Dispatches from the Archives

Historical Traces in Archival Poetry

By Rachel Kaufman

In his 1978 article “The Historical Text as Literary Artifact,” Hayden White argued that elements of the past are not innately imbued with story. Instead, historians shape elements of the past into tragedies and comedies, “verbal fictions” that are a result of a literary process, a “process of refamiliarization.” Historical narratives, “a complex of symbols” as Hayden illuminates, then seem to mirror poetry, specifically archival or historical poetry, which refamiliarizes the past in a cross-stitched pattern of symbols. These symbols exist as such in the poem, as metaphor or sound or image, while hearkening back to their referent, the archival fragment or historical voice which they recall.

I’ve argued elsewhere that archival poetry—poetry which grounds itself in a historical narrative, historical characters, or the language or materiality of archival sources—acts as a medium of translation that is able to preserve the ambiguities and simultaneities of history. In this piece, I’ll briefly discuss the formal traces of history which surface in prefaces, endnotes, and epigraphs and enter two poetry collections grounded in the past to examine how these traces mark and blur the borders between history and poetry, past and present. I’ll finally turn to my own archival poetry collection Many to Remember, recently published by Dos Madres Press, and discuss my process in weaving history into the work.

 “The historical narrative does not image the things it indicates,” White wrote, but rather “calls to mind images of the things it indicates, in the same way that a metaphor does.” If a metaphor, and perhaps an historical poem more broadly, calls to mind images of the things it recalls, where do the things themselves exist in the world of the poetry book? Though often, I would argue, the metaphor and the poem do “image the things” they indicate, breaching the distance between poem and referent, symbolizer and symbolized, historical poems sometimes represent an image of the past without fully entering it, perhaps purposefully acknowledging the gap—the archival silences, worm-eaten words—between present-day poet and the past which she recalls.

In her 2019 poetry collection 1919, sociologist and writer Eve L. Ewing begins with a 1922 report entitled The Negro in Chicago: A Study on Race Relations and a Race Riot to tell the story of the 1919 race riot in Chicago. As described in the preface to the book, Ewing at first approached the report searching for information on housing segregation at the start of the Great Migration. Yet as she read on, she “kept getting sucked into other parts of the report,” which revealed Black life in Chicago a century before and read like poetry—“so narrative, so evocative, so imagistic…the report was like an old tapestry with loose threads sticking out, and I wanted to tug on them and see what I could unravel, see what new thing I could weave” (4). Passages from the 1922 report serve as epigraphs to the poems in the book and place the language of the archive in direct dialogue with the language of the poet. This dialogue sometimes suggests great distance between past and present, as in the first poem of the collection, “Exodus 1,” in which a passage about the religious significance of the migration of Black people from the South to Chicago between 1910 and 1920 and the songs sung as part of the movement (including “Flight Out of Egypt” and “Bound for the Promised Land”) give way to a poem which begins: “Now these are the names of the people of Adeline, which came into Mississippi.” The poem in some ways fulfills the call of the quotation, crafting a biblical narrative of Black people who “increased abundantly and multiplied,” filling the land of Mississippi before a meeting of the people’s counsel and a great exodus of the community from “the cotton, and the kings and their storehouses of browning blood.”

But Ewing also often refutes the archive’s claims, calling to mind images of the past without imaging them in the present, as she does with the epigraph to the next poem, which reads: “the presence of Negroes in large numbers in our great cities is not a menace in itself.” Ewing answers the archive’s violent arrogance—she writes, “How could someone claim to tell the story of Black people in this city?”—with her own visions, dreams, and images, and with the specificities of her language. In her 2013 article “The Archive and Affective Memory in M. Nourbese Philip’s Zong!” and 2020 book Immaterial Archives: An African Diaspora Poetics of Loss, scholar Jenny Sharpe writes on M. NourbeSe Philip’s poetry book Zong!, which tells the story of an historical event in which slave owners threw enslaved African people alive into the Caribbean Sea. Sharpe writes: “Zong! suggests that silences in official archives are not only holes to be filled with meaning—missing pieces of a counter-history—but also spaces of an affective relationship with the past. At the same time, its poems demonstrate that affect is not universal or free-floating even if its potential for realization happens across geographical space and historical time” (“The Archive and Affective Memory,” 470). Less experimental in form than Philip’s book, Ewing’s collection still manages to hold onto silences and prejudices in the archives without filling them in. In “The Train Speaks,” the poem which answers the “not a menace in itself” quotation, Ewing writes:

My children. My precious ones.
I can never take you home. You have none.
And so you go, out into the wind.

Held as her children yet released beyond the abilities of her words, the historical actors who Ewing speaks to and with (rather than for) extract themselves from the world of the archival document and yet do not entirely reattach to Ewing’s new language. A later poem, entitled “there is no poem for this,” quotes a horribly violent description of a white mob’s actions during the Chicago riot from the archival report and adds nothing else. In this case, Ewing embraces scholar Saidiya Hartman’s assertion that the archive is “a death sentence, a tomb, a display of the violated body” which must be approached without replicating its “grammar of violence” (Venus in Two Acts, 2). In Ewing’s book, history enters through language that is attached squarely to a static past and then unravels, traveling towards the wind, across the page of the poem and the lives Ewing emboldens without claiming ownership.

