Interview with “Windy City Historian” Patrick McBriarty

Patrick McBriarty is a Chicago historian who is best known as being the foremost expert on the history of Chicago’s bridges. Beyond writing Chicago River Bridges (2013), three children’s books about city infrastructure, and his blog The Trunnion, he gives public presentations and tours around the Chicagoland area to adults and children. Chicago River Bridges won the 2013 Henry N. Barkhausen Award for Original Research in Great Lakes Maritime History and the 2015 Ferguson Prize for Outstanding and Original Reference from the Society for the History of Technology. He regularly presents at the Chicago Maritime Museum and the McCormick Bridgehouse & Chicago River Museum. He manages the websites for all of his projects and spearheaded the nearly eight thousand member facebook page, Windy City Historians, which he jokingly calls “Chicago History Porn.” He now hosts the podcast Windy City Historians with local history writer Chris Lynch about the history of Chicago from the seventeenth century to the present. McBriarty’s work in history has been entirely aimed at a public audience with a focus on public education. McBriarty is equal parts expert historian and amateur enthusiast which grants him access to a diverse audience. 

I sat down with Patrick on September 10, 2019 to get his thoughts about his experiences working in public history. The following is not a verbatim interview. The words are ours but have been condensed for time.

Anthony

What did you do before you started writing and talking about history?

Patrick:  

Well, [my degree] was from Miami University, and actually, while I was there I had a minor in international business so I ended up being a few courses shy of a minor in history in undergrad. I stuck around with a masters in economics.

Anthony

I’ve noticed that you seem to be able to brand yourself well, and I wonder if— and I know that you’re the bridge guy to a lot of people.

Patrick:  

Many people have called me that, yeah.

Anthony

Do you think that branding comes from your experience in business? Where does it come from?

Patrick:  

Well, definitely, I came through business school with my economics degree, and then worked for about twenty years or more in doing a little bit of sales or marketing and then eventually some management or SAP consulting. Then I turned full time to the books and the creative work which I’ve done pretty much full time for the last five and a half—actually, no, pretty much going on seven years now.

So yes, I already have a sense of sales and marketing, but I really enjoy the creative aspect of being able to pursue the projects I want to pursue. The sales and marketing doesn’t drive what I’m doing, the interests do. 

Anthony:

How is presenting public history as an interpreter compared to working with kids? How is that audience switch?

Patrick

I mean, the switch is fun actually, but I find that the same themes—if you distill them properly—resonate well with both. I mean, one of the things that I joke about even today that I live under a bridge since writing my first book. And that goes back to doing the kids presentation on the first book which is a picture book called Drawbridges Open and Close. 

Essentially a bridge structure is any wall and a ceiling. Or a table or a chair is really a bridge; it’s just a really specialized bridge because that structure is all over the place.

You run into things kids will give you once they catch on to the concept. I was at a school and one of them raised their hand and said, “Well, I live under a bridge on top of a bridge and on top of a bridge because I sleep in a bunk bed. So you never know [when] you’re gonna wind up with somebody else’s ideas that you can kinda take and use as well.

Anthony

I went to a talk that you gave about the podcast, and [in] the first couple of episodes about the podcasts you reveal this new alternate history of Chicago. An audience member challenged you at one point. I felt you responded to it pretty well. How do you feel about those kind of interactions? Have you had those before? 

Patrick:  

I think any good theory or idea ought to be challenged as much as possible because it helps make it more robust. And I also like to think about things in different ways. So that, should I have a question, I should try to respond to it in a reasonable manner, but I also learned early on, just saying “I don’t know” is a sufficient answer. But if it’s something I want to investigate, that’s another way I can follow up with it. I can’t be the expert on all things.

Anthony

In your podcast, you seem to focus on the history tellers themselves. Was that something you intended to do? 

Patrick

You know, that’s a good question. I think part of it is my own sense of not really considering myself that much of an expert but more of a synthesizer and gatherer of information. I think I’m probably good at telling stories and pulling out the good bits. But I’d much prefer having somebody else be the expert. 

