Tag Archives: Historiography

1917: The July Scandals

Eastern Front 1917

Russian soldiers held captive by the German military in Poland, July, 1917. Courtesy of the Imperial War Museum.

By summer in 1917, the Provisional Government and Petrograd Soviet were stuck in gridlock in the capitol, and Russia continued to lose ground and soldiers’ lives in the Great War. Meanwhile, Bolshevik influence had grown in response to the stagnant leadership of Alexander Kerensky. On July 16, demonstrations against that stagnation began as striking workers and mutinying soldiers took to the streets of Petrograd (again), and Bolshevik involvement and scapegoating led to the arrest of Leon Trotsky and the exile of Vladimir Lenin (again). These protests, known as the July Days, were largely a response to the failed July Offensive, or the Kerensky Offensive, earlier that month, which was a setback for the Russian military (again).

The July Days are often called a turning point in the Russian Revolution, a moment when it became clear that the inertia of the Provisional Government meant bloodshed abroad and hunger at home. However, the July Days occurred amidst the political chaos of the summer of 1917, between the scandal of Kerensky’s rise to power and his decision to recommit to the War, the Bolshevik attempt to organize Soviets while maintaining party loyalty amid party in-fighting, and a coup in August against the Provisional Government known as the Kornilov Affair. The July Days were part of an ongoing political inertia that tended toward reinstating old forms of violence.

Trotsky, in his memoir, describes the events leading up to the July Days, writing that “a declaration that I had submitted concerning Kerensky’s preparation for an offensive at the front was read by the Bolshevik faction at the congress of the Soviets. We had pointed out that the offensive was an adventure that threatened the very existence of the army” (Trotsky).  The Bolsheviks’ opposition to the war would be vindicated after the Kerensky Offensive proved unsuccessful. Between July 1 and July 19, several Russian military units initially made advances toward  the western Ukrainian city Lviv, but German and Austo-Hungarian forces gradually repelled them, prompting a retreat beyond the previous Russian line. By the end of the offensive, the Russians “fell back more than a hundred kilometers” (Storey 127).

The Kerensky Offensive damaged the military’s already waning morale, and was a political disaster for Kerensky, precipitating more mutiny and disorder in the army. Russian soldiers and citizens alike turned against Kerensky during the Offensive, sparking the days-long demonstrations in July. The Bolsheviks were hesitant to support the protests, but quickly endorsed them when they began. The All-Russian Congress of Soviets had made clear in their demands that they wanted “democratization of the army” and “the earliest conclusion of a general peace without annexation, indemnity, and on the basis of self-determination,” which became an increasingly popular set of demands after the Kerensky Offensive. Furthermore, Bolshevik membership rose “from 80,000 in April to 200,000” by August (Treadgold & Ellison 102), but in the wake of the July Days, other scandals damaged the Bolsheviks as well.

The demonstrations were unsuccessful, in part because Russian military units pulled from the front were sent to quell the protests, and fired upon violent demonstrators, resulting in civilian casualties in the hundreds (again). Around this time, the Provisional Government accused Lenin of being a German spy, and the accusation was based on fairly compelling evidence. In April, Lenin had arrived in Russia with several other politically exiled Russians on a sealed train from Switzerland. The trip was funded by the German government as a military tactic, hoping that Lenin’s revolutionary leadership and anti-war agenda would convince the post-Tsar government to withdraw. The Kerensky government announced it would investigate Lenin’s German funding, and the crowds turned. Loyalists raided the leftist magazine Pravda‘s headquarters, and Lenin went into hiding when “it was revealed that he was receiving financial support from the German government” (Keegan 339). In the raid on Pravda and other Bolshevik strongholds, authorities “attempted to arrest the leaders–but caught only Anatole Lunacharsky, the mildest of them, and Trotsky” (Treadgold & Ellison 101). The Bolsheviks now had damaged reputations and no leadership in the capital.

