Think Piece

Silencing the Berbers

By guest contributor Rosalie Calvet

 A little less than a year ago, a prestigious American university hosted a conference about French-Algerian history, gathering the leading specialists of the topic.

A prominent French scholar closed his presentation by opening the debate to the audience. Immediately, one of his North American fellows asked “Since you do not speak Arabic, do you feel somewhat limited in your work on French Algeria?”

“I see what you mean,” he replied, “but fortunately, we have the archives of the colonial administration, so French is enough.”

Suddenly, a man, sitting on the first row of the audience, stood up, and, speaking in French, replied “I am Algerian. I was born before the Independence. You taught us French and nothing else. We had to learn Arabic after the War of Liberation. Arabic must come back to Algeria.”

And then, another man, sitting next to him, added “Arabic … and Berber. Nobody talks about Berber. Historians have forgotten that North Africa is the land of the Berbers.”

Who are the Berbers?

The indigenous population of North Africa, the Berbers call themselves i-Mazigh-en, “free-men” or “noble” in Tamazight. If over the centuries, the Berbers have split into smaller communities, the Chleus in Morocco, the Touaregs in Libya and the Kabyles in Algeria, they have remained faithful to a clear sense of unity. The history of the Berbers is that of an identity constantly reshaped by internal and external mutations, of cultural blending and ongoing intellectual developments and innovations. Invaded by the Phoenicians around 800 BC, the Berbers were incorporated into the Roman Empire in 200 BC and their land constituted the cradle of European Christianity. The Arab Conquest of the seventh century led to the merging of Berber and Arab culture, the conversion to Islam and the fall of the Christian Church. Between the eighth and ninth centuries, a series of Muslim-Berbers dynasties ruled over the Maghreb (the Arabic name for North Africa) achieving its territorial and political unity. Most of the region, except for Morocco, passed under Ottoman domination in 1553 and remained part of the empire until the nineteenth century. During this period, the three political entities composing modern North Africa emerged. While Tunisia and Morocco were to become protectorates of France, in 1881 and 1912 respectively, Algeria was to be French for over a century.

During the first decades of colonial rule (1830-1871), the French authorities privileged Berbers over their Arab fellows (8). The main goal of the administration was to eradicate Islam from Algerian identity (23). According to French observers, the Berbers seemed keener to renounce their Muslim legacy, as they more closely resembled the French and shared their Christian roots.

Eugène Delacroix, Fantasia Arabe (1833), Städelscher Museums, Germany. One of Delacroix’s most famous representations, of a “fantasia” (a traditional Berber military game played on horseback) he witnessed in North Africa. The composition, centered on three moving figures, reflects Delacroix’s fascination with the ‘wildness’ of the cultures he depicts.

To fuel this narrative, the French progressively constructed the “Kabyle Myth.” In 1826, the Abbé Raynal claimed that the Kabyles were of “Nordic descent, directly related to the Vandals, they are handsome with blues eyes and blond hair, their Islam is mild.” Tocqueville wrote in 1837 that the “Kabyle soul” was opened to the French (182). Ten years later, the politician Eugène Daumas claimed that the “Kabyle people, of German descent […] had accepted the Coran but had not embraced it [and that on many aspects] the Kabyles still lived accordingly to Christian principles” (423). This the reason why French colonial officer Henri Aucapitaine concluded that: “in one hundred years, the Kabyles will be French” (142).

The situation shifted in 1871 when two hundred and fifty Kabyle tribes, or a third of the Algerian population, revolted against the colonial authorities. The magnitude of the uprising was such that the French decided to “fight the Berber identity […] which in the [long-run] empowered the Arabs.”

From then on, the differences between the Berbers and the Arabs became irrelevant to France’s main priority: to maintain its control over the local populations by fighting Islam. The idea emerged that to be assimilated to the French Republic, Algerian subjects needed to be “purified” from their religious beliefs.

By the Senatus-Consulte of July 14th, 1865, the French had ruled that “Muslim Algerians were granted the right to apply for French citizenship […] once they had renounced their personal status as Muslims”(444). This law, which had established a direct link between religion on the one hand and political rights on the other, now further reflected the general sense of disregard towards the diversity of cultural groups in Algeria, all falling into the same overarching category of Muslim. After the 1880s, the French gave up on the Kabyle myth, marginalizing the Berbers who had become a source of agitation.

Henri Rousseau, La Baie d’Alger (1880), Private Collection. In this view of the Bay of Algiers, the Douanier Rousseau pictures a Berber tribe.

As the independent Republic of Algeria triumphed in the Fall of 1962, the newly funded regime identified the Berbers as posing an “existential threat to the Arabo-Muslim identity of the country” (103).

