This Week’s Top Picks in Imperial & Global History


Marc-William Palen
History Department, University of Exeter
Follow on Twitter @MWPalen

From a new history of the world to the forgotten soldiers of the Second World War, here are this week’s top picks in imperial and global history.

The Silk Roads: A New History of the World

Bettany Hughes

Why do we travel? It is a question asked by historians, neuroscientists and anthropologists alike. Why are we driven, physically, intellectually and emotionally, to reach out beyond the horizon toward the unknown; to explore, connect and communicate? That query motivates Peter Frankopan’s splendid study, from prehistory to the present, of the Silk Roads: “the axis on which the world spun”.

The plural is important. Historically, the Silk Roads were a network, not a single highway. The geographical centre of this narrative is Asia Minor, Central Asia, the Caucasus, China and the Middle East; territories that met, traded with and domineered one another along arterial routes of communication. Frankopan freely admits to a boyhood enthusiasm for the region, a zone that for all its centrality remains suspiciously exotic on our world maps.  [continue reading]

Making a State by Iron and Blood

Rosa Brooks
Foreign Policy

The self-styled Islamic State has killed thousands in Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere, and states and media outlets around the world continue to decry its brutal tactics, which include a penchant for public decapitations, the mass slaughter of unarmed prisoners, and the sexual enslavement of women and girls. Still, if Western history is any guide, the Islamic State could well be on its way to global legitimacy.

History assures us that the commission of mass atrocities is no bar to future success. During the “reign of terror” that followed the French Revolution, France’s revolutionary government publicly beheaded an estimated 30,000-40,000 people — all in the name of liberté, égalité, and fraternité. In early 1790s, at least 150,000 other unfortunate French citoyens were shot, burned to death, hacked to pieces, or deliberately drowned in France’s Vendée region. “I crushed the children under the feet of the horses,” French Gen. François Joseph Westermann is said to have written after one particularly brutal campaign. “[I] massacred the women who, at least for these, will not give birth to any more brigands…. I have exterminated all. The roads are sown with corpses.” Well, tant pis! “Mercy,” Westermann concluded, “is not a revolutionary sentiment.” [continue reading]

The Great Emerging-Market Bubble

Bill Emmott
Project Syndicate

Something has gone badly wrong in the emerging economies that were supposed to be shaping, even dominating, the future of the world. The search for culprits is under way: commodity prices, fracking, US interest rates, El Nino, China, these and others lead the field. But the answer is simpler and more traditional. It is politics.

Look at Brazil. There an economy once tipped for ever-lasting boom has barely grown for more than two years, and is currently shrinking. Falling prices for its commodity exports haven’t helped, but Brazil’s economy was supposed to be about far more than just harvests and extractive industries. [continue reading]

For French-Algerians and Algerian-French, No Place to Truly Call Home

Amir Jalal Zerdoumi
New York Times

As a consequence of the 132 years of French colonization of Algeria, the two nations remain intimately entwined, if not always happily. The continuing ebb and flow, legally or not, of people like Mr. Ouis has created a population of Franco-Algerians and Algerian-French who often live uncomfortably in either place, and whom neither country has fully embraced.

Since the first wave of Algerian emigration before and during World War I, the migratory flow has never stopped. It was bolstered by France’s need to ensure its reconstruction after the two world wars, and fed by Algerian workers searching for jobs. The independence of Algeria in 1962 barely slowed the tide. The number of Algerian emigrants kept climbing through family reunifications, and by the mid-1980s, about one million people of Algerian descent were living in France. During Algeria’s civil turmoil in the 1990s, tens of thousands more people fled the violence between the army and Islamists. [continue reading]

From Nigeria to Burma’s Jungle

Monica Mark

A few months before he was shot as an enemy soldier in its sweltering jungles, 16-year-old Nigerian Isaac Fadoyebo had never even heard of Burma. The journey that led him there began in a fit of youthful exuberance when he ran away from his village in south-western Nigeria and signed up to fight for Britain in the second world war.

He joined an estimated 100,000 others from Britain’s colonies of Gambia, Ghana and Sierra Leone who sailed from west Africa’s creek-lined coast around the Cape of Good Hope, then onwards to Burma. There, Japanese soldiers ambushed his platoon and Isaac was left for dead behind enemy lines. What happened next captures not just the personal bravery of one man and the strangers into whose midst he was catapulted, but shines a light on a forgotten front of the war. [Watch Video/continue reading]

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