place.



Categories: Entertainment, History | Tags: , , | 3 Comments

Academe: Strangers on a Train

Yesterday, I read this article from the most recent edition of Academe, the magazine of the American Association of University Professors. It’s about a lesson in complicity in the crisis of the humanities.  I’m not going to add any commentary of my own; I’ll let Dr. Davidson do the talking herself.

Cathy N. Davidson holds distinguished chairs in English and interdisciplinary studies at Duke University; is cofounder of the Humanities, Arts, Sciences, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory (HASTAC); and codirects the HASTAC/MacArthur Foundation Digital Media and Learning Competition. She is a member of the National Council on the Humanities, and her most recent book is Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn.

Strangers on a Train

Early on in my first tenure-track job at Michigan State University, in the late 1970s, I happened to be riding the same train from Lansing, Michigan, to Chicago as the department chair who hired me, Alan Hollingsworth, who had since become dean of our College of Arts and Sciences. It had taken me three years to land a tenure-track position, and I was a second-round pick at that, after the original candidate failed to pan out. According to Modern Language Association statistics, it was the worst time for new PhDs (until the present one). It was the tail end of a baby boom, with too few students coming in to undergraduate colleges and universities and too many overblown humanities programs continuing to churn out new PhDs as if the demographics had never changed. There were more than six hundred applications for my job, and I felt like I was hanging on to the profession by my fingernails. And there was my chair-turned-dean standing over me, nodding to an empty seat and asking, “Is this seat free?” I thought about the five-hour ride from Lansing to Chicago as I moved my book bag and tried to make it seem sincere when I smiled and replied, “Of course! Please join me.”

It was one of those “strangers on a train” encounters that changes you forever, in this case in a good way. For those familiar with Patricia Highsmith’s 1950 detective novel of that name, I hasten to assure you that no one was murdered in my untenured-prof-trapped-with-dean-in-a-railway-car version of noir.

Al Hollingsworth passed away in 1991, but I’ve never forgotten that train ride. I still keep close two lessons from it. The first unforgettable moment was Al ranting (he liked high rhetorical mode) that he was sick of humanists complaining about the “crisis in the humanities” and not doing anything about it. He was convinced that if humanists were more assertive about their value to society and created programs that underscored that value, theirs would be among the highest-stature fields in academe. “Everyone knows the big three of learning are reading, writing, and arithmetic—and English departments have their stake in two out of three. But English department meetings are spent trying to dump reading and writing programs and are devoted to battles over who will hire the second Victorianist or medievalist or some other subfield where enrollment is already negligible. Then they wonder why deans want to cut their positions.”

That’s a rough reconstruction from memory many years later, but you get the drift. Al was sure that the humanities had become hyperspecialized to ape the hyperspecialization of the sciences and had abandoned creative writing and rhetoric, defining them as peripheral, low-status programs rather than championing them. He also believed critical thinking, historical perspective, languages and linguistics, and other components of cross-cultural literacy (though he would have used a different term in the late 1970s) should be trumpeted by every humanist as necessities in the complex world. In addition, he valued the “real-world” humanistic skills of being able to analyze the meaning of complicated texts and synthesize abstract or theoretical information from multiple (even contradictory) sources.

Al believed humanities teachers should present our mission as career preparation, even job training, for undergraduates. Instead, we fueled the crisis by our emphasis on preparing students for graduate schools that were already pumping out far too many graduates. Ninety percent of the battles within the humanities faced inward, like the disputes between Englishers and Americanists in English departments and the vicious wars between different theoretical schools that few outside the humanities understood. No one was attending to the real dynamics, dimensions, and demographics of the “crisis in the humanities.”

I didn’t agree with all of his positions, but most of what he said made sense then and makes sense now. If you look at the curriculum in most humanities departments, you would barely notice that there is a crisis and there has been one for decades. At most colleges and universities, humanities departments continue to have a hierarchy of requirements and teaching assignments that imply that the department’s chief mission is to train students for professional careers in the humanities. Most humanities departments do not seem designed to prepare students for any and all careers, including in the sciences, even though all careers require reading, writing, critical thinking, theoretical analysis, historical perspective, and cross-cultural knowledge.

