The Attention Manifesto

Book review: The Age of Surveillance Capitalism | New Humanist

Our attention is under siege.

Powerful corporate interests, chief among them Google, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft, are invested in hijacking our attention as much as possible. It’s good for their bottom line to keep us hooked to our devices for as long and as often as they can, using every psychological hack in the book to do so.

Our willpower is often no match for mechanisms which are deliberately designed to keep us addicted, so that we provide these companies’ corporate clients with as much “big data” and fodder for future predictions and economic nudging as possible. Former employees and whistleblowers have frequently likened these technologies to slot machines or even cigarettes – they’re precisely calibrated to get you craving your next fix of connection.

Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the ...

And so, somewhere along the line, our devices have become our masters rather than our servants; we frequently have the uncomfortable sensation that we’re not using them – they’re using us. Neurological and psychological research show that they’re rewiring the very neural pathways in our brains so that we desire the quick; the easy; the endless stimuli of clickbait-browsing and feed-refreshing, to an extent that focusing on one text, one line of complex argument, feels difficult.

No wonder twenty first-century political discourse seems to tend towards the simplistic, the divisive, the Tweetworthy. We’re outsourcing our brains and our culture to the net – and losing our critical distance and our capacity for empathy in the process.

The Shallows eBook by Nicholas Carr - 9781848878839 ...

How much more pressing, then, are these concerns for those young adults who are digital natives, who have never experienced life unplugged, and whose entire social lives have been entwined with social media since childhood?

Recent sociological and psychological research shows that the requirement to be always on, always connected, and always available can often come at a very heavy price – especially when young people constantly feel that they have to compare themselves with their peers’ curated lives online.

Many long for boundaries even as they struggle to put their devices aside – but the behavioural addictions and the need for social validation cultivated by these technologies are simply too strong.

Should You Get Off or Stay On Facebook?

We know how this feels – we’ve been there too – but we can at least remember how it was when things were different; we can recollect a life before smartphones and Web 2.0.

We know that connection doesn’t have to be like this, and that the most valuable conversations are those which allow us to be vulnerable; those which take place face to face. We know that solitary contemplation is the fundament of creativity, and that solitude is the opposite of loneliness – we can still value what it means to be alone with our thoughts, rather than fearing the void.

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This is why we need to exercise mentorship, and find a way forward which doesn’t excise the benefits of these new technologies, but which allows us to subordinate them to our interests and to our own good – not that of the big tech companies.

The first step towards safeguarding democracy is enabling our youngest citizens to think critically, creatively and calmly about the role of technology in society, helping them to reclaim their attention and focus their thoughts.

To do so, we need to model the very behaviour that we want them to emulate – if you don’t want your students to check their phones in class, don’t check yours in departmental meetings(!). We need to learn to set devices aside through practising digital minimalism, and demonstrate that disconnection is not only possible; it’s beneficial for body and mind.

Only then can we begin to build a better future – together, present in the moment, rather than half-absent, glued to our screens…

Digital Minimalism - Cal Newport

Germany’s Tyranny over Greece? The philhellenist roots of the current financial crisis

For centuries, Greece has held powerful sway over the German literary and cultural imagination. Now, however, the roles seem to have been cruelly reversed, with a promethean Greece bound in an ever-more arbitrary and archaic form of debt-bondage to the German fiscal giant.

Tsipras_PrometheusTo many of her inhabitants, Greece now appears to be no less under Germany’s whip-hand than she had been during the Nazi occupation of the 1940s, with starvation and civil war no longer a distant memory, but a distinct possibility on an increasingly gloomy horizon. The rise of political extremism and ultra-nationalism, especially in the form of the odious Golden Dawn party, whose peculiar brand of neo-Nazi, neo-Spartan racism has raised hackles across the globe (and deep-seated fears among much of Greece’s population), is seen as just one consequence of recent German financial demands. Small wonder that, in desperation, Greek politicians are grasping at historical straws, raising the spectre of reparations and German war-guilt in a futile attempt to hold back the European juggernaut which they believe is set to crush them.

But how to disentangle the complex and, currently, ineradicably poisoned relationship between these two countries, both of which are crucial to Europe’s future fate? When did Germans cease to venerate Greece as a hallowed place of cultural pilgrimage, portraying her instead as an indolent liability of a country, whose ancient heritage should instantly be sold to make good her mounting debts? Ultimately, how did the intellectual and artistic ‘tyranny of Greece over Germany’ come to such a sad and sticky end?(1)

Focus_VenusArguably, today’s toxic Greco-German relationship can only be understood within a far broader historical context, drawing on an understanding of Germany’s adulation and idealisation of Ancient Greece from the 18th century onwards – and her subsequent inevitable disappointment with Greece’s all-too-real modern incarnation. Philhellenism was admittedly widespread in Europe during the Enlightenment and its aftermath, but many giants of German culture caught the bug particularly badly, with even such exalted figures as Goethe claiming that ‘Everyone should be Greek in his own way – but he should be Greek!’ Many leading German figures ultimately believed that there existed an ultra-special relationship, even a ‘Wahlverwandtschaft’, or a spiritual kinship, between Ancient Greece and modern Germany.

