Mars, the god of war, from late 1918. Source and further details: Library of Congress, PPOC.
Category: War and Society
Interesting to consider that this was a reality for school kids in the early days of the Cold War. By the 1970s, when I was in school and aware of such things, such an understanding of nuclear weapons would have seemed extemely naive.
In the mid-1980s, in the field artillery, we were taught to drop to the ground, asses to the blast and hands between our legs. That was for tactical nuclear artillery rounds, but it felt just as silly.
Source and further details: Prelinger Archives, https://archive.org/details/DuckandC1951.
“What was once seen as standing ‘outside’ history, demanding silent contemplation but resisting explanation or contextualisation, has now been firmly historicised. Comparative genocide studies, histories of colonialism and genocidal violence, studies of western penal practice and more besides have demonstrated that the processes which led to the Holocaust were integral to modern history, not an aberration from it.”Neil Gregor, “‘To Think is to Compare’: Walther Rathenau, Trump and Hitler,” History Today, February 20, 2017.
I’ve been taking some time to think more about a slow-moving article on Wilhelm Groener I’ve been working on. It has received a big boost recently from the GHI’s new focus on the history of knowledge.
A truism holds that generals prepare to fight the last war, not the next one. Unable to peer into the future, they make do with the lessons of the past. Fair enough, perhaps, but this common-sense wisdom presupposes that military leaders will necessarily understand the salient features of the last war without preconceptions about war and officering affecting their discernment. In other words, the truism fails to account for the effects of prior training, experience, and acculturation in the production of knowledge about war. Instead, it implicitly assumes the existence of universal soldierdom, as if officering and soldiering—but for technology—were not culturally and historically contingent.
Wilhelm Groener (1867–1939) offers a case in point. A general staff officer in the German army who rose to prominence quickly in the First World War, Groener became an important spokesman in the interwar period for the so-called Schlieffen school, offering an interpretation of the war seemingly at odds with what actually happened. Instead of deriving new lessons from the stalemate, as his contemporary Erich Ludendorff did in a nightmarish vision of politics serving war instead of vice versa, Groener doubled down on the knowledge he had internalized in peacetime Wilhelmine Germany. Issuing from neither a military outsider nor an original thinker and steeped in antebellum military thoughtways and culture, Groener’s interpretation of the First World War can be analyzed in relation to his prewar training and wartime experiences to show the inner logic of the professional military knowledge and culture in which he was steeped.
One of the new research focuses at the GHI since our director, Simone Lässig, began her tenure last October is the history of knowledge.1 The study of knowledge in its societal context (as opposed to thought experiments about truth in the discipline of philosophy) has some tradition in sociology and anthropology, but it is still a relatively new focus in English-language historiography, at least in my experience here in the U.S.2
A good introduction for me was Peter Burke, What is the History of Knowledge (polity, 2016). It says more about what the field can encompass than it does about historiographical debates or plausible narratives. Still, for an outsider like me, the book offers helpful vocabulary and categories with which to begin thinking about this subject. A different kind of text that I also found useful is Ian F. McNeely and Lisa Wolverton, Reinventing Knowledge: From Alexandria to the Internet (W. W. Norton & Company, 2008). If the focus is on the West and elite knowledge, and if it offers generalizations that specialists might pick apart, it has the merit of offering a narrative that helps the reader to think about the production, preservation, transmission, and consumption of knowledge over a long span of time. I find such historical narratives absolutely necessary when first getting my feet wet in a subject.
Knowledge history can encompass faith traditions and the academic disciplines, of course, but it can go well beyond that to all walks of life, whether the knowledge is explicit or implicit, published or produced and transmitted in a workshop, and so on. With its interest in what people know and how they produce, use, and disseminate this knowledge, knowledge history does not feel all that strange from the perspective of social and cultural history. Indeed, knowledge history seems capable of dovetailing productively with these more familiar approaches.
In Isabel Hull, Absolute Destruction (Cornell UP, 2006), for example, we learn that army officers in Imperial Germany shared a certain understanding and approach to war despite their diverse training, career paths, and experiences; however, we never learn how they came to share this common military culture. If we consider what these men knew about war, we still have a phenomenon whose cultural logic can be unpacked, but now we can also start asking about the education, training, and acculturation that helped transform young men into military professionals. In other words, we can begin to think about how and what officers learned and knew as well as how they produced and transmitted this knowledge. In this way, a static image of culture becomes dynamic, capable of changing over time.
The history of knowledge is not all that foreign to the business and consumption history I edited under the previous director either, even if that history has not been written with the history of knowledge in mind or in the vein of cultural history. The most interesting book of this type I encountered was Hartmut Berghoff, Philip Scranton, and Uwe Spiekermann, eds., The Rise of Marketing and Market Research (Palgrave, 2012). The titles of its individual chapters might sound highly specialized, but together they show how different social and economic actors came to conceive and understand the markets in which they were operating in ways that modernday ideological adherence to capitalism as a natural, ahistorical phenomenon remains oblivious. The subtitle of the introduction includes the term “information” (not “knowledge”) but many of the examples in the book show entrepreneurs and others producing knowledge, that is, coming up with new ways to understand society and gather and use data to sell goods.
In hindsight, I think I found this particular book so interesting because of the knowledge aspect of the topic. For example, in “Making the Ledgers Talk: Customer Control and the Origins of Data Mining,” Josh Lauer shows how U.S. department stores in the early decades of the twentieth century had credit departments—not necessarily profitable—as a service to their customers. Yet some people in these departments came to understand how much sales data they were sitting on and began to use it to target specific kinds of customers with direct mail campaigns, based on their specific purchase histories. In other words, these credit departments took information already on hand and transformed it into new knowledge about their customers that could be used to increase sales.
Featured image: Boys learning to typeset in Boston, MA, 1909. Source: Library of Congress, PPOC, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/ncl2004000884/PP/.
- See Simone Lässig, preface, Bulletin of the German Historical Institute Washington DC 58 (Spring 2016), http://www.ghi-dc.org/fileadmin/user_upload/GHI_Washington/Publications/Bulletin58/bu58_3.pdf. ↩
- Karl Mannheim, Essays on the Sociology of Knowledge, ed. Paul Kecskemeti (London: Routledge, 1952), https://archive.org/details/essaysonsociolog00mann; Clifford Geertz, Local Knowledge: Further Essays in Interpretive Anthropology (New York: Basic Books, 1983. ↩