The Kerensky government was weakened by its failed military offensive, and Kerensky’s opposition was weakened by political scandals involving Lenin’s connection to an enemy regime. By August, the unstable Provisional Government would face a coup from within its own military led by General Lavr Kornilov, and Kerensky would have to free Bolshevik political prisoners, including Trotsky, in order to sustain his almost vanished good standing with the Petrograd Soviet. But in July, 1917, the situation in Petrograd seemed frustratingly repetitive, with a heavy-handed leader responding to protests with arrests and military force, and a bloody setback on the Eastern Front. Where Russia would find itself next was not the question. The real question was whether or not Russia would go anywhere at all.


Keegan, John. The First world War. Vintage Books, 2000.

Storey, William Kelleher. The First World War. Rowman & Littlefield, 2014.

Treadgold, Donald W., Herbert J. Ellison. Twentieth Century Russia. Westview Press, 2000.

 

Before Wounded Knee

wounded-knee-massacre

Photograph of civilians collecting the dead at Wounded Knee.

The Wounded Knee Massacre of December 29, 1890 is widely considered the end of military hostilities between the U.S. government and Native American Indian tribes. The Standing Rock protest today, however, is building up in similar ways to the Wounded Knee Massacre, and although there are key differences, it seems that the relationship between the U.S. government and American indigenous peoples has remained largely the same since 1890.

In 1888, a Paiute man named Wovoka began a religious movement centering around the Ghost Dance. Wovoka’s movement asserted that the Messiah would return as a Native American Indian and the continent would be freed from pioneering and settler oppression, and the Ghost Dance would usher in the Messiah’s return. The movement quickly swept across Native American communities, reaching the Dakotas by summer of 1890.

Followers of Wovoka such as Arnold Short Bull, brought the Ghost Dance to the Lakota Pine Ridge Indian Reservation during a drought and amid numerous treaty violations, which included reduced food rations for the reservation and white settlement on land designated for Lakota use. The Ghost Dance accompanied federally sanctioned violence, starvation, and a small environmental disaster. The U.S. government was suspicious of the Ghost Dance as early as May of 1890, and continued to treat it as a militaristic threat rather than a religious movement. On October 30, an agent for the Pine Ridge office of the Bureau of Indian Affairs wrote a letter to the BIA commissioner indicating that, in his view after observing the Ghost Dance,

“. . . the only remedy for this matter is the use of the military, and until this is done, you need not expect any progress from these people; on the other hand, you will be made to realize that they are tearing down more in a day than the government can build up in a month” (Royer 65).

Here, the BIA acted as an observation tool for the U.S. government, keeping track of Native American Indians forced onto reservations with little water and food. A religious spectacle became a mode of unity, an expression of organization, which the government deemed, without question, a threat. Earlier, BIA commissioner R. V. Belt wrote in a letter dated October 17, 1890, that the Pine Ridge Agency should inform those

“. . . engaged in encouraging the Ghost Dance and other like demoralizing conduct, and inciting and fomenting dissatisfaction and discontent among the peaceably disposed Indians that [the Secretary of the Interior John Noble] is greatly displeased with their conduct” (Belt 75).

Belt went on to describe the Ghost Dance as “bad advice and evil,” and that the Secretary of the Interior will “exert whatever influence he may have over any of the Indians to turn their backs upon the medicine men who are seeking to divert the Indians from the ways of civilization” (75-76). There was a connection of correspondence linking BIA agents at Pine Ridge to the White House expressing anxiety about the Ghost Dance. These agents wanted “peaceably disposed Indians” who did not express discontent.

But all evidence suggests that they had every reason to express discontent. They were surviving a genocide, forced onto difficult land after military engagements against them, after numerous other massacres and battles. It seems that BIA agents and the U.S. government associated Native American discontent with militaristic hostility, conflating the two, because to the U.S., the moment a tribe became vocal, the moment its members made themselves visible, they challenged the established systematic erasure of an indigenous population and the colonial narrative of European settlement on an otherwise unpeopled land rich with untapped resources.

