Hi, I’ve been reading about nationalism and identity and a book I read argues that nations are an imaginary construct and I was wondering how this would effect the way history is viewed. Also, for you, how significant are the values a country has in the way that a country presents itself? Should there be a shared history for shared values? Apologies for this being quite long

Was the book Imagined Communities? That is an excellent book, but what you need to keep in mind is that, as a historian, theory is not intended to stand in as a narrative for us to fit facts into, but as a tool which allows us to find the language to understand events and ask questions. But it is still an ahistorical narrative, and we have to be careful not to treat it as fact.

That said, I think it provides a helpful way to look at aspects of modern history. Now I’m gonna be real for a minute and tell you that my response is about to get hella Euro-centric.

In the Early Modern period through the beginning of the twentieth century, we saw the rise of the diverse, multinational empire. Those empires broke apart over the course of the twentieth century, and splintered into the nation-state; a political entity held together not by imperial bureaucracy, but by the idea of a shared historical identity and experiences. For that nation-state to sustain itself, there must be an other–a group which does not share that identity and those experiences–for the nation-state to define itself against. We also saw in the twentieth century, in the form of the Yugoslav Wars, the logical endpoint of the ethnic nation-state: genocide and ethnic cleansing.

Now, in the twenty-first century, the idea of the ethnically homogeneous nation-state is tearing apart at the seams as the globalized environment fractures. Nation-states are confronting ethnic, national, and racial diversity, forcing them to wrestle with how to accommodate the “other.” This is why you hear people (like me, alas) referring to the contemporary global environment as “post-modern.” It is also why so many “Western” nations are having a collective violent temper tantrum.

As you can see from what I just wrote, the discourse on the nation and identity etc provides a helpful lens by which to view the last 500 or so years of history. But the fact that it’s helpful doesn’t make it true. Every issue I addressed above is 1000x more complex than my two paragraphs will ever be able to convey, and that’s why the theory is a helpful way of processing large periods of history. But as your analysis becomes deeper and more nuanced, this theoretical framework may (and probably should) feel more and more remote and overly simple to your analysis.

As for the last part of your question: “Should there be a shared history for shared values?“

That, to me, implies, that I can just imagine a past. Ethno-national groups do imagine their pasts, absolutely (if you get me drunk enough, you are likely to hear me yelling about how I’m mad at Ancient Rome for fucking with my people ~2000 years ago), but those pasts are nothing more than a collection of narratives strung together to serve some sort of ideological purpose. The reality of history is that one million narratives and chains of interaction are ongoing at any moment in time, and that historians can only incrementally understand them through careful questioning and analysis.

And as for “shared values,” aren’t those just as false as an imagined past?

I hope this answer was helpful; don’t hesitate to ask follow-up questions if you have any.

Some titles you might enjoy in relation to this line of questioning include:

Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference (Princeton Studies in Culture/Power/History) by Dipesh Chakrabarty

The Nation and Its Fragments: Colonial and Postcolonial Histories (Princeton Studies in Culture/Power/History) by Partha Chatterjee

Who Owns History?: Rethinking the Past in a Changing World by Eric Foner

The Landscape of History: How Historians Map the Past by John Lewis Gaddis

Writing History in the Global Era by Lynn Hunt

Historiography in the Twentieth Century: From Scientific Objectivity to the Postmodern Challenge by George G. Iggers

Can the Subaltern Speak?: Reflections on the History of an Idea by Rosalind Morris

Gender and the Politics of History by Joan Scott

Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History by Michel-Rolph Trouillot

Why German Jewry did not Leave in 1933: Further Reading

“They bind our hands and then complain that we do not make use of them.” –Moses Mendelssohn

Holy Roman Empire

Germany under the Old Regime 1600-1790 by John G. Gagliardo

German History in Modern Times: Four Lives of the Nation by William W. Hagen

The Transformation of European Politics 1763-1848 (Oxford History of Modern Europe) by Paul W. Schroeder

The Course of German Nationalism: From Frederick the Great to Bismarck 1763-1867 by Hagen Schulze

German History, 1770-1866 (Oxford History of Modern Europe) by James J. Sheehan

Enlightenment

Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity 1650-1750 by Jonathan I. Israel

A Revolution of the Mind: Radical Enlightenment and the Intellectual Origins of Modern Democracy by Jonathan Israel

The Enlightenment (New Approaches to European History) by Dorinda Outram

Jewish Enlightenment/Haskalah

Moses Mendelssohn;: A biographical study by Alexander Altmann

Moses Mendelssohn: Sage of Modernity (Jewish Lives) by Shmuel Feiner

The Jewish Enlightenment (Jewish Culture and Contexts) by Shmuel Feiner

Haskalah and History: The Emergence of a Modern Jewish Historical Consciousness (Littman Library of Jewish Civilization) by Shmuel Feiner

The Origins of Jewish Secularization in Eighteenth-Century Europe (Jewish Culture and Contexts) by Shmuel Feiner

Cultural Revolution in Berlin: Jews in the Age of Enlightenment (Journal of Jewish Studies Supplement Series) by Shmuel Feiner

