The Starving Scholar

Research Notes and Writing of Miles Bruner

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Jewish Partisans in Nazi Occupied Poland

In his book titled Resistance, the Polish-born Israeli historian and former resistance fighter Israel Gutman argued, “As we have seen, Polish society was not identical to the Polish state. Although Jews were citizens of the Polish state and had lived in Poland for centuries, they were social outsiders.”[1] Due to the prevailing ethno-nationalistic and anti-Semitic policies of the Polish government prior to the war and the nature of Nazi persecution of the Polish and Jewish communities, the Polish underground and competing resistance groups did not consider the fate of the Jews as being a part of their responsibility.[2]

The treatment of Jewish partisans by ethnic Polish resistance fighters on the tactical level went beyond the benign neglect of the underground’s commanders. A Jew fleeing into the forest who had “an encounter with extreme right-wing units could result not only in the rejection of a Jewish individual but also in brutal hostility, which sometimes could end in murder.”[3] Even in units that allowed Jews to fight under their, they were merely tolerated rather than accepted until they were able to prove themselves in battle.[4]

Jewish partisans across Poland were isolated by the surrounding Polish resistance organizations, and left struggling for their own survival in the face of complete annihilation. The mass murder of Jews and the ensuing environment in Poland was first and foremost a product of the Nazi occupation; however, the isolation of the Jews in their own country by their fellow countrymen only compounded their unassailable tragedy and was a contributing factor to the deterioration of Polish-Jewish relations following the war.

Although this paper is focused on the tactical and everyday struggles of Jewish partisans in Poland, the context is inherently informed by the larger debate of Polish and Jewish relations during World War II. The historiography of this subject that emerged immediately following the war was markedly divided. In Polish memoirs and secondary historical accounts the fate of the Jews during the Holocaust was met with either complete silence or was downplayed by merging the victimization of the Jews with the Poles.[5] Stefan Korbonski, who was a leading figure in the Polish underground state, chose to write about the “historical joining together of the Polish and the Jewish underground movements [in 1943].”[6] This glowing assessment ignores the early years of the Nazi occupation in which Israel Gutman declared, “No official link existed between the Polish underground movement and the Jews,” despite the existence of Jewish armed groups.[7]   

A completely different approach to Polish and Jewish relations appeared to exist in the memoirs and testimonies of Polish-Jews following the war. Jewish historiography that emerged following the war according to Joshua D. Zimmerman, “Tended to mirror popular memory about the degree of anti-Semitism in wartime Poland.”[8] Consequently, Jewish popular memory immediately after the war was plagued by unfounded accusations that included the popular theory that Hitler utilized pre-existing Polish anti-Semitism as the basis for building the death camps on Polish soil, a theory that has now been roundly denounced.[9]

The assessment of Poland’s past has only now begun to shift. Michael Steinlauf in Bondage to the Dead wrote about the history of memory and how the Poles perceived their role and the role of the Jews during and after WWII. He concludes that with the occupation of Poland by a communist government and the repression that came with it, anti-Semitic tendencies and attitudes were allowed to fester. After the fall of Communism, anti-Semitism became an openly discussed issue for the first time.[10] Only now are there attempts being made to fully integrate the history of Polish and Jewish history in Poland. While this new perspective acknowledges that the Polish population was not the main perpetrator of the Holocaust, it does acknowledge the darker side of Polish attitudes that existed throughout the war. The major lightening rod for such discussion was Jan Gross’ book Neighbors. By highlighting the massacre of 1600 Jews in Jedwabne by regular Polish villagers, Gross brought to light the latent anti-Semitism that festered among the Polish population, absent the influence of an external force.[11] This has culminated in the work of Joanna Michlic’s, whose analysis on the nature of Polish anti-Semitism will be utilized for this paper, wrote that Polish historiography and their perception of the Jews was developed as a combination of old religious prejudice and modern ethno-nationalistic perspectives. Jews were viewed as the “other” in Poland, and incompatible with the modern Polish state.

            I intend to contribute to the ongoing discussion of how we frame and reflect upon this deeply divisive subject. This has been an area, while tread on before, it hasn’t been used to explain part of the larger picture of this relationship. In the future, I see this as a subject that has significant room for expansion and could potentially include the Polish partisan perspective.

On that note I will be relying upon interviews and memoirs of Jewish partisans fighting in Poland during WWII. While this does raise the issue of reliability, their observations have been vital in understanding exactly what Jews went through during the Holocaust. Feliks Tych noted, “If it were not for Jewish testimonies and memoirs, what would we know about the degree of indifference of most Poles to the fate of the Jews? A few sentences can reveal the dimensions of the drama.”[12] The focus of my analysis will be on the fighting that occurred in the area of the General Gouvernment. A method used by Shmuel Krakowski in his book The War of the Doomed. The reasoning behind this is that by expanding into Eastern Galicia, one has to take into consideration the conflict with the Ukrainians and the problem becomes significantly more complex.[13]

For average Jews, life at this time became far more precarious and violent. Future resistance fighter in the Parczew region, Harold Werner experienced anti-Semitism first hand in the schools in the eastern Polish city of Wlodawa. He witnessed the boycotts of Jewish stores and was himself the victim of severe beatings in school at the hands of his fellow Polish classmates.[14] He heard stories of people trying to emigrate and flee to America or to the British Mandate of Palestine; however, he lamented that he saw many return as these avenues of escape quickly dried up as the war drew nearer.[15]

The experience wasn’t always uniform. Living in the city of Lenin in eastern Poland, Faye Schulman found her town to be relatively tolerant compared to the rest of the country. Despite this feeling she did note that anti-Semitic attitudes were never far from the surface. One day she overheard a man say to her mom, “There will be such a time that I will be able to kill all the Jews.”[16] Even though one would rarely hear any anti-Semitic language, the laws and institutionalized inequalities made many Jews in her town fearful when approaching government buildings.[17]

Against this backdrop, even in towns deemed relatively tolerant, Jews were made to feel like outsiders in their own country. However, when the Nazis invaded the institutionalized anti-Semitic policies became more relaxed. Polish and Jewish historian Emmanuel Ringelblum observed, “Shortly before the war broke out, the Polish community came to its senses. Now it was understood that anti-Semitism in Poland was a weapon in Hitler’s hand.”[18] Even Jews were overcome by a sense of patriotic duty for their homeland. Norman Salsitz, who considered himself a strong Polish patriot, said that despite having felt like an outsider, he still went to enlist in the Polish Army after the invasion.[19]

Unfortunately, the universal patriotic euphoria did not last long. Ringelblum lamented that just as Warsaw began to fall, “the hydra of anti-Semitism began raising its head again.”[20] As a member of the Civilian Air Defense, he witnessed Jews not being allowed into air raid shelter in the purely Polish blocks of apartments.[21] From this point on the Jews in Poland became isolated from their fellow countrymen. As Michlic noted, the Poles saw their fate as being distinct and the fate of the Jews outside of their responsibility.[22]

