22 August 2017

Daniel Cohn-Bendit 1968 - red hair and red politics

In 1968 I saw Daniel Cohn-Bendit on tv and decided straight away who I would marry. The man of my dreams would have to be a red-head, Jewish, European-born and educated, politically left wing and a great Bridge player. In 1969, I met my now-husband Joe who was a red-head, Jewish, European and great at Bridge. Only in politics could Joe have been more active – much more active!

Now let us look at 1968, as described by David Del Testa* and Sean O’Hagan*. Paris was the place where political action and utopian fantasy came together in the most spectacular fashion. The 1968 protesters initially comprised a few student activists at the Nanterre University in Paris. Protests began against the lack of facilities on their bleak suburban campus. Extraordinarily, the auth­or­ities called the French riot police to quell the small demonstration, and suddenly politicised students joined the rebels.

They had a leader, Daniel Cohn-Bendit (b1945). Born in Monat­uban in southern France, he was the son of German cit­iz­ens who had fled the Nazi machine before WW2 started. He moved to Germany with his par­ents in 1958 and attended high school near Frankfurt. Cohn-Bendit took out German citizenship, then return­ed to France in 1966 to study sociology at the Nanterre University.

Cohn-Bendit was soon called Danny the Red by the media, a reference to his ginger hair as much as his politics. Cohn-Bendit's grin and non-dogmatic radicalism made him the antithesis of dour theoretical Marxists.

After another sit-in at Nanterre, they closed the university and ordered Cohn-Bendit to appear before a discip­linary board. Thus the pro­tests shifted to the centre of Paris where media crews were already assembling to cover the imminent Vietnam peace talks. The students were now becoming an embarr­assment to President De Gaulle. He sent police into the Sorbonne to arrest 600 students and ordered the university’s closure.

Daniel Cohn-Bendit
Paris demonstration, May 1968

It ended in near-revolution. The government banned all demonst­rat­ions in May when Cohn-Bendit was due to be disciplined. Yet 1,000 students accompanied their leader to the Sorbonne, where they passed through French riot police armed with shields and clubs. The media followed.

The police charged, leaving students unconscious on the cobbled street. The students regrouped and fought back around the Sorbonne, overturning cars and building barricades for hours. These were people who knew nothing of revol­ut­ion; there was no organisation, no planning.

As news of the uprising spread, young people from all over Paris arrived to support the students. Petrol bombs and Molotov cocktails lit up the streets as night fell. 600+ protesters were injured in one day and about half as many police. The rioting continued for another week and images of the clashes with police were everywhere.

On the streets of Paris in those few weeks, people from different back­grounds came out in support of the students. Groups of Parisians gathered around the barricades to organise and agitate. Posters appeared across the Left Bank and beyond. The two main Parisian art schools combined to form the Atelier Populaire, producing hundreds of silk-screened images in an impressive outpouring of polit­ical graph­ic art. The real 1968 represented liberation and a sense of community. Order and authority were challenged.

Cohn-Bendit, who would soon receive a deport­ation order from the French government for his involvement, had gone from "local student activist" to "in­­ternational figurehead for revolution". In just three weeks Danny the Red was famous all over the world. And in my heart.

The catalyst for Danny the Red’s fame in 1968 was TV. Two tech­nological innovations transformed news broadcasts: a] use of cheap, reusable videotape, instead of film; and b] same-day broadcasts. While the Left argued over the meaning of the unrest, Cohn-Bendit did not care about its meaning. But he did care that images of rebellion were quickly disseminated.

Cohn-Bendit asks for silence, so poet Louis Aragon can talk to students on a megaphone
Photo credit: Blind Flaneur

Anti-Vietnam War protests
Images of frantic battles in the Vietnam war were quickly broadcast to the USA, a nation who were not used to seeing their soldiers killing civ­il­ians. The carpet bombing, napalm and American massacres of Vietnamese families shocked, then angered viewers. In late 1967-1968, c30 colleges a month were protesting with sit-ins and street marches.

In Germany a strong anti-Vietnam war movement had grown on campuses in 1967. By April 1968, highly organised rioting started in Berlin, following the attempted assassination of left-winger Rudi Dutschke. Stud­ents and activists directed their ire at the right-wing Springer Press organisation in Berlin, laying siege.

