Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Book Review: At the Edge of the Abyss: A Concentration Camp Diary, 1943-1944 by David Koker


The cover for At the Edge of the Abyss: A Concentration Camp Diary, 1943-1944 by David Koker

[Note: I originally reviewed this book in 2012 on the original 'Inviting History Book Reviews.' This review is rewritten from the original version.]

David Koker was only 23 years old when he died on route to Dachau in early 1945. He was one of an estimated 6 million Jewish victims of the Holocaust. A writer, a student, a son, a brother, a friend. The diary he kept while enduring one of the most unthinkable horrors in recent memory was published in English for the first time as At The Edge of the Abyss: A Concentration Camp Diary, 1943-1944.

David Koker's diary is nothing less than a remarkable and essential read, a book that not only provides an unsettling and revealing grounds-eye view of the inner workings of a concentration camp but which provides readers with an unflinching reality: that of a silenced voice, diminished and subject to mental and physical brutality that impacted all who were imprisoned under it.

David Koker was interned, along with his mother, father and younger brother, in the Vught camp in February of 1943. He began his diary soon after, and maintained it until February of the next year, when he and his family were deported out of the camp and the diary was given to a civilian employee working at Vught. This civilian employee smuggled it out to a non-Jewish friend of Koker, who kept the pages safe during the war.

The diary is not only a well-detailed account of life in the Vught camp, but a testament to Koker's internal struggles as he (and those around him) attempted to come to terms with the horror of their situation. As people are sent on trains "to the East," as a camp which housed children deports them to unknown destinations, Koker and those around him are faced with new realities that they must contend with day by day.

In his introduction to At The Edge of the Abyss: A Concentration Camp Diary, Robert Jan van Pelt explains why the diary's existence is unique: 

 "... the number of postwar memoirs written by Holocaust survivors is enormous, and the number of diaries and notebooks written during the Holocaust [by people who were] at home, or in a ghetto, or in hiding is substantial, the number of testimonies that were written in the inner circles of hell, in that German concentration camp, and that survived the war is small." 

The ability to write a diary under such circumstances would have been difficult enough, both emotionally and logistically, but David Koker did more than that. He did not simply write: he wrote a substantial and highly observational diary, full of factual observations about life and prisoners in the camp; along with an insightful, often disturbing, psychological probe into the “abyss” that surrounded Koker and the other prisoners at Vught.

Koker was able to obtain a relatively privileged position in the camp, which was one of the reasons why he was able to maintain his diary and perhaps, one of the reasons why Koker was able to maintain a greater sense of ‘detachment’ from camp life.

In some ways, David Koker's diary is remarkably subdued, particularly given the subject matter. Many of his diary entries describe unreal circumstances with an almost nonchalant attitude. Perhaps the apparent “normalcy” in his diary could be attributed to Koker's feelings of detached assimilation into camp life, a sort of psychological defense mechanism to being thrust into a wholly extraordinary situation.

In March of 1943, less than a month after having been imprisoned at the camp, he wrote to his girlfriend in hiding:  

"I immediately accept everything as normal. That's why I don't experience things sufficiently. ... You must believe me: from the second day on everything was quite normal: the German detachments, being together with so many people, the strange food, taking care of the most essential daily matters, etc. I didn't notice the passage from one kind of life to the other ... even the strangest and most awful things become normal and agreeable." 

Koker's position of privilege in the camp came with a psychological transformation. Koker was aware of how imprisonment had changed him and in one self-aware, somber passage, he wrote:

"You become selfish, even towards your own family ... Sometimes I treat the children with bitterness, yet the friendliest treatment hides a bit of sadism and lust for power. ... A kind of feeling of being in charge."

In several passages throughout his diary, Koker mentions notable events in Poland; including the now-notorious name of Auschwitz—an ominous, blackened destination that is forever associated with pain, violence and mass genocide. 

Yet to Koker--at first--Auschwitz was merely a destination where many of those deported from Vught and other camps were headed. The real fate of those sent "to the East" was not wholly known and in the case of Vught, Koker and the other imprisoned people were led to believe that being deported was not something to be feared.