Such discourses eventually reached a peak of ideological and chauvinistic excess during the Third Reich: now the ancient Greeks were alleged to be not only spiritually, but also racially, related to the modern-day Germans – since clearly they had always been the purest of Aryan races. In Hitler’s worldview, the forbears of Plato and Aristotle could easily have hailed from deepest darkest Thuringia; meanwhile, the Spartans were evidently akin to simple peasants from Schleswig-Holstein – as proved definitively by their mutual predilection for black broth(!).

In political terms, policies ranging from new Nazi inheritance laws to the Generalplan Ost, Hitler’s blueprint for imperial conquest and extermination in Central Europe and Russia, were inspired by ancient Spartan practices. Thus, the idea that the Slavic peoples of the East could be termed ‘Helot-peoples’ slipped into popular parlance – after all, they would soon be conquered in similar fashion by the neo-Spartan warriors of the Third Reich.(2)

Meanwhile, philhellenist propaganda was used unsparingly on the eve of the German invasion of modern Greece in 1941, in order to convince Wehrmacht soldiers to consider themselves the ancient Greeks’ spiritual and biological heirs. Indeed, one could even argue that the brutality which German troops visited upon Greek civilians during World War II was in some cases a direct product of their disappointment at the modern Greeks’ failure to embody that heroic ideal which they had been conditioned to expect in the inhabitants of their ‘ancestral homeland’.(3) Angela Merkel’s routine portrayal as an SS-guard by the Greek press today is therefore, in some sense, a symptom of Greece’s troubled relationship with Germany’s philhellenist past, as well as with the memory of Nazi atrocities.


Now, however, similarly racialised views of the modern Greeks are becoming increasingly common currency amongst German politicians and pundits. Just to take one example, Berthold Seewald, Die Welt‘s lead cultural history editor, recently fulminated against the treacherous absurdity of ‘the idea that the modern Greeks would comport themselves as descendants of Pericles or Socrates, and not as a mix of Slavs, Byzantines and Albanians’ (Geschichte vor Tsipras: Griechenland zerstörte schon einmal Europas Ordnung, Die Welt, 11 June 2015). In so doing, he is merely rehearsing the thesis put forward by the 19th-century Orientalist Jakob Phillipp Fallmerayer (1790-1861), who claimed that the blood of the ancient Hellenic race had been utterly expunged from Europe by an influx of Slavic immigration, and whose theories were eagerly appropriated by leading National Socialists to explain the unenthusiastic reception given by the modern Greek population to the invading Wehrmacht.

With the situation in Greece and in Europe generally becoming increasingly volatile, and the comment on both sides increasingly vitriolic, we urgently need to reconsider these discourses as a matter of necessity – as well as properly investigating their causes, and the deeper historical context which surrounds them.

(1) cf. Eliza Marian Butler’s seminal work on German philhellenism, The Tyranny of Greece over Germany (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1935, repr. 2011).

(2) cf. H.B.E. Roche, ‘”In Sparta fühlte ich mich wie in einer deutschen Stadt” (Goebbels): The Leaders of the Third Reich and the Spartan Nationalist Paradigm’, in Felicity Rash, Geraldine Horan, and Daniel Wildmann (eds.), English and German Nationalist and Anti-Semitic Discourse, 1871-1945 (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2013), pp. 91-115.

(3) For more on this phenomenon, see Mark Mazower’s Inside Hitler’s Greece: The Experience of Occupation, 1941-44 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995); for some specific examples, see Hagen Fleischer, ‘Die “Viehmenschen” und das “Sauvolk”. Feindbilder einer dreifachen Okkupation: Der Fall Griechenland’, in Wolfgang Benz and Gerhard Otto (eds.), Kultur – Propaganda – Öffentlichkeit. Intentionen deutscher Besatzungspolitik und Reaktionen auf die Okkupation (Berlin: Metropol, 1998), pp. 135-69.

This post was originally written for History Today magazine.

Exorcising World War I through Music: Britten’s ‘War Reqiuem’ and Rudland’s ‘Christmas Truce’

In 1962, the renowned British composer Benjamin Britten presented the world with his War Requiem – a bitter, sombre setting of war poems by Wilfred Owen alongside the text of the Requiem Mass. The piece had been commissioned to celebrate the consecration of Coventry’s new cathedral, following its predecessor’s complete destruction in the Blitz.

The premiere performance ultimately involved three conductors, two orchestras, and two choirs, and had been intended to combine soloists from Germany, England and Russia, symbolising a final concord between the formerly-combatant nations. Unfortunately – and somewhat ironically – the Soviet authorities revoked Russian soprano Galina Vishnevskaya’s permission to participate at the final moment, for political reasons.

Winston Churchill visiting the ruins of Coventry Cathedral in September 1941

Winston Churchill visiting the ruins of Coventry Cathedral in September 1941

Despite the Requiem’s being utterly embedded in the aftermath of what was universally perceived as a far greater and more terrible conflict, Britten turned to the pity and horror of Owen’s Great War poetry for his first major musical engagement with the theme of war – although he had briefly entertained the notion of composing an artistic apology to the people of Hiroshima during the late 1940s.

Previously, Britten’s conscientious objection, his self-imposed wartime exile in the United States, and his general anti-war attitude had left him, at best, on the fringes of the British establishment. Now, however, with the Cold War hotting up, and CND the campaign of the moment, here at last was a socially and politically acceptable public vehicle for the composer’s pacifist conscience.

