Karl Marx two hundred years on


… Francesca Beddie visits Trier

The bicentenary of Karl Marx’s birth is being celebrated with gusto in the town where he was born on 5 May 1818. Trier is festooned with his portrait, the one taken in 1875 of the white haired, woolly bearded man we have come to know as the father of communism. When you cross the road, the pedestrian light uses that same image of the mature Karl Marx. You can buy Karl Marx cookie cutters and bicycle bells, postcards and snow domes, and you can go to several exhibitions that explain his life and philosophy.

At the city museum, Stages in a lifetime sets out to ‘avoid eulogy or denunciation’ of Marx; instead, it ‘sets out to paint as true a picture as possible of the man himself’. It uses contemporary documents and paintings to trace Marx’s life from childhood and youth in Trier, to his university years in Bonn and Berlin, his journalistic forays and periods of exile in France, his other travels for pleasure and business (including to relatives from whom he pleaded financial support), and finally to being an Ă©migrĂ© in London, where he died in 1883.

The exhibition starts not in 1818 nor with Marx but with data collected in the 1830s by the Prussian authorities to better understand the causes of poverty and ill-health in Trier. Seventy per cent of the town’s population was deemed poor or very poor. The interactive display allows the visitor to examine individual records of those designated as paupers, giving their addresses, age, working status, moral standing and family composition. Anna Mueller, 42, lived in Brittanien Street. She was classified as very poor, seen by the authorities as capable of work but ‘slatternly and depraved’. This would have influenced their decision not to give her alms. Peter Conterbach and his wife had six children. They were both said to be alcohol dependent. Their cramped, unhygienic living conditions made them particularly vulnerable to cholera. What the authorities did about this is not recorded. The Voltmar family faced the looming threat of having to pawn their belongings; Johann Zimmer was homeless with a small child. And so it goes on for 627 families. What a data set! And what a fascinating way to set the scene of the city where the young Marx grew into early adulthood!

Each of the subsequent rooms presents a mixture of paintings and documents arranged according to Marx’s circle of family, friends, teachers and colleagues. Jenny von Westphalen, his wife, also from Trier, features strongly throughout, as does Friedrich Engels, whom Marx met in 1842. In his letters, Marx addressed his friend ‘Dear Fred’ but continued in German.

As well as the poverty in cities being transformed by industrialisation, the exhibition reveals how Marx became sceptical about religion. His father, the son of a Rabbi, converted to Protestantism not out of faith but to protect his legal practice so that he could continue to provide for his family. This must have been in Marx’s mind when studying in Berlin he encountered Ludwig Feuerbach’s arguments about the idea of God as a human invention.

In one room hang two pictures of grieving parents. The audio guide describes these in detail before extrapolating their significance: the high incidence of infant mortality in the nineteenth century. We learn that, like so many, the Marx family was affected by high rates of infant mortality, losing four of their seven children. A voice reads from a letter written by Jenny describing the heartbreak of watching her eight-year-old son die.

All this material makes the visitor’s head spin with the same influences that Marx and Engels transformed into an analysis of capitalism and arguments for change. Volumes of The Communist Manifesto in German, ‘plain English’ and Braille are there to be thumbed through.

In the last room, the centrepiece is different: it is an oversize metal trunk standing open. Visitors can open the draws to see the artefacts of travel, then and now. Marx, a political refugee, was forced to move around Europe. He renounced his Prussian citizenship, rendering himself stateless. But he moved with his belongings, including furniture and books. The bottom drawer in the trunk contains a mobile phone, along with commentary that this represents the modern refugee’s most prized possession and one of the few they are able to carry with them.

The curators have been careful, perhaps too much so, to offer an answer to the question this bicentenary has posed: what is the relevance of Marx today? Instead, the exhibition ends disappointingly, with a series of pictures of those who followed the Marxist creed around the world over the short century of 20th century: Lenin, Stalin, Castro, and also Social Democrats like Willy Brandt. I don’t recall seeing Mao among the faces. He was probably there. Certainly, the Chinese have embraced the celebrations. It is they who donated the new 5.5 metre statue of Marx, unveiled at the 5 May bicentenary celebrations.