In September of 1943, Koker wrote: “… good reports are coming in from Poland. It’s only too bad that people really are working in the coal mines. But the work isn’t all that heavy, many write.” A footnote goes on to explain that a special project was created in which Jewish inmates were, prior to being murdered, forced to write postcards to relatives, which were then sent out at intervals to give the impression not only of life but of relatively good conditions in the camps. In November, Koker wrote again: “ … the administrator has spoken about Auschwitz, where the [Escotex branch] will go in its entirety. Stories … have a more or less sunny aspect. Jewish camp leadership. A lot of agriculture, the camp is largely self-supporting. … If you ask me, it sounds livable.

But the brutal reality of “the East” came crashing down only a few weeks later.

On  November 27th, David Koker’s birthday, Koker and his group learned the truth about what was going on outside the walls of their prison.

“The morning of my birthday: Spitz reads an excerpt from a letter from Poland. Three people … are living with Moves [note: expression meaning “they are dead.”]. And Moves’s business is working overtime. … Seldom have I seen anything set out so clearly in writing … Our optimistic messages from Poland are not incorrect. They have simply been incomplete. A probably relatively small group is working and doing reasonably well. And the rest: wiped out. The world has changed.”

Koker, who was transferred into a privileged group known as the "Philips-Jews," was deported to Asuchwitz in June of 1944; for a time, he and a select group were protected from routine death selections due to their status. However, in February 1945, Koker fell ill and died on a transport to Dachau. His father died of exhaustion in LangenBilau; his mother and brother, Max, both survived the war.

Readers may sometimes struggle with the flowing structure of Koker's diary, but it should be remembered that his diary is effectively raw. Unlike writers who penned diaries in total hiding or who survived the Holocaust and wrote their memoirs afterwards, Koker did not have the ability to edit his diary either for its intended readers (himself, along with his girlfriend) or for later public consumption. The editorial team does an excellent job with providing footnotes and source citations for the people, places and events mentioned in the diary, which does make it easier to understand the context of the information.

Yet the rawness of Koker's diary should not be taken as a flaw or even a criticism of his writing. It should be a reminder of what we are reading, what each word printed on the page represents. At its core, At the Edge of the Abyss is a compilation of the inner thoughts of a human being whose identity, whose freedom, whose life was cruelly destroyed and eliminated by Nazism. A human being who had hope of surviving the water,

I recommended At the Edge of the Abyss: A Concentration Camp Diary, 1943-1944 by David Koker, edited by Robert Jan van Plet and translated from Dutch by Michiel Horn and John Irons, to any reader searching for contemporary Holocaust documents. It is one of the most important contemporary accounts of a concentration camp published in English within the last 2 decades.

[A review copy of this book was provided by the publisher upon my request.]

Wednesday, June 9, 2021

Book Review: Review: Treacherous Beauty: Peggy Shippen, the Woman behind Benedict Arnold's Plot to Betray America by Stephen H. Case and Mark Jacob

The cover for Treacherous Beauty: Peggy Shippen, the Woman behind Benedict Arnold's Plot to Betray America by Stephen H. Case and Mark Jacob

[Note: I originally reviewed this book in 2012 on the original 'Inviting History Book Reviews.' This review is rewritten from the original version.]

When considering notable women who played a role in the American Revolution, it is usually select women who come to mind. Women such as Abigail Adams, whose words "remember the ladies" resonate today despite more than two centuries of distance; Deborah Sampson, whose decision to enlist in the military despite the restrictions against women and then later fight for her right to a military pension were deeply symbolic of a desire for the foundation of a new country

But what about the women who did not support the decision to separate from England--or women who went so far as to work against the Revolution itself?

Treacherous Beauty: Peggy Shippen, the Woman Behind Benedict Arnold's Plot to Betray America by Stephen H. Case and Mark Jacob is the first modern popular biography of an enigmatic and often ignored figure in American history--Peggy Shippen, the wife of the infamous Benedict Arnold. 

Peggy, born Margaret Shippen, was born into the elite world of Philadelphia's high society. Not much is known about her early childhood, although Case and Jacob suggest in this book that she received an above-average education for her sex and learned much about finances through her father and mother. 

She came of age during the American Revolution in British-occupied Philadelphia and developed a strong social reputation due to her beauty and wit. She was considered to be one of the most beautiful women in the city and frequently attended balls and other social gatherings with others of her rank. Also in attendance at these elite social gatherings were British soldiers, including one John André, who would later play an important role in the "Benedict Arnold plot."

