The History Woman's Blog

Laughing about Hitler

Posted in History, literature, Politics, Reviews, Twentieth Century by thehistorywoman on July 22, 2014

Look-Whos-BackIs 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…)

Men and Women in the English Revolution

Posted in Early Modern, History, Politics, Reviews, Seventeenth Century by thehistorywoman on October 28, 2012

Elizabeth Cromwell, née Bourchier (1598-1665)

Over the summer I agreed to review two books on the English civil wars. One Blair Worden’s God’s Instruments (2012), the other Ann Hughes’s Gender and the English Revolution (2012). The first, aside from a few fleeting references to Lucy Hutchinson, deals almost exclusively with Oliver Cromwell and other men who fought in the Civil War and determined the politics of the country in its aftermath. The second focuses mainly on women, though never studying them separately from the men they supported and challenged.

What I conclude from this is, that nearly half a century after the emergence of women’s history, it is still possible to write history books that largely ignore women, while it is virtually impossible to write anything at all that ignores men. I.e. as far as high political history is concerned, gender is only a ‘relational concept’ with regards to women.

I do not blame Blair Worden. In fact, I admire his work and frequently cite it in my own. Besides, I am no less guilty of having written entire book chapters or journal articles without mentioning a single woman. Political correctness and indeed the contribution of women to politics and political decision making easily slip our mind when the evidence is so much focused on a male political sphere – especially for students of the early modern period. But I still think we should try and change our practice and ask ourselves every time we look at a political issue: and what was the contribution of women? (more…)

What happened to social justice and equality in Higher Education?

Posted in Education, News, Politics by thehistorywoman on July 10, 2011

What’s wrong with Higher Education in the UK? Nothing, if you look at it from afar. The UK has some of the best universities in the  world as our VC never fails to remind us. We come second only to the US, and students from all over the world are attracted to study here by the smell of tradition and the shiny prospectuses praising our achievements. Alas, these foreign students are increasingly roped in to fill the funding gaps of a crumbling system, as the recent visit by Universities Minister David Willetts to South America has reminded us. According to a report by the Observer, the Brazilian government is willing to provide up to £18,700 per student in fees.

Wealthy foreign students count as so-called ‘off-quota’ students. This means they are not taking away places from UK candidates, but help universities expand and attract the best and brightest from all over the world. But there are two issues here. Are universities really going to select the brightest rather than those best able to pay? And what is going to happen to all these bright foreign students once they are here? It is great if we can offer them an excellent education and future prospects. It is not so great if we see little clusters of Chinese, Egyptian or Brazilian students huddled together on our campuses with unhappy faces, talking among themselves in their own language, wondering if they will ever make friends among the locals. Those who do integrate well and want to stay in contrast might find it hard to get a job – or a visa for that matter – when they have finished their degree. Can we square that with our consciences, or are we really exploiting them as cash cows?

But foreign students aside, the Government has found another ingenious way of creating divisions in the great community of learning by allowing the best universities to compete in a free market for students with AAB grades (or better). This will undoubtedly mean that the most successful universities can expand and grow wealthier to their heart’s content, while the others will create ‘the rest’ looking enviously at the research money and shiny labs of the better off.  The Sunday Times has already announced the creation of a UK Ivy League ‘headed by Oxford, Cambridge, Durham, the London School of Economics and Bristol.’ (I would link to the article, but the pay wall won’t let me). Government reforms are ‘expected to lead to a concentration of students with the highest grades in a small group of universities, starving mid-ranking competitors of some top potential recruits and possibly forcing them to lower their fees from the maximum £9,000’, Jack Grimston writes. Figures to be released by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce) later this week, are also ‘expected to show that about 40% of the 56,000 students gaining grades of AAB or higher are already concentrated in nine universities’ – something that comes as little of a surprise after research by the Sutton Trust revealed earlier this week that just ‘five schools in England sent more pupils to Oxford and Cambridge over three years than nearly 2,000 others combined.’

It seems all so wrong. The Higher Education reforms by the Coalition Government are taking away money from crucial teaching budgets, leaving universities to fend for themselves in an open market for off-quota and foreign students. Some institutions will clearly benefit from this increasing commercialisation of education, others will die, and the rest of us will hope for a new government.

Talk to them

Posted in Conferences, Politics, Religion by thehistorywoman on June 19, 2011

I have just returned from a conference in Paris and must say I am deeply impressed by the way the organisers and participants managed to cross linguistic boundaries. Virtually all of the French colleagues had very good English, while most of the foreign participants had only little or no French at all. Yet, we all managed to have some engaging and meaningful discussions, thanks to the many creative ways in which everyone tried to make it work.