Al’s comments resonated on that train ride partly because I was in hot water at the time. As a new assistant professor, I was, of course, relegated to teaching first-year composition. I was already running afoul of our university writing program directors by emphasizing “real” writing instead of the “research paper,” that strange collegiate form of writing—I call it “researchese”—that one rarely uses outside of college or graduate school and that, if one succeeds as a humanities scholar, editors later attempt to eradicate. The final assignment I gave my expository writing students was to write their own résumés and job letters for dream internships. Other students in the class read the letters and gave feedback, and then the students sent off the letters for real internships or summer employers and reported back the results. This was Michigan, with the auto industry tanking. I felt it was important to help my students, many first-generation college students, in the formidable task of finding jobs. The director of our program reprimanded me more than once for deviating from the prescribed syllabus of first-year comp. What Al said on that train that day spoke to me then and continues to now.

The Humanities’ Contribution to the Crisis

The second “strangers on a train” moment came with a question Al asked a few hours into the trip. “Tell me, what do people think about my deanship?” he asked. “What do you think?” I gave him my sense of what people liked and what they didn’t, what I liked and what I didn’t.

I was too naive back then and too foolhardy to realize he had been testing me.

“You’re being more candid than most academics would be when talking to a dean,” he warned. “Most academics pretend they stand up to administrators, they bluster and posture about ‘I told him thus and so,’ but, in my office, with the door closed and no one else around, they usually tell me what they think I want to hear. Then they go back to their friends and go on and on about how ‘these administrators never listen.’ They rarely acknowledge their own complicity.” I must admit that I was surprised at that statement, and I was even more taken aback when he warned that I needed to think about my own career and whether I wanted to continue to speak candidly to my academic superiors. He wasn’t telling me not to, only to be aware when I did that most people do not. “Never forget you are doing it at your own risk,” he said, or something like that. I’ve chosen most of my career to take the risks, but, whenever I do, I remember those long-ago words of caution.

I repeat them now because I’m about to take a risk. And the risk here (I now have tenure) is that my words will be misread. So this is just a reminder that I’ve spent a career talking back to the status quo. In this case, the status quo is twofold: first, administrators who hack away at humanities programs in order to make a budget; and second, humanities departments that have still not gotten the message that we could and would be central to higher education if we took our role in society and as educators more seriously. In other words, there is something in the prescriptions that follow that should offend just about everyone. If you don’t want to be offended, stop reading now.

Here’s the sequence:

NUMBER 1: Unfair, thoughtless, and sometimes downright ineffectual and stupid cutbacks are being made to humanities programs around the country and abroad. Programs are being cut, often without a plan or consensus and often without reason, strategy, or clear thinking. Any administrator, anywhere, who lops off this or that humanities program or funding stream without a comprehensive plan or logical justification is pursuing the neoliberal policy of scapegoating. He or she places the burden of a large failure in education funding on the least accountable, least powerful, and often even least financially significant parties. Taking cost cuts out of the hide of the humanities breeds greater and greater inequality but does not solve the problem. In fact, it rarely saves more than a pittance, and its symbolism merely justifies power imbalances and the status quo without rectifying the underlying structural problems that led to a deficit in the first place. It has been demonstrated many times (most notably by Christopher Newfield) that when salary, buildings, labs, and technology costs are factored into the equation, humanities programs typically turn out to be cost-effective, especially at tuition-driven institutions. Cutting them without an overall plan for the entire university is classic bad management, start to finish.

NUMBER 2: Nevertheless, some humanities programs deserve to be cut or closed, and just about every humanities program needs to rethink its role in educating students in the information age. Every survey of employers says students graduating today, in any field, lack skills that humanists should be claiming as our mission to teach. If we are fulfilling our mission, saving the liberal arts should be a top priority for any thoughtful, wise university planning commission. (See number one above about feckless and unwise administrators.) Many non-humanities programs are in the same boat; they aren’t rethinking their missions either, but because that isn’t what this forum is about, I’m not going to address that larger issue of university failure here. Our focus is the crisis in the humanities, and I’m sick of having had to address that crisis every year, year in and year out, for my entire career. Until we admit our complicity, we don’t even have a chance of addressing the crisis.

