The Most Famous Closed Trial with Secret Evidence

Sometimes history just leaps off the pages and proclaims its relevance for our own times. On December 24, 1894, The Times of London published a long editorial about the first trial of Captain Alfred Dreyfus for alleged treason.

We must point out that, the more odious and unpopular a crime is, the more necessary is it that its proof and its punishment should be surrounded by all the safeguards of public justice. Of these, the most indispensable is publicity. . . . It may be important for the French people to preserve the secrets of their War Department, but it is of infinitely greater importance for them to guard their public justice against even the suspicion of unfairness or of subjection to the gusts of popular opinion.

The Times correspondent wrote these words when there was still little doubt of Dreyfus’ guilt in the public at large. There were no Drefusards yet, that is, members of a movement to see the wrongfully convicted man exonerated. It was three years before Emile Zola wrote “J’accuse.” The point wasn’t about guilt or innocence. It was about the rule of law, which meant due process out in the open even for grave matters of national security. The later establishment of Dreyfus’ innocence reminded observers why.

Tomorrow my class is discussing Michael Burns, France and the Dreyfus Affair: A Documentary History (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1999). Burns tells this dramatic tale with his own gripping prose interspersed with documents from the period. And he extends the tale as far as 1998, in order to help readers understand the affair’s legacy. For those with more time on their hands I also recommend Jean Denis Bredin, The Affair: The Case of Alfred Dreyfus, trans. Jeffrey Mehlman (New York: George Braziller, 1986), a big history book that reads like a good political thriller.

Blogging and Myth-Busting

Kevin Levin of Civil War Memory has posted good material to his academic blog under the category, myth of black Confederates. Several recent posts include criticism of efforts by modern-day Confederate patriots and would-be historians who want to appropriate Weary Clyburn, a slave, as a defender of Southern liberty. In one he points out that writing good books to debunk myths is all well and good, but on the subject of black Confederates “the real fight must take place on the web.”

In the same post he points to an earlier one he made in late March: “Should Civil War Historians Blog (academic that is)?” In it he observes how vast the public discourse about the American Civil War is, while the discourse in which professional historians participate is relatively narrow. Historians need to continue their current research and publishing mission, but they also have “a responsibility to engage a wider audience and contribute to the public discourse.” Since much of the public turns to the internet for ready answers, historians need to offer these answers in an accessible format, especially for highly sensitive questions that shape American identity.

I agree with Kevin about the need for Civil War historians to blog. I have also observed a similar need with respect to Holocaust denial, since I have found that Google can get it wrong. Until now I have used this blog mainly to reflect on what I do and to communicate with other historians, but as Kevin points out, Google brings him search engine traffic for important topics such as black Confederates, so his blog posts reach a wider audience. I have written a few of my posts with that awareness, but his arguments make me think I could do much more. So could other historians.


This piece originally appeared on this day on my old history blog, Clio and Me. The links have been updated.

Authors of Interrogation Handbook Abuse Their Sources

In a piece called “Mind Games: Remembering Brainwashing” from today’s New York Times, Tim Wiener points to one of the more irresponsible uses of historical documents that I have seen this summer. Apparently “American military and intelligence officers” (he is not more specific) decided in 2002 to examine Cold War CIA studies of Chinese interrogation methods during the Korean War. After all, these Communists were the supposed masters who fed the kinds of fears that later gave rise to a movie like “The Manchurian Candidate.” In one major study the officers found examples of what are now often called “harsh interrogation techniques” when the more negatively valued term “torture” is being deliberately avoided. “They reprinted a 1957 chart describing death threats, degradation, sleep deprivation—and worse—inflicted by Chinese captors. And they made it part of a new handbook for interrogators at Guantánamo.”

The provenance of these techniques might give pause, but here’s the real bombshell:

The irony is that the original author of that chart, Albert D. Biderman, a social scientist who had distilled interviews with 235 Air Force P.O.W.’s, wrote that the Communists’ techniques mainly served to “extort false confessions.” And they were the same methods that “inquisitors had employed for centuries.” They had done nothing that “was not common practice to police and intelligence interrogators of other times and nations.”

This story reminds me of the student who hurriedly pulls a bunch of quotes from a book without actually reading or studying the book as a whole, let alone thinking about its historical context. The student then slaps the material together in a paper that might confirm his own beliefs, but whose conclusions bear no tangible relationship to the source that he supposedly read and analyzed. Is that what happened here? Or was the document perhaps too complex for them? Perhaps they needed to invest in some historians who were not afraid to dig through this kind of thing in an honest manner, no matter what conclusions the documents might suggest.


