Friday, April 29, 2011

Some Stories are Lost Forever

I have been thinking about this for a while, but it only recently really clicked. Despite all the excitement about the partial declassification of Soviet archives in the 1990s, the type of information they provide is quite limited in regards to the deported peoples. Yes, we now know the mechanisms and legal structures of the instruments of repression from the inside. We also have much, much better, although far from complete or perfect statistical data on the numbers of people subjected to various forms of repression, their geographical distribution, and their use as an involuntary labor force. What we do not have is much contemporary material from the deported peoples themselves. The archives contain some letters written to officials complaining about their material conditions. They also contain police reports on the "subversive" political opinions of the special settlers. However, overall material from the point of view of the deportees themselves is lacking. There are almost no surviving diaries and other written documents outside of official state, party and police archives that would provide an insight into their lives at the time. There are some exceptions such as letters written by Russian-Germans deported as kulaks in the 1930s to relatives in the US and Canada. But, after 1937, such sources are very rare. Lots of information was simply not recorded by the authorities or was destroyed. The official archives that exist today have very little on the human lives and relationships of the special settlers.

Memoirs written after the events exist, but most of these were written long after the events when many survivors had already died and memories had faded. Oral history has the same problems as memoir literature. It would have been much better to collect this information in the 1950s and 1960s rather than have to wait until the 1990s before conditions allowed such activity without criminal penalties. Now a lot of information has gone to the grave without ever being recorded.

Ironically, it appears that despite the paucity of archival access at the time it was written that Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago remains one of the best works on Stalinist repression. Yes, he did not have accurate information on the population statistics of the labor camps and special settlements. But, he did have access to a lot of sources that no historian can tap into today. He had access to a lot of memoirs that have since been destroyed in order to protect the writers from persecution by the KGB. He could also talk to a lot of camp survivors who have since perished. This combined with his own experience in the camps and in internal exile allowed him to provide a history from the point of view of the victims rather than the repressive apparatus. This is something that nobody can do as well today.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Random Scenes from my Life

Today I turned in my final exam questions. Tomorrow I will have my final lecture of the semester before the exam. Then I will be done for the semester except for adminstering and grading the final exam.

I finally purchased an electric kettle the other day so I can make tea. I found a South African made one on sale for 21 cedis at Game in the Accra Mall. Actually I think most things at the Game store are made in South Africa. It is after all a South African chain. The kettle still had a South African plug which customer service changed to a Ghanaian plug for me free of charge.

Today for lunch I had some really good banku served with tillapia fish. I have decided I like banku a lot better than kenkey. It is a lot less dense. As always the best thing about banku or kenkey was the chili sauce they serve with it. The worst thing is that it is a sticky mess that you eat with your hand. I am still not fully on board with the Ghanaian habit of eating almost everything including soup with your hand rather than with utensils.

I have been rapidly reading all of Patricia Cornwell's novel's recently. I especially like her Kay Scarpetta series. The focus on the morgue as the site of investigation makes her novels considerably different from most other mysteries I have read.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Syllabus for Aspects of World History 1914-1945

Aspects of World History 1914-1945
HIST 417
Fall 2011
Department of History
University of Ghana
J. Otto Pohl, Ph.D.

Course Description: This course focuses on the great ideological and military conflict between Nazi Germany and the USSR. It traces the origins and development of both the Nazi and Soviet regimes during the years after World War One up until the Allied Victory over Berlin on 9 May 1945. In particular it compares and contrasts the ideologies and practices of these two regimes both internally and externally during the 1930s and 1940s. A special emphasis is given to their dictatorial nature and their use of mass violence against certain defined social and ethnic groups.

Requirements: The purpose of this class is to provide a comparative understanding of the two great dictatorships of the early 20th century and their relationship to each other. In particular the class will look at World War II primarily as a conflict between Nazi Germany and the USSR. Students need to attend class regularly and do the assigned readings. Material from both the readings and the lectures will appear on the final exam. No mobile phones are to be visible during class. They are to be out of sight and turned off. Finally, I have a significant hearing loss and may have to ask people to repeat their questions or statements from time to time. You can minimize this by speaking loudly and clearly. This syllabus is tentative and subject to change.

