Watching History in Action–Moscow 1991

In August 1991, almost thirty years ago, Moscow seemed ready for a quiet month, but unexpected changes were brewing. Mikhail Gorbachev, the president of the Soviet Union, was vacationing at his summer home unaware that others were plotting his downfall. As was later reported in the New York Times, on August 17, half a dozen conservative communist Russian officials gathered at a steam bath to plot the overthrow the Soviet government. Four of the group would fly to Gorbachev’s estate and give him an ultimatum to resign, while others would assume control of the White House—the center of government. Over glasses of vodka and Scotch, they laid their plans.

On the day that these conspirers met, another group of people were assembling in Moscow—hundreds of librarians were arriving in the city to attend a conference of the International Federation of Library Associations (IFLA). Most of them were from Europe and the Americas, while some came from India, Africa, and Asia. Their goal was to encourage the development of libraries and the exchange of information between the people and governments of the world. Many of the participants were keenly aware of the differences in information policy between the countries of Eastern Europe and those of the West, but probably none of them had expected such a dramatic display of the struggle for freedom as they encountered in Moscow that summer.

I was lucky enough to be participant in that IFLA conference and to become a witness to the way many ordinary Russians experienced the events of the abortive coup. As a reminder of what life was like during that handful of August days in Russia, I have posted the journal that I kept as a record of that eventful week. It is available on this site.

The years that have gone by since 1991 have not been good ones for the Russians. The joy that ordinary people felt during the heady days when it seemed as though democracy was triumphing has faded away. The story of how freedom was gradually lost in Russia is masterfully told in Masha Gessen’s 2017 book: The Future is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia. I highly recommend it.

Knowing More Wins the War

World War II is usually remembered as a war of lethal weapons—great powers using bombs, artillery, and other weapons to win victory. But the war was also a struggle for information. Knowing what the enemy knew and what plans were being laid was crucial. Up until World War II, America had no organized structure for gathering information from foreign sources, but as the Nazis gained power in Europe, the need to know became imperative. Franklin Roosevelt recognized this need and appointed William “Wild Bill” Donovan to head up a new operation, which became known as the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). It was an office that became a crucial part of the war effort.  

Fortunately, the need for increased information occurred at a time when scholars were discovering how to preserve and share documentation in dramatic new ways. Microfilm was a new medium that could record information in a format that could be hidden in diplomatic pouches and shipped overseas cheaply without attracting much attention. Although we now remember microfilm as a dull and outdated medium, during World War II and the Cold War, it became a vital weapon against threats from foreign governments.  

In her recent book, Information Hunters: When Librarians, Soldiers, and Spies Banded together in World War II Europe, Kathy Peiss tells us about some of the people who participated in the hidden war for information. Donovan turned to Archibald MacLeish, the Librarian of Congress, who recruited librarians and scholars from across the country to hunt out and transport papers, journals, and books from Europe to the United States. Their efforts during the 1940s and early 1950s shifted the balance of information between Europe and America and shaped the postwar information revolution that has changed our world. 

Peiss’s book is crowded with stories about individuals who made a difference to the war and to the postwar society that developed out of it. We learn about their activities as they pursued leads to bookstores, publishers, and libraries seeking written records of the events and publications that led up to the war. Even Nazi propaganda and popular books designed to encourage loyalty to the Nazi regime were collected and shipped to the United States. The book tells a fascinating story of a band of brave and dedicated men and women who were willing to carry out this dangerous work.   

We can easily understand how all these sources of knowledge became important historical records, but for those of us who have no firsthand knowledge of how chaotic Europe was during those years—what the streets and shops these information hunters visited were like—it is hard to visualize what the information hunters were up against during their searches. There is something about a visual reconstruction of the scene that makes it come alive. And as I read Peiss’s book, I discovered that visual reinforcement in a movie—Orson Welles’s classic The Third Man.   

