Tag Archives: History

Welcome to Parliament! Bachelors Can Only Wear Brown Shoes Every Other Tuesday

Houses of Parliament at Westminster Palace and clock tower Big Ben. Photo by: Frank May/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

Charlotte Higgins‘ new story on the structural decay in the Palace of Westminster, seat of Britain’s Parliament, is a fascinating look at the Old Guard’s attempt to physically hold on to the vestiges of power. The building is crumbling and requires billions of dollars in repairs — and ideally, it would be empty during the multi-year process. But what changes politically when Parliament is removed to a more modern, inclusive space from one steeped in this kind of history?

Travelling around this strange land is a fraught business. One is constantly committing mysterious, minor infractions. It is like being in a country where the language is comprehensible, but the codes of behaviour are opaque. From the Central Lobby, for example, four corridors radiate. There is no sign to tell you that you cannot take the one that leads to the House of Commons: but if you accidentally stray there, you will get an imperious ticking-off from one of the Palace doorkeepers (59 are employed by the Commons, and 23 by the Lords). There have been doorkeepers here since the 14th century: dressed in white tie, they control the movements of others with punctilious energy. I was reprimanded for loitering “on the blue carpet” in the Prince’s Chamber, and for speaking in the Royal Robing Room, which is sometimes allowed and sometimes not. Doorkeepers are also sources of gossip, wit and speculative histories of the palace. One I met suggested disapprovingly that “Comrade Corbyn” would soon be selling off Pugin’s wildly over-the-top royal throne in the House of Lords “if he has his way”. Another told me that lions depicted on the floor of a certain corridor “have their eyes shut so they can’t look up the ladies’ skirts”. Floors, as it happens, are important: green carpets mean you are in the part of the building owned by the Commons; red carpets mean the Lords.

Notices pinned everywhere contribute extra layers of admonition and exhortation. There’s a staircase that may be used only by MPs; a lift that cannot be used if the Lords are in division – that is, voting by walking into separate lobbies. The yeoman usher, described on parliament’s website as “the deputy to the gentleman usher of the black rod”, has a parking space reserved exclusively for his bicycle; a sign says so. In one courtyard there is even a sign advising parliamentarians what to do if they come across a grounded juvenile peregrine, which is try to throw a cardboard box over it. (A pair of the falcons nests on the roof.) The Lords, naturally, specialises in arcane forms of movement control. “Wives of peers’ eldest sons,” reads one notice, “and married daughters of peers and peeresses in their own right, before taking a place in the peers’ married daughters’ box, are requested to leave their names with the doorkeeper at the brass gates.” A different set of rules, needless to say, governs the movement of peers’ unmarried daughters.

Read the story

When Newspapers Cover the Private Lives of Nazis

Adolf Hitler on the patio of the Berghof wearing civilian clothes around 1936. (Imagno/Getty Images)

By now you’ve likely read Richard Fausset’s troubling New York Times’ profile of a “white nationalist and fascist” that tries to normalize and sympathize with its subject. You’ve also likely read the countless follow-ups damning not only Fausset’s article but also the Times’ tepid and inept response.

The profile attempted let ordinary details speak for themselves, and it opens with a description of a wedding registry: “On their list was a muffin pan, a four-drawer dresser and a pineapple slicer…Weddings are hard enough to plan for when your fiancé is not an avowed white nationalist.” But these ordinary details don’t contain meaning, they merely surround it. As Josephine Livingstone of The New Republic explains,

writers who simply represent (rather than report on) extremists leave rhetorical spaces open for Nazi ideology to flood in. You cannot let a Nazi hang himself, because he is the one left holding the rhetorical rope.

Fausset’s article wasn’t the Times‘ first attempt to transform racism into a personality quirk. From 1933, when Adolf Hitler was appointed chancellor of Germany, to his 1939 invasion of Poland, there was a significant movement both in the United States and worldwide to portray Hitler as a misunderstood genius whose everyday likability could better connect with the working class German people and lift the country from its post-war depression.