Readings: The main text used for this class is Robert Gellately, Lenin, Stalin and Hitler: The Age of Social Catastrophe (London: Vintage Books, 2008). In addition there are four short supplementary readings which are listed below.

Elza-Bair Guchinova, “Deportation of the Kalmyks (1943-1956): Stigmatized Ethnicity” in Uyama Tomohiko, ed., Empire, Islam, and Politics in Central Eurasia, Slavic Eurasian Studies, no. 14 (Sapporo, Japan: Slavic Research Center, Hokkaido University, 2007), pp. 187-221.

Katherine R. Jolluck, “’You Can’t Even Call Them Women’: Poles and ‘Others’ in Soviet Exile during the Second World War,” Contemporary European History, vol. 10, no. 3, (Nov. 2001), pp. 463-480.

James Morris, “The Polish Terror: Spy Mania and Ethnic Cleansing in the Great Terror,” Europe-Asia Studies, vol. 56, no. 5, (July 2004), pp. 751-766.

J. Otto Pohl, Eric J. Schmaltz and Ronald J. Vossler, “’In Our Hearts We Felt the Sentence of Death’: Ethnic German Recollections of Mass Violence in the USSR, 1928-1948,” Journal of Genocide Research, vol. 11, nos. 2-3, (June-Sep. 2009), pp. 323-354.

Grading: The grade for the class will be based upon a mid-term exam and a comprehensive final essay exam at the end of the semester. The mid-term will be worth 30% of the final grade and the final exam will constitute the remaining 70% of the grade.

Class Schedule:

Week one: Introduction and Review of Syllabus

Week two: World War One, the Bolshevik Revolution and Lenin’s Reign

Read pp. 1-77 in Gellately.

Week three: The Roots and Early Development of Naziism

Read pp. 81-127 in Gellately.

Week four: The Creation of the Stalinist Regime

Read pp. 131-182 in Gellately and Pohl, Schmaltz, and Vossler pp. 323-354.

During this week I would like to show the movie Through the Red Gate

Week five: The Nazis come to Power

Read pp. 185-223 in Gellately.

Week six: Mid-term examination. The exam is worth 30% of the total grade.

Week seven: Stalin’s Reign of Terror

Read pp. 225-281 in Gellately and Morris, pp. 751-766.

Week eight: Creation of the Nazi Dictatorship

Read pp. 285-341 in Gellately.

Week nine: The Partition of Poland and the Start of World War II

Read pp. 345-410 in Gellately and Jolluck, pp. 463-480.

Week ten: The Nazi Attack on the USSR and the Holocaust

Read pp. 413-468 in Gellately.

Week eleven: The Soviet Union takes the Offensive

Read pp. 471-522 in Gellately and Guchinova, pp. 187-220.

Week twelve: The Destruction of Nazi Germany and the Triumph of the USSR

Read pp. 525-594 in Gellately.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

One Syllabus done

So far I have finished one syllabus for next semester. I wrote it last night. I will post it tomorrow.  I decided to center the course Aspects of World History 1914-1945 around Nazi Germany and the USSR. I am assigning Robert Gellately's Lenin, Stalin and Hitler: The Age of Social Catastrophe (London: Vintage, 2008) as the main text for the class. I think centering the class around the two major dictatorships in Europe during the early 20th century gives the class a central focus. I would be curious if anybody else has ever taught a class that essentially compared and contrasted the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany and what were the results?

The semester is almost over

I have one more lecture this week then there are final exams and then the semester ends. Next semester I am teaching Aspects of World History 1914-1945, History of Early Modern Europe, and Historiography. I will put the syllabi up when I finish them.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Strategy for progress

My current plan is to try and accomplish a little bit each day. I am not going to try and finish any big projects in a single day. I figure if I can keep moving forward even if it is not super fast then at least I will have made some progress after a while.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

More on food in Ghana

I had a request by e-mail from a friend of mine in the US to provide a better description of Ghanaian foods. Fortunately, the standard Ghanaian menu is pretty short. So I will attempt to provide some description of various food items here. First, there is fried chicken and jollof rice. Fried chicken is the same here as everywhere else in the world. Jollof rice is a spicy red rice that is similar to Spanish rice or dirty rice. Then there is red red served with either fried chicken or fried rice. Red red is beans cooked in palm oil and plantains. The following three items are I think unique to West Africa. The first is fufu, a mixture of cassava and plantains that has a very jelly like texture and is served with various soups. The second is kenkey, a mixture of cassava and maize that is fermented and then steamed in banana leaves. It is eaten with pepper sauce and fried fish. The final item is banku which is similar to kenkey, but is cooked in plastic bags rather than banana leaves and does not have as dense a consistency. It is often served with okra stew.

