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Modern History

There is No War on Christmas

(not so) Happy Holidays!

There is hardly a Christmas in memory upon which there wasn’t a war waged—or, at least, so it seems if one is tuned into American right-wing media. According to Bill O’Reilly in 2004, as a part of a plot to banish religion from the public sphere and bring forth a ‘brave new progressive world’, liberals were banning religious floats from parades and calling Christmas trees ‘holiday’ trees instead. Similar (but fewer) complaints have been made in the U.K.—say, about the use of the phrase “Winterval” instead of Christmas.  But fear not, dear reader. The great and powerful Trump has singlehandedly won the war on Christmas by making it acceptable to say ‘Merry Christmas’ again—a phrase which, according to Trump,  was never uttered publicly during the Obama years.

In reality, however, the so called ‘War on Christmas’ doesn’t exist. It never has.

Now, don’t get me wrong—there has been (what historian Stephen Nussbaum called) a battle for Christmas for centuries: a fight over how Christmas is celebrated. As Earl Count points out, December celebrations originate from pagan festivals (like Zagmuk and Saturnalia) which date back at least two thousand years before Jesus would have been born. And during the 300s, Constantine tried to Christianize these celebrations by declaring 25th December (the sun god Sol’s birthday) to be Jesus’ birthday. But it never really worked; people forgot the pagan origins sure, but throughout the middle ages (what came to be known as) Christmas was celebrated in mainly pagan ways: with drinking, feasting, and sex. It was so debaucherous, in fact, that the Puritans banned the celebration of Christmas all together.

Now, thanks to people like Clement Clarke More, Charles Dickens, and Queen Victoria, Christmas did make a comeback in the early 1800s—but when it did, it was again as secular drunken celebration. Thanks to capitalism, however, it was quickly domesticated into a holiday about giving gifts to your children (and, later, to nearly everyone you know). And once it was popular again, Christianity renewed its efforts to ‘Christianize’ it.[1] But despite what we now call it, ‘Christmas’ has never been celebrated, primarily, as a religious holiday. Christians lost that battle.

Once Christmas was popular again, however, it was very useful for vilifying one’s enemies. In the 1920s, for example, the anti-Semite Henry Ford claimed that Jews were waging a war on Christmas in his anti-Semitic tract, ‘The International Jew.’ In 1959 it was the communists that were targeted. The right-wing conspiratorial John Birch Society claimed that ‘One of the techniques now being applied by the Reds to weaken the pillar of religion in our country is the drive to take Christ out of Christmas.’ And in 1999, it was right-wing pundit (and founder of the hate group VDare.com) Peter Brimelow complaining about liberals using phrases like ‘Happy Holidays’ and government Christmas parties being called ‘A Celebration of Holiday Traditions.’ Of course, the phrase ‘Happy Holidays’ is just a short way to reference all the holidays celebrated in December and January. It dates back to at least 1863, and was popular (and uncontroversial) in the ‘30s and ‘40s—especially after the song ‘Happy Holiday(s)appeared in the 1942 movie Holiday Inn. But today, it’s use is viewed as ‘political correctness gone mad.’

The idea that there is a liberal war on Christmas really took flight in 2005 with the publication of John Gibson’s book The War On Christmas: How The Liberal Plot To Ban The Sacred Christian Holiday Is Worse Than You Thought and with Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly becoming obsessed with the idea that December—and (along with Fox News) remaining obsessed with it pretty much every December since. But, in reality, none of the events that they saw as ‘shots across the bow’ in this war actually occurred.  As I point out in the second chapter of my book The Myths that Stole Christmas, religious floats were not being systematically banned from parades. No school in Plano, Texas banned the colors red and green during Christmastime. [2] Ridgeway Elementary School in Dodgeville, Wisconsin didn’t change the lyrics to ‘Silent Night’ to eliminate all references to religion.[3]  And while it’s true that Democratic Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee didn’t call the tree in the Rhode Island Statehouse a ‘Christmas tree’ in 2011, neither did the Republican governor Donald Carcieri from 2003 to 2010…and yet Fox News never made a peep.

It’s true, of course, that Walmart once encouraged (but did not require) its greeters to say ‘Happy Holidays’ (instead of ‘Merry Christmas’) because not all their customers celebrate Christmas. And there have been a number of lawsuits in response to courthouses or other government entities (like schools) putting up lone nativity scenes or otherwise favoring Christian ways of celebrating. But such actions do not constitute a war on Christmas. They are simply efforts to be more inclusive, and (in the latter cases) to protect against violations of the separation of church and state enshrined in the constitution. But there has never, ever, been any effort to make the celebration of Christmas, or the phrase ‘Merry Christmas’, illegal.

