Ph.D. Octopus

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Archive for the ‘Germany’ Category

Nazism and Fascism were Ideologies of the Right

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by David

Adolf Hitler: Not a Socialist

Three days ago it was Yom HaShoah, the Jewish Holocaust Remembrance Day. It’s a solemn occasion, one that should not be politicized. On this next day, however, I’d like to address a political pet peeve of mine, namely the view that fascism, specifically Nazism, was somehow an ideology of the Left. It was not.

People often make this mistake by lumping Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia together as two sides of the same totalitarian coin. Both regimes were responsible for monstrous crimes, yet the ideological underpinnings behind them should be distinguished and understood, rather than inaccurately melded together. Fundamentally, fascism and its Nazi manifestation were ideologies of the extreme Right, that advanced not only a racist populism but also a socially Darwinistic, hierarchical individualism that celebrated competition and allowed for for some capitalist industry to coexist alongside and in league with a powerful state.

I was spurred to write this post after listening to right-wing talk radio, where the announcer described fascism as an ideology of the left, the result of the expansion of Big Government. These scare tactics are used to form a slippery slope argument, namely that the welfare state leads to the gas chambers. Friedrich Hayek advanced a version of this argument in his famous and erroneous work, The Road to Serfdomparticularly in his chapter “The Socialist Roots of Nazism.” It is certainly true that fascism represents the worship and expansion of state power. Yet it can and did exist alongside capitalism, as was the case in Nazi Germany. Though Adolf Hitler led the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (Nazi), Hitler was not a socialist.

The reasons for this are manifold. First is the obvious: socialist and communist parties existed in Weimar Germany alongside the Nazi party and indeed were its bitter enemy (though Communists and Nazis occasionally colluded too). Second, and equally obvious, Nazism divided Germans along racial rather than class lines. Jews and other enemies of the state were enemies regardless of class, and the Aryan ideal could be achieved at any socioeconomic level.

Third, the Nazi regime did not completely take over all large businesses and industries, but rather colluded with them, most famously with chemical company I.G. Farben. This is a crucial mistake people make about fascism: businesses in fascist states like Hitler’s Germany are not necessarily government owned, and can to some degree  function within a market-oriented capitalist framework subject to the laws of supply and demand. Fascism, in this totalitarian form, functioned occasionally with brute force, like on Kristalnacht, but often through more subtle means. Fascism more frequently used coercive force like that at play in Jeremy Bentham and Michel Foucault’s Panopticon, a prison that exerted social control through fear of being watched rather than naked displays of state power. This, along with Hitler’s popularity, rendered capitalist business compatible with Nazism, so long as those involved with it were Aryans who obeyed the regime.

Most important, we know Nazism was an ideology of the far right because of the very logic behind it. Unlike socialism, Nazism was a hierarchical, Socially Darwinistic vision that encouraged competition, and  showed disdain for the masses, who Hitler called “mentally lazy.” Most crucially, it did not denigrate individualism, but in fact celebrated it. This is evident in Hitler’s major work, Mein Kampf. 

I’m not simply referring to Hitler’s attacks on “Jewish” Marxism and Bolshevism, which he argued was a “comrade” to the equally Jewish “greedy finance capital.” Hitler believed that “the stronger must dominate and not blend with the weaker.” Hitler extrapolated from individual achievement, “true genius,” to racial achievement. Indeed, to ignore racial hierarchy led to an “underestimation of the individual. For denial of the difference between the various races with regard to their general culture-creating forces must necessarily extend this greatest of all errors to the judgment of the individual.” Hitler celebrated the “free play of forces” that enabled both individual and racial advancement in Darwinian struggle. He loved sports, especially boxing, as they served “to make the individual strong, agile and bold.”

Hitler’s individualism and elitism emerged most strongly in his chapter on “Personality and the Conception of the Folkish State.” Hitler distorted Nietzschean philosophy to elevate certain individuals, like himself, above all others. He hoped to organize society that placed  “thinking individuals above the masses, thus subordinating the latter to the former.” This would be true of economic life as well. “in all fields preparing the way for that highest measure of productive performance which grants to the individual the highest measure of participation.”

