European Modern History

Mr. Jones: Rediscovering the Remarkable Journalism of Gareth Jones


‘I don’t have an agenda, unless you call truth an agenda.’  So says James Norton as the titular character in the trailer for the new film Mr. Jones.  A line that might seem to connote dramatic hyperbole is actually admirable testament to the extraordinary career of Gareth Jones, a Welsh journalist whose life was tragically cut short in August 1935 on a reporting visit to China.

After serving as private secretary to former Prime Minister David Lloyd George, Jones became a reporter at the Western Mail in Cardiff.  A talented linguist, in early 1933 he was on hand in Germany to record Hitler’s rise to the chancellorship, and the story of Mr. Jones focuses on his travels in the Soviet Union in March 1933, where he discovered the extent of famine conditions in the Ukraine that resulted in an estimated death toll of between five and seven million.[1]

Western eyes had been opened to the Soviet Famine of 1932-33 by the reports of Malcolm Muggeridge that were published in the Manchester Guardian on 25, 27 and 28 March.  Jones himself returned to Berlin on 29 March and issued his own press release.  His depiction of life in the Ukraine was bleak: ‘Everywhere was the cry, “There is no bread; we are dying.”’[2]

Jones went further by attacking the complicity of the Soviet regime, recounting a train journey where he gave short shrift to the denials of a local Communist:  ‘I flung into the spittoon a crust of bread I had been eating from my own supply.  The peasant, my fellow-passenger, fished it out and ravenously ate it.  I threw orange peel into the spittoon.  The peasant again grabbed and devoured it.  The Communist subsided.’[3]

In making his case – he reported that the Soviet state had brought Russia ‘to the worst catastrophe since the famine of 1921’ – Jones refused to play the game that underpinned the work of Western journalists in Moscow.   Shockingly, however, this marked Jones out as a target for these same journalists.

Jones’s exposé occurred at the same time as the Metropolitan-Vickers trial, where six British engineers were arrested on inflated charges of espionage.  Eager for the story, Western journalists dared not jeopardise the favour of the Soviet regime.  Walter Duranty, played as a servile character in the film by Peter Sarsgaard, was English by birth and the doyenne of the press community as the Moscow correspondent for the New York Times, and he led efforts to discredit Jones.  His own report, ‘Russians Hungry But Not Starving’, shrugged off the scale of death and deprivation, claiming with semantic sophistry, ‘There is no actual starvation or deaths from starvation but there is widespread mortality from diseases due to malnutrition’.[4]

The attacks on Jones were a combination of ideological apologia, journalistic self-interest, and unfortunate timing.  The Metropolitan-Vickers trial provided short-term leverage for the Soviets that was exploited by Konstantin Umansky, head of the Press Department of the Commissariat for Foreign Affairs.  At a celebration for Eugene Lyons, United Press correspondent in Moscow, a collective decision was taken over snacks and a ready supply of vodka to hang Jones out to dry.[5]

Jones’s revelations were somewhat dwarfed by this weight of denial.  He replied to Duranty directly in the New York Times on 13 May 1933, calling his fellow journalists ‘masters of euphemism and understatement’.[6]  But in this situation, Duranty’s seniority was a trump card; after all, he was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in April 1932 for his Soviet coverage.  The citation commended his reports as ‘marked by scholarship, profundity, impartiality, sound judgement and exceptional clarity’.[7]

Mystery surrounded Jones’s death in China on the day before his thirtieth birthday, with some suggestions that the Soviet state was implicated.  This tragedy has been extended by the relative loss of Jones to posterity.  He may have featured in Muggeridge’s satire on ‘fellow travellers’ and Western press correspondents, Winter in Moscow, as Wilfred Pye – Jones’s report about the orange peel is replicated almost verbatim – but it is more likely that Muggeridge simply fleshed out Pye’s narrative with Jones’s experiences.

It is fitting that, some eighty-five years since his death, Mr. Jones presents a wider audience with the story of Gareth Jones.  In an age of ‘fake news’ and when we doubt (often with just cause) the press’ role as the Fourth Estate, we could do with a few more reminders of the bravery of journalists for whom truth is their only agenda.