This, of course, hasn’t stopped people from trying to capitalize on the idea that there has. Rick Perry cited it as part of ‘Obama’s war on Religion’ in a 2010 campaign ad. Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich did something similar during the 2012 Republican campaign. And, of course, Donald Trump cited the ‘War on Christmas’ numerous times during his 2016 campaign. Indeed, he (and his family) have been taking a victory lap ever since (2017, 2018, 2019) by declaring that he ended the war by allowing everyone to say ‘Merry Christmas’ again. This is why, without any evidence at all, or any clarity about what he meant, Trump this year declared that liberals are now waging a war on Thanksgiving. Declaring that your political enemies are waging a war on things that are universally loved is just too useful for vilifying them.[4]

Before you fall for it, however, realize: in 2005, when he was raging about the liberal War on Christmas, Bill O’Reilly’s website was selling ‘holiday ornaments’ to hang on your ‘holiday tree’, and the Bush White House wished everyone a ‘Happy Holiday Season’ in their ‘holiday card.’ And today, despite all the rhetoric, Trump’s online store has a ‘holiday gift guide’, a ‘holiday collection’, and wishes people ‘Happy Holliday’s’ [sic], and avoids the term Christmas altogether. The same is true in Trump Tower, where the word ‘Christmas’ is nowhere to be found.

In reality, the only wars on Christmas that have ever been waged were waged by Christians, either to Christianize it (like Constantine) or shut it down (like the puritans). But just one look around this December will show that these wars were the most unsuccessful wars in all of history. [5] Not only is Christmas celebrated in mostly secular ways, but in our society (unlike in Trump Tower) Christmas is literally everywhere—taking over the calendar and our entire economy for over a month every year. If there was a war on Christmas…Christmas won.

David Kyle Johnson is Professor of Philosophy at King’s College (PA) and author of the book ‘The Myths that Stole Christmas: Seven Misconceptions that Hijacked that Holiday. His latest book, Black Mirror and Philosophy: Dark Reflections, is available now. You can find him on Twitter @kyle8425

[1] By, for example, falsely declaring Jesus to be the ‘reason for the season’.

[2] Other towns where this supposedly happened include Saginaw Township, Michigan and Orlando, Florida. None of the stories are true. All the schools in question proved as much by posting their guidelines online.

[3] In reality, a church choir director had changed the lyrics to make them easier for children to learn.

[4] Indeed, the stories that circulate about the war on Christmas are part of a larger, absolutely false, ‘Christian victimization narrative’ that tries to paint Christians as a persecuted minority.

[5] And the only causalities were these poor birds.

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Adolf Eichmann: Nazis in Popular Culture and the Trivialization of Historical Knowledge

Eichmann

As we mark the anniversary of the final ruling of the Eichmann trial on 15 December, it is counterintuitive that the personage of Adolf Eichmann grows in historical memory and public prominence with each passing year. In the past year, one can count one major Hollywood film, one large travelling museum exhibit and one role in a hit television series. It brings to mind Stanley Kubrick’s immortal words about Schindler’s List: ‘Think that’s about the Holocaust? That was about success, wasn’t it? The Holocaust is about 6 millions people who get killed. Schindler’s List is about 600 who don’t.’

The Holocaust saw the largest continental European power use all of its resources and approximately 250,000 of its own people (the estimate commonly cited for those directly involved in murder) to attempt to kill 11 million European Jews. It is not believed that Adolf Eichmann killed any single solitary individual himself. As a lieutenant colonel, his level of leadership in the Nazi hierarchy was distinctly second tier. Others, such as Gestapo Chief Heinrich Müller, who remains the only top Nazi never confirmed captured or dead, are largely forgotten. This strange turn of events could be read as an unintended consequence of the Eichmann trial itself, engineered by David Ben Gurion as the first public pedagogical exercise in global Holocaust education. Instead of the Eichmann case shining a light on the inner workings of genocide, the spotlight simply looped back on the man himself.

The recent Eichmann upsurge also makes sense for a contemporary moment when the repressed demons of fascism are returning worldwide. This illiberal wave coincides with both the passing of the last living generation that directly experienced the Second World War as well as the firm establishment of Nazi symbolism as a part of global popular culture. The proliferation of Nazi motifs in video games, fantasy, anime and internet memes are too widespread to begin to count. This does not signify a deepening of Holocaust education and awareness but rather a trivialization of historical knowledge and awareness.

