The teaching of history has become a political football in recent years, resulting in efforts by those on both ends of the political spectrum to regulate what appears in classrooms across the country. Lost in this legislation, grandstanding, and punditry is how the American public understands the past, a measurement that was last taken systematically by historians Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen in their 1998 landmark study, The Presence of the Past. For that reason, the AHA and Fairleigh Dickinson University, with funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities, sought to take America’s historical pulse anew and assess the impact of the cultural changes over the intervening two decades.
In the fall of 2020, we conducted a national survey of 1,816 people using online probability panels. With approximately 40 questions, sometimes our poll results surprised us, but other times they confirmed what we had suspected. The following represents a sampling of what we learned, with the full data set available on the AHA website.
First, our respondents had consistent views on what history is—and those views often ran counter to those of practicing historians. Whereas the latter group usually sees the field as one offering explanations about the past, two-thirds of our survey takers considered history to be little more than an assemblage of names, dates, and events. Little wonder, then, that disputes in the public sphere tend to focus on the “what” of history — particularly what parts of history are taught or not in schools — as opposed to how materials can be interpreted to offer better explanations of the past and present. And even though 62 percent of respondents agreed that what we know about the past should change over time, the primary driver for those changes was believed to be new facts coming to light. In sum, poll results show that, in the minds of our nation’s population, raw facts cast a very long shadow over the field of history and any dynamism therein.
We also learned that the places the public turned to most often for information about the past were not necessarily the sources it deemed most trustworthy. The top three go-to sources for historical knowledge were all in video format, thus being a microcosm of Americans’ general predilection for consuming information from screens. More traditional sources, such as museums, nonfiction books, and college courses, filled out the middle to lower ranks of this hierarchy. (Note that respondents were asked to report on their experiences reaching back to January 2019, so these results are not simply artifacts of the pandemic.) Perhaps this helps explain why 90 percent of survey takers felt that one can learn history anywhere, not just in school, and why 73 percent reported that it is easier to learn about the past when it is presented as entertainment.
But while the most frequently consulted sources of the past were those within easy reach, views were mixed on their reliability to convey accurate information. Whereas fictional films and television were the second-most-popular sources of history, they ranked near the bottom in terms of trustworthiness. Although museums were of only middling popularity, they took the top spot for historical dependability (similar to the results in Rosenzweig and Thelen’s original study). College history professors garnered a respectable fourth position as reliable informants, even though the nonfiction works they produce, let alone the courses they teach, were infrequently consulted by respondents. Similar inversions occurred for TV news, newspapers and newsmagazines, non-Wikipedia web search results, and DNA tests. Social media, the perennial bête noire of truth aficionados, turned out to be a neither popular nor trusted source of historical information.
Some much-welcome news is that the public sees clear value in the study of history, even relative to other fields. Rather than asking whether respondents thought learning history was important—a costless choice—we asked instead how essential history education is, relative to other fields such as engineering and business. The results were encouraging: 84 percent felt history was just as valuable as the professional programs. Moreover, those results held nearly constant across age groups, genders, education levels, races and ethnicities, political-party affiliations, and regions of the country. Much has been written in Perspectives on History about the dismal history-enrollment picture at colleges and universities. Although we acknowledge that work and even see it manifested in our teaching experiences, our survey results suggest this is not for want of society’s value of understanding the past.
To better understand this apparent appreciation for learning history, despite the decline in college enrollments, we gathered a tremendous amount of data on the public’s experiences with learning history at both the high school and college levels. Society’s predominantly facts-centric understanding of history is perhaps partially explained by our educational findings. At the high school level, over three-fourths of respondents reported that history courses were more about names, dates, and other facts than about asking questions about the past. Despite that, 68 percent said that their high school experiences made them want to learn more history. Even for college courses, 44 percent of respondents indicated a continued emphasis on factual material over inquiry, but this was a turnoff to fewer than one-fifth of them. Not all data were so sanguine. One particularly sobering finding was that 8 percent of respondents had no interest in learning about the past.
Whether respondents’ classroom experiences emphasized history as facts turns out to be an important leading indicator in people’s interest in the past. Some of our more interesting cross-tabulations correlated respondents’ conceptions of history with their interest in learning about foreign peoples and places. Only 17 percent of those who viewed history as facts showed great interest in such matters, while double that number of history-as-explanation respondents did. Those trends held steady, though to somewhat lesser degrees, for curiosity about the histories of people perceived as different and about events from over 500 years ago. If wider interests and greater empathy are desired outcomes of history education, then educators might need to rethink the content-mastery versus inquiry environments they foster.
Yet historical inquiry of any quality cannot proceed without content. We therefore provided a list of topics and asked which ones were perceived as being over- or underserved by historians. Such traditional subjects as men, politics, and government were most likely to be seen as receiving too much attention, but they were joined in that sentiment by LGBTQ history. Interestingly, LGBTQ history also ranked third in needing more attention, and it had the fewest respondents indicating historians’ interest devoted to it was about right. This topic’s perception as both over- and underserved suggests that LGBTQ history remains a polarizing area of inquiry in the public’s collective mind. Respondents also said the histories of women and racial or ethnic minorities were most in need of greater consideration.
Furthermore, over three-fourths of respondents, regardless of age group, education level, gender, geographic location, or political affiliation, said it was acceptable to make learners uncomfortable by teaching the harm some people have done to others. The clear call for more investigation of racial and ethnic subgroups, as well as the acceptance of teaching uncomfortable histories, undercuts putative justifications for recent legislative efforts to limit instruction on these topics.
We understand that public perceptions might not be supported by other objective measures, but we argue that those in the historical discipline benefit from the knowledge of such public attitudes. Moreover, findings from our survey hint that approaching polarizing topics as a form of inquiry as opposed to a body of facts is more likely to resonate with learners.
Surveys like ours have their limitations. They are snapshots in time, they cannot easily answer logical follow-up questions, and they might sometimes elicit responses that are more aspirational than reflective of reality. This is why we hope AHA members will both explore and build on our data, contextualizing results for topics of special interest, convening focus groups to put flesh on our findings, and starting conversations about better education and engagement with the public. Let the joy of inquiry begin.
Stalin: Waiting for Hitler, 1929-1941 By Dr. Stephen Kotkin, Princeton University
Application to European and World History by Hank Bitten
The opening sentence, the thesis statement, by Dr. Kotkin is capitalized: “JOSIF STALIN WAS A HUMAN BEING.” This is supported by the evidence that he carried documents wrapped in newspapers, was an avid reader with a personal library of more than 20,000 books, and a man who enjoyed his tobacco from Herzegovina. Throughout the book there are the details of the floor plans of his apartments and hunting lodge, passion for his 1933 Packard Twelve luxury car and relationships with his mother, two wives, and children.
This is a fascinating read about Stalin, the ‘seemingly humane man’ and totalitarian ruler, his handling of the failures in agriculture and limited successes in manufacturing, propaganda and party purges, solidification of Party power, perspectives on capitalism, fascism, socialism, and communism, and the threats the U.S.S.R. faced from Germany, Japan, the long civil war in China, and even the small independent state of Poland. As a teacher of U.S., European, and World History, I likely spent too much time on the impact of the Great Depression and the rise of dictatorships than on the global perspective of the new Soviet empire and Japan’s vision in the Far East. The advantage of Stalin: Waiting for Hitler, 1929-1941 is that it provides teachers with examples for decision-making lessons in every year from the first Five Year Plan until the evening of Operation Barbarossa.
