History in the Making author in focus: Matthew Kelleher

Matthew KelleherImage supplied by Matthew Kelleher 

Matthew Kelleher is the author of Human Rights: Act of Idealism or Pragmatism? The Curious Case of Ramon Colon and the New York State Division of Human Rights recently published in Volume 7, number 1 of History in the Making.

As part of our fourth instalment of our ‘author in focus’ blog series for 2020, Matthew discusses his research and writing practices and has some excellent advice for other history students interested in submitting their writing for peer review.

How did you come to the topic for your History in the Making article?

I originally began my project as an assignment for a 3rd year history course at the University of Sydney, also called ‘History in the Making’. We were given a large degree of creative control as to the scope of the essay, the only requirement being that it must focus on a primary source. During the first half of the course, we spent time discussing cultural histories, and some particular historians with very engaging writing styles; Robert Darnton, Natalie Zemon-Davis, Clifford Geertz. I have always had an interest in human rights and international law in history, and a project like this allowed me to write from the perspective of an individual caught in an uncertain time for the enforcement of human rights. My goal was to right something as thought-provoking as Darnton’s The Great Cat Massacre. While I don’t think my piece is nearly as impressive, writing about a man who had his rights violated by a human rights organisation seemed as compelling to me as 18th century Parisians massacring cats!

What’s your writing process?

Personally, I like to begin writing almost straight away. One of my biggest problems when I first began studying history was perfectionism – pouring hours into every sentence so to ensure my first draft was ‘perfect’. Now, I like to read and write at the same time. During my research process, if I find an interesting idea I could incorporate, I try to write four or five sentences of an argument, rather than dot points. I then arrange all of these short paragraphs into a structure, creating a road map for my essay. This process also helps inform the overall argument. It is very difficult to come up with a highly nuanced thesis without having written anything first, nor is it likely to remain the same throughout the writing process. You should always be prepared for the scope of the argument to shift, and reading widely will only get you so far. My advice: write as much as you can, and certainly more than you need. It will certainly reflect in not only how concise your arguments end up, but how expansive your ideas appear in short spaces.

What did you learn from the peer review process?

Do not be surprised if a reviewer does not see your argument the same way as you do. This does not necessarily mean you need to make every change that is suggested; it is important that your writing maintains a strong sense of authorial integrity. However, be honest and open with yourself when reading and considering critique. Weigh up the positives and negatives of changes – will they fundamentally reshape my arguments, do they synchronise well with my writing style? Personally, I did not need to make many major fixes, but it was suggested in some paragraphs I change my argument emphasis. It is important to keep in mind that the peer review process exists to make your essay better. But never blindly make changes because someone has told you too – consider them carefully and apply any critique to the extent you believe it to be appropriate.

What advice would you give to someone considering submitting an article to History in the Making?

Submit! You have nothing to lose from trying and everything to gain if your article is accepted. Publication, in my mind, is the highest honour a writer can receive because it tells you that there are interested readers who really enjoy your work. The whole point of original research is to show the world something fresh, expressing a viewpoint on a particular topic that no one has before. Do not be afraid to tell the world – the worst that can happen is that someone disagrees, debate ensues, and everyone comes out the other side having learnt a little more. From my perspective, that is the joy of learning summarised as concisely as possible!

Do you have any advice for history students trying to study and conduct research during the COVID19 pandemic?

Learn how to use digital databases such as interactive museums and libraries, and if you have access, text and data mining tools. Nothing excites a historian more than being able to access original documents that are virtually priceless and centuries old. However, as all types of sources are becoming increasingly and exclusively digitised, it is important, particularly if you are a modern historian, to familiarise yourself with online research skills. It will save you time and travel in the future, and may open new avenues of thought not attainable via conventional research methods.

Where would you like to take your research next?

I am still deciding whether to begin Honours in History next year or move on to the next stage of my law degree. My interests in human rights history and international law mean I have some flexibility in this regard, however the focus would be markedly different depending which route I decide to follow. Nevertheless, I still, and always will, love writing. That will never change, and I hope to continue to write and publish articles for many years to come.


