European studies blog

5 posts from June 2013

26 June 2013

Brest Fortress: History, Defence, Memorial


Throughout its history the city of Brest in Belarus has had many different names – Bierascie or Berestye (founded 1019), Brisk (in Yiddish), Brest-Litovsk (as part of Russia), Brześć (as part of Western Belarus and Western Ukraine after the Brest-Litovsk Peace Treaty with Germany, then part of Poland from 1918-1939). From 17th September 1939 the Soviet Union regained its territories and re-named the city Brest.

In the 19th century fortifications were built because of the city’s strategic location on the border between West and East, and close to the Baltic States and Ukraine. Military engineers who took part in building the fortifications include G.I. Lagorio (1867-1938), D.M. Karbyshev (1880-1945) and B.R. Droboshisnkii (1880-1943). A book describing the history of the fortifications is Fort V i drugie forty Brestskoi kreposti (Brest, 2009) [BL shelfmark YF.2011.a.3176].

Kholmskiye Vorota, Brest Fortress
Brest Fortress: the Khlomsk Gates. Picture by Szeder László from Wikimedia Commons

On 22 June 1941 at 4 o’clock in the morning the forces of the German Wehrmacht attacked the Soviet Union. The Brest Fortress was in their way. The “Barbarossa”  plan  was to take over the Soviet Union within the space of 2 months.

The first day and first hours of the war are described in a book written by Uladzimir Shnarevich IA krepasts, viadu boĭ = I am fortress, I am in action = Ici la fortresse, continue à combattre =  Hier Festung, kämpfe weiter = Aqui la fortaleza, continuo el combate (Minsk, 1991) [YA.996.b.4851]. The German attack took the Soviet Red Army by surprise, but the defence of the citadel was quickly organized under the leadership of Captain Ivan Zubachev, Commissar Efim Fomin and Major Petr Gavrilov (1900-1978). These commanding officers were later captured and spent four years in concentration camps.

Plan of the fortress from Petr Gavrilov's memoir "Srazhaestsia krepost" (Krasnodar, 1980) YA.1993.a.3764

There were heavy human losses on both sides, as well as among civilians who lived near the fortress. The city itself was taken over by German troops very quickly, but the fortress continued to fight until 23rd July 1941.  

Today Brest Fortress’s place within National cultural heritage and the Museum are described in the book Svod pamiatnikov istorii i kultury Belorussii : Brestskaia oblast [YA.993.b.5235]

The first book about the  defence of Brest Fortress, Brestskaia krepost, was written by the Soviet journalist and author Sergei Smirnov (1915-1976) and published in 1957. It was received with huge interest not only by public and historians, but also by veterans who had fought in 1941 and survived the war. An English translation Heroes of Brest Fortress  was published in 1965 in Moscow by the Foreign Languages Publishing House [X.639/966] and a second Belarussian edition appeared in 1973 [X.989/25712]

Veterans also came forward to share their own  experiences, including Major Gavrilov whose book Srazhaetsia krepost was published in Krasnodar in 1980 [YA.1993.a.3764].

Geroicheskaia oborona
Memoirs of Brest Fortress veterans: "Geroicheskaia oborona" (Minsk, 1961). 9681.b.28

After the publication of Smirnov’s book, the decision was made to honour the memory of military and civilians who died at the Brest Fortress in the form of  a memorial and museum.

The museum was opened in 1956; also in 1956 the fortress received the title of Hero Fortress. On 25 September 1971 the Brest Fortress Memorial was opened to the public by P.M. Masherov.  See the books Brestskaia krepost: ot muzeia do memoriala (Brest, 2004) [YF.2007.b.3464], and  Brestskaia krepost : fakty, svidetelstva, otkrytiia = Brest Fortress: facts, evidence, revelation. (Brest, 2004)  [LF.31.a.1088]

The defence of Brest Fortress inspired many artists and  writers’; see Brestskaia krepasts-heroi u tvorchastsi mastakou (Minsk, 1991) [YA.1996.a.11759]. The most famous painting of the defenders of Brest Fortress is “Zashchitniki Breskoi kreposti” by the artist P.A. Krivonogov (1951). There is a book about border guards past and present - Chasovye perednego kraia: Brestskaia Krasnoznamennaia pogranichnaia gruppa im. F.E. Dzerzhinskogo (Brest, 2011) [YF.2012.b.228], and a drama by Kastus Hubarevich Brestskaia krepasts: heraichaia drama. (Minsk:, 1963) [X.907/6335]. Finally, this collection of postcards shows the city today: Brest: eto moi gorod (Brest, 2005) [YF.2006.a.35390].