We just stumbled into the fact that here John Swenson has uncovered this new history that we’re hoping will also get run up the academic flagpole. In the background I’m working on massaging a paper he started several years ago and trying to get that in shape; where then collaboratively we’ll put it out and get it published to have some more academic rigor put to this idea that there’s this second portage, and maybe that was the primary portage for most of these French explorers. Marquette and Joliet probably didn’t go past what’s today the Michigan Avenue bridge but probably went down through the Calumet River. That’s pretty revolutionary for Chicago’s early history. That’s interesting and fascinating, and yet it wasn’t something that we didn’t just take at face value. There’s been some controversy around it. 

But if we end up being wrong then so be it. We’ll happily fix or retract things, but at this point it’s a compelling enough argument that we felt it was worth putting that out there to see where it goes. John Swenson—I’m still in contact with him—is working to refine this as I’m working on this paper right now, and hopefully we’ll have that published in the spring next year.

Anthony

It’s fascinating because your subjects are more than just these dead historical figures. Your subjects are the people who you’re interviewing.

Patrick:

It’s a really fun way of presenting the history. And that’s kind of the point. How do we tell these stories that are still fresh and may be new, or can we uncover any new history and put it together in a way that hasn’t been done before? 

My guess is that we’ll probably start to hit decade-to-decade coming up next. I’m working right now on the subsequent ones to the Marquette and Joliet reenactment where we’re gonna talk about Point de Sable and John Kinzie and Fort Dearborn and the battle or massacre­­—depending on how you want to tell it—, and then work our way up to the 1840s and 1850s and so on. That’s gonna be fun because it’s going to take me into some bits of history that—some of which I know quite well—I’ve been doing a lot of research on the Fort Dearborn period and John Kinzie and Jean Lalime and the first murder of Chicago. Then after that, I’m not so well versed in some history. It’s going to be fun to bring in some other experts and learn more about that and also prepare for those interviews as we roll out a new episode the last Friday of each month. 

For a copy of the full transcript of the interview with Patrick McBriarty, contact Anthony Stamilio at astamilio@luc.edu.

New Podcast from Loyola Grad

Everyone thinks differently, and some people think more differently than others – now and in the past. But how can we tell who? Join historian (and Loyola graduate) A.B. Lieberman as he dives into the world of neurohistorical analysis, combining science, culture, and history to search for those whose unusual states of mind went unrecognized in their time – and show us we aren’t alone today. Find it at neurohistory.podbean.com  or at the podcast service of your choice.

The Joys of Research in Heaven’s Vault

heaven's vault rivers2

Heaven’s Vault is a recent PC game by Inkle (the studio behind 80 Days, an excellent interactive fiction adaptation of Around the World in Eighty Days). In particular, it is a game deeply concerned with the past. But… not our past. The game places you in the role of Aliya Elasra, an archaeologist living in a very foreign world – or, more accurately, worlds. Her Nebula is a beautiful space populated with distant moons and the flowing waterways that connect them. She is accompanied by a ancient robot, and travels in a skyship that’s a thousand years old. But for a game with such a intriguing but fictional universe, it still manages to depict the process of historical thinking better than anything else I’ve ever played.

See, Heaven’s Vault is a game about knowledge and understanding. To proceed, it’s not a matter of overcoming enemies or physical obstacles, but piecing together information. The core puzzles in the game revolve around language: you explore environments to find ancient inscriptions, building a working dictionary to translate them as you go. This allows you to understand your finds and draw larger conclusions about what has happened in the past. And – as often in history – each question you answer only raises further questions in turn.

serpentscity

One major mechanism that allows all this to happen is the game’s timeline. As you discover things about the past, you automatically place markers that contextualize when they happened and how they relate to other events. But Heaven’s Vault has a particularly rich implementation of that simple concept. The notations and dates are tentative and theoretical – perhaps your first assumption is a particular site dates back thousands of years due to the stones used in a prominent statue. But then you come across an artifact whose design is much more modern, placing it as only a few hundred years old.