The Transformation of German Jewry, 1780-1840 by David Sorkin

Napoleonic Wars

The First Total War: Napoleon’s Europe and the Birth of Warfare as We Know It by David A. Bell

Austria, Prussia and The Making of Germany: 1806-1871 (Seminar Studies) by John Breuilly

Napoleon and the Struggle for Germany: The Franco-Prussian War of 1813 (Cambridge Military Histories) (Volume 1) by Michael V. Leggiere

Napoleon and the Struggle for Germany: The Franco-Prussian War of 1813 (Cambridge Military Histories) (Volume 2) by Michael V. Leggiere

Germany from Napoleon to Bismarck: 1800-1866 (Princeton Legacy Library) by Thomas Nipperdey

The Napoleonic Wars: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions) by Mike Rapport

The Transformation of European Politics 1763-1848 (Oxford History of Modern Europe) by Paul W. Schroeder

The Course of German Nationalism: From Frederick the Great to Bismarck 1763-1867 by Hagen Schulze

German History, 1770-1866 (Oxford History of Modern Europe) by James J. Sheehan

Congress of Vienna

Austria, Prussia and The Making of Germany: 1806-1871 (Seminar Studies) by John Breuilly

Restoration, Revolution, Reaction: Economics and Politics in Germany, 1815-1871 by Theodore S. Hamerow

The Congress of Vienna and its Legacy: War and Great Power Diplomacy after Napoleon (International Library of Historical Studies) by Mark Jarrett

Germany from Napoleon to Bismarck: 1800-1866 (Princeton Legacy Library) by Thomas Nipperdey

The Transformation of European Politics 1763-1848 (Oxford History of Modern Europe) by Paul W. Schroeder

The Course of German Nationalism: From Frederick the Great to Bismarck 1763-1867 by Hagen Schulze

German History, 1770-1866 (Oxford History of Modern Europe) by James J. Sheehan

The Congress of Vienna: Power and Politics after Napoleon by Brian E. Vick

The Revolutions of 1848

Austria, Prussia and The Making of Germany: 1806-1871 (Seminar Studies) by John Breuilly

The Revolutions in Europe, 1848-1849: From Reform to Reaction edited by RJW Evans and Hartmut Pogge von Strandmann

Restoration, Revolution, Reaction: Economics and Politics in Germany, 1815-1871 by Theodore S. Hamerow

The Age of Revolution: 1789-1848 by Eric Hobsbawm

The 1848 Revolutions by Peter Jones

Germany from Napoleon to Bismarck: 1800-1866 (Princeton Legacy Library) by Thomas Nipperdey

1848: Year of Revolution by Mike Rapport

The Transformation of European Politics 1763-1848 (Oxford History of Modern Europe) by Paul W. Schroeder

The Course of German Nationalism: From Frederick the Great to Bismarck 1763-1867 by Hagen Schulze

German History, 1770-1866 (Oxford History of Modern Europe) by James J. Sheehan

Rhineland Radicals: The Democratic Movement and the Revolution of 1848-1849 by Jonathan Sperber

The European Revolutions, 1848 – 1851 (New Approaches to European History) by Jonathan Sperber

The Struggle for Mastery in Europe: 1848-1918 (Oxford History of Modern Europe) by Alan J. P. Taylor

Austro-Prussian War

Austria, Prussia and The Making of Germany: 1806-1871 (Seminar Studies) by John Breuilly

The Wars of German Unification 1864-1871 (Origins Of Modern Wars) by William Carr and Harry Hearder

The Battle of Königgrätz: Prussia’s Victory over Austria, 1866 by Gordon A. Craig

Germany 1866-1945 (Oxford History of Modern Europe) by Gordon A. Craig

Restoration, Revolution, Reaction: Economics and Politics in Germany, 1815-1871 by Theodore S. Hamerow

Imperial Germany 1867-1918: Politics, Culture, and Society in an Authoritarian State (Hodder Arnold Publication) by Wolfgang J. Mommsen

Germany from Napoleon to Bismarck: 1800-1866 (Princeton Legacy Library) by Thomas Nipperdey

The Course of German Nationalism: From Frederick the Great to Bismarck 1763-1867 by Hagen Schulze

German History, 1770-1866 (Oxford History of Modern Europe) by James J. Sheehan

The Wars of German Unification (Modern Wars) by Dennis Showalter

The Struggle for Mastery in Europe: 1848-1918 (Oxford History of Modern Europe) by Alan J. P. Taylor

The Austro-Prussian War: Austria’s War with Prussia and Italy in 1866 by Geoffrey Wawro

Franco-Prussian War

The Franco-Prussian War 1870-1871 (Essential Histories) by Stephen Badsey

Austria, Prussia and The Making of Germany: 1806-1871 (Seminar Studies) by John Breuilly

The Wars of German Unification 1864-1871 (Origins Of Modern Wars) by William Carr and Harry Hearder

Germany 1866-1945 (Oxford History of Modern Europe) by Gordon A. Craig

Restoration, Revolution, Reaction: Economics and Politics in Germany, 1815-1871 by Theodore S. Hamerow

The Franco-Prussian War: The German Invasion of France 1870-1871 by Michael Howard