The eloquently phrased statement below by Dr. Kotkin is an argument for high school students to analyze and debate. History is about thinking and students need to investigate sources, determine their reliability, and develop their own thesis statement.
“A human being, a Communist and revolutionary a dictator encircled by enemies in a dictatorship circled by enemies, a fearsome contriver of class warfare, an embodiment of the global Communist cause and the Eurasia multinational state, a ferocious champion of Russia’s revival, Stalin did what acclaimed leaders do: he articulated and drove toward a consistent goal, in his case a powerful state backed by a unified society that eradicated capitalism and built industrial socialism. “Murderous” and “mendacious” do not begin to describe the person readers will encounter in this volume. At the same time, Stalin galvanized millions. His colossal authority was rooted in a dedicated faction, which he forged, a formidable apparatus which he built, and Marxist-Leninist ideology, which he helped synthesize. But his power was magnified many times over by ordinary people, who projected onto him their soaring ambitions for justice, peace, and abundance, as well as national greatness. Dictators who amass great power often retreat into pet pursuits, expounding intermittingly about their obsessions, paralyzing the state. But Stalin’s fixation was a socialist great power. In the years 1929-36, covered in part III, he would build that socialist great power with a first-class military. Stalin was a myth, but he proved equal to the myth.” (p. 8)
It is difficult to find humor in a book about a leader responsible for killing (and starving) millions of people but Dr. Kotkin finds the right time to tell us about the goodwill tour of Harpo Marx. In the middle of a counterrevolutionary terrorist plot against Stalin, a possible war with Japan, and FDR trying to save American capitalism from default. Harpo Marx (an American comedian) while interacting with a Soviet family in the audience has 300 table knives cascade from his magical sleeves! (p.145)
The lessons for teachers and students are enriched by the details in this book. For example, Dr. Kotkin’s analysis of the failures of the collective farms in the first four years of the First Five Year Plan provide factual data for teachers and resources for developing engaging decision-making activities for students.
In 1929, the USSR had only 6 million out of 60 million workers employed, an unemployment rate of about 90%! Livestock and grain prices crashed as did the U.S. stock market with a 25% decline in four days of October. But in the USSR, there was a surprise harvest of 13.5 million tons. This led to forced collectivization of 80% of the private farms and the deportation of kulaks as Stalin understood the importance for agricultural security in an insecure state. Food was essential to the industrialization of the Soviet Union and for the police, army, and ordinary people. By contrast, a Soviet worker needed to labor for sixty-two hours to purchase a loaf of bread, versus seventeen minutes for an American. (p.544)
“But the dictator himself would turn out to be the grand saboteur, leading the country and his own regime into catastrophe in 1931-33, despite the intense zeal for building a new world. Rumblings within the party would surface, demanding Stalin’s removal.” (pp. 70-71)
Decision Making Activity:
Should the USSR focus on agricultural reforms before starting a program of industrial reforms? (1929-1934)
The decisions facing Stalin had to be overwhelming:
His government faced increasing debt
There was no organized educational system to assimilate the diverse population
He needed to increase agricultural productivity
The Communist Party was divided between followers of Trotsky and Stalin
The military did not have any airplane or pilots
Peasants were quitting the collectives by the hundreds of thousands in search of food with millions facing starvation.
There were violent protests against local officials as one-third of the livestock perished and inflation soared.
Cholera epidemics killed about one-half million and the catastrophe in the Ukraine resulted in 3.5 million deaths, 10% of the population.
“Collectivization involved the arrest, execution, internal deportation, or incarceration of 4 to 5 million peasants, the effective enslavement of another 100 million; and the loss of tens of millions of head of livestock.” (p.131)
Decision Making Activity:
With military expansion in Japan and Germany, civil war in China, and the Japanese invasion of Manchuria, should Stalin and the USSR focus on investment in military technology and building an army?
The research of Dr. Kotkin offers teachers a treasure of statistical data and insights into these critical years of Stalin’s survival. In 1931, “Japan had 250,000 troops (quarter of a million) in the Soviet Far East and Stalin had 100,000 with no fleet, storage facility or air force. At best they could transport troops on five trains a day.” (p.84). Without exports and with severe budget cuts, the USSR manufactured 2,600 tanks by the end of 1932. This was possible because Stalin secretly increased the budget for military spending from 845 rubles to 2.2 million.
The construction of the White Sea-Baltic Canal (1933) was a significant investment for exporting minerals and increasing state revenue. Stalin’s infrastructure projects illustrate his understanding of the importance of industrialization. Unfortunately, the White-Sea Baltic Canal was less than fifteen feet deep in most places, limiting use to rivercraft. Stalin was said to have been disappointed finding it ‘shallow and narrow.’” In 1937, Stalin celebrated the opening of the Moscow – Volga River canal with a flotilla of forty-four ships and boasting that Moscow was linked to five seas. (White, Black, Baltic, Caspian, and Azov). Sadly, it was built with Gulag prisoners and according to Professor Kotkin, 20,000 perished. (p.404) Stalin also started The Great Fergana Canal (1939) and the Moscow subway system.
The personal accounts from diaries and interviews is a reason for teachers to read this book. For example, Stalin’s wife, Nadya, was diagnosed with angina and a defective heart valve. Although Dr. Kotkin notes that Stalin was not a playboy, as was Mussolini, Stalin’s flirtation with a 34-year-old actress after the November 7 Revolution Day parade pushed Nadya over the edge. Her body was found in a pool of blood in her room on the morning of November 9 by Karolina Til, the governess of young Svetlana, Vasily, and Artyom. The cause of death was reported as appendicitis, although it was a suicide. In the middle of this personal tragedy, 9-year-old Svetlana wrote:
“Hello, my Dear Daddy.” I received your letter and I am happy that you allowed me to stay here and wait for you….When you come, you will not recognize me. I got really tanned. Every night I hear the howling of the coyotes. I wait for you in Sochi. I kiss you.” Your Setanka.” (p.135)
Another example of the ‘seemingly human qualities’ of Josif Stalin is a description of an evening birthday celebration for Maria Svanidze, governess, Svetlana said she wanted to ride on the new Moscow metro and Stalin and the family walked on the newly opened subway. It was dark.
“Stalin ended up surrounded by well-wishers. Bodyguards and police had to bring order. The crowd smashed an enormous metal lamp. Vasily was scared for his life. Svetlana was so frightened, she stayed in the train car. We ‘were intimidated by the uninhibited ecstasy of the crowd,’ Svanidze wrote. “Josif was merry.” (p.234)
By 1933, Stalin’s fortunes were changing for the better. This is why history is often unpredictable. The collectivized fall harvests were good and the unbalanced investments of the first Five-Year Plan finally produced results. Socialism (anti-capitalism) was victorious in the countryside as well as in the city. The USSR joined the League of Nations, Harpo Marx toured the USSR, and the United States sent Ambassador William C. Bullitt to Moscow.