The piece garnered instant critical acclaim, despite Stravinsky’s mordant observation that one would have to attend the performance with ‘Kleenex at the ready…, knowing that if one should dare to disagree with “practically everyone”, one will be made to feel as if one had failed to stand up for “God save the Queen”.’*

For Britten himself, the War Requiem represented ‘an attempt to modify or adjust the wrongs…or the pains of the world with some dream, with some aesthetic kind of object.’* It was a form of reparation, dedicated to friends who had died in the conflict, yet it was also a conscious attempt to change popular perceptions of the 1914-18 war. The composer would undoubtedly have been gratified to learn how many performances of the Requiem have already been staged worldwide to celebrate the centenary of that war’s initial conflagration.

Today, however, with the First World War gradually receding beyond the realm of living memory, a new form of aestheticisation and mythologisation of the conflict is afoot in British culture – a process tellingly outlined in the final chapters of David Reynolds’ The Long Shadow: The Great War and the Twentieth Century (2014).

While Owen knew the horrors whereof he wrote, having had to stare gruesome death in the face countless times, and while Britten was struggling with his own tortured conscience, and the knowledge that, had the Second World War not been fought, he could have expected little quarter as a homosexual in Nazi-occupied Britain, a new artistic generation who have never experienced war or its privations can regard the conflict with more equanimity. World War I may be the preserve of their grandparents or great-grandparents, but, ultimately, it has become a symbol of national identity and cultural heritage, a historical topos with the power to move, but no longer to cause utter despair.


ace3e3a8ff7203b88bf656aabf25741c Stark contrasts – the sombre cover of the first recording of Britten’s War Requiem (1963), and the bright, childlike illustrations accompanying Carol Ann Duffy’s The Christmas Truce (2011).

This new mode of artistic reflection in comparative tranquility is well-exemplified by a new work for chorus and orchestra by composer Oliver Rudland, setting Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy’s poem The Christmas Truce, which will receive its premiere at St John’s Smith Square, London, on 6 December 2015.

Duffy’s poem describes the legendary impromptu ceasefire of Christmas Eve 1914, when German and British soldiers alike suspended hostilities, and began to forge bonds of mutual respect and affection (or at least cordiality) through shared carol-singing and joint football matches. Momentarily, at least, a quick end to the slaughter had seemed possible.

Presented as a fable in verse, complete with touchingly childlike illustrations by David Roberts, the poem turns this historical episode into a sort of pacifist fairy-tale for our times. Heartrending though Duffy’s beautifully-crafted language can be, her depictions of ‘barbed wire, strange tinsel’ or ‘a rat on the glove of a corpse’ are distanced, anaesthetised from the true horror that Owen and his companions knew only too well.

This impression is also heightened by the fact that The Christmas Truce is published as part of a series alongside Duffy’s other seasonal poems, respectively entitled Mrs Scrooge and Another Night before Christmas – which are featured on the little volume’s endpapers. Thus, ‘the yawn of History’ which Duffy invokes on the final page of her narration is almost in danger of subsuming the war into a cloying sweetness – of kitsch, rather than decomposition.

Almost, but not quite – for the poem is rescued by a pathos that is utterly genuine rather than feigned, and by Duffy’s effortless mastery of the telling turn of phrase:

But it was Christmas Eve; believe; belief

thrilled the night air,

where glittering rime on unburied sons

treasured their stiff hair…

All night, along the Western Front, they sang,

the enemies – 

carols, hymns, folk songs, anthems

in German, English, French;

each battalion choired in its grim trench.

Rudland’s musical adaptation takes full advantage of Duffy’s poetic celebration of the soldiers’ singing – the catalyst which returns them to humanity – incorporating old favourites such as ’Silent Night’ and ’The First Noel’ in an entirely novel setting.

In terms of its scale and artistic ambition, Rudland’s work could be termed a War Requiem in miniature – a 20-minute dramatic cantata for choir and chamber orchestra, with the narrator as soloist. Yet this is also a fresh interpretation of the Great War for a new century (or even millennium), not jaundiced by any personal experience of war, or the guilt that avoiding war can bring.

Rather, it orchestrates Duffy’s fable in a way that encapsulates both horror and fragile hope, capturing the strange lunar beauty of the frostlit mudscape of the Western Front – yet also celebrating the joy of that camaraderie which can arise among us, even in the most desperate of circumstances.

The first movement of Oliver Rudland’s setting of Carol Ann Duffy’s ‘The Christmas Truce’ will be premiered by the London Choral Sinfonia, directed by Michael Waldron, at St John’s Smith Square, London, at 7.30pm on Sunday 6 December 2015. The programme will also include Benjamin Britten’s cantata ‘St Nicolas’ and a selection of carols and other festive music.

Tickets and more information available here:

* Quotations are taken from Paul Kildea’s biography, Benjamin Britten: A Life in the Twentieth Century (London: Penguin, 2013).

This post was originally written for History Today magazine.

WORKSHOP REPORT: ‘Children’s Burden or Benefit: Using young people to promote ideas of the future’

Does it matter if adults use children for their own ends – especially in politics?

Is the instrumentalisation of children by grownups (past, present and future) always fundamentally exploitative?

Should we care? And if so, how might we help?