How can both make sense in the same context? Well, the discoveries are also realistically messy: maybe the reason you misdated the site is because it was actively used and developed over hundreds of years by different people itself. Historical eras are not hermetically sealed. Instead, the game naturally leads you to see the interactions of a fluid past, where one civilization may have built an object for one reason, only for a much later civilization to reclaim it to imbue with different meanings and context.

timeline

But perhaps the best part of all is the way that this timeline extends all the way to the present. On the same screen, you can begin with the fall of an empire two thousand years previous, then scroll forward to a formative event in your childhood, and finally all the way to that time you almost fell off a bridge five minutes ago. In this way the game subtly shows that everything is history, and that the player themselves are not a disconnected neutral observer. The mere process of doing your research and making discoveries is a historical action in and of itself.

I have to admit, I am not an archaeologist, and my areas of study are extremely modern, not ancient. I’m also only partway through the game… there is a whole mysterious plot going on in the game’s present day, and I’m not exactly sure where it’s leading. But there’s something extremely compelling in the core way that Heaven’s Vault understands history, and empowers the player to see research itself as a fulfilling pursuit.

I’ve always seen the process of ‘doing history’ as interesting and fun. For anyone who has trouble understanding that, I think I now know exactly where to point them.

ancient building.png

Immigration Advocacy History Project Reflections

Exhibit open until the end of April in Damen Student Center, 2nd floor

Oral histories are an exercise in compassion. The interviewer must learn to both sit quietly and listen actively in order to make sense of an experience outside of their own. It’s a humbling experience—especially when it comes to the Immigration Advocacy History Project (IAHP).

IAHP began in the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election. Disheartened by, among other things, hateful rhetoric towards immigrants, a cohort of Loyola History Graduate Students decided to document community members doing advocacy work here in Chicago. The group secured funding to do a series of oral history interviews, create an exhibit, and host a speaker.

I came on to the project after the purpose and scope had been set, in the spring of 2018. As the newly-appointed oral historian for the Loyola Oral History Project, I was eager to get some interviewing experience under my belt. Luckily, my schedule allowed for me to do five interviews with four community members, spending around an hour with each.

One interview in particular has stayed with me. On a sunny day in April, I traveled down the red line to the Haitian American Museum of Chicago to talk to its founder and president, Elsie Héctor-Hernández. She welcomed me into the museum space, we enjoyed coffee and pastries together, and she gave me a tour after we finished our nearly two-hour-long interview. She, too, was disheartened by anti-immigration rhetoric. And as a Black woman, she faces daily discrimination beyond her status as an immigrant. She had plenty to say about her challenges, but also shared an uplifting message of perseverance. In the face of it all, she operates a vibrant and community-focused museum in Uptown—one of Chicago’s most diverse neighborhoods.

Her words inspired the name of our exhibit, currently on display on the second floor of Damen Student Center: “Stand Strong on the Side of Righteousness.” This also guided the design process of the exhibit. Beyond being informative, we wanted this exhibit to actually be useful to potential immigration advocates. Keeping the interviewees’ words central to the display, we decided to use quotes from the recordings to answer five central questions:

  1. What is the current immigrant experience?
  2. What is immigration advocacy?
  3. Who is an immigration advocate?
  4. Why be an immigration advocate?
  5. How can I get involved in advocacy?

The hope is that Loyolans will take this information and turn it into actions. Already, our interviewers and interviewees have begun to form a network. At our panel event in the fall, some exchanged contact information and a few attendees asked if they, too, could be interviewed.

With a great effort on the part of our team, and several other departments on campus, we succeeded in bringing Opal Tometi to Loyola for our speaker event. Tometi is a Nigerian-American human rights activist and co-founder of the Black Lives Matter movement. We were especially excited to use this as an opportunity to talk about the intersection of race and immigration–an issue that came up in several interviews.

The Immigration Advocacy History Project is meant to inspire compassion, but more than that, it is meant to inspire action. With each step of the project, we have widened our audience and made connections in the community that didn’t exist before. Our hope is that the impact of the project will continue to grow.

