The Writing Book is Finally in Production!

And there’s a cover! The book is in production and we’re hoping it will be out in time to be browsed at AHA 2020 in NYC (where you should also come find me at my roundtable on teaching writing in the history classroom, with Jennifer Foray, Catherine Denial, Kevin Gannon, and Carolyn Levy!). That means it should also hopefully be out in time for course adoption in 2020. If you want to check it out before the official review copies are ready, drop me a line!

More details here

Like the book on Facebook for updates!

Or follow #EGWHE on Twitter (or me: @kpanyc)

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Off to Russia again!

I’m delighted to say I’ve been awarded funding to complete the research for my second monograph, so I’ll soon be off to St. Petersburg for six months of intensive archive work. So happy to finally be moving forward on this project I’m very excited about!

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What I’m Reading

Hey look – that’s me:

History News Network: What I’m Reading, An Interview with Russianist Historian Katherine Antonova

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List to this podcast

Listen to my husband talk about his book, Bankrupts and Usurers of Imperial Russia: Debt, Property, and the Law in the Age of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy on the podcast from Sean’s Russia Blog. 

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My dad is running for the New Hampshire House!

I’m very proud and excited to announce that my dad is running for the New Hampshire House! This is not only his first time running for any office, but I’m pretty sure it’s the first time he ever imagined doing such a thing. But we all need to do our part to make a difference! If you or someone you know lives in the Hillsborough 3 district in New Hampshire, please consider voting for him!

Update: Readers, he won!

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The Writing Book Is Done!

Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons. Carl von Bergen. Illustrierter Katalog der Münchener Jahresausstellung von Kunstwerken Aller Nationen im kgl. Glaspalaste 1891, 3. Auflage, ausgegeben am 24. Juli, München 1891 (Digitalisat der BSB)[/caption]


After 18 years and 136,771 words, I’m delighted to say I finally finished the book on writing for the history classroom that I’ve been gradually putting together since my days as a grad student TA doing emergency writing workshops.

However, due to various publishing delays it doesn’t look like it’ll be out in time for course adoption next academic year, at least not fall semester. Faculty who would like an advanced look before review copies are available can email me, or check out the twitter hashtag #SGWH (based on the old title, which is still subject to change!) for excerpts. In addition, please read (and pass around!) this 1-page PDF summary of the book: Antonova-EGWH-summary. And here’s the full table of contents (PDF): Antonova-EGWH-TOC

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Chikhachev family photos

Check out this blog post about the Chikhachevs and their village, Dorozhaevo! It’s full of amazing photos of the house and property today and also some historical family photos. As far as I can tell, the family photos all date from after 1900, and are probably mostly from the 1910s. The elegant gentleman with the small chin and pointy beard is Kostya, Konstantin Alekseevich Chikhachev, the grandson of the Natalia and Andrei who are the main subjects of my book. Kostya’s daughter Elena (who reportedly helped turn the house into a school after the Revolution and taught there until her marriage) is also easy to spot – she’s the one in the portrait with a dog on her lap, and she’s tall with blond hair. She was in her 20s in the 1910s. The interior photo of four people on a sofa with flowered wallpaper behind them is a bit of a mystery – the older man is probably Kostya, born in 1854 (d. 1918) and the older lady next to him may be his wife, Olga. Of the younger men in these photos, one may be Kostia’s son Aleksandr, who would have been in his 30s and likely married, such that one of the women pictured may be his wife, and Anatolii, just two years older than Elena.

Chikhachev family photo, probably 1910s.

What I am most struck by, though, are the daguerrotype portraits of a man and woman on the wall in the background of the interior photo. Andrei and Natalia had daguerrotype portraits of themselves done in 1842. Though it’s difficult to discern any details, the man in the daguerrotype seems to have sideburns but no moustache and no spectacles, which Andrei described himself as having at that time. There’s no way to be certain – unless of course the originals turn up somewhere someday! Andrei and Natalia also had a family portrait painted by a local artist, Ivan Ilich Orekhov, in 1831, that I also hope might surface someday, especially once the book appears in Russian, and I’m happy to say the translation is well underway now!
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Op-Ed in the Washington Post on the humanities and the history of higher education

Please read and share!

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About Those Who “Abhor Violence” in People Protesting Fascism

Here’s a tweetstorm and the more easily read and shared version on Storify for those who don’t do Twitter. Warning! Strong language in this one.

