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The sorry saga of Maximiliano de Mexico

9 Nov

 

 

In all the expansive glory-seeking annals of European imperialism, no episode is as pathetic, as grasping at straws, as the attempt in the 1860s to extend European reach in the New World by installing an Emperor in Mexico.  Maximilian, younger brother of the Habsburg Emperor Franz Joseph–or more correctly, His Imperial and Royal Highness Archduke and Prince Ferdinand Maximilian of Austria, Prince of Hungary, Bohemia and Croatia–was the sacrificial lamb, “reigning” as Emperor from 1864 until his inevitable execution in Santiago de Querétaro in 1867, the ostensible subject of Manet’s famous painting of 1868.

As a somewhat lazy student of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, I have always been a bit confused and perplexed by Maximilian’s story:  how and why was an Austrian prince chosen by the French to become the ruler of a land that they had no business invading, a country newly freed from the colonial rule of Bourbon Spain? In our recent travels, tidbits of Maximilian’s story kept popping up in unexpected places. When we arrived in Querétaro and learned (to our surprise, since my knowledge of the facts was still very vague) that it was in this very Mexican city that he was imprisoned and executed, I decided I needed to unravel this peculiar historical incident, if only for my own peace of mind.

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Miramare, Maximilian’s castle in Trieste. Described by Simon Winder as “a sort of Disneyish dream home”

Our first encounter with Maximilian–and his tragic bride Charlotte of Belgium, who became Carlota of Mexico–was in Trieste, site of Miramare, the villa he built when he was newly married and happy as a commander in the Austrian Navy.  Here is how Jan Morris, in her wonderful book, Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere, describes it

In a way it was a little like a romantic idealization of the empire itself, a fairy-tale mock fortress on this southern shore, and when I see it out there I am reminded poignantly of the passing of all empires, those seductive illusions of permanence, those monuments of hubris which have sometimes been all evil, but have sometimes had much good to them.

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Maximilian and Charlotte on their wedding day, 1857. She was 17, he was 25.

Morris also gives a good description of Maximilian’s personality, one of the keys to his ill-fated decision to take up the mantel of Empire:  “He was a dreamy sort of man, somewhat liberal in his views and much influenced by his uncle the crazed romantic Ludwig I of Bavaria, so he was not at ease with the stiff autocracy of K u K” (Kaiserlich und Königlich, Imperial and Royal, a reference to the Austro-Hungarian Empire).

Here’s as much of a back story as I can figure out to the chain of events leading up to Maximilian and Carlota’s departure for Mexico:  the old royal houses of Europe led by French monarchists, disgruntled by revolutionary forces in their countries and miffed at the growing power of the United States, felt they needed a stronger foothold in the Americas. In a last gasp of imperialist solidarity,  the French turned to the oldest House in Europe, the Habsburgs–whose Spanish branch had ruled New Spain for three hundred years–as the most viable option for imposing a regime on Mexico. While the United States was preoccupied with their Civil War, the thinking went, and believing that there was considerable support among conservatives within Mexico for a return to monarchical rule after the rise of the Mexican leader Benito Juárez, French troops invaded Mexico in 1861.  While reluctant at first, Maximilian was reassured by Mexican monarchists and France’s Napoleon III that these troops would support him in establishing rule in the country.  So in April 1864, he and Carlota arrived in Mexico, to be hailed as Emperor and Emperor’s Consort.  They were crowned Emperor and Empress at the Cathedral in Mexico City.

 

The new royal family set up house and government offices in the Castillo, the castle built in the late 18th century located in Chapultepec Park in Mexico City. They brought full regalia and the accoutrements of royalty, and made up some fascinating new ones, such as an imperial banner incorporating the emblems of Mexico with Hapsburgian elements. We walked up the hill to the Castle, which is a well-visited tourist site in the park. The castle itself is, at least by European standards, somewhat modest, in a rather plain Neo-Classical style.  The rooms have been furnished with evidence of the imperial period, as well as subsequent occupancy by Juárez and Mexico’s near-dictator ruler Porfirio Diaz. Carlota’s rooms are particularly poignant, perhaps only because we now know of her fate.  It was, however, quite apparent here as it was in Querétaro, that the Mexicans are understandably reluctant to heroize this moment in their history, preferring instead to focus on their canon of revolutionaries, foremost among them Benito Juárez. The Castle has a full-wall mural honoring Juárez, and amusingly, displays as well a golden laurel wreath with which Juárez was crowned once the invaders were routed.  This is the only crown in the Castle’s interesting History Room displays.

