Maps and History

I used to audit a community college. Some of the students on work study used to assist me with financial tasks and they were fun to work with. One day a girl seemed downcast and I asked her why. She said that she had a geography quiz and didn’t feel that she performed well. I asked her which questions she had difficulty with and one of them was “Which continent is Brazil located in?” I pulled out a piece of paper and drew a crude map of South America with Brazil along the coast and gave it to her.

Later she came back with an atlas and exclaimed “You were right!” The most interesting part of the story to me is that, in her mind, a lay-person like me (not a teacher) knowing which continent Brazil was in seemed like such odd and obscure knowledge that she assumed I was “guessing”.

I was recently in Room and Board, an excellent store, when I saw this interesting French map on the wall. What caught my eye was a small tag in the corner of the frame that said “c 1900” meaning “circa 1900”.

I knew instantly that this wasn’t true, since you can see from the map that the Austro-Hungarian empire had been split into its constituent parts and the post-WW1 land re-divisions had already occurred, such as the expansion of Italy. This is obviously a map dated post-1918 and pre-1945; this I could tell from the second I looked at it.

But the real issue is that this sort of knowledge of history applied to the lands of Europe is probably viewed as an obscurity by most people, including the hundreds or thousands of people that pass by this map every day at the store and look at it as an “art object” (it is a quite beautiful map, and if I had a place to display it and the price was right and I could yank off the “c 1900” tag I might think about buying it). I did not inquire but I am sure that if I asked the manager about this tag he would look at me like a crank and I can guarantee that my shopping partner would not have appreciated the likely subsequent argument.

The other part that is interesting to me is that many of the employees of Room and Board are highly educated and literate people, at least in my interactions with them. I am certain that many of them have liberal arts and design backgrounds. But this sort of arcane knowledge, the impact of military and political affairs on the boundaries of European states from 1900 – 1945 (and now into the 1990’s with the fall of the Soviet Union) would not be the type of work that would fit into their curriculum anyways. You could take an elective on virtually any historical topic to fulfill your meager requirement for history (if you had one at all) and I’d bet my last dollar that this sort of military / political history would be far less popular than myriad other potential classes.

Cross posted at LITGM

39 thoughts on “Maps and History”

  1. According to Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn American ignorance of geography allowed Italy to claim part of Austria after WWI, so it’s not new. It’s probably worse now, though.

  2. I probably wouldn’t have caught the Hapsburg anachronism but the USSR should have been a dead giveaway. Leningrad was Petrograd until 1924.

    The broken up Ottoman empire also places it after WWI.

  3. Fascinating post.

    My son, aged 15, who goes to a decent High School in the Sacramento region, says the clocks in his school are analog, and that if he asks a fellow student what the time is, he has a 60% chance that the person he asks won’t know how to read an analog clock, and will try to find someone who either knows how to read an analog clock, or has a digital timepiece, cell phone or equivalent.

  4. My boy asks me to add that he does know how to read the analog clocks himself — but is often too lazy to look up, and just pesters the person next to him while he keeps on writing…

  5. From the eastern Polish border, it’s post-1945, but there’s an oddly united Germany. A similar poster on e-Bay France gives the date as 1962. Perhaps because East Germany was not recognised at the time.

  6. I guess they don’t teach reading analog clocks, just as they don’t teach straight geography any more… kids today *sniff*
    Hey, get off my lawn!

  7. Germany was a lot bigger that that before WWII – Breslau/Wroclaw, Danzig/Gdansk and Konigsberg/Kaliningrad were all German cities. Poland lay farther east and the Baltic Republics were independent.

  8. The map must be post-WWII: Poland is undivided, 3 Baltic States are included into USSR as well as Western Ukraine – – but Germany is still one country and Eastern Block doesn’t have Socialist or People’s in the names of its countries…

    You like Room-n-Board? Nice surprise.

  9. The 1900 date is a crock. It is definitely post-World War II. I base this on the inclusion of the Baltic states as part of the USSR. Also, the port of Danzig and Prussia appear to be part of Poland and not as free states or parts of Germany, as was the case in during the inter-war years. Yugoslavia did not exist prior to 1929. The Kingdom of Iraq was founded in 1932. There is no Israel or Jordan on the map, so it is likely before 1948.

    If I had to guess, I would put it around 1945 – 1948.

  10. Bad map. As multiple commenters have pointed out, it is post-WWII, with the eastern part of Germany ceded to Poland, while the eastern part of Poland along with the Baltic states had been swallowed up by the USSR. However, Ireland is the “État Libre d’Irlande”, the Irish Free State – which only existed until 1937!

