Midsummer is nearly upon us and I have to admit my energy levels are flagging a bit as I try to refocus myself for the work of writing, researching, and doing history in general. It is clear that I have allowed myself to be distracted by too many reading excursions and side projects. Originally started as diverse amusements, they eventually have become excuses for procrastination rather than sources of inspiration and a calm no-expectations space in which to marshal my energies. That said, I have read a number of wonderful books this year already and would like to just make a few comments on my latest diversion before I let go of it and rededicate myself to antiquity.
The book I am talking about made quite a stir when it first came out and when it debuted I immediately wanted to read it. I knew it would be a challenging and disturbing read and so it waited. That was nearly twenty years ago and only just now have have I read and finished Edwin Black’s chilling historical exposé,IBM and the Holocaust: The Strategic Alliance between Nazi Germany and America’s Most Powerful Corporation. Black’s book is certainly convincing and he appears to have accumulated damning evidence to support the case that IBM’s highest officials—including Thomas Watson—was at the very least complicit in the Third Reich’s use of IBM punch card technology to identify, sort, and categorize their victims up until 1937, and in all likelihood maintained more than merely vestigial control of IBM’s European and German subsidiaries until the end of the Second World War.
But what I want to do here is not to rehash Black’s argument of IMB culpability, nor to create a general review of the work, but rather to highlight a particular section of the narrative which tells an astonishing and inspiring story of resistance to the Nazi’s genocidal endeavors with respect to the Jews of Europe.
In the ninth chapter of his book, Black details the use of punch cards; census reports; and IBM designed, owned, and leased, data tabulating machines, in the Nazi subjugated states of Holland and France, both occupied and free. One of the surprising outcomes that we learn from this comparison is that while Holland, which was not only tolerant of its Jewish population but even resistant to Nazi persecutions against them to the point of open defiance, eventually suffered a death ratio of 73% of its estimated 140,000 Dutch Jews, whereas France (free and occupied combined) which was in many ways less tolerant of Jews, especially those who were considered to be refugees from abroad, only suffered a 25% mortality rate of its estimated 300,000-350,000 Jews during the war.
The reason that French Jews fared so much better than their Dutch counterparts was due, at least in part, to the brave work of a French resistance operative named René Carmille. Carmille worked as the head of Vichy France’s Demographic Service from which vantage he was able, not only to sabotage the Nazi efforts to corral the Jewish populations of France, but also to use the Reich’s own Tabulating machines against it.
Just days after the French mobilized in Algeria the Nazis discovered that Carmille was a secret agent for the French resistance. He had no intention of delivering the Jews. It was all a cover for French mobilization….
Carmille had deceived the Nazis. In fact he had been working with French counter-intelligence since 1911…. And he had been laboring for months on a database of 800,000 former soldiers in France who could be instantly mobilized into well-planned units to fight for liberation.
Indeed, while Black’s retelling of this episode takes up only a small part of one chapter of his book, as well as brief revisitation included in the expanded supplemental materials, where he recounts speaking to Carmille’s son, it is the kind of story that might well have provided the subject of a stand alone work, either fictionalised or historical. Unfortunately it was Carmille’s fate to eventually fall into the hands of the Nazis he had so brilliantly thwarted. In 1944 the brave intelligence operative was arrested and interrogated by the notorious “Butcher of Lyon, Klaus Barbie.” As Black notes, “He never cracked.” (Black, 330)
– Edwin Black, IBM and the Holocaust: The Strategic Alliance Between Nazi Germany and America’s Most Powerful Corporation, expanded edition. Dialog Press: Washington DC, 2012.
One result of having graduated this spring is that I find myself craving scheduled and organized active learning. One way I have decided to keep myself focused and on track is to revisit the universe of online courses available for free, otherwise known as MOOCs–Massive Open Online Courses. The popular and often fascinating web site Open Culture maintains a listing, updated monthly, of current and ongoing MOOCs that is quite useful for exploring free internet-based distance learning.
Such courses have been around for quite a while and I have taken a number of them over the years. Mostly they aided and bolstered my decision to return to school to get my degree, as well as focusing my interests in ancient history and philosophy. One of the first MOOCs I took, and one of the most popular ever in terms of enrollment, was Gregory Nagy’s HarvardX/EdX course The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours. The Greek Hero is no longer running as an interactive course, but the book upon which the course was based is still available and is highly recommended.
Another, that I have decided to enroll in this summer, also offered by HarvardX/EdX, is entitled DH101: Introduction to Digital Humanities. I intend to use this course, not only as an introduction to topics that I will need to explore in continuing towards a Masters degree, either in history or library science or both, but as a springboard for exploring topics here on my blog, Mundus Patet. So consider this as an introduction to the idea that I will comment here upon this course as well as an invitation to come along for the ride and enroll in the course. It is free and of some general interest to writers, historians, and creatives of all types.