 

 

The most fantastic aspect of the Chapultepec Castle is its elevation. The views from its balconies over Bosque de Chapultepec are as stunning today as they were in the 1860s. This park in the center of Mexico City, off of the Paseo de Reforma–a street that was implemented under Maximilian’s direction–is one of the most magnificent parks in the world.

 

As the story of the doomed Second Mexican Empire progressed, warning signs of failure started to appear almost immediately.  The royal couple took their duties seriously, and were appalled at the level of poverty and inequality seen across the country. Maximilian ended child labor and tried to establish schools for the poor, while Carlota toured as far as the Yucután and sponsored charities to improve conditions for children.  The Emperor turned out to be far too liberal for the Mexican conservatives that had brought him to the country; their idea of Empire was to maintain the status quo of rich landowners and their fiefdoms. When the American Civil War ended and Napoleon III withdrew his troops from Mexico, having apparently lost interest in the idea of conquest, Maximilian’s fate was sealed.

 

 

 

On a brilliant Sunday morning, we walked from our apartment on Calle Damian Carmona to Cerro de las Campanas, which is now on the campus of the University of Querétaro. The place is now a pleasant park, and families were enjoying the ice cream vendors, and finding out that the rocks really do ring when struck.

The only memorial in the entire city to the Maximilian moment in the city’s history is a small chapel erected in the 1890s on the site where he and his generals faced the firing squad. A small museum above this site, which we assumed would focus on the story of the Empire, gave only passing mention to this era, emphasizing instead the story of Mexican Independence and Revolution(s). The pinnacle of the Hill, which provides a nice view over the city, is dominated by this enormous, and to my mind particularly unattractive, statue of the great hero, Benito Juárez. As it should be, I suppose, although I wish the public sculptures of Juárez were up to the aesthetic quality of the Mexican Muralists’ works all over the country.

Our entrepreneurial Yankee minds were thinking that the Queretarans had missed a selling point for tourists by not providing a “Maximilian Tour” to cash in on these historic monuments, but then we realized that the great virtue of Querétaro is that it is not at all geared for foreign tourists–no one in the tourist office spoke English or any other language other than Spanish, and there were no tourist maps published in English. This made the town blissfully free of tourist busses. This non-interest in becoming a tourist mecca was also what we liked about Trieste, that other town with traces of Maximiliana.

As we went up the long steep hill to the Castillo in Chapultepec Park, I saw one of the only cats we saw outside in all of Mexico.   Carlota apparently liked cats, too.

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Trotsky in Coyoacán

4 Nov

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In the last 30 years we are surely the only Americans  who have visited the charming “village” of Coyoacán, Mexico–now engulfed by Mexico City spread–without seeing a single Frida Kahlo/Diego Rivera site!  This was not entirely by choice–we went on a Friday, which was our first mistake, and the line to get into Frida’s house was ridiculously long. Add to that my impatience with the obsessive marketing of all things Frida in the last few years, and there was not much persuasion needed to convince me to skip the whole journey to the shrines. This is not to say that I don’t admire her artwork, and her story is sensational–I just can’t bear the kitschifying of her and her art. But that’s a theme for another blog!

What we DID head to see, and first up, was the Museo de la Casa Leon Trotsky. This is the home where exiled Communist leader Leon Trotsky, after years of exile in various countries fleeing Stalin’s brutal hand, lived 1939-40 until he was assassinated by a Stalinist operative. (Stalin had already killed just about everybody else associated with Trotsky, including his son and his first wife.) His murder by ice axe took place in this very house, in the study that has been preserved exactly as it was at the time of his death.  During his time in Mexico, he was an active participant in the heady intellectual and cultural life surrounding the Mexican Muralists and others drawn to revolutionary thought and action so significant in the 1930s and 1940s throughout Latin America and the United States.

The house as a museum is run by a private board headed by Trotsky’s grandson Esteban Volkow. Constantly in need of funds, the displays are sometimes cheesy, with amateurish labels and less than consistent displays. The emphasis is always on Trotsky’s very fruitful time in Mexico (he wrote some of his best books there), so there are many photos of him with Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera (Trotsky lived in their Blue House for many months, and is said to have had an affair with Frida), as well as an intriguing timeline of “revolutionary” events throughout Trotsky’s life. This display even included a photograph of the painter David Siqueiros in jail for his part in an earlier unsuccessful attempt on Trotsky’s life. The bookstore contained all the books in Spanish one would find at a socialist bookshop, on the likes of Rosa Luxemburg and Gramsci.  I felt like I did back in my time running with the YSA crowd in Portland, Oregon, only as if our activities were taking place in Spanish.