The Trier city council voted last year to accept the statue by Chinese artist Wu Weishan but added a resolution to their approval that cited the importance of observing human rights. The Mayor conceded that the decision was influenced by the fact that around 150,000 Chinese tourists visit Trier every year.

On your bike: the history of cycling in Sydney


… by Marc Rerceretnam

Social sports have always brought life to public spaces and our cities. For many people, sport is a crucial way to develop and maintain a sense of belonging. Sporting activities have also helped socialise communities. In a similar way, sporting clubs have traditionally been a positive force for social cohesion within various neighbourhoods.

Within the sport of cycling, clubs have fostered a climate of acceptance and tolerance, not only to accommodate the abilities of all members, regardless of gender, race or ability but also in face of external social and political environments that consciously or unconsciously sometimes cause or support discrimination.

Cycling clubs in Sydney have a long but largely forgotten history starting in at least 1831. Overshadowed by other sports, cycling has survived largely on the peripheries of Sydney’s sporting codes.

The early formation and popularity of bicycle clubs in Australia often closely reflected the costs of buying a bicycle. In the 1860s it was a pastime for the rich and affluent; by the 1890s it widened to include the middle classes. However, by the turn of the twentieth century, the rich and middle classes became smitten with new motorised transportation like automobiles and motorcycles and bicycles became the vehicle of the working classes. Cycling clubs flourished throughout the Sydney social landscape until the 1960s and 1970s, when bicycle users turned away from the low-tech bicycle, looking to the automobile, whose price was now in reach for many more people.

PHA member Marc Rerceretnam is curating an exhibition on the history of Sydney cycling which also commemorates the 110th anniversary of Sydney’s Dulwich Hill Bicycle Club (DHBC). The DHBC established a racing tradition, which has continued through the decades with the formation of various race teams and participation in major race events like the Goulburn-Sydney race, an annual event started in 1902.

The exhibition is called ‘On Your Bike’ and covers the history of cycling in Sydney over its 188-year history. It will display lovingly preserved and rarely seen cycling and club photographs, ephemera and vintage bikes from the Sydney’s cycling heyday, before cars pushed bikes off the road. Much of the information used in the display relies on Marc’s recent publications on the history of bicycle clubs (published in the Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society, December 2017), the early manufacture and use of bicycles in Australia (paper to be presented at the International Cycling History Conference, London, June 2018).  Marc has since written another research piece outlining the dynamics of bicycle businesses in Sydney from the 1850s to the 1950s (to be published in Sporting Traditions, November 2018).

The Inner West Council is hosting the exhibition from 10 to14 May 2018 at the Stirrup Gallery, 142 Addison Road Community Centre, Addison Road, Marrickville. Entry is free and open to the public. There is an official welcome on Sunday 13 May at 10.30am. To attend the welcome event book online at www.innerwestlibraries.eventbrite.com.au. 

[Illustration: Opening of 1888 cycling season. ‘The Sports of Australia-Cycling’. Illustrated Sydney News, 26 July 1888]

Anzac Day 2018: the final year of the WWI centenary commemorations


… by Francesca Beddie

‘War commemoration is now a modern industry tied to family, nation and the emotional life, and Villers-Bretonneux is a measure of its cosmopolitanism. Small parts of the world belong to Australia by dint of commemorative grant, by blood, by graveyards.’ So writes The Australian’s editor-at-large Paul Kelly ahead of the centenary of the battle of Villers-Bretonneux. It is estimated 8000 people will attend this year’s dawn service on 25 April 2018 at the Australian National Memorial situated next to the Villers-Bretonneux Military Cemetery in France. Tours from Australia are booked out for the last Anzac Day  of  the centenary commemorations and the opening of the Sir John Monash Centre by Prime Minister Turnbull. The centre was his predecessor’s idea. Mr Abbott wanted, Kelly says, ‘to revive the historical memory of the Western Front as the greatest focus of human sacrifice and military achievement in our history’.

