• Moorhouse, The Devils' Alliance

    After reading some reviews of Roger Moorhouse's new book on the Hitler-Stalin Pact - some positive, others less so - I decided to buy it for my Kindle. It would appear, at first glance, to be a kind of follow-up to Snyder's 'Bloodlands'. The strong claims Moorhouse makes for originality in the introduction are belied not least by the existence of Snyder's book. Also, it simply isn't true that the Hitler-Stalin Pact has been ignored by western historians. There are certainly enough books around on the topic (including books on memory of the Pact), quite a few of them admittedly in languages other than English. But I think what Moorhouse really means - and later makes clear - is that the Pact has largely been seen as an instrument of Hitler's, and is largely talked about within the context of discussions of Hitler's war on Poland. That may be true of historians of Nazism, but is it also true of historians of Stalinism? I don't know.

    Anyway, my initial impression is that this is a book which is sailing in the wind of the school of new revisionism, a trend observable for some years now. The end of the Cold War brought an opportunity to assess Stalinism in the cold light of the horror it brought on millions. Comparisons of Hitler and Stalin, hitherto largely the domain of historians such as Ernst Nolte, were suddenly in. Numerically speaking, of course, Stalinism murdered many more people than Nazism. Inevitably, such comparisons, intentionally or implicitly, raise the question as to whether the Holocaust was so unique after all. Surely it was just one enormous act of inhumanity among others? Others - if we now look towards recent histories of genocide and ethnic cleansing - which occurred not just under the Soviets, but under, say, the Turks during the First World War (genocide of the Armenians). They also raise the question as to whether Britain's later alliance with the Soviet Union, necessary as it of course was to defeat Hitler, morally compromised the British - for do you work together with mass murderers? If western historians, as Moorhouse claims, did neglect the Pact, did this reflect an unwillingness to open a can of worms? Stalin, after all, 'regained' territories through the Pact that fell within the territory earmarked for Bolshevik Russia by the Curzon Line after World War One. Britain went to war over Poland, but then ended up conceding to Stalin - more or less - those areas of Poland he had occupied in 1939/1940. Did we really fight a good war only if we ended up confirming Stalin's territorial acquisitions from the Pact? Long-held assumptions of uniqueness and the national moral probity of WW2's victors are under fire. In the midst of all this sit today's Germans, staring startled into the headlights of international revisionism and waiting till they pass before deciding what to do. Totalitarianist theories still cause convulsions in German historical and commemorative discourse. Indeed they might, because the Germans spent 50-60 years getting the Holocaust to the centre of their national consciousness and staunchly resisting equations with Stalinism, which were regarded as little more than an attempt to deflect guilt. Now, it seems they were overreacting to say the least. Stalin was every bit as much a mass murderer as Hitler. The Brits were allied to a monster, launched a genocide from the air (Cologne, Hamburg, Dresden), and then sanctioned both the ill-gotten gains of the Soviets and the biggest mass expulsion in human history, which, in the eyes of some, was a form of genocide. Fast forward to, say, 2018: the German parliament decides to dismantle the Holocaust memorial in the centre of Berlin, and erect a memorial to the victims of Nazism and Stalinism. At the New Guardhouse, the Pieta will stay, although the dedication will be changed from 'Victims of War and the Rule of Violence' to 'Victims of Nazism and the Allies', which is what this dedication really meant anyway.

    Or am I fantasising?

  • Germany - Memories of a Nation

    The British Museum will soon launch a major new exhibition on Germany, "Germany - Memories of a Nation". According to today's "Independent" and according to the Director of the Museum, Neil MacGregor, one of the major topics of the exhibition will be the expulsion of Germans at the end of World War Two:

    "The “Vertreibung” of 1945-47, in which millions of ethnic Germans from areas such as Prussia, Pomerania, Silesia and Sudetenland were uprooted from their homes and made to live within the diminished territory of post-war Germany will form a centrepiece of a major cultural project – Germany – Memories of a Nation – which the Museum is staging with the BBC."


  • Come back at half past one - Hitler will appear...

    'The Independent' reports today that the town of Braunau am Inn has finally decided to turn the house in which Hitler was born into a memorial site focusing on Nazi crimes and victims. The memorial is to be called a 'House of Responsibility'. I quote from today's 'Independent':

    "After the war the building housed first a library, then a school, then a bank and finally a workshop for the disabled.

    Despite its various guises, Braunau’s “Hitler house” continued to attract considerable and unwanted tourist interest. Last year the owner of a shop opposite was reported to have become so irritated by tourists’ inquires that he resorted to telling them: 'Come back at half past one: he normally looks out of the window around then'."

