From Krushchev’s 1956 charm offensive to democracy in East Germany, here are this week’s top picks in imperial and global history.
Cold War International History Project
For historians of the Cold War, 1956 rings with special significance. It was the crossroads of the 20th century, a meeting place of its many uncertain trajectories. The Soviet Union had mostly recovered from the devastation of the Second World War; its new leader, Nikita Khrushchev, beamed with confidence at the bright prospects of socialism, carried on the wings of Soviet science. The successful test of the Soviet thermonuclear bomb in November 1955, and the ongoing Soviet efforts to pair nuclear warheads with ballistic missiles, added a menacing edge to Khrushchev’s international posture. But although the Soviet leader knew that he was now in possession of a terrible means of destruction, he realized, too, that a world war in a nuclear age could mean the end of civilization. Such sober thoughts encouraged Khrushchev to revisit the old Stalinist thesis that wars were inevitable. At the 20th Congress of the Soviet Communist Party in February 1956, Khrushchev offered a new approach: that of peaceful co-existence between the East and the West.
Fears of nuclear war did not blunt Khrushchev’s enthusiasm for revolutionary change around the world. Perceiving the global anticolonial struggle as a golden opportunity, the Soviet leader extended economic and military aid to struggling postcolonial regimes in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. But even as Khrushchev eyed the mantle of the grave-digger of colonialism, tremors rocked the foundation of the socialist camp. Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin at the 20th Congress led to anti-Soviet protests in Eastern Europe. Things turned especially ugly in Poland and Hungary. Khrushchev refrained from intervening in Poland but chose to crush the Hungarian uprising. That intervention would cast a long shadow; in many ways, it was the beginning of the end for the socialist project. But, in early 1956, Hungary was still in the future, while Stalinism had already been cast aside. Khrushchev—ebullient, proud, hopeful—counted on an early end to the Cold War. It was this spirit that animated him, in April 1956, on his inaugural visit to the United Kingdom. [continue reading]
Over the ages, the United States has routinely intervened in Latin America, overthrowing left-wing governments and propping up right-wing dictators. President Obama pressed a reset button of sorts last month when he traveled to Cuba and Argentina. Now it’s time for him to visit a Latin America country that is geographically smallest but where Washington’s footprint is large and the stain of intervention perhaps greatest—El Salvador.
In Argentina, on the 40th anniversary of a military coup that ushered in that country’s “dirty war,” President Obama said it was time for the United States to reflect on its policies during those “dark days.” In the name of fighting communism, the Argentine government hunted down, tortured, and killed suspected leftists—sometimes throwing their bodies out of helicopters into the sea. “We’ve been slow to speak out for human rights and that was the case here,” