Reflections after Class

One of those questions came up in class tonight with a group of MA students discussing Peter Fritzsche’s Life and Death in the Third Reich (Cambridge, MA, 2008), a question where I grow perhaps too animated, maybe conveying impatience, even arrogance, or, if I’m lucky, simply passion. What was the difference between communism under Stalin and nazism under Hitler?

The differences are stark, but there’s that pesky word “socialism” and the collectivist rhetoric that is so easily conflated or confused with “collectivization,” never mind the existence of economic plans, mass murder, and a host of apparently shared phenomena commonly subsumed under the heading of “totalitarianism.” So why does this question sometimes cause me to push back instead of letting students gradually begin to understand, taking as many intermediary steps as they need to get there?

I would like to blame the heat and my tiredness after a forty-eight-hour power loss at home, and there’s something to that. But this is also one of those topics that can get my goat under better conditions, unless I am prepared for it. I am ready these days when teaching History 100 (“Western Civilization”), but the question took me by surprise in the context of a graduate survey of modern Europe. I am beginning to think it should not have.

Something about this question can elude or confound even well-informed graduate students like those in my current class. Something is getting lost in translation from a past that grows more distant, more remote. The words “nazi” and “socialist” and “communist” are on many lips in these United States, but they’re employed in our own contemporary struggles over ideology, identity, and politics. They help us to create meaning in our own world, but this circumstance complicates the already difficult task of understanding the Germany and Soviet Union that existed in the 1930s and 1940s.

Perhaps it’s time to choose some primary sources for the students to analyze in at least a portion of our next class.

The Politics of Identity and How We Learn History

There is an interesting article in yesterday’s New York Times about how Texas is changing the content of its American high school history textbooks. Instead of taking potshots at its clear abuses of history, however, the author locates it in a broader context of history curricula and identity politics over the past few decades. See Sam Tanehaus, “In Texas Curriculum Fight, Identity Politics Leans Right.”

Kevin Levin of the blog Civil War Memory thinks that the focus on textbooks in this newest episode of America’s culture wars misses the point, however. He points out that much history teaching is no longer focused on textbooks. He has a point. Even those of us who still sometimes use textbooks and do not rely as heavily on the internet see history education in terms very different than those of the Texas Board. See “Texas, Textbooks, and the Battle For Our Children’s Souls” and “If I Should Teach American Exceptionalism . . .

Contemporary Political Rhetoric and Teaching History

Earlier this month I did a post on my Hist 100 blog that might be of some interest to readers here, “Contemporary Politics and History.” My audience was primarily freshmen in their first semester at university, most of them too young to have voted in the last election.

I have said this in class, but it needs repeating here: Our contemporary American political discourse about socialism and nazism has absolutely nothing to do with those terms and phenomena in actual history. While we are not in class to talk about American politics, I want to point out how language and history are being abused for political purposes. I am not doing this to undermine the stances of politicians who use hyperbole to make their points. There are perfectly good ideological and policy reasons that one can bring to either side of the health care debate, the energy policy debate, environmental policy debates, and so on. But none of these reasons has anything to do with Hitler, nazism, communism, or socialism—not if we are being honest, and as long as we are willing to see the slippery slope argument for what it is, a logical fallacy.

This abuse of history used to just offend me as a citizen who knew something about history, but addressing the abuse became part of my teaching job this summer when I had a student try to explain Hitler in terms of “socialism” and “big government.” That is when I realized that not only was history being abused for political purposes, but our contemporary political discourse was getting in the way of students understanding the past. That’s why I wrote a blog post on my own history blog sarcastically entitled, “What Having a Socialist Nazi in the White House Means for the Classroom.”

I could follow the logic of the student who described Hitler in terms of “socialism” and “big government,” if I were willing to understand the past in terms of this country’s contemporary self-image, but I am not. We need to take the past on its own terms and try to understand it in some detail before we attempt easy analogies. In other words, my concern relates to historical thinking, that is, that thing I began teaching you with the reading assignments from August 31st, including Gerald Schlabach’s “A Sense of History.”


This blog post originally appeared on Clio and Me on this date.

What Having a Socialist Nazi in the White House Means for the Classroom

I am probably not alone when I say that I have a hard time taking GOP “socialism” rhetoric seriously. The same goes for right-wing attempts to equate Obama with Hitler. Apparently, however, I need to keep this rhetoric in mind when planning my classes, for it has entered my classroom in an unexpected way. In a blue book essay about totalitarianism this summer, one student explained nazism in terms of “socialism” and “big government.” There was no political intent behind these statements. The student simply drew on the language of everyday life, as students are wont to do.

This is a sad commentary on what rhetorical excess on the right is doing to our everyday vocabulary, but it also presents an opportunity. Without engaging in politicking, I can use this apparent linguistic and cultural deficit not only as motivation to be more thorough about how I teach socialism, nazism, and other modern political ideologies and systems, but also as an example for historical thinking. My instinct here is to talk about the use and abuse of history, which is probably what I will do. On the other hand, however, some of those who throw around the “s” word really believe that socialism is on the march in the United States. If I were to take such fears seriously, I would also use them to teach my students about how the meaning of language shifts and even mutates over time, sometimes meaning different things to different groups of people. This too would be a worthwhile lesson, although it would bring me closer to something that some students might perceive as politicking. I should probably take that chance.


This blog post originally appeared on Clio and Me on this date.

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.