Posts Tagged With: political history

The Lavender Scare

Johnson Lavender Scare

Johnson, David K.  The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays & Lesbians in the Federal Government.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004. 

Watch the trailer for the upcoming Lavender Scare documentary!

Watch the trailer for the upcoming Lavender Scare documentary!

Subject:  An examination of the persecution of homosexual federal employees in Washington, D.C. during the 1950s and 1960s.

Main Points: It’s no big secret that gay men and lesbians working in the U.S. federal government were persecuted during the Cold War.  But, most histories view this persecution as part of a larger Red Scare (purge of Communists) or era of McCarthyism.  But, in this book, Johnson reveals that the Lavender Scare (purge of homosexuals) was a specific & distinct phase of Cold War persecution in which McCarthy played a very small role.  In fact, Johnson shows that more suspected homosexuals were purged from the federal government than were suspected Communists!  As such, Johnson argues that the Lavender Scare should be viewed as central to the story of Cold War American politics.

Johnson builds on the work of scholars like John D’Emilio and George Chauncey in that he shows how D.C. became one of America’s gay cities.  As the nation’s capital, D.C.’s population soared as the federal government expanded under Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and again after the successful conclusion of the Second World War.  The enlarged bureaucracies meant more jobs – for white men and women.  Urbanization (autonomy, individuality, money) combined, like in other big cities, to create the perfect conditions for gay and lesbian subcultures, and Johnson argues that D.C.’s gay subcultures thrived.  Therefore, starting from the time of the Great Depression, the District of Columbia became a “very gay city” (41).  Unfortunately, this increased visibility of gay subcultures meant that once the crackdown began in 1950, gay men and women were more easily targeted.

Interesting is how Johnson shows that Republicans (opposing the Democratic administration) made homosexuality a political issue.  Conservative Republicans accused the Truman and Eisenhower administrations of fostering sexual perverts, thus creating an effeminate bureaucracy that wasn’t willing or able to protect America from its enemies.  Key to the use of homosexuality as a partisan tool was the notion of loyalty.  Homosexuals, it was asserted, were used to hiding who they really were and were good at living with secrets.  Therefore, they were more likely to be spies for the Communists and enemies of the American state. Having effeminate and gay men in the State Department also meant that they’d be soft and give in to foreign demands.  Conservative radio personality Walter Winchell even told his listeners that a vote for Adlai Stevenson, Democratic presidential candidate in 1952, “was a vote for Christine Jorgensen,” the first famous male-to-female transsexual (122).

Cold War policies towards homosexuals, Johnson demonstrates, are important, because he argues that the persecution of gays and lesbians was crucial to the development of a national security state.  It shows how the purges, led by State Dept. undersecretary John Peurifoy, Senator Kenneth Wherry, and R.W. Scott McLeod, allowed conservatives to shift the focus from Communists to homosexuals in order to gain support for a strengthening of the national security state (protect America from foreign and domestic enemies) and a gradual dismantling of the soft welfare state.

But Johnson also argues that the purges also had a profound impact on the gay and lesbian communities – and not just because they lost their job or were ‘outed’ from a state-created closet. In order to persecute homosexuals, the state first had to identify and define them.  After trying many different ways to define homosexuals, the government ultimately decided that a homosexual was someone who had ever had even one homosexual experience.  Therefore, Johnson argues that the state played a vital role in the shift from a gender-based notion of (homo)sexuality (based on gender inversion, ie a effeminate man, or manly woman) to a sexual object-defined definition (an individual who ‘chose’ a member of the same sex as their object of their desire).  However, he also points out that this shift was not simple and that the new definition did not simply replace the old gender based one.  Defining a homosexual by who they have sex with was difficult because that made homosexuals hard to identify; as such, picking out “soft and effeminate” men and “manly” women was still the main way government officials identified homosexuals.

