After the Wall: Nostalgia and Cynicism during the German “Honeymoon,” 1989-1992

Alban Bargain-Villéger

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Ampelmännchen (Trail Life, Weltradreisen)

Twenty-seven years ago, on November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall collapsed. Twenty-seven is an odd number, so why write a post on this particular topic now, on the occasion of a not-so-symbolic anniversary? One reason is that I had always wanted to write something on the couple of years that followed the Fall of the Wall. But mainly, it was the realisation that the official reunification of the two Germanies actually occurred twenty-five and a half years ago that prompted me to reflect on that particular topic. Indeed, the storming of the Wall did not immediately result in the spontaneous stitching back together of the Germany of old – the question being, what Germany was to be resurrected? The prospect of seeing a strong Germany re-emerge on the world scene did not fail to upset members of the European political élite, many of whom had lived through World War Two. As a result, it took a year and a half for the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) and the German Democratic Republic (GDR) – both founded in 1949 – to negotiate and sign the Treaty on the Final Settlement With Respect to Germany.

This post focuses on the two-year honeymoon period that occurred in the wake of the November 1989 events, which the Germans refer to as die Wende (“the turn”). The Wall was built in 1961 as a solution to the growing numbers of East Germans making their way to the West through West Berlin. Until its fall, the “wall of shame” had symbolized the Cold War and the lengths to which a totalitarian regime could go in order to stifle freedom of movement. The immediate cause of the Fall was the opening, in August, of the Austro-Hungarian border, which triggered an outflow of East German citizens through Hungary. The authorities initially attempted to prevent East German citizens from leaving, but these measures backfired and provoked a series of demonstrations, which led to the resignation of Erich Honecker, who had been at the helm of the country since 1971. However, the situation did not improve, as the new government soon felt obligated to allow passage directly through the various border crossings between the Federal Republic and the GDR. Besides, the government’s spokesman mistakenly confirmed that the changes would take effect immediately, which took the border guards by surprise and resulted in thousands of East Berliners crossing into the western part of the city. This meant the beginning of the end for the Wall and for the regime. Continue reading

Travels with Caroline

Alban Bargain-Villéger

Caroline de?me?nage (1987)

Caroline déménage (1987)

Unlike my previous contributions, this post is the result of an accident. While browsing the contents of my external hard drive in June during a (late) spring cleaning operation, I found a folder labelled “Caroline.” Intrigued, I opened the file and immediately remembered what these forgotten documents were. In the summer of 2008, while on vacation at my grandparents’ place, I spent a couple of hours reading a number of children’s books, which my grandmother used to read to me when I was a child. Entitled Caroline, these books follow the adventures of the eponymous character, a blonde preteen in red overalls, and her eight anthropomorphized critter friends. Both amused and intrigued, I decided to photograph the books. Since I was in the early stages of my doctoral research at the time, and since I am not a historian of childhood, I decided to archive the folder and forgot about it for the next eight years.

Although there was plenty to write about this summer, chancing upon the “Caroline” folder was serendipitous. Continue reading

History on TV: Political Drama in the 2010s

Alban Bargain-Villéger

Still from Borgen, 2010.

Still from Borgen, 2010.

In recent years, serial political dramas such as House of Cards and the Danish series Borgen have enjoyed quite a bit of success in North America. Although one might argue that the genre is more of a child of the 1990s, since the original House of Cards trilogy (set in a fictional post-Thatcher Britain) came out in 1991, and The West Wing ran from 1999 to 2006, the four series that I intend to examine in this post are all products of the 2010s. A comparison of Borgen (“The Castle,” Denmark, 2010-13), Les Hommes de l’ombre (“The Shadow Men,” France, 2012), House of Cards (USA, 2013-present), and Okkupert (“Occupied,” Norway, 2015) is not only useful in providing an overview of how western European and American politics are being imagined (even fantasized about) in our day and age, but also yields precious information of a historical nature. In their own way, each of these series tries to make sense of a different political history. Of course, it should be acknowledged that these four series reflect the views of the writers, directors, consultants and producers who created and shaped them. Nonetheless, the commercial and critical success that they have garnered as well as the themes they address raise several questions about the ways western democracies and their histories are perceived today.

