Monthly Archives: March 2016

Brezhnev and Soviet Stagnation

By the end of the Khrushchev era, conservatives within the regime saw nothing but failure.  Not only had the post Stalinist thaw resulted in chaos as far as they could see, but the economic initiatives the General Secretary had put forward, such as the Virgin Lands Campaign, had been dismal failures.

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The coup to oust him, partly orchestrated by Leonid Brezhnev, was followed by an 18 year period where new economic ideas were looked upon with suspicion at best. Lenin, Stalin and Khrushchev had all based their rule on a particular model of political economy, the economic ideas they espoused came to define their time in power, for better or worse. Brezhnev was the first Soviet leader who explicitly argued that there would be no defining economic idea and that under conditions of ‘mature socialism’ that ideas themselves were unwarranted. There is an immense irony in the appointment of Alexei Kosygin as Chairman of the Council Of Ministers, who had joint control of the Soviet economy with Brezhnev. Kosygin introduced three waves of reforms, all sabotaged by conservatives and by the legacy of Stalinism on the Soviet economy. They attempted to introduce competitive practices and principals into the Soviet economy without allowing a fully privatised market economy to develop. Kosygin died in 1980 and on his death was unsuccessful in transforming the Soviet economy, but his reforms paved the way for a second attempt at change under Gorbachev some five years later. For more on this, watch the video below:

 

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John Maynard Keynes and the American Loan

Britain’s two world wars were fought as much by economists as they were by generals. Finding a strategy to pay for the wars against Germany and her Axis allies was a key part of Britain’s national survival. Hitler’s economic strategy was based around conquest and plunder, with occupied peoples paying for his wars and Germany’s standards of living. In Britain’s case, the USA by 1941 was the country’s source of economic salvation and it was John Maynard Keynes who had most interaction with the American treasury officials and diplomats to negotiate not only the wartime loans but also the shape of the post war world economy. In this podcast, we explore the implications for Britain of the post war loan negotiated by Keynes, that was secured from the USA in 1945 and the high price America extracted in return.

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Over-teaching the Holocaust

 

In 2014 I attended a forum held by No auschwitz-2.gif10 Downing Street at Wembley Arena. Holocaust survivors and their families were being invited to participate in the Prime Minister’s commission for a permanent memorial for the Holocaust in Britain. Since the 1990s, successive British Prime Ministers have each attempted to out-do their predecessors in their desire to acknowledge and embrace the legacy of the Holocaust. Organisations like the Holocaust Education Trust, who I work for from time to time have benefitted in terms of funding and their ability to influence government policy, and the profile of the Holocaust has steadily risen in the classroom. I can see the benefits of this when I work on the Lessons From Auschwitz programme twice a year and we take hundreds of pupils to Poland to see the crematoria and the railways. The general opinion of the survivors and families gathered at the PM’s forum, hosted by Natasha Kaplinsky and attended by such luminaries as Eric Pickles, was that the Holocaust ought to be taught even more in schools, that the lessons were still not being learned and that children still did not know enough about it. In some schools it is possible to study the Holocaust in KS3, Nazism and the Third Reich at GCSE and again at A level. Many pupils (as I have previously discussed here) come to the subject with everything the History Channel has provided them with, meaning that far from their being a lack of knowledge, they are saturated with it. If it is taught at KS3, the re-teaching of the subject at GCSE does nothing for the overall understanding of the Holocaust (and research being done at the moment, which I can’t say any more about now because it is still being written but I will hopefully be able to divulge soon) suggests that it actually undermines deeper learning about the Final Solution.

Are there better ways of doing this? Yes, of course, and I will try to address alternatives to repetition in coming posts.

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The point of Explaining History

Here, in a nutshell, is why is set up this blog, podcast and YouTube Channel. I think.

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Problems with teaching about dictatorships

By the time most teachers have started delivering GCSE or A level lessons on Nazi Germany, their pupils will already have consumed hours of movies, documentaries and YouTube clips about Hitler. This, you might think, is an advantage. Rarely can a classroom teacher expect their learners to come prepared with subject knowledge so when they do it should be embraced.

Berlin, Großkundgebung im Sportpalast

Das deutsche Volk fordert den grossen Krafteinsatz zur Erzwingung des Sieges. Am Donnerstagabend fand im Berliner Sportpalast eine Grosskundgebung der Bevölkerung Berlins statt, in der Reichsminister Dr. Goebbels mit schonungsloser Offenheit die Gefahr aufzeigte, in der Europa schwebt. Die von dem alten nationalsozialistischen Kampfgeist getragene Veranstaltung brachte das einmütige und leidenschaftliche Bekenntnis der Teilnehmer, der Männer und Frauen, der Ritterkreuzträger und Rüstungsarbeiter, der Verwundeten und zahllosen Männer aus allen Schaffens- und Wissensgebieten, den Krieg rücksichtslos und in seiner radikalsten Totalität zu führen und den Sieg über den Bolschewismus zu erzwingen. UBz: Uebersicht über den Sportpalast während der Kundgebung. Fot. Schwahn 18.2.1943 J 5235

Well, yes and no. Perhaps more no than yes.

A two dimensional, highly simplified and mythologised version of Germany in the 1930s is absorbed from the various history cable channels by learners who come to the lesson with the following preconceptions and misconceptions:

  • Hitler’s regime terrorised everyone, all day long, all the time.
  • Everyone supported the Nazis.
  • Everyone fanatically supported the Nazis.
  • All Germans were anti Semites.
  • Hitler’s government reached all areas of German life, all the time.
  • Everyone was brainwashed by propaganda.
  • Hitler’s economic policies were incredibly successful and the dictatorship got Germany working again.
  • Hitler had a plan for the Holocaust from 1918 onwards.
  • The people were terrified into supporting the regime.

And so on. It’s not to say parts of the above list are to some extent valid, but a real understanding of any time period or era is about seeing the nuances and the extent to which any given statement, however sweeping, can be said to be valid. Nazism, Stalinism and Maoism were all complex interactions between regime and society. In all three dictatorships the public had to be courted (particularly in Nazi Germany, that relied on endless plebiscites and referenda). Hitler was exceptionally sensitive to changes in the public mood during the 1930s and was aware that his public persona and popularity were very important. The range of views, opinions and attitudes towards Nazism was diverse, as Ian Kershaw points out, there were few fanatical supporters or opponents of the regime, simply a large ‘muddled majority’, trying to do their best to get what benefits they could from the regime and avoid falling foul of social or racial laws. By 1938 social research conducted by the SS on one hand and the Social Democratic Party’s covert agents in the county, Sopade, tended to indicate that there was widespread political indifference and apathy. People under the Nazis therefore interacted with politics in ways that are to some extent recognisable with the present day. They often felt cynical about the regime’s endless pronouncements, particularly as for much of the 1930s few Germans saw the material benefits of Nazism. Equally, there is precious little evidence to suggest that the German people were en masse a warlike population. Having suffered far greater losses than Great Britain during World War One and famine, revolution and political violence at the end of the war, many Germans were keen to avoid a repetition of the conflict in the late 1930s.

In general, it is important to start off a module on Nazism, Stalinism or any other dictatorship by showing that dictatorships may promise simplicity, but that doesn’t mean they deliver it. Instead they govern complex societies and the extent to which they really change those societies or mould them in their own image is debatable.

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Holocaust Controversies

This is a video I recorded earlier today, focusing on the memory of the Holocaust in Europe and America. I’ve already done quite a lot on debates surrounding the origins of the Holocaust so this is more focused on the contested memory of the final solution:

 

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Lawrence of Arabia

In 1918, at the end of the First World War, Thomas Edward Lawrence was unknown to the vast majority of the British population. Throughout the 1920s, however, his wartime activities were popularised and he became a military celebrity that ranked alongside Horatio Nelson. With_Lawrence_in_ArabiaLawrence had been British intelligence in Egypt’s liaison with the Arab rebels of the Hejaz and had waged a guerrilla war against the Ottoman Empire. He was one of the few Arabic speakers in the British Army and had worked before the war as an archeologist in Syria. He was a complex and contradictory figure, at once shy and reluctant to appear in the public eye, but also an egotistical self promoter who did much to build his own myth. His sexual ambiguity and his ability to discard his ‘Britishness’ during the revolt, living with the Arabs and dressing like an Arabian prince (which he did briefly, an aspect of the film of Lawrence of Arabia which is much exaggerated), have made him a figure of fascination for a century. British audiences f0und much to admire in Lawrence, considering the fact that the rest on the war fought on the western front was interpreted in  an almost exclusively negative light.

Watch the video below for the full story on the creation of Lawrence’s legend:

 

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