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The famous muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros was directly involved in the earlier assassination attempt on Trotsky, and served some time in jail. The great art historian Meyer Schapiro wrote a scathing indictment of Siqueiros about his part in this action.

Despite some museological “failings”, the impact of being on the grounds and in Trotsky’s house, surrounded by the objects of his daily life while in Coyoacán, was immediate and intense.  If only to have such a vivid document of material culture in 1940s Mexico, a glimpse at the kitchen, dining room, and even the bathroom I found fascinating. All those simply decorated dishes, all those beautiful wooden doors!

And then there was the study, with the desk still holding Trotsky’s glasses and the papers he had been working on when the Spanish-born Soviet agent Ramón Mercader, posing as one of Trotsky’s followers, entered the room and struck him in the head with an ice axe. I found this a very moving experience, seeing all his books and his bed and cane.  And then on the grounds, near Trotsky’s chicken coops and flowering trees, is his grave. His long-suffering wife Natalia Sedova, who lived into the 1960s, is also buried there.

Once we left La Casa Trotsky, we headed down to the Plaza Hidalgo in the middle of town, through Coyoacán’s magnificently authentic mercado. Ironically, having just come from the home of a revolutionary leader, Coyoacán, once a sleepy little artists’ community, is now one of the priciest places to live in Mexico City. As the waiter told us at the lovely little restaurant Moheli where we had lunch, its street, Avenida Francisco Sosa, is “like the Beverly Hills of Mexico.”  That street is indeed lined with venerable, newly renovated, estates built around 18th-century houses.

We watched dancers practicing flamenco steps on the elegant plaza–with Coyote fountain (Coyoacán means “place of the coyotes”)–and stepped into the pleasing interior of the town’s central Franciscan church, San Juan Bautista. Finally, instead of making it to the Rivera/Kahlo studio, we walked to the Nacional de La Acuarela , a charming display of the history of Mexican watercolors collected and donated by the artist Alfredo Guati Rojo.  We then made a torturous Uber journey back to La Condesa through Mexico City’s Friday night traffic. I would definitely advise people to make the journey to this wonderful village on any day but Friday or Saturday!

While the town is now a far cry from its lazy days of the 1940s, one can still get a bit of a sense of how it must have been when Trotsky was there.  The old street peddlers are still there, and the market place is as it must have been then.  If we had been game to elbow our way through the Rivera/Kahlo sites, I’m sure that we would have an even better feeling for that revolutionarily buzzing moment when Mexico seemed set for a new intellectual and cultural life.

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A honey vendor on Plaza Hidalgo

Don’t go to the Zocalo on Saturday!

23 Oct

 

 

Oh, my, it’s been so long since I’ve blogged anything!  On the one hand this is a good sign, because it means we’ve been so busy having adventures that I haven’t had time to write about them! On the other hand, it means I’ve been so busy putting up shares on Facebook and wasting time in other ways that I have just been lazy about writing.  We have been in Mexico for three weeks now. We started in Ajijic, then travelled by bus to Queretaro–an authentically Mexican town unspoiled by mass tourism that I want to write about!–where we made a side trip to San Miguel de Allende and Guanajuato, and are now in Mexico City.  I will get back to writing about these places, but our day at the Zocalo was so emblematic of present-day Mexico City that I just need to write all of it down.

First of all, we are staying in La Condesa, a rather upscale neighborhood that now seems to be Hipster Central, filled with cafes, artsy boutiques, and organic food. We had originally booked a place on AirBnB on Avenida Amsterdam–a gloriously elegant street with many intact and recently renovated 1930s buildings–but that apartment had a cave in (literally: the bathroom above fell in to the kitchen below!). Our lovely young hostess Xanath offered us instead this apartment on Calle Culiacan. Thoughtfully decorated and renovated, its only drawback is being on the second floor–a bit of a problem for G’s COPD lungs, but he has adjusted well. The street noise is minimal, and although the back bedroom wall is right up against another apartment, the noise during the week has stopped after 10 pm.