SPOILER ALERT: be warned that plot points will be given away. Continue reading

21st Century Terrorism: Nothing New?

Alban Bargain-Villéger

1980 Bologna Railway Bombing. Getty Images

1980 Bologna Railway Bombing. Getty Images

About a month after the November 13 shootings, I was lining up, along with hundreds of carefree visitors, in front of the Osiris exhibit at Paris’s Arab World Institute. The sun was out, children were playing on the steps of the building and, aside from the occasional military squad patrolling the area, it was hard to believe that this city had recently been hit by a series of brutal attacks. As I was waiting in the slowly advancing line, I began to wonder what I would do if a gang of masked gunmen were to show up. We were (according to Daesh) nothing but horrible miscreants on their way to admire Ancient Egyptian idols. Why was I suddenly feeling vulnerable? After all, the risk had always been there and, although the media had only recently begun to popularize the concept of “soft targets,” the use of violence on civilians in public places is nothing new. However, the media’s frequent recourse to World War Two as a benchmark in terms of violence has contributed to obscuring the various acts of terrorism that occurred during the Cold War era, the 1990s, and the 2000s.

Among the many approaches to the 2015 Paris attacks, few avoided the trap of Western exceptionalism – here I use “Western” for the sake of convenience, as that term does not describe a clearly defined reality. While the generally Eurocentric reactions to the January and November shootings have been pointed out on many occasions, the chronological nearsightedness of most of the media and of the powers-that-be has been largely ignored. The appearance of the French tricolour on the CN Tower, the Statue of Liberty, and other monuments in the wake of the shootings did not just reflect a geographical double standard, but also implied that some sort of world-historical event had occurred. Although the high death toll (130 victims) seemed to point to a return to a level of violence unseen since the Second World War, and although the terrorists’ recourse to suicide bombers signaled a change in the Jihadists’ tactics on the European continent, it would be premature to see that particular massacre as an epoch-making event. Continue reading

Film Friday: Suffrage Stories Without Class

Joan Sangster

Suffragette (2015)

Suffragette (2015)

A friend who teaches the history of feminism in Canada recently relayed her students’ responses to the British movie Suffragette. Many found the women heroic, the film “moving” and uplifting. They then described their image of Canadian suffragists: narrow-minded, “classist” and racist, not very radical, hardly inspiring role models.

Their negative image of early Canadian feminists does not necessarily reflect more popular, celebratory views of the suffrage movement, which has recently caught the media’s attention. Various centenaries are upon us, or approaching. A hundred years ago Manitoba enfranchised white women, followed by other provinces; the federal vote was extended in 1918. Quebec celebrations will have to wait until 2040. (I think they should be funded by the Catholic Church, as reparation for its role as a major misogynist stumbling block to women’s rights in that province.) These centenaries and the release of the British film Suffragette offer an opening for us to talk about popular portrayals of the suffrage movement – and why we need to challenge it. Continue reading

Pork Cuts: The Sharp Edges of Nativism in Southern Europe

By Aitana Guia

NoKebabToo many political leaders are banking on politicizing migration today. Culture has become a fertile battlefield. Food represents familiarity and safety. Eating is a daily activity that connects parents to their children, to their schools, and to their extended families. Social life in Southern Europe revolves around food and food rituals.

Donna Gabbacia, a historian of the American immigrant experience, explains that the “choices people make about eating are rarely trivial or accidental. Food is a central concern of human beings in all times and in all places.”[1]

Marine Le Pen’s Front National (FN) knows it. Continue reading

The European Extreme Right Yesterday and Today

Alban Bargain-Villéger

Logos of 11 extreme right parties. leftfutures.org

The “Europe of Nations and Freedom”: 11 extreme right parties. leftfutures.org

Studies on the European ultra-nationalist right are not exactly rare. Over the last couple of decades, many a tree has been felled and much ink has been spilled on the extreme right in our day and age and its connections (or lack thereof) with the fascist movements and parties of old. But despite the abundance of works on that topic, the ideological nature of the ultra-nationalist right, its medium-to-long-term plans, and its very location on the extreme right of the political spectrum are still subject to controversy. While not engaging directly with the debates surrounding the essence of fascism, this post focuses on some major genealogical links between several far right European parties and central facets of pre-1945 fascism.

First of all, it should be noted that the all too easy equation of the contemporary nationalist right with fascism has been rightly qualified by many eminent specialists, including Robert Paxton, whose seminal Anatomy of Fascism (2004) has opened up fresh perspectives on the subject. Continue reading

History for Children? Watching “Once Upon a Time… Man” as an Adult in the 21st Century

By Alban Bargain-Villéger

Gulli.fr

Gulli.fr

On a hot July night, while in the throes of insomnia, I found myself waxing nostalgic and decided to revisit my favourite childhood animated series. After watching a few episodes of Cobra and The Mysterious Cities of Gold (also fascinating animation series in their own right) I realized that Once Upon a Time… Man (Il était une fois… L’Homme) was available online. Over the next two weeks, as I kept working my way through the remaining episodes, I realized that not only was the series a product of its time (it was first released in 1978), but also not exclusively designed for children. Indeed, the analysis of the subjects covered and the narrative style might seem pedagogically incorrect in our day and age.

In twenty-six episodes, this French series covers world history from the prehistory to the 1970s and beyond, as the final installment ventures into predictions on the near and distant future (to 2150). Continue reading

Remote Silvertown Transforms Again

By Jim Clifford

Industrial Silvertown is not a standard tourist attraction in London, though in recent years thousands of people have peered down on the remaining factories from the Emirates Air Line cable cars as they descend toward Victoria Dock and the ExCel convention centre. It was nonetheless a really important region of heavy industrial development during the late nineteenth century and is again on the frontline of rapid development. Most waterfront property in East London, from the banks of the Thames to the Limehouse Cut canal and the Lower Lea, are undergoing redevelopment as glass towers transform urban landscape. This is not the first time waterfront property underwent rapid transformation, as many of London’s nineteenth century factories required access to rivers or canals to carry coal and other raw materials.

At the start of the nineteenth century Silvertown did not exist. It was simply the southern edge of Plaistow Level, a large marsh on the Essex side of the Lea River and well beyond the eastern edge of London’s outskirts in Poplar. The first Ordnance Survey for the region, from 1805, shows extensive marshlands from the Redriff Marsh that later became the Surrey Docks through to the Roding river and beyond. Industrial development, more docks and working class residential districts spread throughout much of these wetlands in the century that followed.

Ordnance Survey First Series, 1805

Ordnance Survey First Series, 1805

Continue reading

Literature and History: Michel Houellebecq’s Soumission and the Politics of Cultural Despair

By Alban BargainVilléger

864563Even today, literary fiction can still provide an ideal entry point into historical studies. Although this might seem like stating the obvious, one has to recognise that the increasing overspecialization of history as a discipline has hindered the ability and/or willingness of many historians to explore universes outside of their respective fields. Nonetheless, it is clear that some historians still consider themselves engaged intellectuals – Active History provides almost daily examples of such attempts to transcend the limits of historical study.

But in addition to reading and rereading classics (and non-classics), paying attention to present-day fiction can also help historicize the present. Now, for methodological and conceptual reasons, historians tend to let several decades pass before exploring a subject. These precautions stem from the unavailability of some archival materials and from the need for hindsight. That said, such precautions should not prevent historians thinking about our day and age, or engaging in intellectual exercises. In that regard, French author and contrarian intellectual Michel Houellebecq’s latest book, Soumission, constitutes an ideal guinea pig for an experiment of that type. Continue reading