Imperial Germany 1867-1918: Politics, Culture, and Society in an Authoritarian State (Hodder Arnold Publication) by Wolfgang J. Mommsen

The Wars of German Unification (Modern Wars) by Dennis Showalter

The Struggle for Mastery in Europe: 1848-1918 (Oxford History of Modern Europe) by Alan J. P. Taylor

The Franco-Prussian War: The German Conquest of France in 1870-1871 by Geoffrey Wawro

Imperial Germany

Imperial Germany 1871-1918 by Volker Rolf Berghahn

Austria, Prussia and The Making of Germany: 1806-1871 (Seminar Studies) by John Breuilly

The Wars of German Unification 1864-1871 (Origins Of Modern Wars) by William Carr and Harry Hearder

Germany 1866-1945 (Oxford History of Modern Europe) by Gordon A. Craig

Bismarck and the German Empire by Erich Eyck

Restoration, Revolution, Reaction: Economics and Politics in Germany, 1815-1871 by Theodore S. Hamerow

The Age of Capital: 1848-1875 by Eric Hobsbawm

The Age of Empire: 1875-1914 by Eric Hobsbawm

Imperial Germany 1867-1918: Politics, Culture, and Society in an Authoritarian State (Hodder Arnold Publication) by Wolfgang J. Mommsen

The Kaiser and his Court: Wilhelm II and the Government of Germany by John C. G. Rohl

The Wars of German Unification (Modern Wars) by Dennis Showalter

The Struggle for Mastery in Europe: 1848-1918 (Oxford History of Modern Europe) by Alan J. P. Taylor

The German Empire, 1871-1918 by Hans-Ulrich Wehler

The Long Nineteenth Century

History of Germany, 1780-1918: The Long Nineteenth Century (Blackwell Classic Histories of Europe) by David Blackbourn

German History in Modern Times: Four Lives of the Nation by William W. Hagen

Protestants, Catholics and Jews in Germany, 1800-1914 by Helmut Walser Smith

The Continuities of German History: Nation, Religion, and Race Across the Long Nineteenth Century by Helmut Walser Smith

World War I

Imperial Germany and the Great War, 1914-1918 (New Approaches to European History) by Roger Chickering

The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 by Christopher Clark

Germany 1866-1945 (Oxford History of Modern Europe) by Gordon A. Craig

German History in Modern Times: Four Lives of the Nation by William W. Hagen

To Hell and Back: Europe 1914-1949 by Ian Kershaw

Facing Total War: German Society, 1914-1918 by Jurgen Kocka

Dark Continent: Europe’s Twentieth Century by Mark Mazower

Imperial Germany 1867-1918: Politics, Culture, and Society in an Authoritarian State (Hodder Arnold Publication) by Wolfgang J. Mommsen

The Struggle for Mastery in Europe: 1848-1918 (Oxford History of Modern Europe) by Alan J. P. Taylor

Weimar Republic

Germany After the First World War by Richard Bessel

Germany 1866-1945 (Oxford History of Modern Europe) by Gordon A. Craig

To Hell and Back: Europe 1914-1949 by Ian Kershaw

The Weimar Republic by Eberhard Kolb

Dark Continent: Europe’s Twentieth Century by Mark Mazower

The Rise and Fall of Weimar Democracy by Hans Mommsen and Elborg Forster

The Weimar Republic: The Crisis of Classical Modernity by Detlev J. K. Peukert

Weimar Germany: Promise and Tragedy by Eric D. Weitz

Hitler and the Nazi Period

The Racial State: Germany 1933-1945 by Michael Burleigh and Wolfgang Wippermann

Germany 1866-1945 (Oxford History of Modern Europe) by Gordon A. Craig

Nazi Germany and the Jews: Volume 1: The Years of Persecution 1933-1939 by Saul Friedlander

German History in Modern Times: Four Lives of the Nation by William W. Hagen

To Hell and Back: Europe 1914-1949 by Ian Kershaw

Hitler: Profiles in Power by Ian Kershaw

Hitler: 1889-1936 Hubris by Ian Kershaw

Dark Continent: Europe’s Twentieth Century by Mark Mazower

The Crisis of German Ideology : Intellectual Origins of the Third Reich by George L. Mosse

Immigration History and Policy

FDR and the Jews by Richard Breitman

Refugees from Nazi Germany and the Liberal European States by Frank Caestecker

Guarding the Golden Door: American Immigration Policy and Immigrants since 1882 by Roger Daniels

Coming to America: A History of Immigration and Ethnicity in American Life by Roger Daniels

American Immigration: A Very Short Introduction by David A. Gerber

Jewish History in Germany

Cultural Revolution in Berlin: Jews in the Age of Enlightenment (Journal of Jewish Studies Supplement Series) by Shmuel Feiner

Nazi Germany and the Jews: Volume 1: The Years of Persecution 1933-1939 by Saul Friedlander

Jews and the German State: The Political History of a Minority, 1848-1933 by Peter Pulzer

Protestants, Catholics and Jews in Germany, 1800-1914 by Helmut Walser Smith

The Transformation of German Jewry, 1780-1840 by David Sorkin

WWII Jewish Refugee History

None is Too Many: Canada and the Jews of Europe, 1933-1948 by Irving Abella and Harold Troper

