Reading Week

Re-reading an old favourite during Reading Week

By Ross Allinson, MA Student in Violence, Terrorism and Security

October and November are significant months in the German calendar. This year October 3rd marked the 30thanniversary of German Reunification (Deutsche Einheit); this November 9th, 31 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall. This time of the year always gets me thinking about the lives of East Germans. As a 15-year-old who had been living in Germany for a year and half I finally got to go to the Hauptstadt of our Federal Republic in 2013. I was excited to see the Bundestag, Chancellor Merkel’s Office and Alexanderplatz. In my head the place I wanted to see most was the former Ministry of State Security’s (Stasi) Headquarters on Normannenstrasse, East Berlin.

This building was not only the headquarters of the East German intelligence agency; it was the place where Erich Mielke (The Minster) and his 91,000 strong work force, systematically shattered the lives of the enemies of socialism, including their own citizens. They called themselves the shield and sword of the party. The party being the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands). This party led the German Democratic Republic for 40 years.

This Reading Week I decided to re-read an old favourite of mine: Stasiland – Stories from behind the Berlin Wall by Anna Funder.

Stasiland was first published in 2003. It has been called “A masterpiece” by The Sunday Times.

It is a collection of tragic stories that were told to Funder during her time working in a reunified Berlin. Funder is an Australian author and investigates the lives of East Germans affected by the regime, and more specifically the Stasi. The book transports the reader to the centre of the oddities and cold systemic brutality of the regime in East Germany. 

Funder gives voice to the stories of East Germans who dared to stand against the regime – some who didn’t even realise they were standing against it. Instead of going into the detail of the Stasi’s plans for the nation and their surveillance methods, Funder tells the human story, which is often lost in the discourse surrounding East Germany. 

From the book we quickly discover that every East German has a story of some kind and the book gives us a glimpse into the new lives of the East Germans, who no longer have the republic that both repressed and hugged them at the same time. It exposes that German reunification was far from a perfect political goal; too many people were left vulnerable and left behind when the socialist republic began to draw its last breaths on 9th November 1989.

The book is a must-read for anyone interested in the human causalities of the socialist system and of the wounds that are only made deeper by the new reality in the ‘New’ Federal Republic of Germany. In 1986 ‘Deutschland ist grosser als die Bundesrepublik’ (Germany is bigger than the Federal Republic) was graffitied onto the Berlin Wall at Potsdamer Platz. After reading Stasiland you will see that this rings true even today.

If you want to know more about the German Democratic Republic, comment below and I will point you in the direction of some amazing podcasts, and resources.

Reading Week

Portrait of a Gentleman: On Reading in Reading Week

The delight of stepping into a warm bath after a long, busy day. A sense of intense relaxation. Do all migrants feel like that when they open a book written in their own language? Words and phrases so familiar, echoes of childhood: ‘kloddertjes’, ‘klontjes’, ‘een spookachtig moment’.

I hardly ever read Dutch literature these days, but find Portret van een heer (Portrait of a Gentleman), hidden behind another book on a top shelf in my office at home. Forgotten, dusty, waiting to be read. I grab it and study its design. The back cover presents a black-and-white picture of the author Tommy Wieringa. He looks over his left shoulder into the distance, a waterscape behind him. When I stretch the book far open, his painted likeness on the front cover stares at his photographed self.  

But wait a minute, I recognise the style of the portrait. I’m sure, it must be by the Austrian artist Egon Schiele. I recently explored his life history when writing a chapter on a museum in Český Krumlov, the Egon Schiele Art Centrum, (Svašek 2019). I remember reading that Schiele died in 1918 of the Spanish Flu. As the Coronavirus pandemic was still ahead of us, I did not pay much attention to the cause of his death. But one thing is clear: the person depicted in the painting is not Tommy Wieringa, who is Dutch and was born in 1967.

Curious, I open the book and soon discover that the uncanny resemblance of writer and painter is the main focus of the first story. In the story, Wieringa recalls how he first learnt about the portrait when a friend, who had seen it displayed in Museum Belvedere in Vienna, sent him a postcard of the work, describing his encounter with an Austrian ‘Wieringa’ as ‘beangstigend’ (frightening). The author himself was also shocked, seeing his mirror image. ‘Zelfs het puntje op zijn schedel was identiek!’ (even the pointed shape of his skull was identical).

In the rest of the story, the Dutch author writes about his journey to Austria and the Czech Republic, in search for the man in the portrait. The model turns out to be Victor Ritter von Bauer, a once wealthy landowner who was born in 1876 and inherited many acres of land and a lucrative sugar refinery from his ancestors. He was an energetic aristocrat, one of the first Austrians to fly a plane and a keen traveller who wrote about his travels to the Pacific in Eine Reise auf der Insel Sawaii. After the break-up of the Habsburg Empire in 1918, he lost most of his properties due to land reforms and Masaryk’s nationalisation policy. He died in 1939 and was buried in the chapel near Kunín Palace, an impressive eighteenth century baroque building still in his ownership at the time of his death.

