On This Day in History

History Today Reviews Feed

Feed of all stories, blog posts and videos from the History Today website
  • Homophobia in Russia

    ...
  • Consumptive Chic: When Tuberculosis was the Height of Fashion

    Consumptive Chic: When Tuberculosis was the Height of Fashion

    Carolyn A. Day

    During the late 18th century the physical effects of tuberculosis became the ideals of beauty for the fashionable woman.
    The idea of disease as fashionable, or at least as something to be emulated, remains a familiar one: think of the heroin chic of the 1990s or the underground Pro Ana movement, which glorifies anorexia. The idea, however, that tuberculosis – a disease characterised by wasting, diarrhoea, coughing and the spitting of blood – could enhance its victim’s beauty is less relatable. Yet, during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, cultural ideas about beauty intertwined with the reality of tuberculosis (known as consumption or phthisis), allowing the ravages of the illness to be seen as markers of beauty. Tuberculosis became the site of a battle between professional and popular ideologies of disease – a conflict that played out both in beauty practices and dress.During the 18th century, diseases such as melancholia, gout and tuberculosis became associated with the upper echelons of society. Physicians argued that there was a relationship between certain illnesses and the sensibilities of the fashionable elite. The middle and upper classes were believed to have more highly refined nervous systems and, as a consequence, a greater share of sensibility (the ability of the nervous system to accept sensations and convey the body’s will). This made them susceptible to certain illnesses and there was a growing concern that the lifestyles and nervous systems of these groups were creating a scourge of ill health among them. As one physician suggested, the ‘great and opulent’ were subject to the whims of fashion ‘in their choice of diseases’. The statesman and essayist Sir William Temple lamented the faddish nature of certain diseases in 1809, likening the trends for illness and their treatments as being ‘very much seen or heard of at one season, disappearing in another’. Others complained of the growing popularity of nervous disorders, dubbed in 1799 ‘a modern invention’.If diseases could be fashionable, then they could become targets for emulation. The Scottish doctor James Adair carped in 1790 that ‘people of no rank and slender means’ attempted to transgress social boundaries by ‘fashionably ruining themselves’. More significantly, he pointed to ‘the pale of distinction’ as the mark to be copied by those seeking to become ‘people of fashion’. This connection between the ‘pale of distinction’ and fashionable illness was especially apt, as tuberculosis was distinguished by a translucent complexion. Its allure lay in its symptoms, which coincided with contemporary ideals of attractiveness: rosy cheeks and lips coupled with pale skin were considered beautiful. Tuberculosis brought about a consumptive pallor accompanied by a hectic flush (the product of a constant fever). Charlotte Brontë acknowledged the phenomenon in 1849: ‘Consumption, I am aware, is a flattering malady.’A victim enhancedDuring the 19th century, tuberculosis supplanted the great epidemics (such as plague or smallpox) in the public’s imagination. Depictions of tuberculosis diverged from those of other diseases such as smallpox, cholera and typhoid. Tuberculosis found its distinction in two key differences: the way the illness manifested itself in the body and its social distribution. Although it physically altered the sufferer, it was not disfiguring in the way that smallpox or cholera were. Instead, with its wasting and pallor, the disease seemed to enhance its victim by amplifying those qualities already seen as attractive. Tuberculosis was also different from other illnesses due to its chronic nature and constant presence. Unlike sudden, acute maladies that manifested in sweeping epidemics, tuberculosis was ever-present, in all classes, at all times, seemingly indiscriminate in the way it claimed its victims, afflicting the denizens of mansions as well as tenements. The disease was rampant in urban centres, though not limited to the city, and showed little respect for gender, status, age or occupation.By the 19th century, tuberculosis had almost become two distinct and seemingly unrelated afflictions, as victims from the more prosperous classes were lauded while poorer victims were stigmatised. There was a connection between the disease and the unhealthy living conditions of the urban environment, such as smoke, dust, dirt and damp. Among the lower classes tuberculosis was seen as the result of poor air quality, drunkenness or material deprivation, hallmarks of their lifestyles, which in turn fostered a negative perception of the illness in this group. Members of the lower orders were presented, by social reformers and medical investigators, as the architects of their own demise and so tuberculosis was never presented as an attractive disease in the poor.On the other hand, there was an equally strong tradition that associated the disease with the best and brightest members of society, those intelligent and beautiful individuals who seemed so prominent in the ranks of its victims. In the more prosperous classes, then, consumption was viewed primarily as the consequence of a hereditary defect, one complicated by ‘exciting’ causes, and the association between the illness and the sophisticated lifestyle of the beau monde was widely accepted. This benign view of the disease only offered the affluent victim limited control over the circumstances that provoked the illness. As a consequence, representations of tuberculosis in the middle and upper classes were remarkably positive, ignoring the unpleasant realities, in part, because beauty was thought to be one of the significant signs of a predisposition to the illness.Medical references to symptoms repeatedly describe the consumptive body as slight, thin, delicate and slender in make, with a narrow chest, projecting clavicles and shoulder blades that gave the appearance of wings. The complexion was fine and delicate, criss-crossed by blue veins, with clear, smooth and nearly transparent skin of an almost brilliant whiteness, only relieved by the ‘bloom of the rose’ – the flush of the fever. As descriptions of the ideal feminine form in the 19th century tended to bear a striking similarity to those provided for consumption, the accounts of these symptoms show how the disease beautified as it destroyed. As one medical treatise asserted of the disease in 1842: ‘Death seems to array his victim for the tomb with all the attributes of physical loveliness.’Sense and sentimentalismEarly Victorian ideas of beauty were heavily influenced by sentimentalism, which believed that emotional authenticity was revealed not through overt demonstration but through subtle exterior signs and subdued behaviour. The ideology of sentimentalism defined not only personal feelings and emotions but also the physical manifestations of those sentiments. Sentimentalism provided one avenue for escaping difficult social realities, concealing reality through a refusal to acknowledge the harsher aspects of a situation. This permitted the further elevation of consumption as an ideal of beauty. Sentimentalism emerged as an influential force in middle-class culture in the 1830s and elevated the notion that the exterior revealed the character beneath, making beauty a signifier of moral virtue. These notions were reinforced by medical investigators who held that: ‘Goodness and beauty in woman will accordingly be found to bear a strict relation to each other; and the latter will be seen always to be the external sign of the former.’ The physical symptoms of consumption could now be rationalised as reflecting the victim’s moral virtue. Consumptive women were increasingly presented as too good and too beautiful to live.The face, considered the most transparent part of the body, permitted access to a woman’s feelings, as revealed in her smile, her complexion and her eyes. Since, in the sentimental tradition, the eyes were styled ‘windows of the soul’ and were thought to ‘speak’ because they revealed the emotions and were ‘the seat … of intellect and love’, they also enhanced the beauty of the consumptive. Large pupils, in particular, were both a ‘mark of beauty’ and a sign of disease. One work, detailing the markers for the tubercular constitution, stated that the most consistent indicator was ‘that the pupils of the eyes are uncommonly large and … the eye-lashes are long and glossy’. The author of this medical treatise then advocated a method of achieving this look, suggesting the use of belladonna to dilate the eyes.Popular works of advice also promoted an endless list of cosmetics to darken the lashes and even the draw on the blue veins, which were so prominent in those suffering from tuberculosis. The whiteness of the complexion was enhanced by the contrast of the veins, the ‘faint tinge of blue’ thought to give ‘delicacy to the white, and mingles with the … carnation’. Fashionable women often used cosmetic enhancements to achieve this look, although The Mirror of the Graces, by ‘A Lady of Distinction’, railed against the practice in 1830, arguing that women were drawing ‘the meandering vein through the fictitious alabaster with as fictitious a dye’.The limitations of cosmetics – that they could not create what was not already present but could ‘only assist nature’ – were also an issue. The use of paints seems to have raised the most ire, as the application of metallic oxides, advertised as ‘pearl white’, were roundly condemned. Such cosmetics were, however, also thought to bring about the consumptive illness that naturally provided the fair pallor. The Art of Beauty argued that white paints, made from extracts of bismuth, lead or tin, were capable of penetrating ‘through the pores of the skin, acting, by degrees, on the … lungs, and inducing diseases’. A Treatise on Pulmonary Consumption vehemently asserted, meanwhile, that ‘the chemicals of the toilet … very materially assist the messenger of death’. Despite these complaints, cosmetics remained an important – but controversial – element of the lady’s toilette.In addition, the outcry against the overt use of cosmetics was also tied the notion that beauty was something natural to a woman of virtue. As a result, tuberculosis, with its ability to enhance female beauty without deception, became a way of manifesting a virtuous character, while naturally achieving beauty.Dropping the shoulderThe tradition of sentimental beauty went beyond the face and took the appearance of the woman as a whole to be an expression of her character. The fashions of the period, therefore, emulated the consumptive build. The bodice was ornamented to heighten the appearance of length: decorative elements were applied to highlight and narrow the shoulders and emphasise and elongate the pointed waist; the heavy corseting made the upper body appear delicate, thin and weak, in a manner reminiscent of the consumptive torso. Bodices were close-fitting and their armholes were set very low off the shoulders, with tight-fitting sleeves, cut on the cross, which prohibited the wearer from lifting her arms above a right angle. The drop-shouldered style also forced a round-shouldered posture, which emulated the bowed silhouette of the consumptive.In sentimental dress, the waist – and, indeed, the torso as a whole – was narrower than it had been in the previous decade. As a result, the corset remained an indispensable component of style. In the ideals laid down in the literature of conduct and beauty, it was clear what was expected of middle- and upper-class women: softness, delicacy, weakness and modesty, combined with a small waist and curving shoulders – all features which matched the debilitating effects of tuberculosis.As with make-up, however, sentimental fashions were also believed not just to emulate but to produce tuberculosis in those who wore them. This was particularly true of the physical distortion caused by corseting, as ‘deformities of the chest’ were ‘commonly ranked among the exciting causes of consumption’. Yet, despite voluminous writings against the ruinous use of the corset, young women continued to wear them, much to the frustration of one physician, who complained bitterly in 1842 that it was ‘vain to expect, that the warning voice of the physician will be listened to in preference to the dictates of fashion’. Health Made Easy for Young People (1845) asserted that consumption would be the inevitable result for those women whose chests were bound up ‘to make them look pretty’ and considered the practice ‘Monstrous!’Stooping, too, was presented as both the architect and indicator of tuberculosis. Young women were warned ‘that an inactive sedentary mode of life appears to dispose to the formation of tubercles … by the habit of stooping, hurting the lungs in the same manner with malformation of the chest’. Cold and Consumption in 1847 located the fault in women’s education: ‘The sickly school girl, with her pallid countenance and stooping gait, would seem to predict her fate – pulmonary disease.’ Middle- and upper-class women were considered more susceptible to tuberculosis than men due to their upbringing. Some doctors, such as John Tricker Conquest, expressed their disgust over the type of ‘lady-like’ upbringing that guaranteed the illness, writing: ‘That horrid word “lady-like”, haunts the poor girls of the middle and higher classes through years which should be devoted to physical education, and leaves them, at last, the prey of deformity and disease... Fashion is the war cry of tyranny.’When the idea of illness as character-illuminating is combined with sentimental culture as a whole, it is easy to see how consumption could invade the popular ideals of beauty and fashion.Tuberculosis would gradually lose its positive associations, however. The proliferation of the disease in the slums of industrial England, the growing awareness of this circumstance and the flourishing of works that identified the disease with moral transgressions all helped alter the ideology surrounding tuberculosis. Once these associations were established, the disease could no longer be rationalised as acceptable for respectable women. By the end of the 1840s tuberculosis had become tainted by poverty and promiscuity, connections that continued through the end of the century and beyond.During the second half of the 19th century, then, the notions that dominated the lower-class perception of the disease – the ones that saw tuberculosis as the result of moral and hygienic shortcomings, complicated by filthy and crowded living and working conditions – gained purchase and were increasingly applied at all levels of society. This gradually became the dominant image of the illness, particularly with the growing focus on public health in the middle of the 19th century. The introduction and eventual acceptance of the germ theory of disease would make this hygienic model, with its moral undertones, the sole explanation for tuberculosis. Health became a desirable goal in the face of fears over biological degeneracy, leading to a stigmatisation of tuberculosis and a change in the coping strategies employed by society at large.Carolyn A. Day is Associate Professor at Furman University, South Carolina and the author of Consumptive Chic: A History of Beauty, Fashion and Disease (Bloomsbury, 2017).
  • Day of Dissent in the DDR