Dr David Vessey is Teaching Associate in Modern History at the University of Sheffield. David’s research focuses on modern British political history, specifically the corresponding fortunes of the Labour and Liberal parties, and newspaper history in the twentieth century. He has recently finished a project on political engagement, the press and the suffragettes in Edwardian Britain, which will result in two journal articles in 2020. He is currently researching British press narratives of the Soviet Union in the Stalinist era. You can find David on Twitter @DavidCVessey.

Cover image: A memory plaque at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth, erected in 2006 by Ukrainian organizations to commemorate Jones’s deeds., [Accessed 27 January 2020].

[1] Stephen Oleskiw, The Agony of a Nation: The Great Man-Made Famine in Ukraine, 1932-1933 (London: The National Committee to Commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the Artificial Famine in Ukraine 1932-1933, 1983), pp. 54-5.

[2] Manchester Guardian, 30 March 1933, p. 12.

[3] Ibid.

[4] S. J. Taylor, Stalin’s Apologist: Walter Duranty, the New York Times’s Man in Moscow (Oxford, 1990), p. 207.

[5] Marco Carynnyk, ‘Making the News Fit to Print: Walter Duranty, the New York Times and the Ukrainian Famine of 1933’ in Roman Serbyn and Bohdan Krawchenko (eds.), Famine in Ukraine, 1932-1933 (Edmonton, 1986), pp. 76-7.

[6] Taylor, Stalin’s Apologist, p. 208.

[7] Robert Conquest, The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivisation and the Terror-Famine (London, 1986), p. 320.

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Why did the Finnish Prime Minister Resign?: Tripartite Labour Market Relations in Historical Context

Finland TUPO Agreement

Finnish labour market negotiations for the year 2020 have started out messily.[1] So far, the most significant result has been the resignation of the Social Democrat (SDP)-led cabinet on December 3rd over the prime minister’s role in the Posti (the state-owned postal service) labour relations debacle. While this turn of events led to Sanna Marin becoming the youngest PM in the world to much fanfare, it also highlighted the decades long struggle between employers’ associations (now the Confederation of Finnish Industries EK), employee unions (industrial labour union SAK being the most important), and the government over labour market policies.

Most Finnish academic labour market literature – whether economic, sociological, or historical in nature – is only available in Finnish or Swedish. In this short post I will set the Finnish labour market system in its historical context, to help explain the longer history behind recent events. The analysis is based on our research team’s recent work on Finnish labour market history.[2]

Finland has a history of labour market compromises and tripartism stretching back to the Second World War. The relationship between employers and employees was forged out of necessity. The war with the Soviet Union (1939–40, 1941–1944) and the ensuing war reparations (1944–1952) led to increased state control of markets and a technocratic industrial policy system, wherein labour market associations collaborated with the government in building a Nordic welfare state.

Early tripartist efforts gave way to a fully negotiated system in the 1960s. Central labour associations negotiated all-encompassing agreements that set the tone for years to come. The state typically participated in these negotiations via retirement benefit and tax policy reforms. By the 1970s Finland had developed a centralised, comprehensive income policy system.

Throughout the Cold War the economy grew and the employees’ unions advanced their agenda for better working conditions and benefits. When the leading export industries ran into trouble, the Finnish Markka was devalued time after time. This inflation-devaluation cycle was a sore point for the Bank of Finland and by the mid-1980s its monetary experts had successfully lobbied the cabinet for a stable currency policy. This change was compounded by a mid-decade move to open Finnish investment markets to global competition.

Meanwhile the Confederation of Finnish Industries had started to chafe under the labour market negotiation system. Federation leaders argued that Finland had become rigid and uncompetitive. In the early 1990s they decided to change the game.

As the Cold War came to an end and Finland applied for EU membership directly thereafter, the country was wrecked by the most severe depression since the 1930s. While few industrial or trade experts foresaw it, Finnish bilateral trade with the USSR was in dire straits. Banks collapsed and companies went bankrupt while the Finnish currency was set adrift in 1992. Unemployment soared and social safety networks were strained.

The Confederation of Finnish Industries developed a new strategy to change the labour market system in 1991. The plan was to decrease labour safeguards, to cut employment costs for the employers, and to stop making centralised labour agreements, known colloquially in Finland as ‘tupo’ or ‘tulopoliittinen kokonaisratkaisu’, a collective agreement that all must respect regardless of industry or place of work. The employers’ plan was met with dismay and strict opposition from the labour unions. The centre-right cabinet led by the Centre Party (Keskusta) was under severe pressure and failed to support these policy changes. The cabinet preferred stability in the labour markets over the employers demands for more flexibility in employment. The stage was set for a continued struggle over the fundaments of the Finnish system.