While anti-Semitism was rampant in Poland prior to the Nazi occupation, one can not equate the Polish treatment of the Jews to that of the Nazis. Michael Steinlauf argued that the Nazi occupation had a deleterious effect on Polish civil relations.[23] The Poles as a subjugated class were forced to adapt to the rules of corruption, extortion, blackmail and informing so prevalent throughout the Nazi state. It became common for undercover collaborators to spy on peasants to make sure they were turning in Jews.[24]

In many cases it is difficult to assess where anti-Semitism begins and the fear for one’s life really ends. Harold Werner was the victim of such a case. Werner spent the early months of the occupation hiding from the Hola ghetto by working for a friendly farmer he had known prior to the war named Stephan. During his time working on the farm, Werner noted a shift in Stephan’s attitude toward him. In the early stages of Germany’s invasion of Russia, Werner heard Stephan proclaim that he was certain the Russians would win the war. As the Nazis pushed deeper into Russian territory, Stephan’s tone began to shift toward praising the fighting tenacity of the Germans and that they would soon take Moscow. It was this point Werner began to feel that he had “lost the superficial sense of security.”[25] Werner was eventually required to leave due to the threat he posed to Stephan’s family. When Werner returned to the farm for some supplies, his friend warned him that the next he returned that he would kill him.[26] This account between Werner and Stephan, who had never shown any explicit signs of anti-Semitism, was a clear indication of how far relations had deteriorated in Poland. Under such conditions it cannot be said that Polish anti-Semitism was uniquely extreme or equal to Nazi anti-Semitism.[27]

While fleeing into the forests became a welcomed source of freedom compared to the repressed and hopeless lifestyle of the ghettos, the forests did not ensure one’s survival. Mirroring their lives in the cities, the Jews quickly became isolated in the forests and were forced to be on the constant lookout for German patrols, anti-Semitic partisan units, and even Polish villagers. While foraging food, Harold Werner became separated from his group. During their separation his group was caught in a raid that had been organized by peasants of the Hola village. Through other eyewitnesses he soon came to realize that there hadn’t been any Germans accompanying them.[28] Another factor that soon became a serious area of concern was the presence of Russian partisan units formed by escaping Russian POWs. These fighters, while not anti-Semitic, were known for raping the women fleeing with the men into the forests.[29]

The Polish underground and partisan units hardly presented a united front. They were an amalgam of competing political parties vying for influence in the occupied territory. By far the largest of the underground organizations was the Armia Krajowa (Home Army), which was the armed wing of the Polish government-in-exile based in London. To the far right of the AK was the NSZ (National Armed Forces), known for its fierce anti-Semitic violence. The main competitor to the AK was the leftist Armia Ludowa (People’s Army) which received significant support from the Soviet Union. Navigating between these webs of competing underground organizations, the potentially hostile civilian population and the Nazi forces proved to be a complicated and often impossible challenge for many Jews fleeing into the forests.

            Running into the units associated with AK usually meant a death sentence for those fleeing Jews. Isadore Farbstein was one such individual. In an encounter with partisans with the AK, Farbstein attempted to hide his Jewish identity, but under intense scrutiny was found to be a Jew. Their immediate response was to prepare him for execution. Fortunately, Farbstein was able to take advantage of their brief lapse of attention and escaped into the forest.[30]

            Joseph Greenblatt, a member of the Jewish Military Organization, felt it was safer to be caught by the Germans rather than the other Polish partisans. He reasoned that the Poles were more keen to his Jewish traits and accent and more likely to find him out and execute him.[31]

            The AK was not always a death sentence for Jews who came into contact with their units. It was possible for Jews to serve in the AK in areas that were commanded by members of the PPS party.[32] Yet, this was a rare occurrence. Like the rest of the country, the AK viewed the fate of the Jews as being outside their purview of responsibility.[33] Abraham Melezin was able to hide his identity while serving in the AK. During his tenure with the underground one of his comrades argued that their true goal was to combat Judeo-Communism and then the Nazis.[34]

            One of the main issues facing the Jews was the reality of choosing between their loyalty to Poland or to their Jewish family and friends being exterminated by the Nazis. For Pinkas Wolf Vazek, the only alternative was to join a devoted Jewish unit. By being a member of a solely Jewish unit, they would be above the internal conflicts that plagued the AK, AL and NSZ. He asserted that he would have rather died fighting the Germans than other Poles.[35]

            In the Armia Ludowa and other Russian partisan units the Jews were able to operate more openly, but they were still plagued by periodic cases of isolation and anti-Semitic discord. This was the reality that Charles Gelman faced. While attending the funeral for a fallen comrade and fellow Jew, he observed the Political Officer giving a scathing eulogy that accused the fallen partisan of dying of fright and of being a coward. He tempered this case by saying that this was clearly an isolated incident and that the officer was the exception to the rule.[36] Yet he could not deny the isolation he was made to feel by other partisans. He was constantly fielded questions by other partisans who asked why the Jews had gone so willingly without a fight.[37]

The liberation from Nazi occupation came at a heavy toll for everyone involved. For many Jewish partisans their fight did not end with the war. Many Jews who had served in AL units or independent Jewish units became law enforcement agents for the new government. Unfortunately, this only served to enrage the local populations against the Jews. Now Jews were seen as an occupying force tied to the Communist regime. Jakob Binstock attempted to resume his normal life; however, after the Kielce pogrom in which members of the AK killed 48 Jews he decided to leave along with thousands of other Jews.[38] Henry Barbanel, who was eventually made a police officer in Lublin, lamented, “I finally came to the conclusion if we want to live we better get out of here.”[39] To compound the struggle against anti-Semitism after the war, Jewish partisans returning home were now left to rebuild their lives in what they considered a massive cemetery. Faye Shulman recognized the enormity of the tragedy that just occurred when she realized that of the 45,000 Jews that once lived in Pinsk, she was unable to find 10.[40] 

At every stage of their experiences during the war, Jews were left struggling for their very survival while being isolated and marginalized by their fellow citizens. While the historiography has shifted to avoid unfounded anti-Polish rhetoric, the actions of the Polish underground must be singled out as a contributing factor to the decay of Polish-Jewish relations following the war. Israel Gutman and Shmuel Krakowski concluded, “The over-all balance between the acts of crime and acts of help, as described in the available sources, is disproportionately negative… To a significant extent, this negative balance is to be accounted for  by the hostility towards the Jews on the part of large segments of the Polish underground.”[41]



[1] Israel Gutman, “Resistance,” (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1994), 173.

[2] Feliks Tych, “Jewish and Polish Perceptions of the Shoah as Reflected in Wartime Diaries and Memoirs,” in Contested Memories, by Joshua Zimmerman (Rutgers: Rutgers State University Press, 2003), 139.

[3] Joanna Michlic, Poland’s Threatening Other: The Image of the Jew from 1880 to the Present (New York: University of Nebraska Press, 2006), 178.

[4] Charles Gelman, “Do Not Go Gentle: A Memoir of Jewish Resistance in Poland 1941-1945,” (New York: Archon, 1989), 226.

[5] Tych, 137.

[6] Stefan Korbonski, “The Polish Underground States: A Guide to the Underground, 1939-1945,” trans. Marta Erdman (New York: Columbia University Press, 1978), 125.