Although the plot of the movie had nothing to do with the librarians and scientists who inhabit the Information Hunters, the movie shows us the rubble-strewn streets of Vienna and the weary and frightened people who inhabit the city. Seeing those streets makes the adventures of the information hunters come to life. We can feel the chill of fear that visited each of them as they sought documents and books that had been hidden away in cellars, buried under the rubble of bombed out churches, and stored in warehouses through the war years.  

Sometimes it takes more than one medium to make history come alive. For anyone who is interested in understanding World War II and the impact it had on the world we live in today, I strongly recommend reading Peiss’s book and perhaps supplementing it with the movies, pictures and music that make history come alive. 

A Woman Unafraid of War–Florentia Sale

Throughout history, women have seldom started wars, but it is surprising how many women have played important roles when wars come to them. Florentia Sale, for example, was a Victorian-era woman whose journal helped the British to navigate a tricky situation in Afghanistan in 1842. After that war ended, the journal became a bestselling book and it remains today an enduring record of a brave and clever woman.

Lady Florentia Sale

Florentia Sale was born in Madras, India, in 1790. into a family of British civil servants.  Like many British civil servant and army families of the time, her father  and his family spent very little time in England. At the age of 19, Florentia married a British army officer, Sir Robert Sale. Most of the rest of her life was spent in farthest reaches of the British empire. All of her ten children were born abroad and spent most of their lives outside of England. Florentia was already a grandmother when her life was changed by one of England’s most unnecessary wars—the first Anglo-Afghan War.

The British entered the Afghan War because they were afraid Russia might be planning to invade India through Afghanistan, although the Russians had no such plan. Both British and Russian leaders apparently misunderstood which ruler the Afghan people would accept, or perhaps they didn’t care, but each country pushed support for its own choice. The British Army and the British East India Company, which fought beside them, invaded Afghanistan. As usual, the armed forces were accompanied by many women and children. When the British moved into Kabul, the citizens rose against them. On November 2, 1842, Lady Sale describes in her journal “This morning early, all was in commotion in Kabul. The shops were plundered and the people all fighting.” The British decided to retreat. 

A large number of hostages, most of them women or children, were taken by the Afghans to ensure that the British would leave. Lady Sale was one of them. This group was to be marched to Kandahar. The march was long and slow and it started during a cold Afghan winter. Conditions were not comfortable, but Florentia made the best of them. The group walked for several days with only a few stops and no access to the clothes and supplies they had packed for themselves. When they finally were reunited with their belongings, Florentia describes how good it felt. “We luxuriated in dressing, although we had no clothes but those on our backs; but we enjoyed washing our faces very much, having had but one opportunity of doing so since we left Cabul. It was rather a painful process, as the cold and glare of the sun on the snow had three times peeled my face, from which the skin came off in strips.

Wars moved slowly in those days and various envoys from the British came and went from the Afghan camp, although they could do nothing to free the hostages. But Lady Sale was able to send letters including pages of her journal to her husband, to let him know where the hostages were and how they were being treated. Parts of her journal were published in London newspapers so even as she was living through the hostage crisis, she became famous. Dubbed the ‘soldier’s wife par excellence’ by The Times, Lady Sale was also known as ‘the Grenadier in Petticoats’ by her husband’s fellow officers.

Throughout her long ordeal, Lady Sale stood up for her rights and for the well-being of her fellow hostages. When the Afghans and the British forces were negotiating the terms of ransom for the hostage women and children, Lady Sale protested “against being implicated in any proceedings in which I have no vote.”

Cold weather was not the only difficulty the women had to overcome. Many of the younger women were wives of British officers and during their nine-month-long ordeal, four babies were born to add to the list of hostages. None of this seemed to bother the indominable women who coped with weather, childbirth and earthquakes without losing hope.

Even as she observed the war and bargained with soldiers, Florentia continued to pay attention to the beauty of the countryside. In April she wrote “I saw plenty of amaryllis in bloom; as also of the Persian iris (the orris of the druggists), which quite scented the air with a perfume resembling that of mingled violets and wall-flowers.”