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Fighting Misinformation Online

Here’s the original Tweetstorm and for those who don’t Twitter, you can read it easily on Storify.


Here’s a handy meme to use on your social media:

Misinformation Alert

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Monuments are Not History (Read a Book!)

This was posted as a tweetstorm – if you don’t Twitter, you can read it easily on Storify.

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Thoughts on Charlottesville

Bill Anstruther-Gray's letter to the editor of the Times of London on July 7, 1934, about the Olympia rally.

Bill Anstruther-Gray’s letter to the editor of the Times of London on June 7, 1934, about the Olympia rally.

On Twitter and Storify.

UPDATE! Now on the Washington Post! Their new “Made By History” column is fantastic, by the way, and I recommend becoming a regular reader of it. If you have a .edu email address, you can get an online subscription for free (google it for instructions on how to do that).

Interesting historical tidbits I couldn’t fit into the column: Unity and Diana Mitford were both fascists – Diana married Oswald Mosley 2 years after the letter I quoted, and though they were both in prison in Britain during the war, they lived long after and remained unrepentant. Unity ended up becoming a close confidant of Hitler, but shot herself in the head when war broke out between Britain and Germany. She lived for a few years, but lost her faculties. Their other sister, Jessica, was a Communist. In 1936 she eloped with Esmond Romilly and they ran away to Spain, then later to the US. Romilly was one of the Communists who went to the Olympia rally to protest it.

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Op-Ed on the Huffington Post

I’m really delighted to announce that my Twitter threadzilla on conservatism from a couple weeks ago has been transformed into an op-ed on the Huffington Post. It’s now polished up, beautifully edited by HuffPo, and ready to share easily! Please do so!

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Your reading for today

Every once in a while you come across one of those things that makes you see the world more clearly, and it becomes part of you from that moment on. I had that experience recently when I read this beautiful essay by Frances Flanagan. Make yourself a nice beverage, sit down, and savor it.

I was privileged to be introduced to this amazing piece by Kate Fullagar, another historian and fantastic writer, who connected Flanagan’s piece with a tweetstorm of mine about higher education. She makes the case for the connection between the two here.

I’m working now to re-write the tweetstorm into something more polished, and will let you know where to find that when the time comes. UPDATE: a portion of the original tweetstorm is now on the Washington Post!

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What is a Russianist?

I tweeted a long thread today on what Russianist training looks like and the various levels of Russia “specialists.” It’s storified here.

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Paperback edition of _An Ordinary Marriage_ is out!


I’m very excited to announce that my first book, An Ordinary Marriage: The World of a Gentry Family in Provincial Russia (Oxford University Press, 2013) is now available in paperback!

OUP has regular seasonal sales you might look out for. It’s also available from all the usual sellers, including Amazon.

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Previews of a Student’s Guide to Writing History

I’ve only recently submitted the full manuscript of my upcoming book on writing for students taking history courses. It won’t appear until 2018, but in the meantime I’ll be occasionally tweeting short excerpts. Find them with the hashtag #SGWH and follow me on Twitter: @kpanyc.

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The Past and Future of Higher Education

I indulged in a Sunday afternoon tweet storm of massive proportions today. You can read it all here.

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Humans of the Academy

I’m very pleased to announce that I’ve been involved with some friends in launching a new website called Humans of the Academy. This site offers regular profiles of ordinary humans who work throughout the academy. Its purpose is to show who we really are, what we do, and why we do it. Too often the public hears only media stereotypes or assumes that the person behind the lectern (or the grade) is all there is to us. Please take a little time to get to know some real academics.

You can follow posts through all the major social media platforms:

Twitter: @AcademicHumans

If you’re an academic yourself, please contribute your own profile! It’s easy and quick! Anyone who self-identifies as an academic – current, former, or aspiring – is invited to contribute. Just click here to fill out the form!

The site is still in beta now – we hope to gather more submissions over the summer and do a bigger, more formal launch in the fall.

Pass it on!

Any questions can be directed to academichumans at gmail dot com

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The Chikhachev estate could be yours

The provincial estate, Dorozhaevo, at the center of my first monograph, An Ordinary Marriage: The World of a Gentry Family in Provincial Russia, is now up for sale. Amazing photographs of it available here, too. Compare this with the images and maps here on my site.