Magazines and newspapers like the Times of London, The New York Times, The Saturday Review (“Hitler at Home”) and even the American Kennel Gazette (“Hitler Says His Dogs are Real Friends“)  were more interested in Hitler’s interior design sensibility, his gustatory preferences, and his love of German Shepherds. In 1936, Vogue toured Hitler’s chalet as part of a package showcasing the interior design of the homes of foreign rulers. (Federico Mussolini’s villa was also included). Their coverage of Hitler successfully peddled these themes of austerity, industriousness, and single-minded drive to the masses eager to believe in Germany’s rebirth.

In her 2015 book Hitler at Home, Despina Stratigakos, a professor of architecture and history at the University of Buffalo, catalogued numerous attempts to normalize the dictator, which started with the publication of The Hitler that Nobody Knows, a 1932 photo album that doubled as a behind the scenes peek into Hitler’s private life. With more than a hundred photographs taken by Hitler’s personal photographer, the book — which sold 400,000-plus copies by 1942 — meant to serve as a beacon proclaiming Hitler as the leader of the new Germany. But Stratigakos stresses the effect was a more insidious.

Until the turnabout in 1932, National Socialist publicists had diverted attention away from or suppressed stories about their leader’s private life. Yet even as they continued to fight reports that could harm Hitler’s reputation, the Nazis began to construct for public consumption their own version of the private individual. The image of “Hitler as private man” would now be reconfigured from a liability into an asset…Bildung and self-improvement, together with self-discipline, a strong work ethic, and modesty, formed the core moral values of the German middle classes. The components of the “good” Hitler were thus artfully assembled with an eye to courting this constituency of voters and persuading them to abandon their allegiance to [war hero and political opponent Paul von] Hindenburg.

Even the New York Times wasn’t exempt from indulging in Hitler’s spin. Laurel Leff, a professor of history at Northwestern University, published Buried by the Times in 2005, examining the ways the Times either ignored or inadequately covered the Holocaust, partially due to a distaste among the editors for Zionism. In October 1935, the Times magazine included a fawning profile of Hitler as an architect, featuring his remodel of a small Bavarian cottage and it’s transformation into the fortress of Berghof, which was shown completed on the cover of a May 1937 issue.

But perhaps the strangest Times article was, “Herr Hitler at Home in the Clouds.” Written by Hedwig Mauer Simpson, the wife of Stanley Simpson, a British journalist and Munich-based correspondent for the New York Times and Times of London (she was a frequent contributor to the The Associated Press and The Daily Mail)—he would be the first to report on the Dachau concentration camp, a piece that was ultimately turned down by the Times of London. A journalistic power couple within Munich, the Simpsons were among the first reporters to have early access to Hitler, and she was known for her ability to file several stories at once and under intense pressure.

In the article, Simpson rehashes worn troupes about Hitler’s vegetarianism, the long walks he enjoyed with his Alsatian dogs, and his love of the German people. The tick-tock of his daily routine is described down to the minute. Breakfast is at 9 am, lunch is served by “white uniformed butlers,” and dinner is promptly at 8 p.m., with the ladies of the Berghof in evening dress and Hitler in English tweeds. In a rare step back from the festivities, Simpson writes that the setting contains “all the elements of exacting bureaucracy and secret-police efficiency.”

The Times article was published on August 20, 1939, 11 days before Hitler’s invasion of Poland. Simpson would take one of the last peacetime trains out of Munich to London, and it appears she gave up writing following her departure from Germany. There is nothing in the article that suggests the chancellor, who “no makes no secret of being fond of chocolate,” has anything on his mind except the promise of an afternoon nap. Simpson clearly feels pampered and privileged to be in his presence. Whatever she felt on that last train out of Germany isn’t recorded here.

Longreads’ Catherine Cusick recently discussed why articles like Fausset’s and Simpson’s are dangerous: “Reporters and editors committed to covering this movement may not be able to feel their own hearts beating faster out of fear.”

Ordinary details can furnish a room, they can set a table, they can fill the time between hushed meetings of planned genocide or the quiet tapping at a computer, spreading hateful slurs to thousands of followers. If a writer can’t feel that fear, can’t show those feelings on a page, then all the reader is left with is Hitler at home.

