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16 November 2018

The Netherlands’ ‘Red Week’ in November 1918 – Troelstra’s Mistake

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“I let myself go, but as soon as I noticed it would not have the desired effect I withdrew.”

Pieter Jelles Troelstra wrote these (freely translated) words in the fourth volume, posthumously published, of his Memoirs.

01Nov1918PJTportrait
Portrait of P.J. Troelstra, frontispiece from his memoirs, Gedenkschriften. Vierde deel: Storm. (Amsterdam, 1931) 010760.g.18.

Following the failures of the Second International in 1916 and of the peace conference in Stockholm in 1917 he advocated direct action when parliamentary processes failed.

02Nov1918 Hahn p179
“What is left of the Internationale in the Netherlands”, cartoon by Louis de Leeuw from De Roskam, October 1916. Reproduced in A.H. Hahn, Troelstra in de karikatuur (Amsterdam, 1920) X.429/4421.

Troelstra deemed the time ripe for a revolution in the Netherlands, following food riots and an uprising on an army base. 

03Nov1918Hahn p159
 “… And when the revolution is there, Pieter Jelles is ready.” Cartoon by Jan Sluyters from De Nieuwe Amsterdammer, 9 February 1918. Reproduced in Troelstra in de karikatuur.

Going against his own party and without their prior knowledge he held two speeches: in Rotterdam in front of dock workers on 11 November and in Parliament on 12 November, where he called upon the government to step aside for a socialist regime ans claimed that if they did not do so peacefully he would not rule out the use of violence. He then went home and waited for events to happen!

Whilst he was resting others were frantically busy organising a counter-revolution.

Leading figures were the secretaries of one of the directors of the Bataafse Petroleum Maatschappij (precursor of Shell) Hendrik Colijn, H.H.A. Gybland Oosterhoff and F.C Gerretson.

Colijn happened to be in London, where he negotiated an economic agreement, including food supplies. Gerretson & Oosterhoff contacted British Ambassador in The Hague, Walter Townley, on the evening of 12 November asking him to forward a telegram from Colijn’s party, but written by Gerretson, urging him to press Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour to strongly emphasis that any food supplies would only be sent to the ‘Royal Government of the Netherlands’, and none would be forthcoming in case of disorder.

This happened and the strong warning was sent to the Dutch Government who immediately passed it on to the people in the form of a proclamation, issued on 13 of November.

06Nov1918Schefferp139
Text of the Dutch Government’s proclamation issued on 13 November, warning that any revolt, violence or disturbance would halt the promised food supplies. From: H.J. Scheffer, November 1918: journaal van een revolutie die niet doorging. (Amsterdam, 1968)  X.809/7108.

This seemed to have had the desired effect, for Townley wired to Balfour on the 14th of November that “the proclamation had worked wonders” and suggested publishing a similar notice in London.

Meanwhile the largest Dutch trade union, the N.V.V., had distanced itself from Troelstra, as did his own party. It became clear that calling for a revolution on the basis of events in Germany had been a grave miscalculation.


08Nov1918Hahnp173
“The N.V.V, Wijnkoop and Troelstra. Stenhuis (Secr. Gen N.V.V.): Let go of my jacket, we’re going our own way.” Cartoon by Louis Raedemaekers, from De Courant, 22 March 1920. Reproduced in Troelstra in de karikatuur

On 14 November Troelstra was back in Parliament, admitting he had made an error. He claimed never to have called for a coup-d’état, nor advocated violence. This U-turn caused some unrest in the gallery to the extent that the speaker had to call for order.

09Nov1918Handel141118deniescoupdetat
 Troelstra: “I have never used the word ‘coup d-etat’. …. Troelstra: “ I have explicitly stated that I reject violence.” From: Handelingen Tweede Kamer 1918-1919 , 14 November 1918, p 395. www.statengeneraaldigitaal.nl.

The government has regained its grip, both mentally and in practice and the Dutch had shown their loyalty to the House of Orange in a mass demonstration in The Hague, on Monday 18th where the queen and her family were present. Townley gives a nice summary of events in his despatch to Balfour of that day, covered in the Rijskgeschiedkundige Publicatiën, vol 145, pages 619-624. He mentions the small group of people who ‘spontaneously’ unharnessed the horses in front of the queen’s carriage and pulled it themselves, a story that became a legend, although it later proved to have been a thoroughly rehearsed plan.

The consequences of Troelstra’s ‘mistake’ were that some of the social reforms that his socialist party had demanded were widely supported, resulting in an eight-hour day and 45 hour working week, more social housing, higher wages for civil servants and women’s suffrage!

Troelstra himself never gave up the idea of the possibility of revolution, should democracy fail.

Marja Kingma, Curator Germanic Collections

10Nov1918Hahn p161
“The coquette politician. Mr Troelstra: ‘Such a dear knife! But…. What if it cuts the party in two?’”  Cartoon by Jan Sluyters from De Nieuwe Groene, 22 March 1919, reproduced in Troelstra in de karikatuur

References:

D. Hans, Troelstra en de Revolutie (Dalfsen, 1920) 8079.e.36

C. Smit et al. ‘Bescheiden Betreffende de buitenlandse politiek van Nederland 1848 -1919’. In: Rijskgeschiedkundige Publicatiën ; Grote Serie, 145. (The Hague, 1973) 9405.p. Also available online at: http://resources.huygens.knaw.nl/retroboeken/bupo/#source=13&page=465&accessor=toc 

 

05 October 2018

‘The Mafia doesn’t exist’

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Of the over 1000 books on the subject of the mafia held at the British Library, about 700 were published after 1992, when the murders of Judges Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino made the whole world talk about the Sicilian mafia. Before then, in the 1980s, it was not uncommon to hear that ‘the mafia didn’t exist’, or that it only existed in Palermo, but not in the rest of Sicily. Denouncing the businesses of Sicilian Cosa Nostra, and its ties with the Italian government, had a high price to pay for too many intellectuals. Just to mention two, in 1978, Giuseppe ‘Peppino’ Impastato, and, in 1984, Giuseppe ‘Pippo’ Fava, paid for their work with their lives. Peppino Impastato was a political activist, who didn’t leave many writings behind. The other Giuseppe, on the other hand, was a celebrated playwright, a writer and an investigative journalist, so we have collected most of his works since the 1970s and have recently acquired the full run of the magazine that he edited until his murder, and which was the reason for his murder, I Siciliani.

Giuseppe_Fava

 Giuseppe ‘Pippo’ Fava (Picture from Wikimedia Commons)

Coming from rural Sicily, Pippo Fava moved to the town of Catania to study law, and then became a professional journalist in 1952. He wrote for several newspapers and magazines, also establishing himself as author for theatre and cinema (he co-wrote the movie Palermo or Wolfsburg, which won the Golden Bear at the 1980 Berlinale). Given the task of editing Il Giornale del Sud, Fava recruited a team of young journalists and photographers to help him carry out some serious investigative journalism. When he was fired by the owners, who would have preferred him to avoid writing so much about the mafia, he used his charisma and influence to persuade these young journalists to join him in creating a fully independent and self-funded monthly magazine, a loud voice for the anti-mafia movement in Sicily, I Siciliani.