I am still getting the kinks worked out, and last weekend was a holiday to boot. I am trying to get caught up! So here is the news roundup for the last two weeks for anyone keeping score at home! Cheers.
We all remember the world maps that hung on the walls of our classrooms, the ones at which we spent countless hours staring when we couldn’t focus on the lesson at hand. Did we look at them and imagine fleeing school for one of the far-off lands they pictured — or indeed finding a way to escape planet Earth itself?
The Theban Necropolis Preservation Initiative Under the supervision of the Ministry of Antiquities, Factum Foundation partnered with the University of Basel to develop a project dedicated to promoting sustainable tourism and ensuring the continuous study and monitoring of the tombs of the Valley of the Kings in Luxor.
SOFIA, BULGARIA— Archaeology in Bulgaria reports that a dwelling dating to the Late Bronze Age was discovered in northwest Bulgaria during investigation of the proposed route of a natural gas pipeline stretching from Russia, through Turkey and Bulgaria, and into Central Europe.
As the cradle of European Civilization and a meeting place of diverse cultures, Crete is a magical island that stands apart in the heart of the Mediterranean sea. Its prominent place in world history dates back to the mysterious and fascinating Bronze Age civilization of the Minoans, who were building lavish labyrinth-like palaces at a time when Athens was just a village.
Medieval history has become synonymous with the study of western Europe. This article argues that it is important to widen the geographic focus to better understand the Middle Ages as a whole, and in doing so, counter Eurocentric views of the past that have dominated and shaped views of the past.
Is the collapse of a civilisation necessarily calamitous? The failure of the Egyptian Old Kingdom towards the end of the 2nd millennium BCE was accompanied by riots, tomb-raids and even cannibalism. ‘The whole of Upper Egypt died of hunger and each individual had reached such a state of hunger th…
The Upper German-Raetian Limes covers a length of 550 km and runs between Rheinbrohl on the Rhine and Eining on the Danube, built in stages during the 2nd century. With its forts, fortlets, physical barriers, linked infrastructure and civilian architecture it exhibits an important interchange of human values through the development of Roman military architecture in previously largely undeveloped areas thereby giving an authentic insight into the world of antiquity of the late 1st to the mid-3rd century AD. It was not solely a military bulwark, but also defined economic and cultural limits. Although cultural influences extended across the frontier, it did represent a cultural divide between the Romanised world and the non-Romanised Germanic peoples.
I came across this excellently produced animated illustration of a Roman castra, or fort, today as I was researching fortress layouts. This imagery represents the Roman fort at Templeborough, which, according to Wikipedia, was first built in timber between 43 and 68 AD and later upgraded to stone construction.
It appears to have been home base for a Gallic cohort, Cohors IV Gallorum, during the late 1st or early 2nd centuries. Its use for a cohort would make it a smaller scale fort, presumably less than 6 hectares. I am not personally familiar with the site, so comments and additional information from readers in the know is welcomed.
‘White Queen’ died of plague, claims letter found in National Archives
Researcher says this could explain the unusually austere funeral for Elizabeth Woodville, the grandmother of Henry VIII A 500-year-old letter discovered in the National Archives has revealed that the “White Queen” Elizabeth Woodville, the grandmother of Henry VIII, may have died of the plague.
Go beyond Earth and deeper into the solar system, past the craggy terrain of Mars and the shapeshifting storm of Jupiter, through the delicate rings of Saturn, beyond the silky clouds of Uranus and Neptune, and you will find a mysterious zone of small, icy objects.
This video by Data Visualisation Designer Pedro M. Cruze shows an animated view of the rise and fall of rival maritime Empires during the 19th and 20th centuries. The virus like expansions and contractions are, perhaps, appropriate for an age of rampant colonialism. One concern, however, is where are the great land powers? Shouldn’t China, Germany, and Russia be represented as well? At least Japan represented a significant maritime empire during the period between the Russo-Japanese war and the Second World War.
Monteverdi’s 1642 Venetian Opera L’Incoronazione di Poppea or The Coronation of Poppea. Stellar early Modern music, this Opera tells the story of the ascension of Nero’s beloved concubine Poppea Sabina to the role of Augusta at the expense of his first wife the Empress Octavia. The romanticly focused opera apparently doesn’t include Nero’s eventual ‘accidental’ murder of his new empress by a later repented kick to her pregnant womb, nor he posthumous apotheosis to divinity by his decree.