How Does It Feel? An Alternative American History, Told With Folk Music

Daniel Wolff | Grown-Up Anger: The Connected Mysteries of Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, and the Calumet Massacre of 1913 | Harper| June 2017 | 18 minutes (4,937 words) 

This story is recommended by Longreads contributing editor Dana Snitzky.

* * *

An alien way of life.

You could say the silence started in Calumet in 1913. Word spread that the doors opened inward, that no one was to blame. What followed was a great quiet, a hundred years of agreed-upon untruth.

Or you could say it began just afterward, during the patriotic rush of the First World War and the Palmer Raids that followed. The Wobblies were crushed, the call for a workers’ alternative stilled.

Or you could say it began after the Second World War. If you see the two global conflicts as a single long realignment of power, then after America emerged as a superpower, its century-long Red Scare kicked back in with a vengeance. That’s how Elizabeth Gurley Flynn saw it. She traced the “hysterical and fear laden” atmosphere of the late 1940s back to when she was a union maid visiting Joe Hill in prison. “Now,” she said, “it is part of the American tradition.” In other words, once the nation of immigrants had defined itself, had determined an American Way, it also established the opposite: an Un-American Way.

In 1918, it was the U.S. Senate’s Overman Committee investigating Bolsheviks. In 1930, the Fish Committee looked into William Z. Foster and other communist influences. Eight years later, it was the establishment of the House Committee on Un-American Activities, which continued to operate through the fifties. “The real issue,” as HUAC’s first chairman, Martin Dies, put it, was “between Americanism on the one hand and alienism on the other.”

No one did more to define the Un-American than J. Edgar Hoover. His career began in 1917 jailing “disloyal aliens” as part of President Woodrow Wilson’s Justice Department. Soon Hoover was in charge of carrying out the Palmer Raids. By 1924, he was head of the nation’s Federal Bureau of Investigation. When he appeared before the Senate Internal Security Committee in 1948, he testified to “some thirty-five years of infiltration of an alien way of life in what we have been proud to call our constitutional republic.” That math put the beginning of the infiltration—and the silence—in 1913.

Hoover testified as the Popular Front was making one last national effort. Henry Wallace, former vice president under FDR, had mounted a third-party run for the presidency. Seeing little difference between Democrat Harry Truman and Republican Thomas Dewey, Wallace vowed to establish “the century of the common man.” That included expanded health care, the nationalization of the energy industry, and cooperation with Russia instead of Cold War. Attacking what he called the Red Scare “witch hunt,” Wallace proclaimed, “those who fear communism lack faith in democracy.”

What was left of the Popular Front rallied around him. Alan Lomax headed up a “musical desk” and brought in Guthrie, Seeger, Hays, and others. People’s Songs churned out tunes, including a fiddle-and-guitar blues by Guthrie: “The road is rocky, but it won’t be rocky long / Gonna vote for Wallace: he can righten all our wrongs.” Read more…

American Sphinx

Illustration by Katie Kosma

Colin Dickey | Longreads | August 2017 | 14 minutes | 3380 words

We had come to a place muted of light. Every day felt like a potential backsliding, the news unrelenting, as though the nation had finally given up pushing back against its own savagery — and every day felt like the held breath before the fall. I thought increasingly of Stefan Lux, a Jewish journalist from Slovakia: Aghast at the rise of anti-Semitism during the 1930s, and at the inability of Europe’s bureaucratic governments to respond, Lux walked into the General Assembly of the League of Nations and, before the gathered diplomats, fatally shot himself. His last words were “C’est le dernier coup.” This is the final blow. It was only July 3, 1936; the blows would keep coming long after Lux’s death.

The center was not holding; there hadn’t been any center for decades. It was a country of bankrupt politicians, of killings by police so commonplace they barely made the news. It was a country in which families were routinely broken up by early morning immigration raids, where men abducted for traffic violations and women arrested for misdemeanors were sent off to countries they hadn’t known for decades. It was a nation where young white men found solace drifting through rage and irony, and felt alive only by terrorizing others. It was not a country in open revolution, but more and more its people felt revolution would at least be the exhalation they’d been waiting for. It was a country waiting for the final blow.

