Learning to Synthesize History

When confronted with history too narrowly conceived or framed, I often think back to one graduate course I took, “Issues in British Literature,” which challenged me on a number of levels. To start with, the British historiography we learned seemed to have nothing in common with what I had encountered for German, French, and Russian history. Of course, different countries and different histories were involved, but not even the language or categories of analysis employed in the British historiography were as familiar as I expected them to be. This circumstance did not stop the authors from writing history and arguing with each other as if the assumptions that informed their language were self-explanatory. Their writings offered an odd mixture of history as common sense that rejected social theory combined with the expectation that readers should not dare question how they framed and wrote about history, because, well, readers with enough uncommon intelligence and specialized training would understand. The rest should not bother trying.

(It would help if I offered some examples here, but that would require research, not just memory and experience. Since this blog represents a mere first draft of some thoughts, and perhaps the basis of some conversations, I will just press on.)

For me, this situation was about much more than trying to find my footing in a new historiographical space. I wanted to take the material and integrate it into a kind of European history. How else was I to make sense of the modern German, French, British, and Russian history in which I would later take my comprehensive exams? But I don’t think I ever learned to put these histories and historiographies together while taking courses and preparing for exams. Not until confronted with the challenge of teaching survey courses did I begin to accomplish the task of putting together histories, but still not historiographies. Some twelve years after taking those exams, it is still an ongoing challenge.

Whenever I contributed to class discussion in the British history course, I tried to relate what I was reading to how I understood German history. Since the class was big, everything I said had to be squeezed into short soundbites, whenever I got a chance to speak. There was not enough time for substantial dialogue, just for proving one had done the reading and was thinking about it. The sum of all our contributions was frequently disjointed. Indeed, integrating ideas from my own historiographical experience was a hazardous undertaking, because others—including the professor—did not share the same historiographical backgrounds and therefore could not necessarily understand my own language and assumptions. Unfortunately, I did not realize at the time how far many of us had already embarked on a journey of national specialization that made it difficult to talk across national historiographies with each other. It took my comprehensive exams to make that point painfully clear.

Thoughts like these come up when I am confronted with historiography that insists on its right to talk in a code that only other specialists will understand. I have seen a lot of rhetoric about the desirability of comparative, transnational, and global history, but often the same scholars use language that narrows their audience to a size too small to spark the kind of discourses necessary to analyze and narrate history across the national and disciplinary boundaries to which our training and research too often confine us.

The course in British history did not just introduce me to the shortcomings of history and historiography, which until then had appeared more coherent to me than they really were. While frustrating my efforts to talk across national boundaries, it challenged me to integrate a variety of approaches and questions within the narrower, but still rich field of British history itself. Our writing assignment for the semester was to write a paper that drew on every book and article we had read for the class, including cultural history, political history, social history, economic history, and foreign policy from the early eighteenth through the mid-twentieth century. We could write about anything we wanted, but we had to think of some sort of narrative that could draw on incredibly disparate material.

I decided that Britain’s history was unusual in comparison to the rest of Europe’s, because, despite all its eighteenth-century riots, it was the only state I knew that escaped revolution in modern times. There was my topic: social stability. And it worked. Whereas my discussion contributions convinced the professor that I knew little, the paper succeeded—not as history for other historians, but as an exercise in synthesis, which historians need to be able to do, but which we too rarely do, since acquiring historical expertise seems to require extreme specialization. That course taught me that I could integrate seemingly disparate historiography after all, albeit not on the fly in that kind of classroom context. It also taught me that such synthesis is not only desirable, but possible, even in unlikely situations. That goes not only for teaching, but also when trying to communicate specialized knowledge to colleagues with expertise in other areas.

This piece originally appeared on Clio and Me (now closed) on this date.