Gender, Judaism, and Bourgeois Culture in Germany, 1800-1870 (The Modern Jewish Experience) by Benjamin Maria Baader

Flight from the Reich: Refugee Jews, 1933-1946 by Debórah Dwork and Robert Jan Van Pelt

The Pity of It All: A Portrait of the German-Jewish Epoch, 1743-1933 by Amos Elon

The Politics of Rescue: The Roosevelt Administration and the Holocaust, 1938-1945 by Henry L. Feingold

Jewish High Society in Old Regime Berlin by Deborah Hertz

The Making of the Jewish Middle Class: Women, Family, and Identity in Imperial Germany (Studies in Jewish History (Oxford Paperback)) by Marion A. Kaplan

Between Dignity and Despair: Jewish Life in Nazi Germany (Studies in Jewish History) by Marion A. Kaplan

Jewish Daily Life in Germany, 1618-1945 edited by Marion A. Kaplan

Out of the Ghetto: The Social Background of Jewish Emancipation, 1770-1870 (Modern Jewish History) by Jacob Katz

The Changing Face of Anti-Semitism: From Ancient Times to the Present Day by Walter Laqueur

Generation Exodus : The Fate of Young Jewish Refugees from Nazi Germany by Walter Laqueur

Paper Walls: America and the Refugee Crisis 1938-1941 by David Wyman

Why German Jewry did not Leave in 1933 Pt. 3: Unification, Emancipation, and Assimilation

“They bind our hands and then complain that we do not make use of them.” –Moses Mendelssohn

On July 19, 1870, Prussian chancellor Otto von Bismarck embarked on a successful scheme.

After the Austro-Prussian War of 1866, Prussia annexed 22 independent states in the north of Germany to form the North German Confederation. This act destabilized the European balance of power as it had stood since 1815, drawing opposition from Napoleon III of the Second French Empire. Prussia drew further French ire after expressing its desire to incorporate the southern German states of Baden, Wurttemberg, Bavaria, and Hess-Darmstadt into a unified, Prussian-dominated Germany.

French opposition demonstrated to Bismarck and other Prussian officials that a war with France was both inevitable in the quest for German unification, and necessary to the arousal of enough nationalist sentiment in the southern states to make them amenable to unification. Bismarck later stated that he “did not doubt that a Franco-German war must take place before the construction of a United Germany could be realized.” When war with France was declared, the southern states sided with Prussia.

The Franco-Prussian War (July 1870-May 1871) was a remarkably quick one. After a series of swift German victories, Prussian forces marched on Paris, capturing Napoleon III and an entire French army along the way. On January 19, 1871, German princes and senior military commanders gathered in Versailles to proclaim Prussian King Wilhelm I of the House of Hohenzollern the German Emperor.

With the unification of Germany, German Jews finally won what so many of them fought for in Revolutions of 1848: legal emancipation. Unfortunately, with German unification came a level of anti-Semitism not seen since the immediate post-Napoleonic years. It was in this wave of anti-Semitism that the concept of the Jews as an inherent, racial category began to gain currency.

In 1873, a global financial crisis hit Europe and North America. In Germany, the crisis was a result of post-war inflation, speculative investments, the end of French reparation payments, and rampant industrial speculation. Though the German economy recovered quickly in comparison to other parts of the world, German investors and members of the general public blamed German Jewry for their economic losses, claiming that Jewish speculators were prominent amongst those who benefited from the boom, and among those who contributed to the economic crash. In fact, Jewish industrialists had participated in the industrial speculation which led to the crash, but to take that and use it to blame the Jews for the entire financial crisis is akin to using the actions of Bernie Madoff to blame the Jews for the entire 2008 Recession (which some people did).

A boycott of Jewish businesses followed the crash, as did a revitalized hatred of the assimilated Jewish middle class. The intensity of this wave of anti-Semitism remained high through the 1870s (indeed, it was in 1879 that Wilhelm Marr coined the term “anti-Semitism” to refer to inherent racial characteristics which separated the Jewish nation from the German nation) until it gradually subsided over the course of the 1880s.

When I speak of anti-Semitism subsiding, what I refer to is loud, violent, overt hatred. The quieter, institutional anti-Semitism wasn’t gone; it was never gone. It existed in the most important institutions of the German Empire—in the military, the universities, the civil service, the imperial court, and high society—keeping German Jews from being able to break out of the roles assigned to them by non-Jewish society. For example, institutional anti-Semitism restricted Jews to primarily business-related occupations. In 1895, 56% of German Jews worked in commerce. In 1907 that number was only one percentage point lower.

Jewish concentration in business-oriented occupations allowed non-Jewish Germans to continue to cast Jews as money-grubbers unwilling to partake in “productive” (meaning physical) labor, even as social anti-Semitism barred Jewish occupational mobility. Ultimately, social anti-Semitism affected Jewish lives more immediately and intimately than any political party.

The anti-Semitic bubble burst with the economic recovery. By 1912 anti-Semitic political parties were as good as dead, and the concept of using racial politics as political stance had fallen out of vogue. Institutional and social anti-Semitism remained, but Jewish assimilation continued on. By the final decades of the nineteenth century, even the most observant of rural German Jews had relaxed some of their practices, such as ritual purity. By 1900, only about 15% of all German Jews could be considered Orthodox.