While it may seem obvious to many in the contemporary world that human history is a story of progressive and cumulative change, moving civilization and its citizens towards ever greater material, technological, and social advancement, such ideas are rather uncommon in the history of history. To modern social theorists, growth is everything. Technocrats and economists continually refine their measurements of per capita GDP and capital stockpiles in order to verify that we are, in fact, still growing materially. Such growth, according to theory, will result in the increased well being of individuals and the improvement of quality of life for each. Though scholars and academics often decry the so-called myth of progress, in practical terms it seems to have embedded itself in the socio-political matrix of the current age.
Traditionally, however, such linear and progressive views of history were unusual or even aberrant. Ancient myths often saw human history in terms of a decline through successively more brutal and decadent stages. What had once been a Golden Age of gods and god-like-men, was now, for the ancients, a corrupted Age of Iron and bloody warfare. Christian and Hebrew histories, too, saw civilization in terms of a fall, both material and spiritual. And, while Plato, in his Republic, envisioned a Utopia ruled by a philosopher king, even this perfected city-state was subject to decline and a reversion to anarchic type. The moral arc of history was unreliable at best, at worst perverse, and it appeared to bend in the wrong direction.
In the Early Modern Period (c.1500–c.1800), theorists such as Giambattista Vico, writing in his 1725 study of political philosophy, the New Science, could still see, in the rise and fall of civilizations, a cyclical and recursive process. Even more recently, public figures such as Steve Bannon have notably adhered to theories of cyclical history, such as the so called 4th Turning, which hypothesizes regularly predictable crises appearing in world history.
In light of this background, then, perhaps 19th and 20th century positivism may itself seem the deviation rather than the rule. But if it is the exception, then it is one that has ensconced itself within the societal control room, and Oz-like, has had its hand upon all the levers of politics and commerce for many decades.
The 18th century… saw the greatest flowering of belief in progress, with belief that a benevolent providence had secured for us perfectibility of knowledge and reason. In the 19th century belief in progress continued to flourish, with Comte and Marx equally enamoured of it.”
Simon Blackburn. “Progress,” Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy.
In its progressive and political modes, positivism envisions society, properly managed, as susceptible to impelled growth by interventionist policy. Such theories have been linked with paternalistic colonialism, classical liberalism, racism, and unrestrained capitalism by their critics. They have also provided a concrete framework and systematic approach to governmental concerns by modern technocrats and economists since such positions began to move away from the control of political patrons and into the domain of professional careerists. But the base assumption is that the movement of history is in a positive direction; that happiness, if not goodness, increases; and that things are better, or at least grander, than they once were.
History came to be seen as a single linear progression encompassing every region of the globe. The future came to stand for improvement, rather than degeneration from a previous golden age or simply a product of inevitable cycles of rise and fall.
Lynn Hunt. History: Why It Matters. Polity Press: 2018. 93.
As far as we know, Thucydides is the first historian to take an analytical approach to history, and in the Archaeology in particular, he attempts to provide a progressive account of Greek history. Thucydides purpose is not merely to describe what happened or relate popular stories about events, but to understand the causal reason behind events. Thucydides knew what had happened, he wanted to know why.
The Archaeology is normally considered to be comprised of the next twenty chapters following the first—by some accounts twenty-two—of the first book of Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War. In the Jones and Powell’s Oxford critical edition, the standard scholarly version of this work, the Archaeology consists of fewer than 150 lines of Greek text. The text is so named, not because it deals with archaeology in the modern sense of the word, but rather because it is an account, a logia, of ‘the earliest events’ (archaia) (Hornblower, A Commentary On Thucydides, 1991:3).
The purpose of the Archaeology is to defend Thucydides’ initial supposition that the war was the greatest (megista) of any such events up until that time, and that it was necessarily greater due to the relative weakness of the Hellenes and their states in prior eras.
Thucydides, an Athenian, wrote the history of the war between the Peloponnesians and the Athenians, beginning at the moment that it broke out, and believing that it would be a great war and more worthy of relation than any that had preceded it…. Indeed this was the greatest movement yet known in history, not only of the Hellenes, but of a large part of the barbarian world—I had almost said mankind. Thucydides: I.1.1-2
Thucydides. The Landmark Thucydides. Robert Strassler editor. Free Press: 2008. 3.
In order to demonstrate this, Thucydides provides the reader with a broad overview of the development of Greek power from the earliest times known to him: through the Minoan period, the Trojan war as related by Homer, and finally down to his own present, the 5th Century BC.
To show that this war was the greatest conflict ever engaged, Thucydides needed to illustrate how an expansion of power and organization could build up a civilization out of the rough building blocks of brigandage and raw subsistence. Thucydides invents the idea of progress in order to justify his history. What Thucydides constructs with this new model of thinking is the history of a Greece, and especially an Athens, that possesses an ever widening circle of influence and power. From this it must follow that only in his own time were the Greek powers able to undertake such an all-encompassing endeavor as the Peloponnesian war, since in prior ages they lacked both the political unity and the resources to do so.
