History recalls how great the fall can be

26 10 2017

My teaching has changed.

Not that it’s obvious: I’m still teaching the same subjects (politics, bioethics) and assigning the same (-ish) readings, still presenting much of the same material, still asking many of the same questions, and still assigning papers and take home essays.

But I’m also less, mm, neutral than I used to be.

Again, not in terms of conclusions I expect students to reach or questions they may ask—I invite disagreement—but in stressing what is at stake in these questions and conclusions. I want them to know that everything we study has happened, is happening, or could happen, and that these happenings matter. They must be able to think in order to deal with what is and what’s next.

What was that old Mary Harris ‘Mother’ Jones quote? Sit down and read. Educate yourself for the coming conflict!

I don’t say that directly to the students, but, yes, that’s the attitude I now take in teaching them.

This started awhile ago, in teaching bioethics. Bioethics is not neutral: there is explicit value placed on human life, health is a good, and biomedical research is in general (although not always in the particulars) to be encouraged. Those who work in bioethics make commitments to the values of the field, and while there is little consensus on how best to uphold those values, there is a sense that, yes, to work in bioethics is to pick a side.

I think that exists in other fields, as well, although in much older fields (bioethics is quite young), those values may be submerged beneath a veneer of professionalism, i.e., what matters is what is done rather than what is valued in the doing. That doesn’t mean those professionals are value-free so much as value-assumed.

Shit, I’m not getting this right. What I want to say is: read the last chapter of Richard Evans’s Lying About Hitler.  Really, read the whole thing—it’s a terrific takedown of David Irving’s Holocaust-denying, Hitler-apologizing, so-called historical work (an evisceration performed in service to Deborah Lipstadt’s defense against Irving’s libel claim)—but in that last chapter he goes all-in on the necessity of standards in historical research, and of the necessity of historical research itself:

Reputable and professional historians do not suppress parts of quotations from documents that go against their own case, but take them into account and if necessary amend their own case accordingly. They do not present as genuine documents those that they know to be forged just because these forgeries happen to back up what they are saying. They do not invent ingenious but implausible and utterly unsupported reasons for distrusting genuine documents because these documents run counter to their arguments; again, they amend their arguments if this is the case or abandon them altogether. They do not consciously attribute their own conclusions to books and other sources which, in fact, on closer inspection, actually say the opposite. They do not eagerly seek out the highest possible figures in a series of statistics, independently of their reliability or otherwise, simply because they want for whatever reason to maximize the figure in question, but rather, they assess all the available figures as impartially as possible in order to arrive as a number that will withstand the critical scrutiny of others. They do not knowingly mistranslate sources in foreign languages to make them more serviceable to themselves. They do not willfully invent words, phrases, quotations, incidents, and events for which there is no historical evidence to make their arguments more plausible to their readers.

At least, they do not do any of these things if they wish to retain any kind of reputable status as historians. [pp. 250-251]

Irving, of course, did all of these.

Now it could be said, fairly, that what Evans presents is an idealized version of what is a good historian, and that, as with idealized versions of scientific inquiry, the reality falls rather short. Still, he is making the argument that we can, with much effort, learn, come to know something of the past, and that this knowledge matters enough for historians to put in that effort.

I am more leery than Evans of speaking of the truth of various events, but, really, if I believe—if I know—that Holocaust denial is false, then aren’t I saying that the truth is, in some way, out there?

Anyway, in last week’s politics & culture course we went over the early career of Hitler; I made a point to highlight that his eliminationist antisemitism was there from the outset (1920) and that those who would deny that Hitler knew anything about or wanted to kill all Jews were not credible. The evidence is there, I said, in documents and speeches, in the recollections of others and in his own book, and these can’t just be dismissed.

You can’t just make shit up.

They tittered when I said that, but I was dead serious. Yes, there are legitimate interpretative differences of agreed-upon evidence, and not everything can be known, but if you want to know—if you value knowledge—then you have to take reasoned account of that evidence. You can’t, I repeated, just make shit up.

And that, I guess, is how I take a shortcut to this post’s end: I have until too recently been too cavalier about the value of knowledge itself. Ye gads, yes, the post-structuralist in me is screaming and the epistemological nihilist rolling her eyes, but I can’t, or really, won’t, in this moment, say Lol, nothing matters.

I never really did teach as if nothing mattered, and I’m (almost) always enthusiastic about what I do teach—it is not uncommon for me to interject Isn’t this cool!—but, yeah, I have had a take-it-or-leave-it attitude with regard to what the students get out of a course. I wanted them, sure, to get something out of it, but I don’t know that I ever thought it necessary that they do so.

Now, I think it’s necessary, that it was always necessary.


This whole frigging place will be down to the ground

2 09 2015

I’m teaching Weimar this semester.

Two months ago—a month ago—I didn’t know that’s what I’d be teaching, but once I hit on it, I thought Yessssss!!