What held true after the Revolution of 1848 remained true after German unification: legal emancipation for the Jews of Germany was only half the battle.

Why German Jewry did not Leave in 1933 Pt. 2: Revolution and Reform

“They bind our hands and then complain that we do not make use of them.” –Moses Mendelssohn

In 1848, a series of revolutions, called the Spring of Nations, swept across Europe. In the German states, support for and participation in the Revolutions of 1848 stemmed from popular discontent with traditional political and social structures, desire for constitutional rights, and aspirations towards German unification.

These goals attracted German Jewry, as they were deeply tied to the cause of Jewish emancipation; extension of constitutional rights to the general population meant that Jews would be entitled to equal treatment under the law, and German unification would make it easier for Jews to agitate for greater legal equality. Non-Jewish German liberals, for their part, advocated for Jewish emancipation out of the belief that discriminatory laws were anachronistic and morally unjust, and out of the old hope that legal emancipation would hasten Jewish assimilation and conversion to Christianity.

Jewish participation in the Revolutions of 1848 was a result of over half a century of reform and assimilation. As Jewish Enlightenment thinkers such as Mendelssohn urged Jews to embrace secular ideas, and as German thinkers argued for Jewish emancipation as a vehicle for assimilation and conversion, German Jewry responded in ways anticipated perhaps by neither Jewish nor non-Jewish thinkers.

German Jews wanted to be accepted as Germans, but not at the cost of their Jewishness; instead of assimilating via conversion, German Jewry instead refashioned German culture on their own terms.

The 1806 abolition of rabbinic courts and the authority of the Jewish community allowed German Jewry to shape their religious expression as they wished. Reform leaders introduced to the synagogue behavioral standards conforming to middle class—meaning Christian middle class—standards of propriety. They removed the prayer for the return to Zion from the liturgy to demonstrate that German Jewry had ceased to view itself as part of a dispersed nation. They introduced to the synagogue German-language sermons, choirs, clerical robes, confirmation ceremonies for boys and girls, and the use of the organ. By 1860, Reformed Jewish congregations had more in common with the church than with Orthodox synagogues, and by 1870, Reform was dominant type of Judaism practiced in Germany.

With daily life no longer operating under rabbinic authority, Jews were free to determine their own standards of behavior and interaction with both their German and Jewish identities. German Jews used the German tradition of Bildung—which links philosophy and educational attainment with the process of personal and cultural maturation—to shape their integration and assimilation. Bildung appealed to German Jews because they did not have to be born with it, but could acquire it through university attendance and participation in the right social groups and organizations. In Bildung, German Jewry saw their chance to achieve social mobility while maintaining their ethnoreligious identities.

The Revolutions of 1848 did not result in the legal emancipation of the Jews. However, they did strengthen the national identities of German Jewry, and increased Jewish and non-Jewish mixing to higher levels than ever before in German history.

In these calm, post-Revolutionary, mid-century years, every German Jew had access to an elementary level education. They could read and write in German, and were over-represented in secondary schools and universities. Through this educational attainment and social interaction, German Jewry came to understand that social and economic integration were just as important to the cause of Jewish emancipation as legislation.

The Amber Room, or, How Russia and Germany Lost the Eighth Wonder of the World

One time, Germany and Russia lost an entire room. An extremely valuable, artistic masterpiece, eighth wonder of the world of a room. It’s quite the epic tale, full of alliances against Sweden, art conservators making poor life choices, and Nazis.

image

The reconstructed Amber Room in the Catherine Palace. Image courtesy of the Daily Mail.

It begins in 1701 when Friedrich I, the first King of Prussia, commissioned a series of amber panels from an international team of master craftsmen. In 1711, Friedrich installed the finished panels in Berlin City Palace.

Friedrich’s son, Friedrich Wilhelm I, assumed the Prussian throne upon his father’s death in 1713. Not long after, Peter the Great paid a visit to the Prussian monarch, and admired the amber panels during his stay. In 1716, Friedrich presented his father’s panels to the Czar in order cement an alliance against Sweden (all this creation and exchange of amber-driven art was happening against the backdrop of Great Northern War, 1700-1721).

The amber panels arrived in Russian in 18 large boxes. After their installation in the Winter House in St. Petersburg, the panels underwent a renovation and expansion which concluded in 1755. Shortly thereafter, Czarina Elizabeth ordered the Amber Room moved to a larger space in the Catherine Palace. This move required that additional amber be shipped from Berlin, and by the time its transfer was complete, the Amber Room covered about 180 square feet, containing six tons of amber, gold leaf, and other semi-precious stones.

image

Photograph of the original Amber Room. Source and date unknown.

image

Photograph of the original Amber Room, taken in 1932. Image courtesy of the Novosti Press.

The Amber Room led a fairly quiet domestic existence after that. Czarina Elizabeth used it as a private meditation chamber, Catherine the Great used it as a gathering space, and Alexander II, an amber connoisseur, used it as a trophy space. The Soviets maintained it after the Revolution, though by the 1940s the amber had become dry and brittle.

