1914: The Year in Review

by pamela on December 19, 2014

Like most people who write about history online, this year I’ve spent a lot of time and virtual ink on the beginning of the First World War this year. * It’s easy to forget that the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand and Europe’s tumble into war wasn’t the only thing that happened in 1914.

Charlie Chaplin

Here are some of the highlights:

 James Joyce published Dubliners and Edgar Rice Burroughs published Tarzan of the Apes.  You could argue that Tarzan was the more important in terms of the extent of its cultural influence.

Charlie Chaplin made his first film: an improvised short titled Kid Auto Races at Venice.

Sir Ernest Shackleton set out on his third and most famous expedition to Antarctica.  His ship, the badly named Endurance, was crushed by ice and Shackleton and his crew floated on sheets of ice for months.

The first ship sailed through the Panama Canal, ending its journey on August 3.  No one paid much attention because German troops marched into neutral Belgium the next morning.

The first electric traffic light was installed–not in New York, Paris, or London but in Cleveland, Ohio, at the corner of Euclid and 105th

* Ten posts since June.  Unless the Marginites rise up and scream “no more WWI! Please!”, there will be more to come over the next few years.


There Was and There Was Not

by pamela on December 16, 2014

As I’ve mentioned in the past, historical subjects sometimes track me down, screaming “learn more about me, dagnabbit!”

Over the last few years, the Armenian genocide *–and the controversies surrounding the existence of that genocide in modern Turkey–has been tracking me down in an on-again off-again way.

Armenian genocide

Armenians are marched to a nearby prison in Mezireh by armed Turkish soldiers. Kharpert, Armenia, Ottoman Empire, April, 1915

I first became aware of the genocide, and the controversy surrounding them in Turkey, when I read Elif Shafak’s brilliant novel, The Bastard of Istanbul (2007). Then a freelance assignment or two plunged me into the subject of  arrests of publishers, journalists and authors on accusations of violating Turkey’s controversial** article 301, which makes it illegal to insult “Turkishness”.  Thousands of authors, including Shafak and Nobel-prize winner Orhan Pamuk, were arrested for  statements regarding the genocide.  Next up was My Grandmother: A Memoir ( 2004), in which Turkish lawyer and civil rights activist Fethiye Çetin tells the story of her grandmother’s experience as one of the “leftovers of the sword” who survived the Ottoman massacre and was subsequently adopted into a Turkish home.

I thought I had a handle on the topic. I thought I wouldn’t read anything else on the subject.  Then Meline Toumani’s There Was and There was Not floated across my desk as a possible book for review.

In 2005, Armenian-American journalist Meline Toumani traveled to Turkey, a place she had previously known only as “a terrifying idea”, with the intention of studying Armenian-Turkey relations for a month or two, three at the most..  She stayed two years–with the help of regular “visa runs” over the border.  The result of her immersion in a culture she had been trained to “hate, fear and fight” is There Was and There Was Not: A Journey Through Hate and Possibility in Turkey, Armenia and Beyond: an engaging and deeply personal exploration of ethnicity, nationalism, history and identity.

The conflicting Armenian and Turkish narratives regarding the massacre of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire in 1915 defined the Armenian diaspora community of Toumani’s childhood. On the one hand, Turkey has historically denied that the massacre existed, or at best minimized the scale of the deaths.  On the other hand, the Armenian community focuses substantially energy on campaigns designed to pressure the Turkish government to recognize the massacre as genocide. Toumani had reached the point where the dominance of the genocide narrative felt like an artistic and emotional chokehold.  She set out to Turkey in an attempt to answer two questions: how could she honor her history without being suffocated by it and why did Turks cling to their version of the events of 1915?