Eichmann as a pop-culture meme makes a certain degree of sense as his story uniquely captures the ‘horror show’ and ‘fantastical’ aspects of the Holocaust. Forever linked to Hannah Arendt’s immortal phrase ‘banality of evil’, firmly embedded in pop philosophy, Eichmann illustrates what one might call the Hannibal Lecter school of genocidal psychopathology. By appearances respectable, even learned, Eichmann could almost seem like a petty bourgeois family man (as portrayed by Ben Kingsley in 2018’s Operation Finale) but for the frightful rage that neurotically flashes out.[1]

Seemingly analogous to the misread short-hand version of Arendt’s interpretation, observers have often failed to consider her work as part of a larger oeuvre.  When considered in tandem with her Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt meant that genocide was a product of modernity. Not that the murders were not murderous but rather that the atomization, differentiation and anxiety of modern social structures were factors within modern societies that could lead to genocide. The threat lies within a bourgeois European modernity which merely brought home to Europe, albeit in a more condensed and radicalized form with Nazism, what it had been doing under the guise of colonialism for decades elsewhere.

This image of Eichmann flatters bourgeois self-regard, and even perpetuates deceptive mechanisms used by the Nazis to such great effect during the war. The Nazis portrayed themselves as defending European civilization from barbaric half-Asiatic hordes. As George Mosse put it, theirs was a ‘bourgeois anti-bourgeois revolution’, a rescue operation for bourgeois normality, a task at which diffident liberals had proved themselves woefully ill-equipped. Who can oppose happy, healthy people, and a society cleansed of all disturbing elements?[2]

The second major recent depiction of Adolf Eichmann, in the Amazon series Man in the High Castle (based on the novel by Philip K. Dick) links to what could be called the ‘parallel universe’ theory of genocide etiology. The series involves a fictional premise that the Nazis obtained nuclear weapons which they then used to bomb the United States into submission.[3] Subsequently, they divide the Western Hemisphere along with their Japanese allies, leaving a small buffer zone in-between. Eichmann emerges as the chief planner of a massive invasion of the Japanese states via carpet-bombing to destroy all vital west-coast infrastructure.

The Eichmann here is robust with a Nazi-style high and tight haircut, and seems to have evolved into some futuristic Nazi warrior. The show’s depiction aligns with the main terms of the critique of Arendt put forth by Cesarini, Ezorsky and others. It is claimed that Arendt was duped by Eichmann’s self-minimization and that he was actually an impassioned mass murderer and not a bureaucrat whose perpetrator status was confined to clerical work. The cartoon-like Eichmann in the television series is even a military mastermind beset with fantasies of destruction on a continental scale. Hinted at here is the notion that the Nazis were some kind of alien supermen that mysteriously inhabited the bodies of a few million Austro-Germans and then disappeared into the ether in May 1945.[4] This transformational metamorphosis serves again to bolster self-confidence that the Nazis really came from some parallel universe. The common ground here is that both depictions take as their starting point the unprepossessing ‘everyman quality’ in Eichmann’s appearance.

The Holocaust as the uncanny at the heart of European civilization is mirrored in the uncanny of Eichmann who does indeed seem like one of any number of anonymous middle-aged office workers. There is an unspoken assumption of a certain kind of Eurocentricity behind the idea of what is normative and bourgeois. And indeed, one of the more persistent debates among historians is whether or not Nazism and the Holocaust emerged out of a deformation of a specific European process of modernization. For some this has even emerged as a disciplinary fault line between Holocaust and Genocide Studies.[5]

The ‘memification’ of Nazis in pop culture risks substituting historical understanding for the short-cuts of trivialization. A greater risk that hits closer to home among scholars is the profound, if subterranean survival of National Socialist narratives among a more learned and informed audience. To offer a couple of brief examples, though not as widespread as a generation ago, the terms Anschluss and Kristallnacht are still routinely deployed in pedagogical settings.[6] Both are products of a Nazi media-management and propaganda machine so subtle and devious that it persists after the original cover-up. The deception of the nomenclature here is so complete that no successive English language scholastic term has come to usurp its place in the vocabulary of the subject. Very similar issues persist with regard to the so-called ‘Euthanasia’ program.[7]

The canny use of aesthetics by the Nazis from their uniforms designed by Hugo Boss to the eye catching use of banners now seems tailor made for posterity and for co-option into popular culture. Their design strategies drew upon ideals of beauty that quickly found a direct road into the cerebral cortex. Baroque theatrics possessed a seductive power whose spell has not been fully broken. It is all the more incumbent to present new and compelling methods and means of conveying the traumatic horror perpetrated by these minions.