Peggy was considered to be beautiful, loving and sweet, but she was presumably not Benedict Arnold's first choice for a new wife. Case and Jacob point out that many of the lines Benedict used in his courting letter to Peggy were actually recycled from letters he had written to a previous potential wife. Regardless of whether or not Arnold was pursuing Peggy out of genuine love or merely from acceptance that his first choice had rejected him, the two were eventually married and what soon followed is the subject of much debate and controversy. 

How much of a role did Peggy Shippen play in Benedict Arnold's decision to become a spy for Britain? Did she know about the extent of his betrayal? And if she did, how much did she use her knowledge to advance Britain's desire to quash the American Revolution? Did Peggy herself play an active or passive role in the most notorious betrayal of the American Revolution?

Although the title of the book labels Peggy squarely as the woman "behind" the plot, I don't think that the authors, if it was their attention to paint her as the mastermind, successfully provided enough evidence to suggest that Peggy was the one who pushed Arnold into making his final and what would be his fateful decision regarding espionage.

Unfortunately, much of Peggy's correspondence was destroyed or burned in the wake of the plot, perhaps to save her reputation or prevent her from being implicated. So it is difficult to determine exactly what she did, how much she knew--and what role she played in the decision for Benedict Arnold to betray the cause he had once fought to promote.

After the news of Arnold's betrayal broke, Peggy claimed innocence; "the poor innocent wife of Benedict Arnold," as she was called after news of his betrayal and her subsequent hysterics at the "shocking news" broke out across the rebelling colonies.

And although they do not provide a tight case for Peggy being the woman behind the plot, Case and Jacob were able to provide ample information which not only indicates she knew about Benedict Arnold's betrayal--but that she assisted him and played at least some active role in the espionage.

The plot to betray America is, understandably, the real meat and bones of the book. Because there are gaps in the recorded history of Peggy's life, some of the narrative focuses much more on the actions of Arnold--whom Peggy often followed; along with John André, who left behind a more tangible historical trail than Peggy Shippen. However, Case and Jacob have made excellent use of the resources they had to create an interesting and rounded narrative of Peggy's life--from her birth in pre-revolutionary American to her matrimonial betrayal of the revolution and finally to her last years in England, where she spent most of her time dealing with poor state of her family's finances and securing a future for her children.

I recommend Treacherous Beauty: Peggy Shippen, the Woman Behind Benedict Arnold's Plot to Betray America by Stephen H. Case and Mark Jacob to readers who are interested in the American Revolution, 18th century, or women's studies in the 18th century.

[A review copy of this book was provided by the publisher upon my request.]


Wednesday, June 2, 2021

A Czech Movie Herald for Marie Antoinette (1938)

image: the front cover of a Czech movie herald released for Marie Antoinette (1938); image is scanned from my collection.
Vintage movie heralds, programs and other advertisements are an interesting look into the marketing machines that powered many older Hollywood films. Like the modern film industry, old Hollywood took great pains to market and promote films, often curating an experience for moviegoers that could include programs, promises of "reasonable prices," and more.

This particular program for MGM's expensive historical drama Marie Antoinette (1938) was created for the theatrical release of the film in, at the time, Czechoslavakia. The film was released in February of 1939, during the brief Second Czechoslovak Republic, which lasted from September 30th, 1938 through March 15th, 1939.
image: the interior page of a Czech movie herald released for Marie Antoinette (1938); image is scanned from my collection.

The interior page, which features a wedding-clad Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette contrasted next to the guillotine, contains a brief plot introduction along with a list of the primary cast. Notably, both Norma Shearer and Gladys George have their names altered in order to added the feminine "-ova" at the end, a practice which was (and in many cases, still is) popular in the region.

image: the back cover of a Czech movie herald released for Marie Antoinette (1938); image is scanned from my collection.

The back cover of the herald features a colorized photo of Norma Shearer in the "garden party" gown, which she wears during the scene of a night gathering at the Petit Trianon. Surprisingly, the delicate bird cage on top of her head still exists, and was shown at an Irving Thalberg exhibition in recent years.

Saturday, May 29, 2021

Book Review: An Imperial Concubine's Tale: Scandal, Shipwreck, and Salvation in Seventeenth-Century Japan by G.G. Rowley


Cover for 'An Imperial Concubine's Tale' by G. G. Rowley

[Note: I originally reviewed this book in 2013 on the original 'Inviting History Book Reviews.' This review is rewritten from the original version.]

