Archive for category History

A Different Way to ‘Do History’

We’ve talked about digital history. Now let’s discuss spatial history, or better yet, the spatial humanities.What are the spatial humanities? It’s perhaps too abstract to adequately define, but, it is essentially another way of looking at, and presenting the humanities that involves abstract and physical space. I’ll use history as an example. Traditionally history has been presented through chronological events. Richard White from Stanford University suggests that won’t change, but by adding the ingredients necessary to help the reader or viewer visualize space, too, the historian provides a clearer picture of the past. Humanists can do the same, by utilizing GIS (Geographic Information Systems) technology.

According to a recent book edited by David J. Bodenhamer, (read my book review here), The Spatial Humanities: GIS and the Future of Humanities Scholarship, the use of time and space can be maximized by implementing GIS technology into humanities scholarship. The Spatial History Project of Stanford University asserts that history is chronological, but GIS allows historians to give “a graphic representation of the interrelation of time and space.” (White, “What is Spatial History?”)  These sound like really great things. Historians and Humanists are always looking for ways to better represent the human condition throughout time. There are problems, however.

The biggest problem in implementing GIS technology into humanities scholarship, that I gathered from these two readings, is how to translate cold and uninterpretable numbers and data to the interpretable sources required for ‘doing history’–or humanities. Studying the human condition is an abstract science, unlike the science used for gathering the data for creating maps. So how can there be any sort of union between these two disciplines that are at opposite ends of the academic spectrum? The editors of The Spatial Humanities nail this problem when they suggest that perhaps a language that bridges these disciplines is necessary. (Bodenhammer, pp. 8) This language has not been invented yet which is why, I think, there is some concern with using GIS in humanities.

Finally, is spatial history digital history? It doesn’t have to be. Historians have long used information from maps to write books and articles without producing a single pixelated byte. Historians may continue to do just that, however, by taking advantage of GIS technology, they just might be able to add several dimensions to their work. And, for those adventurous historians and humanists that do go the length and harness the full power of GIS, good for you.


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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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