The creative destruction of the early 1990s depression and Finnish EU membership started to change the system. Joining the common market meant monetary policy had to change. Low inflation goals guided the Finnish labour market system towards more nuanced change. The Confederation of Finnish Industries continued to push for the dismantlement of the old tripartite system.[3] Employers were angling for local labour negotiations, despite pushback from the employees’ unions and the state.

Step by step, the Finnish economy transformed and opened up to the common market. Competitive exports remained the yardstick by which the economy was measured. The political climate slowly warmed to liberal deregulation and centre-right cabinets that had once been impossible became commonplace. This slow transformation of the labour system forms the foundation of recent volatility.

In 2015 the Confederation of Finnish Industries single-handedly decided to stop negotiating with the employee’s unions. Facing opposition from the other two poles of the system, the employers opted out and forced labour negotiations at the union level.

The Centre Party won the 2015 parliamentary elections and industrialist Juha Sipilä became prime minister heading a coalition with the Coalition Party and populist right-wing Finns Party. To combat the stagnation of the Finnish economy a new competitiveness leap named ‘kiky’ was introduced in 2017.[4] It became the flash point for grievances across the whole system. The leading newspaper Helsingin Sanomat reported that the leap struck women in low paying jobs far more than male dominated export industries.

These recent changes led to tension and ill will between the central labour market actors. When the SDP won the elections in the spring of 2019 the situation changed. Prime minister Antti Rinne had a background in the labour unions, and the social democrats had long been the primary allies for the largest employee union SAK. This turn of events was not lost on the employers and throughout the year harsh words have been changed between labour market actors.

As collective bargaining was off the table, all parties waited for a bellwether. The postal labour action opened the negotiations. The Posti case is an atypical one for a number of reasons. As a state-owned company Posti falls under guidelines for state corporate steering. Like many other former public bureaus, Posti has been under pressure to be economically successful. As postal and package delivery transforms globally, the company has struggled with its legally mandated responsibilities to deliver post state-wide. This mandate ties the case to a third nationally salient issue, Finnish regional politics. To keep all of the country populated, public services are essential in the North and East of Finland. This has historically been at the core of the Centre Party politics, but the party lost many seats in the 2019 elections.

In August Posti decided to move it’s package handlers to a subsidiary company and consequently to a cheaper labour agreement. This action was opposed by employee unions but approved on ministry and cabinet level until it became public knowledge. The company had been under fire for other reasons as well, and in October the CEO had to step down. The PM was caught in this who-said-what row and finally lost the confidence of the Centre party, already a disgruntled cabinet member, and had to resign. The Marin cabinet then continued with the same program and participants.

In short, the Posti labour action became a proxy for many issues other than labour market policy. Intra-cabinet tensions were released with the change of prime minister alleviating the Centre Party’s fears of social democrat labour politics. At the same time the event was an opportunity for the labour unions to raise the stakes for the forthcoming negotiations. The old tripartite labour negotiation system is gone but not forgotten, as Helsingin Sanomat pointed out in November.

As labour unions position for a difficult negotiation round, the very nature of the Finnish system is tested yet again. The employers have had the upper hand for some time now, but the situation remains fluid.

Aaro Sahari is a researcher for the National Museum of Finland and member of the Pitkät kihlajaiset – labour market history project led by professor Niklas Jensen-Eriksen at the University of Helsinki.

Cover image: Collective bargaining agreement signing at the Finnish state cabinet,1984. Courtesy of the Finnish Heritage Agency, reproduced from on a CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0 licence. [Accessed 12 January 2020].

[1] As the state broadcaster Yle recently reported.

[2] A comprehensive list of references will be found in our forthcoming book Wuokko M. etal. Loputtomat kihlajaiset: yritykset ja kolmikantakorporatismi Suomessa 1940­–2020 [Endless engagement: corporations and tripartite corporatism in Finland, 1940–2020]. Helsinki: Siltala, 2020.

[3] For example, the very word ‘tupo’ was banished from the vocabulary.

[4] The change forced an extra 24 uncompensated hours of work per annum for all.