Life in early 17th century Japan could be precarious and wild, even for those who were privileged enough to live and work in the imperial palace. The wilderness of the court, however, was vastly different than the wilderness outside the protected imperial walls. To live in the imperial court was to live in service of the emperor, to pledge one's entire self to live according to the stringent rules of society.

Men and women needed to ensure that they never overstepped the boundaries of their station and prescribed roles at court. Violating these boundaries risked punishment which could range banishment or confinement, even to execution; the cruelty and severity of the punishment often rested on the good will and mercy of the emperor.

An Imperial Concubine: Scandal, Shipwreck and Salvation in Seventeenth-Century Japan
by G. G. Rowley is a painstakingly researched examination of the life of a remarkable woman who lived in 17th-century Japan, and whose involvement in a great imperial court scandal would change the course of her life forever.

Nakanoin Nakako was a noblewoman who entered into the service of the imperial court when she was around 11 years old. The Imperial Daily Records of January 19th, 1601 mark her entry into this vast and complicated world simply: “The young lady, daughter of the Nakanoin, entered [the palace]; she was received in the anteroom with congratulatory cups of sake and strips of kelp."

The life the young Nakako entered was one solely centered on the emperor. When she became of age, she might fulfill duties such as serving meals to the emperor, bathing and clothing him, presented his gifts and providing entertainment. Women of age might also attend to that duty inherent to the role of an imperial concubine, but these duties were not recorded in the otherwise meticulous Daily Records.

Nakako's rigid yet luxurious life as an imperial concubine was altered forever by what would eventually be known as the "Dragon Scandal." In the 6th month of 1609, a series of hurried, almost frantic entries in the diaries of courtiers record the growing rumors circulating about "lax behavior" on part of the imperial palace attendants.

By the end of that month, the imperial concubines were forbidden to leave their apartments due to the beginnings of an investigation. At the beginning of the 7th month, the entries in the Daily Records mark an ominous note: "1st day: … His Majesty took his morning cup of sake. No meal was served because no one could be found."

Three days later, the Dragon Scandal finally broke. Five women, including Nakako, were sent into the custody of their families to await further instructions from the emperor. The women were accused of "lax behavior." The nature of these accusations varied from source to source, but the broad accusations included: leaving the imperial palace to attend private parties in the homes of male courtiers; attending kabuki dances outside of the palace; and, most damaging of all, possibly having sexual relationships with men who were not the emperor.

Whether or not Nakako or any of the people accused were guilty is unknown and legitimately irrelevant: they were punished, regardless. The initial punishment set for this behavior was execution for all parties involved, men and women alike. However, the emperor was persuaded to only execute two men of a lower rank, while the rest of the accused--including Nakako--were sent into exile.

Nakako was banished to the island of Nijima, but she would never make it there. The boat transporting her to her new home shipwrecked in the harbor of Nagatsuro, at the tip of the Izu Peninusula. A village nearby would become her home for the next 14 years. Information about Nakako's life there is scarce but invaluable. Rowley was able to find contemporary accounts that describe a relatively peaceful life: Nakako directing the dancing for harvest festivals and on some occasions, dancing in the festivals herself. She was known in the village as Nakako-hime--or princess Nakako.

In 1623, Nakako and the other women punished in the Dragon Scandal were pardoned and allowed to return to the capital. Nakako was a young women of 18 or 19 when she was exiled; by the time she was pardoned, she was in her early 30s. Her life after her pardon is something of a mystery: she drops off official records, and nothing is known about where she lived or what she did. Rowley believes it is likely that she lived quietly with at her family home.

In 1641, Nakako again appears in the records: Eighteen years after she was pardoned for her apparent role in the Dragon Scandal, she joined an aristocratic convent. She would become an abbess of this same convent. She died in 1671, around the age of eighty, outliving the rest of her family.

Nakako is an elusive figure. She did not leave behind extensive written records. She did not play a drastic, country-altering history that often leads historians to treasure troves of information. Yet she did exist. And Rowley has managed to uncover her story through scraps of contemporary records: notes in the Daily Records about her entry into the imperial court and subsequent banishment; poetry; diaries mentioning the tumultuous events of the court; local records and in some cases, local legends passed down for generations about "princess Nakako" and her journey. The end result is a shining light, however incomplete, on a figure who otherwise may have been lost to history.