Rimma Lough, Russian/Belarussian/Ukrainian Cataloguer

Main entrance to memorial
Main entrance to the Brest Fortress Memorial


21 June 2013

Pirates of the Mediterranean

Piracy in the 21st  century is more likely to take place in cyberspace than on the high seas. However, after hearing for some years of the crimes of Somali pirates, we’re now being warned of piratical activity off the coast of West Africa

An 18th-century Spaniard who read (or heard read) their chapbooks  would have been acutely aware of the threat of Ottoman pirates active closer to home in the Mediterranean.  Such pirates were real enough, but popular accounts of them naturally perpetuated motifs from earlier literature or even folklore.

In its collection of 18th-century Spanish chapbooks the Library has 10 items recounting encounters between Spaniards and the Muslims of Tunis, Algiers and Constantinople.

A case in point is the first-person narrative, in verse, of one Francisco Hernández, a soldier of Puerto de Santa María, who is captured off the coast of Oran, then a Spanish possession, by pirates from Algiers. (These chapbooks like to record the place of origin of their protagonists; this I see as confirmation that home has a particular importance even in tales set far away.) He is bought by a Moor called Mustafa, who makes him his majordomo. They treat each other with the inter-faith chivalry which has a long history in Spanish literature from the Cid onwards. 

However, after a year his master asks him to convert and marry his daughter Zelima. Francisco refuses, denouncing Mustafa’s faith as a religion of ‘tricks’ and ‘false prophecies’ founded by a ‘sorcerer’.

Such accusations are the common currency of interfaith insult. The chivalrous relations between Muslim and Christian are broken and the narrative moves into clearly ideological drive. Francisco is treated like an animal, doing hard labour at the noria (a waterwheel, normally powered by mules) and being fed on barley. When his captors destroy his rosary he kills two Moors, for which he is sentenced to the stake. His life is saved by a storm which extinguishes the flames.

Francisco Hernandez pirates BT                      Francisco Hernandez doing hard labour. BL 1074.g.23(61) (Whitehead N26)

His tormentors then shut him in a chest, which is transported by the intervention of the Virgin Mary to a Christian ship which takes him home. The chest now bears a sign reading:

Aqui dentro hay un Cautivo,
que Yo la Virgen Maria,
esta noche lo he sacado
de dentro de Berberia.
[Herein lies a captive whom I the Virgin Mary this night have taken out of Barbary]

Although works of undoubted fiction, these tales have a basis in historical fact, or rather they address an anxiety which was justified by contemporary events.  As Ellen G. Friedman says: “It is clear that during most of the 18th century, when North African piracy was ostensively in decline, the overwhelming majority of Spanish captives in North Africa had been victims of piracy, and the Spanish coasts were the source of more than half the total” (p. 31). In the more fictionalised versions in the chapbooks the captures take place at sea, in accordance with the romance motif of the sea as a locus of flux and instability.

References:                                                                                                                                                                                 H. G. Whitehead, Eighteenth-century Spanish Chapbooks in the British Library: A Descriptive Catalogue (London, 1997)  YC.1997.a.290. Items C7, D5,  D6, N7, N17, N25, N26, F15, R44,   R45.                                                                                                                                            Ellen G. Friedman, Spanish Captives in North Africa in the Early Modern Age (Madison, 1993).  X.809/60488

Barry Taylor, Curator Hispanic Studies

17 June 2013

Marketing tools

One of the British Library’s latest antiquarian acquisitions, purchased jointly by European Studies and our Curator of Bookbindings, is a very rare example of a book cover dating from the 18th century. Actually, it isn’t really a book cover at all, but a single board, about A4 size, covered with a fine piece of calf’s leather. It is sumptuously decorated with 33 different bookbinder’s tools, all in gold, which makes it look rather expensive.