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


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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Boris Johnson’s Favourite Stalin Story…: On the Difference between Raising Taxes and Conducting Mass Terror Campaigns


On 6th November 2019, Boris Johnson accused the Labour Party of despising “the profit motive” so much that they would “point their fingers at individuals with a relish and a vindictiveness not seen since Stalin persecuted the kulaks”.[1] Now, I love a good history analogy as much as the next person. This one, however, is not only way off the mark on every level but also relativizes Stalinist policies that cost hundreds of thousands of people their lives.

Johnson alleges that Corbyn leads a similar hate campaign against wealthy people and has a similar socialist conviction to Stalin, referring to Corbyn’s support for raising the income tax for the wealthiest in society. However, in drawing the connection from Corbyn to Stalin, Johnson’s invocation of Stalinist persecution could imply that while Corbyn might be talking about raising taxes for wealthy people, he is really planning something along the line of taking their land, grain, cows, and chickens, putting them on a train and dropping them in the middle of snowy Siberia without food, warm clothes, or tools – forcing them to build their own forced labour camp or die trying. Does that sound like a bit of a stretch? Let’s look more closely at the Stalinist campaign against the kulaks to explore the historical implications of Johnson’s analogy.

The violent phase of Stalin’s aforementioned “persecution of the kulaks” began in December 1929, when he announced the “liquidation of the kulaks as a class”. He started this campaign in the context of the collectivization of agriculture, i.e. the nationalization of land and cattle as well as the reorganizing of agriculture into collective and state farms. Due to the manner in which the Bolsheviks orchestrated it, this collectivization was not only part of creating a socialist economy, it was first and foremost an attempt to establish their rule in the vast Soviet countryside.

The collectivization campaign has been described as a clash of cultures between the Soviet leadership and the peasantry, bordering on civil war. In official statements, the collectivization campaign was framed as “class struggle in the countryside”. Roughly, these “classes” consisted of poor peasants, middle peasants, and kulaks. Kulaks were supposedly “rich” peasants whom the Bolsheviks stigmatized as “capitalist elements”, the “bourgeoisie of the countryside”, enemies to the socialist vision, and exploiters of the poor.

Initially, the plan had been to agitate rural communities into class struggle, so that the poorer peasants would rebel against the “kulak oppressor”. However, there were two problems: many peasants did not want collectivization (or to be ruled by the Bolsheviks), and there weren’t really any distinct “classes” in the 1930s Soviet countryside, which rendered class struggle significantly more difficult. Most of the land had already been redistributed during the Russian Revolution and Civil War around ten years earlier, so that the wealth differences in the countryside were relatively minor: a peasant could drop from “rich” to poor if their cow died.

Stalin started the “liquidation of the kulaks as a class” around the time it became clear that peasants would not go into collective farms voluntarily. This campaign allowed the authorities to break peasant resistance against the Bolshevik regime. This so-called “dekulakization” led to denunciation, violence, and chaos all over the Union. “Liquidation” meant violent expropriation, and in many cases, deportation: in total, around 2 million people (men, women, and children) were “re-settled” in their own county, and around 2-2.5 million were deported to distant regions. Most of the latter were brought to so-called special settlements, labour camp-like structures in remote and often inhospitable areas. Estimates consider that until Stalin’s death, over 500,000 “kulaks” died during deportation or banishment from cold, hunger, diseases, and hard labour.

Historians refer to the campaign against the kulaks as the beginning of Stalinist mass terror. Even beyond such terror campaigns, however, the collectivization of agriculture caused disaster: reinforced by a series of poor harvests and grain requisition campaigns to feed the cities, the chaos caused by collectivization and “dekulakization” brought Soviet agriculture to its knees in the early 1930s. The ensuing famines caused 5-8 million deaths, especially in Ukraine, Kazakhstan (which lost a fourth to a third of its population), and the North Caucasus.

Of course, when Boris Johnson inferred there are continuities from Stalin to Corbyn and from the Bolsheviks to the Labour Party, his aim wasn’t to give us a history lesson – or else he would not have chosen an analogy between a campaign to tax wealthy people and a campaign consisting in not taxing (but expropriating and deporting) mostly not wealthy people (and causing millions of deaths). Thus, it is important to analyse such discourses to reveal the cynicism that permeates political campaigning. This analogy does not say much about Labour politics: the 2019 Labour Party has close to nothing in common with the 1930s Soviet communist leadership. However, it shows that Johnson does not really work with facts and policies in his campaign rather than with cheap shots to defame his opponent and to scare voters into thinking that Corbyn is really a secret Stalinist.