In another recent poetry collection, Salient by Elizabeth T. Gray, Jr., history emerges in the book’s preface, in which Gray weaves together the Battle of Passchendaele, a battle in Belgian Flanders in 1917, and the chöd ritual, a “severance” practice which descends from twelfth-century female Tibetan Buddhist saint Machik Lapdrön. Interspersed with interjections (“how could that be? who was there?”) and lyrical images (“dark drawings of the battlefield,” “exhausted men advancing slowly uphill for weeks in relentless rain through waist-deep mud”), the preface nods to historians’ debates about generals’ and politicians’ decisions yet dwells in the affective. The preface finds its momentum in the poet’s questions, her wanderings through the sensorial world of the past which emerge in lines of prose driven by rhythm and beat—“For so far? For so long? In the rain? How could one imagine this? How did one explain it to oneself, to loved ones?” The poet not only draws from archival materials but from her experiences walking the ground “in all seasons and all weathers,” the preface thus rooting itself to the poet’s body and the bodies and minds of the historical figures she explores. The preface then transitions to the chöd ritual with a personal grounding: “I grew up with terrible nightmares, and across from our town’s seventeenth-century burial ground.” And yet the chöd ritual, as Gray describes it, requires dismembering one’s own body and offering the pieces to harmful beings who, “once sated,” would vanish. The poet writes: “the practice that had fascinated me was about severing one’s attachment to one’s individual self…I began Salient by placing these two poles of obsession in proximity to one another. And waiting. In the charged field between them I originally thought I might find The Missing.” Gray is thus neither searching for that which the archive and the passing of time withhold nor for the “subaltern treasures” latent in the past’s canon, to use historian and anthropologist Ann Stoler’s language. Instead, Gray is entering empty space, the “charged field” between two disparate yet deeply connected worlds, to find presence in absence, “The Missing” unkempt yet arrived.

Salient fulfills its promise, brilliantly weaving together the archive’s language with the poet’s simultaneous desire and refusal to create cohesion or connection. The language of history, “Trench map sheet 28 NW 2 St. Julien C.28.a.5.5.” or “Chief of Staff to General…on the evening of 6 June 1917, hours before nineteen mines were detonated under the Messines Ridge,” is wound and unwound by the poems. In the poem, “Construction of Trench Systems: Explanation of Diagram #7,” technical language of war surfaces in strict lines

Two distinct lines
of wire entanglement
in front of the first line

and then collapses:

….Now try
to find your
way back through
all this in
the dark.

The “Notes on Sources,” which appear at the end of the book, are neither strict historiographical footnotes nor direct extensions of the poems. They sit between genres and include expected information, such as publishing information for books on mapping or the chöd ritual, as well as lyrical bursts, such as “For the curious:” and “Geographical names and map coordinates have been altered to locate the poem in the Ypres Salient. This poem is dedicated to the Infantry Captain with the Cat, who taught me how to read it.” Filled with personality and recognition of the role of imagination (the map coordinates have been entirely altered to fit a new geography), Gray’s footnotes demonstrate a potential new mode of citation. In her notes, referenced sources, the voices of historians and of primary sources, visual and auditory, meet the poet’s voice. The notes reveal the poetics latent in the labels of maps, the “sound ranging” method of locating coordinates of hostile artillery, and the sonic playground of captains’ titles, including “His Majesty’s Twenty-Third Foot, The Royal Welsh Fusiliers.” One note reads: “The gyalpo (lit. ‘kings’) are spirits that bring illness, impersonate leaders, and supposedly cause insanity.” Literal translations yield to simultaneous truths, and mythology meets history in “supposedly,” in the poet’s license to believe what she chooses to believe.

In my own collection of poems, entitled Many to Remember, I grappled with genre and with the moments in which history entered the text (in both the Preface and Notes sections). The collection, grounded in my archival research on New Mexico crypto-Judaism and the Mexican Inquisition, often required background information. But the archival history of crypto-Judaism in Mexico and New Mexico, especially after the fall of the Mexican Inquisition in 1821, is filled with absence, and it is this absence many of the poems attempt to explore, unravel, and preserve. I ended up including history esoterically, weaving archival fragments into a preface grounded in my family’s history and writing Notes that would indulge curiosities but leave much to be further researched or simply imagined by a reader. In a book of poems interested in how absence can be translated from archive to poem through form and through the line, it made sense to me to include history primarily as fragment. In this way, I attempted to ground the poems in their history, to give readers some insight into my process of translation, but to mostly leave archival gestures as objects to be interpreted, verbal fictions whose process of refamiliarization was only partially complete and whose reference remained at once image and metaphor. In this way, I felt I could leave the poetry without burden and motion towards the form of the archive, the objects I had held, and the fragmented histories with which I began.

Rachel Kaufman is a PhD student in History at UCLA and focuses on memory, religion, and diasporic identity in Mexico and the U.S. Southwest. She is interested in the ways in which literary and historical texts transmit the past and the affective world of the archive, and her current research focuses on New Mexico crypto-Jewish memory practices and the Mexican Inquisition. Her prose has been published in Rethinking History and The Yale Historical Review, and her poetry has appeared on and in the Harvard Review, Southwestern American Literature, Western Humanities Review, JuxtaProse, and elsewhere. Her first book of poetry, Many to Remember, was recently published by Dos Madres Press. She received her B.A. from Yale in English and History.

Featured Image: Archival seal, courtesy of the American Jewish Historical Society.

Broadly Speaking: A Companion Interview

Christa Lundberg on Early Modern Philosophical Letters

Christa Lundberg is a PhD candidate in Early Modern History at the University of Cambridge. Her dissertation explores humanist religious scholarship and its critics in early sixteenth-century France. She recently spoke with Pranav Jain about her article “The Making of a Philosopher: The Contemplative Letters of Charles de Bovelles,” which has appeared in the most recent issue of the Journal of the History of Ideas (April, 82.2).

Pranav Jain: In some places, you interpret Bovelles’s letters through silences. In other words, your argument builds both upon what Bovelles says and what he leaves unsaid. What are some of the challenges of interpreting early modern letters in this way and how did you navigate them while reading Bovelles’s correspondence? 