The Vocabulary of Grammar

Looking back, I am surprised at how easy it was for me to get through high school and many college courses without knowing a lot of basic vocabulary related to English grammar. I knew English grammar intuitively, and I could write, but I could not talk about grammar. I am lucky I knew enough intuitively, for this weakness could have become a real handicap for me in my studies.

In fact, it did become a weakness in one subject: Russian. We had to take a foreign language at Dartmouth College, and I fulfilled the requirement with Russian. But I was horrible. I do not believe that I ever rose above a C+. Part of the problem was study habits and discipline, but much of it related to my lack of appreciation of the nature of grammar. The professors used terms like genitive case, dative case, direct object, personal pronoun, possessive pronoun, conjugate, and decline, and it seemed like I had to devote too much energy to understanding that vocabulary and the things it indicated instead of learning Russian. Or I missed points entirely because I did not recognize their significance.

I only appreciated this dilemma later, after I took a break from Dartmouth and came back. During my time away I was in the army and stationed in Germany, where I learned to get by with rudimentary German. Upon returning to Dartmouth I decided I would like to learn German properly. My experience was enhanced considerably by a practical little book by Cecile Zorach entitled English Grammar for Students of German. It explained the way English grammar worked for certain situations and then compared it to German. It was through these comparisons that I began to gain an appreciation of the mechanics of English grammar and a vocabulary with which to talk about it. This knowledge later served me well when I found myself in Munich teaching English to Germans. Of course, the learning process never ended.

This piece originally appeared on Language for You (now closed) on this date.

Six Years Ago

Georgetown University in Washington, DC, did not cancel classes on September 12th, so I went into a class packed with mainly freshman at 9:15 a.m. By that point teaching early modern European history was out of the question, so we talked. After I got home, I sent the following message to everyone.

Date: Wednesday, September 12, 2001 12:56
Subject: reflections

Hi everyone,

Frankly, I was surprised by the rather large turnout in class this morning. Yesterday’s news was disturbing, and many of us feel worse as the details and reality of the terrorist attacks sink in. The class discussion was heartening for me, because I saw a large group of curious, thinking, politically astute and morally aware students, who will one day help to lead this country. There is still much to learn (for your professors too), but your remarks show that you want to learn. This desire to learn about and engage in the world might help give a little meaning to the tragedy.

Those of you who did not come to class leave me worried. Was it because of the general sad and bewildered atmosphere that has enveloped this city? Or have you lost family members or friends? I do not expect an answer to these questions, but I do want to point out two things to all students. First, those of you who feel despondent, in shock, depressed, angry, or confused should know that this is normal. You should also know that such feelings can be extremely debilitating if you cannot address them in some way. Make sure you seek out counselors, chaplains, advisors, professors, friends or family members for assistance. Some of you will find your academic work a good diversion–or way of understanding what happened. If, however, your personal situation makes such work impossible, because of depression or family obligations, please also visit your dean, who can run interference for you with your instructors.

Student reactions in class covered a wide spectrum of opinion and emotions, which I would like to summarize. Some of you appeared numbed or angered by the attack and could not yet put it into some sort of abstract moral or political framework. Others were outraged at the apparent insensitivity some people showed towards this great loss. These are normal reactions, and I imagine most of you have felt or will feel similarly, at least for a time. Many of you pondered what the U.S. reaction should be. While some expressed concerns about the morality and justice of retribution, others worried about what application of force might actually work. Who was behind these atrocities and what would be the most efficacious manner of dealing with them? One of you pointed out that any political or military reactions must consider the mindset of the terrorists, their cultural assumptions and psychological make-up. We cannot assume that they think as we do. Some of you talked about what yesterday’s event meant for your sense of security in the U.S. This concern appeared to waver between two poles: our own physical security and the impact that this violence will have on our own humanity. I underscored the latter concern. Finally, Anton [my TA that semester] pointed out that coming to terms with many of the big conflicts in our day entails learning how to ask the right questions. Besides learning about what happened in the past, our course provides an opportunity for you to learn how to ask trenchant questions.

