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

1847 and 2010: Ugly Manifestations of the Macroeconomic Trilemma

By David Zylberberg

On January 25, 2015 Greece’s New Democracy government led by Antonis Samaras lost its bid for re-election. Meanwhile, its coalition partner, PASOK, received less than 5% of the vote, despite having been the largest party in recent decades and in government for over half of the last 40 years. They were voted out after presiding over the worst peace-time economic collapse ever in an advanced economy. The statistics are staggering and reflect great levels of both suffering and lost opportunity for a skilled generation of young adults. With an economy losing over a quarter of its capacity in six years, unemployment of 26%, youth unemployment over 50% and the emigration of many university graduates. Despite the colossal failure of their administration, it is hard to imagine that Messrs Samaras and Venizelos wanted so many young graduates to head for Melbourne or middle-aged adults scrounging through dumpsters for food.

In thinking about the causes of the current Greek suffering, I am reminded of an excellent paper given by Charles Read on the role of monetary policy in Irish Famine Relief in 1846-1848. As it is available online, I would highly recommend that people read it (the paper begins on page 73). Read effectively argues that the British government of the 1840s was a victim of the macroeconomic trilemma, whereby government policies are limited. For reasons connected to the dynamics of currency, the trilemma explains that governments are effectively limited to choosing any two of the following three policies: fixed exchange rates, free movement of capital and trade, and discretion over levels of spending. The British government of the mid-1840s was ideologically committed to fixed exchange rates through a gold standard and to free trade. Continue reading

The king in a car park: Digging up Richard III

By Daniel Ross

“Bloody thou art; bloody will be thy end.” Duchess of York, Act IV, Scene IV, Richard III

Not such a bad guy after all? Olivier as Richard III, 1955.

Not such a bad guy after all? Olivier as Richard III, 1955.

Shakespeare’s Richard III is one of fiction’s classic villains, a schemer who knocks off one family member after another on his way to the crown. Even his mother the Duchess would rather he was dead, and she gets her wish by the end of the play. King of England for just two years, Richard died at the battle of Bosworth Field in 1485, making him one of the last victims of the War of the Roses.

Opinions differ as to how nasty the historical Richard was, but it’s safe to say that, until recently, he hasn’t had a very positive cultural legacy (although he did make 82 of 100 in a 2002 poll of greatest Britons). That might be changing. In 2013 archaeologists digging under a parking lot in the English Midlands made international news when they claimed to have found the king’s remains. In this post, I take a look at Richard III´s extraordinary return to the public eye over the past two years: it’s a story about much more than archaeology and historical inquiry, as it turns out. Continue reading

Charlie Hebdo in Historical Context

By Geoff Read

Paris Rally in Support of the Victims of the Charlie Hebdo Shootings, 11 Jan 2015

Paris Rally in Support of the Victims of the Charlie Hebdo Shootings, 11 Jan 2015

One of the courses I teach at Huron University College is called “Current Crises in Historical Context,” wherein we use the tools of historical analysis to try to shed light on the origins of some of the crises confronting the world. This year we are looking at topics such as the Russian annexation of the Crimea, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and Global Warming.

With this course in mind, and particularly as an historian of modern France, I have been thinking a lot about the historical context of the Charlie Hebdo shootings in Paris on 7 January, and the murder of four customers at a Jewish grocery two days later. This seems to me to be a case that cries out for some historical analysis. Typical of such instances, while “History” can teach us a great deal, the answers it provides are complex and defy simple explanations for these violent outbursts. Continue reading

Who/What Really Is Charlie?

By Alban Bargain-Villéger

je-suis-charlieIn the wake of the January 7-9 attacks in France, millions of tweets, millions of demonstrators, thousands of heads of state, intellectuals, and celebrities of all kinds not only condemned the murders of seventeen people (including four as a result of an anti-Semitic hostage taking linked to the other shootings), but also praised Charlie Hebdo’s courage in fighting for freedom of the press. Overnight, the slogan “Je suis Charlie” thus became a rallying cry for free speech and the refusal to concede defeat to intolerance and terrorism. Canada was no exception to the rule, with numerous messages of support on Twitter and several rallies in major Canadian cities.

As a Frenchman born and raised, I could not help but feel simultaneously touched by and surprised at the wave of support for an extremely politically incorrect satirical newspaper. Continue reading

“We Are the People:” Nativism in Germany?

By Aitana Guia

PEGIDA Rally in Dresden, Fall 2014

PEGIDA Rally in Dresden, Fall 2014

On Mondays for the past 13 weeks, thousands of Germans have marched on Dresden declaring “Wir sind das Volk,” we are the people. Were it 1989 on the eve of the collapse of the Berlin Wall, these same protestors might have been those who delivered the message to the Communist government of the German Democratic Republic that its days were numbered. Instead the new menace, as these ordinary Germans see it, is not the power structure, a physical dividing line, or even a political ideology; it’s immigrants, especially Muslim immigrants.

During a televised address to the nation on New Year’s Eve, Chancellor Angela Merkel took the opportunity to criticize the emerging movement Patriotische Europäer Gegen die Islamisierung des Abendlandes (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West, PEGIDA). She told Germans that a resounding feature about their country was that “children of the persecuted can grow up here without fear” and asked them to ignore the calls of those who have “prejudice, coldness, and even hatred” in their hearts.