    Day of Dissent in the DDR

    Richard Millington

    The East German Uprising of 1953 was the first major revolt to take place in the Soviet Bloc.
    The first uprising in the Eastern Bloc took place on 17 June 1953. On that day, up to one million citizens of East Germany demonstrated for the removal of the ruling Socialist Unity Party (SED), for better living conditions, free elections and the reunification of Germany. In more than 700 cities, towns and villages, protesters vented their fury at the SED and its leader Walter Ulbricht. Only the arrival of Soviet tanks and troops in the late afternoon saved the regime from catastrophe.The ‘construction of socialism’The causes of the uprising can be traced to the decisions taken at the second party conference of the SED in 1952. It was then that Ulbricht declared that the time was right to begin the ‘construction of socialism’ in East Germany. What this meant in practice was that the Party would remodel the country’s economy and society in the image of Stalin’s Soviet Union. Investment in heavy industry, with the aim of modernising society, took precedence over spending on consumer goods, while farmers and private businesses were forced to collectivise and nationalise. The Party also cracked down on political opponents. Dissenters were labelled ‘class enemies’ and faced punishments ranging from blacklisting to spells in prisons, such as the notorious ‘Yellow Misery’ in Bautzen, so called because of its yellow-brick buildings.By early 1953, East Germany’s economy was under severe strain. Since 1952 state planners had been pouring every penny into heavy industry. They had not budgeted, however, for the Soviet Union’s demand that East Germany establish its own army to bear some of the burden for its defence. This reduced the state’s surplus funds even more and citizens began to feel the effects. There was little fuel available for cars, motorcycles or tractors. Citizens faced queues for basic foodstuffs, such as butter and bread, a direct result of the fact that many farmers had moved to West Germany rather than implement collectivisation. The quality of food available also left a lot to be desired. East Berliners complained that their biscuits smelled and tasted of petrol. At the same time, West Germany’s economy was entering a period of boom, soon to be known as the Wirtschaftswunder, or ‘Economic Miracle’. It is little wonder that between 1952 and 1953 approximately 513,000 East Germans voted with their feet and moved across the border in search of a better standard of living and freedom from oppression.When those who remained complained about the quality of their lives, the Party responded with slogans such as ‘First work harder, then live better’, which appeased nobody. The SED, however, did not react to the economic crisis simply with propaganda. On 14 May 1953 it increased production quotas for industrial workers by ten per cent. Workers would now have to work harder to achieve their quota-fulfilment bonuses, which many relied upon to support an adequate standard of living. The Party’s aim was to increase industrial output, while also reducing the bonuses paid. What the SED achieved, however, was the further alienation of workers whose interests it claimed to represent.The ‘New Course’It was against this background of impending economic ruin and popular dissatisfaction that Ulbricht was called to Moscow on 2 June 1953 by Lavrenti Beria, Georgi Malenkov and Vyacheslav Molotov, the troika of leaders who had overseen Soviet affairs since Stalin’s death on 5 March 1953. Ulbricht received a severe dressing down from his masters. The Soviet ambassador to East Germany, Vladimir Semyonov, warned Ulbricht that, unless he took immediate measures, there would soon be no one left in East Germany. Ulbricht was shocked, but, determined to cling to power, he complied with Moscow’s orders.On 11 June 1953 the SED announced its ‘New Course’, a political programme designed to mitigate the repressive measures taken during the ‘construction of socialism’. The Party admitted explicitly that it had made mistakes and that these would be corrected. This admission infuriated countless citizens who had suffered because of the regime’s obsessive Stalinist campaign. Ulbricht, however, stopped short of resigning. This angered many. As the figurehead of a regime that had brought them such suffering, Ulbricht was hated by large swathes of East German society.Workers’ uprisingThe announcement of the Party’s political volte-face did not immediately trigger the East German uprising. The initial spark for this came on the Stalinallee in East Berlin on 16 June 1953. Here, thousands of construction workers were building a showpiece boulevard of ‘palaces for the working class’ in the Stalinist architectural style. Like many others, the SED’s admission of its mistakes had angered them, too. But they were most furious about what the ‘New Course’ did not include. There was no mention of the increased production quotas for industrial workers such as themselves. The SED still felt this measure necessary to improve the standard of living. Therefore, the quota increase stood and there was talk of little else on the building sites along the Stalinallee. Several construction workers had written to the SED leadership on 15 June 1953 to explain that they felt they were still being penalised. In response, the SED reduced the quotas to their previous level. The Party was, however, slow to notify workers of this. It was clearly unaware of the anger on the Stalinallee. Turning up for their shifts on 16 June 1953 and unaware of the Party’s response to their letter, construction workers on the Stalinallee were greeted with an article titled ‘Yes, of course the decrees about raising the working quotas are completely correct’ in the trade union newspaper Die Tribüne. Unfortunately for the SED, this article had gone to print before it had reduced the quotas. The workers were apoplectic. They regarded this article as the Party leadership’s official response to their letter. They downed tools and set off for the House of Ministries in the centre of East Berlin. Although the SED sent loudspeaker cars racing through the streets to inform workers of the quota reduction, it was too late.As the workers from the Stalinallee marched through the city, citizens from other walks of life joined their ranks. Many saw the workers’ protest as their opportunity to vent their anger with the SED regime. Some were simply curious about what was happening. Workers chanted for fairer production quotas, while others demanded Ulbricht’s head. What had begun as a protest about working conditions was mutating into a demonstration against the regime. At about 1.30pm a crowd of approximately 10,000 reached the House of Ministries and demanded to talk to Ulbricht. Several junior SED officials and the Minister for Mining and Metallurgy, Fritz Selbmann, attempted to appease the demonstrators. They failed. Only a verbal reckoning with Ulbricht would satisfy them. When it became apparent that the SED leader was not in the building, several protesters gave speeches. One demanded the government reduce the quotas, lower food