Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Being beastly, by God, to the Germans

My current research on British Christian newspapers from the 1930s and 1940s turns up quite a bit of interesting material that is not quite directly project-related.

For example: there was relatively little turning of the cheek in a commentary by the Dean of Wells (Richard Malden) in the Guardian (the Anglican Church paper and not to be confused with the Manchester Guardian) in May 1945 on what should be done with Germany in the post-war world.

The dean, in fact, took rather a hard line.

Direct retaliation – that is to say, massacre or mutilation of the German race – is out of the question.

You can almost hear the Dean's sigh of disappointment.

Such violation of the Moral Law is not for us. But within the inviolable limits prescribed by the Christian conscience it is not easy to see how any punishment which can be meted out to the German people can be counted too severe. I have said ‘to the German people’, because there is no real distinction to be drawn between them and the Nazi party.

After the First World War, the dean recalled,

…we were urged to discriminate between the Germans and their rulers. We were assured that the German race is at bottom simple, honest and kindly, content to live within a horizon bounded by music, philosophy and beer. Its admirable moral qualities had made it an easy prey for the wicked Hohenzollerns, who had exploited it to serve their dynastic ambitions.


The truth was, and is, that the Germans are not at bottom simple, honest and kindly, though it has often been to their interest to try to persuade foreigners that they are. (A sound axiom for dealing with them is: Any German will say whatever he thinks convenient, and do whatever he thinks he can.) They have consistently, for two hundred years at least, if not for longer, shown themselves to be as arrogant, greedy and brutal as any nation which walks the earth, with the possible exception of the Japanese.

Among the dean's more concrete suggestions was evacuating the German industrial city of Essen and laying it, as he put it, 

utterly waste, and to remain so for ever. Any attempt to re-occupy or rebuild it to be an immediate casus belli without parley.

The destroyed city would serve as a reminder and warning for future generations. (The seventh son of the seventh son is not mentioned, but you get the picture.)


The first step towards their regeneration must be for us to make them understand that they are almost universally detested, as few people have ever been; and despised for their sheeplike docility. They must be shown that detestation and contempt will be their portion until they begin to show themselves worthy of something else. If they are to be allowed to set foot in British territory in any part of the world (and for my own part I believe it would be wise to exclude them absolutely for a term of years and to make plain that trespassers will be executed), it must only be in rigidly restricted numbers…

…and subject to strict regulations. For example, Germans were to be treated as “ticket of leave men” (e.g., they would be required to check in at police stations at regular intervals), would be forbidden to acquire property, their correspondence to be strictly censored and they would be required to pay a special “poll-tax" that would defray the costs of all the surveillance that the dean thought necessary to keep them under control.

Unsurprisingly, the subsequent weeks' correspondence columns in the Guardian were pretty lively.

(Source: The Dean of Wells, “Treatment of Germany. The Way of Regeneration”, (Anglican) Guardian, 25 May 1945, 203-204.)  

(Part of the 'historical bycatch' series; explanation.) 

Plain English

A Christian argument for minding one's language via the recurring column "From a Journalist's Notebook" in The Church Times, 1939:

Let’s Talk English 
I thoroughly agree with the writer in the Tablet who protests against the use of pretentious and pseudo-scientific terms when simple everyday phrases are far more expressive. Herr Hitler has, for example, been recently described in the Times as a paranoiac with delusions of persecution, he is aggressive, a megalomaniac with messianic feelings, and the victim of a power impulse for bloodless victories. Why not, as the Tablet suggests, use English, and say that Herr Hitler is a nasty piece of work.
(The Church Times, 3 November 1939, 378)

As far as I know, "a nasty piece of work" doesn't appear in the Authorised Version.

Though perhaps this is an error that needs revising. 

(Part of the 'historical bycatch' series; explanation.)  

Saturday, August 01, 2015

On Norbert Elias

Today marks twenty five years since the death of the German historical sociologist Norbert Elias. So far I have only seen that anniversary marked in German-language publications, so I thought I would briefly note it here.

Norbert Elias (via Wikipedia)
For me, Elias has been an inspiration and intellectual companion of sorts for about twenty years. He was one of the main theoretical guideposts for my dissertation, which I started thinking about in the mid-1990s.

I can still remember my dissertation advisor at the University of Maryland recommending in a rather offhand way that I take a look at Elias's main work -- The Civilising Process -- while we were in the early stages of discussing what was then my aim of writing about changing standards of behaviour in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries with regard to "recklessness".

In the end, I wrote about violence in nineteenth-century England, but Elias -- and the historical and sociological work that he had inspired -- remained important to me, even if I struggled at first with both Elias's ideas and his style of writing. (This is one of the many, many instances in my life where chance meetings and comments have led to life-long interests and even obsessions. Given Elias's emphasis on the unplanned nature of historical development, this seems maybe appropriate.)

Elias's imprint is certainly unmistakable in what resulted, published in 2004 as The Shadow of Our Refinement. (Review)

In my post-doctoral Wanderjahre, I tried to build on this work, exploring ways of combining the essentials of Elias's "figurational sociology" with both cultural history and evolutionary psychology. I think, actually, that I might have been the first person to try in any sustained way to combine all three of these ingredients. It's still relatively rare to see all of them brought together; however, there has been a great deal of increased interest in this kind of combination well beyond the historical field itself thanks not least to the enormous resonance that Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature has received since its publication in 2011. (A book to whose development I'm happy to have made some small contribution.)

I've also had a go at applying Elias to literary violence and civilisation, in an essay on de-civilising themes J.G. Ballard's novels High-Rise and Super-Cannes (published in a remarkable essay collection that resulted from an excellent conference). 

In recent years, my historical research has moved away from the history of violence and crime (to intellectual religious's a long story for another time), so I haven't had much to do with his work directly. (Though one of the figures who plays a role in my current project is Karl Mannheim, with whom Elias worked in Frankfurt in the inter-war period before both were compelled to leave Germany. So some slight connection remains.)

While Elias's ideas are far from uncontroversial among historians of violence (which I've had the mixed pleasure of experiencing first-hand on some occasions), they have in one way or another inspired much of the most important work on violence history over the last thirty years. Of course, like all theoretical systems, Elias's is certainly in need of constant testing, reconsideration and revision.

Still, for me, Elias's work has been important well beyond the academic battlefield. Rather than being something that I simply apply "in my work", his ideas have also helped shape the way I see the world more broadly. Even Elias's meditations on death -- in his book The Loneliness of the Dying -- helped me when I was coming to terms with the death of my mother some years ago.

On the long list of deceased intellectuals from the past with whom I'd like to have had the chance to have dinner, Norbert Elias is at the top. And I can't think of all that many other intellectual influences I had in my 20s that I still have in my 40s.  

Elias himself had a complicated, dramatic and in many ways rather sad life, and he remained very much an outsider in his field until the 1970s, when he was well into what for most scholars counts as retirement. Since then, the process of rediscovering his thought and applying it in new ways has gathered pace.

Looking back, I'm happy to have been involved -- in at least some small way -- with that.