NUMBER 3: My own opinion is that only some portion of any humanities program should be devoted to preparing potential professional humanists. Producing PhDs trained to produce PhDs is, like all inbreeding, a way to guarantee decline and eventual extinction. Most students attend college because they are on a journey to independent adulthood. Translation: they need jobs, a career, a way to support themselves. Whether you are a vulgar Marxist or a raging capitalist, you have to support yourself somehow, and you have to do so in a given historical moment and cultural context. This particular historical moment, with all of its glaring inequalities, is terrible for anyone trying to be a self-sustaining adult in the United States. No one envies the twenty-two-year-old facing the job market. Students have a right to a college education that helps prepare them for an economically challenging, complex, global, fast-paced, Internet-driven future. Right now, for-profit colleges are subsidized to the tune of billions of dollars a year from taxpayer-supported Pell Grants, according to statistics from the Department of Education. Some for-profits have graduation rates as low as 25 percent. Yet they appeal to students because they promise job training. At the same time, most legitimate nonprofit colleges and universities boast loftier, and to my mind, indefensible, goals. Over a million students this year are turning to for-profit institutions, many of them out of despair at the lack of alternatives. We educators must change our focus. For our sake, for the sake of students, why not have humanists lead a necessary transformation throughout the entire university?

NUMBER 4: Al Hollingsworth was right that the world wants good readers and good writers, and that these are fundamental, foundational, indispensable job skills. Any survey of employers ranks reading and writing as the skills most coveted and most often lacking in new employees. Other missing skills include collaborative abilities, abilities to translate complex and incommensurate information into conclusions, critical thinking, persuasive skills, and project-management skills, plus global awareness and an understanding of culture and context for facilitating interactions in distributed, globalized workplaces. Sounds pretty “soft” (as scientists like to say). Sounds pretty humanistic. Instead of declining, our undergraduate enrollments should be soaring. If they are not in your department, you are missing the boat. I’ve said it before, and I’ll repeat it. We are living in the information age, for Pete’s sake. If humanists can’t make what we do central in an information age, we never can. Still, most humanities departments act as if the Internet had not yet been invented. As I noted on my blog at, the information age without the humanities is like the industrial age without the steam engine. But few humanities departments could pass the essential litmus test to make that a concrete analogy rather than just a witticism.

NUMBER 5: Al was wrong about one thing. He said humanities departments could, if they had the will, lay claim to only two of the three foundational human skills—reading and writing. I believe we can lay claim to the third, arithmetic, now too. Given the importance of digital humanities, and all the ways the digitization of texts has an impact on our lives, given ways that data scraping and mining and extracting and analyzing can help us understand information flows now and in the past, we could be teaching students not only how to extract data but also how to analyze, interpret, and apply it in meaningful, paradigm-changing ways. Humanists have to get past the tired binary of “qualitative” and “quantitative” thinking—the former so often dismissed by number-crunchers as a “soft” skill and the latter so often dismissed by humanists as “positivism.”
To reimagine a global humanism with relevance to the contemporary world means understanding, using, and contributing to new computational tools and methods. There are many fascinating examples of digital humanities projects that use newly digitized resources to change our often Eurocentric ideas of human interactions and contributions. Even a few examples show how being open to digital possibilities changes paradigms and brings new ways of reimagining the humanities into the world. Mappamundi, a digital and web-based initiative that studies the global Middle Ages, is a partnership of medievalists and supercomputer scientists from Texas to Istanbul to Hangchow and even Timbuktu. Together, humanists, computer scientists, and engineers are building a virtual world where avatars can tour an ancient city, hear its music, walk around its architecture, read its texts, and see its carvings and statuary. The project requires global, cross-disciplinary partnerships that break boundaries and help students collaborate on project management and technical training along with new, multilingual, multinational, multireligious humanistic paradigms (“medieval” no longer implies “Christian” in the Mappamundi project).

Similarly, the Law in Slavery and Freedom Project brings together a worldwide cohort of faculty and students, often in seminars taught simultaneously with research collaborators at the University of Michigan and in Brazil, Canada, Cuba, France, Germany, and Senegal. In some classes, students mine local archives, create new databases, and exchange information and ideas to help inform our understanding of the institutions of slavery, abolitionism, and emancipation while, again, using interpretive and narrative skills once seen as outside the purview of the humanities. Last year, at my own university, the Haiti Lab in Duke’s John Hope Franklin Humanities Institute analyzed more than a hundred years of computerized ship records to prove that the recent Haitian cholera epidemic must have been imported from outside the country in the wake of the devastating 2009 earthquake. Crunching all the data now available in digitized records, the Haiti Lab participants (historians, literary scholars, computer scientists, visualization experts, and global health practitioners) proved that Haiti never before suffered from cholera even though other Caribbean countries did. This research helped inform the Centers for Disease Control’s response to the outbreak. Numbers matter to the humanities. Humanistic interpretive skills matter to a data-rich world. The world needs skillful, critical, creative interpreters of data now being produced at the click of a mouse: reading, writing, and arithmetic. Together again, at last. The humanities need to claim all three.