  11. It’s pretty amazing that a high school graduate doesn’t know, at least approximately, where Brazil is. Formal geography class or no, it is appalling that it wasn’t general knowledge for her.

  12. Note also the division of Morocco, with the northern part as part of Spain. Spanish Morocco existed from 1912 to 1956.

    And before 1935, Iran was known as Persia.

  13. Messrs Kaeppelin and Bruley were authors of geography schoolbooks published by Hatier from 1925 and 1938 respectively. Whatever the exact post-war date, I think they fell short of Wikipedia’s NPOV standards in omitting Israel, Stalingrad and the inner-German border. I shouldn’t suppose les enfants realised or complained.

  14. @Carl:

    As it happens, a line drawing map of Europe in that very same inter-war period was one of the questions on my foreign service written exam. The (multiple choice) answers were to identify the time-period represented by the map.

    So one answer as to what band of illuminati are privy to such arcane mysteries would have to be U.S. foreign service officers (as well as test-designers).


  15. > it is appalling that it wasn’t general knowledge for her.

    Some years ago I was at a university lunch table with two graduate students (sic) in education. One was an American and the other was from one of the islands in the British West Indies. Something was said about baseball, and making conversation, I said to the West Indian student, “Well, you probably play cricket, don’t you?” He brightened and said, “Yes! I grew up playing cricket.”

    “Quicket?” said the American grad student, with a look of puzzlement. “Quicket? What’s quicket?”

    “Cricket,” I said. “It’s a game, sort of like baseball, played with a flattish bat. It’s common in the Commonwealth countries around the world.”

    Her eyes visibly narrowed, and she extended her whole arm across the table to point directly at me. “How do you know about that?”

    “I don’t know, just general knowledge I guess.” She looked at me suspiciously ever after, having concluded that I wasn’t “one of them” (i.e., this circle of ed school students; and she was correct).

    Now, I’ve never played cricket; I don’t know the rules of cricket; I’ve never even watched a cricket match or game on TV. But I know there are probably more people in the world who play cricket than play baseball, kind of like I know that Brazil is in South America.

    But the thing that was puzzling was the visible reaction of suspicion that knowing this fact generated in the ed-school student. “How do you know about that?” In other words, “I went to school, and I was not told about this. Why were you told about it?” (The presumption being that I had learned about this secret game in a school, a school that had taught me things that her school hadn’t taught her. Of course I didn’t learn about it in school; I just picked it up somewhere in the course of life.)

    Thanks to ChicagoBoyz, I learned this week what the dynamic in play here was. I had let my mask slip, in her eyes, and she concluded that I was “in” with The Man Hiding the Stash. The Man had let me in on some of his Stash — this secret education fact that her school had kept from her in order to keep her down. Because of course if you know a fact, you had to have learned it in school, because that’s the only place you learn things. And if she didn’t know something, it was because the Man was keeping the Stash hidden from her (while sharing it with me). There couldn’t be any other explanation for her, because knowledge isn’t something you can get by yourself; someone has to hand it out to you.

  16. &, now having taking a close look at the map, the comments, and not just relying on Carl’s characterization, I’d have to agree that this map has “issues.”

    The existance of Poland, Czechoslovakia, & other Austro-Hungarian detritus argues for post-WW1, but the inclusion of the Baltic states into the U.S.S.R. but a non-divided Germany…. is troubling. Plus a bunch of other issues that would seem niggling to anyone not actually on the ground when/where they occurred.


  17. @Peter:

    I had let my mask slip, in her eyes, and she concluded that I was “in” with The Man Hiding the Stash. The Man had let me in on some of his Stash — this secret education fact that her school had kept from her in order to keep her down. Because of course if you know a fact, you had to have learned it in school, because that’s the only place you learn things. And if she didn’t know something, it was because the Man was keeping the Stash hidden from her (while sharing it with me). There couldn’t be any other explanation for her, because knowledge isn’t something you can get by yourself; someone has to hand it out to you.

    Two things, both contradictory:

    Firstly, she actually has a point. Teacher union-dominated public education has resulted in a dumbed-down educational system that not only fails to teach such information, but actively conceals it from students. Unless you’re in an AP curriculum, you’re simply not going to get as good an education, except in some of the better public school systems (mine, in Fairfax Co., Va., used to be one such, and may yet be although I have doubts) or in private/home schooling.