Decision Making Activity:
Did the United States and other countries extend diplomatic recognition to Stalin and the USSR prematurely?
Although Stalin refused to pay (or negotiate) the debt of 8 billion rubles owed to the United States since the end of World War I, he announced debt forgiveness of 10 million gold rubles to Mongolia on January 1, 1934, about 45 days after President Roosevelt agreed to formal recognition. (p.196) In 1983, the USSR repaid its debt to the United States.
The anti-terror law to protect the security of the Soviet Union led to the arrests of 6,500 people following the death of Kirov, a member of the politburo. Gulag camps and colonies together held around 1.2 million forced laborers, while exiled “kulaks” in “special settlements” numbered around 900,000. But the state media was able to boast that there were less murders in all of Soviet Union than in Chicago (p.286) For the two years 1937 and 1938, the NKVD would report 1,575,259 arrests, 87 percent of them for political offenses, and 681,692 executions.” (The number is closer to 830,000 since many more died during interrogation or transit.) (p.305)
Decision Making Activity:
Did Stalin have a reason to fear for his power or did he desire the personal power of a despot?
First, the economy between 1934-36 was relatively good as the Soviet Union escaped the tremendous debts of other countries during the Great Depression because of its limited exposure to global trade, a planned economy, and the famine ended. Stalin was suspicious of the imperialists in Britain and France, feared they would establish an anti-Soviet coalition, and attack through Eastern Europe. He needed to isolate or eliminate potential threats in the military and friends of Trotsky whose publications presented Stalin as a counter-revolutionist and one who betrayed the teachings of Marx. The Soviet empire (USSR) is a large country and assassinations are difficult to prevent.
The influence of Trotsky continued for more than a decade after his exile. Trotsky headed the Red Army until 1925 and everyone worked with him. In 1936, the NKVD arrested 212 Trotyskyites in the military, including 32 officers. (p.350) “After a decree had rescinded Trotsky’s Soviet citizenship, he had written a spirited open letter to the central executive committee of the Soviet…asserting that ‘Stalin has led us to a cul-de-sac….It is necessary, at last, to carry out Lenin’s last insistent advice:remove Stalin.” (p.372) Who could Stalin trust?
In the Middle of the Thirties the World Changed
Dr. Kotkin offers a detailed analysis of how these civil wars impacted the geopolitical balance of the new class of world leaders in Britain, France, and Germany along with the poor military record of Mussolini in Ethiopia. The Spanish and Chinese civil wars in the east and west presented challenges and opportunities for Stalin. Stalin sent 450 pilots and 297 planes, 300 cannons, 82 tanks, 400 vehicles and arms and ammunition. Stalin is the leader of the politburo but none of his top leaders had a university education.
Although these two conflicts are different, they are caused by extreme poverty and the failure of government to solve the social and economic problems. They also involved foreign interference, although in the Chinese civil war, Japan occupied significant areas of the country. Although communism was a political presence in both civil wars, it did not follow the revolutionary reforms of Lenin or Stalin. The situation in Spain likely clarified Stalin’s world view regarding his fear of conspiracies from within, the consequences of a long conflict, and the complexities of revolutionary movements.
An example of scholarship I found useful is the removal of Spain’s gold reserves, estimated at $783 million, dating back to the Aztecs and Incas. (p.343) A significant portion of this money flowed to Moscow financing the costs of new armaments. A second example is the tragic record of genocide resulting in the execution of more than 2,000 prisoners in Madrid’s jails. The human rights abuses involved the evacuation of several thousand innocent people. I was not aware of this organized attempt by Spanish communists and their Soviet advisors. (p.350) but important to classroom instruction.
The madness continued “On April 26, 1937, the German Condor Legion, assisted by Italian aircraft, attacked Guernica, the ancient capital of the Basques, at the behest of the Nationalists, aiming to sow terror in the Republic’s rear. The attack came on a Monday, market day. Not only was the civilian population of some 5,000 to 7,000 (including refugees) carpet-bombed, but as they tried to escape, they were strafed with machine guns mounted on Heinkel He-51s. Some one hundred and fifty were killed.” (p.407)
The Basques surrendered. Every effort was taken to keep Soviet involvement from the people, although Trotsky was able to influence. “He sent a telegram from Mexico to the central executive committee of the Soviet, formally the highest organ of the state, declaring that ‘Stalin’s policies are leading to a crushing defeat, both internally and externally. The only salvation is a turn in the direction of Soviet democracy, beginning with a public review of the last trials. I offer my full support in this endeavor.” (p.434)
Kristallnacht (November 9-10, 1938) is only 18 months into the future.
Some 10,000 miles away in China, the USSR is confronted with the Nanking Massacre, invasion of Mongolia, and continuing fighting between Chiang Kai-shek and Mao Zedong. But in 1936, there was an attempted coup in Tokyo. There was much confusion regarding who in the military was behind this failed attempt because it was clearly anti-capitalist but according to Richard Sorge, the Soviet intelligence officer in the German embassy in Tokyo, it was not connected to any communist or socialist organizations. Stephen Kotkin provides substantial research on the work and missteps of Richard Sorge providing insights into how Soviet intelligence worked during the Stalin years, especially in Berlin and Tokyo. For example, Sorge photographed the full text of a secret document and sent it to a Soviet courier in Shanghai who eventually got it to Moscow stating that “should either Germany or Japan become the object of an unprovoked attack by the USSR,” each “obliges itself to take no measures that would tend to ease the situation in the USSR.” (p.356)
The Capture of Chiang Kai-shek
Stalin in the middle of his “House of Horrors” and the purges of 1937-38 discovered that history would test him as a diplomat, military strategist, and intelligence gatherer even though he had no experience in these areas. One of his first tests came to him on a cold December morning with the capture of Chiang Kai-shek, age 49, in central China. This was a turning point.
“At dawn on December 12, (1937) his scheduled day of departure, a 200- man contingent of Zhang’s personal guard stormed the walled compound. A gun battle killed many of Chiang’s bodyguards. He heard the shots, was told the attackers wore fur caps (the headgear of the Manchurian troops), crawled out a window scaled the compound’s high wall, and ran along a dry moat up a barren hill, accompanied by one bodyguard and one aide. He slipped and fell, losing his false teeth and injuring his back, and sought refuge in a cave on the snow-covered mountain. The next morning, the leader of China-shivering, toothless, barefoot, a robe over his nightshirt-was captured.” (p.360)
The detailed and descriptive connections that teachers love to share with their students, especially Zhang Xueliang’s relationship with Edda Ciano, Mussolini’s daughter and the wife of the Italian minister to China, make the story of history very realistic and relevant!
Decision Making Activity:
Should Stalin support Chiang Kai-shek or order him killed based on Shanghai Massacre in 1927 with the execution of thousands of communists?
If Chiang Kai-shek is killed, will Japan extend its presence in China?
If Chiang Kai-skek is released, will he defeat Mao Zedong, someone Stalin considered influenced by Trotsky?