Christa Lund: My interest in Bovelles’s silences began with frustration. We know little about Bovelles’s everyday life or what he did besides writing philosophical treatises. It was therefore especially disappointing to find that his surviving letters provide so little personal detail. One example that I mention in the article is that Bovelles manages to write a letter during a visit to Brussels without indicating what he is doing there, where he plans to go next, or how he experienced the city. As I read the letters more closely, however, my frustration turned into fascination and determination to understand the purpose of these strange letters.

The main challenge of thinking about the ‘unsaid’ in letters is, of course, to explain why anything particular should have been said besides what is on the page. In this case, I had to ask whether it was simply my expectations and desires, as a historian, that created the impression that something was lacking. My strategy was twofold. First, I looked for external comparisons—I compared Bovelles’s letters with those of his contemporaries and thought carefully about the role of genre. Second, I paid close attention to Bovelles’s own statements about what he did not write about in letters. He admitted, even celebrated, a practice of excluding ‘mundane news’ that would ‘soon expire.’ In other words, there were deliberate silences in Bovelles’s letters.

PJ: In the article, you ask whether Bovelles’s letters can be seen as “essays with an added greeting.” Are there any other sixteenth-century thinkers whose letters can be described as such? If so, how do their letters relate to the methods you see at work in Bovelles’s correspondence? 

CL: The accusation that philosophical or scientific letters were not actually letters has been around since antiquity. In some cases, readers might doubt that these texts were actually sent as letters. Of course, this suspicion can be raised against all published epistles. But the problem with philosophical letters appears to be more fundamental: we feel that these texts are not communicative or personal enough to qualify as letters.

Many kinds of essayistic letters were nevertheless published in the sixteenth century. One fascinating example is the collections of medical letters studied by Ian Maclean and Nancy Siraisi. Learned physicians shared their erudition and experience in the form of letters—some of these were clearly intended for publication and could be described as essays. This is a very good parallel with Bovelles’s project of sharing ideas with a wider philosophical community. My impression is that the philosophical letter was a less popular genre than the medical letter. One plausible explanation has to do with the readership of learned books outside the university. While physicians were a well-defined audience for medical letter collections, there was no real equivalent for philosophical books.

The full story of sixteenth-century philosophical letters remains, however, to be written. First of all, we would need an inventory of relevant collections. I have just learned about Camilla Erculiani’s Letters on Natural Philosophy (1584), which will appear in a new edition and English translation this year. While Erculiani’s letters originate in a very different context from those of Bovelles, the two authors seem to share a tendency to move seamlessly between natural philosophy and theology. I look forward to being able to read them side by side!

PJ: Apart from the ones you have already outlined in the article, what might be some other implications of your argument for how we think about the early modern republic of letters? 

CL: First, a disclaimer: Bovelles was not an important player in the early modern republic of letters. He did not exchange letters with Erasmus or other key nodes in the growing international network of scholars. Neither did he express a desire to be part of the kind of community whose ideals are so vividly invoked in Anthony Grafton’s essay “A Sketch Map of a Lost Continent: The Republic of Letters”: the free exchange of ideas and fostering of scholarly and religious tolerance. Nevertheless, I think that Bovelles’s correspondence is useful for thinking about the communities that helped connect and power the republic of letters in the early sixteenth century.

One of my main aims in this article was to illuminate how Bovelles’s letters reflected his education at the Collège de Cardinal Lemoine in Paris. Many of his letters discuss topics picked from the curriculum in Arts philosophy, especially the courses in natural philosophy and mathematics. Furthermore, a large part of Bovelles’s correspondents were alumni of the same educational institution. Together, these factors point toward the central role of the University as the starting point of Bovelles’s epistolary community. In this case, therefore, the University appears as a kind of substrate to one corner of the early modern republic of letters.

After leaving the University of Paris, Bovelles became a canon in the cathedral of Noyon. His correspondence also reflects the role of a growing ecclesiastical and monastic network. Bovelles increasingly exchanged letters with canons, friars, and monks. In the 1530s, the Celestine order assisted Bovelles by carrying messages from him to members of the order, as Jean-Claude Margolin noted in Lettres et poèmes de Charles de Bovelles (2011). The Church and monastic orders helped provide an infrastructure for connectivity.

Bovelles’s community thus offers an occasion to think about the roots of the republic of letters. It suggests that, in early sixteenth-century France, the essentially medieval institutions of the University and the Church still played an important role in shaping scholarly networks.

Pranav Jain is a PhD student at Yale University working on early modern Britain, and a contributing editor at the JHI Blog.

Featured Image: Drawing from Charles de Bovelles, Quae hoc volumine continentur: Liber de intellectu…. de geometricis supplementis (Paris: H. Estienne, 1511), 60v.

News and Events

Intellectual History News and Events

With the proliferation of online lectures, working groups and all manner of events, we at the JHI Blog thought it would be a good idea to consolidate news and opportunities relevant to our colleagues working in intellectual history. We will publish these roundups of public lectures, conferences, calls for papers, working groups and new journal issues every other Saturday.

We encourage our readers to send us information and updates about any news or events that fits within this scope. You can use this form to let us know about something you’d like us to publicize.

Lecture: “Castration Fever: On Trans, Body, and Psychoanalysis in Modern China,” (Howard Chiang, UC Davis)

Center for East Asian Studies at the University of Chicago

This lecture considers the evolution of the speaker’s research over the last 15 years in which the treatment of castration as a historical problem holds promise for bridging disparate scholarly fields and paradigms.

Monday, May 10, 5:00pm CDT. Registration.