History in the Making author in focus: Alvine Mulligan

Alvine Mulligan

Image supplied by Alvine Mulligan

Alvine Mulligan is the author of Martin Sharp, Heritage Activist, recently published in Volume 7, Number 1 of History in the Making.

As part of our third instalment of our ‘author in focus’ blog series for 2020, Alvine discusses her research processes and practices and has some excellent advice for history students who are trying to conduct research during the Covid-19 pandemic!

How did you come to the topic for your History in the Making article? 

The topic for my HiTM article came out of having to generate a project idea for one of my undergraduate units at the University of New England, ‘Researching and Applying History’My very sage lecturer suggested that I take inspiration from the immediate world around meThe inspiration was a poster outside my office -a Martin Sharp poster for a Tiny Tim concert.  It’s a long story, but in the early 2000’s Martin generously donated a signed poster to my son’s special needs school, and he also sent one home for me.  Since Sharp’s death in 2013 his body of creative works have been celebrated alongside his faith and never-ending support of the Luna Park ghost train fire victims.  I wanted to look at Sharp’s relationship with Luna Park in a new light – I wanted to see if I could define his work at Luna Park not just as a mere quirky obsession, or as a piece of commissioned work, but as a true and successful form of advocacy for an important popular culture site in Sydney.  

 What’s your writing process? 

Bringing together your research into a cohesive and engaging piece of writing is the fulfilling, and sometimes difficult (for me), part of studying history.  I work best when making plans before writing – although the plans always get revised and reworked as the research and writing progresses!  I tend to document my research vigorously through short annotations on the value of how each source can be used to support my thesis When I was an undergraduate, I always completed the research before writing, but as I progress through honours, I am quickly learning that writing as you go is probably a more effective process.  I have a set time and place for writing each day – I throw on the headphones (Mozart’s Requiem is high on rotation), try to let go of my perfectionism and produce some form of writing each day. 

 What did you learn from the peer review process? 

The peer review process was not as daunting as it seemed.  Each reviewer gave valid and directional remarks on how I could improve my paper to ensure it reached the publishable standardof the journal. The process was a rewarding learning experience which improved my writing and academic skills.  

 What advice would you give to someone considering submitting an article to History in the Making? 

Sharing your research and writing is what history is all about so if you’ve written a great piece of original historical research – go for it! There are three important tips that I can give to potential HiTM authors. Firstly, edit your research paper into an article that meets the journal guidelines. Secondly, transform your paper from a great university essay into an outstanding journal article. And lastly for your own sanity, view peer review feedback as invaluable advice – not negative criticismOnce my article had been reviewed, the HiTM editorial team were extremely supportive and encouraging – whichconsidering our new life during Covid, shows the exceptional dedication the team have in creating a space for history students to share their work 

 Do you have any advice for history students trying to study and conduct research during the COVID19 pandemic 

I am currently mid-way through Honours part-time at the University of New England. Admittedly have found transitioning to researching and writing in the Covid-epoch difficult.  I am fortunate that a large proportion of my primary sources have been digitised, however that small amount sitting in the archives may have to wait for another project. Maintaining communication with both my supervisor and university community have been invaluable support mechanisms. These, together with setting achievable daily writing goals are keeping me on the path to getting that thesis written!  

 Where would you like to take your research next? 

This year I will be completing my honours. My research continues to focus on how we value our shared spaces – but I’m taking it back to the late-nineteenth century and exploring the experiences and responses of Sydneysiders who spent leisure time in the parks and bush land of the city’s southern fringes. 

History in the Making author in focus: Liz Heffernan

Liz Heffernan photo

Image supplied by Liz Heffernan

Liz Heffernan is the author of Civilian Women and War Trauma in World War I Britain, recently published in Volume 7, Number 1 of History in the Making.

As part of our ‘author in focus’ blog series for 2020, Liz reflects on her research and writing practices and has lots of helpful advice for other history students interested in participating in the peer-review process.

How did you come to the topic for your History in the Making article?

My article was originally written as part of an Honours history seminar on war and trauma at the University of Sydney in 2019. The parameters for the essay were broad but I decided to focus on World War I history, as that was also my area of study for my thesis. I wanted an approach different to that of my thesis, however, which focused on Australian soldiers and the environments of the First World War. Studying British civilian women in the war was certainly a refreshing difference!

As a long-time lover of literature, approaching the history from that angle was also an exciting new method of analysis that I thoroughly enjoyed. Historical research is never a hardship, but the novels I had to read to write this article were a nice change from the academic texts I’m used to.

What’s your writing process?

I like to finish as much research as I can before diving into the writing as it gives me a much more solid footing when it’s time to construct my argument. I usually map out my main ideas and paragraphs in handwritten dot points first, then write the essay from start to finish on my laptop. The introduction I begin with isn’t usually the one I end with, but I prefer having something there in the beginning than nothing at all.

After the first draft has been written, I print the essay to annotate it by hand and read it to myself aloud – the best ways I have found to pick up continuity errors or odd turns of phrase. I then make my edits on my laptop, sometimes just rewriting out entire paragraphs until I’m happy with them and have read them aloud so many times I could recite them off by heart! I usually try to find at least one other pair of eyes to look over the finished product to pick up anything I might have missed – I find it’s best to use someone with very little experience in your field of research, as they are able to make sure the argument is as clear as possible.

I also tend to fully reference my footnotes throughout the drafting process, as I have learned from past (painful) experience that going back to tidy everything up at the end can take a lot longer when you can’t remember which source your reference comes from!

What did you learn from the peer review process?

It’s a cliché, but be prepared to kill your darlings. Not everything you write will agree with everyone who reads it, and it’s important to realise that nothing is immune from the firm hand of the editor. The peer review process exists for a reason! And my essay, as I’m sure is true of all essays submitted to this issue, is the better for it.

What advice would you give to someone considering submitting an article to History in the Making?

Don’t be afraid to submit! You’ll lose nothing from the experience and will probably gain quite a bit. Be proud of what you’ve written but be prepared to make some changes if your article is accepted. Don’t take the critiques too much to heart – the peer review process is there to help you, not to harm.

Do you have any advice for history students trying to study and conduct research during the COVID19 pandemic?

Try to accept that some things – access to archives, meetings with supervisors – will be completely out of your control for the time being. Do the best that you can with the resources you can access but remember that this is an extraordinary event and you can’t be expected to not be impacted by it. Don’t be too harsh on yourself if you don’t accomplish as much as you would have liked on any given day – these times are stressful and unpredictable, and taking care of yourself if the most important thing. And enjoy your study and research as much as you can! History is a vibrant, exciting discipline, especially now.

Where would you like to take your research next?

Though I finished my Bachelor of Arts (Honours) last year I have not ruled out a possible PhD in the future! In the meantime, I write blog articles for the Royal Australian Historical Society and have been applying for jobs in the public history sector. I would love to explore yet another aspect of WWI history – or any kind of history! – in any manner I can.

History in the Making author in focus: Mark Pashley-Partridge

Mark Partridge

Photo supplied by Mark Pashley-Partridge 

Mark Pashley-Partridge is the author of “Silence in Australian Folkore: The 1804 Escape Attempt From Castle Hill and Why the Irish are Silent“, recently published in Volume 7, Number 1 of History in the Making.

To kick-off the beginning of our 2020 ‘author in focus’ series, Mark reflects on his research, his creative processes, his experiences of the peer review process and provides some timely advice for history students conducting research during the COVID19 pandemic.

How did you come to the topic for your History in the Making article?

Ever since primary school I have been interested in Australian colonial history influenced by a trip to Old Sydney Town and after watching Against The Wind. I was aware of the 1804 Castle Hill rebellion but did not understand the full magnitude of the event until further reading revealed that this was the first example of an organised armed rebellion in the colony; the first example of martial law being instigated and many other firsts. What surprised me was the lack of commemoration of such a monumental event in Australian culture.