Mirjam Galley recently completed her PhD thesis ‘Builders of Communism, ‘Defective’ Children and Social Orphans: Soviet Children in Care after 1953’ at the University of Sheffield. She is currently a trainee editor for history at the academic publisher transcript Verlag. You can find Mirjam on Twitter @M_E_Galley.

Cover image:  Soviet propaganda poster ‘We will keep out Kulaks from the collectives’, 1930.

Further reading:

Sheila Fitzpatrick, Stalin’s Peasants: Resistance and Survival in the Russian Village after Collectivization (Oxford University Press, 1994).

Andrea Graziosi, The Great Soviet Peasant War: Bolsheviks and Peasants, 1918-1934 (Harvard University Press, 1996).

James Hughes, Stalinism in a Russian Province: a study of collectivization and dekulakization in Siberia (Macmillan, 1996).

Robert Kindler, Stalin’s Nomads: Soviet Power and Famine in Kazakhstan (Pittsburgh University Press, 2018).

Lynne Viola, The Unknown Gulag: The Lost World of Stalin’s Special Settlements (Oxford University Press, 2007).

Lynne Viola, V. P. Danilov, N. A. Ivnitskii, and Denis Kozlov (eds), The Tragedy of the Soviet Countryside, Volume one: The War Against the Peasantry, 1927-1930 (Yale University Press, 2005).

[1] A “kulak“, literally meaning “fist“, was a term denoting rather wealthy or powerful members of rural communities in Tsarist Russia and the Soviet Union.

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Challenging Heterosexist Readings of Women’s Holocaust Testimonies

Charlotte Salomon

Some months ago my partner and I decided to put our flat on the market. Having seen the perfect house, I hurriedly began sending out emails to have our property valued. I was quickly inundated with calls from eager estate agents, desperate to clinch the sale. The first call came from a polite woman from a city centre office. “Are you the homeowner?” she asked. “No,” I responded. “The flat belongs to my partner.” “Okay, great. What’s his name?” I paused for a moment, unsure as to whether I was offended or mildly amused. “Her name is…”

As I hung up the phone, I felt troubled. Part of me had believed that, in 2019, such awkward conversations and the repeated need to ‘come out,’ were a thing of the past. I got to thinking about the countless presumptuous comments that I, as a queer woman, have been forced to engage with in my lifetime. “It’s just a phase.” “Do you have a boyfriend?” “You just haven’t met the right guy yet.” The list is inexhaustible.

More than anything, though, and transcending my personal struggles with such presumptions, I started to think about them in a historical context. As a Holocaust historian specialising in women’s experiences and representations of the Holocaust, I began to wonder how, and to what extent, heteronormativity may be responsible for global historical blind spots. Have deeply entrenched heterosexist presumptions enabled historical specificities to be overlooked? Or at the very least, have they shaped the way historians and academics have interpreted written narratives of the past? Undoubtedly so, given the fact that sexual relationships between women have long been an academic taboo, focused on only in the last four decades in the wake of the women’s movement.

If the assumption, even in the twenty-first century, is that to be straight is the norm, if queer sexualities are yet to become normalised sexual identities, then what might that tell us about decades of androcentric historical research? And how might we read history from a stance far removed from heteronormative presupposition, particularly when attempts to do so are often met with hostility, or when sexual relationships between women are often dismissed by scholars as acts of desperation?

Queer theorists, literary critics and historians of women’s history have been attempting to answer this question since the early-1980s. In 1981 women’s studies scholar, Bonnie Zimmerman, proposed a new critical stance with which to approach written texts. This stance, she explained, ‘involves peering into the shadows, into the spaces between words, into what has been unspoken and barely imagined. It is a perilous critical adventure with results that may violate accepted norms of traditional criticism, but which may also transform our notions of literary possibility.’[1]