[7] Israel Gutman, “Historiography on Polish-Jewish Relations,” in Jews in Poland, ed. Chimen Abramsky, Maciej Jachimczyk and Antony Polonsky, (New York City, NY: Basil Blackwell Ltd., 1986), 184.

[8] Joshua Zimmerman, “Changing Perceptions in the Historiography of Polish-Jewish Relations during the Second World War,” in Contested Memories, by Joshua Zimmerman (Rutgers: Rutgers State University Press, 2003), 3.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Michael Steinlauf, “Bondage to the Dead,” (Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Press, 1997), 123.

[11] Jan T. Gross, “Neighbors,” (Princeton: Princeton University Press: 2001), 170.

[12] Tych, 137.

[13] Shmeul Krakowski, “War of the Doomed,” (New York City, Holmes & Meier Publishers, Inc, 1984), xi.

[14] Harold Werner, “Fighting Back,” (New York, Columbia University Press, 1989), 7.

[15] Ibid., 8.

[16] Faye Schulmann, interview by Lisa Newman, USC Shoah Foundation Institute, June 21, 1998.

[17] Faye Schulmann, “A Partisan’s Memoir: Woman of the Holocaust,” (New York, Second Story Press, 1995), 25.

[18] Ringelblum, 24.

[19] Norman Salsitz, interview by Rhoda Daum-Kenner, USC Shoah Foundation Institute, June 9, 1995.

[20] Ringelblum, 35.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Michlic, 132.

[23] Steinlauf, 25.

[24] Frank Blaichmann, “Rather Die Fighting,” (New York: Arcade Publishing, 2009), 55.

[25] Werner, 62.

[26] Ibid., 77.

[27] Michlic, 13.

[28] Werner, 77.

[29] Henry Barbanel, interview by Merle Goldberg, USC Shoah Foundation Institute, May 16, 1995.

[30] Isadore Farbstein, interview by Phyllis Dreazen, USC Shoah Foundation Institute, March 17, 1996.

[31] Joseph Greenblatt, interview by Miryam Rabner, USC Shoah Foundation Institute, August 1, 1996

[32] Michlic, 153.

[33] Ibid., 156.

[34] Abraham Melezin, interviewed by (need to return), USC Shoah Foundation Institute, date.

[35] Pinkas Wolf Vazek, interviewed by (need to return), USC Shoah Foundation Institute, Sept. 8, 1996.

[36] Gelman, 226.

[37] Ibid., 149.

[38] Jakob Binstock, interviewed by Barbara Linz, USC Shoah Foundation Institute, October 19, 1995

[39] Barbanel.

[40] Shulman.

[41] Israel Gutman and Shmuel Krakowski, Unequal Victims: Poles and Jews during the Second World War (New York: Holocaust Publications, 1986), 246.

Filed under Judaism partisans poland history anti-Semitism nazism nationalism world war II

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Diocletian: Hero or Villain?

By the end of the third century it appeared as though the Roman Empire was on the verge of a political and economic collapse. Nearly a century of incessant civil wars, Persian and barbarian incursions and economic malaise had left the Pax Romana a mere memory. To compound the growing list of crises was the revolving door of emperors that were subject to the whims of the military. The five decades leading up to 284 CE saw at least twenty individuals claim the title of emperor (Chambers, 31). Taking advantage of the military and political anarchy, barbarian invaders punched through the thin line of frontier defenses built by Emperor Hadrian over a century earlier (Williams, 92). Every aspect of the imperial government was in dire need of reform or the Empire would limp into the fourth century on life support. 

These were the conditions of the state when Diocletian, a career soldier from Dalmatia, ascended to the purple in 284 CE. Like his predecessors Diocletian claimed the imperial throne through force and the support of the military. Emperors in this period were caught in the nearly impossible task of fending off foreign invaders and consolidating their power.  Diocletian broke this turbulent and anarchic cycle and reigned for twenty years, the longest imperial tenure since Antoninus Pius. In the process Diocletian instituted a series of political, social, and economic reforms that brought back seriously needed stability to the empire. Most importantly, his policies fundamentally altered the mechanisms of state to the point they were unlike anything before them. Eighteenth century historian Edward Gibbon commented, “Like Augustus, Diocletian may be considered as the founder of a new Empire (Gibbon, 359).” 

Diocletian’s reign as emperor was not without its controversies. He created economic reforms that were highly unpopular and were eventually ignored. The “Great Persecution” of Christians was launched under his authority. Overall, under his oversight the government became markedly despotic, militarized and highly centralized.

On the surface Diocletian appears to be the architect of a new system that enabled the Roman Empire, East and West, to stand united for over another 150 years. Yet, this momentary stabilization placed severe burdens on the empire’s military, bureaucracy and treasury, leading some to argue Diocletian was far from the savior he appears to be. Questions still remain over the nature of the system that was built by Diocletian. Were his policies revolutionary or were they contemporary attempts to reestablish older laws? Did Diocletian’s policies save the Empire or lead it down a path of inevitable collapse? Historians have attempted to answer these questions beginning almost immediately after he retired in 305 CE. In over 1700 years these answers have changed dramatically, and the questions are still far from being solved.

This paper will analyze how historians have approached the revolutionary nature and success of Diocletian’s reforms over the past 1700 years. This analysis will take place in the context of Diocletian’s division of power and the transformation of the imperial court. From this analysis a pattern begins to emerge. 

The Sources

 

Earliest accounts of Diocletian’s administration were written mainly by Christians who opposed his intolerant and conservative reforms. Lactantius, a Christian historian who lived during Diocletian’s administration, was the strongest critic. He made this abundantly clear in his book On the Manner in which the Persecutors Died. He not only derided his religious policies but claimed his time as emperor “overturned the Roman empire” and made life worse for everyone in the empire (Lactantius, Chapter 7). While his blatant hostility casts an err of doubt over the accuracy of his facts, some details about the political structure under Diocletian can be determined. 

As time progressed and Christianity’s influence began to wane in Europe during the Enlightenment, Diocletian’s image was slightly altered. The most notable historian of this era was Edward Gibbon who, in the late eighteenth century, wrote a series of highly influential volumes entitled The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. He looked upon Diocletian as having “a vigorous mind,” a profound sense of frankness and dexterity in the political environment (Gibbon, 359). This description differs sharply from that of Lactantius’ timid and easily manipulated description of Diocletian’s character (Lactantius, Chapter 7). Gibbon’s analysis of Diocletian’s success was mixed, noting that the success of the reforms could not be sustained without “the firm and dexterous hand of its founder (Gibbon, 400).” Gibbon avoids definitively declaring whether Diocletian’s policies were successful or not. 

In the past 100 years historians have focused less on Diocletian’s character and more on the nature of his reforms. A consensus can be gleaned from modern historiography regarding Diocletian. On the whole his actions are no longer characterized as being revolutionary, instead his policies are viewed as substantively conservative only implemented in a dramatically different manner. Diocletian merely glossed over a failing structure and never addressed the foundational problems of the political system. As a result Diocletian, at most temporarily stabilized the empire, but in the end he may have been a major contributor to its eventual demise. 