Whatever rough beast Yeats had seen had already slouched its way out of the desert, laying waste to everything that fell under its pitiless, blank gaze. The body of a lion and the head of a man, the indignant desert birds circling around its slow thighs, it has laid waste to the veneer of civility and decorum that had once been papered over the country.

Read more…

America’s First Addiction Epidemic

The Time of Trouble at Cornplanter's Village, by Jesse Cornplanter. Via Wikimedia

Christopher Finan| Drunks: An American History | Beacon Press | June 2017 | 28 minutes (7,526 words) 

The following is an excerpt from Drunks, by Christopher Finan. This story is recommended by Longreads contributing editor Dana Snitzky.

* * *

The men full of strong drink have trodden in the fireplaces.

In spring of 1799, Handsome Lake, a Native American, joined members of his hunting party in making the long journey from western Pennsylvania to their home in New York. Handsome Lake was a member of the Seneca Nation, one of the six nations in the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois Confederacy). He had once been renowned for his fighting skill. But the Iroquois had been stripped of almost all their lands after the American Revolution. Now fifty years old, Handsome Lake, too, was a shadow of what he had been. He would later say that heavy drinking had reduced him to “but yellow skin and dried bones.” After stopping in Pittsburgh to trade furs for several barrels of whiskey, the hunters lashed their canoes together and began to paddle up the Allegheny River. Only those in the outer canoes had to work. The rest of the party drank whiskey, yelling and singing “like demented people,” Handsome Lake said. The good times didn’t stop after they picked up their wives and children, who had accompanied them on the hunting trip and were waiting at a rendezvous. Everyone looked forward to being home in Cornplanter’s Town, named for its Seneca Leader.

The joy of their homecoming did not last long. There was enough whiskey to keep the men drunk for several weeks. Handsome Lake described the horror of that time:

Now that the party is home the men revel in strong drink and are very quarrelsome. Because of this the families become frightened and move away for safety. So from many places in the bushlands camp fires send up their smoke.

Now the drunken men run yelling through the village and there is no one there except the drunken men. Now they are beastlike and run about without clothing and all have weapons to injure those whom they meet.

Now there are no doors in the houses for they have all been kicked off. So, also, there are no fires in the village and have not been for many days. Now the men full of strong drink have trodden in the fireplaces. They alone track there and there are no fires and their footprints are in all the fireplaces.

Now the Dogs yelp and cry in all the houses for they are hungry.

Henry Simmons, one of three Quakers who had recently come to the village and had been contracted by the US War Department to “civilize” the Indians, said that some natives died. “One old Woman perrished out of doors in the night season with a bottle at her side,” he wrote. In a community meeting later, Simmons denounced “the great Evil of Strong Drink.” But the Indians did not need much persuading. After several days of deliberation, a council of Seneca elders announced that they were banning whiskey from the village. Read more…

These Are the Locals Who Get The Story of Charlottesville Right

The statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee stands in the center of Emancipation Park the day after the Unite the Right rally on August 13. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Last Saturday evening, Charlottesville police chief Al Thomas held a press conference about the events that day that unfolded under his watch “We love our city,” he said in conclusion. “Let us heal. This is not our story. Outsiders do not tell our story.”

I was born and raised in Charlottesville. I attended and graduated from its public schools; I still live in the city and call it home. After a weekend in which the national media descended upon our downtown and broadcast the unfolding story with the nuance of a parade of elephants, Thomas’s sentiment was welcome. Aside from being heartbroken and outraged, I was tired. Tired of talking heads calling our town Charlotte, of “The South” appearing in print as some strange monolithic mystery region somewhere below Philadelphia, of factual errors confusing the city with adjacent poor and rural counties, of accusing fingers pointed without question at the police and the local government, of former UVA students who spent all of four years here weighing in as if experts, of a lack of context, a lack of understanding of the city as a specific place with a specific history at a specific moment in time.

Read more…

The Hippies Who Hated the Summer of Love

Newcomers to the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood in April, 1967. At the height of the "Summer of Love," the area had a population density greater than Manhattan.