L0011546 Baby with feeding bottle, 1922 Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images Baby with feeding bottle, 'Healthy baby'. Sunday Illustrated Published: 20th August 1922 Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0

These were some of the questions which a workshop held recently at King’s College London, entitled ‘Children’s Burden or Benefit: Using young people to promote ideas of the future’ set out to answer.

Given that I’m currently writing a history of the most prominent Nazi elite schools, the Napolas, the title of the workshop caught my eye as soon as it was advertised. For the former Napola-pupils with whom I have been working and conducting interviews over the past few years, the pressure and responsibility of living up to the ideals of the National Socialist regime, and of proving oneself worthy of having been selected as a putative future leader of the Third Reich, have often been immense. So, although the researchers running the project – Laura King, Vicky Crewe and Lindsey Dodd – were primarily focusing on the history of childhood in Britain and France, the potential parallels and insights which they could provide for comparison with the German case seemed fascinating, even just from a quick look at their project website.

Part of an AHRC-funded project supported by the History & Policy initiative, their research focuses on children as ‘agents of future promise’ in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Britain and France. Building on this foundation, the workshop aimed to explore the ways in which children are often forced to bear the burden of adults’ expectations, particularly when they are used collectively to promote visions of a brighter political or social future.

The idea of a “workshop” might conjure up visions of the usual smattering of academic papers with a predominantly historical focus – just another word, in fact, for a miniature one-day conference. Instead, those attending were presented with a veritable smorgasbord of insights, not only from the historians involved in the project, but also from representatives of children’s charities (War Child, Plan International) and campaign groups (Let Toys be Toys). The day was brilliantly structured so as to allow plenty of time for discussion, which so often gets short-changed or hijacked at academic conferences – so, participants were encouraged to debate and reflect upon the key questions raised by the presentations, not only after each speaker had given their paper, but also in small groups throughout the day.

Still from Humphrey Jennings' 'A Diary for Timothy'

Still from Humphrey Jennings’ ‘A Diary for Timothy’

The day began with a brief introduction by Laura King, the ‘Agents of Future Promise’ project’s principal investigator. She established a theoretical framework for thinking about the various presentations which we were going to hear, touching on contemporary debates which represent childhood as a social construction whose definition is constantly changing.

Historically – or even in the present day – there often exists a tension between defining children wholly according to their current, often highly dependent, ‘child’ status (their ‘being’) – or defining them according to expectations of what they may achieve as future adults (their ‘becoming’). And yet, if we only see children in terms of what they may one day become, do we too easily lose sight of them as actors in the present? And if some children, such as the offspring of asylum-seekers, are assumed to be less good ‘investments’ for the future than others, what detrimental impact may that assumption have on policy in the present?

We were then treated to Laura’s own paper, entitled ‘How were children mobilised to represent the future in World War II Britain?’ Using a variety of sources, including newspapers, documentary films, parliamentary reports and election materials, Laura’s research showed that anxieties about children’s health and safety, in the context of rationing and the wartime evacuation programme, meant that children were more actively invoked in British politics during the Second World War than ever before. These were, after all, the ‘citizens of the future’, and as such, needed to be protected and fostered, both mentally and physically. This rhetoric of ‘investment’ in the nation’s children in order to secure Britain’s future was seized upon by an amazingly diverse range of politicians and organisations – from Labour MPs to Churchill himself; from children’s charities such as the NSPCC to margarine manufacturers, or even the Norwich Union insurance company – whose advertising slogans during this period included ‘The leaders of tomorrow are amongst the children of today!’ Whether in terms of advertising, fundraising, or political grandstanding, such visions of childhood provided a cogent economic rationale for spending on children, in a way which seemed to transcend the usual political or social boundaries.

We then moved on to Lindsey Dodd‘s paper, ‘How did the Vichy Government in World War II France involve children in the pursuit of its goals?’ Drawing mainly on material from the French National Archives, Lindsey’s research examines the ways in which the Pétainist regime not only instrumentalised children, but allowed them to become political agents in their own right. Whereas children are often defined in terms of lack, incompetence, irrationality, and dependence – in short, as non-adults, or as projects rather than people – she argued that Vichy France in some sense empowered not only women, but children too, allowing them to participate in, and even influence, the life of the polity (even if, in terms of the Pétainist battle for births, ‘having children’ was still ultimately prioritised over ‘being children’).

Just as in wartime Britain, children were portrayed as symbols of ‘restoration’ and ‘the rebirth of hope’. However, in propaganda terms, the Vichy regime saw children as miniature ‘Trojan horses’ who could pass Pétainist values on to their families, reeducating those adults who were still tainted by their decadent prewar past, and setting them a good example. Children were encouraged to earn money to send to the Vichy national charity, or to send Marshal Pétain Christmas surprises, such as a drawing of the part of France which they loved most, in order to ‘bring a smile to his face’ (the government received over two million of these!). More questionably, they were also invited to denounce or ostracise any of their peers who refused to cooperate with the regime’s ‘Loyalty Leagues’, which had been founded to abolish cheating and oppositional behaviour in schools. Every child who wrote a letter to Pétain received a reply, which sometimes led to long-standing correspondence, and which generally contributed to children’s sense of responsibility and loyalty to the regime, as well as their engagement with its policies. These, then, Lindsey argues, were truly child citizens, who sought to fulfil the regime’s confidence in their social influence, in as far as this was possible – even if, ultimately, they could only offer Pétain ‘some of my green beans which I’ve saved’, or a drawing of a squirrel.

