Twenty-five years after the fall of the Berlin Wall I have finally finished reading Divided Heaven by the East German writer Christa Wolf. It is a love story ended by the separation of the two Germanies, completed by the construction of the Wall, which aimed to prevent the defection of Eastern Germans to the West.
In Wolf’s novel the female protagonist Rita, a young woman from the East training to be a teacher, is in love with the academic Manfred, who one day fails to return from a conference in West Berlin. Manfred sends Rita a letter from the West, asking her to join him. But even before she visits him in the fateful summer of 1961 she knows that she cannot stay.
Rita’s heart is in the East – with the people in her little village and with the workers in the factory, where she spends her summers. She is not attracted to the well-stocked shops in the West or the flashing lights of the big city, and in the end her love for her home, her socialist ideals and her wish for a break with the Nazi past is greater than her desire to be with the man who betrayed her trust.
It is an odd story to read twenty-five years after the socialist dream collapsed. It is a book that sheds a very different light on what it was like to live in the East. While Wolf does not shy away from criticising the rigid rules, the hypocrites and the corruption of the GDR system, she also shows the reader that there were real people with real ideals on the other side.
As usual with many failed political systems it was not the ideas, but the brutal manner of their execution that led to their downfall.
Is it ok to laugh about Hitler? This seems to be the one big question critics have been asking themselves about Timor Vermes’s Look Who’s Back – a novel about Adolf Hitler waking up in 21st-century Berlin seeing a confusingly modern world through a Nazi lense.
Some teenage boys playing football on a field must be the Hitler Youth training, the large number of Turks in Berlin an indicator that they did support Germany in World War II after all. But Hitler is also impressed by the clever demagogy of the German Bild newspaper with its many pictures and extra large type, regretting that ‘the zealous Goebbels’ did not have that idea first, or the Nazis would have found ‘much more enthusiasm’ for their ‘cause’ amongst the elderly population.
The sight of what they take to be a Hitler lookalike shocks many Germans in the book. Yet, none of them take him seriously. They all think he must be a method actor and comedian out to challenge and provoke the German public, testing the limits of freedom of speech. Instead of arresting him for war crimes, Hitler is thus given his own TV show, where he is allowed to do and say whatever he wants as long as he agrees that ‘the Jews are no laughing matter’. (more…)
The Bitter Trade by Piers Alexander is a historical novel set in the murky world of London’s coffee houses on the eve of the Glorious Revolution. The son of an English dissenter and a French Huguenot, its young redhead hero Calumny Spinks lives under the shadow of his father’s dark secret dating back to Oliver Cromwell’s time which takes his mother’s life and traps him in the poverty of the weaving milieu.
Yet, he is determined to escape his fate and make his way in the world in the newly emerging coffee trade, which is at times only fractionally above board. Along the way, he meets crooks and wise men and a range of strong women, who teach him a thing or two about life and love, and that hardly anyone is who they appear to be at first sight.
Torn between the scheming daughter of a wealthy coffee trader, a popish seamstress and the waitress of a coffee house, who all carry their own secrets, Calumny stumbles from one adventure to the next as he uses his wit and ability to imitate voices to climb up the social ladder.
Calumny Spinks, telling name and all, is an old-fashioned hero, his first-person narrative of the chancer in dire straits reminding the reader of the picaresque novel of the seventeenth and eighteenth century. Yet, Alexander wears his history lightly. (more…)
I don’t read much popular history, and that is probably a mistake. By ignoring countless works written for a mass audience I miss what attracts most people to my subject area: a good story that is actually true, or at least could be true, reconstructed from sources scattered all over the archives and joined by creative ingenuity.
With historical writing, the lines between fiction and non-fiction are frequently blurred. Academic historians tend to lay claim to objectivity by comparing countless sources and weighing up possibilities and arguments, while novelists might have invested a similar amount of time to research but openly admit that they made up the missing bits and, most importantly, the majority of the action and dialogue.