In Poland the government closed down eight university departments in Warsaw, and imprisoned 1,000 students after protests against state censorship. In Italy the University of Rome was shut down for two weeks after violent demonstrations against police brutality. In Spain students marched against the Fascist regime of General Franco, so he closed Madrid University for a month. In Brasil protesters were killed during marches against the mil­itary junta. In France, just as the Nanterre protests gathered momentum, thousands marched against the war in Paris. Then 10,000 German protesters gathered in West Berlin. Worst of all, Soviet troops rumbled into Czechoslovakia, abruptly ending the brief Prague spring of reforms.

By then, the spirit of 1968 had dimmed in France, too. To the aston­ish­ment of both students and government, the French trade unions had called for a general strike for more pay and better conditions. France ground to a halt to the horror of the beleaguered President De Gaulle. It looked as if France would undergo another revolution, but the unlikely alliance of students and workers did not last. Cohn-Bendit himself admitted that the workers and the students were never properly together.

After the May Riots, Cohn-Bendit’s political opponents took advan­tage of his German passport and had him expelled from France as a seditious alien. He became active in Frankfurt instead.

That youthful unplanned idealism, carried for a while by a surprising momentum, quickly faded. 1968 ended with De Gaulle still in power, President Nixon was now president and the Vietnam war escalating. In Mexico hundreds of young people in the student movement were slaughtered by the Olympic Battalion in Tlatelolco Square in Oct 1968.

The youth revolution might have been over, but 1968 remained the epicentre mod­ern protest and the dawn of a new geopolitical order. It was also the beginning of the many strug­gles that followed, especially Women's Liber­ation. Cohn-Bendit, hero of May 1968, is now a Green Party leader in the European parliament.

*See Government Leaders, Military Rulers and Political Activists by David Del Testa and Sean O’Hagan in The GuardianJan 2008.

19 August 2017

British children of the Raj. Where was home - India or UK?

Last Children of the Raj: British Childhoods in India was edited by Laurence Fleming and published by Radcliffe Press in 2004.  This book is a collection of retrospective reminiscences contributed by people late in their lives, the 120+ story tellers having all spent most of their childhood and adolescence in British India, the Princely States or Burma. The most evocative stories were the personal accounts of powerful em­otional experiences while growing up in India - the sights, smells and sounds of India, their homes, families, staff, schools and holidays.

The book was presented in two volumes, perfect for history bloggers who tend to read only one chapter at a time. The first volume (1919-39) was org­anised by geog­raphic regions of India and grouped all of the stories of the child­ren by those areas. The second volume (1939-50) was arranged chronol­og­ically, covering WW2 and soon after. Most of the contributors’ stories were split up and were divided into a few sections. An index would have made it possible to go back and forward, within each individual’s story.

British military family arriving in India
Photo credit: thedrumming.org

These children’s fathers were railway engineers and other prof­es­s­ionals, army officers, teachers, members of the Indian Civil Serv­ice, plant­ation owners and businessmen. In India during the last 30 years or so of British rule, the fathers' careers were important since they were the very men who were there to develop and modernise India.

Plus the fathers’ careers meant the children grew up in a society even more stratified than Britain by income and occupation. Inevitably these children grew up with the nice houses, good schools and plenty of household staff that were the distinctive features of life in British India. A comfortable life-style, but one unprotected from epidemics, vicious heat, mos­quitoes, snakes and wild animals. [I was not coddled as a child, but one sight of a scorpion in my bedroom would have got me into a ship home, the NEXT morning].

Unless forbidden to do so by their English-speaking nannies, many of the contributors in this book had spoken Indian languages as child­ren. Since picking up Indian languages from doting servants, some children spoke English almost as a second language.

These children, born in 1914-40, provided a social history during the last decades of the British Raj that occurred during a hectic era: world war, self-rule movements and the violent birth of independent India and Pakistan. Nonetheless these privileged children of the Raj remembered an exciting and exotic child­hood. Still we have to ask: did they fully acknowledge being a part of expat­riate life in both countries – an expat in India and in the UK? Where was “home”?