The Ghost Dance as a religious practice did not emphasize military struggle or armed combat. On October 31, Short Bull gave a sermon to his followers, referring mostly to the coming of the Messiah and mentioning combat only once, when he said,

“You must not be afraid of anything. The guns are the only things we are afraid of, but they belong to our Father in Heaven. He will see they do no harm. Whatever white men tell you, do not listen to them. My relations, this is all” (Sitting Bull 65).

Anxieties over Native Americans not listening to those attempting to defeat, control, indoctrinate, and relocate them culminated in the military’s arrival in November at Pine Ridge, to keep the peace. Following Royer’s suggestions, the military became a remedy to stop the Ghost Dancers from breaking down what the U.S. government had built up. Cavalry divisions arrived at Pine Ridge, forcing surrender and disarmament. On December 29, in the process of disarming a few Ghost Dancers, a rifle went off, and soldiers panicked after being informed that an armed insurrection would take place. Fueled by fear and rumors, soldiers fired at the Ghost Dancers, and a massacre ensued. There were casualties on all sides as some Ghost Dancers attempted to defend themselves. Estimates vary, but up to 300 Lakota were killed, most of them unarmed, many of them children.

The logic leading up to the massacre might be difficult to track, but was built on a number of assumptions. First, that Native Americans practicing a large, organized demonstration was the equivalent of cultural and military dissent, or in other words, a problem. Second, that the only way to “solve” the problem was through the use of military force. Third, that expressing dissatisfaction with an understandably bad situation was unacceptable.

One of the defining features of the 21st century is the blurring of police and military forces. In a post-9/11 surveillance state in which citizens and combatants are considered difficult to distinguish from one another, the police and military begin to serve similar functions. While this fact has become more obvious in recent years, and while there have been many instances in the U.S. in which the state treated its citizens as combatants, this has always been the case for Native Americans. Since the founding of the United States, Native Americans have always been designated a threat to westward expansion simply by their presence, their visibility, their voice. Historically, soldiers keeping peace and soldiers engaged in combat have served the same purpose for the U.S. when engaging its indigenous population.

I’m not a proponent of the notion that history repeats itself; I find it too simple. However, the events surrounding the Standing Rock protest are eerily similar to those that led up to the Wounded Knee Massacre: Native American Indians express discontent over treaty violations, land abuse, and environmental disasters, and as a reaction, a militarized police force steps in. Tensions have already resulted in violence against protestors and the arrest of journalists for covering the events. Contexts may be different, but the logical framework the U.S. uses to understand and address the protest remains almost identical to how the U.S. addressed and understood the Ghost Dance. Whether or not there will be another massacre remains to be seen.

Coleman, William S. E. Voices of Wounded Knee. University of Nebraska Press (2000).

Wounded Knee Massacre,” Encyclopedia of the Great Plains, 2011. Accessed October 30, 2016.

Turkey and Kemalism

Mustafa Kemal Time Magazine Cover March 24 1923

Time Magazine Cover, March 24, 1923, Featuring Mustafa Kemal

The recent failed coup in Turkey was not the first time the military has attempted to intervene in the state. In fact, there is a long history of tensions between the Turkish military and government rooted in the history of Turkish democracy.

It is crucial to note that Turkey’s formation immediately followed the end of the First World War, the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, and a series of nationalist movements within Turkey and other parts of the world. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, often considered the father of modern Turkey, was an Ottoman military leader who fought in the First World War, then led a war for independence against the Allied occupation of Anatolia (modern-day Turkey) and later a war against Turkey’s Greek population. His founding ideology, known as Kemalism, can be seen as a response to the postwar period.

Mustafa Kemal wanted to create a modern nation-state modeled in part after western European nations and remove as many remnants of the old Empire as possible. In order to achieve this development, Kemal pushed for rapid industrialization, democratization, and secularization, all through the lens of Turkish nationalism and self-determination. From 1923 to 1938, Kemal was Turkey’s president for life, essentially a dictator who suppressed opposition parties, Islamists, Kurdish groups, and others. Nevertheless, urban Turkish nationalists saw improved women’s rights, economic growth, and a strengthened sense of nationhood. After Kemal’s death in 1938, another general named Ismet Inonu ruled Turkey until 1950. Inonu ruled with increasingly relaxed authority, culminating in Turkey’s first open parliamentary election in 1950 with successful opposition parties.

