For this week, we have been reading Matthew Stibbe’s chapter “The War from Below” from Germany, 1914-1933: Politics, Culture, Society. Stibbe illustrates how the experiences of war – brutal and full of hardship as they surely were – produced new kinds of politics that burst onto the political stage without a clear unified political program but one chief goal – to end the war.
Many histories of the Great War (and many other histories as well) have been told from the perspectives of those “above”– from the perspectives of national and international decision makers, heads of states, leading corporations and institutions, diplomats and professionals. Similarly the sources mobilized often focused on official documents and correspondence rather than letters, photographs, diaries, or the day to day records of local administrations such as reports by welfare workers or local police. Stibbe is neither the first nor the only one to write history from this perspective. Rather, he is a recent contributor to a trend that started in the 1960s and became more an more central in the decades since.
If I think about this particular historiographical shift and the shift in or expansion of source materials that went along with it – namely to not only include but to privilege the voices and records of those not in positions of power and not imbued with a particular kind of expertise – I wonder how historians will want write the history of the present. Somehow, in our present moment (or for the past two decades) it is less clear where is “up” and where is “down.” Don’t get me wrong – it is pretty obvious who holds and wields political, economic and military power and who is in charge of imparting expertise, in our own country and in others. But that’s not where I find myself confused. My confusion as a historian stems from a question about sources and evidence.
For at least the past three election cycles in the United States, candidates of both major parties have deliberately addressed and promised to speak for “those below.” Never mind that they often addressed and claimed to represent very differently composed social groups, all of them “below.” This is well in keeping with the situation we’ve encounter in Germany during World War I and immediately after, where both the revolutionaries and many of their opponents came from a socio-economic position that could be described as coming from “below” and who certainly expressed views that didn’t align with the views held by those in power. But, the Kaiser didn’t mean to speak to any of them, nor did he much care to listen to their demands. He would have much preferred them all to be silent, if they could not force themselves to cheer on his behalf.
Individuals may have appealed to the Kaiser, pleading with him or listed their personal sacrifices, but the Kaiser didn’t write back. The Kaiser didn’t tweet his outrage in response to the mutineers in Kiel. He didn’t rant against the women in the breadlines on various social media platforms. He also didn’t try to win their favor. He didn’t try to convince the disgruntled populace that there was hope still, that victory was necessary and that their trust in him would be rewarded, not on Facebook, not anywhere. He didn’t applaud those who remained stedfast in their positions and refused to join the revolution by writing accolades about them in news outlets or letters to their parents.
When the Obama campaign used social media to organize volunteers and encourage voter turnout, when Trump shares his views on policy matters via twitter posts, the historian needs to make herself aware that the nature of the source no longer unequivocally indicates its relationship to political power.
While both the Kaiser or an ordinary munitions worker could theoretically have submitted a personal letter to, say, the Frankfurter Zeitung, even if the worker would have been much less likely to get his letter published and the Kaiser would have seen no need for writing an op-ed, since the paper covered his words regardless, but even if we ignore the unlikelihood of such occurrences and merely accept that they were, theoretically, possible, it would still be within the historian’s ability to identify the publisher, likely even the editor who had made the decision to include either piece, hence identifying the organizational structures that enabled something to become published.
The new media may have “democratized” publishing and now enables any and all (with access to a computerized device and the internet) to spread their perspective. The reach of each of those voices varies, but the patterns by which they vary are more difficult to establish and the structures and forces that make this possible appear merely as zeros and ones whose political interests (and effects) are likely to be as variegated as they are immaterial to the tasks completed by the individuals working through the various machines, networks, supply, repair and dissemination infrastructures….
So if I want to write the history of the present from “below” where do I start?