Toumani brings the reader along on a voyage of discovery that begins with her growing doubts about the emotional, psychological and political costs of the Armenian diaspora’s focus on Turkish recognition of the genocide and ends with Toumani defying rules about neutrality in the press box by screaming her support of Armenia at a World Cup match between Armenia and Istanbul. She tells a story riddled with unreliable narrators, unreliable listeners, lost memories, lost history, false assumptions, and real places transformed by the imagination. She establishes the constantly shifting ground of her experience with the first sentence: her plane lands in Turkey and she realizes she has never imagined Turkey as a physical place.  She is stunned by Turkey’s beauty, charmed by what she describes as the “particular sweetness of Turkish manners” and actively enjoys learning the Turkish language. (The contrast between Toumani’s phobia about speaking Armenian and her delight in learning Turkish is typical of her skilled use of irony and reversal to enrich her narrative.).  At the same time, she is repeatedly dismayed and occasionally enraged by the ways in which Turkey erases traces of the Armenian past: the opening ceremony of a newly renovated Armenian church as a UNESCO world heritage site that makes no reference to Armenians, a museum visit in which she discovers that hundreds of years of Armenian civilization in Anatolia*** don’t appear on the timeline or the map, brochures and travel guides that describe Armenian artifacts in southeastern Turkey but never identify them as Armenian.

Moving between Turkey and the Republic of Armenia, Toumani shares her experiences of events as important as the assassination of Turkish-born Armenian journalist and civil rights activist Hrant Dink and as small as the street vendors who call their wares on the street outside her apartment.   She finds friends and allies among the Turkish activists, journalists, scholars and lawyers who have taken up the Armenian issue, often at the risk of prison or worse.   She speaks to millionaires, dentists and cab drivers, Turkish scholars dedicated to cooperating across ethnic lines and Turkey’s official historian, Turkish Armenians and Armenians from the former Soviet republic, Kurds, Turkish nationalists and an ethnic Turk who refuses to identify himself as Turkish.  She encounters Turks who are uncomfortable with the fact that she is Armenian and Turks who struggle to find a point of connection (described by Toumani as the “narcissism of small similarities”).

Over the course of the book, the clear-cut oppositions with which Toumani begins her project –Armenian and Turk, individual and community, denial and recognition, political and personal—become more nuanced.  Even the unity of the Armenian community itself becomes more complex as she examines the different concerns of the Armenian diaspora, Turkish Armenians (described by members of the diaspora community as Bolsahay–a term that avoids describing them as Turkish ),  and citizens of the Republic of Armenia, the different experiences of those whose families survived the genocide and those who families were not directly involved, and the ideological divide between those who support the activist Dashnak Party and those who do not.

There Was and There Was Not is neither a history of the genocide nor an examination of its political ramifications for the modern world.  It is the story of one woman’s attempt to understand her community, its fundamental assumptions, and herself.

Written in a conversational style that is by turns heart-wrenching and unexpectedly funny, There Was and There Was Not will appeal not only to those interested in questions of the Armenian genocide but to readers interested in the larger questions of how individuals define themselves within communities and how communities define themselves.

If you’re interested in learning more about There Was and Was Not, you can read my interview with Toumani here.

* If you’re looking for the short version, this is a reasonably even-handed account: http://www.nytimes.com/ref/timestopics/topics_armeniangenocide.html

**What can I say, the word comes up a lot when you’re talking about the Armenian genocide.

***One thing I realized as a result of reading There Was and There Was Not was that the Armenian genocide was only thing I know about Armenian history.  I suspect that the bigger picture will be tracking me down shortly.

Much of this review previously appeared in Shelf Awareness Maximum Shelf.


History on Display: The Great War As It Unfolds

by pamela on December 12, 2014


Recently my friend and writing buddy Evelyn Herwitz introduced me to a fascinating You Tube channel. The Great War follows World War I in real time in weekly summaries that combine the style of a news reel with personal commentary by host Indy Neidel, who looks like he stepped out of a vintage Arrow Shirt ad.*

I’ll be following along over the next few years. Care to join me?

Reminder: If you’re reading this blog post in an e-mail, you may not be able to see the video. You need to go to the browser by clicking on the post title.

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Word With a Past: Genocide

by pamela on December 9, 2014

Genocide as an activity is probably as old as the concepts of “us” and “them”.

Genocide as a word is relatively new, coined by Polish-Jewish lawyer Raphael Lemkin in 1944, several years before the world knew about the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps

As a result of studying the history of anti-Semitic pogroms in Russia, the mass murder of Armenians by the Ottomans in 1915-16 (now considered genocide by most scholars), and other examples of violence directed at specific groups, Lemkin made the introduction of international legal safeguards for minority religious and ethnic groups his life’s work. He first proposed such legislation at an international legal conference in 1933.*

When the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939, Lemkin tried to persuade his family to seek asylum outside of German-occupied territories, with no success. (Forty-nine members of his family, including his parents, were imprisoned by the Nazis and later gassed in Treblinka.) Lemkin himself escaped through unoccupied Lithuania and Latvia to Stockholm.