So let’s get to our Saturday, and our plan to go to the city’s main square, the center of Old Mexico, the Zocalo.  On Friday night, we had battled our way from Coyoacan through the city’s horrendous traffic–the poor Uber driver!–having forgotten that it was the beginning of the weekend, so the traffic would be even worse than usual.  Saturday morning, George informed me that the people in the apartment on the other side of the wall had stayed up ALL NIGHT talking and celebrating.  Thank God George took the back bedroom–he can sleep through that kind of thing, I cannot.  Add to this the fact that we are both having the turistas now–Travellers’ Diarrhea–George worse than me, so we’re sleeping fitfully.  But we decided to carry on with plans, not having a clue what was going on at the Zocalo that day, but intent on staying on some kind of schedule of “must sees” in the city–always a mistake for travellers who are experienced enough to know that it’s the serendipitous aspects of travel rather than the “must sees” that are important.  But we did want to see the Templo Mayor, and were excited at the prospect of seeing the very first printing press in the Americas in La Casa de la Primera Imprenta, which was right across from the Palacio Nacional.

But before we got going, we heard a loud bang outside–and then the electricity went out in the whole neighborhood. This meant that we couldn’t shower nor–in our case, most urgently–flush the toilets.  Remember the turistas? Yeah, that part….To our utter amazement, as our hostess was telling us that it would take many hours for the electricity to come back on–it came back on!  A transformer had blown, but apparently Mexican repair services were right on the problem. Everyone was surprised. We were all trying to figure out what we would do if there was no electricity for days….Mexicans do seem to take these things in stride, however.

We have been using Uber to get around–it’s worked like a charm and isn’t that expensive, and much more trustworthy than Mexican taxi drivers–boy, do they have a bad reputation, even among the Mexicans!  Our Uber driver this time was a loquacious one, assuming that we understood completely what he was telling us in Spanish. As we got close to the Zocalo, the crowds and the traffic even surprised our old veteran driver. But he got us there.  While we worked our way over to the enormous Cathedral, it became obvious that some enormous event was taking place on the plaza: along with the usual assortment of vendors, dancers, Aztec healers, and policemen, there were absolute swarms of people and tents and colorful floats. Apparently it was a parade having something to do with Dia de los Muertos festivities, but we only learned later that this event has only been held for two years, and has something to do with scenes that appeared in a James Bond movie! (Look it up on YouTube! It’s true!)

We had no idea!  I truly have never been part of such a huge stream of people who just kept coming and coming and coming–not even Mardi Gras had so many raucous, noisy and jostling crowds.  The photos above of those imaginary creatures floating above people’s heads is as close as we got to seeing anything of the parade, or anything of the Zocalo plaza itself.  We were able to come around the side of the Cathedral, where the traditional host of street vendors and dancers were arrayed, in less of a crowd.

By this time, I was in desperate need of a bathroom–nowhere to be seen. We worked our way along the street where a policeman said we might find a bathroom and found none. Then I saw a sign that said “Museo.” Great, a museum is bound to have a bathroom, and we’re always curious to visit any museum we can.  We went in. It was a building run by UNAM, presenting a kind of promotional story about the history of Mexico’s great university system, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México.  The woman at the counter was not going to let us in, even when we agreed to pay the 20 pesos admission. Then one of the curators arrived to tell us there was a little music presentation happening–she spoke English–that we could attend, to which we said fine–anything to get to the bathroom!

And so we left the chaos of the Zocalo, and entered this beautiful 18th-century building, and ended up sitting in a room for an hour listening to earnest university music students playing a lovely bit of afternoon classical music. Through the windows, we could hear the pounding of the drums from the Aztec dancers, and the noise from the parade as well. But it was a delightful respite, and totally unexpected. One thing we found perplexing, and perhaps a very Mexican thing to do:  The program they handed us gave us the names of the composers and the works played, but not the performers’ names. We mentioned this to the organizers at the end of the performance, and they looked surprised; so they asked one of the professors who the performers were, and they told us their first names!  Is it a Yankee thing to expect recognition for performances? Just an interesting little observation.

By this time it was about 1:30, and we needed to eat, despite our delicate tummies. We found the old-fashioned restaurant recommended by our hostess, El Cardenal, and had an interesting if relatively uninspiring meal, then headed out in hopes of finding the Aztec Temple and then the home of the first printing press.  We got to the tremendously exciting site of Templo Mayor, the remains of which were uncovered across from the immense Cathedral when doing construction for the subway in the 1970s.  This is the place where Cortez probably met Montezuma, and it is tinglingly overwhelming, and fantastically immediate. There’s an excellent museum that displays more of their incredible finds, and we were on our way there, when things got hairy.

Remember the turistas? Yep, they struck again.  So we decided we would have to forego the Temple’s Museum, and try to make a dash to the Casa with the printing press, which is what we really wanted to see in any case.