Repeating the French practice of destroying those regional identities allegedly challenging the legitimacy of an aggressively centralized and centralizing state, the leaders of Algeria denounced the political claims of the Berbers as a “separatist conspiracy,” and after 1965 the Arabization policy became systematic throughout the country.

To assess the respective impact of colonization, nineteenth and twentieth century nationalist pan-Arab ideologies and the role of post-independence Algerian leaders upon the persecution of the Kabyles after 1962 constitutes a somewhat limited debate.

It is, however, critical to acknowledge the responsibility of the French state in the marginalization of the Berbers after the 1871 Kabyle riot. Progressively, the colonial administration changed a model of mixed and complex identities strongly rooted the Maghreb tradition into a binary model (235). Within this two-term model, people could only define themselves on one side or the other of a rigid frontier separating authentic French culture from supposedly authentic colonized culture. As Franco Tunisian Historian Jocelyn Dakhlia argues in Remembering Africa, “the consequence of such a dualistic opposition of colonial identities was [… ] that the anticolonial movement stuck to this idea of an authentic native Muslim Arabic identity,  excluding the Berbers” (235).

The very existence of the Berbers thwarts any attempt to analyze Algerian society in a way that resorts to a rigid griddle, whether in racial, cultural or religious terms.

This is probably the reason why the French, and after them the independent Algerian state, have utterly repressed the legacy of Berber culture in the country: for the Berbers could not exist in the dualistic narrative underlying both colonial and anti-colonial. As historian Michel-Rolph Trouillot, would argue, they became unthinkable, and were silenced and excluded from History.

Yet, the most curious factor in this non-history is the paucity of French scholarship on the issue. (50). While some academics do focus on creating conversations and producing literature on the question of Berber identity, the most renowned French scholars systematically fail at doing so. As a direct consequence, most French academic discourses reproduce and maintain the somewhat convenient imperial division opposing the “Arabs” in the North to the “Blacks” in the South of Africa, thereby forgetting that the Sahara is not a rigid racial frontier, and that for centuries the Berbers have been circulated throughout the region.

Centenaire de l’Algérie – Grandes Fêtes Sahariennes, Affiche, Musée de l’Immigration, Paris. This poster, issued by the French government in 1930, is an invitation to a military parade featuring colonial soldiers to commemorate the centenary of the 1830 conquest of Algiers.

Ultimately, the Berbers blurry the lines between colonial and post-independent notions of identity in North Africa. To acknowledge the Berbers would require scholars to accept their fluidity – a direct threat to the Western appeal for systemic and pseudo-universalist thinking, still prevalent in French academia despite the emergence post-colonial studies in the 1960s.

Recognizing the Berbers necessitates first, as claimed by Algerian scholar Daho Djerbal, to ask: who is the subject of History? This is the only way in which one can hope to put an end to the overly simplistic politics of identity imposed by the political power—on both sides of the Mediterranean Sea, on both shores of the Atlantic Ocean.

Rosalie Calvet is a paralegal working in New York City, freelance journalist and Columbia class of 2017 graduate. As a history major, Rosalie specialized on the historiography of French imperial history. Her senior thesis, “Thwarting the Other: a Critical approach to the  Historiography of French Algeria” was awarded the Charles A. Beard History Prize. In the future, Rosalie wishes to continue reflecting on otherness in the West—both through legal and academic lenses. More about Rosalie and her work is available on her website.

Intellectual history

Make Acrostics Magical Again? Part II

by Contributing Writer Sarah Scullin


Between the period of Biblical/Babylonian acrostics and those of the Christian era, the Greeks and, later, the Romans, used acrostics in their literature in ways that were as difficult to decode as the later Jesus fish example. These puzzles were used primarily in poetry as a way for the author to—quite literally—sign his work. Thus, many of these ancient acrostics consist of the poet’s name. Vergil has several: for example, at Georgics 1.429-33 he encodes his text with MA-VE-PU (Maro Vergilius Publius—a reverse of his name Publius Vergilius Maro). A signature like this is thought to have functioned much like a formal seal (in fact, the literary term for this kind of device is “sphragis,” which is the Ancient Greek word for “seal”), whereby the author both takes credit for his work and seeks to prevent plagiarism or alteration of his words.