  • On Taboos

    It was the ever-voluble Michel Friedman who coined the term “Prätabuisierung” in the course of the first Sarrazin debate: “Wer sich profilieren will, erfindet zuerst ein Tabu, um dann mit Lust dagegen zu verstoßen” (“People who want to get noticed invent a taboo and then gleefully violate it”). What this implies, of course, is that many a taboo is but a fabrication, set up so that it can be smashed; transgressing it is a publicity stunt. A cursory glance at the public realm in Germany might seem to confirm this cynical diagnosis. How else might we explain the veritable rash of exploding taboos in recent years? Did it begin in 1997, with the discussion unleashed by Sebald’s essay on German literature and the bombing war, a discussion which soon broadened out from a critique of literary silence to claims of a widespread social and political silence? Or did it really began in 2008, with Walser’s Peace Prize speech: his attack on the “opinion soldiers” identified the existence of guardians of intellectual and public discourse. The developing plans for a Centre against Expulsions in Berlin have been accompanied since their inception by the insistence on the need to overcome taboos on the topic of the flight and expulsion of Germans. The TV series “Our Mothers, Our Fathers” gave rise to assertions of taboo-breaking: now it was the supposed denial of the right to criticise the anti-Semitism of others – the series depicted, among other things, anti-Semitism among Polish partisans – which was being challenged. With the publication of Sarrazin’s ‘Deutschland schafft sich ab’ (Germany is Doing Away with itself) in 2010, another taboo was presented as in need of smashing: that imposed on the articulation of criticism of Germany’s immigrant communities, particularly Moslems. Sarrazin followed this up with another book in 2014, railing against the ostensible limits on freedom of opinion in Germany. In between, of course, Günter Grass had set about demolishing the imagined taboo on criticism of Israel in his notorious poem “Was gesagt werden muss” (“What has to be said”). There are countless other examples. Nevertheless, whether they are all clever exercises in publicity-seeking is open to debate. Certainly one thing is true: behind all of them lurks the shadow of National Socialism, and a genuine or perceived sense of discursive constriction resulting from its legacy. The fear of being cursorily branded a “neo-Nazi” is to a degree a very real one. Is someone who lambastes the Allies for the bombing war not likely to be accused of stepping in the shoes of Goebbels, who was quick to condemn its inhumanity? Is pointing to Polish anti-Semitism not likely to incur an accusation of trying to fob off blame and responsibility for the Holocaust? If you criticise Moslems, for whatever reason, will you not be accused of renewed racism? And if you criticise Israel, of renewed anti-Semitism? Where is the line between genuinely falling prey to an overreactive (and ideologically interested) political correctness, and tripping over imagined barriers? Where is the line between diagnosing discursive restrictions, and imagining them into existence so as to stylise oneself as a courageous rebel, and then as an unfortunate victim of a smear campaign? I wonder.

  • Folkestone Commemorative Arch

    More on this impressive new memorial and the history behind it at

  • Conciliation across graves?

    Will the commemorative act of conciliation at St Symphorien Military Cemetery be the first big step towards a more general process of conciliation - embracing BOTH world wars?

  • From a Fuddy-Duddy

    Below is a link to a review of a book on memory and memorials edited by Marc Silberman and Florence Vatan to which I contributed. The reviewers are fairly generous on the individual contributions (except mine, where they misrepresent my argument and expect a different one), but end the review with the following comment on the book as a whole:

    “However, it reflects the tendency in memory studies to solely analyze the artifacts themselves while neglecting the analysis of their reception. As cultural artifacts only embody the potential to function as collective memory markers that needs to be actualized in the reception process, memory studies needs to explore precisely this reception process as a contested site for meaning construction about the past.”

    I am becoming rather tired of attempts to dismiss analysis of cultural artefacts in themselves as rather irrelevant. All that apparently now matters is how they are understood and interpreted on the ground. All this started a while back, of course, not least through the interesting writings of Confino, Kansteiner and Fritzsche. ‘First-generation’ memory studies was accused of equating aesthetic statements or memorial pedagogy with memory. It was pointed out that analysing the genesis and function of memorial sites and memorials led to a confusion of politics with memory. Surely what mattered more was their reception. As for the aesthetics of memorials, it was felt that this could not be analysed independently of their actual impact. A second generation of memory studies was announced. Its programmatic statements still resound, as in the review I have cited. But what has this second generation actually produced, beyond high-minded theory and the occasional meditation on thanatourism? How many scholars have gone to Berlin and interviewed visitors to the Holocaust Memorial (as if that would tell us very much)? How many have gone into schools to explore how children actually remember? There are studies of family memory, but their methodology is usually dodgy. Does any scholar really care how the local farmer or butcher or candlestick-maker actually remembers? Or do they simply prefer to piously claim that it is important to find out?