I have always been drawn to the subaltern view of history, the “history from below” view, and sought to explain the silence linked with this event. It was my wife that mentioned the Irish folk tradition of memory in song which resulted in me diving down the rabbit hole of silences in folk tradition – thanks Kate.

What’s your writing process?

Structure is extremely important with a clear indication of submission dates. I utilise a whiteboard as a visual aid to keep me on track with the fundamental question I am attempting to answer. Research is critical and it is important to leave myself sufficient time to find and read all necessary sources. I only commence a rough structure after reading all available source material before I commence writing. Once I start writing I force myself to write every night (I was working full-time during my postgraduate studies so discipline was essential).

What did you learn from the peer review process?

It is always an apprehensive feeling opening your work to potential criticism by academics rather than simply submitting a paper for grading but it was an interesting experience to receive the feedback from others that did not know you or your work prior to the review process. Fresh eyes can surely only be a positive process as the researcher is sometimes too close to the work they have completed. The peer review feedback was supportive of my overall thesis and it was encouraging to receive some fantastic guidance to improve the quality of my paper. I wish I had this level of feedback before submitting this paper for grading.

What advice would you give to someone considering submitting an article to History in the Making?

As a budding historian you need to be passionate about your work. History is about challenging the established views in order to expand our thinking and this best way to open your work up to academia is to seek publication of your paper. Do not take any peer review comments personally and treat the process as a means of professional development on your course to becoming an historian in your chosen field. The team at HITM have been great throughout the process so overall it has been an enjoyable experience.

Do you have any advice for history students trying to study and conduct research during the COVID-19 pandemic?

I graduated from my Master of History in June 2019 prior to the madness that is COVID-19 but I studied via the University of New England as an external student. As such, my mode of study was predominantly online. The online mode of study required discipline and the ability to prioritise with often conflicting assessment dates. My research did require a few days at the Mitchell Library, Sydney enjoying delving into primary sources. This would be difficult in the present circumstances but thankfully the majority of libraries have now digitised a large portion of their primary source material making it possible to conduct your research online. I think resilience and persistence are the key to conducting research at the moment.

Where would you like to take your research next?

I have been asked this question a lot since I have graduated. My goal when I enrolled in my Master’s was to write a research paper that added to the historiography of Australian colonial studies and to have that research paper published. After working full-time and taking 3.5 years to complete my award it’s time for a well-deserved break before I determine whether there is a PhD in me. I think my wife would kill me as it is her turn to study next.

Tony Judt’s Postwar – A Reflection

Berlin Checkpoint Charlie Standoff

Image: US and Soviet tanks face one another at Checkpoint Charlie, October 1961 (source: http://diplomacy.state.gov/berlinwall/www/archive/IMG022.html)


The time is vivid in my memory when 1989 was not a subject of ‘history’. Born though I may have been just days after the Berlin Wall fell, in the television, newspapers and overheard conversations of my youth ‘the Cold War’ forever felt and sounded like the very foundation of the adult world I would inhabit. So entrenched such an impression can be, it takes nothing less than a revolution in perspective to remove it from the realm of memory and transfer it into that of ‘history proper’. Perhaps this is why reading Tony Judt’s 2005 tome Postwar was at once an eye-opening and a disorienting experience.

The book, naturally enough, opens with the uncompromising defeat of Nazi Germany. Never have I read a more distressing or overwhelming account of the forced people movements of the late 1940s, of the rape and thievery of the conquering soldiers, and of the arbitrary incarceration and disappearance of so many thousands of political ‘undesirables’. In terms of consequence, Judt claims, the chief European legacy of Hitler is not one of memory, but of demography. Between the Führer and his opposite number in Moscow, the Europe of 1939-1950 witnessed an unprecedented series of mass resettlements across its many lands, generating an incomparable system of national ethnic homogeneity. And it is as a collective of nations that the Europe of Postwar begins its post-1945 trajectory. What follows is a sweeping chronicle, documenting every landmark (Marshall Plan, Iron Curtain, Brezhnev Doctrine, 1956, 1968, 1989, Messina, Maastricht, Kosovo…) from above and from below.