Public Conversation: David Runciman and Pankaj Mishra on Histories of Ideas

London Review of Books

To mark the conclusion of the second series of the podcast Talking Politics: History of Ideas, David Runciman will be joined by Pankaj Mishra, author of Age of Anger and Bland Fanatics, for a conversation about those subjects of David’s that Pankaj has also written about extensively – including Gandhi, Rousseau and Nietzsche – alongside an alternative canon of non-Western theorists of politics and crisis.

Tuesday, 11 May, 7 p.m. UK Time. Registration.


Public Conversation: Paul Gilroy and Ruth Wilson Gilmore on Stuart Hall’s Selected Writings on Race and Difference

Theory from the Margins

In Selected Writings on Race and Difference, editors Paul Gilroy and Ruth Wilson Gilmore gather more than twenty essays by Stuart Hall that highlight his extensive and groundbreaking engagement with race, representation, identity, difference, and diaspora.

Thursday, May 13 at 8 AM CDT. Link.


Book Launch: Knowledge Worlds: Media, Materiality, and the Making of the Modern University, by Reinhold Martin

Heyman Center at Columbia University

Addressing media theory, architectural history, and the history of academia, Knowledge Worlds reconceives the university as a media complex comprising a network of infrastructures and operations through which knowledge is made, conveyed, and withheld.

Friday, May 14, 1:00pm EDT. Registration.


Conference: Global Early Modern Formations of Race and Their Afterlives

Cornell University

This event will examine early modern formations of race and their enduring presence in the contemporary world. While the intertwined operations of settler colonialism and the mass enslavement of Africans still shape the experiences of Indigenous people and those of the African diaspora today, so do the multiple historical and present-day resistances to these actions.

Friday, May 14, 4-6pm EDT & Saturday, May 15, 1-3pm EDT. Link.


Lecture: Undisciplining (Environmental) Humanities: Collective Reconstruction of the Histroy of the Gulf of California, Mexico (Micheline Cariño Olvera)

KTH Environmental Humanities Laboratory

The EHL have been Undisciplining the Environmental Humanities since 2011. But what do we and others mean when we use the expression? Join us in this series of seminars, as we meet to discuss this and to share experiences from our undisciplining practices around the world.

Friday, May 14, 2021 at 11 AM CDT. Link


Lecture: “The Workers’ University: Defending Social Care” (Damir Arsenijevic)

KTH Environmental Humanities Laboratory

Monday, May 17, 11 am CEST. Link


Public Conversation: History After Hours: Podcasting the Past, with Averill Earls (DIG Podcast) and Professor Jarett Henderson

UC Santa Barbara History Department

History After Hours is an hour-long Zoom conversation designed to provide alternative forms of learning and enrichment to undergraduate students by focusing on the opportunities that exist (both on and off-campus) to hone their skills as historians in training (History majors, minors, and the History curious are all welcome).

Tuesday, May 18, 4:00 PM PDT. Link.


Lecture: Art Talk Live: “Reframing the Tianlongshan Cave Temple Fragments,” (Sarah Laursen, Harvard Art Museums)

Harvard Art Museums

In 1943, the museum was gifted 25 stone fragments from the Tianlongshan cave temples in China’s northern Shanxi province. Beginning in the late 1920s, the reliefs and sculptures were removed from the site and published by art dealer Sadajirō Yamanaka, sparking interest among collectors worldwide. This talk will highlight a collaboration with Harvard students that investigates the creation of the works, their meaning in Buddhist medieval China, their sale and journey to their current home, and the ravaged site they left behind.

Tuesday, May 18, 12:30 PM EDT – 1 PM EDT. Registration.


Lecture: “Post-Discipline: Literature, Professionalism, and the Crisis of the Humanities” (Merve Emre, Oxford University)

Dahlem Humanities Center, Free University Berlin

Post-Discipline asks how (and if) literary scholars should think with and against the innovators of the professional-managerial classes and their deterritorialization of literary pedagogy. Emre’s talk provides an overview of both halves of her book. The first half interrogates why and how narrative fiction is used in schools of professional education to cultivate virtues like leadership, empathy, and judiciousness. The second half imagines how earlier myths and models of literary study, which institute the study of comparative philology, grammar, and taste-making as part of literary professionalization and pedagogy, might point us toward different futures for the discipline

Wednesday, May 19, 06:15 PM CET. Registration.


Book Launch: “Plato and the Mythic Tradition in Political Thought,” by Tae-Yeoun Keum (UC Santa Barbara)

Interdisciplinary Humanities Center, UC Santa Barbara

Tae-Yeoun Keum argues that myth is neither irrelevant nor inimical to the ideal of rational progress. She tracks the influence of Plato’s dialogues through the early modern period and on to the twentieth century, showing how pivotal figures in the history of political thought—More, Bacon, Leibniz, the German Idealists, Cassirer, and others—have been inspired by Plato’s mythmaking. She finds that Plato’s followers perennially raised the possibility that there is a vital role for myth in rational political thinking.

Thursday, May 20, 4:00-4:45 pm PST. Registration.


Conference: Political Concepts: Graduate Student Edition

Cogut Institute for the Humanities, Brown University

The Spring 2021 edition of Political Concepts at Brown invites the featured graduate speakers and the conference participants more broadly to generate and rethink concepts from the positions of the student. The conference addresses a moment of crisis indicated in the U.S. by the failure to contain the coronavirus pandemic, sustained state violence against Black Americans, and increasingly active White supremacist movements. Proposed as early as April of last year, all the concepts to be discussed from across the humanities and social sciences link the structural conditions of, as well as the persistence of popular resistance to, this crisis.

May 20-22, 11:00 am – 3:00 pm EDT. Registration.

Featured Image: Boris Kustodiev, 1926. Courtesy of WikiArt.

Intellectual history

JHI Issue 82.2 Now Available

The new issue of the Journal of the History of Ideas (April 2021, 82.2) is now live on Project MUSE.

