Wilhelm Groener (1867–1939)

Wilhelm Groener, via Deutsches Historisches Museum, Berlin

Meet Wilhelm Groener, an unassuming Swabian of modest social provenance who rose to the number two position in the Imperial German army by the end of the First World War. Here he is in about 1920, soon after his retirement from the army in the young Weimar Republic.

Groener, the subject of my dissertation, informed Kaiser Wilhelm II in November 1918 that the army would not follow him back to Prussia to fight a civil war to quash the revolution. Confronted with this reality, Wilhelm II abdicated and fled to the Netherlands.

By rights Groener’s boss, Chief of the General Staff Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg, should have delivered the bad news, but he was a Prussian officer and nobleman, imbibed imbued in the traditions of military service to his supreme war lord, the Prussian king and German emperor. Hindenburg did not have the nerve.

Groener was present at the death of another German regime too. He served as minister of defense from 1928 to 1932. Near the end of this tenure he was also acting minister of the interior in the Brüning cabinet. In this capacity he pushed to outlaw Hitler’s brown-shirts, the S.A., which gave right-wing extremists in the army a chance to withdraw their support of the defense minister and prevail upon President Hindenburg to withdraw his confidence from Groener, who then resigned. Soon the rest of the cabinet did too, and Hitler came to power less than a year later.

Groener witnessed and participated in some of modern Germany’s key political events, but that is not what I wrote about in my dissertation. Instead, I focussed on the relationship between his social background and military career, which was interesting precisely because he rose to such prominence in an organization alleged to have been the exclusive playground of the Prussian nobility.

At least that is how my research started.

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

Good Old Stalin

History can be used to justify all manner of circumstances in the present. Want to justify an authoritarian regime in Russia? Referring to Russia’s present conditions can help, but even more effective can be skillful tradition-building that shows Russia’s long line of great authoritarian rulers. And what better place to start than with history teachers in the schools?

The New York Times published a remarkable article yesterday about a new history guide for high school teachers in Russia. After a brief introduction, it offers verbatim excerpts on Stalin, who comes away smelling like roses, despite his massive purges.

Stalin followed Peter the Great’s logic: demand the impossible from the people in order to get the maximum possible. . . . The result of Stalin’s purges was a new class of managers capable of solving the task of modernization in conditions of shortages of resources, loyal to the supreme power and immaculate from the point of view of executive discipline. . . .

Thus, just like Chancellor Bismarck who united German lands into a single state by “iron and blood,” Stalin was reinforcing his state by cruelty and mercilessness.

It is quite an intellectual feat to bring Stalin into line with both Peter the Great and Otto von Bismarck. Indeed, such relativism reveals something about the Kremlin’s self-image these days. It would be helpful to see the rest of the guide before drawing broader conclusions. Still, does not the following statement recall some of Putin’s own criticisms of democracy in the United States in recent years?

Political and historical studies show that when they come under similarly serious threats, even “soft” and “flexible” political systems, as a rule, turn more rigid and limit individual rights, as happened in the United States after September 11, 2001.

Yes, history textbooks matter.

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

Stereoptic Views of the Great War



(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.


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. Read more

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.

On Writing

Writing is hard work for almost everyone, no matter how talented or inspired. Writing is thinking. Good writers do not usually have finished ideas that they then type out. The process of writing and revision is an act of thinking and discovery. That is why writing papers can be so frustrating and rewarding at the same time. Want to improve your prose? Keep a journal, in which you produce a page of text per day. The text can be about anything, but use standard prose, not the kind of abbreviations and lack of capitalization that you might use in informal emails or IMs with friends. The text should also be honest. This exercise is akin to doing regular physical exercise, practicing music, or learning a foreign language. The more you do it, the better you get. The less you do it, the worse you get.

I wrote the above piece for my students and posted it on a course blog called History Survey. It then migrated to Language for You, before settling here.

Writing Strategies

I wrote this somewhat confusing piece for my students in a required history survey and posted it on a course blog called History Survey. After I discontinued that, I moved the piece to Language for You and then here. The insight behind the piece is valid, but the attempt to write about it in the form of directions naive. (June 2018)

Most people will tell you to build a paper around a thesis statement and an outline. This is good advice, but many of us have to go through a less straightforward process to get to that point. What if you do not know what your thesis is? What if you do not know what your main ideas are? Writing can be an act of thinking and discovery. Instead of starting out with ideas and putting them on paper, you can use the act of writing to identify and develop your ideas. This process tends to be messy, frustrating, and difficult, but it is worthwhile. Of course, nothing will work if you have not done the reading or attended class. The following advice presupposes that you have taken both of these prerequisite steps.

The following tips also assume that you know how to type quickly. If you do not know how to touch-type, get your hands on a typing tutorial for your computer and learn this valuable skill right away. It will pay for itself countless times over in just one or two semesters. Not only will you be able to type your papers efficiently, but you will be able to get ideas out of your head more quickly. (I have to slow my thinking down when I write with pen and paper. Sometimes I do so deliberately, but most of the time I prefer to type and let the ideas pour out.)

  1. If you have no idea where to begin, sit down at your computer and start writing freely for as many minutes as the ideas come to you. Write without criticizing or organizing your ideas. Write simply to see what ideas you have.
  2. Now print out what you have written with generous spacing and margins. Read your printout with pen in hand and start looking for ideas and connections in the text that are worth pursuing.
  3. Decide whether to return to step [1] or to move on to [4].
  4. You can either begin to outline your ideas or you might want to start with a mind map. In either case, do not feel obligated to begin at the beginning. Start anywhere that your mind happens to be, and then see where your other ideas fit.
  5. After you have your ideas outlined or mapped out, look for useful examples in the primary sources you have read for class. Put these examples in the appropriate part of your outline or mind map. Do not be surprised, however, if this process forces you to rework your outline or mind map. The sources might lead you down a different path, which is fine, because you are writing a history paper based on historical evidence, and you have to go where the evidence leads you.
  6. Now write your first draft. Do not worry too much about your introduction, however. Get the rest of the paper sketched out first, and then you will be in a position to introduce your topic and argument in an effective, meaningful way. When you are finished with your draft, put it away and do not look at it again until you have cleared your mind. Ideally, you will leave it alone until the next day.
  7. Print out your draft with generous spacing and margins and begin the process of revision. Here you will not simply be making things neater. You might find yourself noticing connections that you had missed before. You might want to add some sentences to make a point clearer. Or you might notice that you need more evidence for a given point. Whatever you discover, do not be afraid to reorganize, delete, write new material, and so on. You might even have to delete a phrase that you think is fantastically interesting, but out of place. When you return to the computer, though, enter these revisions in a new file, just in case you want to use something you had previously cut.
  8. When you are finished with your revisions, put away the paper and do not look at it again until you have cleared your mind, ideally with a night’s sleep.
  9. Repeat steps [7] and [8]. After three drafts, your paper should be ready for submission, unless you still need to have someone else proofread it for grammar and readability.

Finally, please remember to back up your files regularly. As an extra precaution, you might also save old printouts until you have turned in the paper.