Siciliani covers Issues of I Siciliani 

Poor in budget but rich in ideas, Fava started with a very clear agenda of the topics to tackle. He wanted people to see Sicily as it really was. Showing the bad was a moral and ethical duty. Murders were photographed and reported without filters, corruptors were named and shamed. The damage to the environment caused by industrial and building speculation was clear to him, and he was not ashamed to talk about it. His stories are still relevant. His most important contribution was identifying the links between national politicians and the mafia, and stating that the mafia was effectively ruling the country; this was something Pippo Fava was saying out loud at times when nobody was ready to hear it (Pippo Fava’s last interview with Enzo Biagi, December 1983). But I Siciliani also portrays normal life, showing both the rich and profound culture of the island and as the urban lifestyle that must have surprised those who thought of Sicily as the land of The Godfather.

In the first issue, dated January 1983, in his first editorial, Fava was the first to talk about the Catanian mafia, whose existence everyone else was trying to deny. He names the powerful entrepreneurs behind it; he shows their faces, as well as that of Bernardo ‘Nitto’ Santapaola, the local mafia boss.

I siciliani1Giuseppe Fava, ‘I Quattro Cavalieri dell’Apocalisse Mafiosa’ (above) and Bernardo Santapaola (below), from I Siciliani, Issue 1, January 1983.

Santapaola

It wouldn’t be long. One year later, that same man ordered his murder. Pippo Fava was killed on 5 January 1984, on his way to pick up his grandniece from a theatre rehearsal. I Siciliani tried to survive for a few more years, penniless, mostly relying on subscriptions and a few brave advertisers who didn’t fear the isolation of the magazine.

If you read it now, I Siciliani is still as shocking, powerful and compelling as it was 30 years ago. The issues are still there. The love for the place is still there. Nothing ever changes in Sicily: If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change. (Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, Il Gattopardo)

Valentina Mirabella, Curator of Romance Collections (Italian) @miravale

References/Further Reading

I Siciliani (Sant’Agata li Li Battiati, 1982-[1985]) ZF.9.b.2335

Giuseppe Fava, Gente di rispetto (Milan, 1975) X.909/34407

Giuseppe Fava, Passione di Michele (Bologna, 1980) X.950/20292

Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, The Leopard (London, 1974) X.908/28903

30 August 2018

A diary as a form of art: Jiří Kolář

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The Czech poet, writer and artist Jiří Kolář (1914-2002) does not need a long introduction. He was one of the most prominent figures of the Czech avant-garde of the 1950s-70s and along with Ladislav Nová, Bohumila Grögerová, and her partner Josef Hiršal, one of the four founders of post-war Czechoslovak experimental poetry. Given his aesthetic views it is not surprising that Kolář, like many Czechoslovak intellectuals who lived through the communist regime, was a signatory of Charter 77 .

Having published his first collection of poems Křestní list (‘Birth Certificate’; YA.1996.a.15846) in 1941, by the mid-1950s Kolář started exploring new potentials of lyrical forms, reducing verbal expression to a bare minimum and concentrating on the capacities of visual expression. By the 1960s he developed his unique artistic style, using collage that would incorporate text as well as images as his main medium.

Kolar Self-portraitSelf Portrait by Kolář in Očitý svědek: deník z roku 1949 (Munich, 1983) X.958/30382

Having lived through all the major historical events with his nation, Kolář was very sensitive to them. Czech and Slovaks shared the turbulent history of Europe in the 20th century by marking it with events that were for some reason seemed to happen in the 8th year of decades: gaining independence in 1918, losing it to Nazi Germany in 1938, falling under the control of the Stalinist USSR in 1948 through a communist coup d’état, and unsuccessfully trying to shake off Soviet dominance in 1968. This strange coincidence makes this year extremely memorable for the Czech and Slovak republics. Only the Velvet Revolution of 1989 does not fit this pattern, but this means that we will have the whole of next year to dedicate to this great achievement.

It is especially interesting to note how the poet and artist developed a special interest in diaries and was meticulously devoted to this form. One of his critics observed that “considering Kolář’s permanent, insatiable thirst for facts, his undying passion for documenting the true pace of events and the truthfulness of impressions, we must admit that this autobiographical nature, this diary principle, committed to factography, permeates both his work and his deeds”. And this is very true. Kolář documented the year 1949, the beginning of the communist rule with a literary diary in verse and prose called Očitý svědek: deník z roku 1949 (‘Eyewitness, a diary of the year 1949’).

Kolar Ocity Svedek X.958-30382Cover of Očitý svědek 

The diary of the artists’s thoughts and emotions gives the readers the most faithful and honest impression of the time. On 11 July 1949 the diary entry begins:

Mě udolají snadno, neumím lhat, podobám se už červu, kterého přepůlili jen tak, pro podívanou a svíjím se. (I’m easy to destroy, /I cannot lie, / I’m like a worm, / Who was cut just so / for the show, and I’m curdling, / the soul is separate from the body).

In 1968, Kolář expressed himself through a series of 52 collages (one per week) that became an amazing artistic document of the year leading to the Prague Spring and its aftermath.

Kolar Tydenik 1968 YA.1994.b.1036 Title page of Týdeník 1968 = Newsreel 1968 (Prague, 1993) YA.1994.b.1036

The book is in a way a political pamphlet and reflects life in all its hectic variety, for example:

Week 2: Each day in the new year is a puzzle. Especially when one’s head is in a wire.
Week 10: Antonín Tomalík (a Czech artist) is Dead
Week 15: A liquid triumph of death [is] available at every crossroad. Take your pick!
Week 27: Homage to Ingres … or, the banner of a students’ revolt.
Week 39: Birthday. I was born in the First World War and guns have not fallen silent since.
Week 48: A week of Hands. A rejected hand often turns into a clenched fist.
Week 52: A Face of 1969. Alas, I am a poor prophet – and Utopia? Old men used to usher the world into Paradise. Our masters have long been drowned in mud.

The diary that documented the 1980s is Kolář’s correspondence. The two-volume publication of his letters Psáno na pohlednice (‘Written on postcards’) has the subtitle ‘correspondence in the form of a diary’, as it contains postcards that were sent every day over several years from Paris, where Kolář lived in exile, to his wife in Prague.

Kolar Psano na pohlednice YF.2004.a.6387
One of Kolář’s postcards, reproduced on the endpapers of Psáno na pohlednice (Prague, 2000). YF.2004.a.6387

More books by Jiří Kolář, material about him and catalogues of his works can be found in the British Library catalogue and consulted in the reading rooms.