Coen Brothers Petition

A good friend of mine, Abdulhadi Ayyad, has asked me to help circulate this petition to the Coen Brothers to not go to Tel Aviv. If the Coen Brothers were to refuse to travel to Israel as a protest against the ongoing human rights violations against the Palestinians it would indeed send a strong signal. At any rate as a favor to my friend and in the hope of spurring a productive cultural dialogue I am forwarding this petition.

Monday, April 18, 2011


One of the graduate students here took me to a new  place to eat lunch today. It has the advantage of being very close to the history department and fairly cheap. I paid four cedis for light soup with two pieces of goat meat and two fufus. I liked the fact that the soup was quite spicy.

Wrapping up the semester

I only have one more lecture this semester before final exams. Overall I think the class went well. Officially the class had over 80 students. Which I think is quite large for a 400 level class. Of course not every student showed up every week. I would prefer to have smaller classes, but I think I succeeded in teaching some students some historical knowledge.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Inflation in Ghana

Since I have arrived here the cost of a 1.5 litre bottle of water has gone up from 1.20 GH to 1.30 GH. I figure that is a rate of inflation of almost 25% a year. I have not noticed a steep increase in the cost of other goods, however. So it is likely that other goods are increasing in price at a slower rate. Nevertheless, water is absolutely vital to life. It is not something like chocolate or Coca Cola I can do without. I may have to start buying water in bags like most people here instead of the more expensive plastic bottles.

Another Source Question

I am trying to track down a reliable source regarding ethnic Chinese serving in the Cheka in Ukraine during the Civil War. Does anybody have any suggestions?

Tuesday, April 12, 2011


I think Legon has as many toads this time of year as Arivaca does during the monsoon season. The toads here are smaller, but they are just as loud. There is a pool filled with lilly pads in front of Balme Library and at night the sound of the toads croaking is deafening.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Stabbing People in the Back is an Old Soviet Trick

The official Soviet decision to deport the Volga Germans came from the Council of Peoples Commissars and the Central Committee of the Communist Party on 26 August 1941. This document which was secret at the time starts out with "The Council of Peoples Commissars Union of SSRs and C[entral] C[ommittee] of the A[ll Russian] C[ommunist] P[arty] (b[olshevik]) resolves:

1: To resettle all Germans from the Republic of Germans of the Volga and from the oblasts of Saratov and Stalingrad to the following krais and oblasts:"
It then lists Krasnoiarsk Krai, Altai Krai, Omsk Oblast, Novosibirsk Oblast, and a number of oblasts in Kazakhstan (German, Ilarionova, and Pleve, doc. 8.31., pp. 254-257). This resolution was followed up on 28 August 1941 with a public decree decree by the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet with the title "On Resettling Germans Living in the Region of the Volga." This decree unlike the one two days earlier which had no justification listed accused the Volga Germans of harboring "thousands and tens of thousands of saboteurs and spies" awaiting orders from Germany (German, Ilarionova, and Pleve, doc. 8.3.2, pp. 257-258).

What is interesting about these two decrees that I just really noticed is their very sudden timing in relation to the official Soviet line regarding the Volga Germans. It is true that the NKVD had already forcibly evacuated the Crimean Germans. But, the Volga Germans were still an official Soviet nationality with their own territory and administrative structures. They were also still being promoted as a loyal part of the Soviet war effort against Nazi Germany just days before the Stalin regime ordered their deportation.

On 21 August 1941, the Communist Party leadership of the Volga German ASSR had passed a resolution recommending a number of Volga German communists for political work in the Red Army. The list included thirty men for organizational work, twenty men for editorial work, and three men to be held in reserve if needed (German, Ilarionova, and Pleve, doc. 8.21., pp. 249-252). So a mere five days before the official decision to deport the Volga Germans was made the Soviet government was still soliciting their assistance in its fight against Nazi Germany.