 

Division of Power

Pre-Tetrarchy

Diocletian was given the title of emperor after the suspicious death of emperor Numerian in 284 CE. After his army defeated Carinus near Belgrade in 285, the career soldier who rose from the lowest ranks of society in the province of Illyria was now the sole emperor of the Roman empire. As sole emperor of the empire, Diocletian was faced with threats from all sides: an unstable relationship with the growing Sassanid Empire in the East, barbarian incursions across the Danube, and fending off would usurpers from the imperial throne (Williams, 43).

The Roman Emperor in the late third century was at the whim of the strongest army. To send a general to any of these hotspots with a sizable army would leave Diocletian’s position vulnerable to the next general who had any ambitions for the purple. Diocletian’s response was a conglomeration of traditional political legitimacy (Williams, 45). He adopted Maximian, his long time colleague and army general, in 285 CE as his son. Diocletian held onto the title of Augustus while Maximian took the title of Caesar, acknowledging his subordinate role in the imperial college. Maximian now had the broad powers and legitimate authority needed to handle the decaying situation in the west.

The opinion surrounding the appointment of Maximian as a fellow emperor has changed significantly over the years. As is to be expected, Lactantius wrote a scathing attack of Diocletian’s decision to appoint Maximian as a co-emperor.

 

Add to all this the incontinency of that pestilent wretch, not only in debauching males, which is hateful and abominable, but also in the violation of the daughters of the principal men of the state; for wherever he journeyed, virgins were suddenly torn from the presence of their parents. In such enormities he placed his supreme delight, and to indulge to the utmost his lust and flagitious desires was in his judgment the felicity of his reign (Lactantius, Chapter 8). 

 

This kind of language is not out of the ordinary for classical historians, who made assumptions on the character of political figures. Lactantius may have had a reason to undermine Maximian’s leadership. Lactantius was an advisor in Constantine’s court after he took control of the empire. Constantine had been embroiled in a bitter war over control of the Western half of the Empire with Maximian’s son and successor Maxentius. Lactantius’ perspective could be seen as Constantinian and pro-Christian propaganda.

Writing almost 1400 years later, Edward Gibbon slightly modified Lactantius’ analysis of Maximian’s appointment. He left Lactantius’ attack on Maximian’s character almost unchallenged, instead focusing on the political expediency of the appointment. Gibbon asserts that Diocletian enjoyed the comparison to his more turbulent spirited comrade, cementing his politically superior position (Gibbon, 361). Gibbon’s position rested upon an admiration of harmonious order, caring little for democratic institutions (Chambers, 31). While Diocletian’s new absolutist system was not ideal to Gibbon, it was a marked improvement over the political turmoil that had defined the third century.

Author Stephen Williams, writing in 1985, presents a more nuanced argument regarding the political arrangement between Maximian and Diocletian in his book Diocletian and the Roman Recovery. He concurred that Maximian may have been cruel at times and needed to be handled carefully. However, at the same time Maximian was a loyal friend who “recognised Diocletian’s political wisdom and his own relative ignorance of the mysteries of statecraft (Williams, 45).” Williams asserts that Maximian may not have been any more brutal than any other leader of his era, instead he lacked the political acumen of his fellow emperor. 

In the end, the decision to elevate promote Maximian brought some stability and allowed Diocletian to further his imperial reforms. The two emperors went a step further to legitimize their authority. Both emperors went back to Rome’s past and began to associate themselves with traditional Roman deities. Diocletian adopted the title of Jove, or Jupiter’s representative on earth and Maximian, in keeping with the line of succession, took on the name Hercules. 

 

The Tetrarchy

While Maximian was able to succeed in bringing order the Rhine border and return a sense of stability to the region, crisis areas still remained. The most significant and troubling situation was the rebellion that was taking place in Britain under the former Roman General Carausius. For several years beginning in 286 CE, Carausius was able to operate almost independently from the two emperors and came close to undoing the unity they strove so hard to build. To compound the crisis, problems persisted with Persia and new campaigns were needed on the Danube and in the Northeastern provinces. 

Using past experience, Diocletian divided power yet again. What developed was a power arrangement known as the Tetrarchy, or the rule of four. Author Steven Williams has the most succinct description of this new agreement:

The two Augusti each adopt a Caesar, or junior Emperor, into their family. Thus there is an imperial presence at every corner of the Empire, each bound by ties of mutual support; the two Caesars serving as executors rather than originators of policy. After a period of about ten years the two Augusti retire, yielding their joint thrones to the two Caesars, who in turn adopt junior colleagues (Williams, 63).   


Diocletian elevated Maximian to Augustus and adopted Galerius as his Caesar and Maximian adopted Constantius as his subordinate Caesar. Diocletian and Maximian fulfilled their agreement and retired in 305 CE, relinquishing power to their Caesars.

Lactantius looked upon the distribution of power between the four emperors as having quartered the empire, undoing any semblance of unity, ignoring the civil wars that had come just years prior (Lactantius, Chapter 7). Modern historiography has looked upon the tetrarchy far differently than Lactantius did. Gibbon noted that the government was less rapid in operation, but substantially more secure (Gibbon, 361). Every member of the tetrarchy, in theory and for the most part in practice, operated in unison with one another. Stephen Williams even challenges the idea that the tetrarchy made the government less rapid. He argued that emperors became mobile and were able respond to crises more quickly. Now, “Rome was where the Emperor was (Williams, 67).” 

The reform policies in regard to the tetrarchy dramatically altered the political map of the empire. However, were these policies completely revolutionary or based upon accepted Roman political traditions? Lactantius obviously saw a clean break from the past. Modern scholars tend look at the tetrarchy from a fundamentally different perspective. Histornian C.E. Van Sickle in 1932 challenged the then widely accepted view that Diocletian had founded a new empire. He argued that Diocletian’s practice of co-regency was practice that dates back to the reign of Augustus when he designated his subordinate Caesar through adoption. Marcus Aurelius in the mid-second century had also adopted the practice of equal rule when he and Lucius Veres reigned together. Sickle goes as far to say that Diocletian was influenced by the same Stoic philosophy that had guided Marcus Aurelius (Sickle, 56-57). The stoic envisioned the imperial office as a magistracy of the state and not subject to hereditary succession. The tetrarchy was built in line with this philosophy (Sickle, 55). Theoretically, the tetrarchic arrangement was a a clear line of succession that were not dependent on hereditary succession. Diocletian’s original vision of the tetrarchy and how it operated soon disappeared after he abdicated in 305 CE. Sickle’s analysis of Diocletian’s philosophical influences is more pronounced when reflecting on the Diocletian’s transformation of the imperial court. 

 

Diocletian’s Imperial Court

In the third century the office of emperor had become a creature of the military. Whoever had the loyalty of a sizable army, could conceivably make an attempt to seize the imperial throne for himself. It was clear how the people perceived the emperor was in need of serious reform. In addition to the creation of the Tetrarchy, Diocletian went to get lengths to alter the image of the emperor.

Prior to his arrival in office, the emperor had been seen as a the “first magistrate of the Roman citizens, whose authority was based on the conception of duty and on consecration by the great Divine Power ruling the universe (Rostovtzeff, 507).” Russian Classical historian Michael Rostovtzeff argued that Diocletian still held to these beliefs, but attempted to simplify the complex nature of the imperial throne. He first accomplished this by associating himself with the traditional Roman god Jupiter, a deity that was accessible and understandable to everyone throughout the empire. 

