This was originally published on 15 February 2015 for Pubs and Publications|
As with just about every history PhD ever, my subject – Scottish involvement in the Spanish Civil War – is somewhat specialised. In fact, I can usually only get about halfway through a short explanation before someone invariably comments, ‘Wow. That sounds niche.’
Well, yeah. It is. You can’t exactly write a PhD dissertation on the entirety of the Second World War these days (if you ever could. I’m not quite enough of a history nerd to read ancient PhD dissertations). In any case, doing a topic that baffles innocent bystanders is hardly surprising, even to a new hand like me. It’s one aspect of PhD life that Masters degrees actually prepare you for.
This Christmas, however, I was genuinely surprised to discover that sometimes things go the other way. According to the ever-reliable barometer of modern cultural significance – Facebook – my topic does actually have some claim to being popular. Not only is there a Facebook group dedicated to it, said group has almost 1000 members. That’s considerably more people than I ever expected to feign polite interest in me or anything I ever do. And that’s assuming something I write ever gets put on an undergraduate reading list.
To be fair, the memory of the Spanish Civil War is still very much alive in certain circles – if you are a Communist (or anywhere on the far left really), it’s one of the relatively few parts of the twentieth century that you can look back on and say ‘My gosh, we really were the good guys that time’.
Even if they lost, the cultural legacy of the Spanish Republic, betrayed by liberal democracy and gobbled up by Fascism at the height of its power, continues to resonate. I just wasn’t expecting it to be resonating this much.
Aside from my angst about potentially having sold out and taken the first step down the road towards popular history (is that how Niall Ferguson got started?), the existence of an active community with a stated interest in my field presents a number of opportunities and pitfalls. I imagine that it’s a microcosm of what quite a few researchers will face at some point if they either work on events with an important legacy (slavery for instance) or contemporary history. On one hand, it offers both a source of information (Grandpa went to Spain and brought back some photos!) and an audience (buy my book, uncritical consumers!). On the other, it’s potentially an echo chamber (it’s safe to say that most members are of a certain political persuasion) and, if you echo the wrong thing, maybe a source of tension and criticism (burn my book, overly critical consumers!). I know my supervisor gets some flak from certain quarters as his research can be construed as apologising for and relativising the crimes of the Franco regime. To be fair, I think he enjoys it. But still. Being labelled a fascist isn’t fun for most people.
For me, it also raises the question of how far I should go in engaging with them. I was recently asked to find a photo for a journal cover. Being a profoundly un-visual person, I hadn’t collected anything suitable while doing the research, and since various people post photos in this Facebook group all the time, I decided to ask the founder of the group for help. And he was super helpful. He tried to find me photos, gave me an e-book he wrote on the subject, as well as a private database containing details of the people I research. All useful stuff.
But engagement goes two ways. Do I want to share my own research with this group? If I find an interesting document, will I post it on the wall for general consumption? It would be nice to be part of this community, to give back as well as take. I’m not the only historian in the group though – do I want to give a potential rival a boost before I can use it? For that matter, what if I post something a bit edgy? It mightn’t go down well (see above re book burning). To take one example: I was scrolling through old posts on the page, and noticed that someone had asked about their grandfather, who had fought in Spain. I looked him up in my own database to see if I could add anything to the other comments. Turned out, his grandfather was suspected of attempting to desert his unit. Now, a grandson who is overtly proud of his grandfather’s ‘fight against fascism’ might not be happy to learn that his grandfather deserted said cause. Understandable, and I think most people would have made the same decision as I did and kept quiet. Yet it makes me uneasy to think that I self-censored so easily. I realise it’s not the same as toning down what I say in an academic context, but if this whole experience has taught me anything, it’s that the dividing line between academia and the real world isn’t always as clear cut as you might expect.