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.

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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.

Chicago’s Innovative Sisters of Theater: A Reflection on the Mundelein College Drama Department

Chicago has made a name for itself in live theater and the performing arts, as a hub for off-broadway plays, epicenter of the Little Theater Movement, and with students from its improv comedy schools ascending to fame on Saturday Night Live. But with all the ink spent on Chicago theater, very little has splashed for the rich history of college drama departments in the Windy City. These institutions have not only trained up many of America’s stars of stage and screen, but also feed into the important local arts and multimedia production sectors, raising up the next generation of high school drama coaches and local television producers. We can see an amazing example of such an institution in the drama department at Mundelein College, which lasted from 1930 to 1991 as one of the first – and also the last – private Catholic women’s colleges in Illinois. Far from an insular, strictly academic program, the theater department at Mundelein College shone brightly as both very communal and highly innovative.

A still from a performance of Twelfth Night taken from the Chicago Tribune

While Mundelein College was named for Cardinal George Mundelein, the funding, planning, and administration of the school came from the dedicated Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the BVMs, led by the school’s first president Sister Mary Justitia Coffey. They chose a modern design, with the school primarily comprised of a tall skyscraper adjacent to Loyola University in Rogers Park so the two schools could share lecturers and access to the Red Line Train stop. (The Mundelein building primarily serves as classrooms for Loyola University today.)

Early photo of Mundelein Skyscraper, built 1930

The building featured excellent theater space according to a 1932 pamphlett: “The entire eighth floor of the college building is devoted to drama and art. At one end of the broad corridor which leads from the elevators is the Little Theatre. Complete in its equipment, the stage furnishes an excellent workshop for the drama student.” The floor also included studios “for private instruction”, ventilation, mirrors, “other necessary equipment”, and a club room with “modernistic furniture and attractive window hangings”. The Little Theatre was sufficient for smaller productions, including one-act plays, student-written scripts, and events like teas and revues. For larger productions, the young thespians worked their magic in the large auditorium on the ground floor of the skyscraper campus. It offered patrons of the arts 925 floor seats and 325 balcony seats. “Beautiful in its simplicity,” one pamphlet reads, “it carries out the architecture of the rest of the college in the long lines of its mural decorations and in the immense chandeliers which epitomize the structure of the building… The stage has the distinction of having the first successfully-operated electrical rigging in this country.”

The Little Theater at Mundelein

In addition to its modern construction, the auditorium, in the words of alumni and Academy Award-winning actress Mercedes McCambridge, possessed strange aural properties:

When empty the auditorium at Mundelein College was acoustically quite unsound… When it was full of people, the acoustics were great. But in the emptiness there was booming and echo… a perfect place for me to work on my voice… I literally learned to play my instrument by ear. The reverberations that hit back at me from the walls and the deep hole of the balcony let me know that nasal tones are scarcely ever effective, that each word deserves its completeness or it is received as garbled garbage…

Sister Mary Leola Oliver served as the department’s first director from 1930-1938, and began the program’s long history of innovation. She not only produced an impressive array of productions ranging from Shakespeare to the tragicomedies of Henri Gheon, but also organized her students into a verse-speaking choir, a new concept from Europe where combinations of light and dark voices performed texts in half-spoken, half-sung arrangements. The program proved so successful that Sister Leola won her choir a 5-year radio contract with NBC, exposing Mundelein Drama to millions of listeners and giving students like Mercedes McCambridge a jump-start to their acting careers. The much-loved Sister Leola counted famous thespians – including Ethel Barrymore and Claude Rains – among her friends, leading to exciting guest speakers for her students.

Photo of Sister Leola and her most famous pupil after Mercedes McCambridge won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in All the King’s Men, 1949.

From 1938 to 1960, Sister Carmelia Hanses directed the department, which contained both the drama and speech programs at Mundelein. Sister Carmelia innovated by using theater to treat speech disorders, much as Viola Spolin created improv theater (also in Chicago) to help children develop socialization skills through play. Under Sister Carmelia’s leadership, the Mundelein students coached a theater program for the children of Chicago, and many went on to work in the field of speech pathology.

A Mundelein student leading a speech clinic for children.