During this period, Kemal and Inonu patronized an urban, secular elite with close ties to the military, who benefited the most from Turkish democracy. This elite had authority over the shape of Turkish nationalism for much of the country’s history, and attempted to govern who fit into Turkish nationhood.

Kemal pushed for an ethnic homogenization of Turkey, starting with the forced deportation of about one million Greeks from the country in 1923, and later with the regular alienation of Turkey’s Kurdish population. Some Kurdish nationalists engaged Turkey in armed combat, though Turkey’s response has targeted entire Kurdish communities and continues to violate Kurdish rights.

The country began to move slowly away from Kemalism after World War Two, to the indignation of the military. After 1950, the Turkish military intervened multiple times in response to economic downturns, civil unrest, or the presence of Islamist parties. The first military coup was in 1960, the second in 1971, and the third in 1980, with revisions to the Turkish Constitution. In 1997, the military intervened again to ban Islamic political parties and interest groups, and to this day the military continues to persecute Kurdish civilians and rebels, attempting to sustain a Turkish national identity that is increasingly in question.

While the most recent coup differs in some ways, it stems from a longstanding military tradition of maintaining the status quo as it sees fit, at the cost of civilian governance.At the heart of the conflict is who should be included in Turkish nationhood, and it seems that despite tensions between Turks and Kurds, secularists and Islamists, those in favor of the current ruling conservative Islamist party and those opposed to it, the military’s imposed influence is widely considered a threat to Turkey’s identity. Kemalist ideology has not necessarily declined, but the militaristic side of Turkish nationalism is, at the very least, falling rapidly out of favor.

-jk

Lapidus, Ira. A History of Islamic Societies. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Sharp, Alan. The Versailles Settlement. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.

Storey, William Kelleher. The First World War. London: Rowman & Littlefield, 2014.

Acknowledging Wrongs of the Past

Maru

SS Komagata Maru, 1914. City of Vancouver Archives

Yesterday, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that in May, he would make an official apology in the House of Commons for what is commonly known as the Komagata Maru Incident. In 1914, a ship (the Komagata Maru) of Indian passengers sailed from Japan to Vancouver, where the Canadian government refused to let almost all the passengers enter Canada. Most of the passengers were Sikhs, though there were a handful of Muslims and Hindus aboard, and Trudeau intends to address his apology to the Sikh community as a whole.

At first glance, this may seem like a strange transnational incident. 1914 saw the beginning of World War One, which in part contributed to Canada’s restrictions, but most of its limited immigration policies were grounded in xenophobia similar to that in the U.S. at the turn of the century, and Canada passed laws restricting immigration form Asia just as the U.S. did.

The passengers aboard the Komagata Maru argued that they had a right to enter Canada because they were British subjects. India was still a British colony, and both countries would supply troops to Great Britain in the First World War. Nevertheless, national fears of Asian immigrants persisted in 1914. The Komagata Maru sat in port in Vancouver for months before finally leaving.

Over a century later, a different Prime Minister of a different political party hopes to make amends. Formal apologies on behalf of governments to historically persecuted groups are not unheard of. In 2008, Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd made a similar formal apology to the indigenous population of Australia, but Trudeau’s comments come at a unique political moment.

Trudeau will apology for Canada’s suppression of immigrants, and he intends to do so after his party, the Liberals, ran partly on a platform of allowing Syrian refugees into Canada, while political parties in Europe and the U.S. discuss either similar or opposite measures. Many politicians have advocated restricting and even halting immigration, and have used xenophobic rhetoric almost identical to that used by the Canadian government in 1914.

Trudeau’s apology is, of course, a highly political statement. It is not simply a matter of saying sorry, but of acknowledging what is now considered a broken logic, and with that acknowledgment comes a subtle declaration that such logic no longer has a place in his government. It admits not just past wrongdoing, but decries the possibility of future wrongdoing. The apology is a policy statement, an act of historical legislation that does not wipe away but makes an example of one of Canada’s worst actions, and in doing so, Trudeau invites others to listen, to introspect, and to follow suit.