If you are interested in learning more about the project, visit http://tinyurl.com/IAHP-2019

If you would like to be interviewed, contact justhistoryloyola@gmail.com

What Makes a Women’s Movement? Thoughts on a Women’s History Roundtable

On October 17th, Professor Alice Weinreb of the Loyola University History Department led an excellent roundtable on women’s history research at the Crown Center on Loyola University’s Lakeshore Campus. Professors Tanya Stabler and Elizabeth Fraterrigo and PhD candidate Ruby Oram, all also of Loyola, presented on their research. The event included spirited conversation among the guests and delicious snacks from the Middle East Bakery and Grocery in Andersonville. While the subjects of the research differed in era and geographic focus, each spoke to the thorny question: what constitutes a women’s movement, especially in the absence of explicitly feminist institutional structure?

After a few introductory comments from Professor Weinreb, Professor Stabler discussed her research on the Beguines, a lay order of women in medieval Paris. Inspired to works of piety and charity, these women took temporary vows and self-identified as religious, but mostly existed outside the control of canon law and a patriarchal monastic structure that often saw independent women as a threat to male leadership. Fascinating and compelling, these women were neither nuns nor “normal” women.  While much of the literature on the era focuses on official orders or notable nuns like Saint Clare of Assisi, Stabler focuses on the innovations of the Beguines while investigating them as a compelling women’s movement despite their lack of formal recognition.

PhD Candidate Ruby Oram (left) and Professor Tanya Stabler.

Next, Ruby Oram discussed her dissertation research on vocational education of young ladies in Chicago between 1880 and 1930. Much of the literature on Progressive-Era education focuses on industrial training for boys, but Oram notes that vocational training for girls preceded and even inspired similar programs for male students. Vocational education for young ladies took three forms: traditional craft skills like sewing and hat-making, white-collar labor like typing and stenography, and domestic education for modern home-making. Oram argues that Progressive reformers saw education for girls not just as an economic tool but also as a solution to social ills such as child labor, sexual delinquency, broken families, etc. Although the women spearheading these programs may not have identified as feminists or gender activists specifically, Oram sees their work as a women’s movement because women were organizing at the official level to influence law and policy.

Professor Elizabeth Fraterrigo outlined her work on the National Organization for Women in the 1960s-1980s and their work to change the culture through media, shaping and controlling representation to encourage gender equality. This program and other feminist projects like it in the era are readily identified as women’s movements partly because the 1960s was the era of movements. But this led the roundtable to also discuss whether or not anti-feminist activists, like the late Phyllis Schlafly, were part of a women’s movement as well, just one of a strikingly different nature.

Professor Elizabeth Fraterrigo.

Much of the current literature on women’s movements focuses on very structured groups of women led by “big names” like Betty Friedan or Saint Clare.  Broadening our answer to the question “what defines a women’s movement?” may help scholars and educators elevate the voices of influential but non-institutional groups of women working to improve their local communities, either as part of their own projects or within the structure of another. It may also allow us to investigate the tensions between the advantages of institutional protection and organization versus the freedom of movements with fewer structural restraints.

The next History Roundtable at the Loyola History Department will take place December 5th from 12:30-2:00pm in Crown 528. The topic will be ‘violence’, and the presenters will be Loyola Professors Gema Santamaria and Suzanne Kaufman and Loyola History PhD student Ella Wagner. According to Professor Weinreb, “this series is especially intended for grad students, particularly those who are currently writing/working through their research materials. The goal is to encourage discussion amongst faculty and grad students to tease out theoretical or conceptual categories that are relevant to many of us here at Loyola. Grad students – see this as an opportunity to hear from and talk about your work with faculty and other grad students whom you might otherwise not engage with! Come to pose questions about your work, or to hear other people discuss their ideas and struggles.”

Snacks will again be provided. We at the Lakefront Historian highly encourage you to attend.

[Photographs courtesy of David Hays.]