Although Sister Carmelia technically directed the program until 1960, the real director of the drama portion of the program from 1952 to 1980 was Sister Jeanelle Bergen, who prolifically produced three major plays a year in addition to smaller reviews and mosaics written by her students. Sister Jeanelle, while still incorporating the classics, also introduced her students to post-modern theater and plays with controversial topics, such as her 1968 production of Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey which tackles subjects including alcoholism, racism, and homosexuality.

But perhaps Sister Jeanelle’s most innovative contribution to the program was her commitment to preparing her students for the television age. Despite a dearth of equipment, she arranged classes on television production, created local television programs related to the Catholic church, and even took a summer internship at a game show so she could learn the tricks of the trade to teach her students. Once an executive hoping to score complimentary tickets called her “Jeanie Baby” on the phone, shocked to find on his arrival that “Jeanie Baby” was a nun in full habit, holding a clipboard while helping film “The Match Game”.

Sister Jeanelle learning the ropes of television production while interning at a game show.

Much work remains for cultural historians in studying both the Mundelein College Drama Department and the history of Chicago academic theater departments generally. Scholars should particularly consider the outcomes of these programs for women seeking careers in fields such as drama pedagogy, performance, television production, and speech therapy. For those of you interested in the Mundelein College Drama Department, please reach out to me at mamyx@luc.edu and I will send you my entire paper on the subject, or visit the Women and Leadership Archives at Loyola University and ask to see the Mundelein Drama Department files. (Ask nicely, and maybe they’ll show you Mercedes McCambridge’s Academy Award.)

Fascists at the Fair: A Deep Dive into Chicago’s Balbo Monuments

Monuments to problematic figures and historical events are increasingly the focus of issues relating to race and violence in the United States. Chicago’s own monuments to Italo Balbo are at the forefront of such discussions here in the city. The following is an abridged version of a research paper written for Loyola professor Dr. Timothy J Gilfoyle’s Urban History graduate seminar in 2015, meant to give historical context to the monuments, as well as to contextualize current calls to have them removed.

In Chicago’s Grant Park, just east of Soldier Field, stands a single, solitary, classical Roman column. An inscription in English and Italian at the base of the column, badly faded, reveals its surprising origins:

THIS COLUMN

TWENTY CENTURIES OLD

ERECTED ON THE SHORES OF OSTIA

PORT OF IMPERIAL ROME

TO SAFEGUARD THE FORTUNES AND VICTORIES

OF THE ROMAN TRIREMES

FASCIST ITALY BY COMMAND OF BENITO MUSSOLINI

PRESENTS TO CHICAGO

EXALTATION SYMBOL MEMORIAL

OF THE ATLANTIC SQUADRON LED BY BALBO

THAT WITH ROMAN DARING FLEW ACROSS THE OCEAN

IN THE ELEVENTH YEAR

OF THE FASCIST ERA

The column, mounted on a travertine base, was presented as a gift to the city of Chicago by Benito Mussolini in commemoration of the Italian Air Force’s 1933 transatlantic flight led by Italo Balbo, Air Marshall of the Aeronautica. Balbo and his squadron of pilots completed the final leg of their record-breaking flight in a spectacular landing in Chicago on the waters of Lake Michigan during the 1933-1934 World’s Fair. The column was unveiled a year later outside of the fair’s Italian Pavilion and has not moved from that spot since.

column dedication 7.14.34
Crowds gather to hear Balbo give a speech at the dedication of the pillar at Italian Day at the Fair. Chicago Tribune, July 17, 1934.

And the column is not even the only monument to Balbo in Chicago. Two other memorials include Balbo Avenue, formerly 7th Street, which was renamed in Balbo’s honor in 1933, and a plaque on the side of the statue of Columbus in Grant Park, which was presented to Chicago by the Italian community at the Century of Progress World’s Fair.