In Stockholm, Lemkin studied Nazi actions through the lens of jurisprudence, using information regarding Nazi laws, regulations and proclamations provided by Swedish diplomats in Nazi occupied territories. In 1944, now an analyst with the United States’ War Department, he published his monumental study of patterns of destruction in Nazi-held territories, Axis Rule in Occupied Europe, in which he introduced the term genocide to describe “the crime without a name”:

“By ‘genocide’ we mean the destruction of a nation or of an ethnic group. This new word, coined by the author to denote the old practice in its modern development, is made from the ancient Greek word genos (race, tribe) and the Latin cide (killing)….It is intended to signify a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves. Genocide is directed against the national group as an entity, and the actions involved are directed against individuals, not in their individual capacity, but as members of the national group.

After the war, Lemkin worked as a prosecutor at the Nurenberg trials. He was able to get the word “genocide” included in the indictments, but genocide was not yet recognized as a legal crime and was not reflected in the final verdicts.

When Lemkin returned from Europe, he took on the task of pushing the Genocide Convention through the newly formed United Nations. The recognition of genocide as an international crime became an all encompassing crusade for Lemkin. He gave up adjunct teaching positions at Yale and New York University in order to give all his time to the task. Impoverished and sometimes homeless, he relentlessly lobbied national delegations and influential leaders for their support. The UN passed the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide on December 9, 1948–in large part due to Lemkin’s efforts. The United States finally signed the Genocide Convention forty years later,.

Genocide: the deliberate and systematic extermination of an ethnic or national group

* Several months after Adolf Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany.


And we have a winner! (Two, actually)

by pamela on December 6, 2014

Thanks to all of you who took the time to throw your names in to the medium size mixing bowl to win a copy of Chris West’s A History of America in 36 Postage Stamps or his earlier foray into history through philately.

As always when I do a give-away, I learn something from your comments. Several of you shared childhood stamp collecting memories. Friend and regular reader Karen Holden mentioned the difficultly the US Postal Service had in creating stamp glue that could be licked by vegetarians and other groups who avoid specific foods. She suggested this might be the origin of stamps that don’t have to be licked.* I love the way the Marginites think.

Yeah, yeah, you say. But who won? Patience, my dears. A little conversation is required. A drumroll. A little fanfare. Are you ready? The winners are: Nancy Friesen and Nancy Saunders. Congratulations!

*For me this idea raised echoes of the British troubles in India in 1857, when troops mutinied over the rumors that gun cartridges (which were opened by biting them) had been greased with a combination of pork and beef fat–making them anathema to Muslim and Hindu troops alike. But I digress.


Medieval People

by pamela on December 2, 2014

In Medieval People: Vivid Lives in a Distant Landscape, historian Michael Prestwich [author of Knight: The Medieval Warrior’s (Unofficial) Manual] challenges generalities about the Middle Ages* by looking at the specific: biographies of 69 people who lived between 800 and 1500, a period that stretches from Charlemagne’s empire to the early Renaissance.

Prestwich’s choice of title invites inevitable comparison with Eileen Power’s classic Medieval People (1924). Like Power, Prestwich is interested in giving history what Power called the “personal treatment”: making the past accessible for the general reader by putting a face on it. Many of his essays deal with the usual suspects (kings, popes, emperors). But Prestwich moves beyond the expected. He recognizes the importance Muslim scholars and the Central Asian conquerors Ghengis Khan and Tamerlane** played in shaping medieval Europe. He includes biographies of illustrious women, noting that their contributions were more remarkable than those of their male counterparts because of the difficulties they faced in making their voices heard. To the extent that quality sources are available, he includes individuals from the middle classes or lower: merchants, mathematicians, artists, a leper and a French peasant leader, Guillaume Cale. (There are inherent limitations on writing about individuals on the fringes of power. As Prestwich points out, it is impossible to consider the career of a specific hermit unless his contemporaries wrote about him at some length.)