Participants would, for instance, present their paper in English and have a Power Point presentation in French, so everyone could follow the talk without having to wait for someone to translate. Some speakers even had slides in both languages, and there was a lot of spontaneous interpreting backwards and forwards, be it to summarise what had just been said, or just to clarify individual terms. The conference was on ‘Profane Imprints on the Sacred: What Religion Owes to Politics’, so there were a lot of religious terms that needed clarifying. Thanks to a paper on the English Reformation we learnt that the English word ‘collect’ in the context corresponds to the French ‘oraison’, while the modern French ‘collecte’ is only used for specific prayers in the Catholic mass.

The session chairs also helpfully summarised each paper after the speaker had finished – sometimes in French, sometimes in English – and offered a helpful interpretive commentary on what had just been said. It was my first French conference, but I assume this is their usual way of doing things, and I found it very helpful, not least to get the discussion going. And there was a lot of it.

“You need the papers as an impulse, but it’s really the discussions that matter at those conferences,” said Nathalie Caron, one of the organisers at the University of Paris-Est Créteil. She is right. The participants were historians, theologians, literary scholars, sociologists, even lawyers, and the papers ranged from the Middle Ages to the present day. So we were not specialists in each other’s subjects. Yet, we could all reflect on the different ways in which politics intrudes on religion, and in which religion is exploited for political purposes.

Call it a national stereotype, but the French are good at the big ideas. The keynote speaker, Jean-Paul Willaime, took us from Durkheim via Weber to Ricoeur and back to explain the role of religion in the shaping of national, individual and narrative identities, and the debates that followed crossed not just linguistic but also subject and period boundaries.

And there we are in the UK, historians talking to our immediate colleagues in the field, working not just on the same period, but on either politics, religion or ideas in that little period, unable to engage even with a social or gender historian in a related field. This is not meant to be a rant about monolingualism or even about the fragmentation of academic history into ever shorter periods of time and ever more specialised fields of study, it is a call for more openness and experimentation. We need to talk more to our European neighbours.

Du profane dans le sacré: quand le religieux se politise,’ organised by Nathalie Caron and Guillaume Marche at the Université Paris-Est Créteil, 16th and 17th June 2011.

Fees, fees, fees

Posted in Education, News, Politics, Uncategorized by thehistorywoman on April 9, 2011

The government’s decision to allow universities to charge UG tuition fees of up to £9,000 per academic year clearly was an own goal. A BBC survey shows that about half of all higher education institutions in the UK are planning to charge the full fees, and even those who don’t on average demand more than the £7,500 the government had bargained for. In fact, the average fee is likely to be closer to £8,500, leaving the government to foot the bill until the new graduates are earning more than £21,000 per year. If the job market doesn’t pick up quickly, there won’t be many graduates to do so in the near future. (more…)

Trust the people – the British will eventually come round

Posted in Politics by thehistorywoman on October 7, 2009

So David Cameron has – yet again – promised the British people a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, should they elect him prime minister next year. And it seems he would get a lot of support for a ‘No’ campaign.

Maybe I should not be too surprised about the aggressive euroscepticism of the British Conservatives in a country where you can still buy “stamps for Europe” at the Post Office, where university language departments are closing faster than car plants, and where the Continent (with a capital “C”) seems sometimes further off than the US or Australia.

But what really worries me, is this: what is Britain going to do when everybody else has agreed on European reform and the little islanders with PM Cameron no longer get invited to the parties and “Europe” decides to do its own thing without asking them?

Of course, a British ‘No’ vote in a referendum could make the whole Lisbon project fail. But it wouldn’t stop the others from working together and from resenting the British for their stubborn refusal to join in with the fun.


The Irish ‘Yes’ to Lisbon was a historic act

Posted in Politics by thehistorywoman on October 4, 2009

The Irish have finally voted in favour of the Lisbon Treaty – and with an overwhelming majority. Some 67.1 percent said ‘Yes’ to European reform, with only 32.9 percent voting against. Turnout was high at 58 percent compared to 53.13 percent in June 2008 when some 53.4 percent of Irish people rejected the Treaty. The economic and financial crisis did its bit to change the minds of the Irish who over the past 16 months have come to realise how much they need the support from Brussels.

Especially farmers have been changing their minds since the last referendum, and with unemployment and emigration figures hitting new heights, Ireland seems to have understood that the bureaucrats in Brussels are not there to punish them with new rules, but to help. With special conditions put into place to protect strict Irish laws on abortion, even the Catholic Church came out in favour of the Lisbon Treaty. Or at least the bishops said that the Irish would now be able to decide either way without compromising their consciences as good Catholics.

Political leaders all over Europe have hailed the Irish referendum as a great success. Above all, the recently re-elected EU Commission President José Manuel Barroso who said on Saturday the ‘Yes’ vote was a “sign that Ireland recognises the role that the European Union has played in responding to the economic crisis”, and of course Irish Taoiseach (prime minister) Brian Cowen of Fianna Fáil who would have been likely to lose his job had the vote gone the other way.

So is all well now?