NUMBER 6: So what does this all add up to? A crisis, yes, but one that needs to be addressed (a) by protesting administrative stupidity (see number one above) and (b) by employing an equal amount of introspective activism about what we do, for whom we do it, and how we contribute to our own precarious state within the larger university. If I am a student already facing economic crisis, do I want to specialize in a discipline synonymous with “crisis”? We humanists need to change our mission and forever disown our self-defeating posturing.

C. P. Snow wrote about the “two cultures” in 1959. Looking backward thirty years, he noted that the two cultures came about largely because of the stature of the humanities being “on the decline,” while science was on the rise. Really. We’re eighty-two years old and still feeling one down? Enough. Acknowledge the crisis, but also acknowledge that the two-cultures argument is a product of the industrial era. So is overspecialization. We live in a new era, where work and life are blended, where multimedia arts are part of science, where computation is sociality, where Eurocentrism is outmoded, and where globalization touches us all. We have a new opportunity and, fifteen years into the commercialization of the Internet, now is just about the right time to be reforming institutions. Industrial Taylorism transformed the institution of the medieval university into the modern research university in which the humanities and the liberal arts more generally were already being rendered structurally and conceptually peripheral to “real,” specialized advanced training.

We now live in an age that requires synthesis and reconnection across isolated and overly specialized fields throughout the university (by no means just in the humanities). If the university is in intellectual crisis (in addition to economic crisis), it is the consequence of a mismatch between the educational needs of our era and the antiquated design of our educational systems. In short, we need a wholesale reconceptualization and transformation of the industrial-age university for a global, interactive, interdisciplinary digital age. The humanities have the skills to put the present university in historical perspective and to lead its reformation, to turn a crisis into an opportunity. First we must acknowledge our complicity in the current crisis. Until we acknowledge our complicity, we will change nothing—but others will change us, whether we like it or not. There seems to be no third alternative in this version of the “crisis in the humanities.”

NUMBER 7: I don’t like finger-wagging, and I’ve done a lot in this piece. So I will end by pointing toward one modest program we’re exploring at Duke University to create a prototype of what a new and essential humanities for a digital age might look like. In December 2009, David Bell, senior associate dean of the graduate school, asked me to gather together faculty to brainstorm ideas. We did this in an open fashion by posting ideas online, on a Commentpress blog, and holding open forums. We compiled about three hundred responses into a program that we turned this way and that to come up with what is, at the time of this publication, still a proposed draft (making its way now through various committees) for what will probably be a master’s degree, a “bachelor’s plus,” or a “PhD plus” (or all three) in what we are currently calling “knowledge networks.” Whatever specific institutional or degree form this takes, the new program’s hallmarks are deep critical thinking about the information age, about how concepts and ideologies change in response to technology, about historical process and critical thinking, combined with new modes of assessment and data analysis, technology training and requirements, peer learning, project management, and real-world application in year-long internships. It’s only one version and, as I’ve said, it’s still being drafted, but we hope to have students participate in this new program in fall 2013.

A program in knowledge networks is hardly a full solution, but it crosses some new boundaries and might offer ideas to other humanities faculty. I, for one, would much rather set a new standard for our profession than let ourselves be dismembered by those whose motives might be unsavory or even deadly to the goals of productive, creative, intellectual, social, and economic futures—our students’ and our own.

Highsmith, Complicity, and and Crisis

Now back to those strangers on a train. In Patricia Highsmith’s brilliant, grim tale of complicity, the architect Guy Haines encounters a stranger, Charles Anthony Bruno, a playboy and sociopath, and they exchange secrets: Haines would love to divorce his unfaithful wife and marry the woman he loves; Bruno would like to kill his father and inherit his fortune. Bruno suggests the two make a pact to each murder the inconvenient person in the other’s life. Because they met randomly, neither will have a motive. Theirs will be the perfect set of crimes, and they can then go off independently and unencumbered to lead happy lives.

