Students of History

History is an incredibly difficult subject to master. You begin about 7 years old with what are the establishment facts about your State. (And these are the foundation to the tissue of lies that you might never overcome.)
In the mid 90’s I met a chap employed as a lecturer in History at Leipzig, an East German university when he was there. An aspect of his field of study was the German Peasants War(1524-25), the era which saw the Modern Germany emerge. The thing is, he was fired along with the entire faculty after reunification.
Modern Germany is seen as beginning with Luther nailing his theses to the church door. It’s the 1916 Proclamation, the US Declaration of Independence or any number of other such statements. The core of what Luther was bitchin about was the massive transfers from the German statelets to Rome particularly but Italy generally. What on the ground this meant was a series of very wealthy towns but a largely empty countryside split between church lands and local. And with the local taxed to the hilt by both church and prince. Resulting in almost permanent famine. This was the system put in place to fight the crusades. You need surplus to keep men in the field and that’s how it was generated.
Why then. Well, simply enough. When we think Crusade, we instantly think the east, Jerusalem. But Spain held an Islāmic State until the 1490s only 20 years before Luther festooned the door with the 95. Or to rephrase, Columbus discovered America as the last Muslim ruler was leaving Spain.
This meant 20 years of transfers with no end goal. So what did they do with it. It built St Peters, but that was only the very visible cap. It built churches and palaces, fortresses and fortified towns. It allowed very destructive greedy little wars between towns and factions. And the almost instantaneous rebuilding of the same. It allowed for the Renaissance.  But mostly it backed up. All tradable commodities, anything transportable like wheat and wool became worthless to the farmer. And this just when the church and the prince was demanding ever more tax.  It wasn’t going out the other end and the local bigwig needed to keep up with the Italian Joneses.
I started this by referring to modern Germany’s foundation myth. This has and IS seen as a Catholic Protestant thing. But a lot of the work done in the Eastern universities where they attempted to create a horizontal and not a vertical split is gaining ground since the financial collapse. Reading the German newspapers, their sheer bemusement at the antics around Europe and further afield, has caused them to step back and reevaluate.
It isn’t that Germans crave certainty more than anyone else, but they’ve the capacity to adjust if the frame doesn’t fit the circumstances. Something English speakers haven’t had to do for a very long time. They are capable of plugging in a drop in sales of BMW’s, VW’s and Mercedes. But more, they are capable of seeing patterns, and see the self-generated difficulties their neighbours have inflicted upon themselves in their determination to match income levels to some silly falsehood without protecting the most basic needs of their people’s.

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11 Responses to Students of History

  1. Ed says:

    About 20 years ago, I picked up my first non-fiction book and I’ve been reading them ever since. I discovered that history is more entertaining than fiction because it is real and there is an inexhaustible supply of it… assuming I don’t live to 500 years old or more. Probably the first thing I learned from these books is that what they taught us in school was at best, whitewashed versions of reality and at worst, flat out untrue. Since I can’t go back in time and correct my teaching, I try to fill my daughter in on the unvarnished truth on whatever subject she is reading about. Fortunately, her school has been pretty good at eliminating the untrue facts that I was taught but they still whitewash things a lot.

    • V.H says:

      The bits you have to worry about are when people begin to make statements of absolute fact. In general they are being very selective.
      These days the one that you hear most is that the shooting of the Archduke caused WW1. It wasn’t truly even a catalyst. The very best is was was a brick in a wall near the top.

  2. Kelly says:

    Studying history (in school) should not just be rote memorization of dates and facts. My younger daughter loves history and wanted to teach it in a way that encouraged others to share that love. However, getting a little taste of “academia” after completing her Master’s Degree left a bad taste in her mouth (for a number of reasons, both on the student side and the professor side) and caused her to switch directions.

    • V.H says:

      Well to start with she would earn less than a high school teacher while putting up with all sorts of control freakery from tenured professors.

  3. Kimberly says:

    I don’t know if I’m smart enough to make sense of this, but I’m gonna try! 🙂 So, are what you saying, in summary, Germany’s past has led it to its current position in being able to see and analyze what’s going on with its neighboring countries, spotting policy errors due to hindsight?
    I’m with the others in that I find history quite interesting, but I must also add that its method of delivery is often an unfortunate hindrance for its learners. It’s such great story telling which is why it’s a shame when students are exposed to it through dry, outdated text books and rote memorization of dates. I had a US history teacher in my last two years of high school who opened my eyes to how interesting it could be. His lectures were comprehensive and so interesting – fun to listen to and the readings were given to supplement what had been taught in the lecture, rather than given to teach the subject matter. My previous experience had been teachers who assigned chapter readings and questions at the end of the chapter, and then tests on the most minute details (date memorization) rather than the concept. There’s only so much interest that’s going to grab a teenager’s attention, especially in that subject matter.