In the middle of this turning point situation and the continuing fighting in Spain, Stalin’s House of Horrors executed 90 percent of his top military officers in the purges of 1937-38, about 144,000. “Throughout 1937 and 1938, there were on average nearly 2,200 arrests and more than 1,000 executions per day.” (p.347) “The terror’s scale would become crushing. More than 1 million prisoners were conveyed by overloaded rail transport in 1938 alone.” (p.438)
“Violence against the population was a hallmark of the Soviet state nearly from its inception, of course, and had reached its apogee in the collectivization-dekulakization…They would account for 1.1 million of the 1.58 million arrests in 1937-38, and 634,000 or the 682,000 executions.” (p.448). The news of Hitler’s territorial acquisition of Austria (March 12, 1938) and annexation of the Sudetenland (September 30, 1938) will occur within a few weeks and months.
For teachers looking for an inquiry or research-based lesson on Stalin’s purges, consider this statement by Dr. Kotkin: “World history had never before seen such carnage by a regime against itself, as well as its own people-not in the French Revolution, not under Italian fascism or Nazism.” (p. 488) The madness was similar to the spread of a virus with one arrest infecting others. It only required an executive order (or consider it a ‘prescription’) to cure the infection of suspicion.
On the Eve of Destruction
By 1938, Stalin had 11 years of experience as the absolute leader of the Soviet government. During these 11 years he had changed the domestic policy of the Soviet Union. In 1939, Time Magazine honored him as Man of the Year for his accomplishments. The issue characterized Stalin as a man of peace by comparing him to Mussolini, Hitler, and Roosevelt. He was also Man of the Year in 1943. Your students will find this interesting!
This is the year Stalin celebrated his 60th birthday (Dec. 18, 1878) and it is also the time when the world changed. Stalin would begin a journey where he lacked experience and because he arrested and executed 90% of his top military leaders resulting in no one to go to for diplomatic or military advice. Stalin was left with Peter the Great and the realpolitik of Bismarck for the play book on how to handle Mussolini, Hitler, and Chamberlain, Churchill, and Roosevelt.
“Germany’s mobilization was so sudden, ordered by the Fuhrer at 7:00 p.m. on March 10, 1938…Events moved very rapidly. On March 12, a different Habsburg successor state vanished when the Wehrmacht, unopposed, seized Austria, a country of 7 million predominantly German speakers. It was the first time since the Great War that a German army had crossed the state frontier for purposes of conquest, and, in and of itself, it constituted an event of perhaps greater import than the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, which helped spark the Great War mobilizations of 1914.” (pp.558-559)
The Soviet Union had a border on the west of almost 2,000 miles and a 2,600-mile border in the east with China. The Soviet Union had an inefficient transcontinental railroad, a small air force, an army that did not understand the Russian language, 6,000 nautical miles of coastline, seaports that were easily blocked by mines or ice, and a small navy! Stalin understood the fate of the Soviet Union as Japan had 300,000 forces in Manchukuo and 1,000,000 in northern China and controlled Peking, Tientsin, and Shanghai in less time than it took me to write this review! (p. 457)
The brilliance of this book is in the details and interesting personal stories. In the context of writing about Stalin’s introduction to foreign policy, Dr. Kotkin describes the life of Benito Mussolini in vivid detail with comparisons to Stalin and Hitler.
“On a typical day in 1938, spent an hour or two every afternoon in the downstairs private apartment in the Palazzo Venezia of Claretta Petacci, whom he called little Walewska, after Napoleon’s mistress. The duce would have sex, nap, listen to music on the radio, eat some fruit, reminisce about his wild youth, complain about all the women vying for his attention (including his wife), and have Walewska dress him. Before and after his daily trysts…the duce would call Claretta a dozen times to report his travails and his ulcer.” (p.525)
“Stalin’s world was nothing like the virile Italian’s. Women in his life remained very few. He still did not keep a harem, despite ample opportunities…..If Stalin had a mistress, she may have been a Georgian aviator, Rusudan Pachkoriya, a beauty some twenty years his junior, whom he observed at an exhibition at Tushino airfield.” (p.525)
Decision Making Activity:
Faced with these rapidly changing events as a result of the decisions of Japan and Germany, what should Stalin do?
Seek an alliance with another state?
Change the budget priorities from rebuilding the infrastructure of the Soviet Union to military spending?
Begin a campaign of disinformation to the Soviet people about the international threats?
Double down on finding Trotsky and have him executed to avoid an internal threat of revolution?
Name a possible successor, should something happen to Stalin.
Throughout the book there are provocative claims that should challenge AP European History students to think: For example: “So that was it: Germany foaming at the mouth with anti-Communism and ant-Slav racism, and now armed to the teeth; Britain cautious and aloof in the face of another continental war; and France even more exposed than Britain, yet deferring to London, and wary of its nominal ally, the USSR. Stalin was devastating his own country with mass murders and bald-faced mendacities, but the despot faced a genuine security impasse: German aggression and buck-passing by great powers-himself included.” (p.593)
Investigate or Debate:
Stalin passed the supreme test of state leadership in 1939.
Stalin failed the supreme test of state leadership in 1939.
The first argument should investigate the evidence regarding the risks and rewards of selling resources to Hitler and Germany. Did this enable Hitler to become stronger or did it enable the Soviet Union to gain trade revenue to rebuild its military and infrastructure? The lessons of geography, imperialism, alliances, and military preparation from 1914 are complex and difficult for a state leader to master.
Hitler needed the resources of oil, steel and grain and the Ukraine in the Soviet Union was the treasure. Poland understood Hitler’s motives and knew that an attack on the Soviet Union by Japan would likely extend their short-lived independence. Dating back to the end of World War I, Polish forces still occupied the western Ukraine along with German troops. If the Blitzkrieg was to take place in six months, Germany needed these troops. Meanwhile, the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) desired independence and Pavel Sudoplatov, from the Soviet Union, blew up Yevhen Konovalets, the OUN leader, with a concealed time bomb in a box of chocolates in a Rotterdam restaurant. In two years, he will get to Trotsky. (p.596)
Students should also use the analysis and end notes in this book to determine if Stalin made the right decisions regarding who he trusted. Could he trust President Roosevelt? Neville Chamberlain, Adolph Hitler? Richard Sorge? Edouard Daladier? Stalin: Waiting for Hitler. 1929-1941 is a debater’s dream with 160 pages of notes and a Bibliography of almost 50 pages in size 3 font!
The year, 1939 marked the opening of the World’s Fair in New York City with thousands of visitors; it is also the year when the Nazi’s smashed Jewish owned stores, businesses, and synagogues in November 9-10, killing at least 100 innocent Jewish people. Was Stalin the best person to stop Hitler or did his silence empower him? There is evidence in the book to support both arguments.
These are challenging events for students to grasp and some of the best lessons for historical inquiry and “What If” scenarios. To emphasize the complexities of role-playing history in real time, consider that Lithuania relinquishes the deep-water Baltic port of Memi (Klaipėda) to Hitler’s ultimatum and Romanian businesses negotiate partnerships with Germany providing access to the unlimited oil supplies in the Ploiesti region. (p.613). During these fast-moving events, Stalin promoted Nikita Khrushchev to the politburo (p.605), Alexi Kosygin as commissioner of textile production, and Leonid Brezhnev to party boss in his region. (p.603).