Katya Rogatchevskaia, Lead Curator East European Collections

Further reading:

A. J. Samuels. ‘Jiří Kolář: The Czech Poet's Life, Work & Cultural Significance’ .

Arsén Pohribný, ‘Jiří Kolář’s Tower of Babel’, afterword in Týdeník 1968 (cited above).

05 June 2018

Ernst Friedrich and his War against War

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In 1924 the German pacifist Ernst Friedrich published the first edition of one of the most powerful anti-war books of the 20th century. Krieg dem Kriege! = Guerre à la guerre! = War against war! = Oorlog an den oorlog! consisted mainly of photographs depicting the destruction wrought by the First World War, with captions in German, French, English and Dutch.

Krieg dem Kriege cover
Cover of Krieg dem Kriege ... (Berlin, 1930) Cup.719/390

Friedrich came from a large working-class family – one of 13 children. He trained as an actor, making his stage debut in his native Breslau (now Wrocław) in 1914, but his career was cut short by the outbreak of war. As a conscientious objector he spent most of the war first in an asylum and later in prison. In the 1920s he became active in both socialist and anti-militarist groups, and Krieg dem Kriege reflects both tendencies.

The book opens with an address – again in all four languages – to ‘Human beings of all lands,’ in which Friedrich sets out his purpose: to ‘paint correctly this butchery of human beings’ in ‘records obtained by the inexorable, incorruptible photographic lens.’ While he blames capitalism for war, he also states that ‘it is … proletarians that make the conduct of war possible’ by agreeing to fight on behalf of their oppressors. He calls on men to refuse to serve and parents to bring up their children without military toys, games and songs, which ‘mobilise the child for the war idea.’

Krieg dem Kriege vol 1 toys
A collection of war toys with an appeal to parents not to give them to children 

The pictures that follow are accompanied by sometimes ironic captions:a photograph of a burnt and mutilated corpse is captioned, ‘A “meritorious” achievement’, while two rotting skulls are set against a quotation from Kaiser Wilhelm II, ‘I lead you towards glorious times.’ Sometimes images are juxtaposed, for example a posed studio portrait of a uniformed soldier aiming his gun (‘The pride of the family’) with the bloody corpse of a shot infantryman. Other juxtapositions place the comforts enjoyed by officers and royalty against the suffering of ordinary soldiers, or show how the higher ranks are commemorated with taller or grander memorials than the lower, maintaining class distinctions even in death. The devastation wrought on landscapes and towns is also shown.

Krieg dem Kriege Vol 1 woods
Devastated forests

But most images stand alone with straightforward captions, showing the terrible reality of mass slaughter on a scale never before seen. Some of the most famous show severely mutilated soldiers – most notably a man with the whole lower half of his face destroyed – and maimed veterans back at menial work or begging for money. Friedrich seldom defines the wounded or dead in these pictures by nationality, forcing the reader to see them all as fellow-humans rather than compatriots, allies or enemies.

Krieg dem Kriege vol 2 workman
A wounded ex-soldier at workThe opposite page shows an aristocrat enjoying a post-war yachting holiday. 

The book ends with an appeal for contributions to an ‘International Anti-War Museum’ which Friedrich opened in Berlin in 1925. Like the book, the museum sought to illustrate the true horrors of war and to encourage pacifist and antimilitarist education.

Krieg dem Kriege vol 2 Appeal
Above: The appeal for contributions to an Anti-War museum, from Krieg dem Kriege. Below: A display at the museum, from Vom Friedens-Museum - zur Hitler-Kaserne : ein Tatsachenbericht über das Wirken von Ernst Friedrich und Adolf Hitler (Geneva, 1935) YA.1990.a.20970

Friedensmuseum zur Hitlerkaserne display

Friedrich continued to campaign against war and for greater social justice, but even in the supposedly tolerant era of the Weimar Republic his publications were frequently banned and he was jailed for his political activities in 1930. He and the museum were early targets for the burgeoning Nazi movement; once the Nazi were in power, Friedrich was swiftly arrested, the museum was destroyed and the building was turned into an SA clubhouse.

Friedensmuseum zur Hitlerkaserne nespaper facsim
An article from the Nazi newspaper Der Angriff celebrating the Anti-War Museum’s change of use, reproduced in Vom Friedens-Museum - zur Hitler-Kaserne 

On his release, Friedrich left Germany. In 1935 he published an account of the museum and its fate, Vom Friedens-Museum – zur Hitler-Kaserne, in the name of the ‘Interational Committee for the Re-establishment of the Peace Museum’. In 1936 he was able to reopen the museum in Brussels, but it was once again destroyed when Belgium fell to the Germans in 1940. After some months of internment in France, Friedrich escaped and joined the French resistance. He was involved in saving a group of Jewish children from deportation and, despite his pacifism, took part in the battles to liberate Nîmes and Alès and was twice wounded.

Friedrich remained in France after the Second World War. Attempts to re-create the museum were unsuccessful, but compensation payments for his suffering under the Nazis enabled him to buy first a ‘peace barge’ and later a small island in the River Seine, which he named the ‘Ile de la Paix’ and where he established an international youth centre for peace and reconciliation.

Friedensmuseum zur Hitlerkaserne cover
Cover of Vom Friedens-Museum - zur Hitler-Kaserne 

After Friedrich’s death in 1967 the island was sold and the centre pulled down. However, his work lives on. In 1982 a new Anti-War Museum opened in Berlin. The museum continues to highlight the brutality of war, and has also reissued both Krieg dem Kriege and Vom Friedens-Museum – zur Hitler-Kaserne. Both museum and books remain as a worthy tribute to a man who devoted his life to the cause of peace.

Susan Reed, Lead Curator Germanic Collections

The British Library’s copy of Krieg dem Kriege is currently on display in the exhibition Aftermath: Art in the Wake of World War One  at Tate Britain, which runs from 5 June to 23 September 2018.

16 May 2018

Southern French printing during the Revolution: Le Journal de Marseille and La prise de Toulon

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0IMG_8456a
 The Destruction of the French Fleet at Toulon, 18 December 1793, from Thomas Whitcombe, The naval achievements of Great Britain from the year 1793 to 1817 (London, 1817-18) 748.d.22.

In an earlier blog post, we discussed the recent acquisition of a copy of the revolutionary Journal de Marseille published in 1793-1794, RB.23.a.37976. Now we would like to comment on the collection of pamphlets bound at the end of the volume. They include a revolutionary song, the “Chanson des sans-culottes”, by the comedian, theatre director, song writer and dramatic author Aristide Valcour. 

  1IMG_8223a
Aristide Valcour, Chanson des sans-culottes, ([Paris], 1793) RB.23.a.37976.(5)

It is followed by the left-leaning, Jacobin-inspired Constitution of 24 June 1793, which was never implemented, preceded as is often the case by the Déclaration des droits de l’homme et du citoyen.  The collection also contains reports and political discourses held at the National Convention and the Committee of Public Safety , discussing topics such as religion, government or public instruction. 

