Friday, January 30, 2009

On Великая Октябрьская социалистическая революция, or the wrongs and rights of history

They say history is written by winners. But how often do you get to experience a changeover of winners and a shift of historical truth?

When I was young, I found history tedious. That was mostly due to my history teachers being clichéd, talentless bores. I remember one particular one, I forgot his name, who incorporated every history teacher stereotype you can imagine. He was an elderly, stocky bastard with his shirt sleeves rolled up, the top buttons of his shirt undone to proudly display an impressive and equally gross greying chest wig, wire-framed glasses balanced on the tip of his nose, over which rim he would inspect us with suspicion. And oh, he killed history for me. Even an incredibly fascinating era like the French Revolution he would mentally mummify by reciting dates and facts with a monotonous voice that would have put a can of Red Bull into a coma. The man was a walking sleeping pill. The amounts of times I physically (not proverbially!) fell asleep in his class, I cannot count.
Needless to say, I just about managed to scrape through the exam and pass his class with 99% of me hanging over the abyss of indifference and ignorance.

It wasn’t until I met Herr Pommer in senior high that my interest perked up. Herr Pommer was a legend! We called him "Pom-Bear" because he was so “cuddly” and fun. He always laughed, and his classes were a riot. He had nicknames such as "Leonardo Pommer" because he always used drawings and scribbles to illustrate his classes, and "The Guru", because he was simply the best teacher anyone could have.
Our high school paper had a section including quotables from teachers and students, and Pom-Bear would crop up in there on a regular basis. The way he taught his classes was fascinating: history became alive, historical figures became humans with motivations, which turned the subject into what its name suggests: an exciting story.
All of a sudden it wasn’t a list of dates and events anymore… it became a continuous making and breaking of the world that made sense and interconnected.
But he didn’t just tell one-sided stories. He always encouraged us to form our own opinions, especially when he started teaching Modern History and Political Science, to critically view all sources, question their circumstances and motivations and view any documentation in that light. It was the first time I became aware that history is not a set fact but a subjective, circumstantial matter of experience, something that picked up again at university, when we read Swift’s Waterland… an amazing book that might have been lost on me without Pom-Bear.
I went from a near-fail in history and political science to all As and Bs.

Before Pom-Bear, however, there was The Bitch. I forgot her name, I just remember that she shared her name with a German supermarket chain that eventually went bust (which filled me with a little glee). The Bitch was just that: a middle-aged, embittered hag that wore foundation like a brown face-mask ending at her sharp jaw line. She had The Glare which made students duck and hide behind each other, The Glare that meant once you locked eyes, she’d inflict a report or a test or something on just you. It was like she couldn’t see you, unless you looked at her. Or unless you were trying too hard not to be seen. Somehow she would sense that and shoot down like a hawk on a trembling mouse.

The Bitch taught maths and political science – my two weakest subjects for which I had not the slightest comprehension, interest or patience. Maths with its pointless formulae and rigidity was a mind-rape to my escapist imagination, and political science just rubbed my face in the historically recent misery I tried so hard not to think about or escape from. Both subjects just incorporated everything that made me want to curl up into a ball under the duvet. I hated it because I didn’t understand it and because I was bad at it. I was never the popular kid in school. I wasn’t pretty, or fashionable, or amusing, and consequently had to deal with quite a bit of bullying, my only consolation being that I was smart, got good grades and could hope for a future, whereas the bullies would get their dues as soon as they went into the real world. But these two subjects just took away the last pillar of my self-esteem, and it made me miserable. Now I was dorky, ugly, unpopular AND stupid.
Chances were that there were a lot of kids like me, but teenagers are by definition too self-absorbed to notice. The Bitch didn’t have patience for any of them. She had her small circle of pets. And hell, I wasn’t one of them. A wrong answer, and she, an academic Darwinist, would sigh, roll her eyes and make snide remarks questioning one’s intelligence.
I used to sit in the last row, in the very corner, trying to be as invisible as possible. That must have been back in 1994 or 95. The Bitch sat on her throne in front of the class, getting ready to assign a presentation on the Russian Revolution, and you could tell her pause meant that she was mentally scanning the class. I ducked. I almost held my breath. I willed her to pass me over. And it seemed that all this energy going into getting her off my back actually attracted her.

“Patricia!”, she said, and it hit me like an arrow. “A report on the revolution, by Friday, if you please, 20 minutes maximum, marked.”
Fuck! It wasn’t just the report, it was that I had to present it in front of the class, full of people I didn’t know, who thought me the weird newbie. I was petrified.
But I got down to it. I went home, grabbed an encyclopedia (no internet, guys, we used actual books!) and got to work.

But when I stood up in front of the class, I barely got past the first paragraph.
Suddenly the class started grinning, and The Bitch interrupted me, announced that this was complete rubbish, I got a fail and could go sit down and could someone please point out what was wrong with it?
One student raised his hand and snickered smugly. “She called it the Great October Socialist Revolution.”
“Correct!” said the Bitch. “What on earth did you use for research?”
“An encyclopaedia”, I said, barely audible.
“Written by Lenin himself?” she mocked, and got a few appreciative laughs from her petting zoo. “Time you updated your bookshelf, young lady!”
With that, I was written off. It had never even occurred to me that our encyclopaedia could be wrong.

The thing that still gets me is the hypocrisy of all this. It was just a few years earlier that this encyclopedia was perfectly acceptable. Yes, it may have called that event the Great October Socialist Revolution and not the Russian revolution, because the state I lived in happened to support the revolutionaries, and the textbooks available supported their stance as well. No history book is unbiased. Then, all of a sudden, the East Bloc collapsed, and everything was rewritten. Schools were cleared of the pro-communist books. Suddenly what had been drilled into us for years was no longer valid. Dissent had always been heavily discouraged in East Germany, and that puts it mildly. The entire East German mindset was one strategically formed not to form independent and critical opinions. Before that we had Nazi Germany, which embraced the same policy. Basically, for decades and generations, dissenters were an endangered species. And all of a sudden they turn around and expect a bunch of kids to grasp and accept an entire inverted worldview, not just that it was inverted, but also why. It doesn’t even make sense to me now.
There were two versions of history, each correct in their own way, each just an angle on an event, but in the end the winner makes you choose.

The thing that really irked me, however, was that the same teachers who gave you crap if you got it wrong after the Change were the most indoctrinated bastards back in the communist days. They were the loudest proclaimers of the Soviet glory, the first to spy on kids’ conversations about their home life to find out if anything contra the state was going on, the harshest to punish state-critical glitches (we never even got to the point of forming a view), and the first to pretend they always secretly disagreed or had never believed in the Red Truth when it all was finally over.
In other words, if I had used anything else like a modern history book 6 years prior, if I had not called it the Great Socialist October Revolution, The Bitch would have called me an enemy of the state and sent me to the headmaster.

But that's history. A blur. Not even winning is set in stone.

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