“Khrushchev had to authorize arrests, and, in connection with the onset of ‘mass operations,’ he’d had to submit a list of ‘criminal and kulak elements,’ which in his case carried an expansive 41,305 names; he marked 8,500 of them ‘first category’ (execution). At least 160,000 victims in Moscow and Ukraine, would be arrested under Khrushchev during the terror.” (p.520)
We are now on a countdown of less than six months to Blitzkrieg and two years to Operation Barbarossa.
Historical Claim: “The Fuhrer really be stopped or even deflected?” (p.641)
The arguments below are a sample of the resources in the narrative of Dr. Kotkin’s book.
Hitler’s rearmament starved Germany of resources. This limited Hitler’s ability to fight in a long war and it negatively affected the German people. Hitler could not risk a war with the Soviet Union if his intention was to dominate western Europe.
Three weeks before the planned attack on Poland, Stalin entered into official talks with Germany on August 11, 1939 and by August 20, an economic agreement was finalized.
Mussolini did not sign the Pact of Steel until August 25, less than one week before the invasion.
France had 110 divisions compared to Germany’s 30, with only 2 considered to be combat ready. (p. 680)
The invasion of Poland was planned for August 25 but Hitler got cold feet after he gave the final order. Would Hitler risk a world war over Poland, which he could also obtain by negotiation or ultimatum?
Italy also desperately needed resources. Mussolini told Hitler he needed 7 million tons of gasoline, 6 million tons of coal, and 2 million tons of steel.
The history of the world might have taken a different course. For example, one week before the blitzkrieg of Poland, the Soviet air force fired on Hitler’s personal Condor by mistake when it was flying to Moscow with Joachim von Ribbentrop aboard to sign the German-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact. They missed. (See another example on page 10 about Rudolph Hess’ plane crash in Scotland and the failed assassination plot against Adolph Hitler in Munich)
On September 1, 1939 the blitzkrieg began. “The Germans in Poland, by contrast, had lost between 11,000 and 13,000 killed. At least 70,000 Poles were killed and nearly 700,000 taken prisoner. The atrocities would continue long after the main combat was over. More than a million Poles would be forced to work as slaves in Germany.” (p.688) The day before Hitler gave the order to double the production of the new long-range ‘wonder bomber”, the Ju88 for use against Britain.
Frozen in Finland
On the afternoon of November 26, 1939, five shells and two grenades were fired on Soviet positions at the border, killing four and wounding nine. “An investigation by the Finns indicated that the shots had emanated from the Soviet side. They were right. “The Finns maintained that Soviet troops had not been in range of Finnish batteries, so they could not have been killed by Finnish fire, and suggested a mutual frontier troop withdrawal.” (p.722) The Soviets never issued a formal declaration of war. Hitler would now see the strength of the Soviet armor, even though the Finns were still using 20-year-old tanks from World War I. (p.726)
The Winter War of 1940-41 is a significant event in the timeline of World War II. Unfortunately, it is one that most teachers and students overlook because of the fast-moving events between Blitzkrieg and Barbarossa. The Red Army suffered frostbite in the -45-degree weather, guerrilla attacks with flammable liquids stuffed in bottles and ignited by hand-lit wicks (Molotov cocktails), and stuck on the ice of frozen lakes. (p.727) Would the history of the 20th century be different if Stalin defeated Finland in a matter of weeks and Hitler and Mussolini saw the strength of the Soviet military? Would the history of Europe be different if Finland maintained its independence? Students need to investigate what went wrong with the strategy of the Soviet Union to control Finland and the Baltic Sea. Winston Churchill had limited knowledge of Stalin and the Soviet Union when he made the statement below. In fact, he only gained popularity as few months before as a result of Hitler’s Lebensraum. Given this understanding, how accurate is his statement below?
Winston Churchill stated it clearly on January 20, 1940: “The service rendered by Finland to mankind is magnificent. They have exposed, for all the world to see, the military incapacity of the Red Army and of the Red Air Force. Many illusions about Soviet Russia have been dispelled in these few fierce weeks of fighting in the Arctic Circle.” (p.740)
“Finland paid a heavy price for the avoidable war. Nearly 400,000 Finns (mostly small farmers) upward to 12 percent of its population – voluntarily fled the newly annexed Soviet territories for rump Finland, leaving homes and many possessions behind, and denying the NKVD victims to arrest. Finland suffered at least 26,662 killed and missing, 43,357 wounded, and 847 captured by the Soviets.” (p.748) Finland lost its independence to Nazi Germany.
“Still the Soviets lost an astonishing 131,476 dead and missing; at least 264,908 more were wounded or fell to illness, including the frostbitten, who lost fingers, toes, ears. Total Soviet losses neared 400,000 casualties, out of perhaps 1 million men mobilized – almost 4,000 casualties per day.” (p.748) On March 5, 1940, Stalin approved the execution of 21,857 captured or arrested Polish officers.
Another “What if” situation, similar to the shooting down of the plane taking Ribbentrop to Moscow in August, occurred only two months after the blitzkrieg and during this winter war in Finland when “Georg Elser planted a bomb in one of the columns right behind the podium of the Munich Beer Hall where Hitler was scheduled to speak on November 8, 1939. It was a year-long plot planned by Elser. But fog forced Hitler to travel from Berlin to Munich by a regularly scheduled train. He began his speech early and left ten minutes before the explosion. Eight were killed and 60 were wounded.” (p.700)
If you enjoy these unexpected stories, Dr. Kotkin offers another bizarre account, involving Rudolph Hess, which took place during the Attack on Britain in 1940.
“On May 13, although details were scarce, he (Stalin) learned of a sensation reported out of Berlin the previous night: Rudolf Hess, deputy to the Fuhrer within the Nazi party, had flown to Britain. “Late on May 10, a date chosen on astrological grounds, in a daring, skillful maneuver, he piloted a Messerschmitt Bf-110 bomber across the North Sea toward Britain, some 900 miles, and, in the dark, parachuted into Scotland. His pockets were filled with abundant pills and potions, including opium alkaloids, aspirin, atropine, methamphetamines, barbiturates, caffeine tablets, laxatives, and an elixir from a Tibetan lamasery. He was also carrying a flight map, photos of himself and his son, and the business cards of two German acquaintances, but no identification. Initially, he gave a false name to the Scottish plowman on whose territory he landed; soon members of the local home Guard appeared (with whisky on their breath). The British were not expecting Hess; no secure corridor had been set up. Hess was among the small circle in the know about the firmness of Hitler’s intentions to invade the USSR.” “Hitler stated that Hess had acted without his knowledge, and called him a ‘victim of delusions.’” (pp.866,67)
On the eve of the Battle of Britain and Fall of France, Dr. Kotkin offers a view of the Soviet home front. Stalin, a leader with no military experience, worked aggressively since 1936 to build the largest army in the world. Considering the debt of the Soviet Union during the 1930s, what price did the people pay?
(I apologize that I cannot verify the accuracy of the data below but offer it for the purpose of discussion regarding the changes occurring in the Second Five Year Plan with an emphasis on industrial production.)
source: (R.W. Davies, Soviet economic development from Lenin to Khrushchev, 40.)
