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 →
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.
Even 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 →
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 →
“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.
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 →
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 →
In 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 →
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 →
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.”  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.”  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 →
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 →