Henriette Roland Holst (II)

(this is the second of two posts; for the first one, see here)

Life After Marx

After her formal break with communism in 1927, HRH found herself politically “homeless”.  That didn’t stop her from being politically active, however.  From now on, she worked for specific goals, again in an international perspective: anti-colonialism and the fight against fascism.  The two were related, she argued:

Whereas imperialism is primarily the desire of an insatiable predator, i.e. the desire to acquire new colonies, fascism aims at arousing that desire among the general populace, so that a war for conquest becomes psychologically unavoidable.

She wrote those words in late 1927 with Mussolini in mind, but soon Nazism posed the greatest threat, which she identified as the power to mobilize vital urges and primal emotions in order to undermine rational belief systems.  It abused the human longing for release and absorption into a greater whole by the “hocus-pocus” of race and blood:

Look at Hitler’s SA-gangs, and you’ll understand where the glorification of irrational drives and power in politics will lead to: to bestial degradation, pogroms, extreme sadism

she wrote prophetically in 1933.

Evidently, her rhetorical talents were still vibrant.  In 1927, at an international conference

HRH in 1921, drawing by Richard Roland Holst

in Geneva where she met Nehru, Albert Schweitzer, and the young Mohammed Hatta, she shocked the staid representatives of the League of Nations and the international press by claiming that Dutch authorities dispensed medical aid in Indonesia only because “a dead coolie cannot work.”  During the German occupation of the Netherlands in World War II, when she was in her seventies, she published anti-Nazi poetry in underground magazines while giving shelter to Jewish and resistance refugees.

But even though she lost none of her combativeness as she grew older, decades of frantic activity, of crisscrossing the country by train, always in third class, for speeches and demonstrations, writing at night against deadlines, took a lasting toll on her body.  Photographs of her in the late 1920s and 1930s chronicle an alarming physical decline.  There is some indication that after periods of intense work, mental exhaustion became a serious problem for her.  Although Etty is careful not to indulge in armchair psychiatry, she does record long periods of time, sometimes up to a year, in which HRH retreated to her estate in Brabant or foreign health resorts to recover from depression.  The desire to deny herself the benefits of her wealth became more and more outlandish.  Friends shook their head over her shabby clothes and ascetic vegetarianism; by 1935, “Tall Jet’s” weight was down to 110 pounds.  In more ways than one, Gandhi had become a role model.  Non-violent resistance against all forms of oppression and injustice directed her activism in those last decades.  Her thinking evolved toward a religious socialism akin to the teachings of Leonhard Ragaz, whom she came to know well in the 1920s, and in 1939 she left all she owned, quite a fortune, to the Woodbrookers, a Dutch leftist-protestant organization inspired by Quaker principles.

To Think and To Act

HRH’s itinerary from doctrinaire Marxist to religious socialist is not extraordinary, in se.  We don’t have to look very far to find fellow travelers who changed their mind—many of them much later than she did and ending up in much weirder places.   Nor was it simply a matter of dour reality breaking through and ultimately shattering youthful idealism.  Biographies like this one remind us that intellectual history is more than a succession of –isms, which are of course convenient abstractions rarely experienced in pure form on the individual level.  HRH’s story allows us to trace the internal struggles, the hidden questions and doubts that broke into the open between 1917 and 1927, gave a new orientation to her life in the 1930s, but were never entirely resolved.

If I have one, mild criticism of Etty’s analysis, it is that she devotes relatively little space to the origins of HRH’s socialism, probably because she assumed them well known to her Dutch audience.  Readers familiar with the literary movement of the Tachtigers (“the 1880-ers”) will have no trouble understanding their impact on the young poet, determined to leave a mark on the world through the passionate expression of the most individual experience in the most sensual language (yes, only superlatives will do here).

Revolutionaries on a Sunday, 1903. From left to right: Herman Gorter, his wife Wies Gorter, Rik, HRH, and her mother Anna van der Schalk

In the socially-conscious 1890s, people like Gorter and HRH naturally abandoned the original estheticism of the movement to serve social needs, especially since Marxism so nicely filled the void left by Protestantism.  But there is a little more going on here.  Etty mentions in passing that at a very young age HRH would regularly visit her uncle Mart, who owned a large distillery in Schiedam and ran the local orphanage.  Young Jet spent time with the orphans and in her later memoirs recalled how shocked she was by the appearance Continue reading

Better than Fiction (Again)

Curiouser and curiouser.  Robert Bonner tells me I missed a new development in the Orlando Figes case–the celebrated historian who claimed his wife wrote damning anonymous reviews of his academic rivals on Amazon.com (see here). Figes now confesses that his wife was not to blame, actually: he is.

