Moving on from my last ‘reading history’ post, I’ve decided to speed forward a little in time to a book I read in my first year as an undergraduate in University College, Cork. This book has had a profound influence not alone on me, but on my field of specialist research since it was first published in 2007. Continue reading
Category Archives: Reviews
My first introduction to historiography came in the shape of E.H. Carr’s 1961 text What Is History? in a European History course in my final year of high school. I had long been interested in history and had the benefit of excellent teachers but had never read anything specifically on what it meant to do or to write history. Carr’s book, based on a series of lectures delivered at Cambridge but aimed at a much wider audience, is clear and thought provoking and its central ideas have stayed with me ever since. (I still have the original essay I wrote about it for the high school class so that provides accurate evidence of my perspective at the time!) I recently bought a newer edition of the book and decided to revisit it, to see if my training as a historian has altered my perspective. The purpose of this piece is not to evaluate him in relation to contemporary thinking but to reflect on his core ideas, many of which have remained the subject of historiographical debate in the subsequent decades, though the language we use to discuss them may have changed.
On the first encounter, at the tender age of sixteen, What Is History? provoked two main reactions in me: First, it reinforced some ideas about history that I had only picked up subconsciously before – that how history is written depends on when it is written and who writes it and that the narratives created are not objective because they involve the selection of facts or evidence. Second, I remember being frustrated by its somewhat theoretical or abstract nature – even though Carr uses examples, they were probably more familiar and current to his audience at the time and left me still wanting to know more about the application of his ideas.
Over fifty years have passed since Carr first delivered his ‘broadside on history’ and in any analysis of it we cannot escape the statement he made at the beginning: ‘When we attempt to answer the question, What is History?, our answer, consciously or unconsciously, reflects our own position in time, and forms part of our answer to the broader question what view we take of the society in which we live.’ This principle applies not only to texts on historical subjects, but also his own, which does indeed reflect his position in time – the atmosphere of post-war Britain and the Cold War. Certainly it’s now unacceptable to refer to the historian consistently using the male pronoun, but I’ll excuse Carr on that point given his generation! Many of the examples he uses to illustrate his points also come from the realm of political history, though there are occasional hints at the emergence of social history: ‘People do not cease to be people, or individuals individuals, because we do not know their names,’ even if he only attaches significance to these nameless individuals when they act en masse.
The idea that a historian’s writings reflects his/her own era is related to Carr’s more general ideas about bias and interpretation. The term bias is often taken to have a negative connotation, but in this case it means something closer to perspective that effects interpretation. These ideas largely come through in the first chapter, ‘The Historian and His Facts.’ Carr’s argument gets a bit bogged down by his attempt to define what a ‘fact’ is and how it becomes a ‘historical fact’, but for the purpose of examining his ideas they can be viewed essentially as the raw materials of history or, the term most commonly used today, evidence. History, then, is written through selection of facts/evidence and this process is an act of interpretation. (I have found this idea one of the most difficult to instil in students, who, coming straight out of secondary school still seem to think books equal unquestionable truth.) Based on Collingwood’s ideas, Carr states three main points: ‘history means interpretation’ (historians tend to find what they’re looking for); the historian needs an ‘imaginative understanding’ of the mindset of the people he/she studies; and we can only look at the past ‘through the eyes of the present’ as even the language we use embodies that perspective. However, he recognizes the dangers of complete skepticism, subjectivity, post-modernism, and all the other post-isms that this view might seem to suggest, that we could be left with either with a history that has no meaning or an infinity of meanings. The way he seeks to resolve this apparent contradiction is through the idea of ‘reciprocal action’ on two levels, ‘between the historian and his facts’ and ‘between the present and the past’. And thus we have the idea of historiography! For example, I don’t think any scholar of American immigration history today sees Oscar Handlin’s The Uprooted and its narrative of assimilation / Americanization as the definitive text on the subject, and yet they still read it and reference it because of its place in the development of the field and to show the distance between it and contemporary work. We are in the business of constantly revising the past.
Much has changed in the world and in historiography since Carr’s time and from the standpoint of the present we recognize his shortcomings: his somewhat elitist view on the eve of the revolution brought by social history, his focus on the political and on history as a ‘science’, his belief in ‘progress’. Nonetheless, I think his ideas about the working process of the historian, with its subjectivity and continual series of revisions, remain central our discipline at all levels – teaching, research, and writing.
This post is dedicated to Dr. Christian Nøkkentved, affectionately known to generations of students as ‘Doc Nok’, a member of the history faculty at the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy who retired this year. I am forever grateful to him and the other members of the department for their time and enthusiasm, which continue to inspire me today. I first read Carr’s book in his class and he is in many ways responsible for my interest in social history.
 E.H. Carr letter to Isaac Deutscher, March 1960, in Richard J. Evans, introduction to E.H. Carr, What is History?, 2nd ed. (Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke, Hampshire, 2001), p.xix.
 Carr, What is History?, p.2.
 Carr, What is History?, p.44.
 Carr, What is History?, pp.18-20.
 Carr, What is History?, pp.20-21.
 Carr, What is History?, p.24.
Film Review of The Enigma of Frank Ryan
Directed by Des Bell
Starring: Dara Devaney, Barry Barnes, Mia Gallagher, Frankie McCafferty
Frank Ryan is a figure who consistently inspires comment and interest despite the rather small role he played in Irish history. Famous left-republican leader and Gaelic scholar in the 1920s and 1930s, Ryan led the Irish who fought for the Spanish Republic against Franco during the Spanish Civil War until his capture in March 1938. The abiding interest however, concerns the question of what Ryan, famous anti-fascist leader, was doing in Nazi Germany during the Second World War? This is the central question the aptly titled ‘The Enigma of Frank Ryan’ seeks to address.
The narrative of the film situates itself around Ryan’s time in Berlin, where, through flashbacks, Ryan examines his previous life in Ireland and Spain. Combining dramatic reconstructions sliced with real archival footage, the film overall is an interesting and enjoyable one. From certain newspaper headlines previewing the film I had the impression that Ryan’s life would be dealt with in simplistic black and white terms – Frank Ryan, Nazi collaborator, end of story. However, upon viewing, I was pleasantly surprised that this was not the case. The director Desmond Bell has avoided the easy route of sensationalism, and has instead provided a nuanced portrait of Ryan’s time in Berlin.
Released from Burgos jail into the hands of the Nazis in July 1940, Ryan found himself seemingly a free man in Berlin. Bell does well in portraying the ambiguities of Ryan’s situation. Initially, Ryan does not know what interest the Nazis have in him until he is brought to a meeting with Seán Russell, IRA Chief-of-Staff. Russell, a purely military man, is in Germany to seek assistance for the IRA from the Nazis – my enemy’s enemy is my friend – and wants to bring Ryan back to Ireland with him. Ryan chastises Russell for seeking help from the Nazis, but accepts his offer of a trip home to Ireland via U-boat when Russell assures him that he is only offering Ryan a way home, nothing more. Nevertheless, when Russell dies en-route, Ryan decides to return to Berlin. Here the Nazis keep him in order to use him in the event of an invasion of Ireland – by Britain or Germany. Ryan is therefore not a prisoner, but nor is he simply free to do as he pleases. Yet Ryan is never shown as collaborating with the Nazis. He never acknowledges the ‘Heil Hitler’ greeting, refuses to be used for a propaganda broadcast to Ireland, and seeks answers to the purpose of the concentration camps. Although there is no evidence for any of this, nor is there any real evidence that Ryan directly assisted the Nazis, and Bell uses his artistic license well to develop scenarios which appear balanced, and assist in portraying the confusing and complicated situation Ryan found himself in.
Despite this, the same standards are not applied to the rest of the film. Ryan’s life in Ireland and Spain is incredibly condensed and abounds with unnecessary historical inaccuracies. This is to the detriment of the film as a whole, which appears rushed and sloppy. No real effort is made to develop the character of anyone other than Ryan, and coupled with bad acting, ensures that everyone comes off as one-dimensional caricatures. It is to be expected in a biographical film that certain parts of a person’s life must take precedence over others. It is also reasonable that a director should be able to change aspects of the history in order to develop the plot. For instance, the relationship/conflict between Ryan and Russell looms larger in the film than it did in real life. In my opinion, this is a valid reworking in order to prepare the audience for their encounter in Germany, and so assists in telling the overall story. Similarly, although it would have been better if more attention was paid to the reasons behind Ryan’s disillusionment with the IRA and the development of Republican Congress, it is reasonable that this is condensed in order that more time is devoted to examining his life in Germany. What is unacceptable however, are inaccuracies where none need exist. There are small mistakes, such as incorrectly dating the Eucharistic Congress to 1934 instead of 1932 which can be forgiven. The main inaccuracies concern Ryan’s time in Spain, by far the weakest part of the film. Not only are Ryan’s fellow International Brigaders reduced to a status commensurable with those of unthinking puppets, there are so many inaccuracies here that a historian could be forgiven for thinking that the makers of the film took no more than a cursory glance at the material concerning Spain. To give two small examples; we see Ryan walking over the Pyrenees in December 1936 when in fact he was driven over and we see Rosamund Jacob pleading with Ryan when he is home in Ireland in May 1937 not to go back, saying the International Brigades are being disbanded – this was not announced until the end of September 1938. We also see the bust-up between the British and Irish at their base, as well as the battle of Jarama, grossly oversimplified when the reality would have provided a much more entertaining and believable film. The Blueshirts never appear, and General O’Duffy, who led some 700 Irishmen on the side of Franco, is only once casually mentioned by Ryan, when no reference has previously been made to explain him and what he represented. We are consequently faced with the most serious fault that no real attempt is made to explain why Ryan left to fight in Spain in the first place. My concern is that someone watching this film with no knowledge of the context would get the impression that Ryan left simply because he was hot-headed and needed to be in the middle of any fight going.
Having said this, the film is worth seeing, and Bell is to be congratulated for bringing Ryan’s story to the screen. One cannot help but feel however that a chance has been missed to provide an entertaining as well as an accurate and educational account of Ryan’s life.