These are usually incredibly sneaky acrostics, often going undiscovered for thousands of years. Some of them are “syllabic,” as is the case in Vergil’s MA-VE-PU, and require skipping lines and adding together the first syllable of every other line; others are in boustrephedon format (Greek for “as the ox turns”) and require the decoder to reverse every other line of text in order to find the hidden message. Unlike the obvious “hidden” messages of the Babylonian/Biblical authors or today’s political actors, the very existence and intention of these acrostics can leave the reader in doubt: the scholar who recently (re)discovered another Vergilian acrostic—the name of the Roman god of war M-A-R-S at Aeneid 7.601-4—despite mounting a convincing case for the validity of his reading, nevertheless claims to be awaiting “the men in white coats.”

The most one could say about these “signature” type acrostics is that—in addition to being a vanity project—they may have been thought to have some kind of binding power; the other main use of acrostics in Greco-Roman antiquity, however, is arguably kind of inane, consisting essentially of clever wordplay.

So the author might signify his aesthetic style by weaving a term into the poem that expresses his artistic tastes. This is literally the equivalent of hiding the word “pretty” or “nice” in a poem. So the poet Aratus encoded the term λέπτη (“delicate”—a Hellenistic buzzword for the kind of refined aesthetics they prided themselves on inventing) in his poem about constellations. Other acrostics are merely playful, often just echoing the first word in a line, like a kind of literary times-table: so the author Apuleius (Met. 433) spells out M-O-N-S (mountain) vertically off of the inflected form of the same word (montis). How clever.

Both of these types of acrostics—the signature and the aesthetic—don’t seem overly concerned with being easily decoded. In fact, this blatant obscurity may be the very point. Greek poets like Aratus and the Roman poets who consciously followed in the Hellenistic Greeks’ poetic footsteps, prided themselves on catering to a “refined,” learned audience. If you don’t have what it takes to pick up on their incredibly learned and subtle puzzles, they don’t want you in the club anyway. This may be a secular—and, ok, not very solemn or deep—use of the acrostic, but it does draw on the same kind of “speaking to the initiated” coding that we later see in the Jesus fish.

If acrostics were historically used for glorifying the author, the alphabet, god, or the king, how did people—like Vergil—go about registering political protest? The answer depends on which historical period we are discussing. To take Rome as an example, one acrostic author, the statesman Cicero, writing when Rome still had a republic, penned and delivered blistering political dissent in speech after speech. Cicero almost lived to see the complete collapse of the Republic, but Mark Antony (Cicero’s Trump) had him decapitated and mounted his hands and tongue in public, blaming the very tools Cicero had employed to write and speak, respectively, in protest.

By the time Vergil composed his poetry, Rome’s first emperor, Augustus, was firmly in power, after winning a Civil War and destroying his political enemies. Despite having suffered loss of family property and, presumably, also having lost friends and family at Augustus’ hands, Vergil nevertheless wrote poetry in praise of the emperor (or “first citizen,” as Augustus preferred to be called).

Vergil’s acrostics are not subversive. But his poetry, as scholars have recently begun to argue (if you consider the past 100 years to be recent, which you ought to when the poems themselves are twenty times that age) does criticize, condemn, and R-E-S-I-S-T the powers-that-be. This line of scholarship—dubbed the “Harvard School” and composed primarily of American classicists—argues that much of Vergil’s poetry is receptive to multiple valances, or meanings: so, something that can be read as direct praise of Augustus, like Aeneas visiting the underworld (Aen 6) and seeing arrayed there the glorious future of Rome, including Julius Caesar and his adopted son, Augustus himself, is later undercut. In this case, after praising and glorifying Augustus in this underworld scene, Vergil claims that Aeneas departs the underworld through the gate of “False Dreams.” Is Vergil hinting that Augustan propaganda was all lies, perhaps?

This type of subversive messaging is so covert that scholars still argue about whether or not it’s entirely there. Regardless of where you stand on the issue, even conceding the interpretive possibility of dissent, it’s easy enough to point to, say, Vergil dying a natural death and the Roman Empire surviving for hundreds of years beyond Augustus and conclude that most people didn’t get his message. Other poets under the empire weren’t so lucky: Ovid was sent into exile for “carmen et error” (“a poem and a mistake”), while other authors were murdered (or forced to kill themselves) for openly protesting, or conspiring against, the emperor.



To return to our modern acrostics and consider them in light of the history of this artistic device: I think few people could convincingly argue that these acrostics are straightforward hidden messages—or commands—to a secondary audience. Kammen is not simply ordering Congress to impeach Trump, nor is the Committee on the Arts and Humanities trying its hand at “inception” and trying to convince other dissenters to resist Trump. But is R-E-S-I-S-T a magically invocative word? Is I-M-P-E-A-C-H an attempt at binding Trump to a hoped-for fate, a way of saying a prayer to the gods (aka Congress), or an underscoring of the substance of author’s overt message?