-jk

After Gallipoli

ANZAC Soldiers on the Gallipoli Peninsula

ANZAC Soldiers on the Gallipoli Peninsula

Today marks an important moment in the First World War: the final evacuation of British and ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand Army Corpse) troops from the Gallipoli Peninsula, ending a disastrous months-long Allied campaign to gain control of a narrow a sea route to Russia, the Dardanelles, and to push troops through Anatolia (Turkey) to the Ottoman capitol Constantinople and knock the Ottoman Empire out of the war.

Allied Strategy for the Gallipoli Campaign. Keagan, John, The First World War.

Allied Strategy for the Gallipoli Campaign. Keegan, John, The First World War.

First Lord of the Admirality Winston Churchill schemed the invasion. Allied ships would sail through the Dardanelles accompanied by minesweepers and land thousands of troops onto the Gallipoli Peninsula, where they would secure the area and push on to Constantinople. The initial landing was on April 25, 1915, involving many soldiers from Australia, New Zealand, and Ireland.

The Allies were unprepared for the harsh environment on Gallipoli and the ferocity of Ottoman Turkish soldiers, led by the now famous commander Mustafa Kemal, who directed his troops in successfully defending the Peninsula. The Allied troops became entrenched on Gallipoli for a grueling eight months. Kemal proved his military prowess; Churchill’s plan, on the other hand, proved to be a quagmire. On this day one hundred years ago, the Gallipoli Campaign came to a close. The Ottomans had defeated the British Empire for the time being.

That victory was arguably the last great moment in Ottoman history, and the first in a long time. Earlier in 1915, Ottoman troops committed acts of genocide against Armenian civilians. The Ottoman Empire had been in decline for decades amid encroaching Russian and European empires, and would later suffer British and French diplomats carving it into colonial mandates after the end of World War One. Winston Churchill was involved in that process; he even said that he created the country of Jordan “with the stroke of a pen one Sunday afternoon.” When the War finally ended in 1918, the British and French saw the defeated Ottoman Empire as property to divide among them: Britain took Palestine, Jordan, and Iraq, while France seized Lebanon and Syria, divided artificially. Those artificial borders continue to create problems today in these countries, pitting groups together or dividing cultures along superficial lines.

The Ottoman Empire had practiced its own form of imperialism, and ruled over its Arab territories from its imperial center in Anatolia, just as the British Empire ruled India and South Africa from England. Just as the British and French are guilty of reprehensible war crimes to maintain imperial power, the Ottomans were guilty of the same, such as the Armenian Genocide. Despite the emphasis on self-determination that dominated discussions at the Treaty of Versailles, Arab, Kurdish, Armenian, and other groups were simply shifted from Ottoman rule to British and French rule with as much regard as plunder shifted between pirates.

The Allies also wanted to divide Anatolia, but the Young Turks, led by Mustafa Kemal, fought a war for Independence from 1919 to 1922, and formed a stable, secular, but complex democracy. The Greek minority in Anatolia fought its own smaller rebellion, leading to the eventual forced migration of thousands of Greeks from Anatolia and Turks from Greece in 1923. Kemal had nevertheless defended his homeland from the British, and would not allow the Allies to make property of it.

New nations were formed from the defeated Ottoman Empire, but Turkey may have been the only one to form itself on at least some of its citizens’ own terms. The rest were carved artificially by Churchill and his ilk, Similarly, many Irish soldiers returned to a British-controlled Ireland torn by rebellion in the 1916 Easter Uprising. April 25 is commemorated as Anzac Day in New Zealand and Australia. The Battle of Gallipoli brought British loyal subjects to the edge of the Ottoman imperial center; it was a devastating failure for the otherwise almost obnoxiously successful British, who continued to claim colony after colony across the globe. For the crumbling Ottoman Empire, it was one final act of defiance against the empires surrounding it. Two of the most complex figures of the twentieth century emerged from the battle with profoundly different scars: Mustafa Kemal won, and Winston Churchill lost. Both men went on to be war heroes and war criminal simultaneously, and their role in history will likely always be contentious. At least, both played crucial roles in the destruction and recreation of nations.