Finding a public WC–strategically placed all over downtown, with a nice matron who for 5 pesos hands you some TP–we then made the error of going back TOWARDS the crowds that were either 1) coming from the parade; or 2) heading for the Saturday markets which, from the full-on shouting taking place from every vendor, must be a regular weekend event. We were swept along in this seemingly endless stream of people. When we got to the Casa–it was closed for renovation!   This fact had not been mentioned in any guide or online site we consulted, although it was obvious this had been the situation for a while.

What to do now?  Feeling a bit queasy already, but determined to accomplish something on this day, we decided to try for the Antiguo Colegio de San Ildefonso–site of some of the earliest murals of the group that became so famous as the Mexican Muralist movement.  This again pushed us back into the crowds, which had not subsided one bit in all this time.  Going at a glacial pace was the only way to proceed, and our turn toward the Colegio placed us on five blocks of unrelenting and deafening spruiking (the Aussie word for street vendors’ calling for customers) and the continuous crush of people.  What was so astonishing to us, as we confronted this maelstrom of humanity and noise, was that the Mexicans seemed completely composed and patient, as if this were perfectly normal. No aggression, no pushing, no bad behavior.  Hats off to these people!  I was having a nervous breakdown! Honestly, I don’t know of any time when I have been in such a crowd of people for so prolonged a period, with a constant stream of humans coming both ways.

We did finally get to San Ildefonso, an old Jesuit college that was one of the first places to commission muralists to paint its walls (in 1922-24). While we weren’t able to see the famous Diego Rivera room–it had another exhibition going on–we did get to record several of the very dark and moving images of José Clemente Orozco, and the less polemical murals by Fernando Leal and Jean Charlot.  So at last, we accomplished one tourist must-see feat!

Getting back to our apartment was another trial for our poor Uber driver–the only time we had to wait a long time for one to get to us–and again, he was one who wanted to talk to us about the failings of the government and the need of humanity to be kinder to each other, all the while assuming that we understood everything he was saying in Spanish.  What I did understand was that Mexican traffic and Mexican crowds are almost always this overwhelming around the Zocalo, although this particular Saturday was especially brutal.

By the time we got back to La Condesa,  we were filled with nervous exhaustion and shaky digestion. But it gave us a real glimpse into life in Mexico City and taught us some things: 1) always check what’s going on at the Zocalo before heading off; 2) be prepared for enormous bodies of human beings no matter where or when in this city; and 3) traffic in the city is impossible.  But we also learned that the Mexican people are tops: kind, humane, helpful, and infinitely patient.  And resourceful! I’ll finish with two images of street vendors, improvising to present their wares: one a woman making esquite, a corn dish, on top of a shopping cart and over a can with a butane burner; the other one of the many traditional “healers” on the Zocalo performing his smoking and laying of hands on a person asking for help.

What an amazing place is Mexico City!

Travelling again!

5 Oct

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The photo above is only one of the reasons we’re off again on peregrinations: a new grandson!  Here we see siblings meeting each other for the first time. So happy that Mama Dottie was able to take such a perfect picture of Lyle and new brother Louis Seely Boeck.

UPDATE:  I wrote that paragraph at the end of August, before we had left for our drive LA-Denver. It’s now the beginning of October, and we spent a month in Denver with the kiddos (and stayed at our friends the Redifers’ house–thanks for offering us a bit of space, Cyndy!). We were SO busy being grandparents that I never had time to get back to this writing.  To sum up our Denver stay:  baby has club feet, so we spent each Monday at the EXCELLENT Anschutz Center Children’s Hospital, where baby Louis had his casts changed, something he will have done for several weeks more, then a tiny surgical procedure, then years of bars and braces on his little feet.  The good news: this birth defect is entirely reparable, and Max & Dottie are very grateful that they have such good care available to them in their own town.  Meanwhile we also spent several rewarding if exhausting hours entertaining an extremely loquacious and active two-and-a-half-year old. Like all two-year-olds, it seems, he adores big machines, so finding a digger to watch was the highlight of his visit with Baba.

So where are we now?  We are once again on the road! (Well, actually in the air for this latest leg.) One month in Mexico, then back to stay in Oakhurst near Yosemite for several months at my sister’s house while they go travelling. What we’re doing after Christmas is still a bit up in the air–probably still in Oakhurst, with jaunts elsewhere in California.  Then two-three months in Europe, doing some research on my “Three German Women” book, thanks to the graciousness of our friends Wolfgang and Nora, and the amazing resources available on HomeAway and AirBnb.

