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The Other Zionism

In the late 1800s, a new church promised to reshape human bodies into a redeemed race, transcending biology and ethnicity. Inhabitants of the dirty, sick slums of the world’s recently industrialised cities were increasingly drawn to the call of Zion.  

Zion Tabernacle, 31 August 1894, courtesy Flower Pentecostal Heritage Centre, Springfield, Missouri.

Zion Tabernacle, 31 August 1894, courtesy Flower Pentecostal Heritage Centre, Springfield, Missouri.

Looking up the rickety stairs of the run-down building on Melbourne’s Pitt Street, Mrs Spinks was deeply afraid. She had been suffering near-uncontrollable vaginal bleeding for months, accompanied by dizzyingly painful cramps in her stomach. She had consulted a number of Melbourne’s physicians – including the notorious Dr James Beaney, whom Melbourne society whispered had murdered a bar-maid when he had operated upon her blind-drunk – but none of these eminent male physicians had been able to help her. They had only prodded her painfully with terrifying metal implements and recommended grizzly sounding surgeries. She was left penniless and hopeless.

At the end of her tether (she had consulted – unsuccessfully – a mesmerist who boasted he could heal her through the power of electricity), Mrs Spinks had unexpectedly received a recommendation from her neighbour in the cramped building she lived in in Collingwood – one of Melbourne’s new urban slums – who swore by a marvellous new ‘faith-healing’ doctor. All of Collingwood was supposedly now seeing ‘the Dr Alexander Dowie’, a charismatic Scot who had left the Presbyterian church to found his own ‘Free Christian Tabernacle’. Any Sunday, and on several evenings during the week, shabbily dressed invalids could be seen pouring into the Tabernacle on Pitt Street in order to experience what the tabloids breathlessly recounted: the electrifying experience of Dowie or his wife, Jane, laying hands on them and praying for their bodily healing in the name of ‘Zion’, or the coming Kingdom of God.

Is empathy an aid or a hindrance to historians?

Leading historians discuss one of the burning questions of the day.

Illustration of Mary Walcott at the Salem witch trials.

Empathy can help us understand an uncomfortable culture

Helen Parr, Professor of History at Keele University and author of Our Boys: The Story of a Paratrooper (Allen Lane, 2018)

In November 1981, some paratroopers in recruit training gang-raped a 15-year-old girl in an Aldershot barracks. The girl met one of the soldiers in a local pub, who took her to his dormitory. There a group of drunken paratroopers tied her to a bed with elasticated cord and five or six of them raped her. They kicked her, urinated on her and stole her underwear as a trophy. Two years later – after some of the soldiers had fought in the Falklands – six men were convicted at Winchester Crown Court of rape, indecent assault and common assault. Two of them pleaded guilty. The longest sentence was five years.

Why did these recruits of an elite regiment, many teenagers themselves, do something so terrible? One explanation suggests it was a consequence of training young men to kill and to dehumanise others. Another might see the perpetrators as isolated psychopaths: ‘bad apples’.

It might be impossible to know exactly why, but the climate in which the rape took place seems worthy of attention. In training, men sorted themselves into informal hierarchies. They talked of some women as ‘sluts’. Some were attracted to violence and wanted to prove their toughness by dominating and humiliating others. The greatest sin was to inform on comrades. Training instilled discipline, but the rape suggests it had broken down.

Menstruation and the Holocaust

Periods are a fact of life, but little talked about. How did women in the concentration camps cope with the private being made public in the most dire and extreme circumstances?

‘Assignment  to Slave Labour’, Auschwitz, Poland, c.1940.

Menstruation is rarely a topic that comes to mind when we think about the Holocaust and has been largely avoided as an area of historical research. This is regrettable, as periods are a central part of women’s experience. Oral testimonies and memoirs show that women felt ashamed discussing menstruation during their time in the concentration camps, but, at the same time, they kept bringing the subject up, overcoming the stigma that is attached to them.