One way to analyze the history of acrostics is to think of them as a message that is either an artistic, aesthetic flourish, meant to be subtle and very much hidden from public view, or an overt, obvious message of adulation. So an acrostic historically was either something that only the initiated (in the case of the Jesus fish) and the most erudite (in the case of poetry) could decode or was an obvious and safe way to express support of the powers-that-be. In either case, historically, political resistance has been either way more covert and open to interpretation or overt, culminating in the form of actual conspiracies and rebellions.

In these more modern acrostics, however, the messaging is both overt and politically rebellious. Everyone is “in” on the message and the message is, mutatis mutandis a “F-U-C-K Y-O-U” to the emperor. Which leads me to ask: what is the purpose of these new types of acrostics, then? Is the acrostic really hidden when everyone sees and shares it immediately? I think that the only person we can be reasonably sure is unaware of the hidden messaging in these letters is the recipient himself, since I doubt any of the recent articles on acrostics have made it into his twice-daily happy folders—although perhaps we should examine his twitter feed for an acrostic response? C-O-V-F-E-F-E, perhaps?

Even if Trump were aware of the presence of these covert words, I think it’s reasonable to assume that he is not the intended audience of these messages. He is not supposed to R-E-S-I-S-T or I-M-P-E-A-C-H. Rather, the immediate audiences would appear to be the general public, and the House of Representatives, respectively. We are not supposed to feel clever for “finding” this hidden message; rather the acrostic seems to be a way of loudly, publicly, and overtly registering resistance.

Just as Vergil’s MA-VE-PU, though built in to reward a clever reader or two, ultimately shines a light on the author and his cleverness, so too do these overtly political acrostics reflect on the authors of the letters, more than reward or stimulate a particular audience. The messaging may not be subtle; it may not be particularly “effective” or “productive,” if we want to judge it in terms of the changes it brings about. But it’s nevertheless an artistic expression of opposition, and can therefore also be judged in terms of what it stands for. In this case, the fact that someone can code such a message into a public letter, and still have his head the next day, is a good thing.

Sarah Scullin is Managing Editor for Eidolon, a public-facing journal that aims to make the Classics political and personal, feminist and fun. She received her Ph.D. in Classical Studies from the University of Pennsylvania in 2012.

Intellectual history

Make Acrostics Magical Again? Part I

By Contributing Writer Sarah Scullin

Acrostics—the name given to secret words spelled out in the first lines or paragraphs of a text—are experiencing a bit of a renaissance thanks to two high-profile letters that used this hidden coding to protest the Trump administration. In Late August, Former Science Envoy Daniel Kammen tweeted out a resignation letter, addressed to Trump, that featured the acrostic I-M-P-E-A-C-H. Just five days earlier the 17 members of the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, in a joint letter, spelled out R-E-S-I-S-T.

Now, before one lobs accusations that this acrostic-usage is a bit of partisan foolishness, let me just mention that these are merely the most recent in a long line of what could be accused of bipartisan foolishness, given the long-lived B-E-N-G-H-A-Z-I Twitter acrostic is accused here of being “inane” and “crazy” and “extremely distracting.” For those centrists who like to believe themselves above the fray, may I direct you to the governator’s subtle F-U-C-K Y-O-U to San Franciscan lawmakers.

Image #1 Acrostics copy
Berkeley Professor and former science envoy to the State Department Daniel Kammen’s resignation letter contains an acrostic spelling of “IMPEACH.”

Acrostics, then, seem to be considered an equally partisan—if “not exactly sophisticated”—way to register protest. But this practice didn’t begin four years ago on Twitter, it has deep roots in antiquity; and it wasn’t always used for registering political anger or protest.

Contextualizing these recent acrostics within the history of the practice is a useful way of analyzing them. It’s certainly easy enough to dismiss the B-E-N-G-H-A-Z-I tweets as empty “insanity,” or to label the Trump resignation acrostics as “infantile inanity.” After all, most Americans’ experience with acrostics happens in grade school, when we’re forced to crayon a M-O-T-H-E-R poem for Mother’s Day or eke out a rhyming poem that matches each letter of our first name to some kind of self-esteem boosting creed of “things I’m good at.” But comparing the ancient and modern usage can lead us to ask deeper questions we might not have otherwise: What kind of message does an acrostic really send? How can we assess if an acrostic is “productive”? Are acrostics hidden messages or overt snark? Are they—in fact—childish tricks, or do they have some kind of binding, magical force?


Some of the oldest acrostics are found in the Hebrew bible. These biblical puzzles are primarily of what’s known as the “alphabetic” type. Now these earliest examples don’t really absolve acrostics of their grade-school reputation, since they literally just spelled out—as the name implies—the alphabet (see, e.g. Psalms 9-10). These types of acrostics were meant to capitalize on the magic (like, actual magic) that the alphabet was thought to possess. This is the same kind of magical thinking that underlies the term “abracadabra,” or the practice in kabbalism of assigning numerical power to letters.

In this case, the message is not so much contained within the meaning of the actual encoded word as it is in the binding power of the acrostic form. When looked at this way, those grade-school alphabetic acrostics aren’t just a case of an author being clever (or practicing his ABCs), but speak to some of the most powerful issues that underlie artistic expression, especially that of the written word: everything we say, everything you read, for better or worse (and in these days of online commentary, more seems to be for the worse than the better) is made from a small handful of letters. The power of the word—of the letters that make the word—should not, perhaps, be dismissed as sophomoric.

Nearly as old as the biblical examples, Babylonian acrostics date back to the 7th c. BCE kings Ashurbanipal and Nebuchadrezzar II, both of whom were recipients of acrostic poems that spelled out their names (gifts for ancient Babylonian Father’s Day?). Similar to the R-E-S-I-S-T and I-M-P-E-A-C-H acrostics, these puzzles are decoded by stringing together the first letter of each stanza (i.e. paragraph) of the poem. In direct contrast to our modern political examples, the majority of these acrostics, found in hymns, prayers, or wisdom poems, spelled out names or sentences that were obvious praise for an authority—usually the king or a god.

There is one exception, however: one Babylonian acrostic does seem to allow for political dissent, even if it actually reverses the situation we see in, say, the governator’s acrostic: the poem entitled The Babylonian Theodicy is ostensibly about how terrible the gods are (the poem presents a dialogue between friends, one of whom blames the gods for his misfortunes, while the other, who defends the gods for the majority of the poem, eventually concedes the point that the gods are, in fact, assholes). The author of this poem, however, uses an acrostic to embed the message that he, unlike his fictional subjects, loves the god and the king (“I, Saggil-kînam-ubbib, the incantation priest, am adorant of the god and the king”). Rather than registering dissent, here the author uses an acrostic to protect himself from charges of heresy and disloyalty.

This example is more appropriately a reversal in the form, not the intent of Schwarznegger’s acrostic, where plausible deniability is assured for both Arnold and Saggil-kînam-ubbib. In the case of R-E-S-I-S-T, I-M-P-E-A-C-H, and B-E-N-G-H-A-Z-I, however, the relationship between the messaging of the acrostic and the main text is one of reinforcement: both resignation letters already registered their dissatisfaction with the Trump administration. I mean, they’re resignation letters. What’s more, the letters, while addressed to a single recipient, were disseminated widely and publicly  by their authors. If we think of these acrostics as failed sneaky attempts to register dangerous dissent against the current administration, we are the inane ones.

Some acrostics, in fact, I would argue, every acrostic I’ve discussed so far, is meant to be found: the alphabetic acrostics were long and a robust enough genre to be easily recognizable, while the Babylonian acrostics signaled their presence within the main text by repeating identical cuneiform signs. Schwarznegger’s representative’s response, “My Goodness. What a coincidence.” might as well be punctuated with a final “/s”

Acrostics again show up in a religious context in the early Christian era, and again perform a sort of magico-religious form of praise. The eighth book of the Sybilline oracles, for example, encodes a reference, in Greek, to Jesus that seems intended to glorify Christ. This acrostic is not as easy to decode as the religious examples above, however: it actually spells out ἰχθύς—the Greek word for fish, but is also an acronym for iêsous chreistos theou uios sôtêr stauros (“Jesus Christ Son of God, Savior, Cross”). And that’s why people have Jesus fish on their cars.

This combination of both acrostic and acronym points to the fact that this puzzle was encoded in an era in which to be “outed” as Christian was to risk death or torture. It’s doubtful that just anyone was intended to be able to understand this hidden code. Rather, this is a type of acrostic that is meant to be undiscovered by most—found only by those “in the know” who had been initiated into Christianity.

Sarah Scullin is Managing Editor for Eidolon, a public-facing journal that aims to make the Classics political and personal, feminist and fun. She received her Ph.D. in Classical Studies from the University of Pennsylvania in 2012.

Intellectual history

The Difficulties of Addressing Memories of Communism

By guest contributor Ilana Seelinger

Whenever you try to teach communist history, you run into the same issue: how do you address the conflicting memories of a contested past?