But, gays and lesbians were able to create and use a “reverse discourse” (in the words of M. Foucault) to renegotiate a new, political gay identity.  Johnson argues that the persecution forced gay men and women together into a group, a group of individuals who had dedicated their lives to working for their government.  Therefore, the claim that they were somehow un-loyal to their country was preposterous.  Therefore, a new gay political activism emerged in DC (before Stonewall) in which gays and lesbians affirmed their loyalty and patriotism.  Also highlighted in the book is the role of the Mattachine society of Washington and Frank Kameny in organizing gay and lesbian activists for a political cause; thus, Johnson sees this era in DC as incredibly important to the story of gay rights activism.  These men and women who had been fired were now organizing politically to demand protection from discrimination based on their homosexuality (Johnson provides some great pictures of picket lines, pamphlets and fliers).  Such political organizations acted as rallying points for gays and lesbians, further creating a gay identity and subculture.

My Comments: It’s a really fascinating book and helpful in a number of ways.  First, it helps contextualize the beginning of the gay rights movements and shows that Stonewall maybe shouldn’t be taken as the starting point for political gay activism.  Gays and lesbians were organizing and marching in DC ten to fifteen years before the Stonewall riots happened, thus helping to create a homosexual identity in the first place.

I think it also does a great job of showing how gay & lesbian history is directly relevant to larger, political history as well.  Johnson shows that definitions of homosexuality, and gender, and masculinity were linked to loyalty, strength, and security.  Therefore, Cold War politics and sexual politics went hand in hand.

For more books on the history of gender and sexuality, see my full list of book reviews here. 

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Die Suche nach Sicherheit

Conze

Conze, Eckart.  Die Suche nach Sicherheit: eine Geschichte der Bundesrepublik Deutschland von 1949 bis in die Gegenwart.  Munich: Siedler, 2009. 

In Die Suche nach Sicherheit, Eckart Conze has written a comprehensive history of the Federal Republic of Germany that ranges from its foundation in 1949 to 2009, the year this work was published.  At over one thousand pages and covering topics from politics, society, culture, and the economy, Conze’s book is a Gesamtdarstellung of the history of the Federal Republic.  The book proceeds chronologically, but within this chronological framework, Conze employs a thematic approach, dedicating chapters to particular themes such as “Modernization in the Reconstruction,” “Security and Stability,” and “the Search for Identity and New Optimism.

The leitmotif of Conze’s book – as the title suggests – is the Germans’ search for security, certainty, and safety. “Die Geschichte der Bundesrepublik ist bestimmt von der Suche nach Sicherheit,” he writes (15).  Since the foundation of the Federal Republic, every administration and every political party has taken security as the goal of their politics.  In the Adenauer Era, stretching from 1949 to 1963, the focus was on securing stability for the newly-formed nation.  Political and civilian institutions had to be reestablished, all under the pressures of the Cold War. The American-Soviet binary put the divided Germany right at the center of the tense political climate.  Therefore, the ‘search for security’ during the 1950s was the search for military and physical safety, along with a sense of autonomy.

By 1965, Conze notes, contemporary observers felt that life had finally become more normalized, or at least stabile.  The Cuban missile crisis had subsided and West Germans were able to focus more on family life and their careers. But 1968 revealed that this sense of security and stability was a farce.  Though Conze asserts that the social revolt symbolized by the year 1968 constitutes the second formative stage of the Federal Republic’s history, he shows that the social revolutions of the late 1960s and early 1970s were not specifically a German phenomenon by situating 1968 in an international context (333).  The result of this tumult was that the 1970s was a period focused on internal security for West Germans.

The economic crises of the late 1970s, as well as the increasing importance of international security politics (NATO armament) in the 1980s forced Germans to, yet again, acknowledge that their futures depended on global factors; therefore, they were not the masters of their own destiny.  Conze speaks of a “return of history,” of an increased interest in German history in the late 1970s that was caused by the loss of a sense of certainty for their own future (655).  The reunification of Germany in 1990 gave Germans a new sense of security as a united nation, but revealed internal tensions between “Wessis” and “Ossis.”  The terror attacks of September 11, 2001 revealed that nation states were not the only source of danger, and that nation states could not always protect its citizens from global terror networks.  The book ends with the conclusion that the economic reform package passed in Germany was not just meant to fight off rising unemployment or rising debt. “It’s about the stabilization of commonwealth and the cohesion of the society.  It’s about trust in the government and the promises of protection by the state. It’s about security” (936).

