Sunday, July 30, 2023

A new course on the terrible twentieth century

I've spent the last several weeks designing a new honors course for juniors on the catastrophes of the twentieth century. It's not a "history" course, and it's not a philosophy course. Instead, I conceive of it as a learning experience for our honors students aimed at deepening one's capacity for coming to understand the past as human reality. It is practice for taking historical knowledge seriously, and how to do so. I've tried to pick out readings that both illustrate the human intensity of the catastrophes and the individual experiences of several especially evocative contemporary observers. Here is the course description:

The course takes on the largest challenges of the twentieth century – war, genocide, racism, socialism, dictatorship, and fascism. It considers the catastrophes that states and dictators have created for millions of human beings, and it looks as well at some of the ways in which human beings can strive for freedom and equality in the modern world. Many of the readings are chosen in order to find a single person’s human voice on these enormous catastrophes.

There are a handful of permeating issues that are woven through the topics and readings: the harsh inequalities of life created by the capitalisms of the 1930s; the recurring racisms that occur in the American South, Nazi Germany, and Hindu-Muslim hatreds in India; the powerful creations of fascist dictatorship that arose in Germany, Italy, Spain, and the Soviet Union. And there is an overriding philosophical question throughout the course as well: is it possible to create a working social democracy that ensures the freedoms and equality of all members of society?

These are general historical questions. But the course aims to help students to gain an experiential understanding of the practical human circumstances represented by these moments of suffering and catastrophe that occurred from Wigan to West Bengal, from Babi Yar to Kursk, and from Alabama to Oklahoma. George Orwell's Road to Wigan Pier offers an honest and specific account of the lives of coal miners and their families. Arthur Koestler's Invisible Writing expresses Koestler's particular experiences of Communism, Stalinism, the Holodomor, and the Gulag. Vasily Grossman's writings about Treblinka and "Ukraine without Jews" passionately express this honest journalist's observations and compassion in reaction to the murder of the Jews of Berdichev (his home city and the place his mother was murdered by the Nazis) and throughout Poland and Ukraine. Yevgeny Yevtushenko's poem Babi Yar expresses vividly the horror of the Nazi extermination of the Jews of Kiev -- and the silence of the USSR about this atrocity. The Brown Book of the Hitler Terror offers students a contemporary description of the murderous violence of the Nazi dictatorship -- and a case study in propaganda and the Big Lie. Varlam Shalamov's short stories about the Gulag in Kolyma Tales are personal and gripping. Tom Joad, the protagonist of Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath, speaks for many of the powerless men and women destroyed by the Great Depression, and the photography of Dorothea Lange and other Farm Security Administration (FSA) photographers help to make these testimonies vivid for students. The poetry of Langston Hughes and a narrative of the Scottsboro case give students a direct exposure to the violence of the Jim Crow regime. And V.K. Ramachandran's extensive interviews with an Indian landless worker trapped in debt bondage (link) will give students a much deeper understanding of oppression, domination, and exploitation in India. In each case my goal is to help students connect to these historical human experiences in ways that give them a more intense sense of engagement with these human realities.

I find it intriguing that many of the texts I've chosen are far from "canonical" -- in fact, most of them have probably had almost no readers in decades. Who has read Koestler's autobiography, The Invisible Writing? And yet Koestler offers a powerful and engaging first-person account of many of the most terrible events of the century. It is sobering that such expressive and truthful voices from the relatively recent past can disappear so quickly from popular imagination. Even the Road to Wigan Pier, though not forgotten entirely, is rarely read or discussed when the question of a just social system is considered.

