Smash Nazism: Public Sculpture and Politics

Every day as I head to work, my train pulls into Oslo Sentralstasjon invariably at platforms 15 or 16. This means I either swing round the station entirely on the walk to work, or if I go through it, I go through the Østbanehallen. Exiting the Østbanehallen, I am confronted each time with a large silver hammer smashing a swastika.

This sculpture, erected last year, and titled Knus nazismen, “Smash Nazism”, is unsubtle in conveying its message perhaps, but such unsubtle responses to present fascist tendencies are exactly what are required. It is a big silver hammer shattering a swastika on a black plinth. Many regard it as ugly, but it’s the bluntness of the message – and the fact that it helps to recognise the efforts of some of Norway’s less celebrated but often most daring resistance members that mark it out as an important public art work.

The artist behind the sculpture, Bjørn Melbye Gulliksen, from Sandefjørd, was born just one year after the Second World War came to an end. He himself was  leader of the visual artists’ trade union in Norway in the late 1970s and early 1980s. In a piece of apt symbolism, the new sculpture was revealed outside of the train station on 1st May – traditionally the day to celebrate international labour.

The sculpture is controversial not only artistically but because of those whom it commemorates: the Osvald Group. A resistance group led by Asbjørn Sunde, a committed communist, he was convicted in 1954 of spying for the Soviet Union. Sunde was a sailor and later fought in the Spanish Civil War as a member of the international brigades and a leader of the NKP – Norway’s Communist Party. The communist-leanings of Sunde’s Osvald Group (so-called because Sunde went under the alias of Osvald Pettersen in this period), meant that their role as resistors to Nazism and Quisling’s puppet regime went unrecognised for many years in Norway.

Five members of the Group are still alive and when the statue was unveiled last year, one of the five was quoted as saying:

“I think the unveiling was dignified and fine,” Anne Marie Malmo, who was part of the Osvald Group in Bergen, told Aftenposten. “What’s most important is that those who gave their lives (to the resistance effort) will be remembered.”

The base of the sculpture has two plaques: one to NSB workers who died during the Second World War, including two members of the Osvald Group.

The second plaque, specifically for Osvald Group members, see those two names appear again. The base of the sculpture also contains a quote from Sunde which translates as:

“It was worth fighting for the freedom—for all nations, for all races, for all classes, for all people”.

In times when we are faced with the prospect of emerging forms of ethno-nationalism throughout Europe, and fascism under the Orwellian name of the “alt-right” in the United States, such public sculpture and the story of resistance fighters like NSB workers and the Osvald Group become more important than ever to remember.The bluntness of a hammer smashing a swastika is a clear message: there should be no place in our world for such hate.

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The Return of History (but not as we know it)

As the world reacts to the news that Donald Trump is president-elect of the United States following an unprecedented upset in polling to see of Democratic Party nominee Hilary Clinton, I have been struck by the nature of how people keep referring to this as “setting the clock back fifty years” or seeing his victory as a “return to the 1930s”.

Some have noted that today is the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. This event and the collapse of Communism in the USSR which followed on, was hailed at the time by champions of liberal democracy and capitalism as “the end of history”. The phrase is a much used (and occasionally abused one) but has become popular again in the years since the recession of 2008. Many saw the revived interest in left-wing thinking and writing as a sign of change.

That late capitalism’s crisis was proof that the late 1980s and early 1990s triumphalism of hawkish American commentators that history had ended in a decisive victory for the liberal and neo-liberal project had been proven as nothing more than hubris. The rise of left-wing populism in Greece with Syriza, Podemos in Spain, and the choice of Jeremy Corbyn as the new leader of British Labour was seen as a sign of things changing. So too did the prospect of a Bernie Sanders Democratic run.

This was the strand of hope that Greece’s Golden Dawn, Farage’s UKIP, Le Pen’s Front National and more besides throughout the world who used capitalism’s crisis to push a right-wing populist agenda would ultimately be beaten. But earlier this year, we saw British Labour all but tear itself apart over Corbyn and the leadership contest when the Tories took Government for themselves. We have seen what happened to Syriza. UKIP helped drive and succeed in achieving Brexit which the Tories now seem intent on pushing through (the recent High Court decision notwithstanding).

The election of Trump seems to have put the nail in the coffin of any such hopes for now. The possibility that a man so uniquely unqualified, so evidently unfit to be President should convince so many people otherwise says something about the failure of traditional politics to be convincing to huge numbers. It also says something about the failure of the various strands of left-wing politics from capitalising on global capital’s single greatest crisis. Whatever message of hope the left offered, it isn’t what the majority seems to want right now.

This is a historic day. It is a watershed moment in the history of the United States and the western world. What it isn’t is a return to the past. It is, as well as the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the anniversary of the Eighteenth Brumaire, when Louis Napoleon ended the First French Republic with a coup.