Rowley takes on the remarkable task of not only telling Nakako's story, but fleshing out her world by researching the lives of her contemporaries in order to provide a glimpse of what her life would have been like. Readers may be left wishing that there was something in Nakako's own hand to take in, something written by this woman whose life ebbed and flowed on the whim of the imperial court and the emperor's wishes. Yet the wispy traces of Nakako, a young woman in the prime of life banished from all she has ever known and torn from her family, make her more enigmatic than ever.

This poem, composed by Nakako's father after he received a letter from his daughter, explaining her banishment, records the despair at Nakako's parting from her family and former life:

Could even the
Expected eternal parting
Compare with this?
I wonder at such a moment
Coming in my own lifetime.

I highly recommend An Imperial Concubine's Tale: Scandal, Shipwreck, and Salvation in Seventeenth-Century Japan by G.G. Rowley for readers interested in 17th century history, Japanese history, or women's history.

[I was provided a copy of this book by the publisher in exchange for a review]

Wednesday, May 26, 2021

The prince de Ligne on Marie Antoinette: "She laughed and sang and danced until she was twenty five years old..."


image: A portrait of Charles Joseph Lamoral de Ligne by Charles Leclerq, 1780. Original black and white image colorized using DeOldify and Photoshop.    

Charles-Joseph Lamoral, the prince de Ligne (or Fürst von Ligne) was an important diplomat, writer, military marshal, and intellectual whose personal connection to Marie Antoinette provides an invaluable look at how the queen was perceived by someone who was allowed access into her familiar circles. 

Charles-Joseph was 20 years her senior, and was notably described by Stefan Zweig as being "the most refined of the whole [Trianon] band ... the only one who did not feather his nest while at the Trianon, and also the only one to preserve respectful memories of the Queen, as shown by what he wrote about her in his memoirs published in his old age." Zweig also considered de Ligne to be the "solitary exception" as an intelligent man in the queen's closer circle.

This particular passage quoted below stands out for its biting, fairly sarcastic rundown of the negative reputation that Marie Antoinette earned for almost entirely innocuous acts. 

Of course, his words should be taken in the context of both his status as a former companion of the queen and someone writing about her years after the fact, tinged with sadness for her ultimate fate.

For instance, de Ligne dismisses Marie Antoinette's gambling problem as being something she disliked and was merely "compelled to play," when it is known that Marie Antoinette did not just play the requisite court card games but illegal, high-stakes games for hours upon  hours; games which thrilled her and provided her with an escape from the stress of her personal life. While her gambling problem did gradually die off, the excuse de Ligne gives echoes the excuses Marie Antoinette wrote to her own mother, who heard through the spy-network-grapevine about the stunning losses at these types of games.

He also dismisses the 6 million livres purchase of the chateau de Saint-Cloud, solely because its purchase was related to Marie Antoinette wanting her children to have access to its fresher air. But it was an extravagant purchase, despite the lowered costs due to it being bought in the queen's name; particularly considering that it came shortly before the explosion of the Diamond Necklace Affair, which added to this aspect of the queen's reputation.

But despite the excuses de Ligne makes for certain aspects of Marie Antoinette's behavior, it's easy to understand his frustration with the negative reputation she earned for harmless things such as giggling as a teenager being teased by her ladies; having close friends; enjoying walks on the terrace; or--heaven forbid--walking on foot to the apartments of her companions.

From The Prince de Ligne: His memoirs, letters, and miscellaneous papers [translated by Katharine Prescott Wormeley]

As for the queen, the radiance of her presence harmed her. The jealousy of the women whom she crushed by the beauty of her complexion and the carriage of her head, ever seeking to harm her as a woman, harmed her also as a queen. Frédégonde and Brunehaut, Catherine and Marie de Medici, Anne and Theresa of Austria never laughed; Marie Antoinette when she was fifteen laughed much; therefore she was declared "satirical."

She defended herself against the intrigues of two parties, each of whom wanted to give her a lover; on which they declared her "inimical to Frenchmen"; and all the more because she was friendly with foreigners, from whom she had neither traps nor importunity to fear.

An unfortunate dispute about a visit between her brother the Elector of Cologne and the princes of the blood, of which she was wholly ignorant, offended the etiquette of the Court, which then called her "proud."

She dines with one friend, and sometimes goes to see another friend, after supper, and they say she is "familiar." That is not what the few persons who lived in her familiarity would say. Her delicate, sure sense of the becoming awed them as much as her majesty. It was as impossible to for get it as it was to forget one's self.