Complicity never quite works so easily. Haines sees the scheme as a fantasy until he returns from a trip to find his wife murdered. He knows Bruno did the deed but is afraid to go to the police for fear that he will be implicated and charged as an accessory in a conspiracy to kill his wife. He is consumed by guilt, of course, and also fear. Bruno keeps turning up at inconvenient times and places (such as at Haines’s wedding), and, this being a noir mystery, a detective sleuths about trying to figure it all out. In the process, Haines finds himself more and more in thrall to Bruno, more and more powerless to lead an independent life. Haines can scarcely believe the person he has become because of that one brief encounter, because of his own cowardice and complicity.

As Highsmith knew, that’s how complicity works. Once you give up your independent judgment to another, it’s hard ever again to live free and clear of the desires of the person you most fear—or to be able to fulfill your own.
I’m not being entirely glib when I say the “crisis in the humanities” is a bit like an arranged murder interlaced with the complicities of all parties, and no one is completely innocent. It’s a terrible cycle. We have to break it. As humanists, we need to find our independent way and lead higher education, not simply follow in its own self-destruction and our own.

Right now, virtually all nonprofit higher education is institutionalized for the swiftly departing industrial age. It needs to be reformed, at every level and in all fields, for the digital future. Why can’t humanists lead the way instead of wringing our hands over how we are being mistreated by those whose values we probably find questionable in the first place? Educational and institutional leadership must begin with the radical reformation of our own disciplines and our own mission. If we do it right, we will have the public on our side because most people outside of academe are all too painfully aware that education (kindergarten through college) is not yet fulfilling its obligations to this new age. Students would not be turning to for-profit institutions if we were doing our jobs.
Higher education today is training students for the twentieth century, not for the one in which we live. The humanities could bring higher education into the twenty-first century. We need to find our independent way to our own radical reformation, and then we need to start on the rest of the university too. There is no other choice. We must reform ourselves before we are deformed by more powerful forces (those administrators!) into beings that we can scarcely recognize as ourselves.

Categories: Ideas & Philosophy, Politics/Current Events | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

the Hitler of History

John Lukacs, The Hitler of History (New York:  Alfred A. Knopf, 1998).


Available at, new $14.04, used from a low as $5.00

            There is no shortage of historical literature on the Third Reich, and biographies of Adolf Hitler abound.  John Lukacs’s The Hitler of History is, as he makes abundantly clear, not another biography of Hitler; it is, as the title suggests, a history of the history of Hitler.  Lukacs provides a historiographical review of the different biographies of Hitler, gleaning from them patterns in the interpretations of Hitler’s life in order to answer certain questions that he feels have remained inadequately answered.

Lukacs begins his book with an impressive overview of the Hitler biographies that he feels contributed the most to the understanding of Hitler.  His mastery of the topic and the reviewed books is remarkable and is made evident not only in the body of his book, but in the meticulously precise footnotes, as well.  Lukacs’s review extends to over fifteen biographies of Hitler and begins with what he feels to be the “first substantial” Hitler biography, written by Konrad Heiden in 1936.  While he provides commentary on many more works, his focus (in the historiographical chapter and throughout the book) is primarily on a handful of biographies, namely those written by Andreas Hillgruber in 1965, Ernst Deuerlein in 1969 (which Lukacs considers the “best short biography of Hitler”), Percy Ernst Schramm in 1971, Joachim Fest in 1973 (the “best long biography”), John Toland in 1977 (the first “big biography” by an American), David Irving in 1977 (which receives criticism from Lukacs for rehabilitating Hitler), Rainer Zitelman in 1987, and Ian Kershaw in 1991.

After this review, Lukacs shows that during “the last fifty years many Germans did not want to think much about Hitler.  But many of their historians did” (40).  This discussion among German historians led to a dispute known as the Historikerstreit, or “Historian’s Controversy.”  This Historikerstreit was sparked by conservatives Ernst Nolke, who essentially argued that Auschwitz was not conceivable without the prior existence of the Soviet gulags, and Andreas Hillgruber, who presented the “two war theory,” which stated that in one perspective, Hitler’s war with the West, while regrettable, was a “normal war.”  Hitler’s war with Soviet Russia, on the other hand, should be seen as a separate war, a war for the defense of Western civilization against the onslaught of Communism.  While Lukacs acknowledges particular contributions made by these historians, he ultimately condemns such interpretations as rehabilitation of Nazi Germany (if not directly Hitler himself).