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Storified Tweets

I’ve been putting what little spare time I have lately to keeping up with incredibly fast-moving events on Twitter, and have Tweet-stormed some thoughts there on how history is being used and misused that should by rights probably have been composed for this blog instead. Those threads have been storified, which is about as close to making them blog-friendly as I can do at the moment. If you’re interested, you can find them here.



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20 Ways to Fight American Fascism

1. Stand up for truth. Call a spade a spade every time, even when it’s awkward or uncomfortable.

2. Model best practices by following evidence and reasoning regardless of the source or your own prejudices. Be transparent about how you do this, so others can learn.

3. Program your phone with the numbers of your representatives and GOP moderates, plus those those facing 2018 challenges. Make calls part of your routine. Find lists of numbers and scripts if that helps.

4. Amplify the truth by sharing it all over social media, including with your friends who live in bubbles. Share solid stuff, ignore propaganda sites even when they’re from your side.

5. When you see media defending facts and investigating properly, support them. Write to complain when they don’t.

6. Divest personally and professionally from dishonest and immoral outlets, give money and time to fighters for truth and justice

7. Pressure/support cultural and political leaders to set good examples by standing up for truth and resisting greed & self-interest. Be especially kind and supportive to any Republicans who stand up to Trump or support investigations of the new regime.

8. When you block someone from your social media for supporting hate or lies, say, “this crosses a moral line for me” not “I disagree” (or the equivalent)

9. Help others to notice when they’re supporting American Fascism and find ways to help them stop (follow @slpng_giants)

10. Take whatever you’re good at and find ways to apply it in fighting American Fascism

11. Agenda 2018: Campaign against vulnerable pro-Trump Republicans starting NOW. Offer your support to Republicans who support investigating Trump.

12: Agenda 2020: follow possible Democratic candidates starting NOW, and give money, time, and attention to those you like best.

13. Help get IDs to voters, build infrastructure to provide rides, childcare, & other support on election days.

14. Run for local office, find & support others to run for local office. Know your local candidates.

15. Use apps to make it easy to comment, write editors, sign petitions, etc – save text to copy & paste, bookmark, etc. Make it part of your routine so you can keep it up long-term.

16.  Focus on goals, not squabbling about small issues. Work with allies without demanding purity or 100% agreement.

17. Let’s have less gawping at stupid people and trolls, more focusing on crimes and investigations. Make the system work.

18. Use humor, but remember to aim upwards, at the leaders and the power-holders.

19. Be careful, not cynical. Let’s not be the source of our own defeat by not believing change is possible.

20. Learn history: believe people who tell you who they are; the only constant is change; activism works

Please share.


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History Happening Now: 2017 Women’s March

The scale of today’s Women’s March is probably unprecedented in the US and perhaps also as a global event. What I tell my students when we talk about historical protests is to think about what is involved in traveling, taking time away from other obligations, enduring physical discomfort and strain, and accepting some degree of risk, in order to go out and participate in a protest event. Protesting is a lot harder than voting, and much harder still than sharing a post on Facebook, signing a petition, or re-tweeting. Attending a protest is a statement, and a fairly big one as statements go, no matter what the scale of the protest or what it’s about.


In a “safe” society with guaranteed rights of protest, you’ll get smallish numbers of people out to protest many issues, many times a year. Those kinds of protests tell historians what kinds of issues people care about, and are an essential function of democracy, because they also help to inform public debate about what matters to ordinary citizens.

When protests are bigger than that, they tell us that the issue driving them is a real stand-out, motivating people far more than other, competing issues. But even with fairly large protests in orderly democratic countries, we generally expect protesters to be the kind of people who are most invested in activism, so while their actions are certainly meaningful, and tell us where activism is directed in a society, they are just one kind of voice historians look for in trying to understand a whole society.

It’s a different thing when people protest in regimes where just walking the streets with a sign can expose you to serious legal penalties (not just a temporary arrest) or even direct violence. Those are protests that tell us an issue is so important that large numbers of people are willing to die for it. Those kinds have protests tend to change history, though the direction of change is wildly unpredictable.

What happened today recalls other historical events, most notably the March on Washington of 1963, as well as others around the world and across time. The numbers were simply astronomical, as we can see from the photos of crowds and the number of locations where these kinds of crowds came out. It’s too early to rank it precisely, but it was huge, broad, diverse, and peaceful. We can say that these protests happened in places where the cost of protesting was relatively low, but it is worth noting that in the US today the possible costs of protesting were perhaps less predictable than they have ever been in our entire history of democratic protest. We know that violence is possible here, because it has happened before, and we know violence was implied this time, and we have a leadership that has signaled in various ways that it is both hostile to opposition and open to unprecedented acts. Yet people came out anyway. We can also say that when this many people buy train and plane tickets, take time away from work and family, and pack for a day of marching without reliable access to food, water, or other necessities, that these people are serious and highly motivated, and that the sheer scale of it indicates a significant event in American history.