She is sensible of the friendship of certain persons who are the most devoted to her; then she is declared to be "amorous" of them. Sometimes she requires too much for their families; then she is “unreasonable.”

She gives little fêtes, and works herself at her Trianon: that is called “bourgeoise.” She buys Saint-Cloud for the health of her children and to take them from the malaria of Versailles: they pronounce her “extravagant."

Her promenades in the evening on the terrace, or on horseback in the Bois de Boulogne, or sometimes on foot round the music in the Orangery "seem suspicious." Her most innocent pleasures are thought criminal; her general loving kindness is “coquettish.” She fears to win at cards, at which she is compelled to play, and they say she “wastes the money of the State."

She laughed and sang and danced until she was twenty five years old: they declared her “frivolous." The affairs of the kingdom became embroiled, the spirit of party arose and divided society; she would take no side, and they called her “ungrateful.”

She no longer amused herself; she foresaw misfortunes: they declared her “intriguing.” She dropped certain little requests or recommendations she had made to the king or the ministers as soon as she feared they were troublesome, and then she was “fickle."

With so many crimes to her charge, and all so well-proved, did she not deserve her misfortunes? But I see I have forgotten the greatest [crime].

The queen, who was almost a prisoner of State in her château of Versailles, took the liberty sometimes to go on foot, followed by a servant, through one of the galleries, to the apartments of Mme. de Lamballe or Mme . de Polignac. How shocking a scandal! The late queen [Marie Leczinska] was always carried in a sedan-chair to see her cousin, Mme . de Talmont...


De Ligne's passage has a strikingly similar theme to a memorable quotation from Madame Campan's memoirs, in which she recounts the scandal of Marie Antoinette's preference for less formal clothing: 

"What misconduct might not be dreaded from a princess who could absolutely go out without a hoop! And who, in the salons of Trianon, instead of discussing the important rights to chairs and stools, good-naturedly invited everybody to be seated. "


Tuesday, May 18, 2021

And Marie Antoinette Said: "There is nothing new except what has been forgotten."

Marie Antoinette did not say "Let them eat cake!" 

Yet "Let them eat cake!" isn't the only dubious phrase frequently attributed to the last queen of France. A quick cursory search on Google or numerous social media platforms reveals many quotes supposedly said by Marie Antoinette. But did she really say them? Where did these quotes come from? In this post series, 'And Marie Antoinette Said...' we will be taking a closer look at some of the most famous quotes attributed to the queen to uncover their origins and hopefully, shed some light on their veracity.

"There is nothing new except what has been forgotten." 

This quote is another social media favorite; although there is often not any context given, this alleged quote is sometimes connected to Marie Antoinette's passion for fashion.

This attributed quote is particularly interesting because it is only within the past few years that it has become attributed to Marie Antoinette. Until the rise of social media and its love for bite-size quotable posts, the quote was associated not with Marie Antoinette... but with Rose Bertin, her favored marchande des modes.

This association is notable enough to have made Rose Bertin's Wikipedia page, which includes the attribution under its own heading ("Famous quote"):
Bertin is said to have remarked to Marie Antoinette in 1785, when presenting her with a remodelled dress, "Il n'y a de nouveau que ce qui est oublié" ("There is nothing new except what has been forgotten."

This association is confirmed in a varied selection of books from the 19th and 20th centuries.  Conklin's Who Said That? Being the Sources of Famous Sayings by George W. Conklin, published in 1906, echoes the basic sentiment of the quote as attributed to Bertin:

"There is nothing new but that which is forgotten (Il n'y a de nouveau que ce qui est oublie).

Attributed to Mlle. Bertin, a celebrated modiste, to Marie Antoinette (1755-93), replying to the question whether the model of a costume was quite new. The motto of the Revue Retrospective (1833) was 'Il n'y a de nouveau que ce qui a vielli' ('There is nothing new but that which has become antiquated.')"
In at least one book, Famous Sayings and Their Authors by Edward Latham, Marie Antoinette was described as having "asked whether the model of a costume was quite new, for she thought she had seen a drawing of it in some old engravings."

The biography 'Rose Bertin: The Creator of Fashion at the Court of Marie Antoinette" by Émile Langlade repeats the anecdote: 

"Indeed, nothing is new under the sun, in fashions as in other things; it is but the turn of the wheel. 'New things are only those which have been forgotten,' as Rose Bertin said very truly one day to Marie-Antoinette."

