Friday, 28 November 2014

Richard Evans on Boris Johnson

One thing I really enjoy doing is reading book reviews. I recently read a review by Richard J Evans on Boris Johnson's 'The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History ', which made me laugh a lot. Evans criticised Johnson for fabricating/ stretching his facts in order to support his hypothesis; that Churchill shaped the 20th century and the outcome of WWII. The article made me think a lot about the use of facts to support historical research, and the use of history to make present day points (Evans accused Johnson of trying to draw subtle comparisons between himself and Churchill - Johnson may be running for prime minister in the near future after all!). 

I have put a link of the article below - please read it and let me know what you all think!

Thursday, 20 November 2014

The Elephant

It is very interesting how old myths and folk tales from thousands of years ago can develop into common 'facts' we all know and accept in modern times. One such example is the elephant, which has been misunderstood for thousands of years.

I recently read a very interesting article on historical misconceptions about the elephant, which I have summarised below.

Elephants were named after Japan's 4th emperor, Emperor Itoku. Rumour had it that his nose was so long he could swing it like a lasso, throw it into the river and drink via his nostrils. Whilst this was one of his greatest attributes, it would also prove to be his downfall; when the current was surprisingly strong in the winter of 476 BC, his nose became trapped in the powerful movement and he was swept off, never to be seen again.

In the song “Heffalumps and Woozles” from Winnie the Pooh, elephants wear tuxedos and are blue. Fantastical, but unimaginative compared to what European natural historians used to believe about the elephant. These misconceptions persisted despite many scholars and ordinary citizens knowing otherwise! 

Some argue that misconceptions about the elephant are reasonable seeing as they come from Africa and Asia, and Europeans simply didn’t have enough contact with the animals to inform their judgements. The reality, though, is that the elephant has an old (and brutal) history in Europe.

One such misconception is that elephants have no knees. However 17th century historian Sir Thomas Browne noted that even the ancient Greeks knew that elephants had knees. Western armies first fought elephants at the Battle of Gaugamela in present-day northern Iraq in 331 BC, between Alexander the Great and Darius of Persia. War elephants were an incredibly effective weapon in ancient warfare - if you could manage to feed them and keep them from stepping on your own soldiers. But Alexander overcame the Persians, captured their elephants, and sent the beasts back to Greece. Having seen elephants for themselves, the Greeks had no reason to doubt their possession of knees.

Indeed, Aristotle’s description of the elephant is incredibly descriptive, and he is certain that they had knees. During the Roman Empire, most citizens knew elephants had knees because they attended gladiatorial games to watch the cruel slaughter of the animals hauled in from Africa. In fact, in his encyclopedia Natural History, Pliny the Elder specifically mentions the elephant’s knees when recounting a battle in Rome’s Circus between 20 elephants and a number of men: “One of these animals fought in a most astonishing manner; being pierced through the feet, it dragged itself on its knees towards the troop, and seizing their bucklers, tossed them aloft into the air: and as they came to the ground they greatly amused the spectators, for they whirled round and round in the air, just as if they had been thrown up with a certain degree of skill, and not by the frantic fury of a wild beast.”

Yet even after Pliny and Aristotle made it clear that elephants had knees, the idea spread again after the fall of the Roman Empire thanks to the Physiologus, which was written between the second and third centuries AD. It says “The elephant has no knee joints enabling him to sleep lying down if he wanted to”. However by the 13th century this was being challenged. Albertus Magnus, for instance, noted that the elephant wasn’t missing knees - it just had stiff joints in its legs, necessary to support its weight.

The Physiologus also introduced several other other fanciful elephant “facts” that came from the ancient world. The book describes how when elephants want to conceive, a male and a female must head “to the east near paradise,” where they’ll find the mandrake. This plant’s root has a long history of being used by humans as an aphrodisiac, though as a member of the nightshade family it contains powerful toxins that can kill in high doses. The elephants supposedly eat some of it, and “the female immediately conceives in the womb.”

According to the Physiologus the elephant's eternal enemy, the serpent, would try and snatch up baby elephants. Pliny refers to it as a dragon: "this fiend is perpetually at war with the elephant,” he writes, “and is itself of so enormous a size, as easily to envelop the elephants with its folds, and encircle them in its coils. The contest is equally fatal to both; the elephant, vanquished, falls to the earth, and by its weight, crushes the dragon which is entwined around it.” In the Physiologus, the serpent seems decidedly smaller, as the male elephant “kills it by trampling on it until it dies.”

Pliny also wrote that elephants “hate mice and will refuse to eat fodder that has been touched by one”. As a researcher of elephant behaviour in 2011 said “In the wild, anything that suddenly runs or slithers by an elephant can spook it. It doesn’t have to be a mouse—dogs, cats, snakes or any animal that makes sudden movements by an elephant’s feet can startle it.”

This is because they have incredibly poor eyesight, relying instead on a highly developed sense of smell. Venomous snakes can kill baby elephants, so evolutionarily it they have developed to be cautious about small creatures. In captivity at least, they don’t seem to be the afraid of mice once they've established that they are harmless, and have even been known to stomp on mice scurrying around their pens, according to Gordon Grice in The Book of Deadly Animals.

The phrase 'elephants never forget' is again a myth that many still believe to this day. Whilst elephants have excellent memory, the statement is still an exaggeration. As elephants are nomadic, they have to remember where water and fodder are located - elephants always know how to return to a watering hole they used previously.


Badke, D. (2011) The Elephant. The Medieval Bestiary

Brown, T. (1894) The Works of Sir Thomas Browne. Tuft’s Perseus Digital Library

Curley, M. (2009) Physiologus: A Medieval Book of Nature Lore. University Of Chicago Press

Pliny the Elder. (1855) The Natural History. Taylor and Francis, Red Lion Court, Fleet Street. Retrieved from Tuft’s Perseus Digital Library

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Picture Of The Month

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Here is a photo of some men taking a selfie in the 1920s. It shows how little has changed over nearly a century!

Saturday, 15 November 2014

The Fall of the Berlin Wall

Historians can tell you pretty much everything about the fall of the Berlin Wall. Why it happened, where it happened, how it happened. The recent 25th anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall made me think about whether there is anything that a person who was there at the time knows that historians and later generations do not.

Most obviously, people who were there will know what it felt like at the time. The true drama of 9 November 1989 is hard to recapture. One obvious reason for this is that the vast majority of photos and videos only show the side of the Wall covered in colourful graffiti - the western side, the free side, the one that already enjoyed freedom of expression (hence all the colourful graffiti). Yet it was the other side of the concrete barrier that mattered, the side that people had risked their lives to climb over.

The fall of the Berlin Wall was a momentous occasion for West Berliners, and for West Germans, but it was not the day of unification. That came nearly a year later, on 3 October 1990, after a majority of East Germans had voted to join West Germany, and Helmut Kohl and George HW Bush had skilfully negotiated it with Gorbachev. The fall of the Wall was a day of liberation, for those behind the Wall, not the day of unification for those in front of it. The emotional quality of this liberation can only be captured if you can imagine what it was like to live behind that “anti-fascist protection rampart” (its official name) for all your life, never setting foot in the western half of your own city, and with the expectation that this would continue for years to come.

Here is a second thing that historians struggle to recapture: the sense of what people at the time did not know. To those who lived behind it, the Berlin Wall had become a seemingly unchangeable fact of physical geography. Even when things began to change so dramatically in Poland and Hungary, most people just did not believe the Wall could crumble. After all, there was a nuclear-armed empire holding it up. However much as the historian warns against the problems of having hindsight, you simply cannot un-know your knowledge of what came afterwards. So even if you do not fall into the trap of writing history as if that which actually happened somehow had to happen – what Henri Bergson called “the illusions of retrospective determinism” – it is almost impossible to recreate the emotional intensity of the moment of liberation. For that intensity came from having lived for most, if not all, your life with the certainty that the Wall was permanent. Some did believe that the Wall would come down and Germany would be united, but none foresaw when and, above all, how.