Even more shocking is the article run in Komsomol'skaia Pravda on 24 August 1941, two days before the decision. This article was devoted to the heroism of Heinrich Hoffmann, a  twenty year old Volga German Komsomol member who had been tortured to death by the Nazis. This article stresses the heroism of Hoffmann and highlights both his German nationality and Soviet patriotism in fighting against the Nazis (German, Ilarionova, and Pleve, doc. 8.2.2., pp. 252-253). Unlike other Soviet martyrs in the struggle against Nazi Germany, Hoffmann quickly became forgotten after the Soviet government ordered the deportation of his entire nationality two days after Komsomol'skaia Pravda praised his bravery.

The rapid change in the public official Soviet line towards the Volga Germans between 24 August 1941 and 28 August 1941, leads me to believe that the actual decision was made long before 21 August 1941. But, that in order to maintain the element of surprise the Soviet government continued to pretend to treat the Volga Germans as fully equal Soviet citizens until the eve of the deportation. Hence the one day trumpeting of Hoffmann's martyrdom just days before forcibly dispersing the entire Volga German population across Siberia and Kazakhstan.

Source: A.A. German, T.S. Ilariovona, I.R. Pleve, eds., Istoriia nemtsev Rossii: Khrestomatiia (Moscow: "MSNK-Press", 2005).

American food in Legon

Saturday I found a decent burger off campus. The Chicken Inn which is I believe part of a South African based chain has a burger meal combo for 8.50 cedis. The bun on the burger is really good and they serve it with tomato, onion, and steak sauce. The meat is okay, but not fantastic. Overall it is better than McDonalds, but not nearly as good as In and Out. However, at over $5.00 it is not something I can afford to eat very often.

This morning I found a breakfest and coffee place on campus. Decent coffee is hard to find in Ghana. For 3.90 cedis or about $3.00 I got two pancakes with maple syrup, two egg sandwiches, and a giant mug of iced coffee. The egg sandwiches consisted of little omlettes made with green onions and pressed between two slices of toasted bread. It was quite good. I do not think I need to eat lunch today.

Friday, April 08, 2011

You do not need NCAA teams to have problems

The big story recently at the University of Ghana is the alleged stripping and molestation of a girl accused of stealing by a group of male students at one of the dorms here in Legon. It made the front page of the papers last Saturday. At the weekly history seminar on Wednesday all the graduate students were heatedly discussing the issue. But, the women graduate students seemed more passionate about it.  I am not sure of all the details, evidently there is a video of the event on the Internet that I have not watched nor do I intend to watch it. However, the allegations against the male students should be taken seriously and investigated by the proper authorities. The University administration has publicly said that they are taking appropriate action regarding the incident. This is the kind of story one hears a lot about in the US, but I had honestly expected better of the students in Ghana.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

The Book Store

Yesterday, I went to the book store to pick up some more used mysteries. They range in price from 1.5 cedis to 2.5 cedis each. I purchased three for 6.5 cedis. I got one by Alex Kava, one by Tamar Meyers, and one by Patricia Cornwell. It seems that American and other foreign travellers leave a lot of paperbacks here.

Monday, April 04, 2011

Quoted in Lonely Planet

I just found out through the magic of Google Books that page 138 of the Lonely Planet guide to Ukraine (2005) by Sara Johnstone quotes my second book. Go look it up yourself to see what it says. I must say that being quoted in a Lonely Planet guide is supremely cool.

I made it to the Ocean

On Saturday I finally made it to the Gulf of Guinea. I took a tro-tro to Nkrumah Circle with Carl and we walked through Makola Market to Jamestown. We met some Ghanaians who took us around the beach where they were building fishing boats and the pier where they were fixing fishing nets. They then took us to the palace of the king of Jamestown. I probably learned more about Ghana in that one morning than I have in the rest of the three months I have been here.

Friday, April 01, 2011

Everything is calm in Ghana

Despite the recent events in neighboring Ivory Coast everything is calm in Ghana. Neither the media nor people at the university seem much interested in what is happening in the country next door.