I could go on. My point here is not to politicize, but to de-politicize. Hitler was of course not a pure capitalist, and Nazi Germany not a purely capitalist state. Nazi Germany’s economy relied on considerable amount of state control and even some Keynesian economics. Many socialists showed similar disdain for the masses. But, and this is crucial, Hitler was not really interested in economics, nor was economic policy central to the Third Reich. Expansion of government and state power was less important to the regime than socially Darwinistic racial competition.

To conclude, I’ll simply say this: socialism and the welfare state should not be advanced by criticizing Nazi Germany and invoking the spectre of the Holocaust, but they should not be attacked that way either.


Written by David Weinfeld

April 22, 2012 at 11:01

Entering Ukraine

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by David

I thought I knew what to expect. I knew that Ukraine would be less developed than Poland. Still, some experiences early on surprised me.

At 9 am yesterday, our driver, Vitali, picked us up in his van at our Cracow hotel. He didn’t speak much English, but he was friendly fellow. More important, he knew the way to Lviv, Ukraine, and was going to drive us the 600 or so kilometers to get there.

We did our best to communicate with Vitali, my father relying on the bits of Polish he remembered from his childhood (his parents spoke to him in English, but to each other and their friends in Polish, not Yiddish). Turns out Vitali spoke Ukrainian, Russian, Polish, and Hungarian, after living in Hungary for six years serving with the Red Army. We stopped at a truck stop for lunch, which had a grill with only female servers and only male customers. I had some kielbasa, the first real kielbasa I had all trip. It was delicious, and didn’t need any condiments.

There is no main highway between Cracow and Lviv. We took small roads, sometimes only with one lane in each direction. Sometimes, the roads had a half-lane/shoulder on each side. If you wanted to pass the car ahead of you, you pulled into the other lane (of potentially oncoming traffic) and any car coming must drive half in their lane and half on the shoulder. This struck me and my dad as pretty scary, but Vitali handled it without difficulty.

Crossing the border between Poland and Ukraine was an amazing experience. When we first pulled up to the border, we saw a huge line of cars and anticipated an enormous wait. I’ve waited upwards of 2 hours at the Canada-US border, so this wasn’t exactly novel to me, but I was still disappointed. We were stopped behind a long line of cars, and ahead of us was a traffic light, turned red, ahead of which was a similarly endless line of cars. Many in our section actually turned their cars off, and Vitali did so as well. My father stepped out to take a look, I stepped out to pee by the side of the road (public urination is a form of reparations). We feared the worst. The Vitali walked off ahead to try to speak to someone. A few minutes later, he came running back, as the light had turned green and others were starting their engines again.

Still the line moved slowly. So Vitali decided to simply veer to one side of line and drive up ahead, passing car after car. Eventually, he encountered a guard. He spoke to him jovially, and handed him our passports. We heard him say something about my father being a professor from Canada. A few minutes later, we were allowed to pass.

It turns out that that guard had been Polish. Apparently you have to go through/customs security on the way out too. We then drove up to a Ukrainian soldier, who Vitali approached with same jovial manner. We gave him our passports, and a few minutes later, he returned them and we moved on. Vitali was clearly a veteran border crosser. Apparently, he simply told them we were from Canada, and didn’t have any alcohol or cigarettes, and off we went. We’ve heard that is easier for Canadians to cross the Poland-Ukraine border than it is for Ukrainians.

Once we entered Ukraine, the difference seemed immediately apparent. Like in Poland, we drove through small roads, with a similarly treacherous way to pass cars ahead of you. But the scenery was rather different. We drove by old women with rakes, wearing handkerchiefs, plowing fields. Groups of horses with no fence to hold them in. And then cows actually walked in the middle of the road, forcing us to stop until they went by.

I thought of India first. I’ve never been, but have heard that this was a frequent occurrence there. But then I thought of Borat

I couldn’t help it. I remember a travelogue we read in my eastern European history class, from the 18th or 19th century, written by a Frenchman visiting Poland, who thought he had travelled back to the medieval era, only to be amazed that Warsaw was an actual city. If my demi-Orientalist prejudices had emerged in Poland, they doubled in the Ukraine. And sure enough, when we got to Lviv, I was a bit surprised to find a modern city. But there it was.