Over the coming weeks, we will publish short interviews with some of the authors featured in this issue about the historical and historiographical context of their respective essays. Look out for these conversations under the new rubric Broadly Speaking.

* * *

Christa Lundberg, The Making of a Philosopher: The Contemplative Letters of Charles de Bovelles, pp. 185–205

Bruce Buchan and Silvia Sebastiani, “No distinction of Black or Fair”: The Natural History of Race in Adam Ferguson’s Lectures on Moral Philosophy, pp. 207–229

Patrick Anthony, Making Historicity: Paleontology and the Proximity of the Past in Germany, 1775–1825, pp. 231–256

Pietro Terzi, Contingency, Freedom, and Uchronic Narratives: Charles Renouvier’s Philosophy of History in the Shadow of the Franco-Prussian War, pp. 257–278

Timo Pankakoski, Wartime Pamphlets, Anti-English Metaphors, and the Intensification of Antidemocratic Discourse in Germany after the First World War, pp. 279–304

Ian Tregenza, The “Servile State” Down Under: Hilaire Belloc and Australian Political Thought, 1912–53, pp. 305–327

Alisa Zhulina, The Tyrant and the Martyr: Recent Research on Sovereignty and Theater, pp. 329–349

Notices (pp. 351-353) 

Think Piece

Nazi Culture Revisited

By Alin Constantin

Whether in the image of Hitler leading the Beer Hall Putsch, the brown-shirted, jack-booted thug harassing people in the street, or book burnings, Nazism was associated from early on with a civilizational relapse into barbarism. “Whenever I hear the word ‘culture,’ I reach for my handgun,” an expression often falsely attributed to Joseph Goebbels or Hermann Göring, neatly encapsulates this perception. Scholarship on Nazism—and fascism in general—has challenged this view, showing that Nazi officials were invested in the cultivation of Greco-Roman aesthetics, Wagnerian opera, and cinema, among other pursuits. Following the publication of George L. Mosse’s anthology Nazi Culture: Intellectual, Cultural and Social Life in the Third Reich in 1966, historians have placed such interests within the category of “Nazi culture.”

The concept of “Nazi culture” helps us understand intellectual activity in the Third Reich not as dissonant with its widespread practices of violence, but as directly intertwined with them. Cultural history has become the lens through which much of the literature on Nazism and, even more so, Italian Fascism, is written today. This is a direct legacy of the work of George L. Mosse (1918–1999). A teenage émigré from Nazi Germany, Mosse settled in the U.S. Trained as an early modern historian, he eventually turned to the twentieth century. Mosse pioneered many topics we take for granted today, ranging from the influence of European racial thought on the development of the Holocaust, to the relationship between “abnormal” sexuality and authoritarianism, to the way in which monuments, memorials and public ceremonies constitute and cement national feeling. One of Mosse’s early works, the 1964 The Crisis of German Ideology, approached the evolution of National Socialism through the history of ideas. If historians had until then preoccupied themselves with the diplomatic, military, economic and institutional aspects, Mosse focused on the breeding ground of its ideology. Major studies such as Jeffrey Herf’s Reactionary Modernism (1984), Ruth Ben-Ghiat’s Fascist Modernities (2001), and Dagmar Herzog’s Sex after Fascism (2005) further expanded this cultural orientation. As Rabinbach articulates this field’s main finding, “The success of National Socialism, so [Mosse, among other] historians argued, derived not merely from political and economic frustration, German thought, nor even hatred of the Jews, but from a deep cultural, intellectual, ritual, liturgical, and ceremonial repertoire firmly established in Germany during the nineteenth century” (174).

George L. Mosse (1918-1999)

One of the preeminent historians of German-Jewish relations, Anson Rabinbach, trained under Mosse after reading The Crisis of German Ideology. Like his Doktorvater, Rabinbach’s work would show a versatility on display in a new collection of his essays, Staging the Third Reich: Essays in Cultural and Intellectual History (Routledge, 2020), edited and with an introduction by Stefanos Geroulanos and Dagmar Herzog. Split into three sections, the book contains writings on Nazi culture, antifascism, and various German and Jewish intellectuals. Most of the essays previously appeared in print, while a number have been edited or updated. When broaching subjects such as sexuality or abnormality, Mosse steered clear of theory, something which cannot be stated of Rabinbach. Ernst Nolte’s Der Faschismus in seiner Epoche (1963) was an important text in postwar historiography insofar as it looked at French, Italian, and German manifestations of fascism together. However, few scholars followed Nolte’s phenomenological approach to fascism on either side of the Atlantic. Alongside Tim Mason and Geoff Eley, Rabinbach looked to Marxism for insights into the development of fascism, and studied the history of labor and the organizations that mediated between workers and the regime to gain insight into why the working classes acceded to fascism. Rabinbach’s analyses from the 1970s of the Beauty of Labor office and Strength through Joy program exemplify this approach. Though they were written when materials on big business and the Nazis were only beginning to come out, these essays show nuance and restraint. While his engagement with Critical Theory and psychoanalysis did not lead to a methodological commitment, he nonetheless remained sympathetic to them as shown in his chapter on Alexander and Margarete Mitscherlich’s The Inability to Mourn (1967).

George L. Mosse, The Crisis of German Ideology (1998 [1964])

Today Rabinbach sees National Socialist ideology as transcending the dichotomies with which many scholars made sense of it (e.g. modernist vs. traditional, rational vs. mystical). It is not that these dichotomies do not exist, but that Nazism managed to subsume all of them at once and thus appeal to different parts of the population and quell factionalism within the party. Rather than offering an exact program, Rabinbach explores how Nazi culture was perceived “from below” and proposes we understand Nazism as an ethos (Gesinnung) and a form of “cultural synthesis.”