Chicago Alderman Ed Burke (14th) summed up many Chicagoans feelings when he recently commented to the Sun Times

“I’m amazed the citizens of Chicago have not demanded that these symbols of fascism – a street and a statue bearing Balbo’s name – donated by Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, a sidekick of Adolf Hitler, be removed decades ago from the city’s landscape…It is now time Chicago does something permanent about this embarrassing anomaly.” [1]

The US was not always vehemently opposed to Mussolini’s brand of fascism. David F. Schmitz has written extensively on why the United States remained friendly towards right-wing dictatorships such as Mussolini’s during the interwar years. He argues that a desire to support order and stability in Europe, as well as anxiety over the Bolshevik threat, led United States policymakers to welcome Mussolini’s rise to power and support his regime in direct contradiction with US ideals. [2]

Historians have also argued that monuments such as Balbo’s remain because, in American memory, the actions of Mussolini’s brutal regime are eclipsed by the atrocities committed by Hitler and the Nazis. [3]

Despite the United State’s tacit support of fascism in the interwar years, Alderman Burke’s campaign to have the monument removed and to rename Balbo Avenue is not the first. Individuals and politicians have periodically challenged the monuments and their place in the city since they were installed more than 80 years ago.

The 1933 flight and dedication were protested by the Italian Socialist Federation and the Italian League for the Rights of Man, who circulated a pamphlet at the fair titled “Who is Balbo?” which described him as a terrorist and murderer. In 1946 residents waged a contentious battle in city council to rename Balbo Avenue after World War II hero John C. Waldron (Waldron did eventually get his own, different street). Opposition again arose during the 50th anniversary celebration of the flight in 1983, and as recently as 2011 a group of academics submitted a petition to Alderman Bob Fioretti to have Balbo Avenue renamed for Enrico Fermi, the Italian physicist who built the first nuclear reactor at the University of Chicago and came to the United States to escape fascism. [4]

The monuments and the discussions they generate about how history should be remembered illustrate a complex process in which public memory is created and reinterpreted through time. The narrative of Balbo’s transatlantic flight and monuments began as a triumphant story of innovation and technology propelling humanity towards a more enlightened future. Today, they are seen as outdated at best and offensive at worst. Following the trajectory of how the flight was memorialized and the arguments that centered around the appropriateness of the monuments shows that public memory is a fluid and dynamic force, continually defining and redefining how individuals and institutions such as cities incorporate memory of historical events into the fabric of their identity.

Continue reading “Fascists at the Fair: A Deep Dive into Chicago’s Balbo Monuments”

Conundrum Question: Fact vs. Fiction in the Historical Novel

Readers love historical novels. Fiction rounds out the details of history while helping us understand history’s wider ramifications. But, as Hannah Zuber noted here recently, “Historical fiction’s relationship with academic history has always been hotly contested.” This difficulty is discussed in my recent essay “A Critical Clarifier” where I said “assigning fictional actions to real persons from the past is, by definition, an exercise in inaccuracy.” How then can the novelist with a high regard for historical veracity minimize distorting the past?

Sometime around the turn of the 21st century, I happened upon a description of the attempted assassination of Franklin D. Roosevelt by Giuseppe Zangara. This little-known event is seldom reported in histories of the 1930s, perhaps because Zangara missed his target with all five of his shots at Roosevelt. One of the bullets, however, struck Chicago’s mayor, Anton Cermak. And in Cermak’s life and later death lay a terrific real-life struggle yielding more than enough drama and excitement for a novel. I immediately knew I had to write this story of Chicago in 1933.

Still, decisions had to be made. How should I relate this in novel form without falsifying the very real experiences of the participants?

My essay had distinguished two types of historical novels, those that relate lives of famous historical characters, and those that focus on un-noteworthy people in the midst of historical events. Although both strive for what Simon Schama calls the “imaginative re-enactment,” the latter, which I named “Historical Context Fiction,” avoids at least some of the potential falsification pitfalls.

51er2mlivyl

I therefore chose to construct Illusions of Magic around the actions of fictional Chicago residents during the weeks that included the nineteen days between Anton Cermak’s wounding February 15th and his death on March 6, 1933. With Cermak’s struggle to live, the ensuing political intrigues, and the city’s extraordinary grieving over his death, I had a sturdy spine upon which to hang fictions involving adventure, love and compassion in the Windy City during the Great Depression.

Two questions remained to be decided: How much of the Cermak story should be included, and how should I go about integrating that history into the novel?