While it might be tempting to ring out the phrase “first as tragedy and then as farce” from Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, this is more than a farce. This is a crisis – of democracy and the belief that we have been making our societies better now for the past century and more. As Marx wrote in 1852:

Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.

Trump’s victory will weigh heavily too. History is made by understanding it. Teaching history, warts and all, needs to be done. Hearing it’s warnings is important if we are to avoid this date entering infamy in the same way that another anniversary of November 9th has done.

Decies no.72 Launch

decies

Over the weekend while visiting my home in Waterford, I spoke at two events. The first was Booze Blaas and Banter as part of the Imagine Arts Festival hosted by the Waterford Council of Trade Unions. The second event, also part of the festival, was the launch of the newest issue of Waterford Archaeological and Historical Society‘s journal, DeciesI spoke alongside Tom Hunt and The Knotted Chords, a Waterford two-piece who provided the music. Here is an edited text of my short talk:

I want to talk briefly tonight to you all about some thoughts I have been mulling over for a while and of which the article on family history in the current issue of Decies is a product.

The article has been a long time in the making. It began its life as a series of blogposts I wrote on my own blog, the sidelines of history, and evolved over time and thanks to Cian’s encouragement into what is in the journal as we have it before us. In the article I make case studies out of several people in my family who I learned about while doing my family tree over the past year or so. I tried to look at their lives and explain them in relation to more well-known themes from Irish history: the history of the revolutionary decade, from the view point of labour and also emigration history. I wanted to do it in part because I wanted to share what I thought were interesting stories from my family that have helped me to learn not just more about myself and my family but have taught me something about those major historical themes.

Among the ordinary people we often find the most extraordinary stories. A long time ago, in an interview I did for a local paper, I said that it was important for me that people should recognise themselves in their history and I still believe that. The world has enough – and will continue to have – the histories of kings, and generals, of the wealthy and the powerful. What marks the era since the middle of the 1900s as unusual is the interest we can take in the history of people like us – ordinary people who lived in and help make their own times extraordinary. We must not lose sight of the fact that this is an unusual and revolutionary turn in the focus of history. We must continue to write and research about the lives of ordinary people who may not have changed the world in the way we normally understand that idea – but who in their own lives and their own experiences of the world have something valuable to teach us about their time and about our own time. It is imperative, especially in the climate of the world at present, that the stories of ordinary people are not swallowed up, simplified, spat back at them and ignored.

As someone who is currently describing himself as a recovering academic, I have begun to think more and more about the function of history outside and beyond the academy. History for most of us is a deeply personal thing. There are often gaps between the personal histories we carry with us from our families and the official version of national or local history as we learn it in school. History is not just written by the winners, it usually written by those who can write. And those who can write, traditionally have been those who have had power. The battle is not always a literal one, but it is always a vital and a real one.

The great bulk of people crop up almost nowhere in the historical record. The powerful have a tendency to write about themselves and as long as history belongs to the powerful then our own, more common histories, will continue to be ignored and forgotten, yet more victims of the condescension of posterity. Of course, as my own article highlights, this is changing slowly but it’s a change we must be careful to to nurture. As anyone who has dipped their toe into the vast world of family history and genealogy can tell you, in our age of recording and tabulating – going back to the beginning of the nineteenth century especially – it is easier to find your relatives than ever before. The vast explosion in websites like ancestry and others like it has aided this process greatly as does the general process of the digitization of records like birth, marriage and death certs.

But if we are serious about genealogical history, about family history, being more than a mere pastime for people – if we want our personal family narratives, the ones which complicate and contradict the official strands of the historical record, to count for something then we need these things to be written about. We need to teach people more than how to simply find the name and birth and death date of their great-great-grandmother. We need to teach people how to think about the lives these people would have lived – to think more about the choices people were forced to make in the course of their lives so that you have ended up in this place and time in your life. Inside all of our family histories lurk the very things that drive “serious” history. If all the world is indeed a stage, and all the men and women in it merely players than we must give greater consideration of the roles they played. For it is the ordinary people of the world, who have and always will outnumber the powerful and the privileged, who have done most to shape the world even as they are told they have done the least.

So, here is my hope for my article – that by reading it, those people who research their own family trees and their own family histories will stop not when they have stretched back to their four-times-great-grandmother, and say the family history is complete. Instead, I hope my article will encourage people to ask questions about why their great-grandmother gave birth to twelve children only six of whom survived or why it was their great-grandfather went to work abroad for a decade or any number of the things which happened to these people as they lived their lives in their own times. Only by answering those questions can we really begin to write our own histories. Only by writing our history can we claim some power over the narrative. Only with the power that comes from knowledge of our own complicated version of the past can we begin to question the version of history which can look so unlike the one we experience.