What happened a hundred years ago? In April 1918, Australian units helped defend Villers-Bretonneux from a German onslaught. At dawn on 24 April the Germans attacked and captured the town. Leading the British counter attack, the Australian 13 and 15 Brigades enveloped the town and successfully cleared it of Germans on 25 April, the third anniversary of the Anzac landings at Gallipoli. This action effectively ended the German offensive.

To keep the historical memory alive, the Sir John Monash Centre tells Australia’s story of the Western Front in the words of those who served:

This cutting-edge multimedia centre reveals the Australian Western Front experience through a series of interactive media installations and immersive experiences. The SJMC App, downloaded on each visitor’s personal mobile device, acts as a ‘virtual tour guide’ over the Villers-Bretonneux Military Cemetery, the Australian National Memorial and the Sir John Monash Centre.

The experience is designed so visitors gain a better understanding of the journey of ordinary Australians — told in their own voices through letters, diaries and life-size images — and connect with the places they fought and died. A visit to the Sir John Monash Centre will be a moving experience that leaves a lasting impression.

In principle this sounds good but we do need to ask the question whether the $99-million price tag can be justified at a time when at home national institutions like the National Library and National Archives have faced years of budget cuts. Moreover, some historians have questioned the quality of the historical interpretation. Professor Bruce Scates​, who will be giving the keynote address at this year’s PHA conference, Marking Time (see below), resigned from being a consultant on the project because he was worried the centre would convey too warm and fuzzy a picture of the war. A complete picture would also need to include dissenters like Arthur Rae. Rae was a Labor politician who lost two of three sons to the war. One, Billy, is buried at Villers-Bretonneux, under the lament ‘for what’. Rae had argued bitterly against Australia’s participation in the conflict and plans for conscription at home, only to be branded a traitor, tearing the family apart.

Nostalgia and commemoration instead of history is a recurring theme in the debate about what Anzac Day means and how war should be remembered. On our blog, in 2015 Caroline Adams  a member of the PHA South Australia suggested professional historians could offer insightful and contextualised accounts of history, which offered more than ‘digger stories’ and ‘nursing angels’. And last year, PHA NSW member Ian Willis wrote about the contested nature of Anzac:

Anzac is a fusion of cultural processes over many decades and it has been grown into something bigger than itself.

In August this year, professional historians will reflect further on the four-year-long commemoration of World War I at our biennial conference. Marking Time will be held at the NSW State Library on 30 and 31 August. The conference will also explore the changing ways in which we mark time and interpret events through tradition and new media in the 21st century. The call for papers is now closed. Successful paper givers will be notified by the end of April. The full program will be available from the middle of May

Five minutes with…Martina Muller


Martina Muller recently set up her own business, Storialines. Storialines provides historical research and interpretation services to the heritage sector, local councils and other clients in  Greater Sydney and New South Wales. Martina also works as a historian at a heritage consultancy firm in Sydney.

What made you decide to pursue a career in history?

I never made a conscious decision to become a historian but I am extremely happy about the way things have worked out for me.  After realising that I was too much of an introvert to enjoy teaching (I started out as a primary school teacher in Switzerland), I decided that anything involving a lot of writing and reading would suit me. I ended up studying Classical Archaeology, even though I knew that career opportunities would likely be limited. After migrating to Australia and writing a PhD, I was lucky to get a job as a heritage consultant. The transition into heritage consulting was quite easy, as my PhD thesis had focused on the interpretation and presentation of Roman buildings at archaeological sites in Western Europe (research-repository.uwa.edu.au/files/3217875/Mueller-Zaugg_Martina-Sara_2012.pdf) and I was already acquainted with the current guidelines on heritage conservation and site interpretation, including the Burra Charter which provides the best practice standard for managing cultural heritage places in Australia. Fortunately, my boss quickly realised that I was much more interested in research than in the more tedious aspects of report writing and was happy for me to focus on historical work.

Who is the audience for your history?