The section on antifascism is valuable for a number of reasons. From the 1980s onward, conservative historians contested the legacy of Communist antifascism, claiming that its connection to Moscow directly implicated it in Stalinist crimes. On the left, a celebration of this legacy has occasionally led to an ahistorical romanticization of the movement. As such, historicization of the phenomenon is all the more necessary. As Rabinbach shows in the case of Germany, communist antifascism was never a monolithic current, and figures like Willi Münzenberg understood the threat of National Socialism more so than his Soviet superiors. The essay on the controversy among historians in the 1980s known as the Historikerstreit, “The Jewish Question in the German Question” (1988), makes for an especially valuable read these days, as it touches upon the merits and limitations of student and activist antifascism in West Germany. In the book’s concluding section, Rabinbach echoes Mosse’s interventions in the Historikerstreit when he accuses Andreas Hillgruber, one of the main German figures in the debate, of having attempted to instill a “myth of Teheran” by reopening the discussion of whether Germany lost its eastern empire unjustly. As Perry Anderson showed in his “On Emplotment: Two Kinds of Ruin” (1992), while far from perfect, Hillgruber’s position was neither mystificatory nor unwarranted. In general, Rabinbach shows little sympathy for German historians, whom he faults for not adequately researching the Holocaust, and in the interview that closes the book he indicates approval of Nicolas Berg’s 2003 book, which stressed the inadequate and sometimes problematic nature of West German historians’ dealings with the Holocaust. Yet if German historical scholarship is as lacking as he makes it out, how did Germany come to have such an appreciation for its responsibility for the Holocaust, to the extent that, as one recent book claims, other nations could do some “learning from the Germans”?

Also dedicated to exploring the role of culture within the Nazi enterprise is Moritz Föllmer’s Culture in the Third Reich (2020), which was recently translated from German. Föllmer is perhaps best known for the article “Was Nazism Collectivistic? Redefining the Individual in Berlin, 1930–1945” (2010) and the later monograph Individuality and Modernity in Berlin: Self and Society from Weimar to the Wall (2012), works which directly challenged the totalitarian paradigm in the study of Nazi Germany and highlighted continuities with the Weimar Republic. Far from inhibiting the development of individuals at the expense of the collective, Föllmer argued, National Socialism was an alternate form of modernity in which individualism was not incompatible with a commitment to the Volk. His latest book carries many of the same lines of analysis over to the study of the arts, cinema, painting, and book culture during the Nazi period. In chronological order from the Weimar Republic to the immediate postwar period, readers are introduced to several ordinary people who recorded political changes and who reappear throughout the narrative. When it came to culture, Nazism was no more “revolutionary” than it was in regard to individualism: there were deep continuities with Weimar literary and artistic traditions. Though some modernist works were condemned as degenerate, modernism as a whole was not, and many important writers, painters, and composers collaborated with the regime. The most important holdover from pre-1933 was bourgeois neo-classicism, which appealed to the middle-class segment of the German population. Though suspicious of pop culture productions, the bourgeois could approve of such content as long as it adhered to patriotic, pro-marriage, and pro-family ideals. Jewish authors were forbidden early on, and the regime invested heavily in censorship and oversight to protect “Aryan” consumers from “Semitic” cultural products. Yet censorship was laxer in other regards. For example, readers continued to have access to books translated from American and British writers. Though frowned upon, jazz was never banned. The secret of Nazism thus consisted in combining radical and conservative cultural policies without developing a clear aesthetic program: a Nazi official could enjoy the neo-classical sculptures of Arno Breker alongside the expressionist paintings of Emil Nolde.

Many of these points were already made by Rabinbach. Though Föllmer uses some archival sources, the book relies mostly on secondary literature and is best understood as a popular account for lay audiences wanting an up-to-date account of Nazi cultural policies. However, the book is not without its problems. Early on he notes that “those interested in Weimar culture usually focus on Berlin rather than Braunschweig and what was new then and is still fascinating today” (12). While true, there is little in this monograph that challenges this model. We get instead what by now seem like the standard references to Carl Schmitt, Gottfried Benn, and Ernst Jünger. “Inner emigration” is described as a postwar term and therefore rejected. Yet the same issue applies to many of the concepts and terms we apply to the study of the National Socialist period (the Holocaust is probably the main example). Figures like novelist Erich Kästner, who is mentioned by Föllmer, identified as being in inner immigration during the Third Reich. Moreover, as Eric Kurlander has shown in his study of liberals during the Nazi period, figures such as Theodor Heuss, Wilhelm Heile, Siegfried von Kardorff found in publishing the possibility to explore historical and societal issues other than those of the regime. Although studies of advertising, consumption, and travel during the Third Reich have proliferated in recent years, these topics remain unexplored in Föllmer’s book.

Studies of fascism and authoritarianism aimed at a popular audience have understandably proliferated in recent years as events such as the Capitol uprising, the infiltration of QAnon conspiracy theorists in the Republican Party, and the continued success of right-wing populist parties across the world drive interest in historical precedents. Ruth Ben-Ghiat’s Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present (2021) is one notable study of the way in which masculinity has been employed by anti-democratic leaders including Mussolini, Hitler, Franco, Pinochet, Gaddafi, Mobuto, Erdogan, Putin, and Trump to capture and maintain political power. Essentially a series of interconnected biographical sketches, Ben-Ghiat follows these figures from the moment they come to power, unleash their destructive regimes, and fall out of power, either violently (as in the case of Mussolini) or by way of democratic transition (as in Spain and Chile).