The roads around the downtown square are almost all cobblestone. It creates a very charming effect, but is murder on car suspension, and I suspect, on women or men in high heels. Lviv, like Cracow, had been a Polish city under the Habsburgs, and it had something of the same aura. But it also felt different. It wasn’t just that the cars were more run-down and the buildings more dilapidated.

Ukraine was the birthplace of the pogrom. One of the country’s heroes, Bogdan Chmielnicki, had led the butchering of thousands of Jews in the 1600s. They still have a statue of him (below). There are no statues of Hitler in Germany. My father’s father, born, raised and educated in Poland, a veteran officer in the Polish army, visited Germany after the war. But he would never set foot in Poland. And he would not have dreamed to going to Ukraine. I thought about that. I felt uneasy. I felt bad for feeling this way, but I felt it nonetheless.

Needing a bit of a break, my father and I ate at McDonalds that night. The food was cheaper, a bit over 8 American dollars, for a Big Mac, Quarterpounder with Cheese, a large fry, a Coke-Light, and a bottle of water (no gas). It tasted good, like I remembered it. But I knew that the next day would be radically different than the one before. More on that in the next post.

Written by David Weinfeld

September 14, 2011 at 11:10

Berlin Advisories

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Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin

by Luce

There is a statue on the south side of Volkspark Friedrichshain that I run past nearly every day. It seems to be that of a lunging man with a sword wielded wobbily over his head; his limbs are lanky, rubbery, his face hidden beneath a dishpan helmet. I say “seems” because I’ve yet to stop. Every time I run by, I turn my head and squint my eyes and try to determine what this Acme-German soldier is supposed to memorialize. I don’t stop partly because I don’t want to interrupt my run, and partly because I like not quite knowing. So far I think I’ve made out “1938 – 1939.”  But there are so many memorials in Berlin dedicated to events around that date that I don’t know whether my mind is playing tricks on my eyes.

This is the summer of not knowing. In part this is because it’s the summer post-generals and pre-prospectus—an ambiguous time. The last big project is done and the new one not yet really begun. Archives unexpectedly close for holidays and other events, and suddenly long, quiet days stretch out in front of you, and you read a little at a café, but mostly you enjoy how wide the Berlin sidewalks are, and walk them side to side. Other days are spent in archives that moonlight as saunas, rushed with heat. Furious typing down of documents that may or may not have anything, in the end, to do with your dissertation. The other day it began to storm outside the FFBIZ and a piece of hail flew in and hit my computer screen. Because I am prepped to think the worst, I assumed at first that the window had begun to shatter in on us.

Last summer I spent most of my time in the Bundesarchiv in Koblenz, which houses most of West Germany’s federal documents. It’s hard to miss. It looks like this:


This summer I’m touring a more eclectic range of archives. My Hamburg archive is located in the Rote Flora, a building that’s been squatted in since 1989. Rote Flora has many sides to it, all covered in graffiti. One of them is the outside, where in the summer homeless men and women camp out on old mattresses and sleeping bags. There are lectures and parties, but also, come to find out an archive, located beyond a metal door, up two flights of stairs, and into a chain-smoking chamber where boxes are thrown at you by the most lovely bearded man who invites you to take as many photos as quickly as you can. Its opening hours are Monday, four to eight. It looks like this:

There is an archive in Berlin I’ve just started to go to that is located in a bookshop. It is small and you work at a table in the front room, and every fifteen minutes or so someone will come in and ask the price of a book and you will direct them to the man at the computer in the backroom. The first day the proprietor toured me through the holdings. Once I knew where things were I was free to take them off the shelves at will. They have nearly every journal I could want in full serial, and binders of random flyers and brochures organized helpfully by themes. But many of the brochures have no dates and it will take some creativity to place them. Some of Papiertiger’s holdings are stored in the bathroom against the wall near the washbasin.

