Stereoptic Views of the Great War

WWICuirassierBerlin

WorldWarIGermanDead

(click images to enlarge)

These stereoptic cards offer a tale of war reduced to two basic elements: soldiers on parade at home followed by the unburied corpses of soldiers on the battlefield. How should we read this story? At first glance, it seems to be about the gap between dreams and reality in war: the transformation of men from objects of admiration in society to a meal for rats, bugs, worms, and microbes in a foreign wasteland. In other words, the pictures seem to tell a story about the utter senselessness of the First World War. But does that interpretation do justice to the lives of these men? Does it tell us why they wore the uniform and sacrificed their lives? Does it tell us about their experience of war? And what about the politicians and generals who sent millions to their deaths? Can we write them off as insane or incompetent fools? Or should we take them seriously and try to fathom their mental universe? Finally, what lasting effects did this violence and loss have on the societies that fought this war? These are some of the questions that inform my interest in military history.

This blog post originally appeared on my old history blog, Clio and Me, on this date.


Source of Images: Wikimedia Commons. World War I: Cuirassiers in Berlin (top) and World War I: German Dead.

Across Generations

When I went to the student coffee shop on Friday, the student at the cash register guessed my order before I could tell him what I wanted. I remarked that I had had similar experiences with regulars when I worked at a Dunkin’ Donuts over twenty years ago. His response: “They had Dunkin’ Donuts back then?”

For me there has always been a Dunkin’ Donuts. Indeed, according to Wikipedia and the corporate website of Dunkin’ Donuts, the first store opened in 1950, which is close enough to “always” for someone born in the early 1960s. So why did the student think Dunkin’ Donuts was new? His own answer was eminently practical: “I haven’t even been alive for twenty years.” Still, his underlying assumption that so much of the world around him was new took me aback.

Maybe I should not have been surprised by his presentism. After all, the current generation of students has grown up hearing that they live in a completely different world than the one into which I was born. They have heard from their parents and teachers about a bygone world in the midst of a Cold War without personal computing, the internet, cell phones, iPods, and global warming. And then there are the many students who have grown up in new subdivisions, schools and strip malls.

What do these thoughts have to do with me and Clio? One of my main goals in undergraduate survey courses is to teach historical thinking, which in part entails helping students appreciate not only that the world has a past, but that the people in that past saw that world through different eyes. But it is not enough for me to ask them to see how the world looks when it is filtered through the experiences of earlier generations. In order to do my job, I find it helps if I meet them halfway and try to understand how the world looks when filtered through their experiences. Of course, I usually end up looking uncool in the process, but as the father of a teenager I am used to that.

This post originally appeared on my old history blog, Clio and Me, on this date.

Paradoxes

I was looking through Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s The Physicists, a play I have used a few times in a survey course on modern Europe. In the back of the English translation by James Kirkup are “21 Points to The Physicists,” one of which reads, “The more human beings proceed by plan the more effectively they may be hit by accident.” This quote sums up my recently completed dissertation on three levels that I would like to consider: the content of my research from the point of view of its historical subjects, the path my research takes from my point of view, and the shape of the narrative that eventually emerges. I plan to look at these paradoxes in future posts at irregular intervals. For now I will mention a different one that is not as difficult to resolve. Continue reading

Politics in the Classroom

Do partisan politics have a place in the classroom? No. On the other hand, in a history class it is hard, even impossible to discuss many subjects without politics forming a subtext of the conversation. This difficulty is especially inherent in modern history. How, for example, can we talk about state-building, gender roles, participatory politics, and political ideologies without entering terrain in which we have a personal stake? And once we do that, how do we keep out partisan politics?

The trick is to make that difficult mental leap into the past and try to understand it from the point of view of people who lived in that time. We do not need to take sides with our ideological forefathers, and we do not need to attack their opponents. Nor do we need to respond to problems in the past with solutions from the present. Instead we need to try to think historically. We need to try to understand people in the past in their historical contexts. Making that leap is difficult, but possible.

Ironically, good civic practices are one potential side-effect of cultivating such historical sensibilities. If we can learn to imagine how people thought in the past, maybe we can imagine how our political opponents think in the present. Once we reach that point, a genuine dialog might be possible. The problems might be just as inextricable, but we might learn how to talk with each other instead of at each other. In other words, when we study history, it is possible to acquire the communicative habits necessary for a healthy civic culture. partisan politics do not belong in the classroom, but the classroom might have some lessons for partisan politics.

This piece first appeared on my former teaching blog, History Survey, on this date, then moved to Clio and Me, before landing here.