Kate Daloz | Longreads | August 2017 | 11 minutes (2700 words)

The posters began to appear around the city just after New Year’s, 1967. “A Gathering of the Tribes for a Human Be-in…Bring food to share, bring flowers, beads, costumes, feathers, cymbal flags.” On Saturday, January 14, a crowd of young people began to form on the open fields of Golden Gate Park. Throughout the day, local bands — not yet famous — took turns on the stage: The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin’s Big Brother and the Holding Company. Poets Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder led Hindu chants to the bouncing rhythm of finger cymbals. Timothy Leary addressed the crowd, urging them for the first time ever to “turn on, tune in, and drop out.” Owsley Stanley, the rogue chemist credited with manufacturing the period’s highest-quality LSD, donated 75 turkeys for sandwiches — the bread was sprinkled lightly with crushed White Lightning acid. At one point, a skydiver descended gently into the crowd, borne by a white parachute.

Read more…

Whose Fault Was Dunkirk?

British soldiers fire at German aircraft during the Dunkirk evacuation. Via Wikimedia.

Lynne Olson | Last Hope Island: Britain, Occupied Europe, and the Brotherhood That Helped Turn the Tide of War | Random House | April 2017 | 15 minutes (3,983 words) 

Below is an excerpt from Last Hope Island, by Lynne Olson. This story is recommended by Longreads contributing editor Dana Snitzky.

* * *

In all the history of war, I have never known such mismanagement.

Winston Churchill arrived at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on the Quai d’Orsay on the afternoon of May 16 and saw “utter dejection written on every face” of the officials with whom he met. In the gardens outside, clouds of smoke billowed up from bonfires stoked by official documents that government workers were heaping on the flames.

The French military leaders summarized for Churchill the disastrous news of the previous four days: the German breakthrough at the Meuse and the onrush of tanks and troops “at unheard-of speed” toward the northern French towns of Amiens and Arras. When Churchill asked about plans for a counterattack by reserve forces, General Gamelin shrugged and shook his head. “There are none,” he said. Churchill was speechless: no reserves and no counterattack? How could that be? Gamelin’s terse response, Churchill wrote later, was “one of the greatest surprises I have had in my life.”

The British prime minister’s shock and confusion, his failure to grasp the speed and immensity of the German onslaught, were no different from the dazed reactions of French and British officers and troops in the field. Years later, General Alan Brooke would write dismissively, “Although there were plenty of Frenchmen ready to die for their country, their leaders had completely failed to prepare and organize them to resist the blitzkrieg.” Brooke didn’t mention that he and his fellow British commanders were as guilty as their French counterparts in that regard—a point repeatedly made by General Bernard Law Montgomery, a subordinate of Brooke’s in France. In his diary of the campaign, Montgomery, who commanded a British division in the battle, was scathingly critical of General John Gort, the British Expeditionary Force commander. Later Montgomery would write, “We had only ourselves to blame for the disasters which early overtook us in the field when fighting began in 1940.”

Trained for static defensive warfare, the Allied military simply did not know how to react when the blitzkrieg—“this inhuman monster which had already flattened half of Europe,” in the words of an American observer—burst upon them. Coordination and communication between the French and British armies broke down almost immediately; within a few days, most phone and supply lines had been cut, and the Allied command system had virtually ceased to function. The only way army commanders could communicate was through personal visits.

While French and British units functioned without information or orders, their tanks and aircraft were running out of fuel and ammunition. An RAF pilot called the situation “a complete and utter shambles”; a British Army officer wrote in his diary, “This is like some ridiculous nightmare.” Back in London, Churchill told one of his secretaries, “In all the history of war, I have never known such mismanagement.” Read more…

How to Get Away with Spying for the Enemy

Officials remove a shackled Richard Craig Smith from an Alexandria, Va., courthouse, April 4, 1984. Smith was arrested on charges of selling to the Soviets information about a U.S. double agent operation aimed at penetrating the Soviet KGB spy agency. (AP Photo/Lana Harris)

Sarah Laskow | Topic | July 2017 | 14 minutes (3,700 words)

This story is co-funded by Longreads Members and published in collaboration with Topic, which publishes an original story, every other week. Sign up for Topic’s newsletter now. Sarah Laskow’s story is part of Topic’s State of the Union issue.