    • V.H says:

      History is a very large part of our identity and part of the German identity is that “hold on there buckoo. What the Hell do you think you’re doing” of Luther. And following from that the uprising of the peasants. It gives the current population permission to re-examine.
      The problem is this tends to a ‘national’ acceptance distinct from a personal, of any given position. Albeit for a time.

      History teaching in the English language tends to support the status quo. If you present history from the view point of the students life position now. Say the kid has a dad that works as a farmer/plumber/carpenter/soldier/doctor/unemployed and drop them back 100/200/300/400 years you’d produce a very different result in the kids. I could guarantee a bunch of bolshy politically aware Citizens. Look at how the treatment of women in history has translated to politicians scared witless of aware women demanding equality. And that’s not even dealing with ‘history’, for women rarely feature in official histories, more an anti-history.

      • V.H says:

        Yes, you got it. But more they tend to see within first. And assume that everyone else is seeing the same thing. At least that’s what they were doing with the formation of the €uro.

      • Kimberly says:

        In reference to your first paragraph, wouldn’t you say that the national acceptance or position is usually the case, even outside Germany? Don’t the people generally kind of rally behind “their” identity as whole nation until those “dissenters” begin to spark additional views/opinions? Or am I misunderstanding your point?
        In my lifetime, I have seen (varying) improvement in regards to minorities within history instruction, at least in my small microcosm of elementary education. The curriculum that has crossed my desk, so to speak, has been far more encompassing than I remember it being in school. It’s probably, like so many other issues, a generational thing? And it’s funny you mention the treatment of women in history as today I was given a text from a colleague who has been teaching for years and years and years. The passage had been duplicated from an old ditto machine (which dates it significantly). It was about winter traditions around the world and I had to roll my eyes when I read “and women and girls spend hours in the kitchen, cooking and baking sweets.” It’s telling to look at the old curriculum that still floats around here and there. Without telling her it was outdated and sexist, I offered to retype it so we had it saved on the computer…and I’ll rewrite it while I’m at it. 🙂

        • V.H says:

          Actually no, I think Germany is almost unique. It changed the political structure eleven times in the last 200 and five since unification in 1871. And in the intervening years between Luther and 1800 Europe’s wars were either fought entirely upon or entirely involved affairs dealing with what we call Germany such that no generation escaped. One of the reasons for the flexibility was a settlement at Augsburg with it’s cuius regio, eius religio “Whose region, his religion.” But my point is you can see the sheer volume of goods shipped south when holding them in German allowed 50 years of non-stop war once they stayed put. War cannot be fought without supplies.

          On the second. I think it’s OK as long as the work of women isn’t lessened when making the statement of fact that women until very lately were the almost exclusive workers in or near the home. It can be presented as a change in how households manage themselves. And can be contrasted then to now.
          For what it’s worth. If we say more than 100 years ago most dealt with living on the land with landholdings of less than 125 acres. Sufficiently large to generate enough surplus to send the kids to America once of age. But rent and price kept them at the same level generation after generation.

  4. Sage says:

    If it wasn’t for those princes not wanting to send wealth to Rome, Luther would have probably ended up like Hus, a hundred years earlier, at a community barbecue. Interesting thoughts–we do tend to take the easy way out with history and it is always more complex than even my little quip. It would be interesting to discuss German history with a panel of those taught on different sides of the Berlin wall.

    • V.H says:

      Yes, true. Luther was pushing an open door. But lets face it, whacking 95 essays onto a innocent door shewed someone that was fairly self indulgent with his pen. And while not deserving of Hus’s end you wouldn’t want to be listening to any sermon of his of a Sunday.
      On the complexities. Sometimes it can be a very slight turn on the dial to cause us to pull-up short. For instance, take the American War of Independence, that was a Civil War, calling it so brings out all the strands of connection. Strands we are all aware but view them economically.
      Leaving aside the little shindig in 1812. The US had two Civil Wars with 100 years.

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