This is actually the 4th version of my Politics and Culture course. The first one, based on women and human rights, was terrible; the second one worked well, but after teaching it a few years, I got bored and redid the syllabus; the third version was okay, but it never quite came together, and I was never fully comfortable with the course.

So, time for yet another revamp.

My first thought was that I’d use Acemoglu and Robinson’s Why Nations Fail. While I had a few issues with their argument (as I had with the Nussbaum book I used for v. 2), I thought the book would work well for the course: it’s well-written, and, importantly, it had the kind of big theory that was missing from one of the books (Banerjee & Duflo’s Poor Economics) I used in v. 3. The students in that course responded when I gave big-sweep historical lectures, so I figured Acemoglu & Robinson’s big-sweep historical analysis would go over well with them.

Except: I couldn’t figure out what to use as an adjunct to the text. Why Nations Fail is all about political and economic development, and while (political) culture plays a role in their argument, I still wanted to round out the course with something else.

Only, I couldn’t figure out what that something else would be. I’d spent a fair amount of time over the past few months looking over my books and pulling one, and then another, and then yet another off the shelf, but I couldn’t settle on one. Then, at some point in mid or late July, I was peering idly at my history books, and I scanned across Richard Evans’s Third Reich trilogy.

Huh, I thought. Then, Yesssss!!

My first thought was The Coming of the Third Reich, then I thought, The Third Reich in Power, but then I went back to The Coming.

Weimar. Perfect. It’s politics and culture galore, is a subject which I’d been reading about off and of the past coupla’ years, and, most importantly, it was something that I was immediately excited about.

I was not immediately excited about Why Nations Fail.

And that’s when I remembered the lesson I keep forgetting: teaching something I’m dutiful about is a pain; teaching something I’m excited about is a gas.

It also helps to teach something which is more rather than less in my wheelhouse. I certainly have interests in political and economic development, but I’m not a political-developmental economist: I’m a theorist, and I want to know how and why ideas move people to act. Material conditions absolutely matter, but they are not determinative; I’m interested in that great gauzy space beyond the material, and how that works out in actual political life.

So why wasn’t I teaching that? Why was I abandoning something that I think also matters? Why wasn’t I taking theory—and politics—seriously?

Weimar gives me a bit of everything; hell, the glory of Weimar as a teaching subject is its too-muchness: economics and diplomacy and monarchy and fascism and liberalism and communism and violence and art and theater and so much promise and in the end, too much peril.

I’ve only taught one session so far (the class meets on Fridays), and we won’t really get into Weimar until the third week, but the students seemed into it. They might not know much about Weimar, but they certainly know something about what came after—Nazis on the march do tend to get one’s attention.

Anyway, I don’t know if this course will work or not, but really, I think it will. And I think the students will end up digging it, too.

In any case, it certainly can’t go any worse than the Republic itself.

History is an angel being blown backwards

6 06 2011

Finally finished Richard Evans’s The Third Reich at War. Yes, I already knew the ending, but still, so, so satisfying.

Not everything about it satisfied. The Nazis grew ever more fanatical as the Reich’s prospects worsened, and so many—tens of thousands—of people were killed by the SS as the Allies pushed the Eastern and Western fronts ever closer together. And the Soviet soldiers, pfft, they raped their way west—gang-raped their way west. American and British forces also abused and raped civilians, but like nothing on the scale of the Red Army.

Given what the Germans had done on their march into the USSR, what the Red Army did was hardly a surprise. Still.

And too many Nazis escaped, either through subterfuge and help from an anti-communist official in the Vatican or because they were useful to the victors or by killing themselves. They—Hitler, Goring, Goebbels, Himmler, Borman, among too many others—escaped judgment by a shot to the head or a literal poison pill. They got to control their own deaths, just as they controlled the deaths of tens of millions of people.

They did not get what was coming to them.

Two further thoughts: One, while I have mentioned that I am under all circumstances opposed to the death penalty, I am not in any way exercised by the penalties imposed on those brought to trial. However problematic the juridical underpinnings of a victor-imposed war tribunal, I think it was better to have had the various trials than not; is no justice to be preferred to rough justice? (This is a real question, actually, tho’ I ask it only rhetorically, here.)

That my desire to have kept these anti-human genocidaires alive for the sole purpose of tormenting them—forcing them to live in a fallen world, a world where Germans are not the Master Race and Jews and Slavs and leftists and every so-called inferior would be in a position to look down with contempt and derision upon the Leader and his ilk—does point to my less-that-exalted moral position regarding the death penalty and these men. As with the suicides, the death penalty seems too easy a way out.

Second, I felt a great and unexpected rage at those alt-historians and pundits (Niall Ferguson and Pat Buchanan, for example) who spin out fantasies of woulda-coulda-shoulda and call it scholarship. I enjoy alt-history—Robert Harris’s Fatherland is a fine weekend read, and I’ve got Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America on my shelves—but I don’t treat it as anything other than what it is: fiction.