The next logical step in his plan was to make the emperor independent of possible outside influences, namely the Senate, and concentrate power into his hands. He almost immediately acted in this vein when he refused to travel to Rome to have his powers ratified by the Senate. He went farther to undermine the Senate by moving the political capital from Rome for the first time in the empire’s history to Nicomedia in the East (Williams, 41). While the Senate had ceased to be a body of any serious power since Augustus, Diocletian’s actions sent a clear message that he was the only source of authority in the empire. The new central control that would come to define Diocletian’s time as emperor was seen in the brutal suppression and stationing of military forces in Alexandria after the city’s revolt (Williams, 82).

This next step in Diocletian’s strategy was centered around the religious nature of the emperor. Rostovtzeff went on to say that Diocletian now emphasized “the supernatural and sacred character of his power, which was expressed in the identification of the emperor with God and in the Oriental ceremonial introduced at the court (Rostovtzeff, 507).” The emperor was now seen as the manifestation of God’s presence on earth. To show their loyalty, the citizens in the empire were mandated to conduct sacrifices and pray for the emperor to show their loyalty and devotion. This would become the battleground between the emperor and the Christians.  To the Christians, Christ was their king and they were unable to worship any other deity. For the Christians not to worship the emperor became an act of rebellion against the state.

Lactantius ignored the political motivations behind the edicts against the Christians. Lactantius asserted that Diocletian moved against the Christians due to the advice of one of his soothsayers. When attempting to determine the course of future events the soothsayer warned Diocletian, “There are profane persons here, who obstruct the rites (Lactantius, Chapter 10).” This caused the overzealous Diocletian to act against the Christians with a passion, unleashing the “Great Persecution” in 303 CE. Again this is written from a perspective who’s objective is to discredit the pro-pagan policies of earlier regimes. 

Lactantius goes a step further to undermine Diocletian’s character, by claiming that he was of a timid spirit easily manipulated by his subordinate Caesar Galerius (Lactantius, Chapter 11). He goes even as far to assert that Galerius pushed Diocletian to retire. It is not confirmed whether this account is true given a lack of material on their relation. However, Stephen Williams argues that his could be an invention because it ignores the agreements already made between Maximian and Diocletian to abdicate together (Williams, 190).

Gibbon challenged Lactantius’ diatribe against the motivation of Diocletian, as being solely motivated by religion. Gibbon asserted that Diocletian’s motivation may not have been based on vainglory or religion, rather there was a political purpose. The goal, as Gibbon saw it, was “to improve the position of the emperor to avoid the debasement of his image by the masses.” The religious ostentation was as much a political move aimed at stability as the establishment of the tetrarchy (Gibbon, 389). To Gibbon, Diocletian’s policy was a success only as long as he was in control of it. 

Gibbon’s description of Diocletian’s model of imperial power has been accepted into the twentieth century with few modifications. Mortimer Chambers asserted that the system created under Diocletian would become the foundation of the Byzantine Empire that would rise as a continuation of the Eastern Roman Empire. He claimed the monarchy installed by Diocletian did not end in the East until 1453 (Chambers, 31). Even though Chambers is convinced that Diocletian created a foundation for a new empire, he still clings to the idea that Diocletian’s policy had its roots in the stoic philosophy and precepts of Marcus Aurelius (Chambers, 32). Diocletian’s new despotic view of government seems almost counter to the moderation taught by the stoics. Sickle has an answer to this seeming contradiction:


The Stoic theory of government was very elastic, concerning itself far less with forms of government than with the spirit and ideals of the ruler. It did not imply any concrete limitation upon the powers of the monarch, and emperors who were guided by it were as nearly absolute in power as those who repudiated it (Sickle, 56).

The nature of stoicism did not prevent rulers from acting an absolutist manner. Sickle also noted that Diocletian may not have been the emperor who introduced the Persian style imperial court, rather is was Emperor Aurelian (Sickle, 56).

More historians are beginning to favor the idea that Diocletian was more conservative than revolutionary. This idea is echoed by Stephen Williams when he stated, “Diocletian did not exact a complete religious revolution, rather it was a shift towards veneration of Jupiter and the Olympian gods (Williams, 161).” Instead of pressing for a new direction that favored Orientalism, Diocletian wanted to return to Rome’s traditional roots. 

However, Michael Rostovtzeff described Diocletian’s reign as an utter disaster that eventually derailed the entire Empire. Rostovtzeff argued that Diocletian’s policies were “typical of an age devoid of all creative power and helplessly submitting to current practice, which owed its origins to a period of revolutionary anarchy (Rostovtzeff, 522).” His assessment of Diocletian’s efforts paints a grim picture of his efforts. Rostovtzeff furthered, “In the mind of Diocletian the state meant compulsion, and organization meant organized violence (Rostovtzeff, 522).” Diocletian’s policies created a state that enslaved the lower classes of society. The new society was characterized by “oppressive and unjust taxation based on the enslavement alike of the tillers of the soil and the city artisans (Rostovtzeff, 522).” The economy had become an immobile behemoth incapable of responding to famine or any crisis that could come its way. For Rostovtzeff, the new structure emplaced by Diocletian was merely a rehash of the emergency policies of the third century that would inevitably lead the government to collapse.

Conclusion

The way in which Diocletian’s time as emperor has been analyzed has shifted dramatically over the past 1700 years. The earliest chroniclers viewed his time as emperor through a predominantly Christian standpoint, with a few Pagan authors writing only very brief accounts. This changed in the aftermath of the Enlightenment with Edward Gibbon providing the most influential work of this era. In the early nineteenth century classical historians began to analyze Diocletian’s emperorship in the context of modern political thought. 

The revolutionary nature of Diocletian’s reign has been a difficult question to answer because of what developed after he left. The empire was fundamentally different after he abdicated. Gibbon saw a revolutionary regime that created a new empire just as Augustus had done before him. Modern historians tend to be less generous when it comes to his policies. Rostovtzeff went as far to say that his policies were wholly unoriginal and based on the military and political anarchy that preceded him. The originality of Diocletian’s reigned was best summed up by Stephen Williams: “Diocletian displayed his rare talent for innovation and systematizing, his ability to take existing practices and older traditions and turn them into something essentially new (Williams, 118).” Substantively they were nothing new, but Diocletian was able to implement these policies in a new manner.

The success of Diocletian’s policies have been even harder to track. Attributing a causal relationship between his policies and the ultimate collapse of the Western Roman Empire almost two centuries later can be difficult, given the failed policies of the emperors that succeeded him. Lactantius saw Diocletian as the enemy of Christianity whose policies would eventually be undone by the glorious reign of Constantine. Although most of those reforms were religious in nature. Modern historians tend to be more divided on the issue of Diocletian’s administration. Williams, as he does through most of his book, qualifies the question by stating that his reforms succeeded in the East but failed in the West. This being due to the West being more agrarian and lacking the political cohesion of the East (Williams, 215). 