For now:  we are briefly back in Ajijic, Mexico, where we spent many weeks last year. (See our fairly comprehensive blogs about Ajijic last year, archived in March & April 2017).  The weather is fine, G. is having problems with COPD at this altitude, we’re staying in a big rambling house that is–you guessed it, as always–right next door to a construction site!  More Americans than ever here–a result of the Trump factor in some cases, and a lot of romantic notions for people our age seeking a cheaper, less stressful lifestyle.  Everyone still seems to be over 55 or 80, and lots of gated communities. The hills behind are gloriously green, with yellow bushes interspersed, as they were not when we were last here.  So far I have seen very few birds worth mentioning but lots of gorgeous butterflies, and the Carretera–the main road into Guadalajara–is still treacherous to cross.  We will go on to Queretaro on Monday, and will finally meet my cousin and his family, and stay in a lovely casita in the historical district. Hopefully, we will also get to visit Guanajuato–where my cousin’s brilliant daughter is at the university–and even San Miguel de Allende.  Then we are off to Mexico City for two weeks–if G’s lungs can stand it. We are so looking forward to visiting Mexico’s magnificent museums, but unlike the last time I was in the city FIFTY YEARS AGO (!), we are now old enough to have to worry about things like air quality, altitude and noise.

Well, that’s a quick summary of what we’re up to now. Alas, so far I have only seen two cats in Ajijic, both of them while attending a meeting, so I couldn’t get a photo of them.  But word is our landlady in Queretaro has cats!  So I promise to conclude with a cat pic in our next entry!  Oh, there’s a gato in the graffiti:

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How broken will our lives be?

21 Jul

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As part of my “regimen” of reading to acquire some historical context for my “Three German Women” project, I am now reading Jarausch’s Broken Lives:  How Ordinary Germans Experienced the 20th Century.  While Jarausch focusses on the generation born in the 1920s and only one of my women (Maria) was born in 1920, the stories told by a cross-section of ordinary Germans who grew up in this era do provide some illuminating insights into a time that many of us have too quickly dumped into some “that was then and we know how it turned out for those Nazis” bin, giving little thought to what it was like to grow up in such a tumultuous atmosphere.  He depends on many memoirs and diaries, both published and unpublished, as well as interviews with those still living (their memories, of course, colored by time and hindsight). While I am still focussing on the Weimar years and through World War II, Jarausch is particularly interested in documenting how Germany and the German people, both East and West, overcame the total destruction of their cities and their society and rebuilt so successfully after the war. This fact is another aspect that we as “victors” sometimes gloss over: despite all of the help given by the Allies for reconstruction, it was not necessarily a given that Germany and Austria would become so prosperous, so functional that they are now major players in the global economy and culture.

For my purposes, the book’s greatest strength is in emphasizing what I want to highlight:  that while larger political upheavals were taking place, most ordinary people, and especially young people, were simply living their lives–falling in love, getting jobs, finding enough to eat, going to concerts–without much thought about–or participation in–the conquest of their culture by fascism or, later, by Soviet ideologies.  As one informant writes of being an adolescent in the 1930s,  “The years of my apprenticeship in Leipzig were on the whole quite happy. I hardly paid any attention to politics.” (p. 89)  Sound familiar?

As for the commonly-heard statement, “why didn’t everyone protest against Hitler?” Jarausch presents some harrowing first-hand accounts, and concludes : “The memoirs show that it took exceptional insight and courage to remain aloof, refuse to comply, or actively resist the twisted universe of the Third Reich, since the sanctions were lethal.” (p. 96) Even in those families that were politically aware, Jewish, and/or Communist, peer pressure, for example, to be part of Hitler Youth triumphed over any objections parents might have. The author also finds ample evidence in these memoirs of how EXCITING all of these new actions could be, especially for German youth from rural areas, who for the first time met–through country-wide sporting events and Nazi-organized activities–other young people, all sharing this idea of “making Germany great again” after the shame of losing the Great War and the humiliation of the punitive Versailles Treaty.

And in the beginning, Hitler’s policies DID greatly improve the lives of ordinary Germans: autobahns, free health care, sponsored outings in the fresh air, recognition for healthy living, and guaranteed employment for those who followed the rules.  But when sanctions grew against Jews, when trade unionists were arrested, when militaristic propaganda took over the schools’ curriculum, not having paid attention led to the realization that they were heading toward a war that very few had anticipated.