The Eichmann trial was the first major exercise in global Holocaust education. Especially when considering how wildly reception of these events varies around the world, it is imperative to keep the unique reality front and centre. Hitler was not just one of dozens of military strong men dictators but the author of death factories which meant graveyards in the air for millions as their bodies were cremated, the same air we all breathe on this small planet.

Yet there is still so much more to know. To provide an additional instance, how many people think of the role of nurses in the Third Reich, whose arms may have coddled a small child whose defects the nurse received monetary gain to report. Any number of nurses continued to hold such babies as lethal poison was injected into their tiny arms.

Let us not exchange the ‘indigestible gap’ in modern history that challenges comprehension and requires in-depth research for pop tokenism and cultural commodification, as embodied by the popular images of Eichmann.

Adam J. Sacks holds an MA and PhD in history from Brown University and an MS in education from the City College of the City University of New York. He is currently a Lecturer in the Faculty of History in the University of Hong Kong and is working on the development of Jewish Studies and Holocaust Studies curriculum for that institution.

[1] The film derives much of its momentum as a Cold War spy thriller narrative, which, like a recent exhibit that focuses on the Mossad angle, is more of a sensational conceit than a substantive new historical angle.

[2] It is well documented that Nazi Generals in particular, Franz Halder most famously, with the aid of their American handlers were quite adept at modifying Nazi propaganda into a carefully crafted post-war narrative that fit the Cold War like a glove. Nazis were just ‘pre-mature’ anti-communists.

[3] Historically, the Nazis were never even close to reaching criticality for chain reactions and had their heavy water depots in Norway destroyed by the Allies.

[4] This premise is wholeheartedly endorsed by Goldhagen’s ‘Hitler’s Willing Executioners’, in the sense that Goldhagen found post-war Germany magically cleansed of its historical eliminationist antisemitism.

[5] I was surprised when taking a poll among my students in Hong Kong, on the question of ‘how does one become a murderer?’ I asked whether they found themselves more convinced by Goldhagen’s emphasis on a culturally specific ideology of hatred or Browning’s more impersonal forces of social pressure, and they overwhelmingly chose the latter.

[6] Anschluss (in German literally meaning connections, whether social, electrical or telephonic) is used for the Nazi take-over of Austria and Kristallnacht (literally ‘crystal night’ as in fine glass, and incidentally also a part of the name of a very popular beer in Germany) refers to the ‘Night of Broken Glass’, a pogrom against the Jewish population carried out on 9-10 November 1938.

[7] The use of ‘euthanasia’ itself, which literally means ‘good death’ in the Greek, is particularly perverse. This is an instance where even the standard scholarly alternative ‘T4’ is itself directly borrows the Nazi’s deceptive code language used at the time.

Cover image: Adolf Eichmman during the trial, 1961.

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Thirty Years After the Fall of the Berlin Wall: Is Germany Still a Divided Nation?

West_and_East_Germans_at_the_Brandenburg_Gate_in_1989

In 1989, as the Berlin wall fell, Willy Brandt made the somewhat rash prediction that the two halves of Europe belong together and would now grow together. The Cold War represented a frozen dynamic in which everything was subordinated to the needs of a bipolar world order. For Germany, this had meant that the period from 1945 to 1989 also froze its own national dynamic into glacial stasis. There was movement within this stasis but it was so slow to the naked eye that it appeared that nothing could ever change. What the Cold War also did, however, was to gloss over the fact that the two halves of Europe, and with them the two halves of Germany, were not one country in some sort of suspended animation, but were historically fundamentally different anyway. East Germany was not simply a hidden bit of West Germany waiting for the wall to fall but had its own history and trajectory. Most importantly, the history of East Germany reached back much further than 1945.

Konrad Adenauer, the first Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany, had always been suspicious of Prussia and areas east of the Elbe. This was a position he had taken already in the 1920s and even as early as 1918 he had argued that western Germany and France should come together in a Rhineland league as defence against the Prussian Behemoth.  Given that by 1947 the decision was made in Washington and Moscow to divide Germany not only into zones of occupation but states in themselves, it is no surprise that Adenauer became what Kurt Schumacher of the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) called “Chancellor of the Allies”. Adenauer did everything he could to prevent a new unification of East and West Germany, all the while protesting that German unity was his highest priority.