Of Power and Words – On the Origins and Usage of the term ‘Kristallnacht’

The synagogue of Eberswalde burning on November 10, 1938.

Sebastian has a few thoughts on the usage of the term ‘Kristallnacht’ outside of his home country of Germany.

The wide-ranging, state-sanctioned violence that was spread by the Nazi party throughout the German Reich on the night of November 9, 1938, was one of the worst pogroms against German Jews in centuries. When the smoke from burning Jewish shops and houses of worship cleared, more than 400 Germans of Jewish descent were dead. About 30.000  were rounded up in the following days and deported to concentration camps under the excuse of putting them in ‘protective custody’. Almost every single synagogue in the Reich was destroyed that night, along with more than 7.200 shops and residences.

The pogroms were initiated by various arms of the NSDAP, the Nazi party, supposedly as public retaliation to the assassination of a Nazi party secretary in France at the hands of a Jewish man of Polish descent on November 7, 1938. The Deutsches Nachrichtenbuero, the press agency of the Third Reich, published an order to all German newspapers to run news of the assassination as their top headlines the following day, while also ordering the newspapers to demand “the gravest of consequences” for German Jews, held accountable as a collective. Members of the SA and SS, the NSDAP’s paramilitary forces, dressed as civilians began inciting public unrest against Jewish institutions. This was an effort to fan the flames of ethnic hatred and widespread violence by the German populace against their Jewish compatriots.

The event initially did not have an official name. The Nazis themselves referred to it initially as another ‘night of long knives’. It was in Berlin, a city still notorious for its anarchic, cynical and proletarian diction today, that the term ‘Kristallnacht’ was coined on the streets – by people opposing the regime. However, the bitter oppositional cynicism of anonymous Berliners was no match for the cruel, malignant and utterly inhumane cynicism of the Nazi Party, who quickly co-opted the term and used it to refer to the events of November 9 ever since. ‘Kristallnacht’ or ‘Reichskristallnacht’ – originally meant to lampoon Nazi nomenclature that added the prefix ‘Reichs-‘ to many terms – became the descriptor for the pogroms that were a large part of the effort of excising Jewish elements from the German general populace.

The cynicism inherent in the term is that ‘Kristallnacht’, in the Nazi co-option of the word, describes something positive. Something wonderful. In this view, the myriads of shards of glass from smashed windows of Jewish owned shops and houses of prayer, that lay strewn across streets all over the Reich, glistening in the flames of burning synagogues, were as beautiful as shining crystals. Crystals and diamonds for the celebration of destroying the Jewish presence in the midst of the German Volk. It was an expression that illustrates the abject cynicism of the Nazis inherent in so many of their actions, rivaled only by the motivational sayings immortalized in the iron gates of the concentration and extermination camps.

While the term is still in use colloquially in Germany today, it is not a turn of phrase that is used either lightly, or uncritically. Most German writers and scholars do their best to avoid it, lest they unwittingly reproduce the cynicism and belittlement of the victims of Nazism that the Nazis practiced themselves. The alternative terms used instead are ‘Pogromnacht’ (pogrom night) or simply ‘Novemberpogrome’ (November pogroms). If scholars use the term, it is usually put in quotation marks, and often prefixed by a ‘so-called’ to make sure any and all readers or listeners understand the distance the author or speaker is putting between themselves and this loaded term.

This approach, however, is unique to Germany. Outside the country, ‘Kristallnacht’ is still used in everyday and academic parlance alike when referring to the events of November 9, 1938. This presents German writers operating in an international environment with a conundrum. It is a term that is generally accepted to describe the events, however only few people growing up outside of postwar Germany are aware of the word’s origins, and of the more subtle, cynical implications the term is loaded with.

So while it seems unlikely that non-German scholars, writers, journalists, and historians would give up using the term, this makes it even more imperative to raise awareness of its origins, usage, and deeper meanings. By uncritically using terms groups like the Nazis coined, co-opted and perpetuated, by using them without pointing out the deeper implications or at least distancing ourselves from them, we unwittingly perpetuate Nazi propaganda, even if only at a very low level.