‘History, the Enemy of Civilization’

I made my way through Richard J. Evans’s trilogy on the history of the Third Reich, which he completed in 2008.  For reasons of serendipity I read them in the reverse order, starting with The Third Reich at War covering the period 1939–1945, followed by The Third Reich in Power (1933–1939, published in 2005) and The Coming of the Third Reich (c. 1870 to 1933, published in 2003).  Aimed at the general reader, the three volumes cap Evans’s lifetime of research in the era, and it shows, not so much perhaps in new revelations or extraordinary details but rather in the complete and deep command of the sources and literature displayed on virtually every one of the 2,500 pages, the lucid prose, and the ability to trace various themes over a long period without ever loosing touch with the here and now of ordinary citizens.  And their victims.   For, while this is not at all a blanket indictment of an entire nation and there is of course no shortage of villains at the top, Evans does make clear, it seems to me, that this is a story of people making choices, some of them tragically wrong, with catastrophic consequences for themselves and for millions of others.  His central question is the same as the one asked by Friedrich Meinecke in 1946: ”How was it that an advanced and highly cultured nation such as Germany could give in to the brutal force of National Socialism so quickly and so easily?” (The Coming of the Third Reich, p. xxii).  The question receives a complex answer that may serve as a much-needed warning to all of us, because, even though the specific militaristic, nationalist, and anti-Semitic traditions at the root of the process seem supremely German, they were not uniquely German, and the chances that another “advanced and highly cultured nation” makes the same mistakes seem grimly good, in my reading.

I will leave it to others with more expertise in the period than I have to review the work more thoroughly (see for instance herehere, and here –with Evans’s reply here).  I have another question, much more limited in scope.  Reading the trilogy in reverse yielded few original insights–I don’t recommend it.  Yet, perhaps it did alert me to a few motifs that Evans did not specifically address but that caught my attention at several key turning points.  One was that of the use and misuse of history.  We all know examples of it from this era, but we may not know this reaction to it—or at least, I interpret the following episode as a response to the misuse of history.  Speaking of the short-lived Räterepublik (Council Republic) of the so-called “coffee-house anarchists” led by Ernst Toller, which “ruled” the city of Munich for less than a week in 1919, from April 7 to 13, when it was overthrown by a Bolshevik coup, also short-lived, Evans recalls one of their measures:

Toller announced a comprehensive reform of the arts, while his government declared that Munich University was open to all applicants except those who wanted to study history, which was abolished as hostile to civilization (Evans, The Coming of the Third Reich, p. 158).

Toller’s front man for educational reform was none other than the Jewish writer and anarchist/socialist Gustav Landauer, whom I know just a little because he was, like so many romantic idealists of his age, a fervent fan of medieval culture, and a rather interesting reader of Meister Eckhart, the fourteenth-century German mystic.

Gustav Landauer, 1870-1919

Landauer’s medievalism was special, however, in the sense that he rejected its feudal and authoritarian components to embrace, in socialist-anarchist fashion, the “organic”, free-associative communities built up by guilds.  Here was a fine example, Landauer argued, of the true spirit of the Volk materializing into blueprints for communal organization.  Surely, at this moment in time, history had reached a high point, he thought.  It all went downhill from 1500 onward, what with capitalism and science and all that modern rubbish.  (As a medievalist, I heartily applaud this, though I don’t Continue reading

Hemingway, Castro, and Oblivion

Historians are not only “students of history”.  We also make history.  Without us, the story of the past is lost as soon as its living memory fades.  In the High Middle Ages, when writing about secular affairs was still so unusual that to do so needed justification, historians and scribes often argued that their work served to prevent the “forgetfulness of those alive today, and the ignorance of those who live in the future” (I am translating from an early thirteenth-century Latin charter typical of the age).  Historians stand between memory and oblivion.

I was reminded of that role while reading Valerie Hemingway’s Running with the Bulls: My Years with the Hemingways (New York: Balantine Books, 2004).  First, a disclosure: I don’t find Hemingway’s work very interesting and appear incapable Continue reading

Now You Know

For those of you finishing their history PhD and eyeing the job market, our very own Dana M. Polanichka (’02), fresh from a UCLA PhD (2009) and newly hired by Wheaton College, offers hands-on advice in Getting an Academic Job in History (Washington D.C.: American Historical Association, 2009), which you can order here. From how to read job ads to writing thank-you notes, from how to put together a teaching portfolio to what to do with academic search wikis (“Probably the best bet is to set wiki breaks and only check the wiki pages then. Try also to stick to the posting pages and avoid discussion pages that tend toward the obsessive and desperate.”, p. 39), Polanichka explains it all. And when on the morning of that big interview, standing in front of the mirror, you wonder if you want to wear that nose ring, the answer is: “No” (p. 46).