After various terrorist attacks in France in January 2015 that targeted the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, a kosher supermarket, and French police, and despite repeated calls by German politicians not to join the Islamophobic movement, PEGIDA’s rally in Dresden reached a record number of 25,000 attendees on Monday, January 12, 2015. Continue reading

Putin’s Lessons from History

By Andriy Zayarnyuk

Vladimir Putin answered journalists’ questions on the situation in Ukraine (Source: http://eng.kremlin.ru/news/6763)

Vladimir Putin answered journalists’ questions on the situation in Ukraine (Source: http://eng.kremlin.ru/news/6763)

Now that Vladimir Putin has acknowledged his responsibility for invading Ukraine in February 2013, finding out about his worldview is no longer a matter of mere curiosity. Putin’s statements of the last decade demonstrate that his thinking about Ukraine and Russia is deeply mired in history. Already in 2005, reminding the upper chamber of the Russian parliament of “how contemporary Russian history was born,” he called the collapse of the Soviet Union the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.” [1] The remarks that followed made it perfectly clear that “geopolitical” was not a slip of the tongue. He did not mean the imploding system of social security, post-Soviet economic decline, and people’s misery, reflected in plunging life expectancy. He meant exactly what he said: that the disappearance of the Soviet state’s borders was a disaster for the Russian nation per se.

Why was the disappearance of this particular border a disaster? According to Putin, it left “tens of millions of our fellow citizens and compatriots outside of the borders of the Russian territory.” [2] Apparently, he imagines that the Soviet Union was an exclusively Russian state. If the founding fathers and subsequent rulers of the USSR heard this statement, they would be spinning in their graves. The whole point of signing the Union treaty in 1922 was to create a federation of free and equal socialist nations, ending Russian oppression of other nationalities on the territories of the former Russian Empire. Continue reading

A Historian on Catalan Independence

Supporters of independence, 2012. Photo by Pere prlpz. Source: Wikipedia Commons.

Supporters of independence, 2012. Photo by Pere prlpz. Source: Wikipedia Commons.

By Aitana Guia

On November 9, 2014, hundreds of thousands of Catalans, perhaps millions, will print their own unofficial ballots and head to improvised polling stations to cast a vote for independence that nobody else but them will consider valid. Most Catalans opposed to independence will stay at home and lament growing political polarization. The result will be a resolute vote in favour of independence.

The Spanish government opposes a vote and argues that the best way to defend democratic rights and freedoms is to abide by the provisions of the 1978 Constitution. This Constitution, as a compromised product of the Transition to democracy, aimed at creating stability and thus requires absolute majority in the Spanish parliament to reform it. Even if all Catalan politicians were in favour of it, and they are not, they would never have enough parliamentary support to do it.

Pro-independence politicians and activists conveniently forget that all four Catalan provinces approved with high percentages of the popular vote the 1978 Constitution in a referendum and argue that democracy today demands acknowledging the right to self-determination for Catalonia, something completely outside of the scope of the Spanish constitution. They use the Spanish government’s immobility as a sign that Spain is today, as it has been for the last 300 years in their nationalist view, all about control by force and claim they are the only ones fighting for democratic rights and freedoms.

Catalan nationalism prides itself as a historically rooted, culturally vibrant, progressive movement. Continue reading

Feeling the City: Getting at the Historical Sights and Sounds of Downtown

10494144Like most of us humans—80% in Canada, more than 50% worldwide—my home is in the city. And like so many urbanites, I take a whole range of day-to-day sensations for granted. The screech of garbage trucks, the overheard conversations on public transit; the smells of street food and exhaust; the sight of thousands of other people going about their lives.

I’m used to the way the city plays to—and sometimes overwhelms—my senses, so much so that I tend not to notice it. Except, of course, when I’m thinking like an urban historian. Then, it’s hard to ignore that peoples’ different sensory experiences of urban life really matter to understanding the past. In today’s post, I want to talk about how the “feel of the city” has come up in my own research, why it matters, and what one innovative UK project is doing to record and interpret it. More…

‘1914-1918 In Memoriam': A View from the Grandstand

At the “In Memoriam” event , July 31st 2014: the speakers’ platform, seating for distinguished guests, and flags of Canada, its provinces, and territories.

At the “In Memoriam” event , July 31st 2014: the speakers’ platform, seating for distinguished guests, and flags of Canada, its provinces, and territories.

ActiveHistory.ca is featuring this post as the first piece for “Canada’s First World War: A Centennial Series on ActiveHistory.ca”, a multi-year series of regular posts about the history and centennial of the First World War. 

By Nathan Smith

A sizeable audience turned out for a First World War commemorative event held at the University of Toronto’s Varsity Stadium this past July 31st.  The grandstand was more than half full, so there were probably three thousands of us in attendance.  We crowded near the centre to best view the proceedings on Varsity’s (sadly) artificial turf.  Passing clouds occasionally filtered or blocked a setting sun, which  dropped below the horizon near the end of the event.  The beautiful evening light perfectly suited organizers’ plans.

“1914-1918 In Memoriam” was, as the Master of Ceremonies explained, held at sundown to echo the poetic hour given to mourning and remembrance, as in Binyon’s “For the Fallen”.  The event’s timing, we were told, also paralleled the last hours of peace a century ago.  On August 1st 1914 Russia went to war with Germany and Austria, which in three short days pulled in France and Britain, and much of the rest of the world.  I quibbled to myself that a war was already raging on July 31st 1914 between Austria-Hungary and Serbia, but admitted such details, and others I noted during the evening, were not really the point at an event such as this.  Unlike the “1914-1918: The Making of the Modern World” conference at the University of Toronto’s Munk School for Global Affairs that was tied to this public event, “In Memoriam” was about performing big, collective meanings for a general audience.

Continue reading