So powerful is Thucydides’ belief in his thesis that he is willing to directly challenge received tradition, even when that tradition is the semi-sacred Homeric account of the Trojan War. Thucydides represents the powers of Mycenaean antiquity in their invasion of Illium, not as a massive overweening power gone abroad to project its power, but as a pathetic ragtag force of would be pirates, barely able to sustain itself in the field.
So that if we strike the average of the largest and smallest ships, the number of those who sailed will appear inconsiderable, representing as they did, the whole force of Hellas. And this was due not so much to scarcity of men as of money. Difficulty of subsistence made the invaders reduce the numbers of the army to a point at which it might live on the country during the prosecution of the war. Even on the victory they obtained on their arrival… there is no indication of their whole force having been employed; on the contrary, they seem to have turned to cultivation of the Cheronese [a nearby peninsula] and to piracy for want of supplies. Thucydides: I.1.10,5 ff.
Thucydides. The Landmark Thucydides. Robert Strassler editor. Free Press: 2008. 9.
This great new modern power of Athens, now active as an empire in Thucydides’ own time, is shown to be possible because of three factors: economic growth leading to surplus resources, the spread of Greek culture and language across the Aegean and onto the Ionian shores of Asia Minor, and the political unification of diverse island and coastal populations under the umbrella of the Delian League.
While Sparta, though a land power, leads the Peloponnesian League, all of Athens’ power lies in her ability to project force and the threat of force through her navy, and the revenue which that produces. What the Archaeology’s analysis attempts to demonstrate is that all of this power and growth has been due primarily to sea power, and as such directly favors the Athenian camp. The Archaeology is not merely a statement of historical fact, but rather, since it attributes expansion as belonging to a particular kind of power, namely naval, it is also a kind of political manifesto.
That Athens was eventually defeated does nothing to lessen the impact of Thucydides’ hypothesis, since defeat only happened after Spartan forces themselves had acquired a sophisticated modern navy and could challenge the Athenian empire both on land as well as at sea. For Thucydides, naval power must ultimately be triumphant, since it was the best and swiftest vehicle for the spread of commerce and culture. It was his view that whosoever controlled shipping controlled the ancient Aegean, and who every controlled that controlled the world in which he lived. It was this insight, that the progression from rude exchange and clumsy piracy into expansive trade networks and sophisticated armadas, could be driven by the adoption of new technologies, openness to commerce, and the willingness to risk failure for the sake of expansion, that changed forever how power was viewed by history, historians, and the rulers who read them.
Greece in the 4th century is less well known and was, in many ways, less glamorous than the age of Perikles, opening as it did with the death of Socrates, colored by the fall of Athenian hegemony in the Aegean, and marred by political strife and violence in Athens in the wake of defeat in the Peloponnesian War of the previous century. Moreover, historical sources on the 4th Century Hellenes do not rise to the same level of excellence as that achieved by Thucydides, and the period is noted for a decline in both quantity and quality of literary output, though that same sort of qualitative judgement in antiquity may have in itself lead to the paucity of surviving texts.
For all of that, however, the 4th century features numerous characters and historical turns of great interest: the renewal of Athenian democracy under Thrasybulus; the crushing defeat of the Spartans by the Theban Epaminondas at Leuctra; and of course the legendary campaigns of Alexander the Great in Persia and beyond. Despite its general obscurity, the 4th century offers much of interest to the student or reader in history.
To the curious, some of the following secondary sources may be worth checking out:
Buck, Robert J., Boiotia and the Boiotian League: 423-371 B. C. Edmonton: University of Alberta Press. 1994.
Buckler, John. The Theban Hegemony, 371-362 B.C. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. 1980.
Hanson, Victor Davis. The Soul of Battle. New York: the Free Press. 1999.
Tritle, Lawrence A. ed. The Greek World in the Fourth Century. New York: Routledge. 1997.
For those wanting primary sources, the foremost for following up and completing Thucydides is Xenophon. For Alexander and his campaigns see Arrian as well as Plutarch. While for the bird’s eye view Diodorus Siculus may prove useful and informative, though beware of dating issues.
Arrian, The Landmark Arrian: The Campaigns of Alexander, New York: Anchor Books. 2012.
Diodorus Siculus, Bibliotheca Historica. English & Greek. Vol. 7. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. 1933.
Plutarch. “Alexander.” The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans. Vols. 1 & 2. New York: The Modern Library. 1992.
Plutarch. ” Pelopidas .” The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans. Vols. 1 & 2. New York: The Modern Library. 1992.
Xenophon. The Landmark Xenophon’s Hellenika. New York: Anchor Books. 2010.