In the second session, two practitioners, Matt Ruuska from War Child UK, and Kerry Smith from Plan International, took the floor. Both charities’ representatives focused upon the absolute necessity of children becoming ‘stakeholders’ in their own development (a welcome reversal of the adult-centered investment rhetoric which we had encountered previously?). While Kerry highlighted Plan International’s ‘Because I am a girl…I’ll take it from here’ campaign, which aims to eradicate underage marriage, FGM, and other types of female inequality and persecution, particularly in education, Matt concentrated upon the measures which War Child takes to empower the children whose voices they champion. Above all, the charity believes that children should never be portrayed as helpless victims, and that their stories should under no circumstances be criminalised, sensationalised or trivialised. War Child helps children who have suffered terribly, yet survived, to learn what it means to speak out and articulate their human rights, yet without compromising their need for privacy. In one series of cartoon videos which the charity has created in order to persuade runaway children in Afghanistan (and beyond) that they can turn to War Child for aid, most of the animation had been completed by the charity’s protégés themselves. But the most harrowing promotional video of all – one which had apparently moved hardened charity employees to tears when it was first shown – is ‘Duty of Care’ – a Call of Duty-style videogame simulation, which brings to horrific life the trauma and anguish visited upon children in any warzone. Watch it: I guarantee that it will change your perspective within two-and-a-half minutes.

The third session focused on toys – past and present. Vicky Crewe‘s paper, ‘What do toys tell us about children’s roles in the British Empire in the wake of the Second Boer War (1899-1902)?’, explored how toys and games can be used to influence children’s national identification, encouraging them both to empathise with their country’s war effort in the present, and giving them an appetite for war later in life. Toy soldiers, Boer-War-themed games such as ‘The Relief of Ladysmith’ or ‘The Pretoria Bomb’, and even clockwork armoured trains (advertised in toy catalogues as ‘the novelty of the season!’), all helped to make children more enamoured of the war. Meanwhile, prizes such as knives and pens were offered to children if they sent letters to the troops, or solved war-related puzzles. One nine-year-old Irish boy clearly demonstrated the efficacy of this type of indoctrination when he demanded to be allowed to join up and fight straight away. On the other hand, girls’ magazines such as the Girl’s Own Paper contained far less war-related advertising than their male counterparts – and, when the war was mentioned, the focus was firmly placed upon quintessentially feminine activities such as fundraising and letter-writing – or simply upon stoic endurance whilst waiting for one’s menfolk to return.

That such gendered advertising is not only far from being a thing of the past, but that in recent years it has reached undreamed of heights (or should that be depths?) was amply proved by Jess Day’s presentation on ‘Gender training: What are toys and toy adverts teaching children about what it means to be a boy or girl?’ Jess is part of a grassroots media campaign called Let Toys be Toys, which is gradually gaining ever more momentum. Their raison d’être is quite simple – to persuade toy companies and retailers that there is no need to present their wares in a gender-segregated fashion, with hoardings over the aisles in Toys”R”Us, Boots or Centre Parks, bearing legends such as “Gifts for Boys”, “justboys” and “justgirls”. While any toy that has anything to do with construction, science, locomotion – or even just toy animals – is commonly marketed as “Boys’ Stuff”, girls are left with cosmetics, toiletries, and pink tat – the most egregious example of all three categories combined being a “Hello Kitty Beauty Spa”.

This segregation and “pinkification”, which is now prevalent at all levels of the toy industry, has also made its way into book marketing, and has even gone so far as to infect a certain brand of antenatal scans – half of which bear the legend “Future Athlete” (blue, with rugby ball branding), the other “Future Diva” (you guessed it: pink, with flowers)… Yes, targeted merchandise begins to be directed at children before they have even left the womb.

Depressingly, wordles from the website which focused on the toy industry’s gendered marketing language showed that many of the most popular words aimed at girls included “fashion”, “style”, “glam”, “nails”, “perfect”, and so forth, while boys were bombarded with words such as “battle”, “action”, “power”, “attack”, and “beat” (with “friends” hiding away, shamefacedly, in one corner). What could be more calculated to bear out the result of a recent Girl Guiding survey, which found that 87% of girls think that women are judged more on their appearance than their ability? Maybe the truth behind that old Mitchell and Webb skit on gendered advertising is more worrying than we realised…

The negative effect of all this on children who do not fit the industry’s stereotypes should not be underestimated, for all that it bears little comparison with the wartime hardships depicted by the charity representatives. One small girl was almost reduced to collapse after suffering endless teasing at school for her “boyish” clothes and pastimes – and then finding that even the naming of the aisles in her local toyshop deemed her enthusiasm for construction toys to be unnatural. Meanwhile, boys are finding themselves hamstrung by negative stereotypes, particularly about their supposed academic inferiority. A recently-commissioned report on boys’ reading habits found that 18% of boys and 12% of girls think that it is “girly” to read any book at all, and 19% of boys admitted that they would be embarrassed if they thought that a friend had seen them reading. The effect of such stereotyping also has a negative impact on imagined career choices: the medic-themed toys which Jess Day’s own daughter played with, which habitually portrayed men as doctors and women as mere nurses, had a greater hold on her young imagination than did her own lived reality, in which most of the doctors she had ever encountered had been female. Meanwhile, boys are brought up to believe that a career in the caring professions must be a de facto impossibility. A pitiful list compiled by a class of 9-year-old Canadian boys under the heading “What I don’t like about being a boy” ran as follows:


Jess stressed that, by “not being able to be a mother”, the boys didn’t mean not being able physically to give birth, but merely not being able to be a hands-on father – the idea that men could be engaged parents was basically unthinkable for them.