Which posed quite a problem to the curators tasked with its removal.

On June 22, 1941 Operation Barbarossa launched some three million German soldiers into the Soviet Union. Knowing the Nazi proclivity towards art theft, the curators responsible for the removal and protection of Leningrad’s treasures understood that they had to act fast. But as they removed the panels of the Amber Room, the amber began to crumble.

Caught between fear of the approaching Nazis, fear of destroying the Amber Room, and fear of the Nazis taking the room, the curators decided that the best solution was to cover their world famous charge in mundane wallpaper.

image

The Catherine Palace post-Amber Room theft. Image date and source unknown, taken from the Daily Mail.

The Nazi Art Theft Division was, shockingly, not fooled, and disassembled the Amber Room in less than two days. On October 14, 1941, they packed it into 27 crates, and shipped it to Konigsberg, Germany (present-day Kaliningrad) for storage and display in the city’s castle museum. There it remained until January 1945, when Hitler order the removal of all looted objects from Konigsberg.

image

The Amber Room in Konigsberg, Germany in 1942. Image courtesy of Alamy.com.

There are a lot of stories about what happened next. Some claim that Hitler’s orders were followed, and that the Amber Room was packed into crates for transport. A group of eyewitnesses claims to have seen the crates at a railway station. Others hold that the crates were loaded aboard the Wilhelm Gustloff, a ship sunk by a Soviet submarine. Others still insist that the crates were buried in a secret location long since forgotten. In 1997, a group of German detectives received a tip that someone was trying to sell a piece of the Amber Room. The seller was the son of a deceased German soldier whom had helped pack up the room; the fragment is now in the hands of the Russian government.

It is most likely that the Amber Room was destroyed during the April, 1945 Battle of Konigsberg. The city’s German administrators fled as Soviet forces advanced on the city, and the ensuing Battle of Konigsberg, which lasted from April 6-April 9, 1945, left 80% of the city in ruins.

In June, 1945, Alexander Brusov, the chief of the first formal Soviet mission to find the Amber Room, wrote, “Summarizing all the facts, we can say that the Amber Room was destroyed between 9 and 11 April 1945.” Brusov later retracted this statement, most likely under pressure from other Soviet officials wishing to obscure the possibility that Soviet soldiers may have been responsible for the room’s destruction. Indeed the Soviet government continued to search for the Room despite their own experts’ conclusions, most likely for the very same reason.

Interestingly, the Soviet government restricted access to the remains of the Konigsberg Castle after the war, even to archaeological and historical surveys. In 1968, Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev ordered the demolition of Konigsberg Castle, making any onsite research of the last known home of the Amber Room all but impossible, and destroying any pieces of the room which may have survived.

In 2004, British investigative journalists Catherine Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy set out to find the Amber Room, or at least, to determine its fate once and for all. The two authors concluded that the Amber Room was most likely destroyed during or in the aftermath of the Battle of Konigsberg.

Since the book’s release, Russian officials have rather defensively denied its conclusions. Adelaida Yolkina, a senior researcher at the Pavlovsk Museum Estate stated that “It is impossible to see the Red Army being so careless that they let the Amber Room be destroyed.” Mikhail Piotrovsky, director of the State Hermitage Museum, stated that “Most importantly, the destruction of the Amber Room during the Second World War is the fault of the people who started the war.”

Regardless, somewhere between the Wallpaper Incident, the Nazi belief that the the Amber Room was made by and for Germans, the likely non-removal of the room before the Battle of Konigsberg, and the 1968 Soviet destruction of the last known home of the Amber Room, the room disappeared, and was never seen in public after 1945. In the end, I guess Sweden got the last laugh, as it remained passive aggressively neutral throughout World War II. That’ll teach Prussia and Russia to exchange anti-Swedish alliance art.

In 1979 the Soviet government decided that it was high time to resurrect the almost lost art of amber carving and construct a new Amber Room. It took 24 years, millions of dollars (including a sizable German donation), and consultations of drawings and black and white photographs of the original Amber Room. In 2003, Russian President Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder presented the new Amber Room.

image

The Reconstructed Amber Room. Image courtesy of Wikipedia user jeanyfan.

The new Amber Room is housed in the Catherine Palace, and is open to the public for viewing.

A Short History of Plumbing, Toilets, and Sanitation

In 1856, East Indian Railway Company workers summoned General Alexander Cunningham to the Indus River Valley site, where they had uncovered the ruins of an ancient city. The archaeologists who had rushed to the scene were stunned—as archaeologists digging under the auspices of the British Empire were wont to be—by the sophistication of the civilization the workers had begun to uncover. One particular point of interest was the complex system of underground brick lined sewage drains, complete with running water and rudimentary flush toilets.

To put it in different terms, these British archaeologists uncovered a civilization which had had an underground sewage system circa the third millennium BCE in the same year that the city at the seat of the British Empire—London—had begun to experience the sanitation problems which would lead to the “Great Stink” of 1858.

image

“Father Thames Introducing His Offspring (Diptheria, Scrofula, and Cholera) to the Fair City of London,” originally published in the July 3, 1858 edition of Punch Magazine. Image courtesy of the Museum of London.