Written with authority and occasional humor, illustrated with both contemporary artwork and modern photographs of key historical sites, Prestwich’s Medieval People brings the Middle Ages to life in all its complexity and diversity. Eileen Power would have approved.

*As I’ve mentioned before, the terms Middle Ages and medieval are culturally charged. Prestwich is explicit about the pitfalls and uses both terms with awareness.

**Or more accurately Chinggis Khan and Timur.

Much of this review appeared previously in Shelf Awareness for Readers


Stopping to Give Thanks

by pamela on November 25, 2014

Best wishes for a good Thanksg... Digital ID: 1588370. New York Public Library

It’s almost Thanksgiving and things are hopping at Margin Central. The first out-of-town guests have arrived. I have turkeys thawing in the refrigerator* and lists of my lists on the kitchen bulletin board.

It’s going to be a busy few days, so I’m taking this week off from blogging. But I wanted to take a moment to thank all you who read History in the Margins, send me e-mails, make comments, ask hard questions, point out my mistakes, and generally keep me on my toes. Without you, I’d just be talking to myself.

*Yes, more than one turkey. And a ham. We’re going to be a big group this year.

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by pamela on November 21, 2014

The Pritzker Military Library offers a smaller event alongside its On War symposium: a chance for a limited number of people to meet with the winner of the year’s lifetime achievement award to discuss one of his books.  Last year I wasn’t bright enough to sign up. This year I didn’t hesitate.  The chance to hear Antony Beevor* discuss one of his most popular books, Stalingrad, The Fateful Siege: 1942-1943 was too good to miss.

Soviet soldiers waiting for the German attack

Reading Stalingrad in preparation for the “book club”, I noticed that Beevor tends to stay in the German point of view.  Listening to him talk about writing the book made it clear why he does.  As he tells it, he researched the book in the early 1990s during a brief window of opportunity when Russia opened former Soviet archives to foreign researchers**–a period that a fellow researcher described as like the wild west, complete with bribery and the archival equivalent of cattle rustling.  The military officers who controlled the archives were not happy that they had been ordered to open them and they greeted researchers with what Beevor described as a mixture of paranoia and naiveté.  I found his description of the limitations the “archivists” put on his research, the ways he and his Russian research assistant stretched those limits out of shape, and his fears that they would seize his notes as gripping as any thriller.

The result of his research is an extraordinary book.  Stalingrad is more than simple military history.  Beevor places the battle in its political, social and military context, beginning with the events leading up to the Nazi invasion of Russia on June 22, 1941 and ending with post-war Stalinist paranoia.  He describes not only  troop movements and military strategy, but the impact of those movements on civilians and soldiers alike: German soldiers ill-equipped for the Russian winter stealing clothes off dead and dying Russians, women and children digging defenses outside the walls of Moscow and later Stalingrad, peasants harvesting tomatoes and melons as fighters take off and land on a field converted to an airfield. He offers quick portraits of individuals from both sides of the conflict, from the highest officer to the lowest man on the front line, soldier and civilian.  He gives us instances of personal courage, political cowardice–and vice-versa.  Above all, he is the master of the telling detail.  (Want to know how cold it was on the march to Moscow?  So cold that Germans used the frozen bodies of Russian soldiers to build corduroy roads when birch trees weren’t available.***)

Beevor’s image of war on the Eastern Front is brutal on almost every level.  Perhaps the most horrifying aspect of Beevor’s Stalingrad is his portrayal of the conflict between Germany and Russia in terms of the competing megalomania, paranoia and obsessions of Hitler and Stalin.  Tragedy doesn’t begin to describe the results.

*  Yes, this is the same Antony Beevor I argued with in a recent post.  Just because I disagree with him on a point of historiographical policy does not lessen my admiration for his work.  The man can write.

**The previous day, historian Gerhard Weinberg had pointed out that British and American scholarship on World War II traditionally focused on the western front not only due to national chauvinism but because prior to 1989 much of the source material dealing with the Eastern Front was inaccessible to Western scholars.  So obvious, and yet something I had never considered. *head smack*

***That image may stay with me forever as an illustration not only of extreme weather, but of the fact that it is easier to wage war if you do not think of your enemy as human.