prices, improve living standards, free all political prisoners and hold pan-German elections. Another called for a general strike to take place the following day. The crowd approved and resolved to spread the word across East Germany. To this end, a few workers crossed into West Berlin and headed for the building housing the American-run radio station RIAS (Radio in the American Sector). The station broadcast news, political and cultural content and was an important weapon in the ideological war between the two Germanys. It was popular with many East Germans who rejected the overtly propagandistic offerings of their own radio stations and who were prepared to defy SED demands not to listen to it.People’s uprisingOn the morning of 17 June 1953, East Germany was abuzz with talk of the previous day’s events in East Berlin. RIAS had broadcast reports throughout the night and day trippers and commuters had brought home tales of what they had seen and heard in the capital. Few industrial workers on early shifts across the country bothered to start work. Instead they declared solidarity with the East Berlin construction workers and went on strike. SED factory representatives were mocked as they tried to convince strikers that they were striking against themselves. The workers simply did not believe the ‘People’s Own Factories’ belonged to them. Chanting ‘Reduce the quotas’ and ‘Follow the Berliners’, the striking workers left factory premises and headed to city and town centres, where they intended to call Party leaders to account. Along the way, thousands of citizens joined them. The workers’ uprising had become a people’s uprising. By the afternoon of 17 June 1953, almost one million East Germans in over 700 locations were demanding the removal of Ulbricht and his SED, better living and working conditions, free elections and the reunification of Germany.There were demonstrations and unrest in all East Germany’s large cities – East Berlin, Dresden, Erfurt, Halle, Karl-Marx-Stadt (now Chemnitz), Leipzig, Magdeburg, Potsdam, Rostock and Zwickau. In East Berlin, approximately 150,000 protesters gathered. Eyewitnesses reported a demonstration ten kilometres long. Protesters stormed and ransacked SED and Free German Youth offices in an orgy of destruction. They tore down SED and Soviet flags, including the one on top of the Brandenburg Gate. Propaganda placards and other physical symbols of the regime were burned. Border fences between the two parts of the city were destroyed. The nine-story Columbus House on Potsdamer Platz, which housed a state-owned department store, was razed to the ground. Attempts to invade the building of the SED Central Committee failed thanks only to its Soviet guards.In Magdeburg, strikes began in the ‘Ernst Thälmann’ Heavy Machinery Combine. Approximately 12,000 workers marched to the city centre, where other citizens joined them. They chanted anti-SED slogans as the Karl-Marx-Straße street sign was torn down and the former name of the street – Broadway – was daubed onto the wall where the sign had once been. A major flashpoint of the unrest in Magdeburg was the prison in the south of the city. There, demonstrators demanded the release of all political prisoners. When this demand was rejected, a firefight broke out between police officers and demonstrators, who used weapons taken from People’s Policemen. Three officers and several passers-by were killed. In Dresden, approximately 60,000 demonstrators called for the SED government to be punished and for Germany to be reunited. In Halle, thousands of protesters demanded better living conditions. SED offices were stormed and there were loud cheers when demonstrators threw copies of Ulbricht’s biography out of the windows. Protesters laid siege to the main political prison in the city centre, a redbrick building colloquially known as the ‘Red Ox’. They broke through the main door but were fired upon as they reached the inner courtyard. Several died. In Leipzig, approximately 100,000 people chanted ‘Spitzbart, Bauch und Brille sind nicht des Volkes Wille!’ (‘A goatee beard, a paunch and spectacles are not what the people want’), an allusion to Ulbricht’s facial hair, President Wilhelm Pieck’s portly appearance and Prime Minister Otto Grotewohl’s poor eyesight. Such scenes were repeated in towns and cities across East Germany. Yet, despite the protesters’ demands, they generally made no concerted efforts to carry out a revolution. They did not try to link up with others in different localities to co-ordinate the overthrow of the regime. When Party buildings were stormed, it was to completely ransack them, rather than to attempt to set up alternative political organisations. Where strike committees formed, they generally only represented small groups of workers and made little effort to lead the thousands who were on the streets. Only in the town of Görlitz did a ‘City Committee’ form. This 20-man body sought the support of the 40,000-strong crowd in the town centre in its attempts to take over the political organisation of the town. But Görlitz was the exception rather than the rule. Citizens’ commitment to the demonstrations also varied. Some were prepared to attack Party buildings and beat up SED functionaries. But many milled about on the fringe of the demonstrations and went home at the first sign of trouble. Outbreaks of rain also cleared many protesters off the streets.In the late afternoon of 17 June Soviet troops arrived to ensure the survival of the SED regime. Even though the Party’s security forces had been placed on high alert after the previous day’s events in East Berlin, the scale of the uprising overwhelmed them and the regime did not yet dispose of its own army. The nearest thing it had was the Kasernierte Volkspolizei (KVP), or ‘Barracked People’s Police’. But KVP units were not deployed because of fears that they might declare solidarity with the protesters. It was left to the Soviet army to disperse the mainly unarmed crowds with their tanks and machine guns. Many protesters had hoped the West would come to their rescue, but the United States and its allies did not dare intervene and risk an armed confrontation with the Soviet Union. The first popular uprising in the Eastern Bloc was over. Approximately 34 demonstrators, passers-by or bystanders, as well as five policemen and other regime functionaries, were dead.AftermathEven before the last pockets of resistance had been mopped up, the SED propaganda machine went into overdrive. In the print and broadcast media, the Party sought to convince citizens that the uprising had been an attempted fascist putsch, instigated by former Nazis, West German spies and the CIA. According to the SED, it was only thanks to its leadership and the ‘help’ of Soviet ‘friends’ that a return to fascism had been averted. This narrative of the uprising remained unchanged to the very end of the regime’s existence and was frequently used in the propaganda war against the West. Few but the most ardent SED supporters, however, believed it.Although much of the demonstrators’ anger had been directed at Walter Ulbricht, Moscow kept faith with him. The Kremlin wanted an experienced hand to steady the ship. Buoyed by this, Ulbricht purged the SED of his rivals, accusing them of having been in league with the ‘fascists’. Ironically, the uprising enabled him to tighten his grip on power. In late June 1953, SED ministers, including Ulbricht (who was roundly booed), visited factories to attempt to win back workers’ support. But the uprising had taught East Germans that the SED regime could only remain in power for as long as the Soviet forces were there to defend it. In the eyes of ordinary citizens the Party was politically bankrupt. It would never enjoy popular support.The ghost of 1953The spectre of the June uprising haunted the SED until its demise. In late 1989, faced with growing demonstrations, the Minister for State Security, Erich Mielke, anxiously asked his advisers: ‘Do you think that 17 June will break out again tomorrow?’ Party functionaries were permanently afraid that they would once again face angry mobs of disgruntled citizens. In the months and years that followed, the regime took steps to ensure that what had happened in June 1953 would never be repeated. Factories and other workplaces were ordered to form armed workers’ militia groups. Their main task was to put a stop to strikes before they could spread. Special units of the People’s Police were trained to deal with riots and equipped with firearms, armoured cars and light artillery. Finally, the State Security Service, or Stasi, was remodelled and billions of marks were spent on improving its effectiveness and recruiting officers and informers. In the wake of the uprising, the Stasi was heavily criticised. Since its inception in 1950, its role had been to judge the mood of citizens. Yet the uprising had taken it completely by surprise. Whereas before 1953 the Stasi had operated as a kind of jack-of-all-trades information service, after the uprising it was assigned the task of preventing a repeat of the unrest. This meant nipping all forms of opposition in the bud. The expansion of the Stasi after the June uprising eventually led to there being one Stasi informer for every 66 citizens in East Germany, a far higher ratio than the KGB or the Gestapo ever enjoyed.Yet the SED did not respond to the events of 1953 simply by increasing surveillance and repression. The Party resolved never to let living standards and workers’ satisfaction fall to a point at which a repeat of the uprising would become a possibility. As a result, it heavily subsidised the cost of living. For example, a bread roll or a tram ticket cost more or less the same in 1989 as they had done in 1953. Workers were appeased to the extent that one could repeatedly turn up for work drunk and face little sanction. Some scholars argue that this programme of subsidisation and the effect that the appeasement of workers had on productivity ultimately led to the regime’s bankruptcy in the 1980s.The SED regime also tightly controlled what citizens were able to learn about the uprising. The unrest had been so widespread that it would have been absurd to deny its occurrence. But the Party did attempt to suppress memories and awareness of it, hoping that the matter would eventually fade into obscurity. Thus, although the Party’s account of an attempted fascist putsch appeared in history books and school textbooks, no more than three or four short paragraphs covered it. Moreover, many teachers were so afraid of saying something that contravened the Party line that they often did not raise the subject at all. When the uprising was referenced in print or broadcast media, no detailed accounts ever appeared. The unrest was alluded to only as a vague serious of unspecific incidents instigated by faceless ‘spies, thugs and fascists’.The Party’s attempts to encourage the disappearance of the memory of the uprising from the public consciousness were, however, thwarted by West Germany. On 3 July 1953, the West German parliament voted in favour of declaring 17 June a national holiday, henceforth to be known as the ‘Day of German Unity’. Each year, West German politicians and anti-communists commemorated this day as a symbol of what they believed to be the East German citizens’ desire for democracy, freedom and a united Germany. The uprising became a stick with which West Germany could annually beat the SED regime. The fact that these commemorations were often broadcast on radio and television ensured that listening and watching East Germans were reminded annually of what had happened on that day in June 1953.East-West divideYet evidence suggests that the uprising of 17 June 1953 held little meaning for the ordinary citizens of both West and East Germany. In the West, the day became just another holiday. West German political commentators even debated during the 1980s whether the day had become a Cold War relic that was hindering West-East rapprochement. In East Germany, the events of 17 June 1953 meant little to most people, other than those who (or whose family) had directly suffered because of their participation in the unrest. For many, the uprising was something that had happened for just a few hours one afternoon, but which had made no perceivable impact on their lives. The Berlin Wall, on the other hand, was much more present in their minds because its effect on their personal freedom was clear and concrete. That said, citizens did not shy away from reminding the East German regime of what had happened in 1953. The files of the Stasi and the People’s Police contain numerous reports of disgruntled citizens threatening a ‘second 17 June’ or warning Party officials that ‘on the next 17 June, we will succeed’. Graffiti proclaiming ‘Long Live 17 June’ or ‘Remember the Victims of 1953’ often appeared around the anniversary of the uprising each year. Other related incidents also occurred, such as the slashing of the tyres of 17 cars in Magdeburg city centre on 17 June 1973. But such expressions of dissent represented citizens simply letting off steam. None attempted to instigate a second uprising.When Germany was formally reunified on 3 October 1990, this date became the ‘Day of German Unity’. The major annual commemorations of 17 June ceased and it lost its status as a national holiday. In 2003, ahead of the 50th anniversary of the uprising, there were indications that the events were fading from public consciousness. A survey revealed that nearly half of Germans had no idea what had happened on 17 June 1953. More recently, however, there have been attempts to increase public awareness and knowledge of the uprising by recasting the events as part of a broader narrative of German political resistance against oppressive regimes. In 2013, Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel hailed the uprising as a ‘significant landmark’ in joint-German history, suggesting that commemoration of the uprising of 17 June 1953 now has a political role to play in encouraging eastern and western Germans to regard their divided history as something that unites them.Richard Millington is Lecturer in German at the University of Chester and the author of State, Society and Memories of the Uprising of 17 June 1953 in the GDR (Palgrave, 2014).
  • Ferdinand Columbus, Bibliophile