When you’re talking about communism in a country that experienced it, you can count on the fact that most students will approach it with some prior knowledge of the subject. Although they may not know the historical specifics very well, they will have grown up in a family that remembers the period in some specific way, negatively or positively. The students will also hear about the period from a teacher whose own biases will inevitably color the presentation. Memories of the communist period and their contestation thus continue to shape the post-communist countries of Eastern and Central Europe while their respective societies struggle to build an “official” public memory. It has proven tedious for these societal memories to take the myriad experiences of communism into account. Inevitably, some portion of society always ends up left out of the official public memory construction.

Teaching students in non-post-communist societies about the communist past presents an entirely different set of issues. The students’ parents and grandparents never lived in a communist regime themselves, so any memories they have of the period are likely to be based on the widespread anti-communist sentiment in the West instead of on direct experience of interacting with people who lived in communist countries. At worst, today’s students might not have grown up with any knowledge of communist history at all.  If they’ve learned something about it in school, even that is not likely to have been an unbiased account. In Western Europe and the U.S., history teaching materials on communism tend to follow a Cold War narrative and focus on political history and international conflict. This sort of education leads to a vision of a black and white world, in which everything formerly behind the Iron Curtain appears as a gray, undefined morass of less developed countries.

One way to bypass that Cold War narrative is to move from political history to more personal history, focusing less on changes in leadership and more on, for example, the lifestyle changes that each wave of new leadership brought with it. Modern methods in historical pedagogy for other periods have been steadily moving towards a focus on actual people’s lives rather than strictly chronological representations of political events; they have moved away from the political aspects of history towards a more experiential representation of the past, focusing on the historical actors themselves and encouraging analysis and questioning.  Why then should this not be the case for the communist past as well? By creating a well-rounded view of life during communism, one can help erase the sense of otherness that currently exists between the East and the West.

However, just as with history education in post-communist countries, it is imperative that in depicting the lives of people during communism, educational materials aimed outside the region also offer more than one view. Oppression has to be represented there, but it cannot  be solely oppression. Nostalgia for communism exists throughout the region, so there must  be something in any comprehensive set of communist history teaching materials that offers a discussion of why that is. Without both sides present, students end up lacking an understanding of the legacy of communism and the lasting effects it continues to have on the region today.

Here at the Department of Education of the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes in Prague, this is a question we spent months wrestling with while putting together material on our educational website, Socialism Realised. What we offer is still a work in progress and is by no means a definitive answer to the question of how best to teach the history of formerly communist Central and Eastern Europe to people from outside of the region.

Using multimedia historical sources, mostly clips from feature films but also texts, photographs, a radio broadcast, and various others, we have attempted to put together a small library of material that will introduce users to the communist past in a multi-perspective way. Although we have used material focused on Czechoslovakia, we endeavored to choose items that could in some way represent common experiences across the communist bloc. Our overarching goal was to recreate as much of the complexity of life during communism as possible through multiple eras, bringing the experiences, thoughts, feelings and problems of people who lived through the era to the forefront of our instructional materials. We’ve separated the material, which covers various periods in time, into four axes: the way the regime presented itself (“Ideology”), the way people experienced the regime (“Personal Story”), how the regime oppressed its citizens (“Oppression”), and how people remember the regime now (“Memory”).

One of the periods that we explore is the Collectivization of agriculture in the early 1950s, when a rapid wave of forced Stalinist modernization turned the rural parts of the country upside down. An accurate representation of this period has to include material like the clip we call “Forced Eviction,” in which a rich farmer and his wife are forced to leave their family farm so that the collective can take it over. However, the section would also be incomplete without the clip called “Back to the Past,” in which women who once worked on a collective farm reflect back, probably forty years later, about what material gains collectivization brought them.

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The catalogue page for “Back to the Past” on​

Jumping forward into the period of Normalization, which took place in Czechoslovakia between 1968 and 1989, we had to offer examples of both the reasons why some people fought for communism to end and why some feel a sense of nostalgia for it now. “Good Ol’ Days” is one of the latter type, showing people blithely reminiscing over the products they had as children without any thought towards the period in which they lived. “The Dilemma,” on the other hand, offers an example of the daily oppression that some people faced — in this case, having to choose between joining the Communist Party for a chance at career promotion and refusing to join and thereby missing out on professional advancement.

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The catalogue page for “Good Ol’ Days” on
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The catalogue page for “The Dilemma” on

It is important to note that while education on the period up to this point has mainly focused on one of the four axes, oppression, that was not the single defining feature of state socialism for all of the people who experienced it. We aim to capture more of those defining features, reflect a more diverse collection of experiences, and create a more multidimensional view of the communist past. As educators, our responsibility is to help students gain an understanding of the period that addresses as many of those experiences as possible. Our portal offers just a microcosm of the tapestry of experiences that people living in the Eastern bloc had, but by presenting the history through multiple different viewpoints, we intend it to be a true microcosm. 