By January 9, 1916, about 265,000 Allied soldiers and 300,000 Ottoman soldiers died on Gallipoli. Many of the them were probably unconcerned with the survival or strengthening of empires. They were concerned, most likely, with fighting for something they were told, and genuinely believed, was bigger than them: nationhood. Many Irish joined the war thinking the British would reward them with independence. Australians and New Zealanders had an emerging sense of national identity separate from but loyal to the British. The Turks fought on their homeland against invading Europeans. Thousands died trying to make a nation of their world. Indeed, nations formed, but maybe those who fought created their own kind of temporarily autonomous nationhood of spaceless unity. Amid the destruction of empires, it may be tricky to honor that unity on both sides of Gallipoli equally, but we should strive to anyway. Nationhood is what we make of it, and despite what Churchill seems to have believed, sovereignty means more than a pen stroke.

-jk

John Keegan. The First world War. New York: Vintage Books, 2000.

Samuel Huntington, Donald Trump, and the Repetition of History

HistoryIn one broad stroke, noted punchline and GOP Presidential overdog Donald I.C.U.P. Trump has resurrected a myriad of painful moments in U.S. history when he called for the “total and complete shutdown of all Muslims entering the United States” yesterday. His statements come at a time when most politicians have been giving historians stomach ulcers.

To begin with, Trump now represents the latest incarnation of anti-immigration Nativism. Initially opposing all immigration beginning in the 1850s, the Nativist movement was most successful in the late nineteenth century when the U.S. government passed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 during the “yellow peril,” a prolonged period of xenophobia against migrants from East Asia, specifically (but not limited to) China. Such hostility resurfaced when President Roosevelt passed legislation to round up and intern all Japanese and Japanese-Americans in the United States during the Second World War.

In the past four decades, as numerous migrants from Mexico and other parts of Latin America fleeing the drug wars and the effects of NAFTA entered the United States, xenophobic rhetoric prompted another wave of anti-immigration policies. For a long time, I thought Maricopa County Sheriff Joe “Tricky Dick” Arpaio embodied anti-immigration attitudes. And then Trump came along.

Trump has sewn together the ugliest components of American history into a monster that we call, most of the time, Donald Trump. Most recently, he has stapled onto himself an apparatus of xenophobia’s academic wing, an American scholar named Samuel P. Huntington (here is where you should spit on the ground). Huntington (spit) was a historian and theorist whose most notable argument, the Clash of Civilizations argument, outlined his conceptualization of a post-Soviet world: that cultural struggles would replace the ideological struggle between capitalism and communism. Huntington (spit) then proceeded to divide the world into seven or eight civilizations: “These include Western, Confucian, Japanese, Islamic, Hindu, Slavic-Orthodox, Latin American and possibly African civilization” (Huntington). Here, he divides the world into western culture, three religions, a Chinese philosophy (in a country ruled by communists), a continent, a country, and possibly another continent. The existence of Africa apparently confused the once-time director of Harvard’s Center for International Affairs.

Samuel “P for Prick” Huntington (spit) argued that Islam and the West (apparently not defined by Christianity) have been in a continual cultural clash, and will invariably struggle against one another in the post-Soviet world.

Trump has unburied the Clash of Civilizations argument and stitched it into the nonsensical monstrosity of his platform, synthesizing it with so many other terrible moments in U.S. history ranging from internment to immigration blockades. Trump is the amalgamation of every sin the United States has committed. The argument itself is an insult to all of us.

The Clash of Civilizations argument requires the essentializing of both Western and predominantly Muslim states, as well as the reduction of 1.5 billion Muslims to a pre-packaged cultural image. There are many underlying assumptions here: that there are no Muslims in the west (false), that Islam is incompatible with the west (false), and that all western citizens fall into another pre-packaged image (false). In order for the Clash of Civilizations argument to work, every single American has to look, think, and act a certain way.