Beyond giving readers a new analytical framework through which to understand the history of the Federal Republic, Conze also offers a warning against viewing its history as a teleological path towards reunification or a “long path towards the West,” as it has often been portrayed after 1990.  He drives this point home by quoting histories from the late 1980s that still portrayed “ratlosigkeit” or having no sense of where German history would go from there (11).

 

For more books on modern German history, see my full list of book reviews here.

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The Hitler State

Broszat Hitler State

Broszat, Martin.  The Hitler State: The Foundation and Development of the Internal Structure of the Third Reich.  Trans. John W. Hiden.  London: Longman, 1981.

Originally published in 1969, Broszat’s Der Staat Hitlers was one of the first works to take a structuralist approach to the Third Reich.  In other words, he sought to uncover the deeper forces behind the regime rather than provide a more biographical overview of the key political players.  As such, Broszat’s book is not structured like a synthesis or textbook that provides a chronological account of events.  Instead, the study is an examination of how power and authority were structured and exercised in Nazi Germany.

Broszat’s main goal is to reevaluate the view of the Nazi state as one in which it exercised complete, systematic, and standardized control over its nation.  The picture of the Third Reich that Broszat paints is one full of complex and overlapping governmental and party structures that were often competing against one another.  There was often tension between Reich ministries and the Länder organizations, between German state offices and Nazi party organs, and most often between different bureaucrats themselves.  Broszat pinpoints Hitler as the reason behind this structure in which power existed not as flowing hierarchically from the top down, but as coexisting simultaneously in different spheres.  Hitler, Broszat argues, demanded full authority in his position as Führer, but was skeptical of establishing a standardized, or rationalized, system of authority below him.  Personal loyalty to him was paramount, but beyond that, Hitler allowed for personal and organizational competition among his underlings.  This helped to assure that no significant amount of power would be collected by one office or individual outside of the Führer.

Broszat’s study focuses on the period between the seizure of power in 1933 and the preparation for war in 1939, and as he demonstrates, this is a period in which there still existed an uneasy relationship between the older conservative tradition and the radical dynamism of Nazism.  In the initial months of 1933, Nazi officials instituted a number of radical policies including purges and the construction of concentration camps.  But because the more traditional conservative forces had apprehensions about such actions – and Hitler still needed their influence, particularly with forming alliances with Germany’s heavy industry for the coming rearming mission – Hitler put a stop to the violence, thus returning to more conventional modes of governing by the end of 1933.  In 1937 and 1938, the gap between old elites and Nazi leaders widened as Nazis began ousting conservatives from the government and formulating more aggressive foreign policies in what Broszat refers to as the “second revolution” of the Nazi regime (354).

This unequal distribution of power, which was largely defined by one’s personal connection to Hitler, fueled a Darwinian competition that led to the creation of personal empires within the Third Reich (like Himmler’s death camp system).  In a functionalist vein, Broszat argues that this struggle for power forced people to develop new ways of exercising power.  With the lack of rationalized chains of command, it was left up to subordinates to figure out ways to turn Hitler’s visions into realities. In addition to allowing Hitler to stand alone above – and perhaps beyond – the system, “the “polycracy” of individual office holders…ultimately led to a proliferation of arbitrary decisions and acts of violence” (xi).  Therefore, the National Socialists did not come to the table in 1933 with the blue prints for the Holocaust as a secret goal; instead, the de-centralized and revolutionary power structure of the Nazi state led to the radicalization of goals and to extremism that murdered millions of people.

For more books on modern German history, see my full list of book reviews. 

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Hitler & the Collapse of Weimar Germany

Broszat

 

Broszat, Martin.  Hitler and the Collapse of Weimar Germany. Trans. V. R. Berghahn. Leamington Spa: Berg, 1987.

This is a thin, but important book of political history.  In it, Broszat traces the complex political trends of the Weimar era, as well as the intricate deals forged by Germany’s leading politicians and economic elite at the time.  Though this is primarily a political history, Broszat does offer some glances into larger socio-cultural developments during the 1920s and 1930s.  He hints at what Detlev Peukert takes as the central issue of his own book: the effects of modernization and the rise of mass culture on German politics.  Ultimately, Broszat sees this new, mass culture as the key to the Nazis’ success in gaining control of the German government in 1933.