 Last Children of the Raj book

One of the most disruptive experiences described was that of being sent home on long, lonely trips to Britain at an early age… for a Prop­er Ed­ucation. Perhaps we can understand why it was so important for most British families in India to send their young children, espec­ially boys, home to Britain, given that formal education was crit­ical for their futures. But it broke my heart reading how they had to be sent home alone, or occasionally with their mothers. They boarded at school during term, and with grandmothers or aunts during school holidays. They might have seen their mothers once a year and their fathers even less frequently. 

Separation from family was a dominant theme, even for those children sent to distant schools within India’s hill stations eg Simla. Those children who went to boarding schools in the hill stations were taught together with Anglo-Indians and Euro­peans born in India. At least those educated in India were only separated from their fam­il­ies for 10 months each year. But it came at a price. The children who stayed in Indian schools would not have had access to the lessons and examinations that groomed lads towards the best car­eer paths.

When WW2 erupted in 1939, many children who were in school in Brit­ain were recalled to India, moving into temporarily-created schools in India. In 1940, in one convoy the P&O troopship Stratheden carried at least 200 child­ren back to India. Dangerous to be sure, but at least the parents got their sons and daughters safely by their sides. As WW2 went on, the older sons joined up as officers in the British and Indian armies.

Many suffered emotional traumas; children of the Raj had needs and feelings of their own that were not being listened to! But according to the stories in the book, most children adapted to their predicament - this was a cost of Empire and of keeping the fam­ily in its approp­riate class position. Even more, the Raj made them proud to be British; history had given them a special role in the world.

Upon retirement, Raj families had to face a reduced income and im­portant decisions about where to live out the rest of their days. I felt very sad for those families, even though I never lived in any colonial service. Losing the one home a family had lived in for a generation ..was always tragic.

Of course the Raj was about rule, not about power sharing. So Ind­ians could only serve the Raj as servants or friends; Indians could never be central to the events in their own nation. For as long as the Indians were not governing their own country, they could only show their true feelings within the various independence movements. So the alternative name of the book, Orphans of the Imperial Dream, probably reflected the times better.

I have not seen Elizabeth Buettner's Empire Families (2004), and Margaret MacMillan’s Women of the Raj: The Mothers, Wives and Daughters of the British Empire in India (2007) but they seem to touch many of the same themes found in the Fleming book.

15 August 2017

Contested history in films - "The Birth of a Nation"

British historian Suzannah Lipscomb was interested in how film makers did, or did not analyse hist­orical evidence accurately in their films. A review of David Rieff’s book In Praise of Forgetting was rightly scornful of the practicality of forgetting past atrocities, just for modern audiences’ comfort. Remembering, not forgetting, was im­por­tant in the pursuit of recog­nit­ion and restitution and, ultimately, reconciliation.

Two recent films were designed to remember histor­ical atrocities. Both were love stories set against geo­political events. Viceroy’s House by Gurinder Chadha told of the Partition that accompanied the granting of independence to India in 1947, in which a million people died and c12 million were displaced. Bitter Harvest by George Mendeluk recalled one of the least-known tragedies of recent history; the Holod­omor, the 1932-33 famine in Ukraine in which 3-9 million people died.

Both examples achieved one of the purposes of historical films: they left Dr Lipscomb with the desire to know more. But each step has taken her into murkier territory, for both films told contested histories.

For a discussion of the British Raj, Jon Wilson’s fine 2016 book India Conquered, challenged the idea that there was ever a civilising mission. Shashi Tharoor’s new books, Inglor­ious Empire in Britain and An Era of Darkness, gave an even more damning verdict. Viceroy’s House played fair with its depiction of British divide-and-rule policies on one side and growing Hindu-Muslim tensions on the other. It dodged one allegation i.e the affair between Edwina Mountbatten and Jawaharlal Nehru. But it made another i.e that Winston Churchill was personally responsible for the catastrophically shoddy division of British India into India and Pakistan.