It is often forgotten, for example, that Schumacher and the SPD saw the division of Germany as the division of the German working-class too. What it also did was divide the confessional make up of Germany. If Germany had been united in 1949 then Protestant voters influenced heavily by East German Protestant parties (not to mention the Nazis) would have been demographically in the majority.

The splitting of Germany meant that West Germany had a majority of Catholic voters who tended to look west to the Rhineland or south to Rome for their ideological affiliations. The East German Communist Party, the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED), looked East and to Moscow for their ideological underpinnings. By the 1970s, when Erich Honecker took over the leadership of Party and state, the transition to an officially loyal Eastern bloc country was complete. This turn to the Soviet and the Brezhnev social contract was complemented by a re-Prussianisation of the German Democratic Republic. In that same constitution, any reference to Germany as a single nation, which had been present in the 1949 and 1968 constitutions, was removed. They even went as far as banning the words of the national anthem because they talked of German unity:

Risen up from under ruins

Turned to face the future land,

Let us serve you for the better,

Germany, united fatherland.

What is more, Johannes Becher had composed the lyrics so that they could be sung to the tune of what has become the German national anthem, composed by Haydn and Fallersleben. The state and the Party became ever more closely enmeshed and offered absolute social security, full employment (especially for women), and even the outlawing of unemployment as a concept. In return for this security came greater repression, an increased role for the Stasi in its operations against any dissent and a marginalisation of opposition forces. East Germany became a society fully infused with the rule of the Party.

The problem, as with all Soviet bloc parties, was that they had no political legitimacy. The thing that characterised East Germany under Honecker was the absolute primacy of politics over economic considerations. Buying off the working class is always an expensive business and a hyper-centralised system of political control over economic development led to intrinsic inefficiencies. The fulfilment of plans laid down by the central authorities became much more important than efficient production and distribution. Whatever the weaknesses of a market economy may be – and there are certainly many – in competition with a centrally planned system in which the primacy of politics ruled supreme, it was clear by the mid-1980s which system was stronger.

Thus, perestroika (or economic restructuring) was actually far more important than glasnost (democratic openness) and Gorbachev’s reforms were at base about making the Soviet economy more efficient and responsive to market demands. In many ways, China has had the perestroika without the glasnost, reintroducing market imperatives backed up by the absolute authority of state and Party. But East Germany too had a restructuring of the economy forced upon it by marketisation coming from the West after 1989. Almost all leading positions in the East are still occupied by West Germans and the resentments of the East are in part a response to this sense of living under “occupation”. Paradoxically, the main leaders of the populist movement in eastern Germany Gauland, Höcke et al are themselves West Germans who have shifted east in order to lead what they call the “completion of the revolution (Wende)” of 1989.

The problems facing eastern Germany 30 years after the fall of the Wall are multi-layered and complex:

  1. East Germany was always a different country.
  2. Socio-economic resentment against the West plays a significant role in a “what has West Germany ever done for us?“ discourse (apart from the 2 trillion Euros that has flowed from West to East).
  3. The primacy of economics over political considerations, though much weaker than in China, stands in stark contrast to SED rule.
  4. Demographic change as young people, especially women, move west has exacerbated the sense that it is region “left behind”.
  5. AfD populist voters therefore tend to be mostly male and mostly those who spent their childhood in the GDR.
  6. Ostalgie (left-wing nostalgia for the GDR) has now become Nostalgie (right-wing nostalgia for an as yet ill-defined past German nation).

In short, it is unlikely that the tensions between East and West Germany will be resolved in the near future. Germany has always been a country of uncertain borders and shifting cleavages and we may have to face the fact that the two halves of Europe are not growing back together quite as easily as Brandt hoped.

Peter Thompson is Reader Emeritus in German at the University of Sheffield specialising in the post-war history of the GDR and German unification. He founded The Centre for Ernst Bloch Studies at Sheffield in 2008, and was co-editor with Slavoj Zizek of The Privatization of Hope: Ernst Bloch and the Future of Utopia (2013).

Cover image: West and East Germans at the Brandenburg Gate, Berlin, 1989.

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Can a single piece of material culture represent the American experience of the Great Depression?

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Exhibitions as a genre rely on representational history; they rely on an object or a constrained collection to represent a much larger set of ideas. Following my study of exhibitions on the Great Depression, I have at times been asked if there is a single object, person, image or event that might best represent the American experience of the Great Depression. The 90th anniversary of the Wall Street Crash, a key event in the onset of the Depression, seems a fitting occasion to once again reflect on this question. My answer is yes, but the object is not one that anyone expects and it is not one that I’ve ever actually found in an exhibition on the Great Depression.

