Georg Giese leitmotif

Justyna Wubs-Mrozewicz

What's behind the picture of a conflict manager?

Gemäldegalerie, Berlin

Georg Giese by Hans Holbein, the leitmotif of our website. The painting of the Danziger merchant staying in the Hanseatic Kontor in London is full of symbolism:  writing attributes, merchant books, lavish rugs and imported textiles, scales and weights all speak of the profession and standing of the depicted Georg. Yet there is more: letters, merchant marks and carnations as a symbol of the pending wedding with the daughter of a councillor point to extensive networks through family and institutions. Georg and members of these networks were more than just merchants: they were councillors, judges, burgomasters, secretaries of kings, bishops and envoys. In these capacities, they continuously managed conflicts, small- and large-scale. They balanced interests, and this balance proved at times difficult or even impossible, as Hans Holbein hinted in his painting.

'Something is wrong here. The angle of the room is not correct, the corner of the table protrudes toward the viewer in a rather weird way, and both his seal dangling at the back and lopsided scales next to it are tilted in a way that is physically impossible. They hang next to Giese’s motto: ‘No joy without sorrow’. The off-balance presentation of elements of mercantile life is not a token of a lack of skill of Holbein: quite the contrary, he did it on purpose and his visual tricks are also known from another famous painting. The huge ‘The Ambassadors’ in the National Gallery of London, where a French ambassador and a bishop are depicted with an anamorphic skull at the bottom, is a reminder of the finality of life.In the case of the Giese portrait, these irregularities draw the viewer to the painting, stir an interest and impart a feeling of movement and possible lack of balance under the veneered, still image. I would add that this search for balance, so central in medieval thought, and the realization that it was a result of constant movement and change and was therefore fragile, was very fitting to the mindscape of merchants at the time. They were involved in several balancing acts between various levels of activities, various networks to which they belonged, and the various roles they performed. Not least of which in their capacity as conflict managers.'

Justyna Wubs-Mrozewicz, “Maritime Networks and Premodern Conflict Management on Multiple Levels: The Example of Danzig and the Giese Family,” in Maritime Networks as a Factor in European Integration. Fondazione Istituto Internazionale Di Storia Economica “F. Datini” Prato (University of Firenze, 2019), 385–405.

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History in conflict webinar: introducing the modern edition

Justyna Wubs-Mrozewicz

Attention! We’re talking about history here, and it’s important. This might be the summary of the online webinar on #historyinconflict held on June, 25th (2022), where we addressed the role of bringing up historical narratives in conflicts in the 19th-21st centuries. It was the third instalment in a series of webinars, after meetings on medieval and early modern conflicts. Now our attention has turned to modern conflicts: for instance, WWII in the Netherlands, border struggles in South America from the 19th century onwards, tensions related to religious reforms in India in the 20th century, and the perceptions of the past in post-WWII Poland or Vietnam. The insights we gained from the fascinating papers that were presented, and the discussions that followed, show that references to the past have clearly gained a foothold as powerful and versatile tools. And that they grab our attention and often create controversy.

Historians like Margaret Macmillan and Timothy Snyder have rightly pointed out that history has been used, abused and re-used many times over, sometimes in a cyclical fashion. The editors of the newly minted Journal of Applied History underline that our current engagement with the past – especially during conflicts – is a topic that in fact more than merits our attention:  ‘The accumulation of crises in the new millennium, as well as the omnipresence of the instrumentalisation—and abuse—of history and historical claims in a highly polarised political climate may have increased public awareness of the value of historical thinking for the present, but these developments have also made such awareness more urgent.’ A crucial issue here is the role of professional historians: what part have they played in conflicts in the 20th century, and what role are they playing or should they play now? Is debunking myths enough, or should the spokespeople of the past be more activist or creative? [....]

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