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Month: March, 2012

Kony 2012, »God has left Africa«, and the question of military intervention

The recent viral Kony 2012 campaign and the whole controversy surrounding it reminded of the 2003 movie Tears of the Sun. The Antoine Fuqua directed Bruce Willis and Monica Bellucci vehicle was one of the »Africa awarness« movies the movie industry decides to put out every couple of years – mostly corresponding with real »Africa awareness« campaigns. Other examples include Blood Diamond or the – strangely enough – Uwe Boll film Darfur. Tears of the Sun stands out even among these movies though for Roger Ebert’s assessment of it as an “impressionistic nightmare” proves itself to be true on so many levels. The movie openly shows together rape, child soldiers, senseless killings, and religious conflict – all problems apparent in certain areas of the African continent. It also conveys what can be called stereotypical Western portray of Africa: Africans themselves are either helpless victims or hardly speaking murderers that use drugged up child soldiers to do their evil bidding. In the middle of all of this are the White, Western characters such as Monica Bellucci’s aiding doctor and Bruce Willis’ marine with a heart of gold, spouting such wisdoms as “God has left Africa”. They are essentially the only characters in the movie that are active in a good way. The lifes of helpless Africans depend on them because the movie portrays them in a way that makes them unable to take any kind of action of their own. The message of the movie is basically that Africa – because the way the movie wants the audience to understand it, all of Africa is clearly the same hotbed of horrible conflict – is helpless without Western military intervention.

And that brings us to the Kony 2012 campaign. This campaign and the controversy surrounding it pose an essential question: What can be the effect of raised awareness in the West about criminals such as Kony? Should the goal be to pressure the dictatorial Uganda government that deploys child soldiers in its own army to hunt down Kony? Should the goal be to send Western military in to get rid of Kony? The same questions are applicable to the conflict in Darfur – once immensely “popular” about the political aware Western crowd but now almost forgotten – or the also almost forgotten Rwandan genocide or the hardly present ethnic conflicts in former Yugoslavia. Can Western countries end these conflicts and if so, how can they do that effectively? Will putting president Bashir on the ICC criminal list have any effect? Will economic sanctions against these countries lead to change? Or is military intervention – as Tears of the Sun suggests it – the most effective way to end genocide and slaughter?

As a historian whose field of interest is the Holocaust, I can’t be opposed to military intervention. Without question World War II effectively ended the German campaign of mass murder. The same is true for the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia that ended the auto-genocidal regime of the Khmer Rouge or the 1991 NATO intervention in former Yugoslavia with only the latter being fought – at least in part – because of the atrocities committed. The question that still remains is how effective these interventions were not in ending the immediate violence but in eliminating the structural and ideological reasons for the genocide and atrocities committed. While in the case of the German and Austrian committed Holocaust there can be made a case for the effectiveness of the Allied intervention and occupation, in the latter case of Yugoslavia the intervention might have ended violence but if it helped in eliminating the political and structural reasons for the ethnic violence is a question that can not be answered at this point, to put it carefully.

I can’t and won’t make the cause for intervention in every case. Also, I can’t answer all these question I have posed because it all depends on the specific case and circumstances. To put it in very simple and general terms, the reason why people such as Joseph Kony, Bashir, and others like them all over the world can exist are a manifold mix of social, economic, political, and historical reasons. The most effective and also most difficult way to end violent conflicts like these would be to change these factors. A long, hard, and difficult way that is not easy to walk. I believe that for each one of us individually the way of contributing to this, is by informing ourselves, by not forgetting “unpopular” conflicts that still are ongoing (Darfur!), by donating to organizations we can be sure about (Oxifam and Doctor’s without border some to mind), and by putting pressure on Western governments resp. support the people who do in order to achieve a more fair and non-exploitative policy of the West as well as providing the necessary assistance for self-help.