When the National Museum of American History was being renovated (2006-2008) the Smithsonian Institution staged a ‘Treasures’ exhibition. Within that exhibition, the case on the Great Depression held Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother, the radio mic from Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s ‘Fireside Chats’, and substitute currency made of shells. Certainly a strong argument could be made for either of the first two iconic objects taking on the mantle of THE Depression-era material/visual culture.

Radios have been a regular, almost omnipresent inclusion in the exhibitions on the Depression that I’ve analysed, and with good reason. Radios can be used to interpret a range of narratives for museum audiences.  For example, during the Great Depression, radio was the conduit for reassurances sought and offered through the ‘Fireside Chats’ and the soap operas alike. The popularity of shows such as Amos’n’Andy, in which stereotypical black characters were played by white actors in a form of audio blackface, provides insight into the racism inherent in American society at the time.  But within an exhibition a radio must be turned on or explained to fully convey its power. It lacks the silent gravitas of the FSA photographs.

So perhaps Lange’s Migrant Mother is a better choice. Certainly it is a recognizable, emotional Depression moment captured by a skilled artist, who, at the time, was employed by one of the largest federal relief efforts in history. Yet even Migrant Mother and the other FSA images come laden with the weight of decades of being repurposed, reframed, recut.

There is a strong argument that rather than adopting a single iconic object, it is better to embrace the juxtaposition found in the best exhibitions and the dialectic between objects: a photograph, a radio broadcast, a soup-kitchen kettle, plans from a New Deal housing project, a union badge, a Federal Theatre playbill, a copy of the Grapes of Wrath or Tobacco Road. All of these have been used in combination to great effect in various exhibitions on the era.  Yet, despite the fact that it is yet to appear in any exhibition I have visited, I believe there remains one potential object that more fully captures America during the Great Depression.

Conducting the research on museum exhibitions involved travelling from California to Michigan, to New York, to Washington D.C., to Seattle.  All these flights, bus rides and train trips in turn spawned numerous brief conversations with temporary travelling companions. The exchanges usually began with “What brings you to…?” Upon hearing mention of the Great Depression, a surprising number related that their grandmother, or uncle, or next-door-neighbor had lived through the Depression, and for years afterward kept an ever-growing ball of string. Small pieces were collected and preserved, with little concern to color or weave, as insurance against some ill-defined, ill-articulated future disaster.

As bad a crisis as the Great Depression proved to be, for the majority of Americans, it did not result homelessness, or breadlines, or a job with WPA. But it did entail a pervasive sense  of uncertainty and vulnerability and a fear that one could be next. Even as the crisis seemed to ebb, there was a fear that the effects could spread further and devour those homes, those workplaces, as yet untouched. These balls of twine, hidden in kitchen pantries and workbench drawers are the material culture of the lasting effects of uncertainly, of fear, of exposure to risk and of attempts, however small, to mitigate that exposure.  As such, even more than the radio, or the FSA images or a hundred other powerful objects, these are quintessential objects of the American experience of the Great Depression.

Dr Meighen Katz’s research interests include urban history, architectural conservation, built heritage, transgressive women & visual culture.  Currently a Heritage Assessments Advisor for Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga, she formerly served as the Ian Potter Museum of Art Grimwade Curator, and lectured at several universities in Melbourne, Australia. Her book, Narratives of Vulnerability in Museums (Routledge) was published in 2019.

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The (Un)knowability of Jews in Britain: Discourses from State and Sitcom in 1965

Warren_Mitchell

Last week’s news story about a Labour councillor suggesting that Rachel Riley might cause ‘another Jo Cox moment’ through her campaigning against antisemitism in the Labour Party, is just the latest in a series of incidents that has led to increased concern for the individual and communal safety of British and European Jewry in the wake of increasing populism. This brings to mind other historical moments when Jews and Jewishness have been implicated in discourses around broader political issues.

There is an uncertainty then, not only for Jews but about Jews and Jewishness. The Polish-Jewish philosopher Zygmunt Baumann once commented that the central element of the relationship between Jew and Gentile in Modern Europe was not antisemitism but allosemitism: the belief that, no matter what else the Jews were, they were fundamentally, irrevocably, different, defying the modern idée fixe of categorisation and compartmentalisation. 1

This idea of Jewish ‘otherness’ has manifested itself in the unlikeliest of places as my research into the debates around the Race Relations Act 1965 and contemporary situation comedies has shown. Even in the context of the British State purportedly seeking to mitigate the effects of ‘difference’ there is evidence to show that the Jews simply did not ‘fit’.