Much has been written about the fact that after the debacle of the Second World War, the deprivations of the post-War years, the efforts at “de-Nazification”, few Germans have been willing to, as Jarausch writes, “confront their personal responsibility and commit themselves to doing active penance.”  This fact, too, I see as a normal human reaction: one remembers the good stuff, and has a hard time owning up to one’s complicity in evil.  In the sections of the book on the post-War years, both in the GDR (East Germany) and the FRD (West Germany), the memoirists focus primarily on how hard they worked to gain economic stability and eventually, material prosperity. Ideology seldom plays a major role in everyday life, or at least not in an obvious way.

Given that I have been reading this during weeks when the news in the U.S., as well as in other countries around the world, is incomprehensibly terrifying, as we endure a mentally unhinged, probably traitorous, American president, and we watch in helplessness at the rise of autocratic leaders in previously democratic nations,  all of these stories give me pause.  I will not make the simplistic comparison of Hitler and Trump–too many differences, despite some alarming similarities.  But I am struck by reading of the consequences of not paying attention to what is happening on a grander scale as we live our daily, usually banal, lives, and certainly the consequences of not learning from the (very recent!) past.

As Jarausch writes at the end of his worthy book, “[h]eeding the lessons of experience and memory has transformed many Germans into sincere democrats and pacifists who want to prevent a recurrence of earlier horrors.” Will we–our children and grandchildren–be able to prevent more broken lives by learning from the past? So I conclude by once again posting the signs of fascism. The American trajectory may follow different paths determined by different banalities, but the end results may be the same.

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Image-making

21 Apr

Bear with me as I try to make a point about the media’s construction of “Image” and its manipulation of the visual record–whether aesthetic or historical or both. Theory has never been my strong suit as a thinker or teacher, so I may be reinventing the hermeneutic wheel here in a flat-footed way; and it could be that my comparisons here are stretched beyond persuasiveness, but current events have contrived to bring these ideas together for me right now.

This is the article that began this rumination:

https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2018/04/17/mary-beard-cut-us-version-civilisations-fearing-slightly-creaky/

 

If she is to be believed, the eminent scholar Mary Beard, pictured above, was largely deleted from the American presentation of the ambitious new “Civilizations” series, because, according to her, PBS Boston thought her appearance wouldn’t appeal to an American audience. She tweeted: “Can’t help think that there is something about a creaky 63 year old grey haired lady that doesn’t quite fit the bill. But I am probably smelling a rat where there isn’t one!” Beard also indicated that the American edits veered the narration of the series much more directly toward Christian views, and turned the episodes into an “anodyne” version that critics have noted in a rebuke of the productions’ “value free” approach to the subject.

While Beard may indeed be placing blame for the cuts on the wrong culprit, that such edits were made at all is a dismaying indictment of U.S. media’s interpretation of what American audiences want or should be exposed to–as if we can’t deal with another culture’s approach to history and art. Such micromanagement of what the American public sees smacks of the most egregious kind of censorship:  insulting an entire culture’s intelligence. Personally, as a “creaky old lady” myself, I tend to believe that Mary Beard is right:  her physical appearance doesn’t fit the mold of female talking head in America.  As if anyone watching a series with as lofty a goal as explaining “civilization” would be put off by a female presence not as attractive as the weather girls on local television stations!

The second image (which I don’t seem to be able to edit into place, so will have to place it  at the bottom of this discourse) is a screen shot from the scholar Thomas Elsaesser’s film about his family, “Sonneninsel”, “Sun Island” in English.

http://www.3sat.de/mediathek/?mode=play&obj=72067

As I have written before (https://esauboeck.wordpress.com/2018/01/16/a-book-proposal/), Elsaesser serendipitously discovered my blog about Irmgard Rexroth-Kern, one of my “Three German Women”, and contacted me because Kern and her husband H.G. Rexroth figure in his film! (An indication of what a godsend Google can be for researchers!) He quite graciously sent me photos of Fr. Kern, as she appeared in the 1940s, and we have been sharing information ever since.  I was thrilled that he brought his film to USC this week, where we were able to see it yesterday and to meet the man himself.  “Sun Island” is a fascinating documentary based on home movies that tells a complex story of family, but brings up many other intellectual strands, having to do with architecture, the birth of the Green movement, memory, and revelations about everyday German life before, during, and after World War II.

After the film’s presentation and insightful discussion by extremely clued-in film students (they are, after all, at one of the most renowned film schools in the world), one of the faculty members wanted Elsaesser to address the “dilemma” raised by the film showing images of family members in Nazi uniform. The argument seemed to center on the fact that American audiences would not be able to read these images as anything but meaning that Elsaesser’s family were indeed Nazis, and that while Elsaesser does mention the appearance of people in uniforms, he doesn’t explain clearly enough what these depictions “mean”.  There was much back and forth about whether such images should be deleted for an American audience that wouldn’t understand.