There is some consolation in the fact that for any number of bodice rippers there is probably one Wolf Hall or, an old favourite of mine, An Instance of the Fingerpost, while for any number of bad popular history books, there is one like The King’s Revenge: Charles II and the Greatest Manhunt in British History. Its authors Don Jordan and Michael Walsh, writers, filmmakers and journalists, have done an excellent job researching the fate of the regicides of Charles I, many of whom had to escape from the British Isles at the Restoration of the Stuarts. Some went to the colonies and others to Europe, while those who remained in the country had to keep their heads down or arrange themselves with the new authorities.
I’m not sure whether ‘manhunt’ really adequately describes the actions of the new Stuart government against the regicides, as Charles II did not in all cases explicitly sent out the bloodhounds. After all, he had promised to forgive and forget in his Declaration of Breda (1660). Most of his ‘agents’ were shady ‘volunteers’ who aimed for reward or attempted to prove their doubtful loyalty to the new regime, while orders to find and assassinate the exiles more often than not were given indirectly by those close to the King, such as his sister, the Duchess of Anjou, in France, or driven by a vengeful Parliament of angry Cavaliers.
Nevertheless, the book describes in much detail the actions of the regicides, the precariousness of their situation after the Restoration, the martyrdom of some and the constant fear of those who survived at home and abroad, knowing that an assassin might come for them any time. (more…)
The first Georgians must have been a grumpy lot. At least this is the impression visitors of the exhibition The First Georgians: Art & Monarchy 1714-1760 get. For all the publicity materials show a smiling David Garrick with his Wife Eva-Maria Veigel painted by William Hogarth, while none of the pictures of George I (1660-1727) currently displayed at the Queen’s Gallery were apparently friendly enough to make it onto the posters.
The oil painting of the king of Great Britain and Ireland, and elector of Hanover by Sir Godfrey Kneller, which greets viewers at the entrance of the gallery, looks rather stern and serious as if George was weighed down by his newly acquired role. The Act of Settlement (1701) had transferred the succession to the English throne to his mother, Sophia of Hanover as the next protestant in line. As she died shortly before Queen Anne, George had to uproot from his native Germany to take up his new responsibilities. Indeed he did not seem to have much to smile about.
Speaking little English and not exactly welcomed with open arms by his new subjects, he had arrived in Britain without his wife Sophia Dorothea, who had abandoned him and, as a punishment for her adultery with a Swedish count, was imprisoned in her native Celle. George I was also alienated from his eldest son, the future George II; and, of course, there was the Jacobite threat to consider.
The exhibition shows a deceptively harmonious-looking oil painting by Pierre Mignard of the alternative royal family of the Catholic James II around 1694, by now safely exiled to France. Yet, the Jacobite threat would persist, and uprisings, such as those of 1715 and 1745 would make the new Hanoverian dynasty feel uneasy on their throne. This is also documented through the many military maps displayed in the exhibition, some of them used by George II’s younger son William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland (1721-65) on his campaign in the Scottish Highlands. Nevertheless, 300 years ago this Hanoverian dynasty began an unbroken line of succession to the present monarch Queen Elizabeth II.
There are more playful elements to the exhibition that reveal happier times and interesting personalities within the royal family. For instance, there is Queen Caroline’s Wunderkammer of small treasures, containing little hardstone carvings of the Tudors, or wax and ivory carvings of various family members alongside miniature paintings and enamels by the Dresden-born artist Christian Friedrich Zincke. In fact, there are many items in the exhibition that remind the viewer of the royal family’s German origins.
Apparently, the family had a particular liking for the work of Hans Holbein the Younger, and Queen Caroline discovered a complete set of his drawings, while one of the more famous items displayed in the exhibition is the oil portrait of Sir Henry Guildford (1489-1532), one of Henry VIII’s companions of his younger years.
There are also ornate items of furniture, gilded chairs and marble-topped side tables, as well as a silver dinner service, from which the family would eat English, German and French dishes. Alongside Meissen porcelain the viewer can also admire Chelsea plates with garden motives and a rather absurd-looking asparagus-shaped needle case.