In the 1850s, the modern flush toilet began to replace the chamber pot in the daily waste disposal of many Londoners. This increased the volume of waste being poured into cesspits, which often overflowed into the streets, overwhelming the medieval drainage system, and emptied into the Thames. The unusual heat levels of the summer of 1858 merged with the bacteria in the sewage-filled waters of the Thames to produce a stench so overwhelming that the House of Commons nearly shut down.

Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro weren’t the only ancient cities to have a finer grasp on the intricacies of sanitation than the capital of the British Empire.

The sewage of Rome and Istanbul is still partially carried through 1000+ year old pipes, and the first inverted siphon system (u-shaped pipes for those of us who are not engineers) was put into use in the palaces of Crete over 3000 years ago. Those pipes are still in working condition. The Ancient Minoan peoples had a stone sewage system periodically flushed with clean water, and flush toilets dating to around the mid-second millennium BCE have been found in the Minoan archaeological site of Akrotiri.

In the mid-12th century CE the Arab, or possibly Kurdish, engineer Al-Jazari invented a hand-washing device which made use of flush technology (he also invented the first water supply system to be driven by gears and hydropower, and a robot boy band among other things).

image

Illustration of his water-raising device from Al-Jazari’s work, The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices. Image courtesy of the Topkapi Palace Museum.

In 1596, Sir John Harington developed a forerunner to the modern toilet and had it installed in his house. He also had one installed for his godmother, Queen Elizabeth I, but she refused to use it because the noise freaked her out.

By the 1850’s, the flush toilet had become a standard fixture in the homes of the bourgeoisie, leading to many much needed updates to old and overburdened sewage systems.

And because I’ve been picking on Britain a lot in this post, I will say that a 31st century BCE hydraulic waste removal system was discovered in one of Britain’s oldest known Neolithic villages: Skara Brae, Orkney. Way to remove that waste, Skara Brae.

The Bust of Nefertiti, Germany, and Egypt

Nefertiti was the wife of the controversial 18th Dynasty Pharaoh Akhenaton, also known as Amenhotep IV. Akhenaten and Nefertiti lived during the thirteenth century BCE, and were responsible for the move of the Egyptian capital from Thebes to Amarna. The site of Amarna was excavated by Ludwig Borchardt of the German Oriental Institute from 1912 to 1914.

The Bust of Nefertiti

On December 6, 1912, the artifact known as the Bust of Nefertiti was excavated. It is 3300 years old, and it is a highly prized, if not unique piece because, unlike the majority of Egyptian sculpture, the Bust contains facial detailing.* After finding the Bust in the workshop of the sculptor Thutmose, Borchardt wrote in his diary that “Suddenly we had in our hands the most alive Egyptian artwork. You cannot describe it with words. You must see it.”

In 1913 Borchardt met with Egyptian officials to discuss the division of the artifacts unearthed in the Amarna dig. What took place in this meeting was not recorded until 1924. The secretary of the German Oriental Institute who had taken it upon himself to record it wrote that Borchardt had concealed the value of the Bust from Egyptian officials in order to “save the bust for us.”

He reported that Borchardt had shown the officials misleading photographs of the piece, and had given them inaccurate information about the material used to create the piece.

Following the meeting, the Bust was shipped to Germany, and entered into the custody of James Simon, the sponsor of the excavation. Simon donated it to the Berlin Museum in 1920, and it was put on display to the public in 1924. Upon its 1924 unveiling, Egyptian officials immediately demanded that the artifact be returned. In 1925, Egypt threatened to ban German excavations unless it was returned.

In 1933, Hermann Goring considered returning the Bust to King Farouk Fouad of Egypt, but Hitler opposed the idea, saying he would “never relinquish the head of the Queen.” The Bust remained on display in the Neues Museum in Berlin until the museum closed in 1939 at the onset of the World War II. At that point, all Berlin museums were emptied, and artifacts were moved to secure areas for safekeeping. The Bust was moved around to multiple safe locations over the course of that war, and it was taken into custody by American troops in March of 1945.

The United States—which had had the Bust in display at the U.S. Central Collecting Point in Wiesbaden beginning in 1946—returned the Bust to West Berlin in 1956, at which point it was put on display at the Dahlem Museum. East Germany was unhappy with the move; they’d wanted the Bust returned to the Neues Museum, which had been badly damaged by an Allied bombing in 1943.

During the 1950’s, Egypt had attempted to re-open negotiations, but Germany was unresponsive and the United States simply told them to take it up with the German authorities.

The Bust was moved around several times after this. In 1967 it was moved to the Egyptian Museum in Charlottenburg, in 2005 it was moved to the Altes Museum, and it was moved back to the Neues Museum upon its 2009 reopening.

Zahi Hawass, the former The Secretary General of the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities, spent a great deal of the 21st century working to have the artifact returned to Egypt. He held that the Bust had been illegally removed from the country, and in 2005 he asked UNESCO to intervene. In 2007 he threatened to ban exhibitions of Egyptian artifacts in Germany if they would not lend the Bust to Egypt. He also called for a worldwide boycott on loans to German museums.