Strongmen are characterized as heads of state “who damage or destroy democracy and use masculinity as a tool of political legitimacy” (p. 4). Though psychoanalytically inflected studies of fascism have been a mainstay since the days of Wilhelm Reich, in Anglo-American academia it is Mosse who pioneered the analysis of gender and sexuality in the development of fascism in books such as Nationalism and Sexuality: Respectability and Abnormal Sexuality in Modern Europe (1985, new edition 2020) and The Image of Man: The Creation of Modern Masculinity (1996). Unlike Mosse’s Europe-specific studies, Ben-Ghiat’s cast of characters is international. While attuned to national characteristics, one nonetheless ends up with a rather free-flowing definition of masculine behavior. Though the debate about whether Donald Trump can be characterized as a fascist has run out of steam since he left office, it is likely to still be with us for some time, whether one is for or against the label. It is far easier to fit Trump within the pattern of strongmen Ben-Ghiat lays out than it is with that of the fascists. Nonetheless, even among strongmen the differences outweigh the similarities. It was said by one of Trump’s lawyers that he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and get away with it. As distasteful as this claim was, there was nothing in Trump’s presidency that resembled the assassination of Giacomo Matteotti in Fascist Italy or the extra-legal murders in Pinochet’s Chile. Yet it remains to be seen how our present experience will impact the way in which historians look at fascism in the past. As things stand now, there is still much to learn from the cultural approach championed by Mosse.

Alin Constantin is a Ph.D. Student in the Department of History at Stanford University, where he works on Jewish history and the histories of fascism and communism in East-Central Europe.

Featured Image: Adolf Hitler at the Vienna State Opera, 1937. Courtesy of the Austrian National Library

What We're Reading

April Reading Recommendations

Jonathon Catlin

Several reviews of Timothy Brennan’s Places of Mind: A Biography of Edward Said (FSG, 2021) explore the life and work of Edward Said (1935–2003). Pankaj Mishra, in The New Yorker, calls Said “simultaneously a literary theorist, a classical pianist, a music critic, arguably New York’s most famous public intellectual after Hannah Arendt and Susan Sontag, and America’s most prominent advocate for Palestinian rights.” Despite his celebrity status, Mishra chides Said as an upper-class dandy with “cramped political horizons” whose “critique of Eurocentrism was in fact curiously Eurocentric.” Most cynically, he writes, “For a posher kind of Oriental subject, denouncing the Orientalist West had become one way of finding a tenured job in it.” In The New Republic, historian Udi Greenberg views Said’s legacy rather more ambivalently. While Said “forever transformed the meaning of the word orientalist” through visionary works that made him rightly famous, his activism and direct involvement in Palestinian politics made him as many enemies as allies. As Thomas Meaney notes in his review in The New Statesman, “Visitors to [Said’s] apartment in Manhattan noted that along with his well-stocked shelves and formidable collection of classical music records, the…Professor in the Humanities kept a map with the current positions of the ­Israeli Defense Forces.” A Commentary headline from 1989 referred to Said as a “Professor of Terror.” A critic of Yasser Arafat’s authoritarianism, Said began to lose faith in the political cause after the 1993 first Oslo Accord, which he called “a Palestinian Versailles.” In his late years he became more resigned, even as he collaborated with artists reflecting on everyday experience in Israel-Palestine. In his 1993 Reith Lectures on “Representations of the Intellectual,” Said memorably characterized the intellectual as defined by exile, whether compelled or chosen, and being a perpetual “outsider” and “disturber of the status quo.” He certainly inhabited that role, but he did so in a singular way. As he characterized himself obliquely in a late interview in Haaretz in 2000: “I’m the last Jewish intellectual….The only true follower of Adorno. Let me put it this way: I’m a Jewish-Palestinian.”

The death of the University of Chicago cultural anthropologist Marshall Sahlins (1930–2021) in early April at age 90 led me to revisit his work. When Sahlins studied in France in 1967, he was introduced to the structuralism of Claude Lévi-Strauss. Perhaps his greatest contribution was to modify structuralism to better allow for historical contingency. As an activist since the 1960s, Sahlins organized a nationwide teach-in against the Vietnam War. His work emphasized the role of culture over deterministic theories rooted in biology or economics, challenging “the folklore of genetic determinism now so fashionable in America: a movement purporting to explain all manner of cultural forms by a universal ‘human nature’ of competitive self-interest….Of course we can recognize the classic bourgeois subject in this so-called human nature.” In certain native societies where other ethnographers projected violence and self-interest, Sahlins saw cooperative, collectivist, and nonviolent alternative forms of social organization. As he explained the upshot of this view in Dissent: “A huge ethnocentric and egocentric philosophy of human nature underlies the double imperialism of our sociobiological science and our global militarism.” Overcoming received views of human nature is also central to his last work, On Kings (2017), which he co-authored with his former doctoral student, the late anarchist thinker David Graeber.

Finally, a review in The Nation of Shlomo Avineri’s biography of Karl Marx for Yale University Press’s Jewish Lives series by Columbia English professor Bruce Robbins challenges the way Avineri “ushers us gently away from the revolutionary Marx to a more gradualist and social democratic Marx whose central vision of change is better adapted, in the author’s eyes, to today’s limited political horizons.” Robbins, by contrast, wonders whether in addition to pragmatic progressives shaping political conversations in the U.S. today, “we also need a more revolutionary voice, like Marx’s, which might inspire the kind of movements that can confront the vast problems of climate change, pandemics, and rising inequality without the polite tones that are preferred by today’s political elite. For that, and more, it’s good to know that the revolutionary Marx can still speak to us, rudely and ringingly and righteously.”