In the 1990s, author R. Amy Elman echoed Zimmerman’s call for oppositional reading in an exploration of lesbians and the Holocaust. Elman acknowledged that, due to a reluctance among scholars to deal with the matter of women’s sexualities, their subjects may have felt the need to ‘conform and conceal their most intriguing thoughts and intimate feelings.’ This, she argued, is partly responsible for the dearth of women’s first-person narratives of the Holocaust that include clear-cut queer content. She explained that, ‘with little evidence, we are forced to, “read between the lines.” This does not mean that one discovers lesbians where none exists. Rather, […] one is especially careful to avoid presumptions of heterosexuality. After all, assertions of heterosexuality […] have frequently furnished many gays and lesbians with protection from identification, arrest and, sometimes, even death.’[2]

Elman’s reading of Anne Frank’s diary is particularly convincing. She pointed out that Anne was initially repulsed by the notion of befriending Peter van Daan, and before going into hiding, had expressed feeling attracted to some of her girlfriends. Despite this, Elman argued, ‘her relationship to Peter has not been dismissed as an adolescent act exacerbated by dire circumstances and the absence of female companionship.’ Yet, despite this, and in spite of the approaches put forward by the likes of Zimmerman, among others, historians and scholars remain reluctant to approach women’s Holocaust testimonies by ‘“reading between the lines.”’[3]

As recently as 2015, and in a book explicitly dedicated to women’s experiences under Nazism, for example, Beverley Chalmers devoted a mere three paragraphs to lesbian love. She felt it important to note that ‘conditions in camps […] facilitated lesbianism. Fear and loneliness, friendships, and the absence of men, led to women seeking comfort from other women.’[4] Yet, this seems a bold, outdated, and particularly heterosexist claim to make.

It  may, of course, be true that some women in concentration camps engaged in same-sex relationships because of a lack of access to men. But to presume that all did so, or to read all women’s memoirs from a heterosexual standpoint, overlooks the complexity of their narratives. Might there be something a little queer in some women’s descriptions of same-sex relationships? Might some personal, sexual anxieties exist in the documented accidental glances, the curiosity to watch, or the ambiguous responses to sex between women? If they’re of no significance, why have some women included such details in their published testimonies at all? And above all, what might we miss if we refuse to acknowledge the possible existence of a queer subtext? Perhaps 2019 is the time to make heterosexist historical readings history.

Rosie Ramsden is a second year doctoral candidate in the Department of Arts, Design and Social Sciences at Northumbria University. In 2017, she was awarded a three-year studentship to conduct further research into women’s experiences and representations of the Holocaust, following the work she carried out during my MA at the University of Leeds. The working title of her doctoral thesis is ‘Women’s Holocaust Testimony: Gender, Reception, and Canon-formation.’ She interested in women’s memoir and narration, gendered recall and gendered experience, and queer histories of the Holocaust.


Chalmers, Beverley. Birth, Sex and Abuse. Surrey: Grosvenor House, 2015.

Elman, Amy R. ‘Lesbians and the Holocaust.’ Women and the Holocaust: Narrative and Representation, ed. by Esther Fuchs, 9 – 17. Lanham: University of America Press.

Zimmerman, Bonnie. ‘What Has Never Been: An Overview of Lesbian Feminist Literary Criticism.’ Feminist Studies, 7:3. (Autumn, 1981): 451 – 475.


[1] Zimmerman, ‘What Has Never Been’, 460.

[2]Elman, ‘Lesbians and the Holocaust,’ 9 – 10.

[3]Ibid., 14 – 15.

[4]Chalmers, Birth, Sex and Abuse, 187.

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Holocaust, Home and Memory in Literature


The following post has been adapted from the author’s contribution to a Holocaust Memorial Day vigil, held in the Winter Garden, Sheffield City Centre on 28.01.19.

 The home, both as a place of dwelling and as a more abstract yet instinctive sense of belonging, is a frequently evoked image within Holocaust literature. Home can mean many different things to different people: it can constitute a country of origin or birth, encompass friends and family and is often central to the creation of selfhood and identity. Yet to not have a home, to be home-less, is a fear (or realisation) that can be universally related to. The act of being ‘torn from home’—this year’s Holocaust Memorial Day theme—whether a house, nation, people or a combination of all three, affected all those who experienced the Shoah to some degree. Under Nazi persecution, European Jews were dispossessed of land and property, were forced to evacuate their homes to be deported or killed, or to go into hiding. They were also physically displaced in ghettos and/or camps. Those who survived returned to homes and formerly thriving communities destroyed by war, and faced the very difficult task of re-establishing new ones.