After nine long months, the hostages were released. Nothing had been gained by the war. In 1843 British army chaplain G.R. Gleig wrote a memoir about this disastrous war. He wrote that it was “a war begun for no wise purpose, carried on with a strange mixture of rashness and timidity, brought to a close after suffering and disaster, without much glory attached either to the government which directed, or the great body of troops which waged it. Not one benefit, political or military, was acquired with this war. Our eventual evacuation of the country resembled the retreat of an army defeated”.

If you would like to read more, you can find Florentia’s journal on Amazon and in some libraries. Sale, Florentia. Lady Sale’s Afghanistan: an Indomitable Victorian Lady’s Account of the Retreat from Kabul During the First Afghan War.

We Must Not Lose Our History

Like many other people around the world, I spent quite a bit of time this week watching news pictures of the fire that struck Notre Dame Cathedral. For almost everyone who has visited Paris, and millions who have never been there, Notre Dame is immediately recognizable.

Notre Dame Cathedral 2019

I’ve been lucky enough to visit Notre Dame several times. My first visit was during the 1950s when I went on a student trip to Europe. We Americans were overwhelmed by the beauty and history of Paris. Buildings, streets, the whole city seemed so old and yet still alive and important. It was a revelation. This was only a few years after the end of World War II, when Notre Dame became the centerpiece for the liberation of Paris and the end of the war. We could still remember the newsreel pictures of American troops being welcomed by tearfully joyous French civilians.

Notre Dame 1944

Every time I went back to Paris and visited Notre Dame, the church was more crowded with tourists than the time before. Memories of the war became one small part of the centuries of history enshrined in the church. Looking at the overwhelming light and beauty of the rose window, it was easy to understand how it must have brightened the lives of people, both Parisians and others throughout the centuries. The events that window cast light on—the marriage of Mary, Queen of Scots and the coronation of Napoleon—linger on in memories in the building alongside the memories of nameless soldiers coming back from wars, families bringing babies for Baptism, and refugees trying to build new lives in a strange city.

But more important, the cathedral has welcomed thousands of visitors over the years and given them a glimpse of a past that still lives and influences us. The sculptures, the stained glass, the votive candles flickering along the side altars. Every visit reminds us of the people who visited the cathedral and were awed by the experience just as we are. The past comes alive in places where so many people have experienced some of life’s major events. William Faulkner once wrote “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” We recognize the reality of the past—our past and the past of humanity—when we visit places so rich in history. Notre Dame Cathedral is an important part of the heritage of all humankind and we cannot afford to lose it.

It is not only the heritage of our own societies that enrich us. Visiting heritage sites around the world binds us together in our common human history. When I visited Angkor Wat in 1999,  I was overwhelmed by the evidence of a past world I had never known about.  I recently reread the journal I kept during that visit.

Angkor Wat, Cambodia

Today we went to a temple complex that is being overgrown by the jungle. The banyan trees in particular send their roots into the crevices in the stones and force the stones apart. Many parts of the temple have fallen to the ground. The stone faces of the Buddha statues peer from the tops of devastated towers. A group of soldiers who were guarding the site were cooking a frog over a tiny fire. They had killed the frog that morning and it is considered wrong to kill a creature and not make use of it–lack of respect.

On our way back to the hotel we drove around the Angkor Wat complex and began to get a better sense of the whole place, although my knowledge is still sketchy. I have an impressionistic feeling about the glories of the crumbling ruins, the huge, smiling Buddha faces, the graceful figures of the dancing girls, and the parades of war elephants and troops. The surroundings haven’t changed much over the centuries, it seems, and that adds to the sense of their antiquity. It’s like walking into a preserved world of the past. We walked through what seemed like acres of temple property, along stone paths and up crooked stone steps around the walls of the complex, which are carved with scenes of Cambodian life from the thirteenth century. Banyan trees push up through the stones.

Both Notre Dame Cathedral and Angkor Wat are UNESCO World Heritage sites. They remind us all of a past that will never be completely recovered but will continue to resonate with generations of people to come. They commemorate the universal experiences of life and death, birth and burial. In recognizing them we acknowledge the common life of all humans and the events we all share. We must not lose these reminders of the past. They are worth rebuilding, no matter how long that takes,  because they enrich all of us.

