From bombing Wall Street to rewriting the history of the Second World War, here are this week’s top picks in imperial and global history.
He was walking near the corner of Wall and William streets — the hub of New York’s financial district — when a violent roar made him turn around. Two walls of flames “seemed to envelop the whole width of Wall Street,” exporter Elwood M. Louer said, recalling how fire shot as high as the 10th story of nearby buildings. But Louer wasn’t there on September 11 or even this century. His close shave came almost a 100 years ago in one of America’s earliest terrorist attacks.
On September 16, 1920, a bomb planted on a red horse-drawn wagon exploded into the lunchtime crowd at Wall and Broad streets. This was just outside the House of Morgan (now known as J.P. Morgan), then the world’s most powerful financial institution. The force of the explosion, which killed 38 and wounded hundreds, was strong enough to lift people off the ground and fling the mangled horse halfway down the road. [continue reading]
Modern Contemporary Birmingham
The debates surrounding the Greek bailout have prompted a look at historical examples of foreign financial assistance. Writing on colonial bailouts and the Austrian financial reconstruction of the 1920s, Jamie Martin discerns continuities that boil down to curtailing a state’s sovereignty in order to ensure the servicing of foreign debt. Installing foreign commissions of control that curtailed fiscal policy and public spending, from the Ottoman Public Debt Administration or the bailout of Egypt’s Khedive to the League of Nations’ schemes during the interwar period, prevented default or allowed for the provision of new foreign loans.
Martin concludes by criticizing the League’s interwar interventions for introducing semi-colonial methods to Europe, noting the dangers such a precedent created for the future sovereignty of European states. Of course sovereign states are never completely free to do as they please. Nor does it seem unreasonable that creditors of bankrupt states link the supply of new capital, or the partial forgiveness of existing debt, to certain conditions. This is particularly true in cases where public funds or state guarantees are involved because private institutions refuse to lend money at reasonable interest rates. What is reminiscent of colonialism then, is not the partial curtailing of sovereignty itself, but rather the kind and the extent of conditions that are imposed and they way they get realized, sometimes against the explicit will of voters. [continue reading]
The streets of Mexico City in the early 1900s were buzzing with bohemian visions of a new world. The famous Mexican critic Carlos Monsiváis once described the capital as “an apocalyptic city, populated with radical optimists”. He forgot that, for three years at least, there was one radical humanist among them. MN Roy is one of India’s intellectual giants, an early 20th-century figure whose mind thought globally, and whose influence ran through some of the era’s biggest minds, from Einstein and Gramsci to Lenin and Sun-Yat Sen.
All of this I learnt only after encountering a bizarrely named nightclub on the streets of Mexico City earlier this year. M.N. Roy (not his real name) is also sadly obscure, a largely forgotten fringe figure in the annals of modern Indian thought. But he shouldn’t be. His writings hold up extraordinarily well, and his philosophical school of Radical Humanism has newfound relevance in our fractured, divisive time. This is an attempt, through comics, to find resonance with a deeply unusual man and his ideas. It is, of course, a playful interpretation of his work rather than a scholarly analysis. [continue reading]
When you walk into the Museum of Soviet Arcade Games in St. Petersburg, the first thing you’ll see is a series of gray, hard-edged soda machines from the early 1980s. If you choose the one in the middle, it will dispense a tarragon-flavored and slightly fermented soda whose recipe relies on a syrup that has not been mass produced since the fall of the Soviet Union. It tastes not unlike a mix of molasses and breath mints.
All around us are beeps, pings, and shot blasts coming from rickety old machines that seem like they’ve time-traveled from the golden era of American arcade games. And yet, everything’s in Russian, we’re using kopecks as currency, and there is no Donkey Kong here. This is not your typical museum. For one thing, everything is not only touchable, but playable. Designed to look like a 1980s USSR video game arcade, the museum is filled with restored games carefully modeled after those in Japan and the West and manufactured to the approval of the Cold War-era Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev. [continue reading]
The problem of violence, perhaps the true root of all social ills, seems irresolvable. Yet, as most thoughtful people have realized after the wars of the twentieth century, the dangers human aggression pose have only increased exponentially along with globalization and technological development. And as Albert Einstein recognized after the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki—which he partly helped to engineer with the Manhattan Project—the aggressive potential of nations in war had reached mass suicidal levels.
After Einstein’s involvement in the creation of the atomic bomb, he spent his life “working for disarmament and global government,” writes psychologist Mark Leith, “anguished by his impossible, Faustian decision.” Yet, as we discover in letters Einstein wrote to Sigmund Freud in 1932, he had been advocating for a global solution to war long before the start of World War II. Einstein and Freud’s correspondence took place under the auspices of the League of Nation’s newly-formed International Institute of Intellectual Cooperation, created to foster discussion between prominent public thinkers. Einstein enthusiastically chose Freud as his interlocutor. [continue reading]
Stalin’s terror and purges of the 1930s discouraged any Soviet official from putting a pen to paper, let alone keep a personal diary. The sole exception is the extraordinarily rich journal kept by Ivan Maisky, the Soviet ambassador to London between 1932 and 1943, which I unearthed in the archives of the Russian Foreign Ministry in Moscow.
No personal document of such breadth, value and size has ever emerged from the Soviet archives. For the last decade I have scrupulously edited and checked the diary against a vast range of Russian and Western archival material as well as personal papers to allow the wider public access to this remarkable relic. [continue reading]