We’ve had other really important protests. But this isn’t a repeat of any of those, it’s a new one in the series of really important protests of American history.

What happened today was also much bigger than American history, because it happened all over the world. The fact that people who are not American citizens took a day of their lives and put up with a lot of expense and discomfort in order to make a statement indicates both that the rest of the world is deeply worried about how the recent US presidential election might affect them, but also that what happened in the US is part of a larger global phenomenon that is worrisome to people all over the world.

What is the message being sent by these protests around the world? The way historians would teach it to students a hundred years later is to say: look at the evidence. What do the participants say? What are they responding to? Who are they?

What even the least prepared undergraduate would be able to say a hundred years from now is that the protest was organized by and for women, in response to Trump’s inauguration as US president. And that Trump’s presidency represents such a threat to women that unprecedented numbers of them came out to be heard — far more than the number of people who came out to celebrate Trump’s inauguration (precise numbers are not yet available as I write this, but the photographic evidence is abundant enough to be undeniable).

What some future instructor will try to tease out of those students is context: what was happening to American women that made Trump such a threat? Students would point out that American women in 2017 had it pretty good, especially compared to women in other parts of the globe at that time, or pretty much any women who had ever lived previously.

But with a little prodding, those students might also remember how very recently American women had fought even for the right to work at all, or to get an education, to control their own bodies, to make their own choices in life as adults despite being born female. They will remember how those battles were still not complete in 2015, and that when Trump appeared on the scene in a serious way in 2016, it was on a platform of explicitly turning back the clock and reversing those hard-won battles. Every privilege that is thrown in the face of the women protesting on January 21, 2017 to undermine her right to protest is exactly what she is out there to defend for herself, for her daughters and mothers and sisters, and for women around the world.

Students may also be prodded to note that part of people’s fears in 2017 was the rise of an American neo-fascism. Having seen this before, relatively recently, and knowing that it was perhaps the single most costly calamity that humanity has ever wrought on itself, many people are jumping to resist it before it can take firm hold simply because they have learned the lessons of history.

This is usually the point where the instructor tells students to look more closely at the images of the protest, and really ask who is there, beyond the people indicated by the name of the event. Students will see men, and children, and the fact that the people depicted represent the full range of religious and ethnic diversity of the populations they sprang from. Students will note that this protest is more diverse than earlier feminist actions. At the same time, the dominance of women in the organization and message recalls revolutionary women’s bread riots of earlier centuries.

Putting all this evidence together, we can see that this protest is unique, and making history in its own way.

Perhaps some advanced students, in their essays, might go even further and explore some of the “rhetoric” or “reception” surrounding this event (profs love rhetoric and reception). They might note the theme of cynicism running through the commentary even of people who are on the same political side as the protestors: while unprecedented numbers march all over the globe, others wonder whether the march means anything, whether it’s enough, whether it’s really what it seems, and whether it will be followed by further “engagement,” totally missing the fact that this is already the biggest show of engagement of this kind ever seen, and is in itself already a difference. A student might write a really interesting essay on this interplay between renewed political activism and still-prevalent cynicism hanging on from an earlier period, but we don’t know where that essay will go because right now we are still living these events.

Another student might look at the bizarre unreality of the opposing party and partisan or confused media commentary on the protests, noting that they denied abundant evidence of the scale of the event and attempted to undermine its message by demeaning and ridiculing participants, often lying to make their points. Hopefully a hundred years from now we’ll be in a world where factual reality is acknowledged and accepted, and students will marvel that what we are seeing in conventional and social media today was ever possible. Their professor will work really hard to try to make them understand the power of confirmation bias and how deeply many ordinary people had confused cause and effect, so that they actually railed at their fellow victims instead of their persecutors.

But who knows.