The reign of Diocletian shows us that, no matter how far back an event takes place new interpretations surrounding that incident will constantly change. As society changes how it views the world, and as new theories begin to emerge how we view a moment will never be set in stone. Over 1700 years after Diocletian abdicated historians are still trying to solve the long term effects of Diocletian’s reign. The one thing that is for sure, the Roman Empire that emerged from the late third century was a dramatically different state than the Roman Empire of the second century. Whether this is due to Diocletian’s efforts or the political anarchy that immediately preceded him will always be up for debate. 

 

References

Chambers, Mortimer. “The Crisis of the Third Century” in Transformation of the Roman World, edited by Lynn White Jr. (Los Angeles: University of California Press). 30-58.

 

Gibbon, Edward. The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: Volumes 1 and 2. edited by David Womersley. (London: Allen Lane The Penguin Press, 1786 and 1781). 1114.

 

Lactantius. “Of the Manner in which the Persecutors Died,” trans. William Fletcher in The Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume VII, edited by Alexander Roberts, and James Donaldson, (Grand Rapids, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1895). Accessed December 1, 2010, 

http://www.ccel.org/ccel/ schaff/anf07.iii.v.html.

 

Rostovtzeff, Michael. The Social and Economic History of the Roman Empire. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1957). 541. 

 

Sickle, C.E. van, “Conservative and Philosophical Influence in the Reign of Diocletian.” Classical Philology 271 (1932): 51-58.

 

Williams, Stephen. Diocletian and the Roman Recovery, (New York: Methuen, Inc., 1985). 264.

Filed under Roman Empire Diocletian Rome History Edward Gibbon Historiography Historical analysis

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Leaves of Grass: Review and Analysis

Tim Blake Nelson’s Leaves of Grass is probably one of the most overlooked films to be released in the past year. Edward Norton brilliantly navigates his way through two fundamentally different characters (Bill and Brady Kincaid), who just happen to be identical twins. While the movie is stylistically similar to the Coen brothers, Tim Blake Nelson (as both director and screenwriter) adds subtle nuances that make the film something unique.

The film’s plot is centered around the different paths both brothers took in their lives. Bill is an internationally renowned professor of classical philosophy who escaped a childhood in the backwoods of Oklahoma. Brady on the other hand stayed back home and became a regionally successful grower and purveyor of marijuana who is aided by his older cellmate from prison (Tim Blake Nelson). The focal point of the story is really on Bill as he returns to home and is forced to help his brother clear up debts he has with his suppliers.

The film’s underlying theme is made clear in the first ten minutes of the story. To escape his childhood Bill lost himself in the order Plato, Aristotle and other classical philosophers. He found comfort in the idea that through Knowledge and rational thought man could find reason and order in the world. His comfort zone is disrupted on his return home as he is forced to deal with his brother’s creditors. Bill is thrown into a situation that seems to defy any rational thought.

Nelson appears to saying that knowledge and rational thought can only carry mankind so far. There are realities that man can only conceptualize but not fully understand. For some, like Bill Kincaid, this is a terrifying notion because they lose the control they have over their lives. However, for others who can embrace man’s limitation they find themselves free of concern and are able to live contently, no matter their situation. 

Some reviewers have derided the film for its dramatic mood swing midway through the film. It goes from being about a person reconnecting with is past to being a relatively violent film over drug money. While I can’t speak for Tim Blake Nelson’s intentions, it appears that the chaotic mood swings served the film’s overall theme. Just like in life there is no set order. Nelson subverts the tendency for films to have predictable characters and storylines in accordance to their accepted genres. I think what most people view as a negative is one of the film’s strong points and sets it apart from other films.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed the film. I am always pleased to find a film that is so intelligently written and well acted. The philosophical and witty banter between the characters is by far the film’s strongest asset. I hope more people find this film and share it with others, it deserves the attention. 

Filed under Edward Norton Tim Blake Nelson Leaves of Grass philosophy plato aristotle coen brothers

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Power Relations of the First Jewish-Roman War

Book five of the War of the Jews begins midway through the Jewish-Roman War as General Titus was on the march towards Jerusalem, relieving his father General Vespasian, who was now emperor in Rome (Josephus, War of the Jews, 5.2.1). Josephus’ War of the Jews paints a convoluted picture of the Roman suppression of the Jewish factions in the city. As Titus marched Jerusalem, the city was embroiled in a bitter internal conflict, bordering on civil war, in which three competing factions struggled for power. Here is where Josephus makes his point clear, the war was not necessarily a war between the Jews and the Romans. Instead the war was between the nationalistic factions inside the city of Jerusalem, who revolted against Roman authority, and as result the moderate Jewish population in the city was caught in the middle of the conflict.

There was no clearly defined source of the power in the war; “instead there [was] a plurality of resistance (Foucault, Methods, 315).”  This paper will analyze how Josephus, in his fifth book of the War of the Jews, depicted the power relationships between the zealots, the Roman army and the moderate Jews in the city and the roles they played during the war. 

Josephus placed most of the blame for the beginning and continuation of the war on the shoulders of the three warring factions inside Jerusalem. The zealots as they were collectively known, were led by Simon, Eleazor and John, with each person controlling different portions of the city (Josephus, 5.1.4). The veracity of the conflict between the factions led Josephus to claim that, “The city was engaged in a war on all sides (Josephus, 5.1.5).” The nationalistic uprising against the Roman authorities did not have one unified leadership. As Michel Foucault would note, there was no “primary existence of a central point” of power (Foucault, 313).  

The zealot’s crimes were not isolated to political infighting, they spread their conflict to the religious temples and the general population. The sacred materials in the temples were employed “in the construction of [John’s] engines of war.”

Josephus estimated that their crimes against the people reached such a magnitude that it was “the beginning of the city’s destruction (Josephus, 5.1.5),” an atrocity he did not ascribe to the Romans. Even the moderate wealthy Jews in the city had no protection from the zealot’s onslaughts, in many ways their lot was worse. Their lives were at risk if whether they “staid in the city, or attempted to get out of it (Josephus, 5.10.2).” By staying in the city they risked being robbed or murdered, and leaving meant  death at the hand of the Roman army. 

The general population caught in crossfire of the conflict had minute forms of resistance. In attempts to secure their wealth and flea the famine and the atrocities inside the city, some of the Jews snuck out the gold relics the zealots were stealing (Josephus, 5.13.4). However, the practice was met with fierce opposition as the Romans would slice open the stomachs of the fleeing Jews (Josephus, 5.13.5). Josephus described the regular Jewish population in sympathetic terms. This placed the blame of the war on the sacrilegious factions in charge of the city and not on the moderate Jews. 

In other ways the population seemed helpless over their situation. The ongoing siege and war produced a famine that severely devastated the city. The famine reached such an extent that, “The rooms were full of women and children that were dying by famine, and the lanes of the city were full of the dead bodies of the aged (Josephus, 5.12.3).” Josephus placed the blame of the famine at the hands of the zealot factions. Josephus claimed that the way to save the people from the famine was to submit to Roman rule, but the zealots prevented this. Again, the general population of Jews were portrayed as victims in the ongoing struggle.