2IMG_8224a Constitution of 24 June 1793, with Déclaration des droits de l’homme et du citoyen ([Paris], 1793) RB.23.a.37976.(6)

The volume is very coherent in the way it gathers contemporary revolutionary material from South-Eastern France. Initially, the titles of the additional pamphlets suggested that some were duplicates of existing tracts in the British Library’s collection. However, most of the tracts contained in the Journal volume are from different, often Southern editions, or in some cases have a different type-set. For example, the discourse Aux grands Maux les grands Remèdes by Sébastien Lacroix (the initial editor of the Journal de Marseille), held at F.617.(21.) was first printed in Paris, while the other copy, a reprint published in Marseille by Auguste Mossy in the same year (an II / 1793), is abbreviated, and followed by an order of the General Assembly of the Republican Section des Quatre nations for the printing and distribution of 3000 copies and 500 posters of Lacroix’s petition. 

3IMG_8228aSébastien Lacroix, Aux grands Maux les grands Remèdes (Marseille, 1793) RB.23.a.37976.(10)

Lacroix is the author of another tract in the Journal de Marseille collection: La Religion naturelle, la seule qui convient à des Républicains, published in 1793-94 (an II) by Auguste Mossy (1764-1820): in the compilation, this is a duplicate of BL collection item, R.337.(15.). The Mossy family of printers  seems to have played a key role in the diffusion of Jacobin literature such as that transmitted in the volume (we don’t know who were its early owners: the opening paste-down contains an ex-libris signature which has been crossed out). Auguste Mossy, who printed 3 tracts in the compilation, was a fervent revolutionary who started his own printing business in 1791 and became a municipal councillor for the city of Marseilles until 1793 (he later held other important political functions, under the Consulate and the Napoleonic Empire but was demoted under the Bourbon Restoration).

4IMG_8225a
Sébastien Lacroix, La religion naturelle la seule qui convient à des Républicains (Marseille, 1793) RB.23.a.37976.(7)

The patriarch, Jean Mossy worked with his sons Jean II and Auguste from 1784 to at least 1791. He was a printer for the Navy, the King/the Nation and the City of Marseille, and published important works in the 1770-80s on the antiquities of Marseille and the history of Provence and Comté-Venaissin. Jean II (1758-1835), who published 4 tracts in the Journal de Marseille compilation, inherited his father’s presses and his own son, Jean-Joseph Mossy, succeeded him as a printer and bookseller.

  5IMG_8227a Maximilien Robespierre, Discours prononcé à la Société populaire des Jacobins à Paris, 21 November 1793 RB.23.a.37976.(9)

Other material bound after the Journal de Marseille include several discourses by figures such as Robespierre, Billaud-Varenne, Moyse Bayle  (a member of Marseille’s Jacobins club, deputy for the Bouches-du-Rhône department at the 1792 National Convention, involved in in 1793 with the Committee of Public Safety and the Committee of General Security) and Jean-Corisandre Mittié. 

6IMG_8232a Title page of Jean-Corisandre Mittié, La prise de Toulon (Marseille, 1794) RB.23.a.37976.(14)

Mittié succeeded Lacroix as editor of the Journal de Marseille from issue 44 onwards. He was an author of dramatic works like La prise de Toulon, fait historique en un acte et en prose, the last item in the collection, and went on writing plays performed in Paris, such as the farcical La descente en Angleterre, prophétie en deux actes (performed on 24 December 1797 at the Cité-Variété theatre) or L’anniversaire, ou La fête de la souveraineté, scène lyrique et mélodramatique, mêlée de pantomime, combats et danses, et dédiée au peuple (performed in March 1798 at the Ambigu-Comique theatre). The newly-acquired Prise de Toulon is a copy of the first Marseille edition, published by Jean Mossy, while the library already owned the second edition (Paris, 1794; 11738.f.25.(7.).

7IMG_8234aInstructions for the actors; Scene 1 from La prise de Toulon

Mittié, who was sent by the Committee of Public Safety to Marseilles in 1794, asserts on the title page of La Prise de Toulon that he travelled to Toulon to be able to provide the most “exact”, “detailed information, the most authentic account and knowledge of the character and genius of the men who contributed to this memorable event”. The Siege of Toulon  led to a wealth of dramatic and lyrical revolutionary creations written by professional authors and enthusiastic revolutionaries and performed mainly in Paris at the beginning of 1794. The victory of the Republicans (including the young officer Napoléon Bonaparte) over the Royalists and a coalition of British, Spanish and Italian troops in the city of Toulon, with its strategic port and arsenal, was celebrated throughout the country. 

8Les_coalises_evacuent_Toulon_en_decembre_1793 A. Forand, ‘Evacüation des puissances coälisées du port de Toulon. Le 18 decembre 1793’ (1793). (Image from Prints, Drawings and Watercolors from the Anne S.K. Brown Military Collection. Brown Digital Repository. Brown University Library)

The list of characters and instructions to the actors give an idea of the ideological bias of Mittié’s play. The drama is represented as “useful” with its “patriotic influence”, because it “consecrates the most memorable period of the Revolution, the most decisive for the fate of Liberty”. On Republican side the Generals and Representatives of the people (including Fréron, Barras and Robespierre), who after the flight of the English and the fall of the city, stop the pillage and execute the traitors, must have a “strong voice and physique”, and the female heroine, “citoyenne Lapoype”, who was captured but eventually liberated, “the most touching voice and accent”. 

9IMG_8233aCharacter list and Preface from La prise de Toulon

On the side of the Royalists, depicted as reactionary and dissolute, the Marquis de Sombreuil, the type of the coxcomb, must have a “tone leading to ridicule” and the Knight of Cazalés corresponds to the type of an old man. The play highlights the eventual execution and “guillotine” of “conspirators” and “traitors”. It ends with the ominous announcement by Fréron of the intended destruction of the city of Toulon (which in the end was not implemented by the authorities): “only ashes and rubble” will remain as “the hand of vengeance will erase up to the last remnant of Toulon”. It closes with the enthusiastic salutation: “the genius of Liberty hovers over us. Woe to the Royalists, war to tyrants, peace to the cottages and LONG LIVE THE REPUBLIC”.  

Irène Fabry-Tehranchi, Curator, Romance collections

References:

Jacques Billioud, Le Livre en Provence du XVIe au XVIIIe siècle (Marseille, 1962). 2704.e.4.

Hervé Guénot, ‘ Le théâtre et l'événement : la représentation dramatique du siège de Toulon (août 1793’, Annales littéraires de l'Université de Besançon. Littérature et révolution française, 354, 1987, Ac.282/6

Hubert C. Johnson, The Midi in revolution: a study of regional political diversity, 1789-1793 (Princeton, 1986). YH.1987.b.380 

Michael L. Kennedy, The Jacobin Club of Marseilles, 1790-1794 (Ithaca, 1973). 73/13539 

 

27 March 2018

Le Journal de Marseille: a new periodical in the British Library’s French Revolutionary collections

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1IMG_8141a Le journal de Marseille, 1793-94, RB.23.a.37976.