Royal hobbies are reflected in the beautiful harpsichord next to a marble bust of Georg Friedrich Händel, while a number of sporting guns for game shooting reveal a taste for rather more bloody pursuits.
The First Georgians: Art & Monarchy 1714-1760, The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace, open until 12 October 2014.
I never thought I would see Algernon Sidney on TV. Now I have – on the recent Channel 4 drama New Worlds, which looks at English radicalism during the Exclusion Crisis. He is cast as the grand old man of republicanism (Donald Sumpter, made to look much older than Sidney’s 60 years) who has survived Civil War, Interregnum and Restoration to pass on the torch of the “good old cause” to the next generation. “Let this hand be an enemy to tyrants”, says Abe Goffe (Jamie Dornan) to Ned Hawkins (Joe Dempsie), as they link theirs before the latter returns to right the wrongs in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the New World, while the former, the fictional son of the regicide William Goffe (James Cosmo), who died across the Atlantic, is determined to set an end to the Stuart monarchy in England.
The words written by Sidney into the visitors’ book at the University of Copenhagen in 1659, have become the motto of the new generation. Nevermind that he originally wrote them down in Latin, “manus haec inimica tyrannis”, they now stand for the young radicals’ hatred of monarchy (and would later become the official motto of the state of Massachusetts in the USA). Yet, Sidney himself has mellowed. When Abe goes to meet him for help and advice in episode three, Sidney is no longer keen to rid the world of all kings, he wants to subject them to parliamentary rule to avoid another Civil War.
So Sidney and Goffe get involved in the Rye House Plot to kill Charles II (Jeremy Northam) and his younger brother James, Duke of York (Samuel James), as they are travelling back from the races at Newmarket to replace the King with the Duke of Monmouth (Tom Payne) as a constitutional ruler. When the plot is foiled and discovered they are arrested at Sidney’s home and taken to the Tower. The papers seized from his desk, the manuscript of his Discourses Concerning Government (published posthumously in 1698) are used in evidence against him to prove his hatred of monarchy and murderous intentions. Thus he has to die the death of a traitor in episode four, swearing off violence before he departs from this world, while Ned smuggles his writings into Boston, from where they inspire a new generation of Americans hoping for indepndence from Britain.
While most critics found the much anticipated New Worlds badly written, soulless and disappointing as the sequel to the amazingly popular Devil’s Whore by the same creators Peter Flannery and Martine Brant, I was most interested in the historiographical aspects of the four-part series. The Whig myths around the regicides seem alive and well outside the world of academic history. William Goffe is confirmed as the Angel of Hadley, who defends the English settlers from an attack by Indians before jumping to his death, while Algernon Sidney is confirmed as the mellowed republican and respectable defender of constitutional monarchy, brought to the scaffold by a cruel and unjust government.
As a historian I was also somewhat disappointed that the creators of New Worlds found it necessary to introduce two very contrived love stories, between Abe Goffe and Beth Fanshawe (Freya Mavor) in England, and between Ned Hawkins and Hope Russell (Alice Englert) in the colonies, to get their audience interested in one of the most exciting periods of English history. While I enjoyed some of the period detail and was pleased to see that there are film-makers who share my passion for the seventeenth century, I nevertheless think that the original sources tell the most exciting stories, and that someone should be bold enough to produce a historical drama without artificial enhancements and changes to the original plot. Seventeenth-century history as reality TV, a documentary filmed as drama, now that would create truly new worlds.
I got an early Christmas present this year when the Memoirs (1630-1680) of Sophia of Hanover landed in my pigeonhole about a week ago. They arrived unexpectedly, but my curiosity soon got the better of me, and I was not able to resist the life story of the woman who nearly became queen of England.