From the desk of a feminist historian: The history of International Women’s Day

International Women’s Day is not a day to celebrate feminity, motherhood, or women. If you give flowers to a woman on International Women’s Day, you are doing it wrong. International Women’s Day has and always will be a day to draw attention to the social issues women fac all around the world and to fight for their rights. Actually it is necessary to fight for women’s rights all year round but this is the day to draw attention of the serious issues of non-equality and lacking emancipation women still face today.

It is actually not true that the International Women’s Day is on March 8 because of female American textile workers striking on March 8, 1857 and being brutally beaten by the police. Historians such as Liliane Kandel, Francoise Picq, and Temma Kaplan have proven this a legend in the 1960. The actual origin of the International Women’s Day is the Second Socialist International Women’s conference 1910 in Copenhagen where prominent female socialist such as Clara Zetlkin (about whom I have written before), Rosa Luxemburg, and Adelheid Popp made the suggestion of introducing an international day to fight for women’s rights. The idea for that came from the Socialist Party of America that had established a women’s rights committee in 1908 and especially May Wood-Simons that had the idea of introducing a day where all the women of the Western world would protest together for their right to vote. The suggestion passed and in 1911 the first International Women’s Day was celebrated in Denmark, Germany, the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, and Switzerland. March 8 was chosen because of the significance of the month of March for the socialist movement; in March 1848 the so-called March Revolution took place and the Paris commune also started in March.

In the following five years the International Women’s Day became the most important day for the socialist movement after Labor Day on May 1st. The most pressing issue addressed on this day was suffrage. Until the end of the First World War there were hardly any countries that allowed women to vote, so in the beginning years of its existence International Women’s Day always was also Internation Women’s Right to Vote Day.The first country that adopted International Women’s Day as an official holiday was the newly founded Soviet Union in 1918 due in part to the lobbying of the Socialist International Women’s Movement anad also in part due to Lenin himself who saw women’s rights struggle as one of the most important issues in a socialist state.

After 1918 the day was still celebrated mostly by socialist and socialdemocrat parties as a day to demonstrate against the wage-gap, the criminalization of abortion, and the conditions women were forced to work under. Especially the German and Austrian communist and socialist movement stand out in this manner since they managed the biggest demonstrations and were the first movements in a democratic state that tried to institute March 8 outside of the Soviet Union.

After the Second World War (during the Nazi time period the day was abolished) many socialist countries adapted the day as a fixture in their calendar to demonstrate the many achievements for women in the new socialist order. The German Democratic Republic for example celebrated its first International Women’s Day on March 8, 1946 and with that day adopted the so-called women’s day, which was one day a week women got off of work with full pay.
During the 1960s International Women’s Day was slowly disconnected from the socialist movement in Western countries, especially in connection with the rightful critique of feminists concerning socialist parties and movements. The same day was adapted to not only fight against the wage gap but also for reproductive rights, the acknowledgment of women as their own legal person, and the equality of Lesbians.

To this day all these issues are not resolved. As a personal appeal, I want all of you to remember not only where this day came from but also, that there is a lot to fight for in terms of women’s rights. There is still a wage gap, a war on women’s reproductive rights, not full equality for homosexuals, stereotypes against women, rape culture, and prejudices concerning feminism. All of these have to be fought. None of these can be overcome with buying flowers for women. I urge all of you whether male, female, queer or something else to use this day to draw attention to these issues and continue the fight all year. For a more just, equal, and generally better society!

Female Badasses in History:Marie Gouze better known as Olympe de Gouges (1748-1793)

Olympe de Gouges was a French playwright, revolutionary, and abolitionist. She started becoming politically involved as a writer against slavery and is most well-known for writing the Declaration of the rights of women and the female citizen in response to the French Revolution’s Declaration of the right of man and the citizen, in which she challenged male dominance in the revolutionary movement and the focus of the French revolutionary struggle on men and not women.