I mostly research the history of heritage-listed buildings and sites and write historical summaries that are included in Conservation Management Plans and Statements of Heritage Impact. The histories are generally used as a basis to assess the significance of sites, which in turn informs the decisions made for altering significant places. In theory, the audience includes property owners, architects, developers and Council officers. While I have wondered if anyone ever reads those histories, I have had some very uplifting feedback from architects or owners who said they were fascinated by the background stories that came out of my research.

What’s your favourite historical source, book, website or film?

To be honest, I mostly read fiction as my reading usually happens on the train and I need something easy. Among the non-fiction books that I could not put down are In Cold Blood by Truman Capote and Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer.  Trove is a wonderful website. I also get quite excited about old photographs of buildings and streetscapes. It is amazing what you can find by looking at digitised images, and sometimes they are simply works of art in themselves.

Why is history important today?

Because it shows us who we are, and it is fun.

The Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras is 40!


Nicole Cama talks about the 40th anniversary of the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras. (The following is an edited article, which first appeared on The Dictionary of Sydney website. It accompanies a podcast of Nicole talking to Nic Healy from 2SER Breakfast.)

The first Mardi Gras parade in Sydney was held on 24 June 1978, part of a worldwide International Gay Solidarity day to commemorate the Stonewall riots in New York that had happened in 1969. After a day of festivities, about 1000 people gathered at Taylor Square at 9.30 pm to make their way down Oxford Street to Hyde Park. As the parade arrived at Whitlam Square, the police, who had given permission for the parade to take place, intervened, confiscating the lead truck and telling the crowd to disperse. The now angry crowd marched up William Street to Darlinghurst where they clashed with police and ‘a two-hour spree of screaming, bashing and arrests‘ followed, and 53 people were arrested amid many reports of police brutality.

It wasn’t until 2016 that a formal apology was made by the New South Wales police for the events of 1978, and this year for the first time, New South Wales Police have raised the rainbow flag, in honour of the parade’s 40th anniversary and a symbol of solidarity with the LGBTQI community, outside the Sydney Police Centre.

The Sydney Mardi Gras is now one of the largest festivals of its kind in the world, and an important and much-loved part of this city’s history and culture.

The City of Sydney history team has been working with Sydney’s Pride History Group to update the Oxford Street walking tour on their Culture Walks app. It now focuses entirely on the area’s LGBTQI history. Called Parade, it’s available for download for mobile devices via the app here. The 21 stops on the tour also contain excerpts from oral histories compiled by the Pride group and articles in the Dictionary of Sydney. Take the tour and listen to stories about bars like Patch’s and Ruby Reds, both sanctuaries for gay and lesbian people. Or the Gay and Lesbian Holocaust Memorial in Green Park, which commemorates the homosexual men and women who were tortured, murdered and persecuted in Nazi Germany. You can do the tour remotely too, just by following along with the stops.

In conjunction with this year’s Mardi Gras, Surry Hills’ TAP Art Gallery  had a multimedia display called Serving in Silence, which explored LGBTQI service in the Australian Defence Force since World War II. One story that struck me was Yvonne Sillett’s, who joined the Women’s Royal Australian Army Corps in 1979 and rose up in the ranks with a top security clearance, only to be dismissed after her sexuality was exposed and after 10 years of service. Stories like these are not uncommon, and did not happen long ago. It’s important to hear these stories and to be aware of the contemporary relevance and how much still needs to change.

Read more on the Dictionary of Sydney, starting with historian and 78er Garry Wotherspoon‘s entry on Mardi Gras and follow the links and subjects to more: https://dictionaryofsydney.org/entry/gay_and_lesbian_mardi_gras

From the editor:

Garry Wotherspoon was a 78er who marched in the first Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras. From 1980 to 1988 he conducted oral histories to record the memories of gay men (and two women) about the underground years of gay culture. These interviews formed the basis of Wotherspooon’s City of the Plain, a history of Sydney’s gay subculture.

The State Library of NSW has released the interviews on its oral history website, Amplify, where you will also find black and white and colour digital images by Sydney photographer Geoff Friend.


Image: Mardi Gras in Sydney Australia  3 March 2013, 19:01:24 Source https://www.flickr.com/photos/hasitha_tudugalle/8524007650/