This year, a grant from the Friends of the British Library enabled the purchase of the complete set of a rare periodical published in 1793-94 during the French Revolution: 62 issues of the Journal de Marseille, along with 14 issues of its Supplement. It is an important addition to our holdings from the period of French Revolution, in particular the French Revolution tracts collection, comprising some 2,200 volumes.

2IMG_3893 French Revolution tracts in the British Library basement

The world of print changed dramatically during and after the French Revolution and the development of the Press reflected the vivacity of the political debates, contributing to the emergence of a public opinion. In the Library’s collections, the Journal de Marseille complements accounts of the revolutionary events which happened in Marseilles and the South of France, printed either in Paris or locally. It can be read alongside other periodicals, such as the Bulletin des Marseillois,  the Journal du Département du Var,  the Journal de Lyon or the Journal de Bordeaux , as well as the Jacobin Journal des débats de la Société des Amis de la Constitution

3IMG_8144aJournal de Marseille, 1st issue, 1 October 1793

Marseilles was a key city during the French Revolution (it gave its name to the revolutionary national anthem). The Journal de Marseille et des départemens méridionaux shows how debates within the revolutionary movement added to tensions between royalists and republicans. It was published three times a week (Sunday, Wednesday, Friday) between October 1793 and February 1794 by the Club des Jacobins de Marseille, a local branch of this left-wing society which included members of rival political factions, the Girondins and the Mountain. The Mountain, led by Maximilien Robespierre, and supported by the most militant members of the Club des Jacobins de Marseilles, held radical views which led to extremism and the Reign of Terror in the years 1793-1794. They brutally expelled the Girondins from the National Convention in the summer of 1793, an event which fostered rebellions, especially in the South, where the Girondins, who promoted federalism, were very influential.

4IMG_8158a Journal républicain de la Commune sans nom, issue 58, 12 Pluviôse an II (31 January 1794)

The Convention sent troops against the Marseilles insurgents: they took control of the city on 25 August 1793 and set up a Republican tribunal. The city was then deprived of its name and temporarily re-baptised “la Ville sans nom”: from issue 52 onwards, the name of the periodical thus changes to Journal républicain de la Commune sans nom et des départemens méridionaux.

5IMG_8145 Journal de Marseille, 2nd issue, 4 October 1793

The Journal was thus at the centre of burning political interests. Its initial editors were Alexandre Ricord (1770-1829) and Sébastien Brumeaux de Lacroix (b. 1768). Ricord was general prosecutor of the Bouches-du-Rhône department and between March 1792 and May 1793 had co-edited the Journal des départemens méridionaux et des débats des amis de la Constitution de Marseille  (whose publication was interrupted by the federalist movement in Marseilles) and issues 2 to 8 of the Journal de Marseille. Lacroix, “jacobin de Paris”, was sent to Marseilles as a delegate appointed by the Convention, and took the sole editorship of the periodical from issue 9 onwards.

6IMG_8143a Journal de Marseille, Prospectus, pp. 6-7

The Journal results from an initiative of the Convention delegates for southern French departments: it was designed to “remedy the vagaries of public opinion, its lack of instruction and enlightenment” and “purge the public spirit from the venom distilled by enemies of the Motherland, coward federalists”, given the difficulties in disseminating Paris journals. It is conceived as the voice of “the Nation, responsible for providing moral food for the people and enlightening it on its interests, rights and duties”. It gives accounts of the Convention’s meetings and discussions.

7IMG_8142 Journal de Marseille, Prospectus, p. 1

The political dimension of the Journal de Marseille is clear from the start, its Prospectus starting with the motto “Le salut du peuple est la suprême loi”, and a declaration praising the “journaux patriotiques” which since 1789 have enlightened the people and promoted Freedom, supporting the durable Rule of All rather than One. The periodical places itself against publications “paid for by aristocrats, royalists and federalists”, accused of “delaying the progress of human reason”. In ominous terms, the editor vows to “track traitors in their cellars and attics, to unmask the looters of the Nation, to denounce to the jury of the public opinion unfaithful administrators, conspiring generals, and delegates of the people”, including “members of the Mountain, the Marsh or the Plain, federalists and their vile supporters.” Under the Reign of Terror, the Journal is openly conceived as the nexus of an “active and general surveillance, a beacon to illuminate federalist conspiracies.” It wants to inspire the people with “the strength so necessary in the fight between crime and virtue, freedom and slavery.”

8IMG_8149a Journal de Marseille, issue 44, 14 Nivôse an II (3 January 1794)

From issue 44 onwards, “Mittié fils” succeeded Lacroix as editor of the Journal de Marseille. Both names still appear on the first page until issue 55, when Mittié’s name remains. Jean-Corisandre Mittié, who was sent by the Comité de Salut public to Marseilles in 1794, authored dramatic works like La prise de Toulon, which features at the end of our volume.

9IMG_8159a Journal de Marseille, Supplément, issue 1, 3 frimaire an II (23 November 1793)

While the Prospectus and first eight issues of the Journal were published by Marc Aurel, “printer of the people’s representatives sent to the southern departments”, later issues were printed by Auguste Mossy, a printer who played an important role in Marseilles politics under the Revolution and the First Empire. Auguste came from a family of Marseilles printers: he worked, alongside his brother Jean (1758-1835), in their father’s printing shop before opening his own press.

The copy of the Journal de Marseille acquired by the British Library is kept in a modest but original brown leather binding with parchment corners and paste paper sides. It is stained, but traces of important use attest to the interest the collection has raised. Indeed, additional revolutionary tracts with a strong southern anchorage, including several pamphlets printed by the Mossy presses, are collected at the end of the volume – they will be the subject of another blog post!

Irène Fabry-Tehranchi, Curator Romance collections

References / Further reading

Audrey C. Brodhurst, ‘The French Revolution Collections in the British Library’, British Library Journal (1976), 138-158.

Christophe Cave, Denis Reynaud, Danièle Willemart, 1793: l’esprit des journaux (Saint-Étienne, 1993). YA.1994.b.4058

René Gérard, Un Journal de province sous la Révolution. Le “Journal de Marseille” (originally the “Journal de Provence”) de Ferréol Beaugeard, 1781-1797 (Paris, 1964). W.P.686/29.

Hubert C. Johnson, The Midi in revolution: a study of regional political diversity, 1789-1793 (Princeton, 1986). YH.1987.b.380

Michael L. Kennedy, The Jacobin Club of Marseilles, 1790-1794 (Ithaca, 1973). 73/13539

Des McTernan, ‘The printed French Revolution collections in the British Library’, FSLG Annual Review, 6 (2009-10), 31-44.