Being so ambitious in scope, the book necessarily sacrifices detail. However, owing for the most part to Judt’s mastery of events, this is often unproblematic. Post-war educational reform and the emergence of intricate eastern police states are two developments which could have warranted individual sections, but this is not of tremendous consequence. And indeed despite Postwar’s scope, it is by no means devoid of characters, from the Neronian megalomaniac Ceausescu to the frustratingly anachronistic Iberian dictators Franco and Salazar, and from the inflexible Mrs. Thatcher to the chillingly disconnected apparatchik Walter Ulbricht. No seminal figure passes by unremarked; likewise none outstays his or her welcome. Methodologically, Judt avows no ‘Olympian detachment’ from that which he documents, and yet rarely does this translate into naked moralising. Similarly, his professed renunciation of any ‘all-embracing story’ for Europe is impeccably translated into practice. We know what comes next, of course, but (and this is the secret of truly exceptional history writing) not once does it seem inevitable. Given that the entire context of Postwar is backgrounded by a bipolar ideological struggle of which there would ultimately be but one winner, this is a truly astonishing accomplishment. An equally remarkable accomplishment is Judt’s effortless ability to thematise his subject matter. Leaping from Baltic to Balkans and Madrid to Moscow, Judt finds his threads and follows them, drawing parallels and contrasts between states and societies which, superficially viewed, share absolutely nothing in common save a desperate unwillingness to look back into the past.

By the time you reach Postwar’s end (a chilling but apposite appendiced essay entitled ‘From the House of the Dead’), the history you thought you know seems very strange and alien indeed. And this is not an impression gleaned merely from the words on the page. Going back to the television and newspapers of the time (as I immediately did), it becomes ever more transparent that the world has since shifted sufficiently for the demise of the Cold War to look and feel like a bygone age. Captured in pictures, as no seismic event before it, we see Ceausescu face his resentful crowd, recoiling in confusion, then anger, then fear; we see John Paul II greeting Lech Wałęsa; we see Yeltsin, Havel, Reagan, Thatcher, Mitterrand and Kohl seizing (or, at least, pretending to seize) their moments; and, of course, we see thousands of Germans rejoicing at the Brandenburg Gate, tempered by their surprisingly but characteristically prosaic orderliness.

Yet while we may recognise post-war Europe as a series of moments, it remains difficult in Postwar not to find oneself traversing traditional narratives; principally the decline of communism and the rise of Europe. The period succeeds in waves of generations, each epoch engendering its own dynamic. In politics, we see the failure of communism set in early, delayed only by a gerontocracy of Stalinists and apparatchiks, like their Moscow forebears at the corpse of their celebrated Leader, too petrified to look closer. The reformers succeed the Stalinists, the hardliners the reformers, and the new reformers the hardliners. Meanwhile, the west witnesses its Keynesian consensus self-destruct and dissipate in the face of the Friedmanian radicals. On each side of the Iron Curtain we observe the emergence of a youth culture, replaced in turn by youth cultures and (even if Judt enters only into minimal detail) subcultures. Meanwhile, the discredited Old Left departs for the elusive and soon-effete ‘New Left’, leaving behind a vacant intelligentsia disgraced initially by its former Stalinist obduracy and finally by its own pretensions. By the book’s end, the free-market consensus stands monolithic, Judt lamenting the desolation of originality in contemporary European politics. However, in one critical respect it is the passing of ideology for the idea of ‘Europe’ that provides Judt with his ultimate optimism. For, if there was ever any doubt that communism’s downfall and Europe’s rise are the stories undergirding his narrative, their seamless convergence in 1989 makes everything clear. ‘The opposite of Communism was not ‘capitalism’’, writes Judt, ‘but ‘Europe’’.