Olympe de Gouges was born in 1748 in southwestern France in a petit-bourgeoisie family with her father being a butcher. She originally believed she was the illegitimate child of a French aristocrat but he rejected her story, which might have been a decisive factor in her later defense of the rights of illegitimate children. In 1765 at age seventeen Olympe was married against her will. She later wrote about her marrige that she was married to a man she found repugnant and felt hopelessly trapped. Her husband, however, died a year later and Olypme took the chance to move to Paris with her son where she also took her pen name. During her time in Paris she must have studied reading and writing because analphabetism was common among French women at the time and in her home the language was Occidane (a minority language in France) rather then the French of the north. She also spent her time in literary salons and cohabitating with several men of the Parisian literary scene. It is assumed that was how she got involved in politics and started writing text inspired by the Enlightenment. She wrote her first play, Zamorze and Mirza, in 1784 but it was not performed until 1789. It was a story about two survivors of a shipwreck falling in love, one of them being a black slave and had a strong anti-slavery message. She also started writing political texts, among them many that condemned slavery, called for a new divorce law allowing women to get divorced, proclaimed the right of women to have sexual relations outside of marriage, were concerned with a better treatment of illegitimate children and with human rights in general.

Olympe had many condemn her, mainly for being a woman that dared getting involved in politics and writing. Even some of her later colleges in the revolutionary movement were appalled by a woman “daring” to be involved in matters that “only concerned men”.

When the revolution in 1789 broke out Olympe was in full support of it. However, soon it became clear to her that men dominated the revolutionary movement and in formulating the rights of men, they didn’t include women. In reaction, she and several other female authors and female proponents of the Enlightenment founded the Society of the Friends of the Truth (which is an awesome name!) in 1791, a social club dedicated to the rights and inclusion of women. It is this social club where she made one of her most famous statements: “A woman has the right to mount the scaffold She must possess equally the right to mount the speaker’s platform.” In this context scaffold meaning the Guillotine. Olympe was opposed to the execution of the members of the Frnech aristocracy.

When in the same year the Declaration of the Rights of men and the citizen became part of the new French constitution, Olympe in protest wrote the Declaration of the Rights of women and the female citizen because the new constitution still excluded women from political rights. The first article of her declaration states: “The woman is born free and equal to men in all rights and matters concerned.” A lot of the text is similar to the Declaration of the Rights of men but now includes women in the text. Historiography is still not clear how much of an impact her text had. Until 1971 it was not much dealt with in writings about the French Revolution but this is most likely related to the fact that most male historians chose to ignore her text rather than research its impact.

During the revolution Olympe was associated with the Girondins. When the Jacobins began erecting their rule of terror under Robespierre they arrested her for this association but also for her relentless critique of male dominance after the revolution. She was not allowed to have a lawyer present during her trial and tried to defend herself but to no avail. She was beheaded on the Place  de la Concorde on November 3, 1793.

Olympe de Gouges stands out as an outspoken proponent of the Enlightenment who was not afraid to propagate and fight for what was right in her opinion. Her Declaration of the Rights of women and the female citizen was an important document of protest against the exclusion of women from the newly introduced human and political rights. In its text it doesn’t aim at establishing any “special” rights for women but rather at the inclusion and the granting of the same rights and duties men were awarded by the revolution. Also, in her other texts her early feminism and dedication to the rights of all humans – male, female, black, white, legitimate or illegitimate – stands out. The fact that she has been (deliberately) forgotten by historiography until almost 200 years after her death should stand not only as a reminder but as an call for an obligation to historians and society in general to remember such outstanding women such as her.

Female Badasses in History: Constance Markievicz (1868-1927)

Countess Constance Markievicz was a founding member of the Irish parliament, a fighter for Irish independence, a suffragette, a socialist and one of the first women in the world to hold a cabinet position in any government. Despite her aristocratic background she was involved in socialist politics in Ireland, smuggled arms for the Irish Republicans, and took part in the Irish Easter Rising and the Irish Civil War following the Anglo-Irish Treaty.

Constance Markievicz was born Constance Gore-Booth in 1868 in London as the daughter of an Artic explorer and Anglo-Irish landlord. In her youth her father had already been an inspiration for during the famine of 1879-80 he had distributed free food among the peasant on his estate in North-West Ireland. She originally trained to become a painter in London and soon became involved with the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Society, an organization dedicated to women’s suffrage in the UK. Before settling in Dublin in 1903 she also went to Paris where she met and married her husband Casimir Markievicz, a wealthy count from Poland.