Review of Jo Langer, Convictions: My Life With A Good Communist (2nd ed. London: Granta, 2011)
In the early 1950s, the Czechoslovak revolution, like the Russian before it, began devouring its own children. Former high officials of the Communist Party were arrested, tortured, and forced to sign false confessions detailing their activities as imperialist/ Trotskyist/ Titoist/Zionist spies. Those who had spent time in the west before or during the Second World War were most vulnerable, likely to have been traitors, corrupted into serving capitalism. Jews, ironically and sickeningly, were as a group also particularly vulnerable, as in a new twist on the racist stereotype of the ‘wandering Jew’, were deemed ‘cosmopolitan’, open again to the lure and corruption of the west and in particular, that of Israel. Ironic and sickening in that communism was supposedly an ideology that knew no boundary of ethnicity or religion, and in that the accused communist Jews were often the first who for years had been ‘wandering’ in the west due to being forced into exile for their communist and anti-fascist activities, many volunteering in the fight against Franco in Spain, and continuing their struggle in the underground resistance throughout Europe during the Second World War. Communist states, supposedly solidly built on anti-fascist foundations, now saw those with the clearest anti-fascist credentials as suspect. Even those at the very top of the pyramid were prone to a crushing fall, and the terror culminated in the infamous trial of former secretary-general of the party Rudolf Slánský and thirteen other defendants from 1951-3. Of these, eleven were Jewish, and in total, twelve were hanged. The story of the trial has been told well in the account of one of the defendants, Artur London in his 1968 book L’Aveu, published in English variously as The Confession and On Trial, and made into a film by the former name in 1970 by Costa-Gavras. A powerful accompaniment to London’s account is that of Jo Langer, wife of an imprisoned victim of the trial, Oscar Langer.
In her memoir Convictions: My Life With A Good Communist (1979), we get a viewpoint so often missing from history – that of those who are left behind; the families of the victims, left to fend for themselves against the cancer of lies, intimidation and surveillance that spread throughout society. Jo and her husband, both communists and Jews, had lived in the United States during the war. Many of their family members had perished in Nazi concentration camps. Despite the safety and relative prosperity of life in the US, Oscar immediately accepted an invitation back to Czechoslovakia after the war to play a role in the reconstruction of his country. Jo, Hungarian by birth, unhappy in her marriage and relatively content with life in the US, was wont to leave but nevertheless overcame her reluctance and accompanied her husband to Bratislava. Their immediate deprivation was seen as temporary, and a necessary discomfort to be endured while Czechoslovakia, with help from the Soviet Union, rebuilt the country along socialist lines. Oscar, a leading member of the party in Slovakia, went further however. Throughout her memoir, Jo gives us snippets of the guilt she was made to feel for anything considered even a small luxury while others in the world went without basic necessities – the ever-present ‘Chinese coolie’ in their relationship as she terms it.
And yet Oscar, despite his devotion to the party, was arrested and placed on trail, accused of assisting Slánský. Avoiding eventual execution, he was nevertheless imprisoned, tortured, kept in solitary confinement and forced to give a confession as to the nature of his relationship with Slánský, whom he had never even met. Twice he attempted suicide, and both times failed. Jo was kicked out of her home and with her two daughters, banished to a remote village in rural Slovakia, her apartment given over to accommodate party officials. Deprived of work and the right to live in Bratislava, she and her daughters eked out an existence of poverty and fear. Eventually allowed back to Bratislava, she recounts how all her old friends kept away from her and how all doors remained closed to her and her family because of her husband. Scraping by in a dilapidated basement working mostly translating official documents into Hungarian, she suffered constantly. Not allowed to see her husband for three years, she nevertheless fought on, battling the bureaucracy and at times, paying grovelling visits to officials she despised and lived in fear of, in the hope of seeing the release of her husband, once estranged, but now united with her against the terror. And yet she fought alone. Oscar, despite all that existed before his eyes, refused to believe the party and his comrades could be responsible, believing instead that the security apparatus was acting above the party.
In 1960, Oscar was amnestied and released. His return was bittersweet however. His wife felt him more domineering than ever, never commending her for what she had done to survive, eager to forgive party officials and hold meetings in their house for the reform of the party while Jo worked to provide for their family both outside and within the home. His relationship with his children Susie and Tania was no less strained. In short, he failed to see what lay before his eyes, preferring to believe instead in an imaginary world where the party could do no wrong and where his wife and children were at fault for being too decadent and not struggling enough to build socialism in their country. Weakened by his ordeal, he died two years later.
Jo and her daughters would eventually escape as the tanks rolled in to crush the Prague Spring in 1968. The hopes for ‘socialism with a human face’ convinced others, but never her, having seen the result of 1956 in her native Hungary, and the opportunism of those who had committed her husband to prison embrace socialist reform in 1968, biding their time for the return to totalitarian rule. Her account, though cynical at times, is an important and ultimately heartrending one. Her struggle – as a worker, Hungarian, communist, Jew, immigrant, and woman – is inspiring and shocking. She presents a courageous testimony to the Kafkaesque ordeal of Central and Eastern Europeans in the twentieth century, and the complexity of individual lives witness to and struggling to wake from this nightmare.