Ronald Rewald and Richard Craig Smith did not appear to have much in common. The founder of an investment firm in Hawai’i, Rewald lived like a Master of the Universe, traveling the world in expensive cars, staying in expensive hotels and throwing expensive parties. Smith, by contrast, lived in Utah, with a wife and four children. A former case officer in intelligence with the United States Army, he had resigned from his job at the start of the 1980s to spend more time with his family. He sought to make a new life for himself as an entrepreneur;  when VHS tapes were still cutting-edge, he began a service to make video diaries and testimonials for families to pass down from one generation to the next.

What brought Rewald and Smith together was espionage. In the early 1980s, legal troubles tangled the two men in a similar narrative of spying and betrayal. First charged in August 1983 in state court with two counts of theft, Rewald was eventually indicted, a year later, on 100 counts of fraud, tax evasion, perjury and other federal crimes. In April 1984, Smith was accused of much more serious offenses—conspiracy, espionage, and transmission of secret material, charges that, were he convicted, could lead to a death sentence. The two men were represented the same lawyer, the bombastic Brent Carruth, and they had the same defense for their alleged crimes: The CIA made me them do it.

Rewald and Smith’s assertions sometimes seemed preposterous, as if lifted from a convoluted spy novel. The cartoonish stories they told involved fake names, fear of assassination, and envelopes full of cash. (They certainly seemed fictional to government prosecutors, who dismissed the tales as fabrications.) But in the Reagan era, as now, the news was full of undisclosed meetings and clandestine plots to swing elections. Americans were being inundated with reports about the secrets of the intelligence community: the Watergate revelations about the CIA’s domestic surveillance, the assassination attempts on foreign leaders, and the Iran-Contra scandal, for starters.

Suddenly, anything seemed possible.

On paper, the government’s success in Smith’s case was all but assured. Americans have little tolerance for disloyalty. There have been more than 110 Americans arrested on espionage charges since the 1950s and those who didn’t defect before they were sentenced to years, sometimes decades, in prison.

But though Rewald and Smith’s stories sounded wild, their juries weren’t entirely willing to trust the veracity of the government’s narrative, either. In the end, one of the two men would be sent to jail, the other set free. Read more…

Norma McCorvey Versus Jane Roe

Norma McCorvey and Gloria Allred leave the Supreme Court on April 26, 1989 after a Missouri abortion case failed to overturn Roe v Wade. (AP Photo / J. Scott Applewhite)

Norma McCorvey | I Am Roe: My Life, Roe v Wade, and Freedom of Choice Harper Collins, 1994 | 19 minutes | 4,650 words

 

When journalist Andy Meisner met Norma McCorvey to work on her memoir, “she was cashing checks at the 7-Eleven” and living with her partner Connie Gonzalez in Dallas. The New York Times visited McCorvey before the book’s publication in the summer of 1994, and McCorvey showed the reporter the steel door they’d had installed after their house was shot at in 1989 — as well as her dream keeper, a closet full of prized coats, and a collection of clowns she had purchased for Gonzalez. “Once people read I Am Roe, I think they’ll understand where I’m coming from,” she told the Times. “I’m a simple woman with a ninth-grade education who wants women not to be harassed or condemned.”

A year later, McCorvey publicly converted to born-again Christianity — and later, to Roman Catholicism — and she would spent the next twenty years of her life campaigning furiously against the pro-choice movement and the abortion she never received. “Roe has been her life, but it’s no longer much of a living,” wrote Vanity Fair in 2013.

McCorvey died in Dallas of heart failure at the age of 69 on February 18, 2017. In her review of I Am Roe, Susan Cheever writes: Norma McCorvey is an angry shadow from the dark side of the American dream…That Jane Roe and Norma McCorvey are the same person is just another example of the randomness and absurdity of a politics marked by an unbridgeable gulf between myth and reality.”  I Am Roe is currently out of print, and this excerpt is courtesy of Harper Collins.

Read more…