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

Why I like the Declaration of Independence

declaration_of_independence__john_trumbull_

Today citizens of the United States celebrate Independence Day. On this day, 232 years ago, thirteen American colonies proclaimed their independence from Great Britain in a famous document that Thomas Jefferson wrote, the Declaration of Independence. As a history teacher, I find this document fascinating, because it fuses together two different political traditions. On one hand, it recalls seventeenth-century English constitutionalism and its arguments about what had supposedly always been the rights of Englishmen. On the other hand, it advances the kind of powerful and universalizing claims about natural law and human rights spawned in the Enlightenment and given their most dramatic expression during the French Revolution. These connections make the document an interesting object lesson for the history classroom. They also can act as a healthy reminder to Americans that our Declaration of Independence displays not only differences from European political traditions, but also powerful affinities for them. Continue reading

Summer Term

The summer term is upon me. Here is this summer’s version of “Western Civ” at George Mason University and “Euro Civ I” at Georgetown University. Both courses are thematically organized. Neither has electronic assignments due to the compressed time period in which everything has to be done. Euro Civ I has only papers. Western Civ has papers and source analysis homework. In the latter case I figure the additional structure might be helpful, because the course has to bring students right up to the present. Of course, some students are going to hate me for it, which a reminder of the absence of exams might or might not ameliorate.

By the way, Euro Civ II will probably be chronologically—not thematically—organized. For that course I have the luxury of a whole term to cover only two hundred years of history.

Do You Link to Your Sources?

This short piece appeared on this day on Blog Catalog’s blog. At the time the site was a hybrid blog portal – social networking site with an active community. Instead of reproducing the whole piece here, I link to the version saved on the Internet Archive’s WayBack Machine for the sake of context. (June 2018)

Too often I come across an interesting piece of information on a blog that does not contain links to the author’s sources. That’s too bad. All I can do at that point is shrug my shoulders and wonder if the story is true. Then I’ll probably close that browser tab and go somewhere else, because I won’t risk experiencing similar frustration with a second story on the same blog. Of course, if the story is really important to me, I can do further research on Google, which is fair enough. At the same time, though, what reason have you given me to go back to your blog? None. Offer me a good, well sourced post, though, and I will be back.

Links to your sources are important for at least four reasons: Continue reading →

Ignorance or Deliberate Abuse?

I can’t decide whether the White House is deliberately insulting our intelligence with Bush’s recent appeasement accusations or if they really don’t know anything about Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement. Chamberlain isn’t criticized in history for talking to Hitler, but rather for giving away the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia and with it that country’s means to defend itself against Germany. The difference is not trivial. And what does McCain’s echoing of Bush’s remarks tell us about him? Did he also not learn this bit of history? Or is this just politics? Be that as it may, Kevin Levin is right about this being a teachable moment. The “Hardball” video he posted on his blog is hilarious and sad at the same time.


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

Human Rights in the History Survey

I have been teaching History 100, the one-semester survey of Western Civilization that is required for all students at George Mason University. Yes, really. One semester. As I mentioned earlier, this semester I decided to abandon the old chronological approach and follow a thematic one instead. I organized the course into six major themes, plus an introductory unit on historical thinking. One of those themes was “Politics and Human Rights.”

If one looks at Western Civ textbooks or the reading lists from my days as a graduate student, human rights are not going to be an obvious subject of study, especially not for a history survey that can only afford to choose six major topics. Yet they are not only important to learn about, they also offer a powerful integrative vehicle for talking about a variety of issues that have been central to the history of the West since the eighteenth century. Continue reading

Textbook Costs

I heard a report on Marketplace this evening about the high cost of textbooks and how Congress wants to force publishers to reveal to professors the costs of books they require in their courses. I find it strange that such a measure should be necessary. Is it that hard to figure out what books cost? I use Amazon when writing a syllabus. So do many other cost-conscious professors. And who is this professor they quoted who talked about being courted by publishing representatives with good chocolate in the mailroom and meals out? Certainly no history professor.
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Fostering Historical Thinking with Brecht’s Galileo

Spring is almost here, which means its time to order books for the summer term. Summer in DC gets hot, and the summer terms are short, so I usually try to assign things that are both reasonably entertaining and not too long for the general audience I get in my introductory survey courses that are mandatory requirements for all majors. Besides covering a variety of themes and genres, I often try to pick one book that will jump-start historical thinking. I want a book that will make students more aware of how much “the past is like a foreign country” that we will not understand, if we do not try to fathom the conditions and assumptions of the time without letting our contemporary worldview get in our way.

Last year I tried Bertolt Brecht’s Galileo, which I had first experienced as a TA for Sandra Horvath-Peterson at Georgetown University back in the 1990s. Of course, Brecht adapts Galileo’s story to his own purposes, but it provides a useful point of departure for a discussion about the Scientific Revolution. It also forces students to come to terms with the limits of historical fiction.
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