Shirley Temple and me and tanks in the street

The audience that laughed and cried with Shirley Temple as she starred in movies like Captain January, Poor Little Rich Girl, and Heidi during the 1930s and 1940s has pretty much disappeared. Some of us still remember the TV shows she hosted during the 1950s and 60s, but her movies and the songs she made famous like “On the Good Ship Lollipop” seem relics from a forgotten past. Nonetheless her name and image are still remembered as an indelible part of America’s past.

Like many other people, I had a vague idea that Shirley Temple had maintained a long career after her retirement from films. Recently, however, I had a vivid reminder of Shirley Temple’s career when I read Norman Eisen’s book The Last Palace (2018). The palace of the title is a magnificent home designed and built in Prague during the 1920s by Otto Petschek, a Jewish entrepreneur whose fortune was made through coal mining. The Petschek family was driven from the country when Hitler came to power and Czechoslovakia fell to the Nazis.

Eisen has built his book around telling the story of the palace and its occupants throughout the century. Each chapter tells an intriguing story but the one that surprised me the most was that of Shirley Temple Black, who was ambassador to Czechoslovakia during the late 1980s. She had first visited Prague and the palace in 1968, after she had retired from the movies. The purpose of her visit was to encourage the country to join the International Federation of Multiple Sclerosis Societies. She succeeded in her mission, but was unexpectedly caught up in a coup. On the morning that she had planned to leave the city and return home, she looked out of her hotel window and saw tanks crowded with Soviet troops rolling down the streets. Suddenly all of her plans were cancelled. Tanks have a way of doing that.

Reading this chapter of the book reminded me vividly of my trip to a library conference in Moscow in 1991. I dug out the old journal I had kept during that trip to find my description of how the sudden eruption of the August coup had seemed to me and my colleagues.

Last night was scary. After we went to bed at 11:00, we heard tanks rumbling through the streets. They really make a racket ‑‑a loud roar that sounds almost like a low‑flying aircraft. Then we heard gunfire, first pistols then machine gun fire. Not much of it, but enough to make us listen. We kept peering out the window and trying to see what was going on. We could see the tanks, but could not see where the shooting was. There were lights all over the city. In the hotel across the street we could see people silhouetted in windows. I began to realize how people must feel in Beirut where no one knows what is happening.

The noises stopped at about 1:30 and we finally got some sleep. This morning at breakfast rumors were flying. Some people can see down the street to the Yeltsin office building. Some said that there were crowds out on Kalinnen Prospekt yelling “Yeltsin” “Yeltsin” and that the tanks turned back when they came upon the crowd. There is some hope that the fact that the tanks refused to fire means that the junta is going under. Some reports on the radio say that two junta members are “ill”. CNN doesn’t go on the air until 9:00, so there has been no outside news.

The memory of those tanks and the insecurity of not knowing what was going on and not being able to get in touch with people back home is still clear in my mind, Eventually the coup failed, Moscow was safe and soon we were able to return home and go on with our lives.

U.S Embassey in Prague

Shirley Temple’s coup adventure lasted longer than mine and had a far different ending. After days of confusion and conflicting news, many foreigners were finally able to leave Prague and Shirley played an heroic real life part in the drama. With the help of people from the U.S. State Department, she led a caravan of autos to the German border where they were able to escape from the Soviet’s takeover of Czechoslovakia. The events had a great impact on her and she spent most of the rest of her life in public service, working as White House Chief of Protocol, and eventually becoming an ambassador to Ghana and then to Czechoslovakia in 1989. She returned to Prague and lived in the palace, which is now the American embassy. As ambassador, she was able to welcome a more liberal government as it took power. She demonstrated both good judgment and star power in encouraging the Velvet Revolution that brought democracy to Czechoslovakia.

Eisen has chosen well in focusing on one building that saw the unfolding of so many historical trends during the 20th century. It is a welcome reminder of how history unfolds and how events in other countries impact American life. I strongly urge you to read it. Not only will you learn a lot of history, but you will also enjoy suspenseful stories about some amazing people.