 

25 March 2018

The Centenary of the Belarusian Democratic Republic

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I remember very vividly my confusion when in March 1990 I found myself on a park bench reading a thin samizdat publication, Dzien Voli (‘Freedom Day’), dedicated to the anniversary of Belarusian independence. It was delivered to Minsk from Vilnius where much Belarusian samizdat was published at that time. In the Soviet Union, we were told that Belarus and Belarusians had always been part of something else – of other countries and peoples.

From Dzien Voli I learned for the first time a story of the Belarusian Democratic Republic (also translated as Belarusian People’s Republic; BNR in its Belarusian abbreviation). It was proclaimed independent by representatives of civic and political organisations and parties in Minsk on 25 March 1918. They used a very short window of opportunity – just a few days – between the Russian Bolshevik army leaving Minsk and the advancing Germans entering the city.

Belarus Nationalemblems8296tt46
Flag and state coat of arms of the Belarusian Democratic Republic, frontispiece from Za Dziarzhaunuiu Nezalezhnasts' Belarusi = For national independence of Byelorussia (London, 1960). 8296.tt.46

Neither the occupying German authorities nor the Russian Bolshevik government fully recognised the BNR, though both had to take its existence into account. The BNR government in Minsk attempted to form its own army, school system, local authorities, trade and diplomatic missions. It was most successful in building relations with the Ukrainian Democratic Republic, which had declared its independence three months earlier and secured recognition from the occupying German authorities. The BNR’s main income came from forest wood sold to the Ukrainian government in exchange for cash and food supplies. The BNR government managed to established diplomatic missions in several other countries and took part in the Versailles Peace Conference after the First World War.

BelarusGovernment_of_BNRNational Secretariat (the first government of the Belarusian Democratic Republic). Reproduced in  Uladzimir Arloŭ, This country called Belarus: an illustrated history. (Bratislava, 2013). YD.2013.b.892

In January 1919, the BNR government left Minsk before the advancing Bolshevik army. It later operated in Vilnius, Hrodna (Grodno), Berlin and Prague. After the Second World War the Belarusian diaspora sustained its existence. Its role as a government in exile has always been symbolic, but symbols are capable of communicating memories and inspiring the strongest feelings.

Without BNR, the Bolshevik government might never have permitted the creation of the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic (BSSR), which was among the founding members of the Soviet Union in 1922. Having their own state entity as part of the Soviet Union, though powerless in many respects, allowed the Belarusians to survive and develop further as a nation until full independence in 1991.

The BNR’s proclamation of independence was preceded by two other charters from the same body of civic and political representatives in February-March 1918. They confirmed the intention to build the future national state on democratic principles which can be easily found in the contemporary Constitution of the Republic of Belarus. The BNR government adopted the ancient Grand Duchy of Lithuania’s coat of arms as the state emblem and the white-red-white flag as the state flag. The independent post-Soviet Republic of Belarus initially adopted the same symbols. They were replaced, however, with variations of the BSSR symbols four years later –society was not yet ready for radical changes.

Belarus StampPahonia_(25_Hrošaŭ _Blue) _Stamp_of_Belarusian_People's_Republic

Pahonia: Stamp of Belarusian Democratic Republic (Image from Wikimedia Commons)

For decades, the BNR was the subject of ideological wars and myths. The discourse started acquiring a more evidence-based form when in 1998 two monumental volumes Arkhivy Belaruskaĭ Narodnaĭ Rėspubliki (‘Archives of the Belarusian Democratic Republic’) were published. These contained about 60 percent of documents from the early years of the BNR government. These documents survived in the State Historical Archives of the Lithuanian Republic  in Vilnius. Until the end of the Soviet Union, only selected and approved researchers had access to them. After Lithuania regained its independence, Siarhiej Šupa, a talented  journalist and translator (among his translations into Belarusian were George Orwell’s Animal Farm and 1984), stumbled upon them almost by chance and spent six years preparing their publication.

BelarusArkhivyBNR
Arkhivy Belaruskaĭ Narodnaĭ Rėspubliki (Vilnius, 1998) YA.2001.a.24459

In Belarus, the consensus about the Belarusian Democratic Republic is still in its infancy. The topic has been politicised to an extreme degree until very recently. A new political situation, partly prompted by the events in Ukrainian Crimea and Donbas, has forced the authorities to re-examine the nation’s foundational events. The newspaper Nasha Niva recently reported that the Presidential Administration commissioned a report on the role of the BNR from the Belarusian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of History. The report has not been made public, but its essence can be deduced from the book to which the Director of the Institute referred the journalist investigating the story. In the Institute’s collective work Historyia belaruskaĭ dziarzhaŭnastsi ŭ kantsy XVIII - pachatku XXI st. (‘A history of Belarusian statehood from the end of 18th to the beginning of 21st centuries’) the BNR is characterised as the first attempt at a national Belarusian state.

BelarusHistoryiaHistoryia belaruskaĭ dziarzhaŭnastsi ŭ kantsy XVIII - pachatku XXI st. (Minsk, 2011-2012) ZF.9.a.9153

A new generation of civic leaders, more pragmatic than those who led the political opposition in Belarus in the last twenty years, worked on getting permission from the authorities to celebrate the BNR centenary publicly. They also run a large and successful crowdfunding campaign to fund the celebrations. Among the events the authorities agreed on is a large open-air concert in Minsk and the installation of a memorial plaque on the building in which the independence of the Belarusian Democratic Republic was proclaimed on 25 March 1918. It is fascinating to see how a sleepy (until very recently) country gets busy on rethinking its own past and how this past may shape the nation’s future.

Ihar IvanouHead of Learning Resources, QA Higher Education, London.

Further reading:

D. Michaluk, ‘From the Grand Duchy of Lithuania to the Belarusian Democratic Republic: the Idea of Belarusian Statehood, 1915-1919’Journal of Belarusian studies vol 7, no. 2 (2014), pp. 3-36. ZC.9.a.9127

Pers Anders Rudling, The Rise and Fall of Belarusian nationalism, 1906-1931. (Pittsburg, 2015). YC.2016.a.6887

Jan Zaprudnik, Belarus: at a crossroads in history (Boulder, 1993). YC.1995.b.7225

The proclamation of Byelorussian independence, 25th of March 1918. (London, 1968). X.709/26118.

Siarhiej Šupa talks about his research [in Belarusian]: https://www.svaboda.org/a/29048119.html 

01 March 2018

The Battle of Valle Giulia 50 Years After - 1 March 1968

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50 years ago today a new era began in Italy. Students joined the global wave of dissent, protesting against the bourgeois value system, fighting for equality and civil rights, and requesting a modernisation of the education system in the country.
‘La contestazione’ started in Rome, on Friday 1 March 1968. The School of Architecture of the University of Rome, in Via di Valle Giulia, became the battlefield for the first violent encounter in Italy between the student movement and the police. 