Following the 1932 election of Franklin D. Roosevelt as president, Mayor Anton Cermak had arranged to meet with FDR in Miami, where the president-elect was vacationing. The mayor was hoping to obtain a promise of federal funding to help Chicago out of a severe financial shortfall brought on by the Great Depression. After all, when the tide finally turned during the Democratic National Convention in the summer of ‘32, it was Mayor Cermak who seized the microphone to announce the release of all of Illinois’ 58 delegate votes to Roosevelt, helping FDR gain more than the two-thirds majority required for nomination.

That fateful night of February 15, 1933, at Miami’s Bayfront Park, Cermak strode to the car from which Roosevelt had just concluded a brief speech. The large crowd that had gathered was still applauding as Cermak shook hands with the president-elect and they exchanged a few words. Shortly, five shots exploded from within the front rows of the crowd. People screamed. Someone cried, “Stop that man!”

Giuseppe Zangara, a small man with a troubled life, had fired a .32-caliber pistol, trying to kill Roosevelt. But the bullets missed. Along with three others, Anton Cermak was hit. Zangara was quickly subdued and carted off to jail. Roosevelt insisted on taking the wounded mayor to the hospital in his limousine.

The importance of this event cannot be minimized—the shooting risked the life of the president-elect at a crucial time in United States history (he would be inaugurated as president less than a month later).

Although the shooting was not local, the serious wounding of the mayor had a huge impact on Chicago. A poorly-understood fact surfaced in its aftermath: should the mayor die, no legal process existed for his replacement. Not only did this pose a practical difficulty, it gave rise to political machinations and intrigue such as the city had never before known. It saddled Chicago with monumental uncertainty and became the important historical focus for my novel.

At this point, a wide choice existed for uniting the Cermak story with my concept of a protagonist who takes on a dangerous quest, accidentally encounters a sweetheart after twenty years, but then discovers that caring can clash with familial bonds and the necessity for compassion.

I decided the most unobtrusive way to integrate the Cermak story was through the experiences of a major player in the fiction. Precinct captain Liver Jack Horn, although not the protagonist, is arguably a very important character. Early on, he lectures his sister on the importance of the city’s administration during the downturn:

There’s ‘most a million people who wants work, can’t find any. Some are so bad off they’re eating garbage. You remember last fall, down on Lower Wacker Drive? Remember all those men—musta been a hundred—sleeping under newspapers and cardboard boxes? Who d’you think’s leading the way to helping people out so they don’t end up there? It’s me and the City—what you call ‘the machine.’

Late in the book, Liver Jack witnesses the ceremony at the Bohemian National Cemetery:

There, in the carpeted and roped-off area, the mayor’s three daughters wept as they sat in the family’s space. Nearby were hundreds of Bohemian Odd Fellows arrayed in their red or blue ornate collars trimmed in gold, along with Knights Templar in uniform, and a group of children from the Bohemian Orphanage, each holding a white flower.

James Rada, an officer in the Lawndale Masonic Lodge, of which the mayor had been a member, was conducting ceremonies while most of his Lodge members stood in solemn attention. Liver Jack regularly cupped his hands over his face and blew on them to impart some warmth as he awaited the final ritual.

These glimpses suggest the novel’s historical component. Alongside but not sampled here is the story of Nick Zetner, stage magician. Short of work because of the poor economy and diminished vaudeville bookings, Nick reluctantly accepts the task of finding and returning stolen goods for a rich but sleazy banker. Yet this quest leads him to uncover, after a lapse of twenty years, a long-lost love that is subsequently rekindled.

The topic of this article is fact versus fiction in writing the historical novel. Through Liver Jack’s experience and discourse in Illusions of Magic, the reader relives the day-to-day political theater so characteristic of the times, details of the hospitalization and treatment of the mayor, and the great loss that Anton Cermak’s passing delivered to the city of Chicago 83 years ago. This slice of history proceeds in parallel with Nick’s story, combining fact with fiction in what I hope is an informative, as well as entertaining, amalgam.

J.B. Rivard is a local writer and illustrator and the author of the historical novel Illusions of Magic. More information about his work can be found at www.illusionsofmagic.com.

Neglected, Seemingly Forgotten Chicago Mural Is Now Extinct, Seemingly Forgotten

"IOU": The Uptown Truman College mural, in its deep winter (2013).
“IOU”: The Uptown Truman College mural, in its deep winter (2013).