Broszat opens his book with a brief history of the National Socialist German Workers Party (NSDAP or Nazi Party) and shows that it was only one among many right wing, nationalist parties.  “What marked [Hitler] out among the speakers of the political Right was the way in which he put his message across” (2).  This point epitomizes Broszat’s larger argument that it was not Nazism’s message itself that made it unique or successful, but instead the manner in which the message was expressed and distributed.  NSDAP leadership – and Hitler in particular – recognized that the masses could not be ignored in any new political system.  Consequently, the Nazis saw the masses as a source of power that should be tapped into through modern technology and political aesthetics.  In this light, the National Socialists were a truly modern political party, not the culmination of an older German character.  “Nazi ideology was almost totally a product of mass culture and political semi-illiteracy which proliferated since the late nineteenth century” (38).

After demonstrating that National Socialism was a modern creation, Broszat lays out the conditions that allowed for the rise of the Nazi Party.  National Socialism emerged in Germany after the First World War during a period of worldwide economic recession and against the background of a general crisis of modernity and civilization” (37).  The SPD-led Weimar Coalition enjoyed success only during times of material improvement or stability (53); otherwise, it was attacked from all sides: the Communists on the Left and conservative nationalists like the Nazis on the Right.  The election of Paul von Hindenburg as Reich President in 1925 was a “symptom of backward looking tendencies,” Broszat claims (67).

While the election of Hindenburg symbolized a shift to the Right in Weimar mentality, the Republic was not destroyed until Chancellor Brüning was forced to resign in May 1932.  The new chancellor led a coup against Prussia, trying to separate its government from the Reich’s, and the SPD did nothing to protest, thus paving the way for an authoritarian, nationalistic government (120, 146).  The rest of the book is dedicated to revealing the political maneuvering that led to Papen’s ousting, Schleicher’s short chancellorship, and finally Hitler’s appointment as Reich Chancellor in January 1933.

Throughout the book, Broszat reveals how the NSDAP was able to gather followers.  Nazism “seemed to offer a strong determined leadership, a pseudo-democratic mobilization of the masses and their participation in the promised national revival; it looked like a ‘third way’ between democracy and the state authoritarianism of the olden days. Herein lay the lure of Nazism” (94).  As the NSDAP gained more success, its more radical messages were toned down, thus appealing to a wider audience among the working class, bourgeoisie, and old elite.  The old conservative elites lacked this mass appeal and that is why they compromised and agreed to place the Nazis in power, hoping they could keep Hitler and his party on a short leash.

To see more books on the history of modern Germany, see my full list of book reviews. 

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Writing European History

Mazower

Eric Hobsbawm was right when he called the twentieth century an age of extremes, and the phrase applies especially well to Europe.[1]  Starting in 1914, the continent was engulfed in total war for thirty years, followed by an unprecedented 45-year period of peace, even if it was a peace imposed by the Cold War.  How then should one tell the story of twentieth century European history?  Such a task requires one to confront questions of narratives, perspective, and themes.  Was it the gradual and haphazard, yet inevitable progress of capitalism and liberal democracy, relegating the world wars as regrettable aberrations of “true” European history?  Or do the darker moments of the twentieth century overshadow Europeans’ later achievements?  In Dark Continent, Mark Mazower portrays Europe’s twentieth century as one characterized primarily by violence, an era in which ideologies inspired entire peoples to fight to the death.  Bernard Wasserstein presents a continent continuously caught between two extremes in Barbarism and Civilization.  Lastly, Tony Judt’s book Postwar begins in 1945, but demonstrates how the previous thirty years of global war remained a defining influence on Europe after the war’s end, acting as the foundation for a new Europe committed to learning from its mistakes.

Mark Mazower’s Dark Continent: Europe’s Twentieth Century is considerably shorter than the other two books, but this can be attributed to the fact that his book is meant to be more of an extended essay than a full survey of Europe in the twentieth century. At the core of his book is the assertion that Europe’s twentieth century was defined by three competing visions for the future or Europe and ultimately the world: liberal democracy, fascism, and communism.  “Europe’s twentieth century is the story of their conflict,” he writes (xv).  Consequently, competition and violence are the heart of Mazower’s narrative.  Throughout his provocative and eloquently written book, Mazower demonstrates how all three ideologies were seeking to improve the world through the establishment of a New World Order.  “Like it or not, both fascism and communism involved real efforts to tackle the problems of mass politics, of industrialization, and social order; liberal democracy did not always have all the answers” (xii).