“The Red Army was expanding toward 4 million men (as compared with just 1 million in 1934). Some 11,000 of the 33,000 officers discharged during the terror had been reinstated. Consumer shortages had been worsening since 1938. At the same time, alcohol production reached 250 million gallons, up from 96.5 million gallons in 1932. By 1940, the Soviet Union had more shops selling alcohol than selling meat, vegetables, and fruit combined.” (p.781)
Britain, France and the Fate of the Soviet Union
As the war intensified in 1940 with the attack on France, Stalin was forced to reassess what was developing. He knew, or thought he knew, that the Soviet Union would be safe from German invasion for resources as long as Hitler was fighting in western Europe. But the battle in France began on Mother’s Day and ended shortly after Father’s Day. (May 10 – June 25) The French air force was no match for the Luftwaffe and the French had done little regarding the installation of antitank obstacles and bunkers in the Ardennes. (p.766) “The French lost 124,000 killed and 200,000 wounded, while 1.5 million western troops were taken prisoner; German casualties were fewer than 50,000 dead and wounded.” (pp.767)
What did Stalin think? Stalin depended on the French military and Germany fighting in western Europe. Did Stalin connect the missing pieces of the puzzle regarding the importance of Russian oil and supplies to Germany’s power? Between July 10 and the end of October 1940, Germany bombed Britain. The British lost 915 planes but the Germans lost 1,733 planes, almost double the number. (p.794)
The only silver lining in the storm clouds over western Europe for Stalin was on August 20, 1940. After five years of failed attempts to get Leon Trotsky, including the discharge of 200 bullets into his bedroom on May 27, 1940, Ramon Mercader managed to smash a pick into his head. Nearly 250,000 watched the funeral possession in Mexico City. For Stalin, the revolution was now complete!
Meeting of the politburo, January 1941. Have your students prepare a report to Stalin about the best defensive strategy for the Soviet Union for 1941. The members of the politburo have just received an intelligence report from Richard Sorge in the Germany embassy in Tokyo regarding an expected target date for an attack on the Soviet Union on May 15, 1941.
Here are the facts: (pp.819-830)
The Soviet-German Non-Aggression Pact is no longer certain.
The Winter War against Finland was a military disappointment.
Germany controls a significant part of France, including Paris.
It is a risk for Germany to fight a two-front war against Britain and the Soviet Union at the same time.
It is estimated that Germany has 76 divisions in the former Poland and 17 in Romania, with an estimate of 90-100 in western Europe.
The Soviet Union is spending 32 percent of its budget on the military and has the largest army in the world at 5.3 million. Germany spends about 20% of its budget on the military.
Germany and Italy need supplies of oil, steel, and grain.
The USSR promised to ship Germany 2.5 million tons of grain, some from strategic reserves, and 1 million tons of oil by August 1941, in return for machine tools and arms-manufacturing equipment.
The Soviet border from the White Sea to the Black Sea is 2,500 miles and vulnerable to attack at any point.
Franklin Roosevelt will be inaugurated as President of the United States on January 20, 1941 and is committed to supplying Britain with aid as an ‘arsenal for democracy’.
The war in the Balkans began on October 28, 1940 and Italy’s offensive is moving slowly.
The United States broke the Japanese intelligence code, should Stalin explore help from the United States?
The Soviet Union needs to expand the trans-Siberian Railroad.
Stalin does not believe Hitler and the German army are invincible and they can be defeated.
The NKVD captured 66 German spy handlers and 1,596 German agents, including 1,338 in western Ukraine, Belarus, and the Baltics.
Here are the Unknown Factors: “Hitler estimated it would take four months to defeat USSR” (p.882).
Would a blitzkrieg attack on German forces along the Soviet frontier deliver a knockout blow?
Will a surprise Soviet attack on Germany move Britain and Germany to negotiate a settlement.
Should the Soviet Union move back 100 miles to draw the Germany army into Soviet territory and they encircle them?
How will Churchill and Britain react to a German attack on the Soviet Union? How will FDR and the United states react?
Are the Germans secretly moving their army on trains from western Europe to the Soviet frontier?
If Germany intervenes in the Balkans will this enable them to invade the Soviet Union?
Is Richard Sorge a double agent that should not be trusted?
What are Hitler’s plans?
Will a Soviet campaign of disinformation be effective?
Will an accidental war break out with an unknown incident at the border?
This is a fascinating book to read and I have decided to leave the creative and carefully researched Conclusion that Stephen Kotkin has written as a surprise. It is perhaps the best ending of a book or documentary that I have read. I cannot wait to read the third volume of the attack on the Soviet Union and the aftermath.
Regarding my opening statement: “The opening sentence, the thesis statement, by Dr. Kotkin is capitalized: “JOSIF STALIN WAS A HUMAN BEING.” Perhaps the argument is correct. Stalin loved his mother, was the father of three children, and witnessed the unfortunate early deaths of his two wives, Kato Svanidze, at age 22 of illness and Nadezhda Alliluyeva, of suicide at age 31. Even though in my reading of this book, I understood Stalin as stoic and emotionally removed from his executive orders leading to the imprisonment and execution of millions, I kept thinking that he lived with feelings, remorse, and personal guilt. I may never know but I can speculate.
A thousand-page book is not a quick read. My five grandchildren were impressed with the size of the book and why the grandfather would read about a man who did terrible things. I documented my quotations carefully with the intention that teachers might use them as a reference guide should they purchased this book. I am happy to give them to you upon request.
My first course in Russian history was in 1967. It was a wonderful introduction to Russian culture, geography, socialism, communism, and 20th century foreign policy. As a teacher, I read Professor Kotkin’s books and attended several of his lectures, I never had the luxury of taking a second college course. As a first-year teacher in New York City in 1969, I made arrangements for Alexander Kerensky to speak with my students. Unfortunately, he broke his arm and was hospitalized in April and passed in June 1970. In the 1960s, Stalin’s daughter, Svetlana, moved to Long Island and later to Pennington, NJ and Princeton. Although I never had an opportunity to see her, I was mesmerized by her decision to come to the United states so soon after the Cuban Missile Crisis. In 1999, I had the pleasure of dinner with Sergei Khrushchev, the son of Nikita Khrushchev.
Mark Helmsing and Andrew Vardas-Doane George Mason University, Fairfax VA
Although the period in human history we call the medieval period ended around the year 1500 CE, we are surrounded by medievalism in our lives today. For most history and social studies educators, a claim such as this does not make sense. We accept the end of the medieval period with the Renaissance, ushering in what we teach our students as the early modern period in our human history. Historians and educators position the medieval period, as a “middle” period used to demarcate Western history, occurs after the end of ancient history and before the period in which we currently live (Arnold, 2008). And yet, as we explain in this paper, medievalism—the icons, images, tropes, and representations of how humans think of that time period—permeates our lives today. Learning to understand medievalism in relation to the broadly defined medieval period and from the specific construct of the European Middle Ages enables our students to develop a sharper sense of periodization and significance within their broader historical thinking.