‘Europe’ had emerged from 1945 not as a geographic space or even an economic unit, but as an idea. That it was the longing for this idea underpinning the protest culture of eastern Europe is certainly a novel view, and one by no means conventional in the historical eyes of the West. But as Europe today remains inveterately fixed in another phase of disenchantment, it is striking that the most vociferous and articulate defenders of ‘Europe’ remain either the spokesmen of generations past or citizens of the former East. The future of Europe, it seems, remains inextricably linked to its past. Populism and nationalism may resurface in ugly spurts, but optimism and a shared sense of duty remain the necessary bulwarks against ‘Europe’ simply becoming a byword for decadence and retrogressive bureaucratism. Postwar, then, conveys above all a sense of urgency; an urgency made incarnate by the author’s untimely death in 2010. A quick survey of Europe today gives the sobering impression that the generation of 1989 has all but passed (Václav Havel – the closest Postwar comes to a conventional narrative hero – died just 16 months after Judt), and with them the decisive hopefulness they embodied. As a lived experience now receding into a bygone, analogue age, the Cold War in Europe will need its chroniclers. The greatest challenge they may initially face, however, is to escape from the shadow of this magisterial work.

– Marcus Colla

Book Review: Giles MacDonogh, After the Reich: From the Liberation of Vienna to the Berlin Airlift

colla book review

Expulsion of Sudeten Germans from Czechoslovakia, 1945.

Bookended by the Second World and Cold Wars, 1945-1948 in Europe can often be a neglected period within the popular mind. However, as Giles MacDonogh’s 2007 publication After the Reich: From the Liberation of Vienna to the Berlin Airlift confrontationally demonstrates, it was a period analogous to the Second World War in its barbarity, yet distinct from the Cold War in its disorderliness. In the wake of the fury and carnage of the preceding years, it is perhaps easy to forget that many millions of eastern Europeans perished in the months following May 1945. They died from starvation and cold, at their own hands and those of others, in prisons and in foreign lands. They died because of the callous actions of individuals, the indifference and inefficiency of occupying forces, and the utter uniqueness of their circumstance.

I have now completed a handful of MacDonogh’s works on German history, and never to fail to exit them feeling somewhat dizzy. Descriptive detail is heaped upon descriptive detail, with the inevitable result that the wider picture is subsumed to a form of literary montage. In place of an argument, an impression remains. As such, they tend to reach a curious niche – neither ‘academic’ nor ‘popular’, neither strictly ‘political’ nor ‘social’. And true to form, After the Reich is by no means a conventional history. MacDonogh is content to pursue digressions for the sake of pure interest, and gives scant consideration to equivalent chapter or section lengths. Yet one cannot help but sense that he also reaches his most profound heights precisely when unfettered by custom. MacDonogh is a writer and critic of food and wine as well as German history, and although After the Reich offers little scope for exhibiting his skills in these specific fields, his skill in infusing history with the subjective is what sets this book apart. The distress heaped upon the defenceless women of Poland and East Germany defies quantification, as does the brutality with which whole populations were forcibly trafficked throughout central Europe by guards driven by both vengeance and indifference. This is a tale of human suffering, a topic to which MacDonogh’s method is perhaps better suited than that of more conventional histories, with their structures and institutions, impersonal forces and politics.

Still, while the author’s rich description compensates for his imbalance in focuses, there remain several problems with his method. Characters frequently reappear without reintroductions after many hundreds of pages, while the continued reliance on only certain individual memoirs can detract from the wider picture. The author by no means ignores the politics of the situation – the settlements hammered out in distant lands by distant leaders – but his eye remains firmly fixated on the ground level; on the ongoing misery, distress, uncertainty and fear of ordinary individuals. Winning the peace was always as vital for the Allies as winning the war, but this book is a savage indictment of how that peace was won. And while historians may forever debate the roles of logistics, political exigencies, emotion and comparative morality in causing such a deplorable state of affairs, the very prevalence of this brutality is a fact with which we have never adequately dealt. For all its flaws, After the Reich considers a most important topic, and is highly recommended to anybody with even the most passing interest in twentieth century European history.

– Marcus Colla

So Anastasia wasn’t the first: on nineteenth-century selfies

History in the Making hasn’t quite finished with selfies. As the people who bring us the Oxford English Dictionary have just named ‘selfie’ the word of the year, we’ve decided to dedicate yet another blog post to this phenomenon.