In introducing the Race Relations Bill 1965, then Home Secretary Frank Soskice commented that:

It is certainly the intention of the government that people of the Jewish faith should be covered […] [they] would have an origin which many people would describe as an ethnic if not a racial one. 2

There are several elements worth unpicking in this short quotation. Not only does Soskice first define the Jews theologically (going against the terms of the Bill which did not include religion as a legitimate ground for protection); he then goes on to problematise this seemingly unambivalent definition by identifying the Jews both ethnically and racially: neither of which are defined in any substantive terms.

Perhaps more importantly, Soskice simultaneously marks British Jewry as different—‘people of the Jewish faith should be covered’ [my emphasis]—and either dilutes or outright revokes their agency in determining what defines them as a group—‘an origin which many people would describe…’. Sadly, these are discourses that regularly appear throughout these seemingly well-intentioned Acts which, when analysed through the lens of Jewishness, come to be seen as more problematic than originally thought: as an operation of power rather than of protection.

That Soskice was even compelled to make such a pronouncement however, demonstrates the uncertainty with which the Jews and Jewishness were held in Britain in 1965. It was far from a truth universally acknowledged that the Jews were ‘different’ enough to warrant inclusion among Britain’s racial minorities: and yet it was the experiences of the Jews under the dominion of Nazism that largely structured the Race Relations Act 1965.

What is remarkable, given this uncertainty about their applicability, is the lack of consideration Jews were given in the context of the Race Relations Act. The above quote from Soskice is typical of the brevity with which the Jewish example, with all its complexity, was disposed of within the debates of 1965. The Jews were ‘different’—that much was clear—, but no MP could quite pin down why.

This lack of consideration was not, however, total, within the public sphere of 1965. The ‘difference’ of Jews was given a degree of assessment, its complexity explored and the agency of British Jews in constructing and contesting it reinstated, through the rantings of an unpleasant, vicious bigot from East End docks: Till Death Us Do Part’s Alfred Edward Garnett.

The monstrous creation of Johnny Speight, Alf (played by Warren Mitchell) has been rightly vilified for his views and the influence they had on lending confidence to increasingly vitriolic rhetoric on the political right. Yet, as with the Race Relations Act, reading this social realist situation comedy through the lens of Jewishness throws up surprising results.

Alf is a Jewish character. The fourth episode of the first series, ‘Intolerance’ (tx. 27 June 1966), contains an extended discussion between Alf and his son-in-law Mike (played by Tony Booth) in which Jewishness plays a central role:

Mike   –    How would you like it if I called you a Yid?

Alf       –    What are you talking about Yid? I ain’t a Yid!

[…]

Mike   –    Your grandfather’s name was Solly Diamond.

[…]

Mike   –    There’s nothing to be ashamed of being Jewish.

Alf       –    I am not Jewish!

Mike   –    Look at your hooter! That’s a right kosher conk you’ve got there!

This short exchange, part of a conversation that continues throughout the episode, offers up a number of elements for analysis within the context of race relations. It is notable that Mike brings up Alf’s supposed Jewishness in response to a particularly nasty outburst from Alf about his black GP, Dr Chingala. Jewishness is thus connected to a discussion of race relations and a Jewish man subjecting someone to race-based hatred is constructed as something ironic. Alf’s supposed ‘difference’ is utilised as a means of silencing his commentary on supposed black ‘difference’.

The ability of Jewishness to disrupt modern categories is also explored here. Mike, supposedly a bastion of progressiveness simultaneously ameliorates Dr Chingala’s ‘otherness’ and reinforces Alf’s: insisting that he has ‘nothing to be ashamed of’ in being Jewish. Alf, by contrast, who positions himself politically on the right, is far more concerned with the sublimation of his Jewishness.

The discussion of the Jewish nose provokes a great deal of laughter from the audience. While this reaction might be viewed as reifying Jewish ‘otherness’, the audience that day was, in fact, largely made up of Mitchell’s friends and associates in London’s Jewish community. Following the programme Speight, unsure of whether the audience had been ‘in on the joke’ asked them and received an affirmative reply alongside congratulations on his satirical work. 3

Speight’s comedy, when explored through the lens of Jewishness, problematises the ‘difference’ and to an extent, the ‘sameness’ of Jews. It offers a self-reflexive exploration of Jewishness lacking in parliamentary discussions of the period that were largely a matter of domestic expediency.