Within Germany, cultural groups and a fair few academics believe that the Bust should be returned to Egypt. In 2007, an organization called CulturCooperation based out of Hamburg handed out postcards depicting the Bust with the words “Return to Sender” written on them. They also wrote an open letter to the German Culture Minister, Bernd Neumann, regarding the Bust. Other groups within Germany hold that the Bust has become a definitive part of German culture, while German art experts refute the claims that the Bust was illegally removed from Egypt.

In the midst of these debates, German conservation experts raised the concern that the Bust is simply too fragile to survive a move to Egypt. Dietrich Wildung, head of Berlin’s Egyptian Museum, stated that “the structure of Nefertiti’s material, plaster over limestone, is very sensitive.” If the Bust were to be returned to Egypt, it is possible that it would not survive the journey.

*Facial and other such detailing may be found on the majority of the art produced during the Amarna period.

The Elgin Marbles: Needs Subtitle

The Elgin Marbles are sculptures housed in the British Museum, which once adorned the Athenian Parthenon. They were removed from the Parthenon by Thomas Bruce, the seventh Lord of Elgin and British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, in 1803, and have been on display in the British Museum since 1816. In 1981, it became a stated goal of the Greek Cultural Minister to repatriate them to the National Archaeological Museum in Athens.

The Parthenon after centuries of worship, war, and imperialism

The Parthenon was constructed between 447 and 438 BCE and served as a temple of Athena. Like many ancient religious sites, the Parthenon continued on through the centuries as a center of worship; it was used as a church in the Byzantine period, and as a mosque after the fifteenth century Ottoman conquest.

Though the Parthenon underwent the expected wear and tear of the centuries, it wasn’t until the 1680s that it was actually damaged when undergoing fire from Venetian troops.

Elgin began his ambassadorial career in 1799 and remained in the post of British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire until 1803. Like many men of his class, he had a passion for antiquities—particularly for those of the Classical Greek persuasion—and jumped at the chance to reside in such an exotic locale.

Busy with his ambassadorial duties, Elgin appointed a team led by his private secretary, Philip Hunt, to represent his interests in Athens. Hunt’s job was to organize digs in the Acropolis area, and remove inscriptions and reliefs from the site. Elgin’s team received permission from the Ottoman government to carry out said activities.

Hunt interpreted the decree to mean that it allowed for the removal of sculptures from the structure of the Parthenon itself, and persuaded the governor of Athens to share this interpretation. Elgin, believing that the Ottoman government was indifferent towards the survival of the sculptures, supported this. As the sculptures were being removed, Elgin’s team further damaged the sculptures by cutting them into smaller pieces in order to more easily remove them.

Detailing from the Elgin Marbles

Their removal was controversial even at the time. Elgin had the marbles shipped to England in 1803, and, unable to shed the stigma attached to them, stored them in a damp shed for thirteen years.

Parliament purchased the marbles in 1816, and promptly deposited them in the British Museum. They have been there ever since.

Gallery of the British Museum where the marbles are on display

Greek rhetoric on the subject of the Marbles is deeply emotional, speaking of them in terms of children being violently removed from their family, and national heritage being mutilated. Greece has accused the British Museum of further damaging the marbles through harmful cleaning processes, further exacerbating the dialogue surrounding the issue.

Though this post focuses on the pieces residing in the British Museum, other sculptures from the Parthenon are in the Louvre, Copenhagen, Italy, and around half are in the Acropolis Museum in Athens. It is the eventual goal of the Greek government to reunite all of the sculptures in the National Archaeological Museum, pictured below.

The Greek National Archaeological Museum

The British Museum, along with a consortium of major museums across the world, has stated that repatriation would set a very damaging precedent for the global museum system. It has also been argued that, after 200 years of British residency, the Marbles have become a part of British culture.

The debate is ongoing.

The Rosetta Stone: Contested Key to Hieroglyphic Translation

The Rosetta Stone

The Rosetta Stone is an Ptolemaic-era Egyptian artifact which provided the key to a modern understanding of Egyptian hieroglyphs. It is inscribed with a decree issued by King Ptolemy V in 196 BCE, with the decree is inscribed in three Hieroglyphs, Demotic script (a post-Late Egyptian, pre-Greek language spoken in Egypt beginning in 650 BCE), and Ancient Greek. The same text is presented in all three languages, thus scholars were able to decipher the Hieroglyph text through their knowledge of Ancient Greek.

close-up of panels inscribed in each of the three languages

As time went on, the stele, which was probably a fairly ordinary one at the time of its issue, eventually ended up in use as a building material in the construction of Fort Julien on the Nile River Delta. A French soldier found the stele in 1799, and recognized its value to Western scholarship. As it was not being used in any academic or official propensity, he took it.

Word spread quite rapidly of this find, and lithographic copies and plaster casts of the stele began to circulate around the European scholarly community.

However, as this was taking place to the backdrop of the Napoleonic wars, in 1801, British troops attacked and defeated the French troops stationed in Egypt. The British took the Rosetta Stone from the French in a move sanctioned by the Treaty of Alexandria, and its subsequent removal from Egyptian soil was approved by the Ottoman government. It has been on display at the British Museum since 1802.

In July of 2003, Egypt made its first request for the repatriation of the Rosetta Stone.