We can’t even know if history will still be written and taught a hundred years from now. Not long ago it would have been hard to imagine that practices common to our culture for centuries could disappear so quickly, but the Information Age is still in its infancy, and these early growth pains are both ugly and astonishingly strong. Truth, facts, reality, evidence, common sense, and “universal” morality cannot currently be taken for granted in the very cultures that have defined themselves (with infamous hypocrisy) as the cradle of civilization. That is something we have seen before in slightly different form, and precisely because we have seen it before and know where it can lead, many are determined to stand up and say they do not consent from the start.

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Now Available in Paperback!

A Consumer's Guide to Information by Katherine Pickering Antonova

A Consumer’s Guide to Information by Katherine Pickering Antonova

A Consumer’s Guide to Information is now fully released everywhere it’s going to be – you can buy it in paperback from Amazon or in eBook from most eBook distributors, including Barnes & Noble and iTunes as well as Amazon. Available in the eBook format of your choice directly from

The purpose of this book is to help people navigate information more reliably. I self-published it to make it available as quickly and cheaply as possible. Please help me bring it to more readers by sharing, rating, reviewing, and “liking” the book on whatever sites you use! Like it on Facebook for continued updates.

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Consuming Information

A Consumer's Guide to Information: How to Avoid Losing Your Mind on the Internet, by Katherine Pickering Antonova

A Consumer’s Guide to Information: How to Avoid Losing Your Mind on the Internet, by Katherine Pickering Antonova

I did something completely unplanned and unscheduled: I wrote an extra book. It’s about using basic critical thinking skills to navigate the information revolution.

It was inspired primarily by the recent Stanford study about the difficulty young people have distinguishing fake news from real. This reflects problems I see in my students every day, but in many other places, too. There is increasing awareness about fake news and viral guides to avoiding it, but I believe the problem is a much wider one, where many of us (not just young people!) have trouble navigating the constantly changing landscape of the information revolution we’re just beginning to recognize is moving the earth beneath our feet.

The book is about spotting fake news, but also problems in real news and weaknesses in articles presenting opinion and analysis. It’s about interacting with people online productively, and safely. It’s about not getting conned, and keeping our sanity. I believe that all these skills are interrelated, and that as important as it is to realize how much of what we see online is “fake,” it’s much more important to think critically about all the ways we process information.

I have published it via Amazon and Smashwords in order to make it available as quickly and widely as possible at the lowest price point. Please check it out, and if you like it, review it, rate it, and recommend it to your friends!

Amazon link (Kindle only for now; paperback available soon)

Smashwords link (ebooks in all formats)

It will also soon be distributed through iBooks and most other ebook vendors.

Like the Facebook page for updates!

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Historical Analogies: A Difficult Game

This has been a season of historical analogies in the press and on social media. The thing is, as pretty much any scholarly historian will tell you, historical analogies are an incredibly tricky thing and almost no one gets them right. I advise my undergraduates to just avoid them altogether, and professional historians use them carefully, with carefully defined limits.

Historians as a group tend to abhor making predictions, and the Hitler analogy, of all analogies, is both the most ridiculed and the most sacred, in the sense that serious people tend to feel strongly that it can’t ever be a fair comparison. Yet, one of the many extraordinary things about our current moment is that a number of prominent historians of fascism have publicly agreed, with due qualifications, that there are some comparisons to be made between Donald Trump’s campaign for the presidency and interwar European fascism. So what’s going on here?

History does not repeat itself,

and no one is saying it does

First: absolutely no one is seriously suggesting that Trump = Hitler, that history is going to repeat itself, that we are doomed to another WWII and Holocaust, or anything like that. This is the sort of thing that makes me want to bang my head repeatedly into a wall. NO ONE with any pretensions to seriousness would ever say this, let alone a historian. So if you think someone is saying this, maybe pause and consider whether you’re possibly missing their real point.

Analogies are not predictions

Second: historical analogies can be useful, but not as a prediction. Mark Twain said that “history doesn’t repeat itself, but sometimes it rhymes.” The purpose of historical analogies is not to predict that the future will resemble a point in the past, but to use the mental exercise of comparing and contrasting two situations point by point in order to jerk us out of our human tendency to experience the present and both inevitable and stable (more on this here). The idea that Francis Fukuyama (a political scientist) put forward after the Cold War, that we had reached an “end to history,” was obviously false. History does not end any more than it repeats itself. But because it is very difficult for us to imagine change clearly, it can help to look to how changes have occurred before.

The first key to doing a historical analogy well–after you’ve clarified that your goal is to understand the parameters of possibility rather than to turn back the clock–is to make specific comparisons between apples and apples. This is the main way that most attempts at analogy break down.