But, as we say in Germany today, “Kein Fussbreit dem Faschismus!” (“no ceding an inch of ground to fascism!”). Words and terms have meanings and power that we cannot, must not ignore, especially when it comes to fascism and Nazism. These ideologies were buried on the cemetery of ideas where they belong half a century ago. It is our duty to ensure they stay there, and not allow even the tiniest bit of their corrosive influence to seep out. Kein Fussbreit dem Faschismus! Not in deeds, not in thoughts, and not in words.

Homo Homini Lupus – Man A Wolf Upon Man

Earlier this month, Sebastian visited the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Illinois. This is the first of two articles prompted by this visit.

SWuepper LFH Article Picture

 

The room is bathed in red light. It is quite the experience, walking in, from the otherwise well-lit areas of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum in Springfield, Illinois . The difference in lighting is the first, striking thing about this room. It announces that something here is different. Bad. Evil, even. A living nightmare.

Then there are the mannequins. Three of them representing African-American slaves, three representing white slavers. What is shown in this room is a slave auction, where, dramatically lit, a black mother and father are torn away from each other and their child. Drawn away by grotesque figures. The slaves are clearly and strongly humanized, their expressions display anguish and despair. The slavers however are like creatures from a horror film. This is mostly due to the way the room is lit – the slave auctioneer mannequin is lit from below, like a purveyor of scary stories around a campfire, in a slightly different shade of red, adding to his utterly ghoulish appearance. The slavers’ inhuman acts are represented as the acts of people who have forgone their humanity, who are no longer among the human family, if they ever were to begin with.

And that is a problem. However, this is not an argument against the dehumanization of those guilty of inhuman acts, lest one was to become inhuman oneself in the process of doing so. Instead, I argue for a harsh lesson of history, which is that people are complicated and capable of seemingly inhuman thoughts and actions. But portraying people guilty of these things as outside of humanity obscures just this. Evil deeds are not committed by monsters. They are committed by people. And like the black slaves, the white slavers, the so called “slave masters”, were just that. People. Human beings. By portraying them as inhuman, the inhumanity of their acts and thoughts and deeds is more obscured than it is revealed.

I grew up in West Germany. The countrymen and -women of my generation all shared lessons and lectures throughout our years of education that people are capable of horrible things. My grandparents’ generation was guilty, is guilty, of some of the worst crimes humans can be guilty of towards other humans. But this does not make them monsters. Because that would be too easy. The Nazis, the members of the National Socialist Workers’ Party of Germany, were not monsters. They were small, oftentimes boringly ordinary men and women, who allowed their own seduction by a powerful and dangerous ideology. And then they allowed this ideology to seduce them further into the committing, helping with or tacit agreement to inhuman acts. But, the important lesson here is none of this made them less human.

Again, I am not arguing for the humanity of monsters. I am arguing for an understanding of the monstrous capacity in every single one of us. The Nazis were just as human as their victims. The same thing goes for the slavers and theirs. It is too easy to let these people, in the past and in the present, off the hook by denying them their humanity. Because if we do that, we allow to buy into several, dangerous arguments. First, if they were intrinsically monstrous, then committing monstrous acts would be perfectly in their nature. One might even argue that they couldn’t have acted any other way. What’s a monster to do? Not act like one? It is in the scorpion’s nature to sting. The other implicit argument that is inherent in this specific kind of othering is more insidious.

If the perpetrators of crimes against humanity are denied their own, it makes those left behind blind to the dangers that are inherent in humanity itself while watching out for the proverbial wolves at the door. The call is coming from inside the human family. The most important lesson about the Nazis, about the Khmer Rouge, the American slavers, the Ku Klux Klan, is that all those people were that: people. Not monsters. Not some creatures that stand outside of humanity. They were of us. Are of us. Why is this important?

