Archive for February, 2014

Edgar Snow–The Turning Points (Part II)

Edgar Snow’s sympathy for the ‘Reds’ led to advocacy. He became a missionary for the Chinese Communist Party by starting the Chinese Industrial Co-operative (INDUSCO) and then asking affluent people to dedicate money to the cause in the name of ending the war with Japan. In this he was quite successful because he equated communism with industrial democracy. (Snow, pp. 198-207) After doing that for several years both he and Nym were tired. She had been living in the Philippines for two years and had already left for America. Edgar followed.

Edgar arrived in the U.S. in February, 1941 and quickly slipped back into an American way of life. He traveled and wrote some, divorced Nym and married Lois Wheeler, wrote his autobiography, and then moved to Switzerland. He didn’t go back to China until 1960, and again in 1970. That last visit he went away somewhat disillusioned with who he thought was a friend, Mao Tse Tung, and the Chinese Communist Party. He did, however, pave the way for President Richard Nixon to enter into China. Unfortunately, he was not alive to see Nixon and Mao shake hands. He died February, 15, 1972.

Snow, Edgar. (1958) Journey to the Beginning: A Personal View of Contemporary History. New York: Vintage Books.


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Edgar Snow–The Turning Points (Part I)

Nineteen twenty-eight was a busy year for Edgar Snow. He had been living in New York for a few years and, having already been bitten by the ‘travel bug’ a couple of times, hopped a ship to Hawaii. From there he stowed away on a steamer to Japan, and then finally made his way to Shanghai–all in one year. And, I say finally only to imply that Snow had arrived in China, but his travels were just beginning.

Nineteen twenty-nine took Snow on a journey all over China where he learned about and saw first-hand the corruption under the Kuomingtang which was, “just a new flag under old warlords.” (Snow, pp. 49) He saw how this corruption affected millions of starving people and he didn’t like it. This trip into China, I believe, was a game-changer for him. Snow was disgusted to see that there was not even an attempt to hide the ugliness behind this fascinating country’s economic and political situation. He began to sympathize with the peasants and students that were fed up with being the shrimp in the Chinese saying: “Big fish eat little fish, little fish eat shrimps, shrimps eat mud!” (Snow, pp. 49) But, the travel bug wasn’t going to let him hang around too long just yet.

Nineteen thirty and thirty-one took him further south to Formosa (Taiwan), Indo-China, Burma, and India where he saw more corruption. I think seeing corruption out in the open was a shock to him, at first. While there is plenty of corruption here in the U.S., it’s kept well out of the public sphere, for the most part. In Asia most officials were comfortable with the oppression they inflicted upon the poor in order to line their pockets. I’ve closed my eyes to try to put myself in Snow’s shoes and I think I would have been shocked and disgusted, too. In Yunnan and Burma he was further disappointed by religious institutions and their practice of manipulation. (Snow, pp. 68-70) Then, in India he met Ghandi and this, I believe, was another game changer.

Ghandi influenced Snow greatly. Even though he claimed to like Jawarhalal Nehru’s approach better than Ghandi’s, he ended up alongside Ghandi as a partisan for the Indian cause. (Snow, pp. 77) He followed Ghandi to Bombay where he met a Communist and learned how Marxism was a religion to Indians. (Snow, pp. 79-80) And, just like Ghandi concluded that India was not yet ready for swaraj, or independence, Snow would come to a similar conclusion about China not yet being ready for civil rights. (Snow, pp. 76, 87) His travels throughout Southern Asia would take him back to China.

Nineteen thirty-two brought Snow a wife, Helen Foster, A.K.A., Nym Wales. They married in Tokyo, however, I don’t see this event as a turning point since little else changed about his life. Traveling was still his first love and his dedication to ‘getting the story,’ trumped a wife any day.