Because of the elision between fact
and fiction, reality and fantasy, history and social studies educators should
take seriously the need to point out medievalism with their students and strive
to make more visible and explicit the historical inspiration for such
representations. In the first half of this article we provide some ways of thinking
about medievalism. In the second half of this article we take these aspects of
historical thinking related to medievalism and examine how they work in a
popular video game and film franchise, Assassin’s
Creed, a form of medieval world building that is popular amongst
adolescents and young adults (Gilbert, 2017; Hammar, 2017). Our aim with this
article to encourage educators to consider some implications for history and
social studies educators related to the intersections of popular culture and
medievalism as history education.
Medievalism for Historical Thinking
To assume that the medieval is
irrelevant or antiquated, or to discount how medievalism effects our
contemporary thought and shapes so many images and ideas in popular culture, is
to neglect the significance of properly understanding and accounting for
historical periodization (Cole & Smith, 2010). One may think that
historical periodization is cut-and-dry as a commonplace of historical thinking.
Say “medieval” and we think of courtly love, knights in shining armor, kings
and queens residing in large castles (often with moats and drawbridges). My
(Author 1) thinking about medievalism as an issue worthy of considering in
relation to historical thinking occurred in early 2017 when I spent a semester
away from my university duties teaching 7th graders. The topic of
the HBO television series Game of Thrones
came up in conversation one day and a student remarked that he thought “it
must have been awful living back then.” It took me a few seconds to realize
that he was engaging in two aspects of historical thinking. First, he assumed
that the time period in which the Game of
Thrones world is set was a long time ago, ostensibly linking it to the history
of the Middle Ages. Secondly, and more importantly (or pressingly, depending on
how you look at it), the student was conflating the imaginary fantasy world of Game of Thrones—and entirely fictional
world and text—with ‘actually existing’ medieval history from real life. When I
pressed him on the matter he said that of course he knew the dragons and White
Walkers were not real, but that he assumed what he saw on the television series
was what life was like “back then, with all of the kings and stuff.” This
conversation set me about to think about what it is we may need to be more
explicit about in our curriculum and pedagogy to help students not only to
separate fact from fiction, works of fantasy from works of history, but also to
help our students be more perspicacious and attentive to when, how, and why
aspects of medievalism appear to us throughout art, literature, music, film,
theater, and popular culture at large. In this section we offer some reasons
for why history and social studies educators should investigate (both
professionally for their own historical thinking and with their students)
aspects of medievalism and the medieval world.
Encountering Medievalism in Popular Culture
need to help our students see that we engage with medievalism when we consume
media about actually existing persons and events from the medieval period, as
in Kingdom of Heaven (2005), a
feature film about the Crusades in the 12th century, or in Pippin (1972/2013), a Broadway musical
about the eldest son of Charlemagne in the 8th and 9th
centuries. Yet we also engage with medievalism when we consume media that is
speculative fiction and fantasies using icons, images, tropes, and
representations of the medieval world, as in Game of Thrones, a massively popular book and television series
about feudal royal houses warring with each other, or in King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (2017), only the latest of several
feature films inspired by the Arthurian legends of Camelot, the Round Table,
and the Lady in the Lake.
and our students engage with medievalism when we encounter phrases, concepts,
and iconographies that remain embedded in Western thought long after the end of
the medieval period. For example, when teaching about torture that occurred in
the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq or the Guantánamo Bay detention camp in Cuba, we
may describe documented examples of torture as “medieval” in their barbarity,
despite the fact that much of what we think of as medieval torture did not
actually exist until the Tudor period that began with the end of medievalism in
the 1500s (Matthews, 2015). To use another example, our notions of chivalry,
courtship, and courtly love are concepts that took on distinctive forms as part
of a complex code of rules and conduct in the medieval period (Emery & Utz,
2017). These concepts remain in our thought today, as evidenced by news
headlines such as “Chivalry isn’t dead” (Fuller-Hall, 2018) and “Stanford
professor puts desire in a medieval context” (Marian, 2013). Educators can
select some medieval phrases, concepts, and iconographies for students to
identify in our current social and political discourse, helping students map
these concepts back to the actually existing historical medieval world. For
example, in their edited volume Medievalism:
Key Critical Terms, Emery and Utz (2017) survey the significance of terms
such as feast, gothic, heresy, humor, love, purity, and troubadour, connecting
how these concepts existed within the medieval world and how they have
maintained their medieval legacy in our contemporary cultures. In investigating
these and other concepts of the medieval, students are able to examine the
continuity and change of the history of medieval thought in our world. In some
cases, regrettably, medieval concepts, ideas, and iconography are taken up to
promote repellant nationalist, racist, and supremacist beliefs, such as the
adoption of the Templar Knights and runes with Norse warrior mythology and
other medieval marks used to signify racial purity by white supremacists
(Devega, 2017; Livingstone, 2017; Weill, 2018). Such uses and abuses should
also be interrogated and critiqued in history and social studies education,
ranging from how we describe something as violent or regressive as being
“medieval” to invoking language and associations to the Crusades as Holy Wars
with jihads and ISIS/ISIL.
educators and students should realize we place ourselves within contemporary
medieval worlds that we often visit in the present, such as medieval fairs and
Renaissance fairs or “Ren Fests,” which are anachronistic for many reasons,
least of which is that they visually blur and blend the High Middle Ages with
Elizabethan England and the European Renaissance. I (Author 1) studied the
history of the Middle Ages as a sixth-grade student in a project-based social
studies unit where I and my fellow classmates created and hosted a “medieval
faire” for the entire school (my contribution was learning to walk on stilts
and recite ballads and folk poems). A popular choice for some high school
history and/or British literature classes, Renaissance fairs allow visitors to
dress in robes, boots, and bodices and converse with strolling troubadours and
jolly court jesters. When I (Author 1) taught high school social studies and English
courses, I chaperoned a number of field trips to such fairs, often cringing at
what I perceived as historically inaccurate cross-periodizations of Elizabethan
England, medieval France, and 17th century swashbuckling seafarers
and pirates. Nonetheless, watching students marvel at medieval blacksmiths and
singing troubadours may make up for the lack of precise periodization.
We also consume medievalism when we
cheer on jousting knights while feasting on drumsticks and drinking frothy ales
at one of the Medieval Times Dinner and TournamentÒ locations throughout Canada
and the United States, notable for their scripted performance’s references to
the medieval worlds of the Iberian Peninsula in the characters of King Don
Carlos, Princes Catalina, and Lord Ulrich. These and other examples of medieval
worldbuilding at public events and themed amusement parks offer ample
opportunities for educators to have their students challenge the accuracy,
veracity, and legibility of medieval representations in these spaces, calling
upon students to think critically (and historically) about how such places and
spaces evoke and ‘use’ medievalism.