MIT professor of urban studies Larry Vale recently published a book that deals with what he terms, “twice-cleared” places. A prominent example he employs is the site of the Cabrini-Green housing projects in Chicago. There, a mixed race low-income and working-class community was cleared in the mid-20th century. After a generation of mass public housing, the iconic—if not infamous—Cabrini-Green towers were then razed as part of the city’s landmark demolition of concentrated projects. Upon this second clearance, officials directed the construction of lower-density mixed income housing, a Target, etc, etc.

As Vale shows, twice-cleared areas represent complicated, layered social and cultural productions of space. In Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood—the city’s perpetual ‘next big thing’ neighborhood—there are an increasing number of twice (and thrice, and more) cleared spaces. The current iteration of ‘can’t miss’ redevelopment in Uptown centers around the $203 million renovation of the CTA Wilson Red Line station. After several years of planning, budgeting, and community feedback, demolition has finally begun. Among the first structures to meet the wrecking ball was a CTA viaduct wall that had borne witness to a contentious clearance of space one generation earlier. This wall hosted a mural painted in direct response to the clearance of a low-income area in favor of a city community college. The mural became faded and obscured by plant growth. Its sun-bleached, mournful, almost seething message could only be seen during the winter. Now demolished, the mural is only a memory, a fitting parallel to the challenge of preserving the history of displacement in Uptown.

Continue reading “Neglected, Seemingly Forgotten Chicago Mural Is Now Extinct, Seemingly Forgotten”

Making Pre-Modern History Public: David and Goliath

Every historian knows the challenge of bringing history to the public. However, these challenges bring with them exciting possibilities. Public History takes as its raison d’etre the belief that people – communities, individuals, social groups – can and should engage with historical forces at work in their lives. There is (I find) a belief of empowerment, of bringing to light lost silences and new nuances in local and national narratives.

However, this vision becomes complicated when the grids of time and space are enlarged. When one studies pre-modern, non-American societies, can he or she go about the task of public history? Ostensibly, those publics are long dead. In a world (and a field) that largely sees the United States as its frame of reference, looking to a distant past – whether it be Han China or 8th-century Gaul – seems eclectically antiquarian at best, and puffed-up navel-gazing at worst. Unto temporal remoteness is added the hurdle of geographical remoteness. Outside of daily news, the rest of the globe is a distant other, mindfully shoved aside to deal with our day-to-day lives. How much more so the distant past, which cannot even shout for our attention! Adding further to these difficulties, these artifacts are housed within art museums where visitors are predisposed and preconditioned to engage with the objects for their aesthetic qualities than their historical qualities. Continue reading “Making Pre-Modern History Public: David and Goliath”

Manufacturing Sustainability in the Postindustrial Age

Image of Meiji-Jingu forest on the outskirts of Tokyo

 Ninety years ago, citizens of Tokyo, Japan, asked their government for permission to honor the passing of their imperial leaders by cultivating a sustainable, forest shrine on the outskirts of town. The result was Meiji-jingu, an “eternal forest” of 120,000 trees, planted on 700,000 square meters of previous “marshland, farms, and grassland.” Based upon the Shinto religious belief that natural deities, called Kami, reside within the wood of sacred forests, the shrine was designed to be a paragon of sustainability. But, while the model of Meiji-jingu proves to be sustainable, it is also anything but natural. An examination of literature in the sub-fields of environmental and urban history reinforces this relationship, suggesting that sustainable environments have indeed existed in the past, but that they have suffered as a consequence of failed stewardship during the industrial era.

It is no coincidence that the forest shrine of Meiji-jingu was planned on the outskirts of the most populated city in the world. While the historian David Owen lamented the analogous Central Park because he believed that it constituted an inaccessible border zone where human activity was generally absent, Patricia Garside has argued that sustainable, urban parks serve necessary functions in relation to their respective cities. In examining the Green Belt on the outskirts of London, Garside has claimed that the parks were “above all a strategic planning instrument to limit, or where necessary shape, the expansion of London at a regional scale.” In this sense, urban parks recreated the natural restraints that geography once placed upon island and coastal cities like Venice, Boston, Manhattan, or Miami. As the American historian Michael Rawson contends, scholars cannot understand the development of Boston without first understanding these initial, geographic limitations.

Continue reading “Manufacturing Sustainability in the Postindustrial Age”