Another major goal of Dark Continent is to highlight the historical contingency of this European era. “Though we may like to think democracy’s victory in the Cold War proves its deep roots in Europe’s soil, history tells us otherwise” (5).  His narrative shows that fascism and communism were just as European as liberal democracy, though it is easy to retrospectively consider them anomalies of European history.  The Nazi “utopia was also a nightmarish revelation of the destructive potential in European civilization,” he writes (xiii).  What made Nazism stand out from the other European visions was the fact that it turned European imperialist mentality on other Europeans.  Consequently, Mazower argues that the Nazis’ “greatest offence against the sensibility of the continent” was treating Europeans like Africans, turning Europeans into barbarians and slaves (73).

After 1945, the forced peace of the Cold War “brought the continent the most precious commodity of all – time” (249).  Even though the emergent European Community (and later, the European Union) curtailed national sovereignty of the member states, Mazower argues that by the end of the 1990s, Europe had decided that social cohesion was of greater value than individuality (360). While Europe may have achieved a level of peace and economic prosperity, Mazower’s book does not really end with a positive note.  He concludes that “The real victor in 1989 was not democracy but capitalism” (397), and that one reason Europeans live with democracy today is “partly because it involves less commitment or intrusion into their lives than any of the alternatives” (397).  After half a century in which states took full control of the public and the private spheres, Mazower argues that Europeans have come to appreciate one of democracies “quiet virtues:” it gives people a retreat and allows for a private life (xv).  In other words, he feels that the stability of contemporary Europe comes not from dedication to an inherently peaceful ideology, but instead from Europeans’ settling on democracy because of their ideological exhaustion.

Bernard Wasserstein’s Barbarism and Civilization: a History of Europe in Our Time begins with a quote from Walter Benjamin:  “There is no document of civilization that is not simultaneously a document of barbarism” (vii).  This quotation sets the path for the rest of Wasserstein’s 850-page book; as such, readers see violence and peace occupying the same space in the story.  His book begins (like Mazower’s) in 1914, because the outbreak of World War One signals the ideological beginning of the new century.  He refers to the world of 1914 as a time of “dying empires” and “rising nation-states” (9), and expands by declaring that “Nationalism, not socialism, was the most explosive political force in much of central and eastern Europe, all the more so because it was frustrated and pent up by the authoritarian structures of the multi-national empires” (36).  Ethnicities and nation states play central roles in Wasserstein’s book.  Once the European nations were able to gain stability by the 1950s and 1960s, they had to learn how to deal with new ethnic minorities (like the Turkish workers in Germany), especially as Europe became a continent of immigration instead of emigration.  When discussing the 1991-1992 wars in Yugoslavia, Wasserstein writes, “The war brutally exposed the limitations of the European diplomatic system and its inability to resolve conflict arising from profound ethno-religious cleavages” (733).  This example – beyond revealing that Wasserstein’s book takes all of Europe into account, and not just central or western Europe – demonstrates Wasserstein’s skepticism of nation states’ ability to provide a peaceful environment for its ethnic minorities.

Barbarism and Civilization is primarily concerned with political, economic, military, and demographic developments, though he does offer glimpses into other areas (there is a four page section dedicated to sex and sexuality).  I was also surprised to see that decolonization was explicitly addressed in only eleven pages since the loss of colonies in Africa and Asia was so symbolically and economically important to the old imperial powers.  One way that Wasserstein’s account differs from Mazower’s is that Wasserstein’s focuses much more on individual actors than larger political ideologies. But by doing this, I wonder if he underestimates the power of ideas.  He refers to Hitler as a self-pitying misanthrope (397) and comments that fascist ideas were the “primitive rationalization of gangsterism” (160).  Wasserstein is right to highlight the influence that particular individuals had, but it may be easier to dismiss individuals as misanthropic than to fully give credence to the origins and power of their ideologies.