Typically, menstruation has been seen as a medical problem to be overcome rather than as a natural occurrence and a part of life. Medical historians, for example, have explored the forced experiments in sterilisation that were conducted in Auschwitz. Sabine Hildebrandt examined the research of the pathologist Hermann Stieve, who experimented on female political prisoners awaiting execution in Plötzensee. Stieve looked at the effect stress had on the reproductive system. Similarly, Anna Hájková has written about the Jewish Theresienstadt prisoner and physician František Bass’ research on amenorrhoea, the loss of menstruation, which focused on how it was caused by the shock of incarceration. Interestingly, however, almost all this research discussed ovulation (and its lack) rather than menstruation, even though both are part of the same biological function.

Amritsar: Reviewing a Massacre

Zareer Masani | Published 13 April 2019
A century on, it’s hard to say something entirely original about the Amritsar massacre. Kim Wagner pulls together the tragedy’s various threads and presents all the evidence, even that which counters his own ideological preference for seeing the massacre as symptomatic of British oppression, rather than as an exceptional event. Wagner is not squeamish about describing anti-European rioting in the Punjab and elsewhere during the days leading up to Amritsar. Although Gandhi had issued a call for satyagraha , non-violent resistance, his request was not heeded. A poster on the clock tower next to the Golden Temple in Amritsar called...Read more »
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How to Respect the Past

Prolix puritan: Richard Baxter, engraving on a 19th-century bookplate.

William Lamont wrote serious history with intensity and authority. Although non-religious himself, he was fascinated by puritan zeal and the puritan yearning for the Second Coming and he made the most recondite and prolix of puritans accessible to the present. He published major studies in puritanism in the period up to, in to and out of the English Civil War, as well as numerous essays on many themes including, way back in May 1966, an essay on ‘Sir Edward Dering: the Squire who Changed Sides’ in History Today; a short essay that showed how moderate critics of Charles I’s Personal Rule were left behind by radical Puritans as the nation edged towards Civil War.

John Morrill | Published 12 April 2019
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Volume 69 Issue 4 April 2019

Vikings: Warriors of No Nation

Norse travellers reached every corner of the known world, but they were not tourists. The ‘racially pure’ Vikings of stereotype were, in fact, cultural chameleons adopting local habits, languages and religions. 

Viking ship carrying Harold III of Norway against his half-brother Olaf II in 1030, c.1375.

Viking ship carrying Harold III of Norway against his half-brother Olaf II in 1030, c.1375.

In January 2018, President Trump expressed a preference for immigrants from affluent nations such as Norway, as opposed to those from what he termed ‘shithole countries’. The indignant response was on a global scale. Photos of beautiful African sunsets and wildlife were posted. One Norwegian woman tweeted: ‘We are not coming. Cheers from Norway.’

Trump was not the first to misuse Scandinavian countries as a poster child for racism. The Nazi ideology of Aryan supremacy rested on the premise of the Nordic race as superior to all others. Particularly disturbing was the ‘Lebensborn’ programme initiated by the head of the SS, Heinrich Himmler, to secure the racial purity of the Third Reich. The programme was particularly active in Norway, where around 10-12,000 children were born to Norwegian mothers and German fathers. The roots of this ideology lay in Nazi perceptions of Scandinavia’s past. When Norway and Denmark were occupied, SS recruitment posters appeared, featuring Viking warriors and dragon-headed longships. As war raged, J.R.R. Tolkien wrote to his son bemoaning ‘that ruddy little ignoramus Adolf Hitler’ for ‘ruining, misapplying, and making forever accursed, that noble northern spirit, a supreme contribution to Europe, which I have ever loved, and tried to present in its true light’.

Shadows of the past persist. The modern growth of Odinism and Ásatrú – the modern worship of Norse pagan gods such as Odin, Thor and Freyja – has been shadowed by an ideological subculture that emphasises racial heritage and ethnic separatism. In US prisons, Odinism and white supremacy are bedfellows.