Through a series of random happenings, I had dinner with Francis Ford Coppola the other night, who was about to start on Jonathan Steinberg’s new biography of Bismarck. He told us about the death of generations and how he came to acquire a vineyard and found a literary magazine, and I lectured him about Alsace-Lorraine’s changing borders and explained Prussian militarism and German unification, which wasn’t a fair exchange. My friend and I took him to a bar in Kreuzberg, which he called “Little Brooklyn.” He is past seventy now and has wisdom to hand down; for example he advised us to “always say yes” and be good to our future kids.

On a balcony in Friedrichshain the other night, my friend told me to tap the building facade, which I did only to hear a hollow sound. Old buildings in the former East Berlin, never reconstructed postwar, are now outfitted with colorful add-on facades that cover up the old grays and browns and suggest the existence of stainless steel dishwashers inside. You might not recognize the same street you walked down in 2004. With their upscale fronts and backs these buildings bloat out an extra six inches or more, but I hear the added padding helps keep their insides warm during the bitter Berlin winters.

Here’s some other advice I’ve received since arriving in Berlin:

  • From an archivist: a description of every Berlin lake I could possibly want to bathe in, particularly one very nice lake frequented by gays and lesbians, if I am “comfortable with that,” and a suggestion that I could go nude if I wanted to.
  • From a fellow grad student: you have to earn their trust at Papiertiger before they’ll let you photograph for a fee.
  • A summary of Robert Koch Institute bulletins: Don’t eat the Spanish cucumbers, or for that matter any cucumbers. Or raw tomatoes and lettuce. Whatever you do, avoid the sprouts.

Written by Kristen Loveland

June 14, 2011 at 10:08

Research Trip: Sketches from Munich

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by Luce

There is a way one settles into traveling; particularly if traveling alone and in a new city. Small details become important. The patterns of traffic are an object of scrutiny, the manner of greeting a muttered remembrance (“Grüss Gott,” the guy at Müller says and of course he does. It’s Bavaria. Munich). The Sonnenblumenbrötchen bought at a bakery by the Hauptbahnhof, which one realizes is essentially a French baguette disguised by sunflower seeds, turns into an object of first night annoyance. Hearty, excessively—deliciously—grained bread is one of the distinct pleasures of being a German historian. A woman on a bike clings her bell and yells at me as I walk back from the archive, backpack slung across my back, apparently causing the skirt of my dress to ride up. And so manner of dress and habit of walking begin a slow shift toward ones more suitable for summer archiving.


I’ve never been to Munich before, though I spent a month nearby in schönes Bamberg last summer — “Summit of Bavaria/ Excessively Gemütlich,” an 11th century poem in the Cambridge Songs, as liberally translated by a favorite medievalist, proclaims. Having experienced such a Bavarian wonder, I decided to save Munich for another day. And here I am now, with a few feminists to look through at the Institut für Zeitgeschichte, and a brother, who has joined me for part of my trip, to entertain and try to show Germany. How does one show Germany to someone? I’ve never been a tour guide here, probably because I’ve only ever come here to work. So Germany is more a lifestyle than a sight for me. Look at that balcony, I tell him, imagining how nice it would be to have a Käsefrühstuck out there one morning. Berlin will be easier; I was once toured around there. I was a sophomore in college and I remember spending a long time staring across Berlin from the top of the Berliner Dom as my German professor rambled on. And a Love Weekend spent jumping up and down in an old factory building while Paul van Dyk spun techno.

The first two days I spent in Munich alone, jetlagged and located by the central train station, never my first choice for a home base. I stayed in a hostel by the Frankfurt Hauptbahnhof for a night on my way back home last summer and worried I might carry bedbugs across the Atlantic to New York. Repatriation. I don’t know if there is a New York equivalent to the area around a European urban train station. Perhaps 1970s Times Square — its unromanticized version. Casinos and sex shops (the site of Beate Uhse’s shop was oddly comforting—the woman has history) clustered next to hostels whose young British and American revelers run over. Small lessons remembered: don’t buy your Brötchen or sleep near the train station, Grüss Gotts all around, keep your skirt down.