In Portret van een heer, Wieringa visits the Palace, today a museum. Tellingly, he is welcomed by a soft-spoken caretaker who, in awe of Wieringa’s familiar physique, welcomes him with the solemn words: ‘the lord of the castle has returned’.

Unable to travel to the Czech Republic, I find Kunín Palace after I’ve landed the tiny dangling Google figure on the digital map. I do this a lot, these days of lockdown, grabbing the little person by her collar and dropping her to either start an adventure, or investigate some local details for my research. So, I’m in – a few virtual steps, and there it is. Indeed impressive.

I also visit the Palace’s website, and read about its history, it was built in Habsburg times. This reminds me of that pile of research materials in the corner of my office: numerous books and copies of nineteen-century newspapers that I made in historical archives in Prague last year. One of the newspapers is Národní Listy, a Czech nationalist daily newspaper that propagated Czech cultural revival. One is from 1 July 1912, and reports the unveiling of a monument in Prague, a huge statue of the historian and political thinker František Palacký. Palacký’s vision of Czech nationhood inspired generations of nineteenth and twentieth century artists and intellectuals. He is often called ‘the father of the nation’.

I wonder what Victor Ritter von Bauer would have thought about Palacký’s revolutionary ideas. In Portret van een Heer, I read that toward the end of his life, von Bauer gave lectures in Vienna, London and Paris about history and politics, and published Zentraleuropa: Ein lebendiger Organismus in 1936. In the book, he reflects on the cultural histories of Central European nations, and the title refers to the region as ‘a lively organism’. I should try to get my hands on the book.

So here we go, unexpectedly the Dutch travel story has taken me back to work, just when Reading week ends.   

Reading Week

What I’m reading… HAPP students and staff

Ruth Hewitson, PhD in Philosophy

I finally got around to reading Love in the Time of Cholera. One quote from it resonated with the topic of my thesis, which is whether competent children should be allowed to make decisions regarding their own medical treatment (as competent adults do).

‘It was not easy for her to establish real differences between children and adults, but in the last analysis she preferred children, because their judgement was more reliable’ 

Photo by Ross Angus, Creative Commons license

Ian Campbell, Senior Lecturer in Early Modern Irish History

This week, I’m working on the introduction for a group of articles that I’m submitting with some colleagues to a journal called History of European Ideas. Our theme is the process by which European states made themselves sacred during Europe’s early modernity. As part of this work I’m reading a set of very entertaining lectures that the late Tony Judt published as The burden of responsibility: Blum, Camus, Aron, and the French Twentieth Century (Chicago, 1998), because the relationship between modern politics and the sacred was something that interested both Albert Camus and Raymond Aron.

Last week, I bought a copy of Fernando Cervantes, Conquistadores: A new history (Allen Lane, 2020) as a way of up-dating my knowledge of the Spanish conquest of the Americas, and I’d recommend it as a lively and perceptive book.

Finally, I’m now half way through James Joyce’s Ulysses! I’ve never read it before, and hadn’t realised what a political book it is. The cyclops episode is one of the most angry denunciations of Irish nationalism that I’ve ever read. I’m also reading John Banville’s Snow (London, 2020), which is a bit more heavy-handed than his better novels, but still entertaining.

By Shaun Calhoun, Creative Commons licence

John Barry, Professor of Politics and International Relations

These are books I have on my reading list for reading week. I’m particularly looking forward to finishing the biography of William Wilberforce, as part of my interest and seeing the parallels between the struggle to end the slave trade and contemporary efforts to retire the fossil fuel industry.

I can already see parallels but of course differences! Located around the intersection of political economy, power, ideology, ethics, and the role of the state…

Sparky Booker, Lecturer in Medieval Irish History

Most of my academic reading this week relates to my research on the later middle ages in Ireland, but I’m also enjoying this study about a law enacted in Ireland much earlier – in the year 697. The law was intended to protect non-combatants during times of war and is also known as the ‘Law of the Innocents’. This is some of the earliest law relating to conduct during warfare – and who should be protected from violence – rather than to whether a war was just or not in the first place.

Also loving this beautifully illustrated book about an accidental visit of Archduke Ferdinand – a young man who later became Holy Roman Emperor – to Kinsale, co. Cork in 1518. His ship was blown off course by a storm and he sheltered in Kinsale for several days with his entourage, a member of which, Laurent Vital wrote an account of their stay.