For example, we can’t compare a present-day demagogue during his rise to power with Hitler at the height of World War II and the Holocaust, though I have seen observers assume this is what is meant by the comparison. We can’t compare one demagogue himself with the followers or associated movement of a different demagogue. If we’re going to compare, we compare the rise to power to the rise to power, followers to followers or leader to leader. You get the idea.

You don’t need, and can’t have, a perfect match

It’s also a fallacy to believe that the only good analogy is one that matches exactly on every point. For one thing, no analogy ever can match on every point. But what’s even more important to understand is that we can learn from both the points of comparison and the points of contrast. It’s a mental exercise meant to help us see new factors and perspectives, not an attempt to find the most perfect match in order to earn points in an argument on the internet.

Now for a couple of my own examples of ways that historical analogies can be useful.

Top-down to top-down analogy: Trump and Gabriele D’Annunzio

Obviously, we don’t yet know what Trump will do once in power. We do know that he has invoked rhetoric and tactics, apparently knowingly, from fascist leaders. But imitating a fascist because their methods work is not the same as being a fascist, any more than Melania Trump copying Michelle Obama’s speech made Melania similar to Michelle in any meaningful way.

Most interwar fascist dictators appeared to be completely sincere and dedicated to their causes, and certainly worked hard at meeting their policy goals. I don’t see any plausible parallels with Trump there. While Trump has expressed racist and nativist views and failed to renounce endorsements of him by avowed white supremacists, and his racism does take the particular form of scapegoating minorities for the economic and political disappointments of working- and middle-class people, he’s not operating in an environment following a world war, there is no realistic threat of socialism driving his agenda, and his attitude seems both non-ideological and casual. His attitude toward women is also quite different, in a variety of ways. He has not so far shown the military ambition characteristic of true fascism, although his views on foreign policy, if acted on, would be a frighteningly unstable influence on the world stage. Economic comparisons are probably the most complicated, especially because Trump hasn’t yet shown a consistent economic stance.

On the other hand, since most of the public doesn’t realize that European fascist leaders typically came to power through democratic elections, this point of comparison is worth publicizing widely. Second, while American politics have seen unsavory characters before, this level of open, unabashed racism, homophobia and misogyny being this successful on a national stage is new, and that fact has significant implications and should not be minimized. Third, Trump’s treatment of the media does parallel fascist attitudes and should be a cause for serious concern as a threat to the constitutional right to a free press.

More specifically, there is one man most people haven’t heard of who I think is interestingly similar on a few key points. Gabriele D’Annunzio began the process that eventually became Italian fascism under Benito Mussolini. Unlike Trump, he was an apparently talented writer who enjoyed a successful literary career before turning to politics. Like Trump, however, he dabbled in politics without apparently fully intending to pursue a government role, but nevertheless became the enthusiastic and galvanizing figurehead of an ultra-nationalist movement based on resentment and anger, that culminated in the taking over of the city of Fiume. He’s seen as paving the way and setting the tone for Mussolini. He was also an inconsistent, volatile womanizer, and was probably partaking in considerable recreational drugs. He fell off a balcony while partying with a mistress, putting an end to his political career. For more about D’Annunzio and the context in which that all happened, I recommend the excellent book Fascist Voices by Christopher Duggan.

So far Trump shows none of the military fetishism of D’Annunzio (and other fascists) and let’s hope he doesn’t begin to do so, although he does talk about violence with the gleeful casualness that is familiar to the student of fascism. But the volatility and charismatic whipping up of public resentment and then leaving the scene, opening a path for — as it turned out in Italy’s case, fascism proper — does present some interesting parallels and warnings worth considering.

Bottom-up to Bottom-up: What Draws Ordinary People to Fascism

I teach a course on writing and history with “ordinary life under fascism” as the theme. Just the last time I taught it, in Spring 2015, I had to make a case on the last day of class to show how fascism is possible anywhere. Today I no longer have to make that case, since we’re living it. But how we got here is still a difficult, confusing, and in many ways stressful question.

Historians have posited a long list of reasons to explain why millions of ordinary people supported, enabled, tacitly tolerated, or actively participated in violent fascist regimes that destroyed civil liberties, started a world war, and murdered millions of innocent people. One of the big factors driving political opinion in the 1920s and 30s was resentment over the costs and aftermath of World War I, and another big factor was fear of socialism in the wake of the Russian Revolution of 1917. Socialist parties made inroads in many countries, and while some welcomed these parties, middle class people, especially, were often terrified of the prospect. Neither of these factors has any parallel today.