Nineteen thirty-five saw famine and devastation in the Yangtze Valley for twelve million people. (Snow, pp. 136) Another game changer–Snow decided to meet with the “Reds.” He wrote: “…I am very far from being a Communist. I dislike dogmatism and the treatment of Karl Marx’s writing as revealed scripture which cannot be challenged…I also decided, as did Nehru, that whatever the ultimate truth about Russia might turn out to be, as between Nazi-Fascism and Communism my sympathies were with Communism, not of love for its friends but of dislike of its enemies.” (Snow, pp. 138) The student protests and famine prompted him to meet Mao Tse Tung.

Nineteen thirty-six took Snow north to the Red Army where he met with Mao and stayed for several weeks, interviewing him for the book that he would eventually write about him and the Chinese Communist movement. As far as turning points, these are the big ones. After meeting Mao he seemed pretty committed to the Communist cause and the encroaching Japanese only made his decision to side with them that much more rational. I think if I were to try to define Snow I’d have to look at where he’s been and see what he’s seen and, as you can see from just eight short years, he’s seen a lot.

Snow, Edgar. (1958) Journey to the Beginning: A Personal View of Contemporary History. New York: Vintage Books.

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Twitter = Potential Resources

Twitter these days seems to be useful for more than just tweeting status updates. As a digital historian it is in my best interest to investigate all the available technological resources–this includes social media like Twitter. Can Twitter be a useful technological resource for a historian? I believe so.

You can find big organizations like the U.S. Holocaust Museum or the Harriet Tubman National Museum. Both are museums that use Twitter to give potential visitors updates as well as to tweet about historical events or facts. They sometimes post videos or photos or newspaper clips to entice the public, I’m sure, but it offers historians like me an additional resource to exploit when doing research. Smaller organizations or institutions include the UMKC History Department and Digital History UMBC. These are academic institutions that use Twitter to share information among colleagues. But anyone can follow on Twitter and have yet another potential resource for research.

I don’t exaggerate when I say that Twitter offers potential resources. In the week or so I had to scour Twitter for other historians to follow (as per our assignment) I came across networks of historians, scholars, techies, geeks, nerds, and just all-together wonderful people, networks, and organizations that offered some kind of potential resource, either for research or inspiration. Yes, inspiration is important. For example, History in Pictures posts awesome historical pictures all day long like this one that was used on a PowerPoint in class recently. Imagenes Historicas is a Twitter group I found in Spanish that also posts historical pictures like this one of a Soviet soldier during WWII forcing a German soldier to march. I love pictures. They offer so many possibilities and if nothing else I can spend hours just looking through all of them for my own entertainment, but, as a historian, they offer inspiration.

These last two Twitter groups I found interesting because they do something so very creative to promote history to the public. WW2 Tweets from 1942 and Tweeting from WW2 tweet the happenings and events from WWII as they happened, as if Twitter were around back then. I think that is so very clever and cool. And, along with the tweets they also post awesome pictures and articles.

I’ve already found inspiration on Twitter, as you can see from the post just before this one. I think, if nothing else, it’s a creative outlet, but definitely not something to be overlooked. I understand that Twitter can be a powerful tool for connecting people and that is priceless.

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Supposedly August Landmesser, a German who refused to do the Nazi salute in Hamburg in 1936 because he was engaged to a Jewish woman.

Supposedly August Landmesser, a German who refused to do the Nazi salute in Hamburg in 1936 because he was engaged to a Jewish woman.

I came across this somewhat iconic photo of a German man refusing to give Hitler a Nazi salute and I thought, that’s eigensinn. My German history professor explained what this kind of behavior was last semester. Eigensinn is German. It means stubbornness. Literally, it means, “own sense.” This man is showing both stubbornness and own sense in the photo. He’s stubbornly refusing to do something that is not within his “own sense” to do. He’s defying the system without really defying it. This picture caught my attention because at this time, especially, most Germans did not practice eigensinn, they were very much kadavergehorsamkeit, they obeyed no matter what. This guy stands out among a sea of sheep, which, if he really was August Landmesser, was why he was killed by the Nazi regime shortly after this photo was taken.