European casinos and sex shops always seem to have black mirrored entrances with strobe lights and Halloween streamers. Last year I went into a casino in Bamberg to print a train ticket. Two middle-aged women pulled levers at 2pm and a manager grumbled at me “Bathroom? No, printer? There, there,” she jabbed her finger. I bought a card that would either print me a train ticket to Berlin or give me four tries at the slots.

Arriving at the archive this past Friday, radically jetlagged and underslept, I managed to make my needs known through a slurge of mumbled German. Research is a series of roads left untraveled and bets with oneself. If I don’t take this down, will I find something better later? Perhaps I’ll just note its existence. A conference on new contraceptive methods in the early 1970s? A half hour painstakingly going through my feminist’s handwritten notes—not necessarily for their worth, but for fear I won’t be able to get my hands on any other report of the events. Two folders later, the proceedings appear in typewritten full. In Reading Berlin Peter Fritzsche describes the illegible city as central to 20th century modernism: the uncertainty of being able to see or represent clearly, “the larger, ongoing process of just rereading and rewriting.” Unfolding a modern city is not unlike unfolding a new archive—terrifying, illegible, incapable of being represented yet forced to be nonetheless. One synchronizes oneself into both eventually.

Written by Kristen Loveland

May 15, 2011 at 14:50

Act Like a Scholar? Thinking the Cronon Affair through a Bunch of German Scholars

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Bill Cronon

by Luce

There’s a good round-up of commentary at Cliopatria on the Bill Cronon affair, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison released a packet of his emails a few days ago, exempting a broad range of materials and declaring Cronon’s conduct above reproach. Hopefully this will take the blowhardiness out of the Republicans’ sails. But it was distressing to learn a few days ago that a conservative group had issued a public records request for the emails from professors at three Michigan state university labor studies departments, looking for political involvement in the Wisconsin labor toil. The material these scholars study alone made them targets, raising the question of whether conservatives have decided on a new method to attack academic freedom.

In his post on Cronon, Wiz wrote that this is “a clear attack on the idea that historians might engage in public debate and dialogue,” and I agree. Cronon began his blog Scholar as Citizen to reflect on “the public practice of history and the ways in which academic scholarship in his chosen fields of history, geography, and environmental studies can offer useful perspectives on contemporary political debates.”

Obviously not all scholars are held to the same regulations as Cronon is as a professor at a state university, but I think think this episode presents an opportunity to consider the think about what connotes proper conduct on the part of the scholar in relation to his or her society. Should s/he be a social critic? Should s/he advocate some sort of social good? It might be useful consider how a few well-known German scholars thought about the role of the academic in society, particularly as German universities have historically been state institutions and German professors civil servants. This selection obviously has nothing to do with the fact that I will be examined  on these guys in three weeks time.

Kant‘s “What is Enlightenment?” is a good place to start.

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Written by Kristen Loveland

April 3, 2011 at 20:55

Are We Experts Yet? Historians on the Street

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I am really pleased to be able to introduce a post from the pseudonymous JP Schneider, who in the middle of tapping out his dissertation gives answer to the question: what role can historians hope to play as “experts” on contemporary historical events, such as the recent revolutions in the Middle East? -Luce

by JP Schneider

There is an alarming but nonetheless unsurprising degree of historical myopia amongst journalists, commentators, pundits, 24-hour news networks and “experts” on the convulsions that are sweeping the crumbling dictatorships in North Africa and the “Middle East”. Many are prone to suggesting that this is an Arab version of 1989, a lazy parallel that paints the Arabs as a singular, monolithic entity, and that the systems that oppressed these people in various states somehow possess a uniformly similar economic-political system that benighted those countries – and soon-to-be countries – under the Soviet boot.  So what can historians who study the region bring to bear on public understandings of what is happening at the moment, an especially pertinent question given the criticisms leveled at Middle Eastern studies departments in the US for failing to predict such seminal events as the 1979 Iranian Revolution?

The answer, of course, is relatively little. This shouldn’t be mistaken for the cry of a post-modernist; while it has its uses, post-modernism is ultimately an invitation to get lost in linguistic and methodological contortions and disappear down the rabbit hole of futility. Rather, the point I am making is a relevant corrective to those who are trotted out, whether in the academy or in the media, as having a more informed viewpoint than the rest of us helots.