Lukacs also addresses the issue of historians’ handling of Hitler’s statesmanship.  Ultimately, Lukacs argues that Hitler deserves more credit as a strategist (both politically and even militarily) than has been traditionally given to him.  Perhaps most shocking from this chapter is Lukacs’s assertion that once Hitler realized that a total victory over his enemies was no longer possible, his new goal became to bring his enemies to a point where they would have to deal with him on his own terms.  Such a view of a Hitler willing to revaluate his plans stands in contrast to the view of Hitler as an unyielding ideologue portrayed by many of his biographers.

Lukacs’s book also attempts to humanize Hitler.  Lukacs argues, as have other historians, that labeling Hitler as “evil,” removes all responsibility for his actions.  Throughout the book, he stresses the duality of Hitler’s personality in order to show that Hitler was, in fact, human: “there were dualities in Hitler himself.  That, too, is a normal condition” (101), “Those are formative years in any man’s life” (55), and “there were instances when he, like every other human being…had to adjust” (130).

Lukacs’s strongest argument comes in his handling of whether Hitler should be considered a reactionary or a revolutionary.  He points out that many people have been reluctant to label anything to do with Hitler as “revolutionary.”  However, he defines a reactionary as someone who wants to turn history backward, or return to a previous point in time, and a revolutionary as someone who looks to the future, as an advocate of progress (76).  Lukacs then points out how Hitler strove for a radical break with the Modern Age.  This new age resembled the “tyranny of the majority” predicted by Tocqueville, but Lukacs stresses that by utilizing the power of the masses, Hitler had established a new type of democracy, a “tyranny through the majority” (117), and this new power, which gained its legitimacy from the “will of the German Volk” was revolutionary.  In fact, Lukacs states that, because of this change in the relationship of power, “In the Hitler movement Germany experienced its only genuine revolution” (108) and asserts in his conclusion that Hitler “was the greatest revolutionary of the twentieth century” (258).

Lukacs guides the readers through these topics and others with ease.  His style is both conversational and inviting to readers.  Any critique of the book cannot be leveled against his knowledge of the subject matter, but instead against his handling of particular issues.  While he makes it clear that this is not a history of Hitler and that his purpose is not to discuss details in length, Lukacs sometimes makes sweeping or definitive remarks and then simply moves on without first adequately substantiating his statement.  For example, he explains Hitler’s seemingly irrational declaration of war on the United States, a matter that he admits has baffled historians for years, simply as Hitler’s loyalty to the treaty he had with Japan (154).  Also, Lukacs’s argument that Hitler was more nationalistic than racist, highlighted by Hitler’s quote that “there is no such thing as the Jewish race,” (123) may leave readers wanting further explanation.  Furthermore, whereas Lukacs is careful to define the many terms he uses throughout the book, his harshest criticism of other authors is that they are engaging in a rehabilitation of Hitler; he does this without ever providing a clear definition of what he means by “rehabilitation.”

Overall, Lukacs’s book is a significant contribution to Hitler studies and also sheds light on the relationship between history and biography.  It perhaps raises more questions than it does provide definitive answers; however, it does not seem likely that Lukacs would regard this as something negative, because as he said, history “is not the pure truth but the pursuit of truth” (223).

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More Historic Heraldic Beastiness!

Just some more awesomness from Fuck Yeah, History Major Heraldic Beast:


Givin’ the Egyptians mad props..

Norris ain’t got nuthin on Teddy

If you don’t get this one, you’re not a history major.

the funny thing about studying history – you learn that the History Channel is full mostly of BS


Categories: History, Humor | Tags: | Leave a comment

It’s all Greek to Me

Teaching ancient Greek history at the moment and I found a couple of videos to go along with the textbook material.  I’ve already warned my students that I’m about two-and-a-half thousand years out of my time period with this stuff, BUT that they shouldn’t worry – I would somehow find a way to tie in my research field (modern & contemporary German history) with whatever we’re studying.

And now, thanks to YouTube, I can tie in the Nazis to the Spartans.  Even better:  I can tie in Hitler with King Leonidas!

And who said history can’t be fun?


Categories: History, Humor | Tags: , | Leave a comment

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