Such ideas of racial and cultural purity would have been alien to the inhabitants of the medieval Nordic world. They may have come from the northernmost fringes of Europe – and in the case of Icelanders, from the middle of the North Atlantic – but Norse travellers reached every corner of the known world.

On the Spot: Alexandra Wilson

‘What’s the most important lesson history has taught me? That the same arguments come around again and again.’

Alexandra Wilson.

Why are you a historian of music and opera?
I’m fascinated by the social, cultural and political contexts that shape works of art. I came to opera via a love of drama and all things Italian.

What’s the most important lesson history has taught you?
That the same arguments come around again and again. (Opera was ‘on its deathbed’ a century ago, too.)

Which book has had the greatest influence on you?
Carl E. Schorske’s Fin-de-Siècle Vienna and Jerrold Seigel’s Bohemian Paris introduced me to a type of interdisciplinary cultural history that struck a chord.

What book in your field should everyone read?
Marcia J. Citron’s Gender and the Musical Canon has much of wider interest to say about why we listen to the music we do.

Which moment would you most like to go back to?
It’s a toss up between E.M. Forster’s Italy and Evelyn Waugh’s Oxford.

Which historian has had the greatest influence on you?
Katharine Ellis, who ignited my enthusiasm for investigating the reception history of musical works.

Which person in history would you most like to have met?
Giacomo Puccini, about whom I have written so much.

How many languages do you have?
French and Italian, both currently a little rusty.

What’s the most exciting field in history today?
Studies of the cultural middlebrow.

What historical topic have you changed your mind on?
I used to think that the history of female opera singers was more interesting than that of male ones.

The Shia Century

Fitzroy Morrissey | Published 29 March 2019
Those few students in Britain who study Islamic history by and large learn the Sunni version. This is the familiar story of the four ‘rightly-guided’ caliphs who succeeded Muhammad and the Umayyad, Abbasid and Ottoman caliphates that followed them. When Shia dynasties, like the Buyids of Iraq and Iran, the Fatimids of Egypt and North Africa, the Hamdanids of Northern Iraq and Northern Syria or even the Safavids of Iran, feature in this version of Islamic history, they appear mainly as foils for the Sunni narrative. Given that Sunni-Shia sectarianism is a key factor in the politics of the Middle...Read more »
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Travels Through Time #7 – Aanchal Malhotra, 1947

Travels Through Time Aanchal Malhotra Remnants of a Separation

In the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, it became clear that the British Raj was no longer sustainable. But how should the British leave the Indian subcontinent after such a long period of colonial rule? Should the territory be divided? How could this be done? 

The long-contested answers to these questions were delivered between June and August of 1947. In this episode of Travels Through Time the writer and artist Aanchal Malhotra explores the bewildering and traumatic events of that summer. We meet the officials, including the man responsible for drawing the border line between India and Pakistan, Sir Cyril Radcliffe, and many of the individuals whose lives were altered irrevocably by his decisions. 

History Today | Published in
History Today | Published 19 March 2019
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The Dream of Constantine

A mythical turning point in the history of Europe.

‘Constantine’s Dream’ by Piero della Francesca, from the fresco cycle, the History of the True  Cross, 1459-66, Basilica di San Francesco, Arezzo, Italy.

On the eve of his battle with Maxentius to decide who was to be the undisputed Emperor of Rome, Constantine lies asleep in his tent. An angel descends from the night sky, holding a glowing golden crucifix. One of Constantine’s guards, on the left of the painting, echoes the cross with his lance. A bored attendant, oblivious to a vision visible only to his sleeping master, rests his elbow on the bed.

Following the abdication of the Emperor Diocletian in AD 305, a number of emperors and deputy emperors in the West and the East of the Empire contended for power. Acclaimed as emperor by his troops in York in 306, Flavius Galerius Constantinus was appointed deputy emperor of the West by Galerius, Diocletian’s successor. But, while Constantine was away in Britain and Gaul, his brother-in-law, Maxentius, waged war against Galerius and seized Italy and Rome. After Galerius died in 311, Constantine invaded Italy, won battles at Turin and Verona and headed for Rome.