Accounts of Ireland and the Irish from the early modern period that aren’t hostile commentaries from English authors are rare and Vital’s comments on fashion, daily life and customs in Kinsale are particularly fascinating. The strangest thing to me, given the Irish climate, is that Vital records that both men and women in Kinsale wore clothes that did not cover their chests. He writes that ‘the men have their shirts open down to the belt, without sleeves so that they have bare arms’ and that ‘young women and girls have their chests naked to the waist; it is as common there to see or touch the breast of a girl or woman, as it is to touch their hand.’ His comment on this was (perhaps surprisingly) not critical, noting ‘and so, there are as many different fashions and customs as there are countries’.

An honest account of my reading week must mention some of the books that I read every evening with my kids: these are two current favourites. The Puffling book (besides having the wonderful word ‘puffling’ in the title) is set on Skellig Michael and at one point the puffling dances atop a beehive hut in the early medieval monastic site. The three year old is not interested in the history side of things but I enjoy it!

Reading Week

Reading Week in HAPP

By Stefan Andreasson, Reader in Comparative Politics

As we’re moving into Reading Week in a semester quite unlike any other, I wanted to take up the invite to share some brief thoughts on what I am currently reading. The days when I was sufficiently organised to begin and finish one book at a time seem long gone, and at the moment I am reading three fascinating books.

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My main research focus in recent years is on the political economy of energy transitions, with a focus on the politics of “Big Oil” in the USA and sub-Saharan Africa. More specifically, I am currently working with a colleague in Maine on a historical project where we investigate how the case of Anglo-American naval contestation for sperm whale oil (a crucial ingredient in 19th Century industrialisation) in the decades following American independence provides us important insights into Balance of Power theory in International Relations, the securitisation of energy resources and the dynamics of energy transitions, including the currently unfolding one away from fossil fuels and towards renewable sources of energy.

To that end, I am reading Eric Jay Dolin’s very engaging history of American whaling, Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America (2008). This book is pitched to a general readership, but also provides a wealth of valuable historical sources and data that are of use for more specialised research purposes like ours. The history of our modern civilisation is a history of energy transitions – from biomass to fossil fuels like coal, and later oil and gas, and now more recently renewables like solar and wind – and the history of whaling can profitably be read in this context.

As whales, and the 19th Century, are very much on my mind at the moment, I am also taking the opportunity to finally read Herman Melville’s classic, Moby Dick; or, The Whale (1851). It is one of those immensely influential works of fiction – in this case with a good amount of intriguing contemporary social history, not to mention insights into the exciting world of cetology, thrown in – that you cannot help but feel that you ought to have already read. If and when it was taught in my Swedish secondary I must have been occupied elsewhere.

Notably, Captain Ahab’s monomania is a timeless force to behold:

“All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event–in the living act, the undoubted deed–there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me. Sometimes I think there’s naught beyond. But ’tis enough. He tasks me; he heaps me; I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him. Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I’d strike the sun if it insulted me.”

Certainly, the spirit and psychology of revenge is one driving force of social and political action throughout the ages. Combined with Melville’s breath-taking accounts of the vastness of our oceans and the mighty creatures that dwell in it, Moby Dick is that truly great book that we can draw multitudinous lessons from.

Lastly, I am reading Frances Fitzgerald’s The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Reshape America (2018). Fitzgerald won a Pulitzer Prize for her account of the Vietnam War (Fire in the Lake, 1972) and her ability to convey a highly readable and insightful social history is certainly evident in this recent book as well. The history of Evangelical Christians in the USA provides some highly relevant context primarily for my undergraduate teaching on American Politics. This as a consequence of how this prominent demographic has shaped modern American politics, notably with the rise of the Moral Majority in the 1980s, the Christian Coalition’s role in the Republican Party recapturing Congress in 1994 and more recently also in the political coalition that saw Trump elected president in 2016.

In addition, there is also an indirect link between the history of these religious, social and political movements and my research on energy: I am attempting to get a modest research project off the ground which will investigate how American Evangelicals are engaging with climate politics in Washington on the basis of their specific understandings about the relationship between Man and Nature, and to that end the historical context provided by Fitzgerald is highly valuable.

As an aside, reading Fitzgerald’s book I realised that, by chance, I managed to visit and capture (below) at least a couple of places that play a significant role in her history when I was visiting Northeastern University in Boston and the International Studies Association – Northeast annual conference in Providence, Rhode Island in November last year. Remember those days of international travel? How far away and receding in the mists of time they seem now.

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The Tremont Temple (above) in Boston, which is usually referred to as the first racially integrated church in America, was founded by the Free Church Baptists in a previous building in 1843, with the current structure being built in 1896. The First Baptist Church of Providence (below) is the first Baptist church in America. Founded in 1638, the original church was replaced by this one built in 1774-75.

A large old building with many windows

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For me, the important lesson about reading is a simple one. We will learn something from everything that we read, and as long as we keep on reading, we keep on learning – this irrespective of the specific subject matter at hand.

Enjoy your Reading Week.