Gaining New Insights Through Old Journals

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History and literature lecturer Bruce Thompson argues that historians are interested in two questions: how do we explain the emergence of the world as we know it? How do we see the lives of people who came before us on their own terms?

Thompson specializes in European history and has been answering both sets of questions through editing the diaries of his former humanities professor at Stanford University and leading historian in German history Gordon Craig. Co-edited with history lecturer Edward Kehler, the diaries display how a major scholar reacted to the historical events of the twentieth century as they unfolded, particularly in Germany. In the diaries, Craig reflected on what he saw in Hitler’s regime as well as Germany’s rise from the ashes of the Nazi occupation.

“Unlike most other sources, diaries and personal letters have the advantage of immediacy to unprecedented events,” Thompson said. “Craig’s entries have the same principle as a super intelligent blogger who had been actively blogging for 65 years. But now that diaries and letters are no longer the central genres of personal reflection and scrutiny as they were centuries ago, it is especially crucial for historians to look at the diaries of a distinguished intellectual that went on for a long period in history.”

Kehler said the distinction of Craig’s diaries from those of other individuals’ has to do with his training and erudition in cultural, diplomatic, and military history, and how he articulates these topics for both casual readers and specialists.

Thompson has been editing the diaries for 10 years with Kehler. The material amounts to approximately 40 volumes, some of which could range up to 300 pages, and the first series of excerpts are estimated to be published within the next three years. They would particularly focus on Craig’s direct responses to the unfolding crises and political issues.

The first entries of the diaries concern Craig’s trip in 1935 at age 23 to Nazi-occupied Germany from the U.S. on a scholarship. “I came to Germany prepared to correct impressions received from American newspaper,” reads a passage from Craig’s diaries. “To one who comes from a land where open criticism of the government is the spice which flavors the dinner, it is rather disconcerting to hear critics here lower their voices and to see them close the door carefully behind them before they speak.”

During his two-year sailing tour in a fellowship of students all around Germany–Berlin, Munich, Homburg, Dresden, Craig did more than just visit opera houses, beer halls, and other places of interest. He had spoken to Nazis, listened in on Nazi rallies and spent the rest of his life trying to figure out what went wrong in 20th century Germany.

“What was so shocking was that the party that would have been dismissed four years earlier as a lunatic fringe in politics had in 1933 come to power in the potentially most powerful country in Europe,” Thompson said. “Germany had come under the control of a leadership that unscrupulously used violence as an instrument of foreign and domestic policies.”

Craig approached the problem from different perspectives for over 60 years, constantly refining his interpretation of modern German history. In 2003 he concluded in his last essay on Hitler, “The Goblin at War,” that culture and politics in modern Germany were intertwined, and so highly-educated individuals were just as enamored of Hitler as other sectors of the population.

Thompson considers history as a principal way of understanding the world, for it provides individuals with the knowledge to make sense of their present. He said the diaries are a crucial source in understanding history because they reflect on experiences from a specific generation and offer readers perspectives that may differ from contemporary ones.

“Craig’s generation in 1935 had a powerful incentive to understand the ominous, threatening political and economic forces; the imminent crises having sharpened the minds of the people,” Thompson said. “But today, there is a widespread disillusionment with politics and a lack of confidence that the political system could deal with issues such as immigration or climate change. The diaries clearly make the distinction between the generations that we can’t ignore.”