1968_giacconeFausto Giaccone, Fight between police and students outside the School of Architecture at Valle Giulia. Rome, 1 March 1968. From ’68. Un anno di confine (Milano, 2008) LF.31.b.4963 

Some accounts of the participants have been recorded about that day, which was described as ‘a collective initiation’. 
In the words of Oreste Scalzone, a student at the time, who later became a politician:  

Freedom was the morning of Valle Giulia. They [the police officers] had seized the school of Architecture […]. The night before, discussing the protest at a university committee meeting, we decided that we would go to get it back. We woke up early and we went [… ]. We arrived by the green esplanade and started throwing eggs at the police, who seemed all wrapped up, unprepared, because they were used to repressing protests without expecting any form of resistance. When they charged, we didn’t run away. We withdrew and then counterattacked [our] stones against [their] tear gas grenades […] (quoted by Nanni Balestrini in L’Orda d’Oro (Milan, 1997; YA.2001.a.31572); own translation). 

At the end of the battle, 148 police officers and 478 of about 1500 protesters were injured, 4 were arrested, and 228 reported to the police.

1971_lucasUliano Lucas, Piazzale Accursio, Milan, 1971.  From ’68. Un anno di confine (Milan, 2008) LF.31.b.4963

Among the students and the police officers involved, many then had careers in journalism (Giuliano Ferrara, Paolo Liguori, Ernesto Galli della Loggia), others in politics (Aldo Brandirali, and the above-mentioned Oreste Scalzone), others in the arts, like the actor Michele Placido, the architect Massimiliano Fuksas and the songwriter and director Paolo Pietrangeli, who wrote a song called ‘Valle Giulia’ to celebrate that, suddenly, on that day a new thing happened: ‘non siam scappati piu’ (‘we didn’t run away any more’). The song quickly became the iconic anthem of the protest: ‘No alla scuola dei padroni! Via il governo, dimissioni!’  (‘Down with the bosses’ schools, out with the government, resignation now!’).

Pier-paolo-pasoliniPier Paolo Pasolini on the set of The Gospel According to St. Matthew. Picture from Wikimedia Commons

Pier Paolo Pasolini  famously wrote about the event. Some verses of his poem ‘Il PCI ai Giovani’ (‘The Italian Communist Party to the Young People’), written in the aftermath of the Battle of Valle Giulia, have been quoted for decades to state that Pasolini was supporting the police:

Pasolini PCI ai giovani
Extract from Pier Paolo Pasolini, Il PCI ai Giovani, 1968Translation into English by Guido Monte  

But if one reads the full poem, it becomes clear that the Pasolini uses his irony to provoke the students, urging them to abandon their bourgeois rebellion, to take their fight under the wing of the Communist Party and closer to the workers because, in his idea, Communism was the only way to make a revolution happen. 

Valentina Mirabella, Curator of Romance Collections (Italian) 

References/Further Reading

Alessandro Portelli, The Battle of Valle Giulia. Oral History and the Art of Dialogue (Wisconsin, 1997) YC.1997.a.3597

Michele Brambilla, Dieci anni di illusioni. La storia del Sessantotto (Milan, 1994) YA.2001.a.34307

Wu Ming 1, The Police vs. Pasolini, Pasolini vs. The Police, translation from Italian by Ayan Meer 

12 February 2018

1918 and the Eclipse of Populist Marxism

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2017 saw a number of important milestones in the history of Russian Marxism, including the 150th anniversary of the publication of the first volume of Das Kapital and the centenary of the Russian Revolution. From 1 May to 5 August 2018, the British Library will be celebrating 200 years since Marx’s birth with an exhibition in the Treasures Gallery.

This year will also see the centenaries of the deaths of five central figures from the generation of ‘Populist’ Russians who began to engage with the ideas of Marx – V.V. Bervi-Flerovsky (b. 1829), Nikolai Danielson (b. 1844), Nikolai Liubavin (b. 1845), German Lopatin (b. 1845) and Vasily Vorontsov (b. 1847). The British Library holds original editions of many of their books, the manuscripts of the extensive correspondence between Danielson and Marx  (Add MS 38075), and the fruits of their work: Russian translations of the three volumes of Das Kapital, completed between 1872 and 1896.

Populism Capital

Above: Title page of volume 1 of Karl Marx, Kapital (St Petersburg, 1872-1896) C.185.b.12. The first translation of volume one of Das Kapital into any foreign language. Below: Inscription on the title-page of the second volume (completed by Danielson in 1885 after Marx’s death): ‘To the British Museum from the literary executors of Karl Marx. London 1.2.86. Presented by F. Engels & Eleanor Marx Aveling’.  

Populism Engels

These Populist ‘fathers’ represent something of a forgotten generation, overshadowed by the more familiar names of the Social Democratic ‘sons’ and ‘daughters’: the Mensheviks Georgi Plekhanov (who also died in 1918), Vera Zasulich, and Yuri Martov; and the Bolsheviks Lenin, Trotsky, and Stalin.

Many commentators have depicted a rigid division between Populism and Marxism. Lenin  wrote that Populism was a ‘whole vision of the world whose history begins with Herzen and ends with Danielson’ – a precursor of his own revolutionary ideology, but essentially non-Marxist.

Populism Flerovsky  Danielson  Lopatin  Vorontsov
Top row, left to right: V.V. Bervi-Flerovsky (date unknown) and Nikolai Danielson (1908). Bottom row, left to right: German Lopatin (c.1895) and Vasily Vorontsov (date unknown). Images from Wikimedia Commons

The ‘Populists’ did not see it that way. As well as being involved in the translation of Das Kapital into Russian (in the case of Danielson, Liubavin, and Lopatin), they also sought to grasp what it meant for Russia. In the book, Marx vividly depicted what he called the ‘primitive accumulation of capital’, which shifted resources from pre-capitalist agricultural forms to the developing industrial capitalist sector - with devastating consequences for agricultural communities.

In Marx’s work, this is a historical account of a task already substantially achieved by the bourgeoisie – the subordination of agriculture to industry. For his Russian readers, however, this process lay not in the recent past but in their immediate future. They feared that the famines and social dislocation of industrialisation in the British Empire might be repeated in Russia.

Populism RepinA common experience for Marx’s early advocates in Russia. Ilya Repin’s Arrest of a Propagandist (1880-92). Image from Wikimedia Commons

Must Moscow travel the British road, ‘the expropriation of the agricultural producer, of the peasant, from the soil’? In the closing decades of the 19th century, Russian intellectuals drew on Marx to argue for various positions in relation to this question.

Though with differing emphases and political approaches, Bervi-Flerovsky, Danielson, Liubavin, Lopatin, and Vorontsov foresaw a ‘non-capitalist’ industrialisation in Russia, which would avoid the horrors of the ‘primitive accumulation of capital’. By exposing the economic mechanisms driving development in Western Europe, they argued, Marx opened up the possibility of a more self-conscious and planned process. They hoped for a more humane path which would allow the peasant commune to persist in some form, or at least enable the class of peasants to become modern socialist citizens without severe disruption.