Finally, some personal notes: A friend of ours in Augsburg, Germany (north of Munich) called this morning to find out how we are doing. She says no one in Augsburg is talking about anything else. They are horrified. My mother-in-law in Munich spoke of a minute of silence being observed today in the textile industry (probably elsewhere too). As far as my friends in New York go, well, it is impossible to get through on the phone. One can only hope and, if one is so inclined, pray.

I encourage you to participate in the university’s various forums for dialog today, and to listen to or read some quality news, such as NPR radio, The Washington Post, and so on. Some of you might also read the foreign press online. Participating in the country’s and world’s dialog is good not only for your intellectual development, but also for your mental health.

Take care of yourselves.

Best wishes,

Mark Stoneman


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

Stumbling Upon a Dissertation Topic

Historical scholarship can be as much the result of accident as planning. How on earth did I come to write a dissertation on Wilhelm Groener? I thought I liked doing social history, not biography. If I studied the army, I was more apt to find common soldiers interesting, not a general who assumed operational control of the whole army at the end of the First World War and who people addressed as “Your Excellency.” I was also not particularly interested in military-technical questions. Yes, I found the questions about humanity in warfare that I had explored in my M.A. thesis compelling. But German war planning for the First World War? And the German general staff’s experience of the war? These were not my things either, or so I thought. Besides, were not many meters of library shelf-space filled with books on these problems?

I first looked at Wilhelm Groener in a research seminar whose theme was the German bourgeoisie in Imperial Germany. Historians were devoting much renewed attention to this social class in the 1990s, because earlier interpretations had blamed the German middle class for not being middle-class enough and not doing what any bourgeoisie supposedly should have done, which was to put Prussia’s powerful nobility in its place and establish a proper constitutional monarchy. Germany’s unfortunate authoritarian modern history was attributed to an abstract process of maldevelopment, a German special path or Sonderweg, along which the bourgeoisie had failed to do what it allegedly had done in Britain and France, that is, rise up in a bourgeois revolution that made everything normal. New research on the middle class was beginning to undermine this view. Far from aping the nobility, the bourgeoisie had developed a self-confident, vibrant class culture. Our task in the seminar was to examine this research and consider its implications for understanding the broader outline—or grand narrative—of modern German history.

I eventually decided to concentrate on the officer corps, because it played a key role in the narrative of German exceptionalism. The nobility had dominated the officer corps and made it an illiberal force in society more generally. According to this narrative, birth, not military know-how, had played a decisive role in military careers. Hence, not only had the military been illiberal, but its leaders had allegedly not kept up with the times. Parallel to this version of the officer corps, however, existed another in which the German general staff had been the preeminent professional military organization in the world. Which, if any, of these interpretations was right? Here was an opportunity to examine the military in a mainstream historiographical context. The German bourgeoisie was receiving a lot of attention in the historiography, but the military—so central to the German Sonderweg thesis—remained largely untouched by this research.

So I did a comparative research paper on August Keim, Erich Ludendorff, and Wilhelm Groener, all commoners and all general staffers in Imperial Germany. I chose these men because there were enough published primary sources in Washington, DC to make a research paper viable. I showed that these men all had adhered to the mainstream bourgeois values that the new historiography identified, and I demonstrated that no contradiction between a military and a bourgeois ethos had existed. These commoners had not been “feudalized” by their aristocratic comrades-in-arms.

Considering these issues without reference to the First World War was unthinkable, so I also explored Keim’s, Ludendorff’s, and Groener’s images of war. After all, the feudal interpretation of the officer corps included a charge of aristocratic anachronism. Unfortunately, I was unable to link their social backgrounds and images of war, except to point out that their images of war comported with contemporary developments. Nonetheless, the work proved fruitful enough to suggest the possibility of a dissertation on one of these officers, Wilhelm Groener. I could use his biography as a vehicle for analyzing the sociology and culture of the Imperial German officer corps.


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