And this speaks to a broader issue about the way in which historians do their research. Let’s say we are an historian of Egypt, or indeed, for that matter, Germany. What does that research entail? We spend most of our time sitting in archives because we don’t have the time (or the money) to get out and get talking to a wide variety of people. We may be lucky and have the benefit of a wide variety of contacts in our country of choice that we can draw on to get an “authentic” view. But how representative are they? If we’re researching nineteenth century trade unionism in Egypt or Germany, how many trade unionists do we know or speak to while we’re there on that oh-too-brief research trip? Yet as soon as we’re back in our citadels of learning we are drawn on as the repository of knowledge – historical and contemporary – on unfolding situations in our areas of expertise. Think about the situation with the higher echelons within the academy. Sure they have many more years of in-country experience, and a vast network of contacts, but how much faith should we place in the pronouncements of those with named chairs? When was the last time Juan Cole (much as I respect him) visited Egypt?

Should historians even be trying to gauge the present-day situation in their chosen country? Of course they should. The consequences of events and trends that occur in the past are all around us today. The Turkish kebab shop that sold you that deliciously unhealthy piece of meat: one small portion of the history of the Gastarbeiter. The many taxi drivers in Cairo, highly educated yet unable to find a job commensurate with their qualifications: the stagnation of the (late) Mubarak regime.

So what, I hear you cry as you stab the laptop screen in disgust and dismay. Simply this. As historians we should spend less time in archives and more time making the most of the countries we are temporary visitors in. The book or journal article can be delayed a little while. Interactions – whether snatched moments or lingering conversations – with our fellow men and women cannot. Ultimately, the scholarly work we produce will be richer for it. We might even be lucky enough to be there when history is being made in front of us.

Written by Kristen Loveland

February 28, 2011 at 09:37

Paper Tigers, Social Movements, Memory and Death, the Archive

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by Luce

The need to put out my hat for change and plea for grant funding has forced my hand: I now have my next summer planned out in more detail than my next week. I am now closer to actually being able to conceptualize a potential prospectus than ever before. And the funny thing is that, despite a fifty year shift in time period and a spiraling of topics, it looks like I am essentially doing what  I said I came here to do in the first place: trace through the ideas of a network of activist groups and individuals involved in a social debate concerning reproduction, identity, and ethics. Or something like that. Who knew?

I am not an archive fetishist, which is probably why I’m not a social historian. I study people who are often still living and who were fiercely engaged in debates which I might have been involved in had I been born a generation earlier (well, and in Germany). Tendrils of those debates still inflect today’s concerns and value judgments, and you may have seen me post on them here. I found Wiz’s post on the Forgotten Abolitionist lovely and moving, but I can’t claim to have myself felt that poignant feeling upon opening a folder containing the life of someone long dead. As I said, many of my people aren’t, and maybe I haven’t yet immersed myself enough in the archives to start feeling emotional attachments, though I did a master’s thesis on an early twentieth century German feminist and paged through many of her hand-written letters.

I’ve never tried to really plumb the depths of my psyche to understand why I do history, but I don’t think my anxiety about death plays a part [that comes out every time I sob through yet another saccharine Hollywood death scene]. I suspect I partly do history because I like to tell a story and find my own life too boring a plotline, but history for me is also a way to think through the paradoxes and contradictions that plague my own world. Their conundrums are my conundrums, which means that when I read through someone’s writings my underlying anxiety is about the impact such ideas have had in making available access to abortion, or agency of the disabled, or so on.

Poster from my local cafe in the neighborhood of Wedding in Berlin this summer

I have recently discovered the democracy of the archival institution in Germany, though my opinion is out on the democracy of the archive itself. The Berlin Papiertiger archive, fittingly located on Curvystrasse, was founded in 1985 and sees itself as part of a continuing Leftist movement that it thinks should have a good understanding of its own history: “Alongside other factors, a political movement is only as successful as what it has learned from its history and its defeats, and if it has taken from this the correct conclusions.” It sees its clientele as its own comrades; the first plea on its home page is to “bring us your current newspapers, brochures, fliers, and posters.” Carrying the motto “From the movement, for the movement,” Papiertiger is passionately worried about who will write their history, how they will interpret it, and that historians will ignore the transformative impact of the social movements from below on society.