As a little girl who utterly despised dolls (favouring teddy-bears, or even teddy-leopards!), who loved playing with model railways, Meccano, and toy swords (as well as fashioning heraldic shields out of Ready Brek boxes), and who plastered her bedroom walls and boarding-school pinboards with posters of steam trains – as opposed to the usual fare of ponies, fluffy animals or Leonardo di Caprio – I couldn’t sympathise more with the valiant work that Jess and the Let Toys be Toys team are doing. The idea that the vitality of any child’s imagination – or even ambition – should be curbed and sapped by the “pinkification” strategies dictated by the collective will of corporate marketing machines is highly distressing – and yet it happens every day, all over the world.

To conclude, then: All too often, seeking to join research and policy at the hip, or bringing practitioners and academics together, can seem rather forced – easily discernible as a piece of “outreach” that has merely been designed to tick the appropriate box on a funding application form, rather than being either a joy or a necessity. However, this workshop proved absolutely that, when done well, such initiatives can have true value and real impact – it provided the best kind of model for how dialogue can and should be fostered between academia and the wider world (perhaps it even encouraged us to erase that very dichotomy from our minds!).

In conclusion, Laura, Lindsey, Vicky, and the History and Policy team should all be congratulated for pulling together a programme which surely has to rank as one of the most enjoyable workshops or conferences I have ever attended. The day was full of unique insights, surprises – and, above all, fruitful opportunities to broaden one’s perspectives beyond the purely historical.

This conference report was originally written for the ‘Agents of Future Promise’ blog, University of Leeds

Some examples of “curious Denglisch”…

Humorous examples of Chinesified English – Chinglish – have recently become a global phenomenon, and the inimitable Miles Kington popularised mangled mixtures of French and English in his hugely popular Let’s parler Franglais series. However, unfortunate fusions of German (Deutsch) and English – i.e. Denglisch – haven’t yet become quite as well-known.

In order to make a pint-size contribution to remedying this deficiency, here are some prime examples which I’ve come across during my recent travels in Germany (all on my way to the archives, of course!):

Curious Denglisch #1: Would you trust this coiffeur with your lovely locks?

If only they’d called it “”, they’d have been fine…

Respectively, the signs in the window are advertising the

Respectively, the signs in the window are advertising the “Men-Style-Killer-Paket”, the “Big-Killer-Paket”, and the “Basic-Killer-Paket”… Enough said?

Curious Denglisch #2: The interestingly-named clothes shop, “mister lady”, advertising a “Freaky Sale”, Bahnhofstraße, Nordhausen.


Sadly, all the clothing on sale inside was disappointingly normal…

Curious Denglisch #3: That unfortunate neologism, Verkaufshits

Screen Shot 2015-08-14 at 17.19.07

As my friend James Bramley put it: “It’s what happens when you accidentally eat it…”

On this note, Jeremy Leaman of Loughborough University comments:

“Not exactly Denglisch, but nevertheless a source of much hilarity on first acquaintance: in a Service Station heading east out of Zürich (Thurau, I think), the menu included the alluring item of ‘Sonntagshit’ one year and, the next, ‘Tageshit’. I was fed up to discover this year that the place has been taken over by McDonald’s. Sic transit etc!!”

Any other examples of curious Denglisch to report? If so, do share them…

A Tale from the Third Reich’s Interior Ministry…

A few days ago, I happened to be working through a seemingly innocuous file from the German Interior Ministry during the mid-1930s, collated by one Hans Pfundtner, who was a Staatssekretär (a very high-ranking civil servant) in the Ministry. It contains a series of letters to (and about) Pfundtner’s son Reinhard, who has just been sent to a Napola, one of the Nazi elite-schools which I’ve been researching for the last few years.

Some of the father’s letters to his son are so banal, but also so strangely familiar to anyone acquainted with boarding-school life, that from time to time one can’t help inwardly exclaiming in recognition: stern admonitions for having left an expensive piece of sports-kit behind somewhere; responses to constant requests for more pocket-money…

There are also some odd moments of humour – for example, the father’s keenness on huntin’, shootin’ and fishin’, such that he won’t even be home to welcome his son at Easter because he will be off hunting capercaillies instead…!

A photograph of Hans Pfundtner (1881-1945), taken at some point before 1935

A photograph of Hans Pfundtner (1881-1945), taken at some point before 1935

And yet… as we read through the file, small intimations of Pfundtner’s engagement with the Nazi regime begin to mount up – enough to give us pause. Firstly, in a letter dated 12 January 1935, we learn that he has been nominated as Gauehrenarbeitsführer – certainly some indication of a high degree of political loyalty to the Nazi state, over and above his status as a civil servant.