But did she actually say it?
First, let's take a closer look at the sources cited on Wikipedia. 
The earliest source cited on Rose Bertin's Wikipedia page in relation to this quote is the 1820 edition of The Edinburgh Review, Or Critical Journal.

This volume notes:
A proverb of which no nation makes such frequent application as the French, and which, as history relates, was the favourite maxim of the most inventive and academic of dressmakers, Mademoiselle Bertin, is, 'Il n'y a de nouveau que ce qui est oublié;' and we think the history of these didactic inventions affords a striking proof of its justice.
Here, the quote is associated with Mme. Bertin's profession in the fashion industry, as well as her reputation for being inventive with her work. We can determine from this text that Mme Bertin was associated with the phrase at least by 1820.

The second oldest source cited on Wikipedia, The International Encyclopedia of Prose and Poetical Quotations, was published in 1908 and contains this information:
The International Encyclopedia of Prose and Poetical Quotations, 1908

This book relates a variety of quotations and while it does not provide a historical source, it does at least further confirm the association of this phrase with Rose Bertin. This particular book also considers "There is nothing new except what has been forgotten" to be a variation of the Old Testament proverb, "There is no new thing under the sun."
The second, similar phrase ("There is nothing new except that which has become antiquated") is quoted in several volumes of the Revue Retrospective; the Revue Retrospective attributes the "antiquated" quote to Chaucer. We will return to the Chaucer further on ahead.
These particular variations are older than 1908 and can be found in earlier texts such as the the 1899 text, 'Classical And Foreign Quotations, Laws Terms and Maxims, Proverbs, Mmottoes, Phrases and Expressions...' This book also connects the quote to Rose Bertin.

Classical And Foreign Quotations, Laws Terms and Maxims, Proverbs, Mmottoes, Phrases and Expressions (1899)
The same phrases can be found in books published both before and after the 1908 book cited on Wikipedia. The fact that these variations can be found sometimes word-for-word in texts from various years suggests a cyclical effect: a book is published which associates the phrase with Rose Bertin, and similar books which collect quotes and anecdotes reuse these associations, sometimes using the exact same descriptions, later on, spreading the idea further.
The third source cited on Wikipedia is The Mirror of Laughter by Alexander Kozintsev, which notes in the preface:

'Il n'y a de nouveau que ce qui est oublié'--"There is nothing new except what has been forgotten," Marie-Antoinette's modiste Rose Bertin is said to have remarked when the queen approved an old dress Rose had refashioned for her.

'The Mirror of Laughter' is an examination of theories regarding the relationship of humor and laughter to human behavior. It is not really making a historical claim nor does it provide evidence that she said the phrase, as the preface is merely relating the anecdote.

None of the three cited sources claim that the quote was spoken in the specific year described on Wikipedia--1785. 

What are the origins of the quote?

There are two consistent themes that show up time and time again in the various books which published the "There is nothing new except what has been forgotten" quote during the 19th and early 20th centuries. 
One, the fact that the phrase is frequently associated with a similar quote attributed to Geoffrey Chaucer and two, the fact that both of these quotes are frequently lumped together as variations on the proverb, "There is nothing new under the sun," which is derived from this passage in Ecclesiastes. As written in the King James version of the text, which was collected in 1611:
"The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done, is that which shall be done; and there is no new thing under the sun. Is there any thing whereof it may be said, See, this is new? It hath been already of old time which was before us. There is no remembrance of former things; neither shall there be any remembrance of things which are to come, with those that shall come over."

 While researching the origins for the phrase "There is nothing new under the sun," I came across a website which suggested that its first known English variation use was found in Chaucer's 'A Knightes Tale,' but that they were unable to find a reference confirming that claim.

Could A Knightes Tale (A Knight's Tale) be the origin of the Chaucer quote?

In turns out: yes--with a language related caveat that because the original work was written in Middle English, the variations of it

The quote, as written in the original Middle English text of A Knight's Tale:
With hym ther wenten knyghtes many on;
Som wol ben armed in an haubergeoun
And in a brestplate and a light gypoun
And som wol have a paire plates large
And som wol have a Pruce sheeld or a targe
Som wol ben armed on his legges weel
And have an ax, and som a mace of steel
Ther is no newe gyse that it nas old.
Armed were they, as I have yow told,
Everych after his opinioun.