The OED defines a selfie as “a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website”. The Guardian was reported that the word has Australian roots: it can be traced back to a post on an Australian online forum in 2002: “Um, drunk at a mates 21st, I tripped ofer [sic] and landed lip first (with front teeth coming a very close second) on a set of steps. I had a hole about 1cm long right through my bottom lip. And sorry about the focus, it was a selfie.”

So what about selfie’s in history? A recent post on the Oxford University Press (OUP) blog has persuaded us that Anastasia’s 1913 self-portrait was not, in-fact, the world’s first selfie. The OUP blog explains that many early photographic portraits shot by daguerreotypists were self-portraits (Like this mid 19th century photo below of an anonymous daguerreotypist).


Ever wondered what would WW2 look like if the smart phone was invented in 1940? In selfie-related alternative history, the Huntington Post this week published a titillating gallery of famous photographs reimagined as selfies (created for an advertising campaign for a South African newspaper. The doctored photo of Churchill below gives you a taste of what we’re talking about;


Chicago’s White Slaves

In early 19th Century USA, middle and upper class reformers were anxious about white women in the country’s morally corrupt cities. This concern inspired a wave of conservative literature that warned Americans and women in particular of the dangers they faced in the nation’s growing metropolises.

Slate has posted several captivating illustrations from a 418-page book, “The White Slave Hell, or with Christ at Midnight in the Slums of Chicago” Written by Frederick Martin Lehman, a German-born Midwestern pastor in 1910. According to Slate, the “book combines florid testimony from the minister’s fact-finding missions to the red light districts of Chicago, sermons on temperance, hand-wringing poems, and first-hand stories from madams and prostitutes”. The take-away point seems to be, you sin, you die, and go to hell.



History in the Making is looking for blog contributors! Do you have something you would like to see published on our blog? Email us at blog@historyitm.org

The Battle Of Leipzig, 200 Years On


Carle Vernet & Jacques François Swebach, ‘Retraite Des Français, Après La Bataille De Leipsick (le 19 October 1815) [‘French Retreat At The Battle of Leipzig’], hand-painted lithograph.

As we approach the hundredth anniversaries of the battles of the First World War, we feel a sense of its perpetual importance – a sense in which it overshadows our whole world with such commanding opacity that it need rarely be articulated. Not only does the subliminally inevitable chain of Versailles, Woodrow, Weimar, Depression, Chamberlain etc., flicker through our minds, but also a profound fear of the sombre and macabre ghost of war itself. And because the Great War is forever imprinted in our historical consciousness through the images of young men – swathes and swathes of them – senselessly slaughtered on the fields of Europe in the names of empires we today feign to recall, our commemorations of it should serve also as reflections on the inner nature of war and of the terrifying debt our modern world owes it. It seems fitting, then, that this centenary is to be preceded by the bicentenary of the battle which, until shots rang out in Sarajevo, constituted the greatest, most brutal and most overwhelming military engagement the world had ever seen. This was the defeat of Napoleon at Leipzig, a conflict which posterity would recall as ‘the Battle of the Nations’ (or, in German, die Völkerschlacht).

Possessing an army severely depleted by the preceding Russian and Peninsular campaigns and allied with a string of European nobodies, Napoleon faced a forbidding Sixth Coalition comprised of the Prussians, Austrians, Russians and Swedes. The first skirmishes transpired on the morning of 15October, with the outbreak of aggressive hostilities following on the 16th. Yet while Napoleon endured steadfast on this day, his protective advantage was predictably short-lived. Throughout the ensuing two days, he was forced into an increasingly defensive position, facing sustained attacks from the north and south and witnessing the humiliating defections of his Bavarian and Saxon allies along the way. On the 17th, the Prussian general (and later hero of Waterloo) Blücher attacked cohesively from the French rear, helping rupture the Emperor’s communications and exposing his distinct lack of numbers. In large part owing to the attack of General Bülow’s Prussian forces (a corps within the Northern Army of Bernadotte – formerly Napoleon’s Marshal of the Empire and now heir to the Swedish throne), the French forces were effectively cut off from the Elbe early on the 18th. The Prussians lost many thousands of casualties in this advance but, critically, forced Napoleon into an unwinnable position. From there it was a crushing westward retreat to the Rhine and thence to France, with the Coalition entering Paris six months later.