The home features in the work of Holocaust memoirists, in survivor testimonies, film, graphic novels, poetry and other media. In many instances, it remains an image of hope for refugees and those imprisoned and forced into slave labour in concentration camps – although, as late survivor Jean Cayrol reflects, to linger on memories and dreams of home was often detrimental to survival. In Charlotte Delbo’s short story ‘The Teddy Bear’, the uniting power of the word ‘home’ is enough to carry the author and her fellow inmates through a Christmas Eve dinner spent in a death camp, even when spoken in another language. ‘The Frenchwomen […] tried to repeat the magic words’ of their Polish inmates, Delbo writes.[1] ‘Do domou, do domou—at home.’[2]

In other accounts, the home is an irrevocably ruined construction: a traumatic reminder of a pre-war past. In her autobiography A Lesser Child, Kindertransport refugee Karen Gershon had to write about her ‘German self’ in the third person as ‘Kate’ and in her mother tongue when articulating the traumatic experience of growing up as a child in Nazi Germany, which she escaped in 1938 after Kristallnacht.

For those with families who survived, the postwar return home at least meant reuniting with loved ones. Yet repatriation was often a disillusioning process for survivors, some of whom were welcomed by racial hostility and violence as well as stolen property. Even the voyage back was itself arduous: many prisoners freed from camps were malnourished and diseased, with either no means of getting home or a lengthy journey ahead of them via rail or foot. Primo Levi’s The Truce documents the treacherous journey home across Europe from Auschwitz to Italy, which entailed further starvation, marching and work in a Russian rehabilitation camp before reaching his homeland nine months after liberation.

The alternative to these desolate realities was the adaptation of victims to new wartime lives and temporary homes – as was the case with Anne Frank and her family, who took refuge, in Amsterdam, 1933, from an increasingly hostile antisemitic climate in Germany. The hiding place of Anne Frank and her family from July 1942—an attic in the building of her father’s business—constitutes perhaps the most famous example of the home in collective Holocaust memory and literature, visited by thousands each year. Much of the global interest in the Anne Frank House owes to its authentic traces of a life that continued despite perilous political and domestic conditions. These include the displayed pages of Anne’s diary and posters of German film stars cut from magazines and plastered onto walls, which gesture toward the popular culture of the period and illustrate the interests of a ‘normal’ (albeit persecuted and later revered) teenager. The diary itself provides an intimate portrait of a home life filled with the happiness and tensions of a typical family despite limited space and the ever-present fear of their discovery.

Sites such as Auschwitz, however, represent the antithesis of home. This is exemplified by Polish survivor Tadeusz Borowski’s ironic use of the phrase ‘Auschwitz, Our Home’ as one of his short stories in This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen.

The luxury of being able to choose one’s home rests on their right to move. Today, this is increasingly undermined and threatened by the strictures of hard borders and tightened immigration laws. Among those who are unable to pinpoint a specific location or physical construction they call home are refugees and asylum seekers – an especially important consideration on Holocaust Memorial Day.

On July 23, 1943, Anne Frank wrote of her wish ‘to be able to move around freely’ in her own home despite her successful assimilation into a new culture, language and way of life in the Netherlands.[3] This desire deeply resonates with the kinds of discourse surrounding EU separation and an escalating global refugee crisis exacerbated by detainment and deportations. It also exposes the fact that, contrary to erroneous depictions of migrants as job-takers and exploiters of national services, many refugees long to return home to a place of familiarity, but are prevented from doing so due to circumstances beyond their control. An event often described as historically ‘unique’, this reminds us that the persecution of minorities central to the Holocaust is not confined to the past, but manifests today in the refusal of a home or place of safety within society to those targeted on the basis of race, class, ethnicity, religion, sexuality or gender.

Emily-Rose Baker is a second-year WRoCAH funded PhD student based in the School of English at the University of Sheffield. Her research examines central-eastern European Holocaust memory and dreams in the post-communist era.

[1] Charlotte Delbo, ‘The Teddy Bear’, Auschwitz and After: Second Edition, trans. by Rosette C. Lamount (London: Yale University Press, 1995) p.164.

[2] Delbo, p.164.

[3] Anne Frank, The Diary of a Young Girl: Definitive Edition, eds. Otto H. Frank and Mirjam Pressler (London: Penguin, 2011) p.112.

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