For example there is the story of a former MI6 man, on the evening of 9 November, who was meeting with his colleagues from the West German foreign intelligence service, the Bundesnachrichtendienst. The West German spies were in the middle of telling the British spooks, clearly on the basis of their excellent East German sources, that change in East Germany would only come very slowly, perhaps in a matter of years, when someone put his head round the door and said: “Turn on the television: the Wall’s open!”

In many ways 1989 has become the new 1789: both a turning point and a reference point. Twenty-five years on, it has given us what is, politically, the best Germany we have ever had. (Culturally, other Germanies have been more interesting, but today's Germany is democratic, rich, and supporting the rest of Europe.) It has made possible the Europe we have today and there is no corner of the world its consequences have not touched. Those consequences have been of two kinds: the direct results of what actually happened, and the ways in which people read and misread it, which themselves produce unintended consequences.The fall of the Wall has become a kind of master metaphor of our age, used especially by western politicians, not just to represent, but to predict, the forward march of freedom.

So where are the people who were around in 1989? It is not that this generation has been silent: Edward Snowden, who was six when the Wall came down, can be seen as both a voice and a hero of that generation. But it is not yet clear what broader political vision this generation represents, how it will change Europe and whether it will appeal to a wider world. Indeed, if it is to succeed, this cannot just be a western generation: the generations in Beijing, Delhi and São Paolo are just as important.

It is hard to tell whether the people around in 1989 will come together as a defining political generation and how they will act. But one thing is clear: their action (or inaction) will determine how we read the Wall’s fall on its 50th anniversary. On them will depend the future of our past.

This blog was inspired by this article I read. I would highly reccomend reading it.

Saturday, 8 November 2014

Demagogues Through History

A few days ago I wrote a blog on McCarthyism, whom many say is an example of an American demagogue. Therefore I thought today it would be appropriate to dedicate this blog to demagogues throughout history!

A demagogue (people's manipulator/ rabble-rouser) is a political leader in a democracy who appeals to the emotions, fears, prejudices, and ignorance of the lower classes in order to gain power and promote political motives. Demagogues usually oppose deliberation and advocate immediate, violent action to address national crises, accusing moderate and thoughtful opponents of weakness. Demagogues have appeared in democracies since ancient Athens. They exploit a fundamental weakness in democracy: because ultimate power is held by the people, they can chose to give that power to whoever they want, even if he/she is only popular with the majority of the lower classes.

The word demagogue, meaning a leader of the common people, first arose in ancient Greece with no negative connotation, but eventually came to mean a troublesome kind of leader who occasionally arose in Athenian democracy. Even though democracy gave power to the common people, in Athens elections still tended to favour the aristocratic class, which favoured deliberation and decorum. Demagogues were a new kind of leader who emerged from the lower classes. Demagogues relentlessly advocated action, usually violent, immediately and without deliberation. Demagogues appealed directly to the emotions of the poor and uninformed, pursuing power, telling lies to stir up hysteria, exploiting crises to intensify popular support for their calls to immediate action and increased authority, and accusing moderate opponents of weakness or disloyalty to the nation. While all politicians in a democracy must make occasional small sacrifices of truth, subtlety, or long-term concerns to maintain popular support, demagogues do these things relentlessly and without self-restraint.

Through their popular appeal, demagogues exploit the freedom secured under democracy to gain a level of power for themselves that overrides the rule of law, thereby undermining democracy. The Greek historian Polybius thought that democracies are inevitably undone by demagogues. He said that every democracy eventually decays into "a government of violence and the strong hand," leading to "tumultuous assemblies, massacres, banishments."