He is also heavily involved with organising the forthcoming Winter Olympics in Garmisch-Partenkirchen – something which later leads him to send a press release to the Headmaster of the American school where Reinhard spends several months as an exchange student (Tabor Academy in Massachusetts). The content of this missive may or may not have had some small role to play in persuading U.S public opinion of the rightness of sending teams to the Berlin and Garmisch-Partenkirchen Olympic Games, despite suspicion of Nazi atrocities.

But it is on 25 September 1935 that Pfundtner drops what, to anyone unacquainted with his biography, must be the ultimate bombshell:

“… the Party conference went splendidly. No one else in the world could have given a speech to equal the one the Führer gave. The sitting of the Reichstag in which the Jewish Laws were passed was an experience. I had played a substantial role in formulating the laws, and because of this had an especially great deal to do…”

Pfundtner isn’t just a family man with four sons, who signs off his letters “your loving father”, and ticks Reinhard off for spending his pocket money too quickly. He is also one of the key architects of the Nuremberg Laws, which demoted Jews and Gypsies to a pariah status within Nazi Germany, and which were instrumental in the genesis of the Holocaust.

This damning ambiguity in historical actors’ personal lives is one of the things which any historian of the Third Reich has to deal with on a daily basis. Still, that doesn’t make it any easier to reconcile two such conflicting images – the Schreibtischtäter, the murderer at his desk, formulating the laws which destined whole “races” to persecution and death – and the harassed, sometimes stern, but ultimately affectionate father.

Is this the banality of evil? Or something far less iconic?

Ancient Spartans and 17th-century harpsichordists: What’s the connection?

My friend (and fellow baroque musician) John McKean and I have recently been having fun trying to find aptly idiosyncratic translations for some of the prefaces to 17th-century German treatises on harpsichord-playing which he’s analysing for his PhD. The amount of vitriol which these keyboardists were prepared to expend on their rivals – and the mordant wit with which they plunge in their poisoned rhetorical  daggers – has to be seen to be believed.

However, as someone who has always been incredibly interested in the reception of Sparta in the modern world (viz. my own PhD thesis), I was literally left speechless for a few moments when John showed me the following extract from the preface to Wolfgang Caspar Printz’s Satyrischer Komponist, first published in 1677.

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Printz, writing under the pseudonym “Phrynis of Mytilene”, addresses the dedication of his volume to one Herr Emerepes, the ‘well-cultivated and gravely-hated Ephor of the famed city of Sparta’. The entire two pages which follow constitute a sustained attack on the old-fashioned, fuddy-duddy mores of this pseudo-“Emerepes”, and conclude by dedicating the book to every man living – apart from ‘His Lordship’, Emerepes himself.

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So, how to tease out this rich tangle of allusions?

It seems that Phrynis of Mytilene – along with other key figures such as Euripides – was the leading exponent of a new, modernising movement in art and music which began to gain ground in the years before Sparta’s crushing victory over Athens in the Peloponnesian War in 404 B.C. The musical world apparently became more professionalised, and innovations in form, expression, melody, rhythm and chromaticism became de rigueur.

Emerepes, in this connection, was notorious for having cut off two new strings which Phrynis had added to his lyre, with the laconically cutting comment (immortalised in Plutarch’s Spartan Apophthegms) “Do not abuse music!”

For Printz, the reigning style of composition and playing represents a Spartan-style tyranny which is trampling upon his newfound creative freedom. It’s hard to know whether Emerepes is envisaged as the avatar of a specific detractor, or merely represents all of Printz’s musical enemies, but in any event, he stands for the old, the philistine, the stick-in-the-mud critic, whose anger at Printz’s innovations may even end in apoplexy (my gloss for the ‘troublesome illness’ he mentions).

So, it’s for this reason that “Phrynis” turns his dedication around, declaring that he would rather dedicate his work to anyone in the world but “Emerepes”. Instead, he instructs him to sell the book on, or even throw it on the fire, rather than trying to read it through, if it should come into his hands. Printz has more confidence that the rest of humanity will have understanding for his new, experimental ideas about style and musical mores. Thus, in ‘true laconic fashion’, in as few words as possible, he dedicates his book to ‘Everyman’, whom he is ‘eager to serve’.

Is this a common trope in this kind of artistic literature, or an isolated, polemical example of Classical allusion taken to satirical (or satyrical) extremes? Since I’m far from an expert on this period, or this genre, I’m hoping that others may be able to fill in the blanks…

“Nazis at the Leys”: British public school exchange programmes with the Third Reich

I was recently invited to give a lunchtime lecture to the Rotary Club of Cambridge, which took place on 7 July this year. I decided to take this opportunity to talk about my research on the exchange programmes which were organised during the 1930s between British public schools and the Napolas (the Nazi elite-schools which I’ve been working on for the past few years).

This wasn’t an entirely random decision – one of the English schools which took part in these exchanges was Cambridge’s very own The Leys School, so I calculated that the topic should arouse some local interest. (In fact, a couple of people in the audience had even attended or taught at The Leys!)


My “speaker host”, John Holroyd (pictured left), wrote a wonderfully succinct summary of my talk for the Rotary Club website, which I have taken the liberty of reproducing here, as it gives a very good overview:

“Under the heading ‘Nazis at the Leys’, Dr Helen Roche, a Research Fellow at Lucy Cavendish College, gave us a fascinating and detailed description of exchange visits between English public schools and their German counterparts during the 1930s.