    ...
  • Taming Pocahontas

    Taming Pocahontas

    Andrea Severson

    How a story of captivity, salvation and conversion became a tool to justify Britain’s conquest of the New World. 
    The legend of Pocahontas and John Smith is perhaps the most enduring story of British colonisation in America. For Americans, their story was a sign of cooperation between Europeans and Native Americans, but the figure of Pocahontas represented something different to the British settlers. Her legend characterised their hopes of a peaceful union between themselves and the peoples they conquered.It is likely that John Smith fabricated most, if not all, of the story; but it is also possible that the story of Pocahontas’ supposed rescue of him was actually part of a tribal ceremony. Either way, Pocahontas represented everything the British wanted to accomplish for the Native Americans in the 17th century. Here was a pagan woman who left her ‘savagery’ behind and assimilated into the English way of life. The British justified the expansion of their empire through such stories, now described as ‘captivity narratives’.The basic story is familiar. Captain John Smith, who came to Virginia to help establish the colony of Jamestown, fell into the hands of a powerful tribe in the area. This tribe, led by Chief Powhatan, held him in captivity and, after providing a feast for him, stretched him out on two stones and prepared to beat him to death. Just when Smith believed that all was lost, the daughter of the chief stepped forward. She laid her own head over Smith’s and pleaded for his life. The debate continues as to whether this actually happened. If it did, many historians believe it was probably a tribal custom, known as an execution and salvation rite, in which a person was brought to the point of execution before a member of the tribe ceremonially stepped forward and ‘saved’ them. If this ceremony was the reason for John Smith’s capture, it is possible that Powhatan wanted to incorporate the British settlers into his alliance of tribes and, believing Smith to be a person of some power among the colonists, captured him to make that alliance. John Smith might not have understood that it was a ritual; his journals indicate he believed himself in real danger. But after this incident the Powhatans and British formed an alliance that helped sustain Jamestown through the winter.Man of the (New) WorldJohn Smith’s journey to the New World was not his first adventure. He longed for travel from an early age, but, aged 15, his father sent him in 1595 as an apprentice to Thomas Sendall of King’s Lynn so that he could learn about trade and commerce. The death of his father in 1596 freed Smith from parental control, allowing him to leave Sendall’s apprenticeship and follow his dreams of adventure overseas. Smith first left England at the age of 18 under Captain Joseph Duxbury. After a few years, he became involved in a war with the Turks and was captured and sold as a slave. He escaped from slavery and, eventually, obtained the rank of captain. Yet, despite the peril of these previous journeys, he is remembered for travelling with the Virginia Company to the New World.When Smith first met Pocahontas after he became a prisoner of her tribe in 1607, she was about 10 or 11 years old. He wrote that she seemed to be around the age of 13 and certainly no older than 14, suggesting that he saw her as a child and not a romantic interest. It is worth noting that, while Smith claimed romantic attention from many women in his journals, including during his time as a slave in 1602, he made no such claims about Pocahontas.In 1608, Smith became the president of Jamestown, but he had to rush back to England when a spark ignited his powder bag, badly injuring him. He saw Pocahontas once more when she visited England around 1616 or 1617 and was saddened to hear of her death soon after. He himself died years later, dictating his last will and testament on 21 June 1631.[[{"fid":"42151","view_mode":"float_right","fields":{"format":"float_right","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":"Pocahontas, engraving by Simon de Passe, 1616.","field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":"Pocahontas, engraving by Simon de Passe, 1616.","external_url":""},"link_text":null,"type":"media","field_deltas":{"1":{"format":"float_right","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":"Pocahontas, engraving by Simon de Passe, 1616.","field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":"Pocahontas, engraving by Simon de Passe, 1616.","external_url":""}},"attributes":{"alt":"Pocahontas, engraving by Simon de Passe, 1616.","title":"Pocahontas, engraving by Simon de Passe, 1616.","class":"media-element file-float-right","data-delta":"1"}}]]The woman we know as Pocahontas actually had many names. Pocahontas was a nickname meaning ‘playful, frolicsome girl’. Her real name was Matoaka, but this name was used mostly among those closest to her. True names were often kept private among the Powhatans and so it was by her nickname that she became known. She was born around 1595 to one of Powhatan’s many wives. After supposedly saving John Smith’s life, she served as a messenger between her father and the British colony, but, as relations between the colony and her tribe began to deteriorate, the British captured her and held her for ransom. It was during this time in captivity that she became close to John Rolfe, a British settler of Jamestown who helped introduce tobacco to the colony. The couple decided to marry, a resolution that helped to stabilise relations between the British and Powhatan’s tribe. Upon converting to Christianity, she took the name ‘Rebecca’ and it was with this name that she travelled to England. Unfortunately, soon after setting sail back to America, she became so ill that the ship had to dock at the Thames port of Gravesend. There, on 21 March 1617, she died at the age of 22 and was buried under the name Rebecca Rolfe.While the story of John Smith’s captivity at the hands of Native Americans and subsequent rescue by Pocahontas is thrilling, it is in no way original. Captivity for ransom was a common fear among Europeans in North Africa and this fear soon spilled over to the New World. In this case, however, they feared captivity in the wilderness at the hands of pagan natives rather than by the Muslims of North Africa, whom they believed at least had some form of civilisation, as the British understood it. Captivity narratives were very popular in London. In fact, they became so much a part of British culture that, by the mid-19th century, British prisoners in Afghanistan spent much of their time writing about their experiences. The competitive atmosphere for writers of captivity narratives led many prisoners to embellish their stories in the hope of having them published in London. This practice leads us to wonder whether John