Simon Brown

If the historical specificity of “fascism” emerged as a point of contention since 2016, the new economic and political landscapes of 2020-2021 lift up “Keynesianism,” its history and its conditions as a salient question today. The titanic levels of public spending in the United States through the CARES Act could be continued through President Biden’s proposed infrastructure bill. There is little indication in political rhetoric or in economic counsel that this fiscal policy is contained to an emergency stimulus in the face of unprecedented catastrophe. The inauguration of these policies only twelve years after the Obama administration and its economic advisors warned of “belt tightening” as the financial crisis of 2008 unraveled presents a clear question for historians. Two recent essays have framed it through a lens of intellectual history.

In a review and profile for the London Review of Books, Adam Tooze traces the influential and popular economist Paul Krugman’s intellectual trajectory alongside Krugman’s own autobiography. Krugman’s analysis, raised in the New Keynesian school of the 1970s and 1980s, has shifted in important ways since his defenses of economic globalization in the 1990s. Tooze narrates Krugman’s turn toward a further left critique of “actually existing neoliberalism,” which his kind of economics had tried to describe and define, as a growing skepticism toward the standards of orthodoxy in the economics profession itself. Krugman recognized after the 2008 financial crisis that the austere response would undercut political coalitions that could keep up the macroeconomic intervention necessary. His historical attention to inequality led him to identify “class” struggle, not just frictionless economic calculation, driving policy. This has led Krugman to a newfound appreciation for the Marxist critique of the conditions that make Keynesian macroeconomics possible that had been articulated by the midcentury Polish economist Michał Kalecki. If questions about the historical conditions that enabled Keynesian policies in the 1930s and 1940s are once again salient, contemporary critics like Kalecki are too.

New policies are not always the result of new ideas, as Krugman’s own work attests. In Jacobin, Tim Barker argues that it is neither intellectual innovation nor ascendant class interests alone that explain the sustained public spending in the US. “Somewhere between ideas and interests,” Barker maintains “a political learning process seems to have taken place.” That learning process partly accounts for why someone like Krugman came to recognize after the response to 2008 that fiscal austerity and deficit guarding do no swell the coalitions for liberal political parties. But economically too, consistently stagnant wages and limited union density have kept the dangerous prospects of inflation at bay. Janet Yellen, now Treasury Secretary, articulated the perspective succinctly when she expressed sympathy to the view that “the world might have changed” since the 1970s.

Luna Sarti

Mid-spring in Northern Texas means sudden, abundant rains. As warnings for flash floods and tornadoes pop up on my phone, I think about the nearby creek and the streams that run unseen, enclosed underground in cement pipes. I mentally run over the course of the creek reflecting on the measures taken by the city of Fort Worth to slow the speed of the waters and on the artificial bends that should facilitate controlled overflows. Water control intersects the history of modernity, industrialization, and the technocratization of the state in complex and fascinating ways. 

Flooding episodes—and unstable water/land relationships in general—are usually perceived negatively throughout Western modernity. Certainly, the shift from dry to wet land undermines much of the assets on which contemporary cities and economies are built. Several histories exist that unravel how the efforts on the side of rulers to create controlled, ordered landscapes constitute a way to assert power while alienating claims that other institutions could have on either water or land—or even on both. In The Conquest of Nature David Blackbourn discusses the peculiar ways in which race, land reclamation and genocide were intertwined in the history of modern Germany by looking at the conquest of waterlogged swamplands and rivers as an asset in the formation of German identity and imagination over almost three centuries.

Looking at a different time and place, in the Politics of Water in the Art and Festivals of Medici Florence, Felicia Else elucidates the importance of water control for the establishment of power through performance in  Florence between the 16th and the 17th century. Else extensively analyzes the implications of water-themed spectacles sponsored by the Medici grand dukes, especially as articulated in public sculptures, festivals, and paintings, thus concluding that “the introduction of new water-themed iconography reflected Cosimo’s political ambitions and the family’s ongoing quest to control waters”. (1) A rich literature exists investigating the concern displayed by the Medici, particularly beginning with Cosimo I, in “hydraulics and landscape engineering”, often with an understandable sense of fascination for such an interdisciplinary “interest in knowledge” on the side of a ruler. Among the enterprises sponsored by the Medici, and by other European elites in general, hydraulic projects involving channeling waters, managing rivers and the drying up of marshes, are usually viewed positively, often as a sign of enlightened policies advancing public health, economic production, and the public good in general. However, as Blackbourn highlights, achieving the mastering of water—by draining a marsh or redirecting a river—often constitutes a strategy for power centralization at the expense of other institutional powers. Such machinations of rulership “often wiped out human communities, and with them valuable forms of knowledge,” particularly those developed through “carefully calibrated ways of living with and from the water.” (10) Thankfully, those ways of living with and from the water might survive to the present day outside of large, urban centers, particularly in areas where the articulation of urban-rural economies allowed for discontinuities in memory making. Maldifiume (River-sickness) by Simona Baldanzi—for now only in Italian—voices the diverse ways of experiencing the waters of the Arno river as they survived in “peripheral” areas of Tuscany. By collecting the stories of fish farmers, bird watchers, millers, and boat builders, Baldanzi demonstrates that ways of experiencing the river as a moody, yet trustworthy companion for work and life survived in Tuscany at least until 1966. In 1966, in fact, a major flooding occurrence allowed centralized powers to decide what deserved investment (art and industry) and what was doomed to stay in the past (aquatic life and craftsmanship). 

Floods continue to be scary given the articulation of life in an American suburb as much as in a city like Florence. However, while usual narratives—such as Franco Zeffirelli’s documentary Days of Destruction—present unruly, torrential rivers as “monsters,” it’s a relief to think with Blackbourn and Baldanzi, and perhaps one starts to wonder whether such a monstrosity has to be found somewhere else.

Featured Image: Edouard Manet, Woman Writing. c.1863.