Populism Vorontsov 1892

 Vorontsov’s  Krest'ianskaia Obshchina (‘The Peasant Commune’) (Moscow, 1892) 08207.k.30.

Other readers of Marx advanced a more fatalistic interpretation. For Nikolai Ziber (1844-88), known as ‘the first Russian Marxist’, there could be no path to socialism except through a long period of capitalist development exactly as depicted in Das Kapital. There must first be a bourgeois-democratic revolution to enable the unfettered accumulation of capital. A socialist revolution would follow only once more traditional economic forms had been dismantled, and the peasantry forcibly transformed into a wage-earning proletariat. This reading became known as ‘orthodox Marxism’, influencing the Social Democratic movement as well as the Legal Marxist intellectuals like Peter Struve.

By 1917, Lenin had resolved to cut the Gordian Knot by a third solution: to try to spark a world revolution, and contribute to the success of socialism in the developed capitalist countries. Socialist Russia would then be able to modernise in collaboration with the advanced economies of Socialist Europe.

Populism Lopatin 1926

 An early Soviet work about Lopatin. I. I. Popov, German Aleksandrovich Lopatin (Moscow, 1926) 010795.aa.85.

The daring actions of the Leninists in 1917 brought their particular strand of Russian Marxism to the fore, eclipsing all rival interpretations. In 1918 the Bolsheviks celebrated the centenary of Marx’s birth as the rulers of Soviet Russia, staking their claim to be his only faithful followers.

However, the Bolsheviks’ revolutionary ideology itself had emerged out of engagement with these older figures, albeit often in passionate argument with them. As the world socialist revolution failed in the years after 1917, the question of the fate of the peasantry along Russia’s path of industrial development, which had been so central for these early readers of Marx, returned with even greater urgency.

Mike Carey, Curator of East European Collections

References/Further Reading

Ewa Borowska, ‘Marx and Russia’, Studies in East European Thought 54, 1/2 (March, 2002), 87-103. 8490.413600

Henry Eaton, ‘Marx and the Russians’, Journal of the History of Ideas 41, 1 (January-March, 1980), 89-112. 5000.900000

Letters of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels to Nikolai Frantsevitch Daniel’son (1868-1895) Add MS 38075.

Derek Offord, ‘The Contribution of V.V. Bervi-Flerovsky to Russian Populism’, The Slavonic and East European Review 66, 2 (April, 1988), 236-51.

Albert Resis, ‘Das Kapital Comes to Russia’, Slavic Review 29, 2 (June, 1970), 219-37. 8309.385000

Andrzej Walicki, The Controversy Over Capitalism: Studies in the Social Philosophy of the Russian Populists (Oxford, 1969) X.529/10228.

02 January 2018

Polish mathematicians and cracking the Enigma

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For centuries all cryptosystems had a linguistic orientation. However after the First World War cryptography entered the era of mechanisation and as a result cipher machines were built with the set of rotors as a primary component. They were used for encrypting and decrypting secret messages. To break their ciphers mathematical knowledge was needed.

The Enigma, the most famous example of the cipher machine, was created by the Germans at the end of the First World War. It was used for commercial and military purposes, although the two versions differ significantly. In the late 1920s Germany had the most sophisticated communications in the world. The British, French and Americans tried to tackle the Enigma cipher but failed to break it. One country, however, desperate to monitor German secret messages, achieved considerable results. This was Poland.

Sandwiched between two powerful neighbours, Soviet Union to the east and Germany to the west, Poland, a newly-created state after the First World War, was in great need of finding a way to ensure her security. The success of the Polish-Soviet war of 1919-1920 was due to intelligence activities in which Polish cryptographers played a crucial role. To continue the work on cryptology seemed to be an obvious choice.

Enigma Memorial
Memorial at Bletchley Park commemorating three Polish mathematicians. (Photo by Magda Szkuta)

Polish Intelligence was successful in cracking the German military ciphers until the German cryptograms began to change in 1926. The Poles quickly realized that they were machine-enciphered and identified the machine as the Enigma. A commercial model purchased by the Polish Cipher Bureau was however different from the German military Enigma. Unable to decipher military messages and to reconstruct the machine they decided to turn to a mathematical approach. In 1932 a team of young mathematicians from the University of Poznań was set up. Among them were the main code breakers Marian Rejewski, Jerzy Różycki and Henryk Zygalski. It was Rejewski who first cracked the Enigma code, in only ten weeks. His excellent mathematical education, fluent command of German, exceptional intuition and completion of a course in cryptology, together with the intelligence information he received from the French Secret Service, led to his success. The first messages were deciphered as early as Christmas 1932.

Enigma Rejewski

Cover of Z.J. Kapera, Marian Rejewski: the man who defeated Enigma. (Krakow, 2013) YD.2014.a.1832

Rejewski was now joined by Różycki and Zygalski. Their contributions included the Różycki clock and the Zygalski sheets Subsequently the Poles were able to replicate the Enigma machine and design mechanical devices which allowed them to break the Enigma code. A crucial device which made it possible to reconstruct daily codes in two hours was the cyclometer. It was substantially developed by Alan Turing in the Second World War. In 1938 the German cryptographers increased Enigma’s security and the Poles’ techniques no longer worked. There were no resources to carry out further work either. By that time the Polish cryptographers had read about 75% of intercepted German Radio communications. This was kept strictly confidential.

Enigma Zygalski

Cover of Z.J. Kapera, The triumph of Zygalski’s sheets: the Polish Enigma in the early 1940. (Kraków, 2015). YD.2016.a.4085

In July 1939, with the German invasion of Poland imminent, the Poles invited French and British code breakers for a secret meeting near Warsaw. The Polish team disclosed their Enigma results and handed their allies-to-be copies of the Enigma machine. On 1 September the war broke out. The three genius mathematicians fled Poland and later joined the French cryptographers in France. The knowledge they had provided considerably contributed to the cracking of the more complicated wartime Enigma codes used by the Germans. This happened at Bletchley Park. The breaking of Enigma had a significant impact on the course of the Second World War. It is believed that it shortened the war by two years and saved countless lives.

An original Enigma machine is currently on display in the British Library outside the Alan Turing Institute.

Magda Szkuta, Curator of East European Collections

References/Further reading:

David Kahn, Seizing the Enigma (London, 2010). YC.2011.a.1687

Frank Carter, The first breaking of Enigma: some of the pioneering techniques developed by the Polish Cipher Bureau (Milton Keynes, 2008). YK.2010.a.35748

 Simon Singh, The Code Book (London, 1999). YC.1999.b.8756

Enigma Machine
The Enigma Machine on display in the Library (Photo by Clare Kendall)