    Don’t get me wrong – I welcome this critical approach, but I do not welcome its dismissiveness, especially when its own foundations are not very solid. There is absolutely no reason why we should not analyse the politics and aesthetics of memorials. This is not to suggest they operate outside of the social and cultural processes by which meanings are determined. But it is important to plot them along lines of intention, and indeed – given that some memorials are contentious – understand their gestation as an expression of a democratic polity at work, and do not parties represent “us” in some way? Exploring the often complex aesthetics of many a modern memorial helps us not just to understand the wishes of the artist or commissioning body, but also to ascertain layers of possible meaning, thus to an extent at least anticipating possible reaction. Of course, in an ideal world, we then need to know what these reactions are. Ok. Right. Then will someone please go and do it instead of pompously dismissing the ‘first generation’ of memory scholars as, effectively, fuddy-duddies? (Reviewers: Corrina Peet and Anne Rothe)

  • The Long Shadow of the Great War

    Of all the books that have appeared on the First World (so far) this centenary, I still rate David Reynolds’ ‘The Long Shadow’ as one of the best. There is an interesting review of the book by Jay Winter at ‘Reviews in History’. It is a positive review, for sure, but Winter takes issue with Reynolds’ concern that our view of the Great War is too much informed by the verses of the war poets, with their emphasis on personal tragedy and pain. For Reynolds, the war is much more than that, and in his book he tries above all to show that life went on afterwards, inheriting problematic legacies but also positive lessons from the war. Poetry, in other words, is not a real substitute for history. Winter counters by arguing, not unreasonably, that developments after 1918 were in many ways so negative that they bore out the pessimism intoned by the war poets. And anyway, asks Winter, what if history came to a stop in the First World War? What if the idea of history, as a narrative backed up by documents, suddenly ceased to work? What if the 1914-1918 period required a different kind of story-telling, in which fabrications tell the truth and documents lie? An interesting supposition, but the very fact that it is couched in speculative ‘what ifs’ makes clear that it is, really, no more than that. If history had indeed come to a halt, and poetry taken over, then the only ‘history’ we would have would be poetry, and Reynolds would be wrong to suggest that poetry was blocking our view of multiple social, political and economic histories of the Great War, because such histories would not exist (or exist, but not capture the real historical essence). History, of course – conventional history – did not come to a stop during the war, or subsequently. In fact, Winter’s flight of fancy merely proves Reynolds right to be concerned about substituting poetry for history. Even postwar history, in Winter’s view, is essentially the fulfilment and confirmation of the bleak visions of poetry. But seeing history through the prism of poetry imposes a kind of master narrative one suspects Winter would consider more typical of historical writing. Postwar Europe is not all gloom and doom, and indeed the theory that World War One and Versailles led to Hitler and World War Two is not self-evidently true. In many ways, it was a post hoc construction, and still is. No, history did not come to an end in 1914-1918. The trenches seem to suggest stasis, but even this stalemate can be historically understood and recounted. Poetry tells us little about diplomatic, military, political, social and economic developments, all of which continued even as the entrenched stalemate persisted, and all of which are complex enough to allow differing historical readings and interpretations. It is this complexity that Reynolds asks us to rediscover. Winter, anxiously, responds by making the poets not only the true historical commentators but also the only real seers. Probably, we are dealing here with another of those memory versus history dichotomies, with poetry being lined up alongside memory – for some, a reason to avoid it like the plague when you want to know what really happened, for others, a reason to privilege it, on the grounds that only the poetic witness grasps the truth, the subjective refraction of an essence beyond the ken of archive-obsessed historians.

  • Erika Steinbach

    Erika Steinbach will not stand for reelection in November for the post of President of the League of Expellees, a position she has held for the past 16 years. If, as planned, the Documentation Centre on flight and expulsion opens in Berlin next year or the year after - a Centre which would possibly never have come about without her efforts - then it will do so with a new President in place. That may pave the way towards Polish and Czech tolerance, if not acceptance of the Centre. Steinbach was not popular over the border, especially not in Poland. She was associated with strident German demands for compensation for wrongs done to Germans during the expulsions, and accused of trying to relativise German crimes against Poles. But who will follow her?

    More on this at

  • Serbs Refuse to Paritcipate in WW1 Commemoration

    There is an interesting piece in yesterday's 'Guardian' about this, see


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