The German National Political Education Institutes, NAPOLAS, were aimed at training the future Nazi elite in all walks of life. Unlike our own public schools, they were open to boys of all backgrounds and offered a generous scheme of free or heavily subsidised places.

One of the attractions they offered was the opportunity of foreign travel, and it was on this basis that the exchange visits were founded. The impetus for these visits was enthusiastically endorsed on both sides.

The German authorities had for some time admired the English model, and were keen to discover how the public school system could help their own educational techniques. We were similarly eager to discover any advantages that could be obtained by adopting German methods.

Additionally it was hoped that social interaction between boys who might become national leaders would help future political relations.

In May 1936, a group from NAPOLA Naumburg, near Weimar, visited the Leys. An article in the Leys school magazine described a friendly and boisterous raid on the Leys dormitories. The parting words were not ‘Auf Wiedersehen’ but ‘Auf Wiederfechten’, until we fight again. How prescient!

Helen gave other illustrations of contacts between different schools such as NAPOLA Ilfeld and Kingswood School in Bath, whose magazine reported their visit in glowing terms. Exchanges and sporting tournaments between NAPOLAS and other public schools like Eton, Harrow, and Winchester, and many others were widespread. Unfortunately, the passage of time, and the highly political aims of the NAPOLAS, overshadowed the individual friendships that could have been forged between the boys had they been left to their own devices.

The final exchange between Ilfeld and Kingswood took place in July 1939, when attempts to downplay tensions were made. A hope that ‘May the bonds of friendship be stronger than political tensions’, expressed by a German visitor, was not to be fulfilled.

A final note was that out of a class of 25 from Ilfeld, only 2 survived the war.”

An Archival Odyssey, or: Baedeker’s Guide to German archives (featuring a cameo appearance from Captain von Trapp)

When I first realised that I would have to visit over fifty archives in Germany and Austria in order to complete my current research project, I did fall prey to certain misgivings. Intimate acquaintance with the intricacies of regional public transport networks all over Germany would surely prove the least of my worries – what of the archives themselves, each with its very particular set of rules and regulations, unwitting violation of which might easily cast a foreign researcher into outer darkness?

Take the Austrian State Archives, for instance, with their implacable and inalienable rule that each researcher may only order a maximum of three boxes per day. Admittedly, the boxes are fairly large, but if one knows what one is looking for, they can still be polished off fairly expeditiously. In desperation, towards the end of my month-long sojourn in Vienna, I therefore inveigled my husband into accompanying me, buying a weekly ticket and sitting there working on his latest opera-libretto, whilst I worked through “his” three boxes at a frantic pace (needless to say, only the person who has ordered a box can collect or return it…!). Only then could I release him, and embark upon my own daily quota.


Then there are the long-term inhabitants of the archives, whose habits repay careful (and sometimes wary) attention – the archivists themselves. These can range from the “characters” on the desk at the German Federal Archives in Berlin – the grumpy East-Berliner who bawls out any scholar who dares to put their microfilms away improperly, and the acerbic receptionist who refuses even to talk to a researcher who has forgotten to place their handbag (however small it may be) in the locker-room – to the enchantingly friendly denizens of the recently- founded Zentralarchiv des Bezirksverbands Pfalz in Kaiserslautern, where one is permitted to take bags inside (shock horror!), make free photocopies on the scanner-printer in the Director’s office, or even have tea and sandwiches with his assistant in the reading-room itself.

Every archive certainly has its foibles: the Political Archive of the German Foreign Office, for instance, subjects all its visitors to a full airport-style security check before they enter – yet, once inside, the researcher is given a rare privilege indeed: permission to photograph documents indiscriminately at no extra cost (as opposed to the average, exorbitant charge of 50 cents per photocopy). Meanwhile, if you are filling out registration forms at the Bavarian State Archives, beware the little box marked volljährig – if you forget to tick it, you will have inadvertently declared yourself to be “under- age”, and risk the ignominy of being mistaken for a precocious teenager, at least in jest.

Even the names of the archival search-engines often betray a certain classicizing charm: INVENIO, ARGUS, or VERA, to name but a few. But that’s nothing compared to the occasional random gems about whose existence these very databases would never think to inform you: propaganda pamphlets from the 1920s railing against the rise of Sunday shopping in rhyming verses of surpassing kitsch; advertisements for a purveyor of smoked meats sporting a strangely appealing little piglet made of sausages and salami (pictured above), or even the fulminations of General Jodl of the Wehrmacht High Command in June 1941, decrying the flagrant and unnecessary use of ‘primitive’ or  ‘barbarian’ acronyms – including Stalag and Stuka.

Perhaps the crowning jewel of this collection, however, has to be a request in 1936 from U-boat Commander Georg Trapp – yes, the Captain von Trapp, of Sound of Music fame – begging the Austrian Education Ministry to let him give lectures to schools about the vanished glories of the Habsburg navy. You couldn’t make it up…


So, in the end, the idea of spending eight months travelling to those fifty or so archives turned out to be rather more daunting than the reality, which was always leavened both by these moments of incidental humour, by the kindness and helpfulness of most of the archivists whom I encountered – and, ultimately, by the thrill of the chase.

This post was originally written for the University of Cambridge History Faculty newsletter.