Smith similarly embellished his journals, which were published initially without the story of Pocahontas’ rescue in 1612. His later writings continued to add elements to the story. The tale of Pocahontas’ rescue was included in a letter to Anne of Denmark, James I’s queen, in 1616 and another version appears in his The Generall Historie of Virginia, published in 1624, which calls into doubt his reliability as a historical source.Tall talesCaptivity narratives were writings devoted to the documentation of a subjugation experience by a British citizen in a foreign land. The roots of this genre can be found in the very beginning of European exploration. The story of St Patrick’s capture by Irish pirates, for example, follows a similar pattern. The stories increased in popularity with the discovery of the New World, becoming mostly associated with Native Americans holding an Anglo-American or British settler captive. These stories gained popularity because they showed the difference between the Europeans, who were ‘civilised’, and the other cultures that were ‘uncivilised’. Captivity narratives, especially those embellished to emphasise the cruelty of the native captors, played on these fears and validated British colonisation. As the British Empire expanded, these narratives became longer and more complex. Anthony Knivet, another British explorer, wrote about his capture by indigenous people in Brazil in 1625; Mercy Harbison similarly gave an account of the six days she spent in captivity after being taken by Native Americans in 1792; and John Williams wrote about being captured by the Mohawk in 1853, to name just a few. Such stories were not unique to Britain; they were found in other imperialist countries as well. Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, for example, wrote about living among Native Americans in his book La Relación in 1542. In Britain, captivity narratives had a major influence on European ethnographic knowledge and captivity came to be seen as a legitimate way of examining other cultures in an intellectual way. Though the captivity experiences were genuine, narratives of the ordeals often served as ethnographies as well as a way for the former captive to gain fame.Smith’s tale of his dramatic rescue by Pocahontas was not the only captivity narrative he had written. In True Travels, Adventures, and Observations of Captain John Smith (1630), he wrote about his capture and enslavement by the Turks in 1602. In it, he alluded to a possible relationship between himself and Charatza Tragabigzanda, the woman who owned him. Although there is no proof that such a relationship occurred – and Smith never says outright that it happened – the fact that he alluded to it at all makes it seem less likely that his relationship with Pocahontas was anything other than platonic. The Turkish captivity narrative goes on to explain how Smith went to work for Charatza Tragabigzanda’s brother, whom he calls ‘Tymor Bashaw’. Her brother was not kind to Smith, as Charatza Tragabigzanda had hoped. Instead, Tymor immediately stripped Smith, shaved his head and beard and put an iron collar around his neck. As a Christian, he was considered the lowest of slaves and was treated as such. This narrative, like the one in Jamestown, ended happily for Smith, as he eventually managed to escape after killing his master.The tale of Smith’s first capture represents a captivity narrative in that it tells the story of a British citizen taken prisoner during a war. Like that of Pocahontas, it involves a cruel man holding Smith against his will and a woman who finds Smith interesting in some way. The only real difference between the two is that the account of Smith’s capture by the Turks portrays him as a hero, who escaped thanks to his own abilities, while the narrative of his capture by Powhatan places Pocahontas as the hero who rescued Smith just in time.A civilised womanThe captivity narrative told by Smith, however, is only half the story of Pocahontas. The rest has to do with her assimilation into British culture and her conversion to Christianity. Religion was an important tool for British expansion, as religious conversion was often used as a justification for expanding the Empire. The need to convert the natives was born out of the British conviction that God commanded them to spread his true religion throughout the world. This largely came from a genuine desire to help Native Americans achieve civilisation, since God’s commandments were believed necessary to preserve a peaceful society, for which the Native Americans should be grateful. William Kempe wrote in his book The Education of Children in Learning in 1588: ‘They for want of learning can have no laws, no civil policy, no honest means to live by, no knowledge of God’s mercy and favor, and consequently no salvation and hope of comfort.’ The ‘savage’ state the Native Americans lived in was seen as comparable to the state of the British during the expansion of the Roman Empire. It was believed that, with help, the Native Americans could make the same ‘progress’.To the British, any opposition to Protestant Christianity was viewed as evil, especially when the beliefs were as strange to them as those held by the Native Americans. In his treatise, Daemonologie, James I proposed that ‘savage’ nations were more vulnerable to the devil because of their ignorance of the Lord. The British also believed the practice of worshipping idols among pagan people was a service to Satan, because it violated the divine orders of God. John Smith himself, despite his close friendship with Pocahontas, was convinced that the Native Americans were far closer to the devil than to the angels and did not believe that a mass conversion was possible for them. When he described Native American religion in 1624, Smith claimed: ‘Their chiefe God they worship is the Devill. Him they call Okee, and serve him more for feare than love. They say they have conference with him, and fashion themselves as neare to his shape as they can imagine.’Still, European explorers had seen ‘savage’ cultures adopt Christianity before and most settlers had no reason to think it would not take hold in America as well. Much of this belief stemmed from the notion that God planted his message in every living person and that all the Native Americans needed was for the British to help that seed take hold. Conversion of indigenous peoples helped the British Empire to make sense out of the discovery of the Americas. It provided a reason for why God revealed this new continent to them and gave them a sense that they were part of God’s plan in spreading the gospel and saving souls. As the historian David Silverman has written, many Christians also believed that neglecting to spread the faith would cause God to punish them, or, worse, that they might themselves become as ‘savage’ as the indigenous peoples were if they did not impose