I believe Trump is the kind of American Huntington (spit) had in mind. A vote for Trump is a vote for our tarnished past. A vote for Trump is a vote for the Chinese Exclusion Act, Japanese Internment, a militarized borderland, corporate colonization of Native lands, unsound control of personal privacy, and a legislated bigotry against Muslims that will only isolate Muslims globally, providing vulnerable populations for terrorist organizations to recruit from. A vote for Trump is a vote for Samuel P. Huntington (spit).

The world is not divided into a handful of civilizations. The world is a malleable collage of cultures, languages, religions, identities, all merging and overlapping. We need not clash. It is not inevitable, but a rhetoric of violent domination, surveillance, and authoritarianism will result in more bloodshed. Propaganda always results in violence, and Trump’s call for halting Muslims from entering the country is simply anti-Muslim propaganda. Propaganda against the United States contributes to violence against American citizens, just as propaganda against Planned Parenthood contributes to violence against doctors and patients, just as propaganda against Muslims contributes to violence against Muslims, and at the dizzying epicenter are the instigators of that propaganda, a historiography of hatred stretching back centuries.

We do not need to repeat history. We should strive to be better than our past. It’s not that hard to do if we pause and recognize that we are not chess pieces engaged in unending struggle. We are humans, insurmountably flawed but invariably changeable, improvable, and far more complex than the caricatures dripping out of what I will politely call Donald Trump’s mouth.

-jk

Miguel Hidalgo in Language and History

Miguel hidalgoEarly in the morning on this day in 1810, Father Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla went to his parish in the impoverished community of Dolores, near Guanajuato, in Mexico. He rang the church bells, and then called for Mexican independence from Spain. He and his supporters, Creole intellectuals such as Ignacio Allende, alongside rural peasants, Indians, and Mestizos, began to march. Back in the colonial center, the monarchy had struggled through the Napoleonic Wars, and decades earlier the Crown ordered the expulsion of all Jesuits from the Empire, leading to conflicts between church and state. In resistance, Hidalgo uttered his famous Grito de Dolores and proceeded to lead hundreds of armed peasants under a banner of the Virgin of Guadalupe. However, it remains unclear precisely what Hidalgo actually said.

Today, commemorating the Grito de Dolores marks the beginning of Mexican Independence Day celebrations. By tradition, Mexican leaders shout the following Grito before a crowd:

¡Mexicanos!
¡Vivan los héroes que nos dieron patria!
¡Viva Hidalgo!
¡Viva Morelos!
¡Viva Josefa Ortíz de Dominguez!
¡Viva Allende!
¡Vivan Aldama y Matamoros!
¡Viva la Independencia Nacional!
¡Viva México! ¡Viva México! ¡Viva México!

Hidalgo’s speech would have looked quite different, especially because the contemporary wording honors heroes who came after Hidalgo’s execution in 1811. The original Grito de Dolores, most historians agree, emphasized the place of the Catholic Church. It criticized Spanish rule, but did not call for direct democracy: some accounts have him calling for “death to bad government,” but not necessarily for a different kind of government.

Hidalgo’s call to action began a decade-long, peasant-driven insurgency across Mexico, which would not officially see independence from Spain until 1821. After independence, Mexico continued to suffer under authoritarian caudillos during the nineteenth century. The Mexican Revolution, starting in 1910, began a century after Hidalgo’s revolt, and became another long, bloody conflict. Francisco “Pancho” Villa led peasant militants in the north, Emiliano Zapata led mestizo farmers in the south, and once again rural communities took up arms for land rights and liberty. A new Constitution was one result of the Mexican Revolution.

Hidalgo’s cry for independence galvanized the working poor in rural Mexico. The exact words he used may not be known, but Mexican history is a testament to the power of the words he chose. What he said is reflected in the thousands of individuals who chose to confront the imperial authority. Powerful words are never really lost in history, not when they move people to insist, to assert, to cry out for something better. There’s magic in that kind of language, one that continually reemerges to move us away from ourselves and closer to each other as a whole. It’s this kind of language that shapes and reshapes history.

-jk