By Martijn Icks
On June 21st, Edwina Hagen and I organized the colloquium “Character Assassination! Media and Mudslinging from Caligula to King Gorilla” in Amsterdam. We invited experts on various periods in Western history to discuss practices of character assassination from an historical perspective. Comparing various case studies, we hoped to shed light on some important questions. How could character assassination be studied as an historical phenomenon? What might it bring us to do so? In particular, we were interested in the impact of new (in a historical sense) technologies and media on character attacks, such as the printing press, the newspaper, radio and television.
In a sense, this colloquium could be seen as a sequel to the 2011 Heidelberg colloquium on character assassination which started our collaboration on this topic and would lead to the volume Character Assassination throughout the Ages and, a few years down the line, to the founding of CARP. Just like then, our programme in Amsterdam was rich and varied, ranging from mad Roman emperors to mad Dutch kings. It would go too far to discuss all papers in detail here, but I would like to offer some general observations tying the various contributions together. Please note that these are just my own thoughts concerning the many things we talked about during the day.
1: Historians as character assassins
Historians do not only research character assassination; in many cases, they have been culprits themselves. Several papers touched on kings or emperors who suffered CA at the hands of those who chronicled their reigns. Henri van Nispen discussed how hostile Roman senators portrayed Caligula as a capricious madman in their histories, while Erik Goosmann explained how Childeric III, last king of the Merovingians, was portrayed as a pathetic weakling by chroniclers in the service of the succeeding Carolingian dynasty. Such tactics could be very effective in ancient or medieval times, when an individual’s reputation would ultimately be determined by just a handful of authors, but it’s hard to see how they would work in this modern age of mass media, with its plethora of voices. Determining someone’s place in history has become a much broader process involving many actors, including not just historians, but anyone from movie directors to bloggers and vloggers.
2: Historical impact of character assassination
Once someone’s place in historical memory has been settled, their reputation as a “bad guy” (or “bad girl”) can last for centuries. We see this not only in the case of Caligula, whose reign is still a byword for madness and decadence, but also in the case of the “Iron Duke” of Alba, the general sent by the Spanish king to crush the Dutch Revolt in the 1560s. Yolanda Rodríguez Pérez discussed how Alba became the focus of a negative campaign by Dutch rebels whose impact still determines his reputation as a ruthless tyrant in the Netherlands today. On the other hand, attempts by character assassins to paint George Washington as a weakling and traitor, discussed by Eric Shiraev, have clearly not stood the test of time. Of course, the reason why some individuals become historical “villains” while others do not has a lot to do with their role in grand (often national) historical narratives. The Duke of Alba is commonly regarded as the chief opponent in the Dutch struggle for independence, and was hence destined to become a national bogeyman, while the image of Washington as a weakling and traitor clashes with his revered status as a Founding Father and the first president of the United States. However, let’s not forget that historical narratives and the evaluation of their main characters can change over time: think, for instance, of the recent attacks on some of America’s Founding Fathers as slave owners.
3: “Hot” and “cold” periods of character assassination
In her paper on character assassination in Dutch parliament, Carla Hoetink made the intriguing observation that the nature of political debate went through “hot” and “cold” periods over time. It’s especially during “hot” periods, when emotion and confrontational politics set the tone, that character attacks are rife. This reminds us that we should not think in terms of more or less static national or historical “cultures” of CA, but should also consider the waxing and waning of CA practices within these cultures.
A good example of a “hot” political climate is the Dutch Republic in the so-called Year of Disaster, 1672, when the country was under threat from foreign invasion and tensions between political factions ran high. As Luc Panhuysen explained, leading politicians Johan and Cornelis de Witt became targets in a fierce CA campaign in this period, ultimately resulting in their murder and the mutilation of their bodies by an angry mob.
4: Appealing to common values
To project “good character”, one has to appeal to the values of the intended audience. As Frans Camphuijsen argued, the medieval German emperor Frederick II tried to boost his reputation by going on crusade and hence prove himself a good, strong Christian leader. However, he came into conflict with the pope, who proclaimed a crusade against Frederick and even excommunicated the emperor from the Catholic Church repeatedly. Both parties used the same Christian value system to boost their own prestige and denounce their opponent. We could say that they both spoke the same language, although they had competing messages. At other times, however, two conflicted parties aren’t speaking the same language at all. Dirk Wolthekker discussed the case of Amsterdam mayor Gijs van Hall, a successful banker from a reputable family who had played a heroic role in the resistance in World War II, but saw his authority contested by the riotous Provo movement in the sixties. The Provo youths were simply not interested in the social markers that lent Van Hall prestige in more traditional circles: to them, he was just an old-school establishment figure and hence a deserving target for their ridicule and contempt.
5: Cartoons and caricatures
The arrival of the printing press, the pamphlet and, much later, the newspaper, meant that character attacks could henceforth extend to the visual realm in the shape of cartoons and caricatures. The villainizing images of the Duke of Alba in Dutch propaganda provide an early example of this. Dik van der Meulen drew attention to the more recent case of the Dutch monarch William III, who was lampooned in verbal and visual form as “King Gorilla” in a socialist pamphlet in the 1880s, while Eveline Koolhaas-Grosfeld discussed Dutch political cartoons from the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. The latter in particular show how potent humorous depictions are to quickly get a message across to a large audience, although they also raise the perennial question of where to draw the line between mild mockery and a character attack with the intention to damage. The fact that people took offense at these cartoons certainly suggests that they were more than harmless fun. Even today, newspapers struggle with the potency of political cartoons to cause offense: witness The New York Times, which has just decided on a general ban.
I could say much more about the colloquium, but perhaps the most important thing to take away from this is that it’s not only possible, but actually very fertile to talk about practices of CA across widely divergent historical times and cultures. During the day, we found many parallels and contrasts between our various cases. I’m not sure we left much wiser than we came, but we certainly have plenty of questions to chew on.
Titular image: performance of “Caligula” by Glarnert, English National Opera, 2012 (photographer: Johan Persson); also the colloquium logo