In a similar fashion to the Jewish population, Titus and the Roman army are depicted in a positive manner. Instead of arriving as conquerors of a new territory, they appeared as liberators of the population. Josephus pointed out that Titus prepared to siege the city in an “earnest desire of rescuing what was still left out of these miseries (Josephus, 5.12.4).” Only on a few occasions did the Roman army appear to act in a reckless fashion. The most notable case was the controversy over slicing open fleeing Jews to retrieve the gold. Josephus was quick to absolve the Roman leadership of any wrong doing. Titus immediately responded to the wicked practice by threatening “that he would put such men to death” who committed the atrocities (Josephus, 5.13.5).

As a reliable source on the Jewish-Roman War, Josephus proves to be a problematic figure, whose work must be read with an err skepticism. This is due in large part to his relationship with the Roman leadership in the first century. Josephus represents two competing worlds. He was born to Jewish parents yet he also had a close working relationship with the Flavian court in Rome (Calvin College). Josephus needed to strike a careful balance in describing the power relations between the various groups, due to his political, religious and ethnic ties.  By laying the blame of the war primarily at the feet of the minority factions in the region, Josephus removed any guilt the Jewish and Romans may have had in executing the war. In an appeal to his Jewish roots he commended the actions of the Jewish populace during the bloody conflict. To placate his employers and political allies in Rome, he cheered the efforts of the Roman Army, portraying them as purifiers of an unholy and sacrilegious movement. The war was not a conventional or symmetrical war where there are two clearly delineated sides. Instead it was a war that involved all aspects of society and included a complicated web of power relationships between the Romans, the Jewish populace and the minority factions. Josephus walks a fine line and ultimately the Jewish-Roman War between 66 CE and 70 CE is not seen as an example of Roman conquest, but rather the rescuing of a city threatened by chaos from within. 

Read More:

Calvin College: Christian Classics Ethereal Library. “Biography of Flavius Josephus.”   Accessed September 30, 2010. <http:// www.ccel.org/j/josephus/>

Foucault, Michel. “Methods.” In Cultural Theory and Popular Culture: A Reader,    edited and introduced by John Story, 313-320. 4th ed.  Pearson Education Limited,    2009.

Josephus, Flavius. War of the Jews. Translated by William Whiston. Hartfod, Connecticut: SS Scranton Co., 1916.

Filed under Historical Analysis History Josephus Judaism Michel Foucault Roman Empire Titus power rome zealots Jerusalem

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(500) Days of Summer: Love…?

What is Love? When do we know we are in Love? How do you fall in Love? Does Love exist? These are questions that are just as puzzling and evasive as the meaning of life. However, Marc Webb in his directorial debut (500) Days of Summer attempts to solve these questions and clarify our understanding of what love really means.

Right off the bat the audience is told that this is not a love story. The audience knows right away that they are not going to see a romantic comedy that invariably ends with the man running through an airport trying to win back the love of his life. Then what makes this film so appealing if we already know the two main characters are not destined for one another? The answer is the journey and the transformation both of the characters undergo.

Enter, Tom skillfully played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Tom’s perception of love was formed by those 80’s love songs and romantic comedies. He has those delusions of grandeur that when he meets the love of his life he will know it immediately and fireworks will go off. It is no coincidence that he just happens to work at a greeting card company. It is at work he meets Summer played by Zooey Deschanel. She has a completely diametrically opposite view of love than Tom. Her notions of love were jaded by her parents divorce when she was young, and sees love purely as fantasy like the Tooth Fairy or Santa Clause.

Tom is eventually able to “woo” Summer into going out with him, although they never put a label on it per Summer’s demands. Tom continues the courtship believing that he will be able to change her mind about love and their relationship. While Summer is “having fun” with their relationship, Tom believes it is the real thing.

As the story progresses, Tom feels like his efforts might be beginning to work on Summer. However, once he tries to convince her that their relationship is anything but casual things begin to slip out of control. Their downhill spiral finally hits rock bottom when Summer breaks up with Tom over a plate of pancakes. They both go their separate ways only to discover love with someone else.

In the end both characters realize that their perception of what Love really meant wasn’t necessarily true. Tom finally realized that real love is more than what we see on the big screen or read in a greeting card. Love is something that is earned through significant soul searching and maybe some pain. Summer learned that love is possible and it can come from the most insignificant of events. Like it was said in the beginning, this was not a love story between two people. Rather it was a story about two individual’s separate journey in discovering what it really means.

Aside from the story, this was an all around excellent movie. Director Marc Webb uses the non-linear story line masterfully in order to keep the audience engaged in the lives of the characters, wondering how it will all tie together in the end. The standout performance was without question Joseph Gordon-Levitt. He brought a level of realism I have not seen at the movie theaters in a long time.

I decided to write this because I was really struck by the honesty of this movie’s story. It ranks up there in my top movies of this genre. For those of you from Facebook, this review is old, but I felt I should also post it on my blog.

Filed under (500) Days of Summer film Joseph Gordon-Levitt Marc Webb review Zooey Zooey Deschanel love

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Catfish: Hiding in the Social Network

The latest indie hit “Catfish” has been described by reviewers as disturbing, shocking and sad, but one modifier is notably absent… relatable. Unfortunately to describe this film it is next to impossible to keep the final act’s twist a secret. The movie revolves around a New York City photographer, Yaniv Schulman (or Nev), who befriends a young Michigan girl named Abby. The friendship began when Abby began making drawings of Nev’s photographs. The friendship blossomed and eventually Nev became acquainted with Abby’s entire family, most notably her half-sister Megan. After months of long-distance correspondence Nev decides to finally meet the family in Michigan. Upon arriving in Michigan, Nev and his buddies realize the entire family he knew online was a facade. The mom had created everyone of the profiles and was posting as if she was each of those individuals. The entire family as Nev knew was created by a woman who was isolated and struggling to find meaning in her life.

While “Catfish” portrays an extreme case of depression and isolation, there is a troubling element in the story that can relate to almost everyone connected to facebook or any social networking site. Facebook has become as ubiquitous as three televisions in every household. It seems like everyone in America is connected. Facebook has become a world in its own right.

We can tailor our profiles to show the world what movies we watch, books we read, or quotes we love. Our profiles become a reflection of our “individuality” and even our reality. The difference is that we have power to change the reflection. We have full control over how people see us an individuals. A notable scene from the movie had Mom elaborate on her reasoning for creating the multiple profiles. She plainly stated, “They were all fragments of what I wanted to be.” At its core, Facebook is a means of control. A recent study from York University in Canada pointed out that, “those with low self-esteem also checked their Facebook pages more regularly than normal.”

People do not see the individual, they see how that person wants to be portrayed. Unfortunately, we do not see it this way. We take the profiles on Facebook at face-value. Ironically, as we grow more interconnected we become more distant and hidden. To learn about a person all that is needed is to check a person’s profile. From that process alone we believe we know everything that we need to know. It has replaced the art of the first meeting, small talk, that tangible one-on-one encounter that defined the social experience.  

I am well aware that what began as an analysis of a movie devolved into a rant on social media. I do not discount the value of Social Networking, when it is used right. Social networking sites are wonderful for maintaining connections with friends and long distance relatives. The problem becomes when we use the “network” as a replacement for the world in which we live.