After settling in Dublin, Constance made a name for her as a landscape painter and since she was interested in Gaelic language and culture she became a member of the Gaelic League. The league despite it’s original apolitical intent was an organization that brought together many prominent figure of the Irish nationalist struggle such as the later first president of Ireland Douglas Hyde or John O’Leary. In 1908 she joined Sinn Féin and the Daughters of Ireland, a revolutionary women’s movement. Her first activities included a cultural campaign of promoting the nationalist Irish cause through theater as well as a suffragette campaign in opposition to the election of Winston Churchill to the British parliament.
With the conflict becoming more heated, Constance founded the Fianna Éireann (Warriors of Ireland), a scout organization that trained boys and girls in the use of firearms. Soon after she was arrested for the first time for speaking at a rally against the visit of King George V to Ireland.

In 1913 the big lockout occurred. The lockout is one of the most intense labor disputes in Irish history starting when Dublin’s public transportation workers went ton strike due to low payment and in protest of British policy in Ireland, eventually culminating in city-wide dispute that involved approximately 20.000 workers and 300 employers. It lasted seven months. Through this event Constance drifted further to the left, joining the socialist Irish Citizen Army, which was dedicated to protecting the workers from the police. She supported the cause by paying for food out of her own pocket and organizing soup kitchens for worker’s children. She also became involved in gun running for the organization.

In 1916 Irish republicans mounted the Easter Uprising, a revolt staged to establish Irish independence while Great Britain was heavily involved in the First World War. Constance took part as an officer and was charged as second-in-command with defending St- Stephen Green, a park in Dublin. Constance and her men held out for six days under heavy British fire and only gave up when they heard that the leader of the uprising Patrick Pearse had surrendered. Under cheers from the crowd she was brought to prison and later pleaded guilty to “disturbing the order of his Majesty’s people”. When the court communted her sentence from death to life-long imprisonment on account of her being a woman, Constance remarked that she “had done what was right” and that she wished they “had done their lot and shot me”. She was released from prison one year later after a general amnesty of the British government for those involved in the uprising.

In 1918 Constance ran for election and became the first woman to be elected to the British parliament but refused to take her seat in protest of British policy towards Ireland. The same year, she also became one of the first women and founding constituents of the Dáil Éireann, the Irish parliament that declared unilateral independence form the United Kingdom. She was again elected to the Dáil in 1921 and from 1919 to 1922 served as Minister for Labor in the Irish cabinet and therefore as the first woman to hold a cabinet position in Ireland and one of the first women worldwide to be a government minister. She left the Irish government in protest of the Anglo-Irish treaty, which established Irish independence but didn’t go far enough for Constance and other Irish republicans. She participated as an officer and fighter in the Irish Civil War but Irish Republican forces lost the conflict in 1923 to the provisional government. She was reelected several times to the Irish parliament but also several times refused to take her seat because of her staunch Republican views. Constance Markievicz died in 1927 at age 59 possibly due to tuberculosis.

Constance Markievicz can be remembered as a prominent female socialist revolutionary that fought for the right of her people for independence and national self-determination. She always stood up for the things she believed and was ready to fight for her causes of Irish independence, socialism, and suffrage with violent means if necessary. She certainly was a woman who was afraid of almost nothing and her war records as well as her prison sentences prove that it was impossible to break her and make her give up the ideals she fought for all her life.

Female Badasses in History: Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky (1897-2000)

Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky was outstanding in so many ways: she was the first woman to graduate an Austrian university with a degree in architecture, a famous architect with the Bauhaus movement, designed what is essentially the prototype of every modern kitchen, and was part of the Austrian anti-Nazi resistance as well as an outspoken critic of Austrian post-war politics.

Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky was born in Vienna in 1897 in a bourgeois family. Through hard work, ambition, and help by artist Gustav Klimt she became the first female student admitted to the K.K. Kunstgewerbeschule (today: University for the applied arts), which at the time was already one of the most exclusive and prestigious school in all of Central Europe. She studied under Oskar Strnad who was a pioneer in the filed of sozialer Wohnbau (i.e. the building of affordable and comfortable council housing for low-income families and singles – a program that continues on a great scale in Vienna until this day) and Margarete took over his views that architecture had to be functional in the way that it affords comfort and affordability at the same time rather than looking grand. Even before graduating Margarete was already awarded several prizes and after graduating one of her first jobs was to design residential estates for World War I invalids together with star-architect Adolf Loos.

Many people where highly impressed by her work and in 1926 she was offered a job at the housing magistrate of the city of Frankfurt, which at the time was due to a huge campaign dedicated to creating new housing in the city was one of the forefronts of modern architectural design. Margarete accepted and during her work, she created what basically changed housing and is until this day the prototype of the modern fitted kitchen that probably most us have in our apartments: The Frankfurt Kitchen. The Frankfurt Kitchen was a design that acknowledged the change in society. It was designed not with a big apartment for a family of four in mind (albeit it could work for them too) but with singles or a couple living in an apartment and its purpose was to facilitate kitchen work, mainly for the working woman. Inspired by an assembly line principle and the special design of railroad kitchens, the Frankfurt Kitchen combines special effectiveness with an architectural design that aimed at rationalizing workflow in the kitchen. It introduced the sink-cutting board-stove combination, as well the integrated yet removable garbage drawer, and an organization system with labeled bins and conveniently placed cupboards and drawers. It also was very cost-effective: The kitchen came fully furnished (a novelty at the time) and ran for about 100 Reichsmark (which at the time was more than it sounds, yet not a lot. Comparatively it is cheaper than fitted kitchens today). Feminists have criticized her concept in the 70s and 80s stating that her design isolated women from the rest of the household due to its small-size, which can be viewed as a valid point. However, in the 1920s it was an innovation with working women in mind aimed at providing them with a fully equipped, cheap housing space and – as Lihotzky put it – “allowing them to have more free time and relax”.

Maragrete stayed in Frankfurt until the early 1930s continuing her work and also designing for other cities such as Vienna where she for example designed two apartment blocks with only 35 m2 of base area. With the political situation in the Weimar Republic and Austria deteriorating – Margarete identified as a socialist from her student days on –  she and a couple of her colleagues went to Moscow on a program designed to attract foreign architects to help build in the Soviet Union. Margarete helped design for the industrial city of Magnetogorsk and stayed until her pass expired in 1937. Subsequently she and her husband, Wilhelm Schütte, moved to London and then Paris but had trouble finding work there. In 1938 she moved to Istanbul where she met several other Austrian communists who tried to build up a resistance network in what by then had become part of “Greater Germany”. Lihotzky decided to join them and traveled back to Vienna. After some initial success in establishing contact with the small communist underground, the Gestapo arrested her and her companions in 1941. Initially sentenced to death, her husband managed to save her by stealing stationary from the Turkish government and intervening on her behalf. Margarete spend the rest of the war in a prison in Bavaria.

After the war and despite her anti-Nazi activity, the Austrian establishment shunned her by denying her publicly funded work because she was a communist. She was forced to take jobs consulting for housing projects in the GDR, Cuba and China. Only in the 80s did the Austrian establishment decided to honor her for her work but Margarete caused another uproar by refusing an award by then president of Austria Kurt Waldheim because of his past in several Nazi organizations. She was also one of the most outspoken critics of Asutrian far-right politics in the 90s, especially Jörg Haider of the Freedom Party. For her 100th birthday the city of Vienna awarded her the highest honors. She died in 2000 just 5 days shy of her 103rd birthday.

Maragrete Schütte-Lihotzky can be remembered as an architectural pioneer, the influences of her design extending until this day as well as a staunch anti-Nazi activist and one of the most remarkable Austrian women of the 20th century. Modern architecture would do well in taking some lessons from her, especially concerning her ideas about the social function of modern architecture.