Such concerns, to my mind, are exactly why such images of Germans in the 1930s and 1940s should be shown–to give a realistic presentation of what living in Germany at this tumultuous time meant.  Everyday life went on, people continued to make gardens, have friends over for tea, went for strolls in the gardens or swims in the lake.  Just like today, most Germans were, if not apolitical, neither Nazis nor leftists. As the war proceeded, men were drafted and sent off to the front. There wasn’t much they could do about it no matter how they felt about the military forces in charge of the country, unless they were immensely courageous and refused to go. Americans should also try to remember that Germans were not receiving the same kind of news that the Allies received; as far as most Germans knew, they were winning victories, they were fighting for the Fatherland, and life went on.  By the mid-40s, having a family member in uniform was as normal as seeing an American in uniform during the Vietnam war, and the feelings about their presence were as complex and emotional as were ours during that time.

But for the media,  what IMAGE is presented and how it will be interpreted is of utmost importance.  The awareness by professional documentarians and filmmakers of the inevitable self-censorship that happens with any film-making must always, I think,  be informed by film’s educational possibilities, even when dealing with “the market”, as the film-watching public is considered to be. Too often, however, those market forces seem to take precedence over the opportunity to educate.  That Elsaesser has such access to this amazing vernacular footage provides a brilliant opportunity to expand the interpretation of German life, to broaden the expected image of GERMAN that the world has created. As the people in this film reveal, they embraced neither one ideology nor the other; their visualized story presents a much more mundane picture of human beings going about the living of their lives, unaware that they were experiencing what has now become history.  Elsaesser’s desire to eradicate some stereotypes and misinterpretations of this past is the main reason I’m writing my book, too:  each of my German Women had to deal with the exigencies of this miserable history as it was happening, and none of them fit neatly into any of these black-and-white models of politics or ideology.  The concern about “accepted” presentation–whether of the supposedly desired female image for TV or the assumed meaning of a Nazi uniform–is not what is important to me or, I would hope, to most intelligent viewers or readers.  This “creaky old lady” just wants these stories to be told as factually yet evocatively as possible.

 

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A screen shot from Thomas Elsaesser’s “Sun Island,” showing a family member sitting in German uniform at a family gathering during WWII.

Drizzle or sprinkle?

3 Mar

As we sat inside on one of the RARE-and-getting-rarer Southern Californian days when it rained, George and I got into a discussion about which KIND of rain was falling at that moment, and which was the correct term for which kind of rain. I maintained that “sprinkle” is heavier rain than “drizzle,” which I understand as a misty kind that doesn’t cause drops to fall (as in the two photos above). If you can see drops on the ground–as in the third picture above–then it’s a “sprinkle,” but not yet a full-on rain, and it may pass by quickly. G. thought (and still does) that “drizzle” refers to a greater amount of rain over a longer period of time.

When I put this question to my ultimate source of authority–my Facebook friends–the discussion was lively, with arguments on both sides. In the end, the “drizzlers” outweighed the “sprinklers,” but I think only because I framed the question in terms of which kind of rain brought more water. We were particularly swayed by the experts: our friends who live in Oregon and Washington. Here’s what one of them said:  “After 30 plus years in Oregon I have a hundred different words for moisture in the air a sprinkle is light rain for a brief time. A drizzle is a light rain that lasts for hours. Drizzle is the answer!”  And another friend:  ” It’s the weather pattern here in the southern Willamette Valley that I call low hung mung. The sodden blanket of grey that spits a fine mist of wet continuously for days on end.”  So in terms of the AMOUNT of wet, “drizzle” seems to be the correct answer.  

Not wanting to concede defeat, I turned to those other sources of authoritative information, the internet and Youtube. First is another blog entry on terms for rain in that soggy region, the Pacific Northwest:

https://www.theodysseyonline.com/10-words-rain

This one seems to substantiate my feelings about the term “sprinkle”, as does this little video:

Being the diplomat that I am (!), I’m going to declare a tie:  in terms of wetness, “drizzle” implies more water over a longer time, while “sprinkle”  refers to sudden droplets that clear up quickly.

In any case, rain of any sort is becoming an increasingly infrequent, and therefore welcome, phenomenon in SoCal. We’re just thankful that we’ve had some this week, whether “sprinkles,” “drizzle” or steady rain!