Because by denying them humanity, by making them more than human (or less than human), we deny responsibility. If only monsters are capable of monstrosities, then all of us are safe for as long as we cannot see any actual monsters around. But, and this is the lesson thirteen years of primary and secondary education in West-Germany have given me, this is an illusion. It was not inhuman monsters that appeared from somewhere beyond who murdered six million Jews in corpse factories in Eastern Europe. It was not inhuman creatures from hell who enslaved thirteen million Africans in the quest for profit. It was people. Human beings. Ancestors, relatives, grandparents, aunts, uncles, sons, daughters.

By accepting this, by embracing this ugly and harsh truth, we can make the world safer. Because by embracing this, by accepting that evil is indeed, and here is the inevitable Hannah Arendt reference any piece like this requires, banal, we can guard against it. We, you, me, everyone around us, can under certain circumstances allow ourselves being seduced by dangerous and powerful ideologies, which could make us act out inhuman deeds towards our fellow men and women. The monsters are people. The wolves at the door are not animals, but human. My grandparent’s generation was guilty of the mass murder of Europe’s Jewry. This country’s forefathers are guilty of the enslavement of untold numbers of Africans and the murder of equally untold numbers of Native Americans. They were not monsters, they were not outside of humanity, but part of it.

And that is what the slave auction display obscures. The slavers, here, are monsters. Inhuman. Outside of humanity, not a part of it. They are nobody’s relatives or ancestors, they are just a thing that happened, a faceless monstrosity that crawled out the depths of the abyss of history to impose their inhumanity on people of African descent in America.

And they are of the past, the monsters were beaten and everyone is safe now. Any superficial perusal of the news in the recent months and years should teach us different. And much like many bad, contemporary portrayals of Nazis have them appear as inhuman monsters, often lacking the mental capacities to comprehend the vileness of their actions. This, too, obscures. It obscures that indeed many ordinary people of above average intelligence ascribed to the Nazi creed. It was indeed not only dumb brutes who joined the ranks of the Nazi Party, but human beings from all parts of society.

As historians it is our duty to prevent such obscurities. We must not ever shy away from the harsh and ugly truths, from the skeletons hidden in our closets or dangling from our family trees. We must not allow these obscurities to happen, we must not corral the ones guilty of monstrous crimes against our own off outside the human family, even if we have good reasons to do so. Maybe to spare current generations the shame and guilt and pain of such gruesome pasts. Maybe because we ourselves are afraid of what facing these realities might mean to our own sense of what it means to be human. Whatever the reasons for embracing such an obscuring, with it we do all of humanity a disservice. We blind ourselves from the dangerous realities we, us, human beings, are capable of conjuring up through thoughts and deeds. If we allow people to believe that monstrous acts will only ever be committed by monsters, and that these monsters were defeated in the past, never to return, then those among us capable of atrocities will walk unnoticed. Because they are people, because they are human, because they are someone’s relative, someone’s friend. Human beings. If we cannot see that among the multitudes we contain there are also some that are bad, some that are evil even, then we are blind and in danger of allowing more atrocities like those of the past to happen again and again. The truth is harsh, and not always pleasant. But it inoculates. And it teaches what it means to be human, and that being human can indeed sometimes be a bad thing. Man was, is, and can in the future be a wolf upon man.

Seeing the Founding Space: Israel’s Independence Hall

Angela visited Israel in May 2018 on a Birthright Israel trip at a very contentious political moment for the country. In this post, she will analyze how Israelis interpreted the history of their Independence Hall and its degree of success as spaces for public history. All opinions belong solely to Angela.

The exterior of Independence Hall

When I visited Independence Hall in Tel Aviv, the white windowless exterior was unassuming. The enticing shops and sunny weather of Rothschild Ave seemed more entertaining than going indoors on a sunny afternoon – which I think was the preferred option of some of my traveling companions. However, I was very excited to see the museum. I wanted to observe how it represented its history almost 70 years later. As an American historian, I was curious to hear another country interpret its founding moments and documents. I’ll explain in this post what I learned, how it was presented, and what conclusions I came to afterwards.

Continue reading “Seeing the Founding Space: Israel’s Independence Hall”