A brief aside, I am eagerly anticipating the release of David Finchner’s “Social Network” next month. It is interesting to see how writers and filmmakers reflect on this phenomenon that dramatically shaped our society the past five years.


Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-1310230/Facebook-users-narcissistic-insecure-low-self-esteem.html?ITO=1490#ixzz0zv39yutQ

Filed under Catfish social network facebook yaniv schulman

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The Future of Historical Documentaries

If History’s most recent documentary, America: the Story of Us, is any indication about the state of historical documentaries in the United States, then the manner in which Historical Documentaries are produced in the United States is in need of a major overhaul. America: The Story of Us was viewed as the apogee of historical documentary making. It was touted for its ambitious scope, use of CGI, historical reenactments and celebrity involvement (President Obama even introduced the series). 

Unfortunately the mini-series did not live up to the hype. The series was anything but the pinnacle of documentary filmmaking. The series was plagued by numerous problems. The historical narrative could have fit into any third grade textbook, nothing new or challenging was introduced. Segments were introduced by celebrities rather than legitimate academics. The only scenes that had any academic involvement were in the Bank of America commercials that tried to appear like they were apart of the documentary (a very underhanded tactic). The list of flaws could go on. 

It would be presumptuous to say that this one show represents every historical documentary made in the U.S. It is more accurate to say that it is a representation of a trend in American documentary filmmaking that is misled to believe that academic merit needs to be sacrificed for entertainment value. Shows like; Ancient Aliens, MonsterQuest, numerous exposes on Nostradamus, and other pseudo-historical documentaries are dominating American television sets. They feed the notion that Americans are fascinated by conspiracy theories, stories of monsters and aliens, and magical prophesies. 

That’s great to say there is a problem, it is clear. But what should be done about it?  How should historical documentaries be presented to the American public? We need to first assume that the average American has some sliver of intelligence left.

The answer already exists. Currently documentaries are being produced that actually have significant academic merit, although they are few and far between, AND have entertainment value. The best example is probably a BBC documentary done by Monty Python alum Terry Jones. Self-titled Terry Jones: Medieval Lives sought to challenge viewer’s perceptions of the Middle Ages with a humorous bent. He contested the common belief that the Medieval Era was a time of profound mysticism and intolerance. He even argued that the church became truly oppressive during the “Renaissance,” an era supposedly known for the opening of Western culture.

While it is important for documentaries to inform people about the facts, it is also equally important for them to challenge our perception. They need to do more than regurgitate a textbook, they need to help us develop a connection with past, to truly understand the people that came before us. That idea is almost lost today. The media and the American public is content to be safe with the stories they heard as a kid.

Fortunately, there are still media outlets that are still producing great documentaries. PBS, the BBC, and very rarely the History Channel churn out decent programs. However, they are outside the mainstream. The first step towards progress will be for the media to respect its audience and assume Americans can handle a documentary for its academic merit rather than its entertainment value. 

Filed under America: the Story of Us American media BBC Documentary Middle Ages PBS Terry Jones history history channel monsterquest western culture Terry Jones: Medieval Lives

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A Defense of Agnosticism

This article is something I have been wanting to write for a while, but never had a source of inspiration to guide me. Tonight I found that inspiration from a Christian website. The site spoke out against Atheism but I found that their arguments could be directed against Agnostics as well. To be clear this is not a defense of Atheism, which is often associated, mistakenly with Agnosticism. 

To start off, we need to define what is Agnosticism? Agnostics are usually viewed as people that are unsure or indecisive and unwilling to take a stand for their religious orientation. With contemporary definitions there is a grain of truth to this position. Even the etymology of the word “agnostic” could lead to that conclusion. The word comes from the Greek gnosis meaning “knowledge,” attach the a we arrive at the meaning “unknowable.” Meaning, that the nature and existence of God due to our limited capacity is unknowable. I still believe there is something left out from this definition. 

Contrary to its word origins, Agnosticism is probably one of the most intellectually sound paths to follow. At this point in our history, man’s ability to understand his surroundings and where he came from (albeit through science or religion) is limited and imperfect. It is here that Agnosticism does take a firm stance, and it is on the pursuit of truth in all of its forms. Agnostics take that stand that it is intellectually irresponsible to proclaim that, “there is a God” or “there isn’t a god.” This inherently creates an intellectual and mental roadblock.

Earlier in the article I said I was inspired to write this from the Sharefaith blog that stated, “[By rejecting] belief in God, he rejects any source of confidence beyond his own level of reasoning or understanding.” They furthered, “[they] will forever be questioning the origin of the the universe.” The Sharefaith blog speaks as though this is a problem. They mistake a lack of confidence for curiosity. 

Their resolution for this lack of confidence is not to inquire further into the nature of the universe. Rather their solution is to put their faith in God and his wisdom. Well the one problem there is the word “faith.” Faith by definition is a strong belief in something. It is not a knowledge of something but only a belief. There is inherently an element of doubt associated with it. I don’t know how confident they could be with some lingering doubt. 

As new knowledge is revealed and the reason for our existence is made definitively clear the position of the Agnostic could change. However, this does seem apparent any time soon. Particularly in the state of religious affairs today. The cold hard truth is, institutionalized religion as it exists today is a poor attempt to understand the reason we exist on this earth.

Filed under religion agnosticism agnostic christianity atheism truth philosophy God

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Historiography: A Case for Objectivity

Today I got into a debate with a colleague over the Ranke’s view of historiography. As is known Ranke’s approach to analyzing and writing about history was revolutionary and typified the Empiricist approach to historiography. He believed that through the careful discernment of primary sources or any historical document we can accurately and objectively describe what happened in the past. 

There are some flaws in Ranke’s analysis. Ranke’s work tended to be based upon government sources leading his writing to be focused primarily on political and military events. He ignores large swaths of economic and cultural histories. While I do disagree with some of his viewpoints regarding historiography, I still regard his overall position on the objectivity of the historian as a valid point.

My friend took the post-modernist approach to history. In short, his assertion was that there is no past. Everything we know about the past come from biased documents that have their own viewpoint of the past. They don’t reflect what really happened. Everything we know about “history” at that point is a story or a myth. It is impossible to accurately tell what really happened objectively. His favorite example to bring up is the Japanese movie Roshomon. The movie centers around an event where a man is murdered and his wife is raped. But everyone involved in the incident has their own view of what happened. At the end they are unable to arrive at a conclusion to the case.

I argued with him on two points. My first attack was on the post-modern school of thought. Georg Iggers critiqued the post-modern viewpoint in his book A Global History of Modern Historiography by saying that what happened in the past actually happened in reality. As such rationality can be applied to past events. While we can not one-hundred percent say what actually happen we can weed out distortions and have an idea of what didn’t happen.

This fed into my second argument regarding objectivity. I do agree that is impossible to be one-hundred percent objective. However, that does not mean that we shouldn’t strive for it. As long as humans are writing and reading history there will be distortions after all man is not perfect. Our own biases do feed into our writing and analysis.

We departed from the debate amicably. He later acknowledged he was arguing for the sake of being contrarian. It is definitely an interesting question to ask. It reminds us that we all approach history with our own personal biases.

Filed under Ranke Georg Iggers Roshomon A Global History of Modern Historiography Historiography historical analysis