Throughout history, demagogues have existed. For example, the Athenian leader Cleon is known as a notorious demagogue mainly because of events described in the writings of Thucydides and Aristophanes. For example, after the failed revolt by the city of Mytilene, Cleon persuaded the Athenians to slaughter not just the Mytilenean prisoners, but every man in the city, and to sell their wives and children as slaves. The Athenians rescinded the resolution the following day when they came to their senses. Another example is when Athens had completely defeated the Peloponnesian fleet and Sparta begged for peace on almost any terms, Cleon persuaded the Athenians to reject the peace offer. He also taunted the Athenian generals over their failure to bring the war in Sphacteria to a rapid close, accusing them of cowardice, and declared that he could finish the job himself in twenty days, despite having no military knowledge. They gave him the job, expecting him to fail. Cleon shrank at being called to make good on his boast, and tried to get out of it, but he was forced to take the command. In fact, he succeeded, but only by getting the general Demosthenes to lead the armies into battle, now treating him with respect after previously slandering him behind his back.

It is now thought that Thucydides and Aristophanes exaggerated the vileness of Cleon's character. Both had personal conflicts with Cleon and Cleon was a tradesman, so Thucydides and Aristophanes, who came from the upper classes, looked down on him. Nevertheless, their portrayals of Cleon define the archetypal example of the "low-born demagogue": lower class, hating the nobility, uneducated, despising thought and deliberation, ruthless and unprincipled, bullying, coarse and vulgar in style, rising in popularity by exploiting a national crisis, telling lies to whip up emotions and drive a mob against an opponent, deriving political support primarily from the poor and ignorant, quick to accuse any opponent of weakness or disloyalty, eager for war and violence, inciting the people to terrible acts of destruction they later regret.

Alcibiades is another example of a demagogue. He convinced the people of Athens to attempt to conquer Sicily during the Peloponnesian War, with disastrous results. He convinced the Athenian assembly to make him commander by claiming victory would come easily, appealing to Athenian vanity, and pronouncing action and courage over deliberation.

A third example of a demagogue from history is Gaius Flaminius Nepos, a Roman consul most known for being defeated by Hannibal at the Battle of Lake Trasimene during the second Punic war. Gaius Faminius understood his opponent well, yet made poor decisions, resulting in the loss of 15,000 Roman lives (including his own). Gaius Flaminius was described as a demagogue by Polybius, in his book the Rise of the Roman Empire, saying "Flaminius possesed a rare talent for the arts of demagogy" 

And finally, of course, a recent example is Joseph McCarthy, a US Senator from 1947 to 1957.  Though a poor speaker, McCarthy rose to national prominence during the early 1950s by proclaiming that high places in the United States federal government and military were "infested" with communists, contributing to the second "Red Scare". Ultimately his inability to provide proof for his claims led him to be censured by the United States Senate in 1954, and to fall from popularity. Have a look at my last blog post if you're interested in learning more about McCarthyism!


Thursday, 6 November 2014


McCarthyism is the practice of making unfair allegations and accusations of, for example, disloyalty and treason without proper evidence and using unfair investigation techniques. 

Senator Joseph McCarthy
The term has its origins in the US during Second Red Scare, (1950 to 1956), which was characterised by heightened political repression against communists, as well as a campaign spreading fear of their influence on American institutions. The term was originally coined to criticize the anti-communist actions of Republican U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy. However "McCarthyism" soon took on a broader meaning to describe reckless, unsubstantiated accusations, as well as demagogic attacks (when a political leader in a democracy appeals to the emotions, fears, prejudices, and ignorance of the lower classes in order to gain power and promote political motives). McCarthy is often seen as a demagogue: they usually oppose deliberation and advocate immediate, violent action to address a national crisis, accusing moderate and thoughtful opponents of being weak. Demagogues exploit a fundamental weakness in democracy: because ultimate power is held by the people, nothing stops the people from giving that power to someone who appeals to the lowest common denominator of a large segment of the population.