The Harvard University Geoffrey Chaucer website provides this modern translation for the passage:
With him there went knights many a one
One of them will be armed in a coat of mail,
And in a breastplate and a light tunic
And one of them will have a set of plate armor
And one of them will have a Prussian shield or a buckler;
One of them will be well armed on his legs,
And have an axe, and one a mace of steel --
There is no new fashion that has not been old.
They were armed, as I have told you,
Every one according to his preference.
While the Chaucer quote is not an exact match for the passage derived from Ecclesiastes, it is easy to see how they can be viewed with a similar sentiment. In fact, an English 1877 edition of The Knight's Tale, published this telling citation for the bolded line: "This line seems to mean that there is nothing new under the sun."

So how did we get from Ecclesiastes to Chaucer to Bertin? The presumed connection from the Bertin quote to Chaucer's quote is compactly described in the preface for Le vieux-neuf  by Edouard Fournier, published in 1859:
"There is nothing new except what has become antiquated," said the old English poet Chaucer; "Nothing is new but what has been forgotten," said Marie-Antoinette's marchande de modes 500 years later, rejuvenating indescribable ancient frills. The old word of the poet, refurbished by the milliner, could serve as the epigraph to the work of M. Fournier...
Here, Rose Bertin is described as using the words of Chaucer for inspiration, refurbishing them for her own needs. Once again, the context of the phrase is Rose Bertin reworking old fashion to make it new. Since the original Chaucer quote was distinctly related to fashion--more specifically, practical military attire and equipment--this may reflect an additional underlying connection between these two similar phrases that goes beyond expressing the same sentiment. 

My attempts to find a French translation of Chaucer's work with the exact phrase ("Il n'ya a de nouveau que ce qui a vieilli") were fruitless. Considering that the original work was written in Middle English and was frequently translated into varying forms of modern language over the years, it soon became clear that finding a copy with that exact phrasing would be improbable and turned towards reading the various editions to find out how they had interpreted the line.
A French translation from 1857 even omits Chaucer's line regarding "new and old" entirely.
A ses côtés l'on vit maint Chevalier fidèle;
Les uns portaient plastrons, ou cuirasses de fer,
D'autres étaient munis d'une cotte de mailles,
D'écus, de boucliers, ou bien d'un tranche-entrailles,
D'une hache ou d'un gâte-chair ;
Tous instruments de mort, dont sans discourtoisie
Un Chevalier se fert felon sa fantaisie.

At his side were seen many a faithful knight;
Some wore breastplates, or iron breastplates,
Others were provided with a coat of mail,
Of shields, shields, or even a slice of entrails,
An ax or a gâte-chair
All instruments of death, with no discourtesy
A Knight is born according to his fancy. 
This is not an isolated incident, as some other translations (including a 1795 English "Modern Version") also omit the notion of "Ther is no newe gyse that it nas old."

A later 1908 French translation, on the other hand, translates Chaucer's words with additional phrasing that provide context about what the text is referencing when it refers to "new" old things. Namely, equipment.

Il n’y a point d’équipement nouveau qui n’ait été anciennement.
Ils étaient armés, comme vous ai conté,
chacun selon son idée.

There is no new equipment that was not in the past.
They were armed, as you have told,
each according to his own idea.


It is safe to say that Marie Antoinette did not say this quote. It was not associated with Marie Antoinette until the social media era of the 21st century, in which online posts made an incorrect attribution which connected Marie Antoinette, rather than Rose Bertin, with this particular phrase.

It is uncertain but unlikely that Rose Bertin said this quote. I personally believe that she did not say it based on the lack of a contemporary connection. There is no known contemporary evidence to suggest she did, such as letters or individual memoirs, anecdotal or otherwise, which claim she said it from some sort of contemporary source. All we have are third-party, later anecdotal connections between Bertin and the phrase. It was associated with her by1820 and continued to be passed on afterwards as an anecdote.

The phrase "There is nothing new except what has been forgotten" should be viewed as an anecdotal, apocryphal phrase that appears to be spun from similar sayings, such as "There is nothing new under the sun" and Chaucer's "Ther is no newe gyse that it nas old." Chaucer's words were translated into a strikingly similar phrase in both English and France during the 19th century and were frequently connected to the quote attributed to Rose Bertin during this time period.

Sources and Further Reading