Tony Judt’s Postwar: a History of Europe since 1945, on the other hand presents a narrative based on ideologies.  His book starts in 1945 and so does not dedicate time to studying the actual events of the world wars.  Instead, the work focuses on the place the dark half of the century has held in Europeans’ minds since 1945.  World War One destroyed Old Europe and World War Two laid the foundations for a new one, he argues (6).  He quite provocatively claims that the work of Hitler and Stalin actually allowed for the post-1945 stability because theirs were projects that sought to unify and hegemonize European peoples.  Ethnic diversity only worked under multi-ethnic empires; that same diversity could not work under nation states.  “Between them, and assisted by wartime collaborators, the dictators blasted flat the demographic heath upon which the foundations of a new and less complicated continent were then laid” (9).

But the World War era also provided stability for the post-war Europe in another way.  Judt argues that for fifty years, the atrocities of Hitler’s Europe remained silent and that this silence was vital to the establishment of European stability.  Only after social, political, and economic stability were achieved were Europeans able to begin fully studying and confronting what it soon became clear was a European-wide complicity in the murder of the Jews.  In the post-1989 world, Judt argues that “Holocaust recognition is our contemporary European entry ticket” (803).  After Marxism lost its legitimacy through the knowledge of Soviet atrocities, Europeans witnessed the death of “grand narratives,” or single explanations that tied the march of history to one’s destiny (563).  Particularly after the collapse of Communism, Europeans were left with no competing ideologies with which to make sense of their world and use as the basis of identity.  Instead, Judt suggests that the Europeans’ violent past has become the unifying “other” for present day Europe.  Only by acknowledging the dangers of rampant capitalism and nationalism, by recognizing the destruction wrought by Europeans – epitomized by the Holocaust – can one be considered part of the new, unified “Europe” of today (830).

While they may focus on different themes throughout their narratives, all three authors position Europe into a larger, transnational or global history in the same way.  Each scholar concludes that the history of the twentieth century is the history of Europe’s relative decline in the world.  Wasserstein posits 1914 as already marking the “beginning of the end of the Eurocentric world” (1).  Mazower points out that the economic crises of the 1970s revealed to Europeans the weakness of nation states and “the need for concentrated action to defend their way of life against global competition” (328).  He adds that while the European nations themselves enjoy relative stability and peace, globally “Europe has lost its primacy, and perhaps that is what most Europeans find hardest to accept” (403).  From the beginning of his book, Judt tells readers that his is a “history of Europe’s reduction” (7), but Europe’s loss of relative political and military dominance in the world is not portrayed in a negative light.  In fact, he concludes by stating that, In spite of the horrors of their recent past – and in large measure because of them – it was Europeans who were now uniquely placed to offer the world some modest advice on how to avoid repeating their own mistakes” (800).  Again, this highlights Judt’s emphasis on the stabilizing and educational role Europe’s violent past can play in today’s effort to create a stabile and peaceful Europe.

These books offer three different ways of conceptualizing modern European history.  Mazower holds Europe’s divisions, competition, and violence as paramount, stating that, “The “Europe” of the European Union may be a promise or a delusion, but it is not a reality” (xiv).  Ultimately he argues that Europeans will only find lasting stability by giving up on the effort to define a single, unifying “European” identity.  “If Europeans can give up their desperate desire to find a single workable definition of themselves…they may come to terms more easily with the diversity and dissension which will be as much their future as their past” (403).  Wasserstein claims that, “Civilization and barbarism walked hand in hand in Europe in the course of the past century.  They were not polar opposites, but…locked together in a dialectical relationship” (793).  But while Wasserstein mentions this coexistence at the beginning and end of his narrative, readers may question if he feels that barbarism and civilization really coexisted, or if Europe’s twentieth century can be viewed as a transition from barbarism to civilization.  And lastly, Judt believes that the new “European” model can only be successful if it’s based on accepting Europe’s violent past.


[1] Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Extremes: A History of the World, 1914-1991. New York: Random House, 1994.

Books under review: 

Mazower, Mark. Dark Continent: Europe’s Twentieth Century. New York: Vintage, 2000.

Wasserstein, Bernard. Barbarism and Civilization: A History of Europe in Our Time. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Judt, Tony. Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945. New York: Penguin Press, 2005.

For more books on modern European history, see my full list of book reviews. 

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