Even reading Ian Kershaw’s first volume of his biography of Hitler I find myself annoyed by his asides of but for this and had this judge not or if only the police had: Hitler wasn’t sent back to Austria to serve in the imperial army and he was allowed to enlist in the Kaiser’s force and the judge didn’t deport him after the beer hall putsch, etc. Again, the woulda-coulda-shouldas get us nowhere beyond dismay, exasperation, and not a little bit of unreflective smugness: We know better.

Maybe time does not constrain us in other quantum realities the way it does so here, in this reality of the 21st century, but since we do live within time, pretending that we can overcome the winds which blow us into the future is just that, pretending—or pretense, if you call it scholarship.

It’s also cheap, intellectually and morally. It’s one thing for, say, military tacticians to say if you had done X rather than Y in this battle, that might have opened up possibilities for Z—to say, in other words, that something limited can be learned about a specific event—but it’s quite another to assert with authority that had the British not joined the battle against the Hapsburgs and Ottomans and Hohenzollerns, say, that Imperial Germany would have imposed a cautious authoritarian rule over Europe, contained or otherwise short-circuited the Bolshevik Revolution, allowed the British to keep its empire, stymied the rise of the Americans, and oh, by the way, prevented the rise of Hitler, the Nazis, and the conflagration of WWII.

It’s quite another, in other words, to spin a whole counter-history which makes it seem as if the abattoir that was Europe in the first half of the twentieth century was, oopsie, all a big mistake, one which could be erased by hopscotching back to 1914 Britain and whispering in the King’s ear. History is made of chalk; let’s erase and start over.

The problem is precisely that history is made of chalk: There is nothing indelible in what happens, and we remember only because we remember. We have to chalk and re-chalk and re-chalk again the contours of our deeds if they are to remain visible to us amidst those blowing winds.

Six million Jews and however many thousands of Roma and hundreds of thousands if not millions of Slavs were murdered by members of the Third Reich,  millions more soldiers killed and were killed in turn, and hundreds of thousands of innocent and not-so-innocent civilians died because Hitler and the Nazis and a fair proportion of the German population thought it only right that they should run riot over Europe and the world.

These are the facts, tethered to us only by intersubjective agreement that they be treated as facts.

Treat them as pieces in your game of counter-factual what-if and whoops, you loosen the tether and allow the pieces to be scattered, lost. You allow all those people to be scattered, lost, again.

This war can’t end soon enough

26 05 2011

I’m not quite halfway through Evans’s The Third Reich at War, and by now all of the theoretical contradictions of Naziism come crashing into one another in practice:

1. Hitler sets out a goal of a racially pure Germany, but the need for labor means that hundreds of thousands of Poles, Russians, Ukrainians, and other racial inferiors are imported into Germany.

2. The belief that the conquest of the east would provide sufficient resources for Germans to wage war in both east and west—that war was necessary for Germany’s very survival—is turned upside down as the need and/or difficulty of holding these areas becomes a drain on the Old Reich’s (Germany proper) own resources.

3. The National Socialist’s disdain for, well, socialism, means that the rationalization and coordination of the war effort is fatally delayed. When Albert Speer does finally take over armaments production, he succeeds only insofar as he’s able to shutter small producers in favor of efficient larger producers; in doing so, he reneges on the 1930s promise to protect the petit bourgeoisie.

4. Hitler’s preference for his deputies to fight amongst themselves for position means he never imposes the discipline necessary to march them all in the same direction.

5. The Nazis are offended when the people in countries they overrun fight back; they consider such resistance to be so out of bounds as to provide justification for the initial invasion.

6. The Nazis claim to be acting according to the highest ideals in exterminating Jews, Gypsies, and Slavs, but go to great lengths to hide evidence of such extermination. (SS and Police Leader Odilo Globocnik did protest such subterfuge: he argued that instead of digging up the bodies of the dead to be burned, they should “bury bronze tablets stating that it was we who had the courage to carry out this gigantic task.”)

7. The most glaring contradiction, of course, is the contention that the German is the pinnacle of human being, a superbeing who is nonetheless threatened by the very existence of the weak and parasitic Jew.

Sure, you could spin this last point with reference to Jews as vermin or viruses or whatever, but it is nonetheless striking how much power Hitler, Himmler, Goebbels, Goring, et. al., give to Jews, so much power that they in effect put the onus for the war on Jews themselves. The great and noble German will always be vulnerable as long as Jews exist.

(It is this last point, of course, which makes the Nazis nothing like Nietzsche’s Overman: the Overman is not only not threatened by the weak, he pays them no mind. And, of course, Nietzsche thought anti-Semitism was stupid.)

I should also mention one last, well, not contradiction, exactly, but avoidable tragedy: that in so many cases Communist and Zionist prisoners could not overcome their conflicts to coordinate resistance to camp guards and administrators. Even amidst the great gnashing of teeth of the Nazi death maw their antipathy was more important than death itself.

Anyway, by this point I’m reading less out of intrinsic interest than in a kind of savage anticipation of the end.

I cannot wait for the Nazis to end.