But there are other factors that do ring a bell now. Economic instability was another of probably the biggest factors driving people to extreme politics in the interwar period. Of course, there have been many periods of economic instability that don’t result in fascism, so on its own it has no explanatory power. But as an exacerbating factor, it is important.

Another significant issue in interwar Europe was the failure of liberal democratic politics in many countries in the wake of World War I. In that case, the failures occurred most often where a previous government fell because of the war and new governments were unstable and uncertain, completely unequipped to handle postwar crises.

Today Americans on both sides of our political spectrum also feel disappointed and disgusted with our politicians. Congress is almost universally hated, and our government is almost paralyzed with partisan dysfunction.

In addition, the interwar period in Europe saw women getting the right to vote in many countries, and a general expansion of visibility and opportunity for some minorities. At the same time, jobs were scarce. Fascism offered a story to explain why people didn’t have the stability, prosperity, or security that they expected: fascism blamed it on those increasingly visible minorities. Those who don’t see those parallels in the US today are not paying attention.

Finally, another factor historians recognize as contributing to the popularity of fascism is information technology. Mass media was in its infancy at that time, giving nearly everyone immediate access through radio and cheap daily newspapers to the voices of politicians. Fascist leaders were expert at presenting an appealing image and feeding audiences whatever message most effectively galvanized them.

In the later part of the twentieth century we became accustomed to these forms of media and more cynical about media messages. But in the twenty-first century we are again confronting new technology, which can again serve up false information to huge numbers of people faster than anyone can counter it. When a teenager in Macedonia can whip up what looks like a respectable news site in an afternoon, there is a completely free-for-all in what to believe, and most people lack the time and skills to sort it out.

Combine that media environment with enormous economic and cultural strain and a lack of faith in traditional government or politicians of any flavor, and you get a disturbingly dangerous scenario.

Some of the factors I find most disturbing in what I’ve seen are these: (1) Trump voters and many observers often assume he doesn’t mean what he says and is unlikely to truly do anything extreme in office. That’s what everyone said about fascists, too, which is one of the ways the fascist dictators won democratic elections. (2) Some Trump voters, from both right and left, express support not for him specifically but for the idea of just blowing up the system, forcing a reckoning. This, too, was commonly expressed by people who enabled the fascist takeovers of their countries during the interwar, out of frustration and a lack of alternatives. (3) Many liberal observers are reassuring people today that this threat can be met. Possibly it can – I certainly hope so – but it must be fought off, not waited out, if we are to learn anything from fascism in Europe.

To ignore multiple specific parallels to European fascism would be foolish in the extreme, even while we note the many differences and recognize that we are not doomed to repeat history.

In the wake of fascism the victorious Allies, especially the US and Britain, took pride in having been on the “right side of history.” But there was nothing inherently deranged or immoral about millions of people across Europe who supported a dozen or so fascist regimes. The US and Britain had fascist parties in the interwar period, and we probably escaped seeing them gain power through a combination of having been on the winning side of World War I and playing the key role in dictating the terms of the treaty that ended it, and having had pre-existing democratic institutions that luckily proved stable enough to weather the global depression of the 1930s. But those institutions did not weather the storm without the massive collective efforts of both political leaders and ordinary people. Hopefully we will weather the current threat, too, but taking stability for granted is not likely to be a successful strategy.

For more information on ordinary people’s support for fascism, I recommend not only the Duggan book recommended above, but also Christopher Browning’s Ordinary Men and Michael Mann’s Fascists. There are many, many other books on the subject but I find these as readable as they are reliable.


Historical arguments identify patterns in the past that can be instructive now, but they also teach us how systems work, how information dynamics work, how ideas and movements and people respond to various constraints. History teaches us to separate causes and effects (symptoms from the disease) and how to reason through multi-factor causes. History also teaches us how to see the difference between one person’s perspective and the patterns generated by lots of people at once. History teaches us how to look up from the changes that seem big on the ground but turn out to be small from a distance, and the massive, slow movements that you can’t feel while they’re happening. Analogies are one tiny tool in that toolbox, and they should be approached with caution and thoughtfulness.