As the granddaughter of James I by his daughter Elizabeth and her husband Frederick, the German elector Palatine and king of Bohemia, Sophia was the next Protestant in line to the English throne when the Act of Settlement (1701) was drawn up, so the right of succession was transferred to her and her heirs. Alas, she died in 1714 only seven weeks before Queen Anne, the last Protestant monarch of the House of Stuart, and in the event the crown fell to her son George Lewis, who was to become King George I of Great Britain and Ireland.
Sophia’s Memoirs, edited and translated by Sean Ward for the Toronto Series The Other Voice in Early Modern Europe offer a rare glimpse this remarkable woman, who enjoyed life at the centre of the German nobility with pragmatism, wisdom and a good sense of humour. Consequently, as her editor notes – and despite a number of biographies – Sophia ‘tells the story [of her life] better herself’ (p. 26) to convey her acute observations and highly entertaining sense of mischief.
As a youth in The Hague she apparently enjoyed to play practical jokes on unsuspecting courtiers, including Mr. de Zulestein, the ‘natural child of Prince Frederick Henry of Orange-Nassau’, whose head received ‘a good dousing’ from a handkerchief soaked ‘in a chamber pot’ (p. 40). Thus, through Sophia’s eyes we get a look at the humans behind seventeenth-century European politics and their struggles and mishaps beyond the limelight.
Marriage politics also play a key role in her Memoirs. Not only does Sophia let us know that she was once intended as a wife to Charles II, whom she met at The Hague during the 1650s, she also tells us of her betrothal to Duke George William of Brunswick-Lüneburg, then duke of Hanover (pp. 65ff) and her pragmatic transfer to his younger brother Ernest Augustus, when the former decided he preferred to live as a bachelor (p. 69). In Sophia’s own words, the only love she had felt ‘was for a good establishment’ and she would ‘have no difficulty trading the older brother for the younger’ (p. 75), not least because the older brother was willing to leave the Brunswick-Lüneburg possessions to her children. Love in these arrangements, it seems, followed later. As Sophia lets her readers know, ‘Resolved to love him, I was delighted to find him lovable.’ (p. 79). But not all were so fortunate. (more…)
Jeffrey Freedman’s engaging Books without borders in Enlightenment Europe (2012) looks at the French book trade in the German-speaking territories during a pivotal period in the European history of ideas. This French book trade did not just cater for a small elite of princes and courtiers, it was absorbed by a variety of well-educated German speakers from scholars to doctors and lawyers and a variety of other professionals and thus played an important role in spreading and popularising the Enlightenment. By the 1770s, the French segment accounted for some ten per cent of all books sold on the German market.
Among the works sold by the German agents of French-language printers and booksellers were also many unlicensed and prohibited books. But thanks to the political fragmentation and the many administrative quirks of the German lands, censorship laws were virtually unenforceable, so that heterodox and libertine works could reach their readers relatively easily. The ban of a work often only served to make it more popular and more desirable to ‘procure the forbidden pleasure’ (118) as no one less than the German author Johann Wolfgang von Goethe remarked recalling the burning of a French book in his native Frankfurt.
Following in Darnton’s footsteps
Books without borders feels in many ways like a sequel to Robert Darnton’s seminal Business of Enlightenment (1979), not just because Freedman draws on the same depository of sources of the Swiss Société Typographique de Neuchâtel (STN), which here represents ‘a slice of the French book trade in Germany’ (11) but also because he, like Darnton (who was his PhD supervisor at Princeton), offers the reader a carefully researched and well-informed book history intermixed with numerous little personal stories of the STN’s correspondents in the German lands, zooming in and out of the bigger picture.
Some of these personal stories are quite detailed, and readers might be inclined to skim read them. But this would mean to miss the colourful picture Freedman paints of the lives, successes and struggles of eighteenth-century printers and their agents. Occasionally, we even get a rare glimpse of their political inclinations and the convictions that might have driven the latter to get involved in the business of books.