Eigensinn was more of an attitude as a response to the absurdity of life under a bureaucratic regime like the Austrians in Austria-Hungary, for example. A classic example of eigensinn can be found in the book, The Good Soldier Swejk, by Jaroslav Hasek. Swejk was a Czech soldier in Austria-Hungary during the assassination of the Austrian prince and the start of the First World War. The book follows him through his adventure in the war while at the same time satirizing Austrian bureaucracy. Basically, Swejk played dumb and got a kick out of watching Austrian bureaucrats, soldiers, officials, etc.  make fools of themselves. This, because although they were very bureaucratic, they were very unorganized, like most every other governmental institution ever known to man. That’s irony. Anyway, I saw this picture on Twitter and thought, I should blog about that.

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Interdisciplinarity, Kulaks, and the Social Construct

I am taking an anthropology/sociology class this semester on race and ethnicity. I have several readings and assignments to do but my final project (I’ve already decided, that’s how excited I am about it), will be a blog, another blog, that will require my interdisciplinary skills as I research, study, and pass knowledge on about genocide and what social constructs have to do with it. I’ve chosen to focus my research on the hotly debated genocide in the Ukraine in 1932-1933. It’s debated among historians mostly whether the famine was intentional or not. Several historians, including Tim Snyder, Yaroslav Bilinsky, and James Mace, agree that Soviet policy forced the famine and that, therefore, it was genocide. As plausible as that sounds historians have yet to reach a consensus.

Another hotly argued point is whether the starvation of millions of kulaks, a class, can be called genocide when the definition of the word requires that an ethnicity be targeted. That is Russia’s argument. And this is mine: in 1932 and well into the 1940’s, kulak was a social construct, created by Stalin, and perpetuated not only by him and his followers, but even, in moments of self-preservation, by the peasants, themselves. Kulak was a social construct that targeted anyone, yes, but it overwhelmingly targeted Ukrainians. Having that leeway to throw in anyone else he didn’t like was a perk for Stalin. I will argue that, being well aware of what genocide was, Stalin created this social construct, the kulak, in order to justify the mass murder of millions of Ukrainians and get around the fact that he actually did target an ethnicity. I’ll be using Tim Snyder’s book, Bloodlands, as one of my sources. You can check out the book review I did on it here.

So how and why did I decide on all this? Well, last semester I took a fascinating interdisciplinary class about Central Eastern Europe at UMKC which, of course, focused on WWI, WWII, all the time in between and on up to the fall of Communism and beyond. Reading Snyder’s book was a class assignment, but it was fascinating. It was in this class when I first heard about this debate of whether or not Stalin’s actions could be genocide. It was clear to me that it was. Now, this semester in this anthropology class on race, I learned that race is a social construct. Biologically, race does not exist, yet, in the real world, it very much does exist. This piqued my interest. If race, something I’ve taken for granted all my life as fact, is actually a lie–a lie created by people in power to keep or gain more power–what other lies in the form of social constructs could there be? Since Snyder’s book and that most interesting class I took was still fresh in my mind, I put the two things together and voila! Interdisciplinarity! Prof. Bergerson would be so proud.

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My Fascination with WWI Mail

I came across this article today about the mail service during WWI and thought I’d share it. It actually compliments the historical exhibit I worked on last year quite nicely. You can find that here. I do have a soft spot in my heart for WWI, and postcards, so I’ll ramble on some more.

Just like the BBC News article states, correspondence was big business in wartime but it was treated as an extension of the military. In my research for the exhibit I came across several postcards of postal service-men and women, and also postcards that were inscribed and marked with an X. The postcard below is an example of both these kinds of cards. The sender has marked a big X, that he calls a “cross” in the inscription on the back, by the depot where he “hauls” mail every week.

Marked and inscribed postcard.

Marked and inscribed postcard.

Marked and inscribed postcard.

Marked and inscribed postcard.

In Then Came a Post, I wrote a panel titled, “Locating Oneself.” My thesis was that soldiers marked and inscribed postcards to create a “monument to personal memory,” and, “to validate their (personal) experiences.” Since this postcard isn’t postmarked, it’s probable that this soldier either wanted to preserve his own memory about the war, or he wanted to have something to share with a loved one back home that could give a visual of where he spent his days during the war. Pretty cool stuff.

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