    Second, she was an education major. She didn’t have to know any actual facts or knowledge, she just had to know how to prepare lesson plans.


  18. UA – it would be a cool research project to find out exactly when this map was printed, then to try to research who actually made it and to try to find their political views. I think there may have been some intentional errors.

  19. @UA: Germany wasn’t divided until 1949. Before that, it was occupied by the Allied powers in their respective zones, but just like Austria, it could have stayed in one piece in theory.

  20. @UA, not sure about that, the French may have been upset at not getting a fair share in the occupation… Just noticed another funny thing, though. The Saar is shown as part of France, which it definitely never was.

  21. It is a sad commentary on US education. I posted somewhere recently, but I don’t think here, about my cousin’s high school World History textbook from 1938. I found it when I was in 8th grade and read it cover to cover twice. It was as readable as a novel and covered world history in great detail. It began with the Doric Invasion. Geography was, no doubt, taught separately but you could have picked up a decent amount from this history text.

    Ironically, the decline of US education can be credited to the political left, which has controlled US education since World War II. We have a president who criticizes the US people because they don’t speak other languages, yet who thinks Austrians speak Austrian. There are a lot of left wing people who think Republicans are stupid and uneducated but who mouth ignorant statements about science, such as refuting the well known mishandling of the Urban Heat Island effect in climate “science.” They adopt unscientific beliefs like alternative medicine and vaccine conspiracy theories. There is just no humility there. Read some left wing blogs. It is a revelation.

  22. Perhaps it’s a post-Vichy map from right after the war, using a pre-WWII map as a starting point and adding in the new post-Axis boundaries.

    As such it would likely be a product of outdated information, incomplete knowledge, wishful thinking, and rapid political change. It’s possible the cartographer was well aware of the map’s failings, but they had to hang something in the classrooms for geography lessons other than Nazi maps.

  23. It is funny I post a lot here at Chicago Boyz and most of my posts only get a couple of comments and this map got everyone’s attention.

    That is why the web is interesting, you never know what to expect.

  24. @Lukas:

    In fairness, the Saarland was a protectorate of France from 1947 to 1956.

    So Setbit may have hit the answer right on the head: put something on the wall, anything, so long as it replaces the one from the German occupation.

    Previously, the Saar had been rather promiscuously passed-around, last being a French territory under Napoleon until 1815.

  25. Carl, can you fish my comment from the spam-filter limbo? WordPress told me it was a duplicated comment, but the first attempt didn’t appear.

  26. Carl, you should take a picture of your apartment and show it to a shop manager next time, to claim a “best customer” discount!

    About your “liberal arts” observation: I don’t know if it’s true. Certainly, in my design school at least (FIT) some history and literature courses were among electives, but to take them a student had first to take general systematic required courses – like World Civilizations 101, 201 and History of Arts per periods. And in related classes (for instance, Art in Renaissance) art was constantly put into historical context and reinforced by cross-references.
    I remember one course in particular, European Furniture Styles: the professor made us to memorize all the European royal dynasties, so we wouldn’t draw blank when someone mentioned Carl the V style: aww, that’s Spain in XVIc! heavy carved, turned stiles, upright backs, tooled leather!
    Can you say I love my alma mater? It was such a pleasure to study there…

  27. Showed it to my 11 year old.

    “I dunno dad, I’m not so good on that WWI and WWII kind of time, but it looks to me like right around WWII, like the map we looked at for ‘The Upstairs Room’. Is there a whole web site of these? No? Too bad, that’d be fun.”

    Hmmm… is that bragging? Maybe, but I mostly meant it to show not all kids are completely ignorant of history and geography. He also knew where Brazil was.

    His 9 year old cousin was here the other day telling me about the treaty of Greenville, which I’d forgotten all about if I ever knew it…

    Maybe education hit a nadir in the 90s and is improving again?

  28. Most people I know who are otherwise decently educated are bad on history and terrible on geography.

    Historical geography, forget it.

    Some of us love maps, most people don’t.

    I think the commenters above have gotten it right, narrowing this map to the period between 1945 and 1948.

    Strange that it does not show even a dashed line for the inter-German border or occupation zones.

  29. If you watch “Fringe”, you know the source of this map. It came from the other side, where things just are not exactly the same. Duh.
    OTOH, the quantity of mish-mash appears to be contradictory to the map being accurate at any point in the recent past.
    I do remember seeing a map of the Middle East in an early 20th century vintage encyclopedia that labeled what we currently call Israel as “Palestine”. That is the only detail I remember that stood out.

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