Think Piece

The Archive is Burning: Walter Benjamin in Brazil

By guest contributor Niklas Plaetzer 

Walter Benjamin

Walter Benjamin never left Europe, yet his writings have had a remarkable impact on critical thought around the globe. As Edward Said suggested, the dislocation of an idea in time and space can never leave its content unaffected. “Having moved from one place and time to another, an idea or a theory gains or loses in strength,” so that its “travels” render a theory “altogether different for another period or situation” (226). The plasticity of ideas, their capacity to be torn out of context and made to speak in ever-new constellations, lies at the heart of Walter Benjamin’s own work. Benjamin’s thought never took the form of systematic exposition, but rather unfolded in essays, journal articles, sketches, and thought fragments. This was not just a stylistic choice; in fact, it corresponded closely to his view of a radical break in the linear time of progress—to a splintered temporality, shot through by the unmasterable memories of the oppressed.


Niklas #2
Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus, iconically envisioned by Benjamin as “the angel of history”

Benjamin’s syncretic fusion of Marxism, Jewish mysticism, and the German Romantics continues to cast its spell on contemporary readers. Perhaps it is precisely this fragmented character, combined with the palpable urgency of his writings, that can account for the globalized interest in his work. But more importantly still, Benjamin’s relentless emphasis on dialectical reversal—on another kind of history, told from the “point of view of the defeated”—continues to resonate with post- and decolonial projects and a “reading against the grain” of history. Paul Gilroy, in his The Black Atlantic, explicitly drew on Benjamin to write a “primal history of modernity to be reconstructed from the slaves’ point of view” (55). Decolonial scholars continue to find inspiration in Benjamin’s scathing critique of modernity as well as his call to cling to a “humanity-in-the-making” amidst an unending catastrophe. In 2015, the international conference “Benjamin in Palestine: Who Owns Walter Benjamin? On the Place and Non-Place of Radical Thought” was held in Ramallah. It opened new paths for such an engagement with Benjamin from within states of exception, “among layers of rubble and generations of resistance,” escaping the confines of academic canonization (60–64).


Slipping under the radar of Euro-American academia, Benjamin has exerted a particular influence on Brazilian critical theory. In an admirable study on his reception history in Brazil, Gunter Karl Pressler of the Federal University of Pará, Belém, has traced this unusually fruitful interplay of traditions: between North and South as well as between thought and revolutionary practice. What accounts for the elective affinity between Brazilian critical theory and Benjamin’s work? Pressler ties it back to the 1960s, when experimental poet and translator Haroldo de Campos, one of the co-founders of the Concrete Poetry movement in Brazil, took inspiration from Benjamin to theorize translation as “transcreation” [transcriação], as a practice of “parricide dis-memory” [desmemória parricida] (p. 149-153). Haroldo de Campos and his brother Augusto thereby took a decisively “anti-Eurocentric, anti-ethnocentric, deconstructive strategy, beginning with the idea of cannibalism, understood as the appropriation of the vital energy of the Other, beginning with his destruction” (9). In doing so, they read Benjamin alongside a classic of Brazilian modernism, Oswald de Andrade’s Manifesto Antropófago (1928), in which cannibalism is reconfigured as a positive model of cultural appropriation by the oppressed: eating up the potency of the colonizing North, destroying its claim to control, and producing new, unauthorized constellations in the process. Authors like José Guilherme Merquior and Flávio R. Kothe further helped disseminate Benjamin and the Frankfurt School at a time when the Brazilian military dictatorship had taken over and the student movement organized its resistance against heavy repression.

For the Brazilian left, Benjamin’s peculiar Marxism seemed like a way to both articulate critical thought in solidarity with on-going movements, and still open up a gap within Marxist discourse, creating spaces beyond authoritarian orthodoxy. A turn to Benjamin also broke up space for counter-histories of Brazil itself, resonating with the memory of indigenous genocide and slavery. His phrase that “there is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism” has rung true in a society dominated by rural latifundistas (plantation owners) and a state ideology of “Ordem e Progresso” (Order and Progress). It also spoke to theorists who tried to position themselves between an elitist attachment to European intellectual production on the one hand, and the rising visibility of black, indigenous, and landless workers’ movements on the other. As Pressler argues, Benjamin thereby became part of 1970s Brazilian counter-culture, somewhere between Marx and Caetano Veloso.