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Causal Reasoning: How Historians Teach People to Think

As a historian watching the unprecedented historical event of Trump’s election, I can’t help but constantly see the ways that historical thinking is misused or misunderstood, or that the usefulness of historical thinking is just totally unknown to most people. I’m currently working on my handbook to writing history for students, so these issues are very much on my mind. This is the first of a small series of posts on how historical reasoning could help us all in this national crisis.

History is the study of cause and effect. Here are a few rules of causal reasoning that everyone should have been taught in high school.

1. There are always multiple causes. Don’t expect any single causal explanation to explain every case, and don’t stop looking for causes after you find the first one. Don’t fight over what’s “the” cause. (race, class, gender, misinformation…)

2. There are always more than two sides, or ways of seeing an issue. The most useful answers are the ones that acknowledge multiple perspectives. (Clinton can do very well in several ways and still need to ask where she screwed up as well as blaming external factors)

3. Some causes are necessary but not sufficient. Asking “if not for X, what would have been the same? what would have been different?” can help us to think through the relative weight or decisiveness of any given causal factor. (if not for emails, was Clinton just as widely disliked anyway? do we have data to know that?)

4. Some causes may have been a tipping point or trigger, but would not have had that power if not for preceding factors. Don’t confuse proximity to the event for cause. (Comey)

5. Causal factors often function cumulatively. Something that seems totally insufficient to have the given result combines with other individually insufficient factors and together make a difference. (Comey)

6. Every cause is context dependent (this is why history books are so long) . You can’t treat causal factors like weights on a scale that can be interchanged. (race, class, gender)

7. Don’t confuse causal power with intent. Just because a person did X to make Y happen, doesn’t mean X isn’t the reason Z was the actual result. (racism)

8. History doesn’t repeat itself, and it also doesn’t end. Change is the only constant, yet our brains are wired to see the present as both inevitable and stable. It takes a lot of conscious effort and some training to overcome this. (basically no one I’ve seen who isn’t a historian actually understands historical analogies)

9. Reasoning by counterfactual (“Bernie would have won”) can be a useful exercise because it pushes you to think through multiple causes, but you can’t actually know the answer to the counterfactual (whether he would have).

10. Nothing is inevitable – every possible cause is contingent to some degree on other factors. No one could know the result until it played out. (I guess that’s all too obvious just now)

–This PSA has been brought to you by the profession of history, which is not actually about names and dates. —

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This blog went inactive for a while, so here’s an update to serve as a re-start. Regular posting to resume shortly.

I went on hiatus while preparing my tenure dossier, and was very happy just now to edit the home page to reflect my new title of Associate Professor! At the age of 40, after 15 years of teaching undergraduates, I’m officially no longer a junior scholar. We have rather long apprenticeships in the academy!

In other exciting news, I am at work on a project that has been dear to my heart for the entirety of those 15 years I’ve been teaching undergraduates to date. I have contracted with Oxford University Press to write a supplemental course text on writing in history. Some details on what the book will do are here. It is being developed out of teaching materials I’ve been working on literally since my first semester as a TA, through my founding of a writing workshop for history students and training and teaching in interdisciplinary composition at Columbia, and through the development of a new disciplinary writing curriculum at Queens College, especially the history course “Writing and History.”

Meanwhile I’ve also updated my home page to reflect the fact that I have two daughters now, not one! I am officially on maternity leave this semester, which means I have “time” to work on the writing book, update this blog, and also take over social media for my department – and that’s why I also want to announce the new Facebook page and revived Twitter account for the QC History department. Please like and follow!

Finally, my first book, An Ordinary Marriage, has some new reviews, linked here, though they are all behind paywalls, so you need to access them through your university’s proxy server. Hoping for a (slightly) more affordable paperback edition to come soon, as well as a Russian translation. Stay tuned!

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Interview in Fair Observer!

Another interview about my book, An Ordinary Marriage, has been made available, this time in text form from the Fair Observer. Thanks so much to my interviewer, James Wiener, and the FO editors, who were wonderful to work with.

In addition, I was delighted to see today a wonderful review in the journal Slavic Review by one of my heros in the field of Russian History, John Randolph. This is behind a paywall, however, so it needs to be accessed through a university/library subscription.

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Podcast interview about my book!

I 429681_318481998200771_146568862_nrecently had the great pleasure of talking about my book with Anna Fishzon, new host of New Books in Russia and Eurasia (part of the fantastic New Books Network of podcasts).


Here’s the interview!

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