Bookbinder's sample reduced hi resMK cropped

Amongst the decorations are scrolls of a hunting scene – including, unusually, a hunting lodge; another scroll depicts musicians playing various instruments, interspersed with animals both real and mythological. In the centre there is a coat of arms, as yet unidentified, surrounded by intricate corner and spine pieces depicting pomegranates, angels, vases, etc.

The leather is in very good condition: there are no visible tears or cracks, and the gilding is undamaged. It must have been passed on and cherished from one generation to the next, something very unusual for bookbinding samples which were more commonly discarded when no longer needed. But this was no ordinary sample piece, we think, and that may well be the reason why it survived.

So who made it and why? Experts we consulted offered two possibilities.

First, it could be a test-piece by a bookbinder’s apprentice. Could be – but he must have stood in very good stead with his master to be given such a prime piece of leather to work on. In general apprentices had to make do with offcuts.

The second possibility is that a master bookbinder made it in order to show off his skills to rich potential clients. Therefore he used a high-quality piece of leather and as many different tools as he possibly could.

Tools used by bookbinders differ from one region to another. Although the individual tools used on this sample are not as yet identified and cannot therefore be linked to a particular binder, the experts told us that they are very similar to those used in 18th-century Amsterdam and Utrecht, and that it is almost certain the piece was made in one of these two cities.

An image of the cover will appear in our online Bindings Database  to join over 200 18th century Dutch bindings already listed there from both the BL and the Royal Library in The Hague.

We hope that this sample book cover will stimulate the interest of researchers and practitioners in the fields of bookbinding and gilding. Personally I hope that it will also inspire young people to develop their creative skills to make similarly beautiful and enduring items.

We would like to extend our thanks to the Friends of the British Library for their support in purchasing an item which is unique in itself and a perfect complement to our existing collections.

Reference: Jan Storm van Leeuwen, De achttiende-eeuwse Haagse boekband in de Koninklijke Bibliotheek en het Rijksmuseum Meermanno-Westreenianum=the Hague bookbindings of the eighteenth century in the Royal Library and the Rijksmuseum Meermanno-Westreenianum ('s-Gravenhage, 1976). [British Library 667.m.27]

Marja Kingma, Curator Dutch Language Collections.

11 June 2013

Make your own anti-soviet propaganda!

Looking for material in the British Library's Russian collections that could be shown in our current exhibition Propaganda: Power and Persuasion, I found a small collection of anti-Soviet propaganda  purchased by the Library in 1978 [British Library shelfmark HS.74/2168].

The collection consists of about 50 items published in the 1950s by the Narodno-trudovoi Soiuz (The National Alliance of Russian Solidarists)  a Russian far-right anticommunist organization founded in 1930 by a group of young Russian White émigrés  in Belgrade. The organization also set up a radio station called ‘Radio Free Russia’; during the Cold War its programmes were broadcast from West Germany to the Soviet-occupied eastern zone until the West German government, responding to pressure from the Soviet government, shut the station down.

The NTS actively sent out propaganda leaflets via air balloons and other means, including direct mail. Messages containing anti-Stalinist slogans and the NTS’s political programme were printed on leaflets, handkerchiefs, fake roubles, false books, etc. to be smuggled into the Soviet Union.
For example, in our collection we have a leaflet addressed to the entire ‘population of the country’ with an image of a hundred-rouble note on the reverse, which of course could not be taken for a real banknote. Other items are presented as handwritten letters to a friend, and some are really small pieces – about the size of a matchbox - with graphic images and some text on them. It is difficult to say whether these tricks and others, such as a fake newspaper intended to imitate the established Soviet newspaper, Literaturnaia Gazeta (The Literary Newspaper), really helped to smuggle more material into the USSR. Not the Literaturnaia Gazeta
A fake Literaturnaia Gazeta

In my view, the most interesting items in this collection are two templates which could be used to produce more copies of anti-Soviet propaganda. The instructions for doing this are not exactly simple: “Take 22 teaspoons of water, 5 teaspoons of potato starch, 8 teaspoons of real ink, and 2 teaspoons of glycerine. Mix all the ingredients very well and heat slowly till the mixture becomes fairly thick. Using a small piece of wood smoothed by fabric or rubber, rub this substance into paper through this template. Rinse and dry the template after use”.