During the McCarthy era, thousands of Americans were accused of being communists or communist sympathizers and became the subject of aggressive investigations and questioning before government or private-industry panels, committees and agencies. The primary targets of such suspicions were government employees, those in the entertainment industry, educators and union activists. Accusations were often made despite inconclusive or questionable evidence, and the level of threat posed by a person's real or supposed leftist associations or beliefs was often greatly exaggerated. Many people suffered loss of employment and/or destruction of their careers; some even suffered imprisonment. Most of these punishments came about through trial verdicts later overturned, laws that were later declared unconstitutional and dismissals that were later declared illegal.

The most famous examples of McCarthyism include the speeches, investigations, and hearings of Senator McCarthy himself and the FBI. McCarthyism was a widespread social and cultural phenomenon that affected all levels of society and was the source of a great deal of debate and conflict in the United States.

However the historical period that came to be known as the McCarthy era began well before Joseph McCarthy's own involvement in it. Many factors contributed to McCarthyism, some of them extending back to the years of the First Red Scare (1917–20), when Communism emerged as a recognised political force. Thanks in part to its success in organizing labour unions and its early opposition to fascism, the Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA) increased its membership through the 1930s, reaching a peak of about 75,000 members in 1940–41. While the United States was engaged in World War II and allied with the Soviet Union, the issue of anti-communism was largely muted. With the end of World War II, the Cold War began almost immediately, as the Soviet Union installed Communist puppet régimes across Central and Eastern Europe, while the United States backed anti-communist forces in Greece and China.

Events in 1949 and 1950 sharply increased the sense of threat from Communism in the United States. The Soviet Union tested an atomic bomb in 1949, earlier than many analysts had expected. That same year, Mao Zedong's Communist army gained control of mainland China despite heavy American financial support of the opposing Kuomintang. In 1950, the Korean War began, pitting U.S., U.N., and South Korean forces against Communists from North Korea and China.

There were also more subtle forces encouraging the rise of McCarthyism. For example, conservative politicians in the US often referred to progressive reforms such as child labour laws and women's suffrage as "Communist" or "Red plots." This increased in the 1930s in reaction to the New Deal policies of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Many conservatives equated the New Deal with socialism or Communism, and saw its policies as evidence that the government had been heavily influenced by Communist policy-makers in the Roosevelt administration.

Joseph McCarthy's involvement with the ongoing cultural phenomenon that would bear his name began with a speech he made on Lincoln Day, February 9, 1950, to a Republican Women's Club. He produced a piece of paper which he claimed contained a list of known Communists working for the State Department, saying "I have here in my hand a list of 205—a list of names that were made known to the Secretary of State as being members of the Communist Party and who nevertheless are still working and shaping policy in the State Department." This speech resulted in a flood of press attention to McCarthy and established the path that made him one of the most recognised politicians in the US.

The first recorded use of the term McCarthyism was in a political cartoon by Washington Post editorial cartoonist Herbert Block, published on March 29, 1950. The cartoon depicted four leading Republicans trying to push an elephant (the traditional symbol of the Republican Party) to stand on a teetering stack of ten tar buckets, the topmost of which was labeled "McCarthyism". Block later wrote that there was "nothing particularly ingenious about the term, which is simply used to represent a national affliction that can hardly be described in any other way. If anyone has a prior claim on it, he's welcome to the word and to the junior senator from Wisconsin along with it. I will also throw in a set of free dishes and a case of soap.”

Since the time of McCarthy, the word McCarthyism has entered American speech as a general term for a variety of practices: aggressively questioning a person's patriotism, making poorly supported accusations, using accusations of disloyalty to pressure a person to adhere to conformist politics or to discredit an opponent, subverting civil rights in the name of national security, and the use of demagoguery are all often referred to as McCarthyism. McCarthyism can also be synonymous with the term witch-hunt, both referring to mass hysteria and moral panic.

The 1952 Arthur Miller play The Crucible used the Salem witch trials as a metaphor for McCarthyism, suggesting that the process of McCarthyism-style persecution can occur at any time or place. The play focused on the fact that once accused, a person had little chance of exoneration, given the irrational and circular reasoning of both the courts and the public. Miller later wrote: "The more I read into the Salem panic, the more it touched off corresponding images of common experiences in the fifties."