Two key figures in this creative reception stand out: Leandro Konder (1936-2014) and Michael Löwy (born in 1938). As Löwy puts it,

there is a necessity to look at the past in Brazil—even recent past—from the point of view of the oppressed [derrotados], the poor, Blacks, women, workers, revolutionaries. In Benjamin, this sensibility finds a coherent philosophical expression. I believe that this has helped to develop a current of people in the social sciences, in the historiography of political thought, who are very interested in Benjamin. (200)

What unites Konder and Löwy is their appreciation for the deep melancholia of Benjamin’s thought, which they regard as the truly revolutionary attitude, at odds with a bourgeois belief in progress. For Benjamin as for his Brazilian readers, social critique must begin with a critique of the very idea of progress, including its leftist varities, and fuel a lucid melancholia from which there is no escape. Yet such Benjaminian melancholia has “nothing to do with fatalistic resignation and even less with the conservative, reactionary, prefascist German Kulturpessimismus,” Löwy emphasizes (9). “This is not a contemplative sentiment, but an active, ‘organized,’ practical pessimism, directed entirely at preventing the onset of disaster by all possible means” (9). For Leandro Konder, Benjaminian melancholia, “brought into tune with the calls for ‘revenge’ among the traditionally exploited social classes and stimulated by their movements of contestation,” should thus be understood as “melancolérico:” a melancholic kind of anger, organized and fueled by memory.

Löwy’s seminal book on Benjamin, Fire Alarm, was originally published in French, in his Parisian exile, where he has lived and worked since 1969. Born in São Paulo as the son of Jewish immigrants from Vienna, Löwy has not ceased to push Benjamin’s insights to new conclusions—such as ecosocialism—without ever abandoning a practical commitment to the radical left. Unlike many critical theorists, he also remains acutely aware of non-Eurocentric imaginaries at work in social struggles. He has written about the quilombo dos Palmares, the revolution of maroon slaves (fugitives) in the Brazilian North-East, who, until their defeat in 1695, resisted the onslaught of Dutch and Portuguese armies under the leadership of Zumbi dos Palmares. While the Haitian Revolution is today receiving increasing historiographical attention, the quilombo dos Palmares still remains a largely ignored event. Against such enforced forgetfulness, Löwy’s writings place it in an unusual conversation with the history of the 1871 Paris Commune and the struggles of international workers. But what might seem like an arbitrary juxtaposition is better grasped as a Benjaminian constellation of memories in resistance. They not only animate Löwy’s thinking, but continue to fuel the practices of Brazil’s opposition: for instance, when black movements, hip hop artists, or occupations of landless workers draw on the memory of Palmares, invoking the legendary name of Zumbi, as they fight for land reform and against institutional racism. As Benjamin’s Thesis VI puts it, “articulating the past historically does not mean recognizing it ‘the way it really was.’ It means appropriating a memory as it flashes up in a moment of danger.”

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“Limpo Seu Historico” (“I clean your record”): street art in Cachoeira in the northeastern state of Bahia. Photo credit: Niklas Plaetzer, August 2017.

In June 2017, in the wake of the (arguably unconstitutional) impeachment of President Dilma Roussef, Brazilian Congress passed a bill that allows for the large-scale burning of historical documents from national archives after their digitization as part austerity plans. Already accepted by both chambers, the “Lei da Queima de Arquivo” (Law of the Archive Burning) is awaiting a final consultation process before going into effect. This controversial reform must be understood against the backdrop of what many consider to be a coup d’état by President Michel Temer. Yet the current political situation can hardly be considered an anomaly. As Benjamin put it, in his often quoted phrase, “the tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule.”

With the “Lei da Queima de Arquivo,” Löwy’s Fire Alarm has taken up another scandalous reality. Its painful resonance speaks to the ways in which a postcolonial reading of Benjamin cannot be a calm, scholarly addition to a renewed and reconciled canon. The planned burning of the Brazilian national archives remains inscribed in a long history of erasure, of which Palmares is one powerful symbol and of which Brazil’s social movements continue to carry the traces. But reading Benjamin while the archive is burning also speaks to struggles in the present that remain undecided—in Brazil and elsewhere.

Niklas Plaetzer is an incoming doctoral student at the University of Chicago’s Department of Political Science, specializing in political theory. He holds a masters degree from Sciences Po Paris, where he worked on Hannah Arendt’s critique of sovereignty in light of radical democratic thought. At the University of Chicago, he is hoping to do research at the juncture of critical theory, constitutional law, and the politics of social movements, with a particular interest in Brazil. His work has previously appeared in the Journal of International Affairs, the Columbia Journal of Literary Criticism, 3:am magazine, and the Review of Politics (forthcoming).