Christopher S. Byrne

Christopher S. Byrne is a PhD student at Southampton University’s Parkes Institute for the Study of Jewish/non-Jewish Relations. His research analyses the UK Race Relations Acts 1965–76 and compares them to contemporary situation comedies to explore the ways in which Jews and Jewishness were constructed and contested in 1960s and 1970s Britain.

Notes:

  1. Zygmunt Bauman, ‘Allosemitism: Premodern, Modern, Postmodern’, in Modernity, Culture and ‘the Jew’ ed. Bryan Cheyette & Laura Marcus (Stanford: Stanford U. P., 1998), 143–56.
  2. Hansard, HC, 3 May 1965, vol. 711 c. 932.
  3. Mark Ward, A Family at War: The Unofficial and Unauthorised Guide to Till Death Us Do Part (Tolworth: Telos, 2008), 76–77.
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Apologise for Amritsar? Violence and Memory on the Centenary of the Massacre

The wall with bullet holes at Jallianwala Bagh

Saturday just gone (13th April) marked the one-hundredth anniversary of the Amritsar Massacre. On this day in 1919, thousands of Indians from the city and its environs descended upon the Jallianwala Bagh, a public space, to celebrate the Sikh festival of Baisakhi, to attend a political meeting in the context of Gandhi’s Rowlatt satyagraha, or simply to rest and relax in the Bagh. The British commander in charge of the local army garrison, General Reginald Dyer, had earlier issued orders prohibiting public gatherings and imposing a curfew on the city. Considering the gathering a direct contravention of his orders, Dyer determined to disperse the meeting with force. Without any forewarning, Dyer’s troops opened fire upon this peaceful and unarmed group of men, women and children. After more than ten minutes of slow, deliberate firing, official figures suggest 379 people lay dead (other estimates are much higher), with three times that number wounded.

The Amritsar Massacre has come to occupy a prominent place in any litany of the violent excesses of British imperialism. At the time, Dyer’s actions were criticised by some (but not all) in Britain as an outright betrayal of British values. Most famously, in July 1920, Churchill recalled what happened as ‘a monstrous event, an event which stands in singular and sinister isolation … Such ideas are absolutely foreign to the British way of doing things’.

Today, centenary activities have principally coalesced around demands for the current British government to issue an official apology, with debates on this issue in the Lords back in February and in the Commons last Tuesday. This reflects larger, ongoing concerns about how best to contend with Britain’s imperial legacy. Ahead of the debate in the Commons a Foreign and Commonwealth Office spokesperson revisited Churchill’s speech, in tones that were reminiscent of David Cameron’s visit to Amritsar in February 2013.

Whilst stopping short of an apology, Cameron expressed ‘deep regret’, drawing upon Churchill’s speech to both condemn the massacre and attempt to recover Britain’s reputation as a benevolent influence upon the world. Both Churchill’s and Cameron’s depictions have been informed by a narrative of exceptionalism, in which British colonial rule is portrayed as kinder and gentler than that practised by other European powers. In these accounts, Dyer’s actions are an aberration, abhorrent to the strong moral basis upon which the empire was built.

In reality, however, Amritsar was no exception, but the most well known example of the ordinariness of colonial violence in British India. Invoking such banality is not to suggest that we should take this violence for granted. Doing so can reduce us to simply reconstructing history for its own sake, rather than reflecting on how events and actions were experienced and justified at the time. At the same time this is not an attempt to excuse what happened, but to better understand the motivations behind such actions.

Rather than focus on the ways in which the massacre subsequently electrified Indian anti-colonial nationalism of various ideological hues and methods, Kim Wagner’s recent book has emphasised the continuities of colonial rule in the violence of 1919. Invoking ‘the spectre of the “Mutiny”’ of 1857, Wagner has revealed how a particular and recurring ‘colonial mindset’ was shaped by the contradiction between ‘white power and white vulnerability’. In fact, Dyer’s actions reflected a common desire to ‘keep up appearances’ and avoid ‘losing face’, in the context of a pervasive and imagined anxiety about the latent threat of ‘native rebellion’.

Whether we end up with a formal apology or not, we can be certain that the massacre will continue to figure on any roll call of British colonial violence. This owes much to the consistent depiction of Amritsar and other colonial massacres as exceptional events. However, such interpretations ultimately deserve much closer and more careful scrutiny, in view of both the inescapability of colonial violence and the shared pressures and apprehensions that informed it.

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Oliver Godsmark is Lecturer in History at the University of Derby. His research considers citizenship, democracy and territory in late colonial and early postcolonial India. He has considered these issues in his recent monograph and in articles in South Asia and Modern Asian Studies.

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