Whenever I create a new course I find that I learn new and unexpected things. In this case I learned about the 1933 book, The Brown Book of the Hitler Terror and the Burning of the Reichstag. The Reichstag fire was the stimulus to Hitler's seizure of dictatorial powers and the beginning of his rule by massive violence. But there is a mystery: who was responsible for this arson? Koestler refers to the Brown Book in Invisible Writing, and I thought it might be a useful contemporary assessment of the Hitler dictatorship. According the the title page of the book, it was "prepared by the world committee for the victims of German fascism with an introduction by Lord Marley". The book gained wide exposure internationally, and it offered as fact a conspiracy theory of the arson: that the arsonist Arinus van der Lubbe had acted on the instructions of Nazi officials (Göring and Goebels) for the purpose of providing an incident justifying Hitler's seizure of extra-constitutional power. The Nazi theory of the arson was equally conspiratorial; the Nazis claimed that van der Lubbe was a Communist agent working at the orders of higher-level Communist officials. But the facts turn out to be quite different. The Brown Book was not the product of "neutral anti-fascist activists", but rather the work of the propaganda office of the Communist International. And there was no supporting evidence whatsoever for either the Brown Book claim or the official Nazi story about the conspiracy. Both narratives, it now seems certain, were pure propaganda, and van der Lubbe acted alone. There was no conspiracy.

Here is the summary offered by Anson Rabinbach in "Staging Antifascism: The Brown Book of the Reichstag Fire and Hitler Terror" (link):

The campaign around the Brown Book and the trial of Georgi Dimitrov and the other defendants in Leipzig from September to December 1933 was so skillfully managed that it persuaded many observers outside Germany as well as reputable historians until the 1960s that the fire was the work of a Nazi conspiracy. (97)

The book and the campaign that accompanied it was the creation of Willi Münzenberg, the renowned international communist impresario and Reichstag deputy who earned the title "Red Hugenberg" for his organizational empire, which included the International Workers Aid (IAH), numerous dailies and weeklies, journals, and the highly successful illustrated weekly Arbeiter Illustrierte-Zeitung (AIZ), with a circulation of nearly half a million. (100)

And, it emerges, Arthur Koestler himself had a minor role in the Comintern propaganda machine. Here are comments from Invisible Writing:

I ARRIVED in Paris in the middle of the Reichstag Fire Trial, which was holding Europe spellbound. The day after my arrival I met for the first time Willy Muenzenberg, Western Propaganda Chief of the Comintern. The same day I started work at his headquarters, and thus became a minor participant in the great propaganda battle between Berlin and Moscow. It ended with a complete defeat for the Nazis—the only defeat which we inflicted on them during the seven years before the war. (237)

The 'we' in this context refers to the Comintern's propaganda headquarters in Paris, camouflaged as the 'World Committee for the Relief of the Victims of German Fascism.' I arrived in Paris, as I have said, in the middle of the battle, and my part in it was a subordinate one. I had to follow the repercussions of the trial, and of our propagands, in the British Press and in the House of Commons, to study currents of British public opinion, and draw the appropriate tactical conclusions. For a while I also edited the daily bulletins which we distributed to the French and British press. (242)

And so the homeric battle of blind-man's-buff between the two giants ended. It had taught me that in the field of propaganda the half-truth was a weapon superior to the truth, and that to be on the defensive is to be defeated. It taught me above all that in this field a democracy must always be at a disadvantage against a totalitarian opponent. My years with Muenzenberg have made me sceptical regarding the West's chances of waging 'psychological warfare' against opponents like Hitler and Stalin. For to wage effective psychological war the West would have to abandon precisely those principles and values in the name of which it fights. (249)

This is an important topic for students to consider when they think about the twentieth century: how can we sort out the lies from the truths and half-truths about important historical realities? Spin, conspiracy theories, concealment, and obfuscation are strategies of falsification of history that are all too familiar -- whether in the political journalism of the 1930s, the French De Gaulle government's narrative of the fate of French Jews during the occupation, or the pervasive lies that shape public opinion on social media today. (Once, while visiting a university in Asturias, Spain, I overheard a passionate disagreement between the provost and the head librarian over whose troops had attacked the university during the Civil War -- Franco's troops or anarchist miners. Each person had family stories and memories, and their accounts were diametrically opposed.) How can ordinary citizens cultivate their capacity for critical reading and thinking that will help them sort out the truth about issues they care about?

This is one reason that I have such admiration for Marc Bloch and his Historian's Craft (link). Bloch embodies what are for me the central moral commitments of the historian: fidelity to the facts as he or she has uncovered them, and a willingness to allow the historical evidence to be the final arbiter for historical belief. This is not to doubt that there are problems for debate about the interpretation and validation of historical data; but the historian should not put a thumb on the scale to support his or her own preferred ideology.

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