The Frauenforschungs-, -bildungs- und -informationszentrum e.V. [FFBIZ], one of the largest archives in Germany containing materials on the themes of women and gender, began in 1978  as an alternative project of the new German women’s movement, which demanded that the state provide monetary support for socially important work without taking away the self-determination of their project. First they occupied a building, then they were subsidized by public funding, and finally they were recognized as a “Modellprojekt.” Has such a thing ever happened in the US? Think: a bunch of women occupied a building in order to open an archive. This was how important it was for activists invested in some form of identity politics (pace Judt) to be able to research into experiences and lives they thought would illuminate their own social situation.

I bring these archives up because I find their histories exciting and their continued existence inspiring, but also because they elicit a number of questions and problems for me. Having been professionally trained as a historian in the United States, and being very bad at hagiography, can I really expect to fulfill Papiertiger’s plea for a better interpretation of the history of the Left? On the other hand, is their call a challenge to remember, even in critique, the excitement and sense of accomplishment that people involved in such social movements felt at the time? It was useful to read Ute Frevert’s 1986 take on the activities of Germany’s New Women’s Movement around abortion liberalization in the early 1970s. It was a battle they technically lost, yet Frevert claims the loss was not a total defeat: the fight itself had demonstrated common, sex-specific interests and identities and resulted in the building up of feminist groups in almost all of Germany’s big cities. Whatever we have to say about the paradoxes, the failures, the problematics, do we risk losing sight of the significance of inchoate emotions and optimistic activities themselves?

Secondly, what will the archives of our generation look like? Papiertiger continues to collect activist newspapers and placards from today’s activist circles. Who is collecting these things in the US? I actually just don’t know, so if anyone could enlighten me I’d appreciate it. Are there large social archives that gather the random papers of random activist movements that may have lasted for the blink of an eye? The Archive of Social Movements in Hamburg opens its “Self-Image and History” page with the following:

Materials and documents from social movements disappear with the breakup of groups and movements; all the painstakingly acquired collections of newspapers, private archives, and mountains of brochures often turn into scrap paper or become private memories left to mold in the attic. These sources remain hidden to the public mind and even the collective memory of the social movements themselves.

This really said something to me. Perhaps there is after all something about remembering and recognizing normal, everyday historical actors at the base of why I do history, but what I find most poignant is the specifics of how these people engaged, the evidence that groups of people, even if for just six months or two years, with no real game plan and no survival guide, were passionate enough about something to come together in the face of futility and force their foot into the door of history. Rather than anxiety about death, though, I think this is grounded in a regret that my generation, with some notable exceptions, seems to have lost that spark of energy and groundless optimism laced with perhaps an essential naivete. I’m not one of those lamenters who thinks my generation doesn’t care — it does, but our activism has become professionalized, legitimated with degrees and business cards. Perhaps this is more effective, yet it would seem that we miss something in losing an even sometimes reckless spontaneity — perhaps the ability to call a movement successful despite its losses because its enthusiasm fomented political commitments and new identities in those who had previously been apolitical. Does today’s activist political culture provide opportunities, after a certain (young) age, for the apathetic to become suddenly engaged?

On the other hand, maybe I’m just selfishly concerned about the fate of Ad Hoc Magazine, a progressive magazine I and some friends created and ran for a few years in college, the paper leftovers of which even now form a great moldy mountain in my parents’ basement. I fear that one day they will decide to build a fire with them, and that Ad Hoc’s internet incarnation will crumble away forgotten, a nursing home of broken links and outdated thoughts. (In an attempt at (self-)preservation, here is a 2005 article on Columbia expansion and a 2006 article on the diversity initiative.)

Which brings up a final question: is the internet sufficient as an archive of our generation’s social movements and alternative ideas?

Written by Kristen Loveland

January 14, 2011 at 01:29