some civility on them.Toast of LondonThe British expected Christianity to eliminate savagery and Pocahontas seemed to be a perfect example of their success. John Smith wrote a letter to Anne of Denmark before Pocahontas’ arrival in England, commending her as the first of her nation to become Christian, the first to speak English and the first to have a child through marriage with an Englishman. The circumstances that made Pocahontas an exception to the rule – that she had become close to the British colony from the beginning and found her place in their society as a messenger between Jamestown and Powhatan – also made her a perfect tool for spreading the Gospel. Perhaps because of this, Pocahontas is one of only a few real successes of the Jamestown colonists’ attempts at conversion.In 1616, when Pocahontas, John Rolfe and their young son Thomas made the journey to England, they were the toast of London, as living proof that the British could civilise the ‘savages’ of the New World. When they arrived in England, a crowd of people eager to see the Indian princess greeted them everywhere they went. The Bishop of London entertained Pocahontas with a festival and, thanks to John Smith’s letter, Lady De La Warr, the wife of Thomas West, Baron De La Warr, the governor of Virginia, presented her to the royal court as Mistress Rolfe.Pocahontas’ success in London was due, in part, to the fact that she had adopted British cultural norms as well as religious ones. She represented a conformity to British gender roles through her marriage with John Rolfe and her change of identity from the pagan Matoaka to the Christian Mistress Rebecca Rolfe. Women in Native American societies often had some influence over tribal decisions because they played such a large part in planting and harvesting the food, whereas the men were often more involved in hunting and fishing, which the British considered leisure activities. The settlers, therefore, did not believe that native men contributed much to their society but rather that they exploited the labour of their wives and daughters. This misunderstanding only strengthened the British desire to hold on to their traditional gender roles.Few marriages took place between British colonists and Native Americans because the cultural and religious gap often seemed too wide. When Rolfe, who had instructed Pocahontas in English and Christianity during her captivity, wrote a letter to his superiors explaining his reason for marrying her, he insisted that his desire for marriage had nothing to do with lust and everything to do with the salvation of her soul and the benefit of the colony. For Oscar Handlin, however, who has written about John Smith’s connection to Virginia in his 1975 book American Genesis: Captain John Smith and the Founding of Virginia, ‘his letter shows the torment of a lusty lonely middle-aged Englishman who had fallen in love with a maiden whom he desperately desired but who failed to meet the standards of his society’. In his letter, Rolfe wrote:For besides the many passions and sufferings which I have daily, hourely, yea and in my sleepe indured, even awaking mee to astonishment, taxing mee with remisnesse, and carlesnesse, refusing and neglecting to performe the duetie of a good Christian, pulling me by the eare, and crying: why dost not thou indevour to make her a Christian? In this way, Rolfe justified his feelings for Pocahontas, which he described as all-consuming, within a Christian context.A strange wifeRolfe, as a religious man, also feared he would incite God’s anger if he were to marry a ‘strange wife’, as he called her. According to the historian Sylvia Hoffert: ‘The colonists believed that all women were to some degree tainted with Eve’s lustfulness, deceitfulness, untrustworthiness, pride, greed and propensity for insubordination.’ The British believed it was for this reason that God had placed women under the mastership of men – first their fathers’, then their husbands’ – and that it was the duty of men to keep their women under control. In addition, they saw indigenous women as dirty, promiscuous and difficult to control; to marry one was to surrender to the lust and sexual vice of these women. British society also expected men to offer women intellectual and spiritual guidance, as well as support them economically. Thus Rolfe was able to justify marrying Pocahontas ‘for the good of her soul’; he believed that she would not be able to continue her life as a Christian properly without male guidance.Interracial marriages, almost without exception, involved a European man and an indigenous woman. This is probably because a woman’s place in society was almost entirely determined by her husband or male family members. Thus, if a woman were to marry a Native American man, she would no longer have any status in British society. Pocahontas, on the other hand, gained a position in the British social order through her marriage. Marriage to a white man was also a way of ensuring an indigenous woman’s survival and that of her family. Whether or not Pocahontas married John Rolfe for either of these reasons is unknown. Nevertheless, their union did have an effect on both the colony and Powhatan’s tribe, leading to better relations between the Native Americans and the British and helping to facilitate peace between them for the remainder of Pocahontas’ life. Although Powhatan did not attend his daughter’s wedding ceremony personally, as relations had soured between his tribe and the British colonists, he did give his blessing and sent her uncle to give her away in his place.The ‘taming’ of Pocahontas is a microcosm of the British desire to ‘tame’ Native Americans in general. The legend of Pocahontas, which began through her association with John Smith and continued with her marriage to John Rolfe, was important to colonial British society because it represented the hope that they could ‘civilise’ the cultures they conquered. They justified bringing their notions of civilisation to native peoples all across the empire through literary genres such as the captivity narrative, as well as the through the obligation they felt to spread Christianity and proper gender roles. Pocahontas fits into all these categories as the hero of a captivity narrative, a convert to Christianity and a woman who subscribed to the British expectations of gender. Ultimately, this is what the British wished to achieve among all their non-British subjects and, though they were not altogether successful in the end, Pocahontas gave them confidence that they could achieve their goal and that they could ‘tame’ the ‘savage’ nations of the world as they had ‘tamed’ her.Andrea Severson is a PhD student at the University of Texas at El Paso, studying gender and material culture.

Local Weather

Quick Contact

Contact us

If you want more information, fill in this form. We will get back to you as soon as possible.

captcha