Censorship and self-censorship
There is, for instance, the ‘native Parisian and Freemason’ François Mettra, who had his shop in Münz, near Cologne, and moonlighted as a ‘radical journalist’ (63); or Charles Fontaine in Mannheim, the semi-educated ‘son of a fisherman’ who is unlikely to ‘have read many of the books in his own bookshop’ (75); and finally Johann Conrad Deinet in Frankfurt, who ended up as the Empire’s book commissioner (or chief censor) despite having had various run-ins with the authorities himself for dealing in prohibited books. But as Freedman points out, ‘it would be a mistake to assume that in the eighteenth century, censors and booksellers were always on opposite sides of the ideological barricades and that if booksellers obeyed the law, it was only because they feared the consequences of transgressing it.’ (110) Many exercised a certain amount of self-censorship too, selling prohibited material, but drawing the line, say, at ‘atheism and pornography’. (110) (more…)
‘Brethren in Christ’ was the common form of address in correspondences among Calvinist elites in early modern Europe as they asked for each other’s support and solidarity, in particular in times of displacement and hardship caused by bouts of intolerance sparked by the Counter-Reformation. Among those forced into exile for their faith during the sixteenth century were four families from Lucca: the Calandrinis, Burlamachis, Diodatis and Turrettinis. Uprooted and displaced multiple times from Italy, France, the Netherlands and Germany by such key events as the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre or the Thirty Years War they travelled around Europe like the Israelites escaping Babylon and more often than not found at least a spiritual home in their ‘new Jerusalem’, the Swiss city of Geneva.
Ole Peter Grell’s most recent book Brethren in Christ: A Calvinist Network in Reformation Europe is not a work about Calvinist rhetoric, as the first half of its title might suggest. It is a work of social history dealing with networks and collective biography, or rather lots of short biographies that add up to one bigger story, showing that the aim for a grand(er) narrative does not have to go at the expense of detail, or rather that a certain amount of detail is sufficient to make a bigger point.
Thus, as we follow different generations of Calandrinis, Burlamachis, Diodatis and Turrettinis across Reformation Europe we get a sense of how things hang together, how the Counter-Reformation in Tuscany led to an exodus of wealthy merchant-bankers to Lyon and Paris, how the St Bartholomew Day Massacre in France subsequently made them move on to the United Provinces, England and Germany, and how Frederick V’s acceptance of the Bohemian crown did not just trigger the Thirty Years War, but also caused a refugee crisis in the Imperial city of Nuremberg, which was overrun by exiles from the Palatinate, and finally how Calvinist elites managed the relief effort by appealing for money and triggering collections in the stranger churches of London and elsewhere. (more…)
Be prepared for the Holbein stare. His sitters will look right at you, or through you – like Derich Born. Serious beyond his years, wealthy and confident, the 23-year-old merchant of Cologne was the youngest member of the London Hanseatic League and seems remarkably lifelike as his dark brown eyes look out from underneath his black cap. Hans Holbein the Younger (c1497-1543) painted him in 1533, and as with most of Holbein’s portraits, it is the eyes that hold the viewer’s attention, be it in the sketch of Henry VIII’s Lord Chancellor Thomas More (c 1526-27) or in the painting of ‘Hans of Antwerp’ (1532).
While most of the attention is usually on the paintings, I often prefer the chalk, pen and ink drawings. They are like shadows or ghosts of people who once lived and have all but faded out. I was particularly taken by the ethereal looks of a beautiful, young Lady Parker (c1540-3), possibly one of Jane Seymour’s attendants who gazes out from the white background with her big round eyes. There is also a drawing of a young ‘Lady’ Mary (c. 1536), demoted from her position as ‘Princess’ after the birth of her younger brother Edward, Prince of Wales, in a frame alongside hers, aged one (c 1538).
More often than not, these drawings were studies for paintings; and it is particularly interesting to see one next to the other, as in the case of the portrait of Sir Henry Guildford (1527), who was one of Henry VIII’s closest friends and Comptroller of the Royal Household. As a court painter, meanwhile, Holbein was not beyond the art of flattery. The exhibition blurb informs us that Guildford’s slightly chubby-drawn face was lengthened on the painting for ‘a more flattering expression’. (more…)