In a purely political sense, the battle was of tremendous consequence. As the first total defeat of Napoleon, it effectively concluded the Wars of Liberation in Germany and thus signalled, for the first time at least, the beginning of Napoleon’s end. This would ultimately culminate with the Treaty of Fontainebleau, bringing Europe’s first continental peace in years and sending Napoleon into exile at Elba. To the Coalition allies, it seemed not only to herald the end of the Napoleonic Empire, but of the Revolutionary era itself, with Metternich remarking on the 18th that ‘the cause of the world has been won’. Europe’s borders would be redrawn in its wake, and Germany would begin its meander toward unification. However, the monumentality of this event as a battle nevertheless bears emphasising. It constituted some half a million soldiers, drawn from all corners of Europe, employing over two thousand artillery pieces. Of these, more than one hundred thousand were killed, either in the battle itself or by the typhus epidemic it left in its wake. In total, it constituted the largest battle to have ever occurred; a mantle it would retain until the twentieth century. Yet in the Anglosphere at least, the battle perhaps lacks its continental fame, flanked in the Napoleonic chronology by Trafalgar and Waterloo. The bicentenary, then, may be the jolt that our historical consciousness requires.

Today the surroundings of Leipzig lay under the shadow of the colossal Völkerschlachtdenkmal, a 90m high monument to the battle erected on its one hundredth anniversary in characteristic Wilhelmine ostentatiousness. More a monumental crypt of antiquity than any emblem of dignified solemnity, it consists of some 300,000 tons of granite and is encircled by ten enormous sandstone ‘guards’. While purposely designed to surpass the Statue of Liberty in height, however, it embodies nothing better than the decadent power of the Hohenzollern spirit. For the timing of its construction could not have been more apposite. Within a year of Kaiser Wilhelm II proudly declaring the monument open, troops of the German Empire were marching in his name toward Paris, and before long French soldiers would again fight on German soil. In their different ways, both the National Socialist and Communist regimes would come to celebrate the Völkerschlacht as an unprecedented triumph – for the former as the birth of German unity, for the latter as an emblem of German-Russian friendship. But when tens of thousands of people from all over the world converge on Leipzig this month, little if none of this will feature. The official commemorations will centre on reconciliation, community and European interdependence. It will be in many ways a celebration, and a time to reflect on the past, present and future of the ever-ambiguous European Project. But throughout this month and long into the future, it is the monument and the battle itself which will loom largest: the former for its scope, impact and body count; the latter for reminding us of the interminable fragility of peace.  Perhaps the last word should therefore be left to the British diplomat George Hamilton-Gordon, 4th Earl of Aberdeen, who surveyed the carnage of Leipzig in the battle’s wake:

‘For three or four miles the ground is covered with bodies of men and horses, many not dead. Wretches wounded unable to crawl, crying for water amidst heaps of putrefying bodies. Their screams are heard at an immense distance, and still ring in my ears. The living as well as the dead are stripped by the barbarous peasantry, who have not sufficient charity to put the miserable wretches out of their pain. Our victory is most complete. It must be owned that a victory is a fine thing, but one should be at a distance’.

– Marcus Colla

Feathered and Tarred

Feathered and Tarred

This week Slate brings us the fascinating story (with photographs!) of the “German-American farmer John Meints, who was tarred and feathered on the night of August 19, 1918 in Luverne, Minn., under suspicion of being insufficiently loyal to the United States. Like some other German-Americans threatened during the war, he had refused to participate in a war bond drive to his neighbors’ satisfaction. (Unlike miner Robert Prager, lynched in St. Louis in 1918, Meints escaped with his life.)”