Bitter Harvest told an even more charged interpret­at­ion of the past. As the first English-language film, it espoused many historians’ view that the Hol­odomor was genocide by starvat­ion, a man-made famine imposed by Stalin’s collectivisation policies. Soviet and Russian histories, by contrast, consid­ered it to be a tragedy, but not man-made or intentional. This historical interpret­ation was therefore politically loaded and tied to Ukrainian national identity. This film was motivated by a desire to get this atrocity ‘the recognition that history demands’.

The film depicted Stalin as the agent of evil, imp­os­ing starvation on millions because he is frustrated by dis­obedience. What made Dr Lipscomb uneasy was that these things were almost certainly true, but the desire to tell the story in such piebald terms rendered the atrocity almost unbelievable.  Dr Lipscomb wrote the way films remembered historic events was troubling. A film can convey a convincing interpretation that cannot be rebutted or it can make even the truest of events far-fetched.

Poster for the 1915 film The Birth of a Nation
Note the fiery cross of the Ku Klux Klan, in image and text

The Birth of a Nation was an excellent 1915 American silent drama, directed by DW Griffith, with actress Lillian Gish in the lead role. The screenplay was adapted from Thomas Dixon's novel The Clansman. The film recounted the relationship of two families in the American Civil War and Reconstruction era: one pro-Union and one pro-Confederacy. 

Despite African-American rallies against racism, the film opened in April 1915 to delighted white audiences. So how can we in 2017 know how controversial the film was 102 years ago, for its port­rayal of black men as unintell­ig­ent and sexually aggres­sive towards white women? Was the film’s por­trayal of the Ku Klux Klan as a heroic force truly believed back then? Apparently yes.

Certainly Rev Thomas Dixon's 1905 book The Clansmen paid warm tribute to the Ku Klux Klan. And the director DW Griffith was also an admirer of the Klan. As Griffith said in his auto-biography and as he championed in the film: “The members of the Klan ran to the rescue of the downtrodden South after the Civil War.” The actress Lillian Gish explained “The idea was to tell the truth about the War between the States. It hasn't been told accurately in history books”.

We have to assume from contemporary documents that the film's storyline was mostly accepted as histor­ically accurate. To reinforce this view, a message from Griffith flickered on the screen as the orchestra started: "This is an historical presentation of the Civil War and Recon­struction Period, and is not meant to reflect on any race or people of today."

The KKK was delighted! The film's release was cred­ited as being a factor that stimulated the second coming of the Ku Klux Klan at Stone Mountain Georgia. Along with a 1913 trial and lynching in Atlanta, this film was specifically used as a recruiting tool for the KKK. To celebrate the opening of The Birth of a Nation, a dramatic Rev William Simmons took 15 racist whites up Stone Mountain, made declarations about purity and honour, then lit a cross and re-ign­ited the KKK. “The occasion will be remembered long by the participants,” the Atlanta Constitution boomed, “KLAN IS ESTABLISHED WITH IMPRESSIVENESS.”

To ban The Birth of a Nation, blacks could not just show that the film knowingly dist­orted African American history. Boston's National Association for the Advance­ment of Coloured People and newspaper editor William Trotter argued that the film was a threat to public safety, it heightened racial tensions and could incite violence. Boston’s mayor responded by holding a public hearing where the mayor claimed he could only censor the film if it was indecent and immoral, but not if it was racist. After the film­maker agreed to cut explicitly sexual scenes, the film opened in Boston.

Ironically the film had one empowering effect against the KKK. Across the country, blacks filed petitions, appealed to legis­latures, met with mayors, picketed theatres and organised protest marches, to ban the film. Even when they failed, the film brought national att­ent­ion to the NAACP and black Americans had an opportunity at least to be heard. And three states did eventually ban the film.

Did the writers of The Birth of a Nation not realise that their presentation of the Civil War and the Ku Klux Klan was only one side of a vigorously contested history? I assume they deliberately chose to depict life after the Civil War in a way that glorified Klansmen as the "Saviours of the White South". Since the film makers wanted to attract a large white audience to cinemas across the country, it would have been financially counter-productive and ideolog­ically unsound for them to have remembered historical events more accurately. This 1915 film was therefore as politically loaded, and as tied to just one national identity, as the film Bitter Harvest later became.