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In A History of Britain in 36 Postage Stamps, Chris West took the concept of micro-history to a new degree of micro, using a chronological series of postage stamps as “tiny rectangular time machines”.   In his newest work, West uses the microscopic lens of the postage stamp to examine American history.

West cleverly opens A History of America in 36 Postage Stamps with the image of an eighteenth-century British revenue stamp—explicitly making the point that the history of the United States begins with a stamp. He ends with a self-designed stamp from stamps.com, a statement of discomfort about including a picture of himself in a collection that includes portraits of figures such as Washington and Lincoln, and a thoughtful discussion of the personalized stamp as the logical extension that all men are created equal.   Along the way he discusses themes of American history drawn from the stamps, including westward expansion, innovation, and individualism. The themes themselves hold no surprises for anyone familiar with the broad outlines of American history, but West consistently chooses quirky or unfamiliar details to illustrate his story and occasionally draws unexpected connections. Perhaps the most interesting element of the book for American readers is the way West uses the history of America’s postal service to illuminate social history. (Who knew that post offices became targets for hold-ups during the Great Depression?)

A History of America in 36 Postage Stamps is an engaging read that will appeal to both history buffs and stamp enthusiasts.  If you happen to fit either of those categories,* I’m happy to offer you the chance to win an ARC of one of West’s two books.  If you want your name to go into the hat,** make a comment here on the blog, send me an e-mail, or comment on my Facebook post on or before December 1.  Two books.  Two ARCs. Two chances to win.


* If you’re a regular reader here in the Margins I assume you’re a history buff.  Or one of my parents.

** Or more accurately, into the medium-size mixing bowl.


Most of this review appeared previously in Shelf Awareness for Readers.


On War, the Symposium– Year 2

by pamela on November 14, 2014

Last week My Own True Love and I attended the Pritzker Military Library’s second annual On War Military History Symposium.  Last year’s symposium blew me away.   Perhaps I’m a little jaded since I’ve spent a lot of the last year reading, writing, and thinking about World Wars I and II, but this year wasn’t quite as extraordinary.   Don’t get me wrong, it was a worthwhile afternoon. I still think Tim O’Brien is the berries.  I took lots of notes.  I came away inspired to write–more, longer, harder, faster, better.

Here’s the short version:

  • I’ll go hear Tim O’Brien speak anytime I get the chance.  The man is brilliant.
  • Biographer Carlo D’Este gave me hope that I still have time to write a substantial body of work.  He wrote six major books after a 20-year  career in the military.   His piece of advice for writing successful historical non-fiction:   four little words, “Tell me a story.”   So important to remember.  So easy to forget.
  • I’m still arguing in my head* with historian Antony Beevor, winner of this year’s Pritzker award for lifetime achievement in military writing.  Beevor stated that he worries about “outsiders”** writing military history because they don’t “understand what armies are about.”  [Insert sputtering here]  Really, Mr. Beevor? Obviously my annoyance with this position is personal as well as theoretical. But leaving aside the question of whether an outside perspective can be valuable,*** it seems to me that “what armies are about” changes from century to century if not decade to decade.  Anyone want to weigh in here?
  • The symposium is organized around the Pritzker’s lifetime achievement winners, which means that the speakers tend to be of a certain age.  More specifically, the history of the history business being what it is, the speakers tend to be men of a certain age.  Without any disrespect for the panelists, all of whom are accomplished by any standard, by the end of the afternoon I was ready to see some different faces (and perspectives) on the podium:  younger, browner, not male.  Surely it’s possible to cast the net a little wider for interviewers.

Grumbling aside, my big takeaway from the conference was the resonance between statements made by Tim O’Brien and Carlo D’Este in two different panels.

  • According to O’Brien, “History deals with abstractions.  Literature is the reverse of history.  It focuses on the individual.  History can’t report to us LBJ’s dreams.  His private conversations.  It can’t report what it does not know.  Literature reports what we do not know and cannot know.”
  • According to D’Este, “When you write about war, what you’re really writing about is people.  What men and women endure.”

Thinking about the relationships and disjunctions between those two statements will keep me amused for months.  What do you think?

*And occasionally out loud.  My Own True Love is very patient.

** i.e. people who never served in the military.

***Yes.  The answer is yes.