Finally, medievalism and fantasy as a genre
for fiction and popular culture is fully entangled. The many dragons, elves,
and giants in the fantasy franchise Dungeons & DragonsÒ have no existing evidence
in historical fact, but the bards, monks, and paladins of the fantasy
role-playing game are based on actually existing classes of people in the
medieval period. Indeed, paladins, (with a name that derives from Palantine, a Latin word for servant)
were high-ranking warriors in Charlemagne’s court (Freeman, 2017). The paladins
did not, however, roll multi-sided dice when engaged in battle to the best of
historians’ knowledge. Because representations of fire-breathing dragons often
appear in literature and other mass media in landscapes occupied with castles,
villages, dense forests, and feudal farms and fields. In the following section,
we investigate the play of the medieval in one example: Assassin’s Creed.
a global gaming market of $70.6 billion in 2012 to a soaring $121.7 in 2017,
the market for games and gamers is climbing at an exponential rate. Projections
for 2021 peak at over $180 billion dollars spent worldwide. Of the games
produced and developed, many carry a medieval theme that draws millions of
players each year. One game, Assassin’s
Creed serves as an example of how our students may confront medievalism in
their everyday lives. Operating as a medieval historical and science fiction
twist on real-world events, Assassin’s
Creed has sparked a franchise that as of September 2016 has sold over 100
million copies (Makuch, 2016). The latest of ten installments, Assassin’s Creed: Origins ranked as the
eighth bestselling game of 2017. Therefore, based upon these numbers and our
anecdotal experience of having middle and high school students express their
fandom for the video games series and its film adaptation, we use it as an
example of popular culture primed for some historical thinking about
of Assassin’s Creed
2007, the first Assassin’s Creed game
features a character, Desmond Miles, who is kidnapped by Absergo Industries.
This multinational corporate conglomerate forces Desmond to use a device called
an animus to (re)live the memories of his ancestors through memories stored in
his genes. He is thrown back in time to the twelfth century following the Third
Crusade to Masyaf Castle (an actual medieval castle in present-day Syria) where
he must live out the life of his ancestor who belongs to the Assassin Order.
The plot revolves around a historical conflict between the Assassins and the
Knights Templar, suggesting that students actively confront historical markers
and significance about the Knights Templar, the Crusades, and Holy Wars in
medieval Europe and what we now identify as the Middle East. In the video game,
the goal of the Templars is to create world peace by subjugating the human race
who they believe are incapable of ruling themselves without barbarism. The
assassins fight against this stripping of free will and believe in the progression
of new ideas and individuality. As a character in the game, the player
progresses the storyline of his forefather, learning more about the history of
the world and the conflict between the two factions (IGN, 2012).
As the player continues through the
game, Desmond finds out Absergo Industries is the modern face of the Knights
Templar who are attempting to have Desmond lead them to ancient objects of
power called Pieces of Eden. These artifacts were created by a primeval race of
Homo sapiens divinus, a highly
advanced humanoid species. This race, termed the Isu, genetically modified the
homo genus species in order to create a force of slave-labor. Using the Pieces
of Eden, devices interacting with neurotransmitters in the minds of humans,
they controlled humans until Adam and Eve escaped and began humanity as it is
known today. The epic battle between the Templars and Assassin Order
exists as a repercussion to the fall of the Isu and the eventual use of Pieces
of Eden by humans against humans. The Templars, believing freedom leads to
chaos, hope to use the artifacts to eliminate autonomy. The Assassins exist to
prevent that dream from becoming a reality (Assassin’s Creed Wiki, 2018).
the Knights Templar in Assassin’s Creed
Using the Assassin’s Creed plotline as a teaching tool for exploring
medievalism encourages teachers and students to enact a critical media literacy
with existing historical thinking skills and approaches. Throughout the
gameplay, many deaths of actually existing historical figures are changed to
assassinations to keep in with the themed narrative of the storyline.
Acknowledging this plot device as an adaptation of history helps students
identify historical errors, but also to be alert to when popular culture gets
the history of the Middle Ages right and when it gets it wrong. Shifting
students’ historical perspectives to view a real military order, the Knights
Templar, portrayed as a power-hungry collection of world dominating fanatics
can confuse and inspire conspiracy where no evidence is evident. The disbanding
of the Knights Templars in 1312 at the behest of Pope Clement V marks the end
of their historical timeline, despite, however, their continued presence in
(questionable) usage amongst contemporary subgroups and populations as
mentioned earlier in this article. This, unsurprisingly, takes on what we deem
to be a concerningly problematic stance within the video game. The
assassinations necessary to complete the game are made out to be necessary
evils in order to protect the human race from the Templars. The historical
record from the Middle Ages informs us that the real ‘assassins’ were a small
Muslim Shiite sect, the Nizari Ismailis. Known as heretics by both Sunnis and
Shiites, this group’s origin can be traced to immediately preceding the First
Crusade during the crisis of the Fatamid Caliphate (Liebel, 2009).
History in Assassin’s Creed
Almost all the historical content
in the movie is a complete fabrication. Claims that major players in history
such as Alexander the Great, Napoleon Bonaparte, Mahatma Gandhi, and Genghis
Khan used Pieces of Eden to further their agendas can leave players questioning
their understanding of historical reality. There are, however, two accurate
representations that can be used in the social studies classroom to help
further students’ understanding of medieval times and see medievalism in
First, as mentioned previously,
students can learn about the real Masyaf Castle. This castle exists in partial
ruin and is in modern day Syria near the Mediterranean Sea. It served as a base
of operations of sorts for a guild of assassins identified as the Nizari
Ismailis during and following the Third Crusade (1189-1192 CE). The game’s
developers worked tirelessly to make their depictions of main cities
(Jerusalem, Acre, and Damascus) as accurate as possible. Ubisoft hired a team
of historians to advise on their gameplay and narrativization to make sure the
layout and worldbuilding appear historically suitable. Using the game as an
exploration and inquiry tool would be an application of critical media literacy
for exploring medievalism in popular culture.
Standing alone without an educator
to intervene in offering some historical contextualization, Assassin’s Creed is, unsurprisingly, a
weak classroom resource for history and social studies educators. As an example
of medievalism for our students in the 21st century, it offers much
to consider, deconstruct, and critique. We argue the game can be used as a
springboard for students interested in history resulting from their engagement
in the game’s fictitious portrayals of historical events through elements of
historical fantasy and fiction. We urge educators to be cautious in discounting
the game’s appeal to student, suggesting instead that educators become more
alert to which aspects of medievalism appeal to our students and to find out
how and why. Expanding upon this foundation and using the inaccurate storyline
as a method for introducing historical accuracies could be exciting for
students. With ten games set in time periods ranging from Ptolemaic Egypt to
the American and French Revolutions to the Industrial Revolution and the
Russian Revolution, a curriculum created around something akin to “The Truth
Behind the Assassin’s Creed Histories”
could be an engaging and productive avenue for educators. The curriculum would
have the added benefit of exploring historically accurate renditions of cities
such as London, Venice, Florence, Alexandria, Memphis, Jerusalem, Spain,
Istanbul, and Paris.
In closing, we offer a final
thought from medievalist Jeffrey Jerome Cohen. The idea of the medieval and its
immortal memorialization and representation across our cultural, political, and
experiential encounters in everyday life can cultivate in students the idea
that the medieval is “alluringly strange” and also “discomfortingly familiar”
(Cohen, 2000, p. 3). It is something we hope will keep our students’ interests
in the past alive.
Arnold, J.H. (2008). What
is medieval history? Cambridge, MA: Polity Press.