Home propaganda kit -1
Make your own Propaganda! One of the NTS templates

I’m afraid that even those who have a valid reader’s ticket for the British Library  won’t be able to try this out. But the collection will soon go undergo conservation treatment and will be available to consult in the reading rooms in 2014. 

Katya Rogatchevskaia, Lead Curator Russian Studies

05 June 2013

Propaganda in the schoolroom

One of the exhibits in The British Library’s current exhibition Propaganda: Power and Persuasion is a school textbook, opened to show one of the nastiest maths problems ever posed: how much does it cost to care for the ‘hereditarily unfit’ in terms of a ‘normal’ worker’s annual salary? The book was published in Germany in 1941, and its young readers were effectively asked to put a value on human lives and encouraged to see one kind of life as more valid than another.  Other calculations in the book involve the proportion of German territory lost in 1918, the falling percentage of Jews in the German population since 1933 and the comparative sizes of the British and German navies.

'Was Kostet die Betreuung Erbkranker', from Rechenbuch für Volksschulen. Gaue Westfalen-Nord u. Süd. Ausgabe B. Heft V – 7. und 8. Schuljahr. (Leipzig, [1941]). British Library YA.1998.a.8646

Maths might seem an unlikely field for spreading propaganda messages, but the Nazi regime could press almost any school subject into the service of its propaganda machine. Hitler made no secret of his desire for children to ‘learn nothing else but to think as Germans and to act as Germans’, and the schoolbooks published under his rule promoted the Nazi mindset in many different ways.

An obsession with race and eugenics was a major part of this mindset, promoted in biology textbooks with long sections on ‘racial studies’. But two biology textbooks in our collections also show more subtle use of propaganda. One is intended for use in girls’ schools and contains information on food and nutrition and on choosing a healthy partner; its cover shows a woman in a blossoming orchard, surrounded by blond children. Woman’s role is to nurture, to feed – and to breed. In contrast the textbook for boys’ schools is more technical and its cover features a powerful woodcut of a muscular ploughman, hair blowing in the wind. Man's role is to fight the elements and tame the soil.

Biology textbooks
Biology for girls and boys: Graf, J. Biologie für höhere Schulen. Bd. 4. Ausgabe für Mädchenschulen. (München, 1943). YA.1994.a.15364, and Meyer, E. Lebenskunde: Lehrbuch der Biologie für höhere Schulen. Bd. 3 (5. Klasse). (Erfurt, 1942). 7006.v.17

The boys’ textbook uses the term ‘Lebenskunde’ instead of ‘Biologie’, and this preference for more ‘Germanic’ terminology developed throughout the period: a geography textbook which originally had the ‘does-what-is-says-on-the-tin’ title Lehrbuch der Wirtschaftsgeographie became in its 1940 edition Volk – Raum –  Wirtschaft (British Library: 10004.ppp.44.)

Geography of course offered further opportunities to hammer home to children the losses to German territory following the ‘diktat of Versailles’. History too was a fertile field for the propagandist, focusing on the heroes and triumphs of the German past. One history textbook describes the boy Hitler reading about the ancient Germans and lamenting that his native Austria was no longer part of a great German empire. Another includes an 'appendix of enemies and traitors', from Segestes, the betrayer of Arminius, to the Weimar Republic politician Walter Rathenau.

It’s hard to know how much influence this kind of textbook propaganda had on the children of Hitler’s Germany, but a generation grew up with these books and the teaching that went with them. Few if any can have remained completely untouched, and the post-war world must have given them much to un-learn and reconsider.

Susan Reed, Lead Curator Germanic Studies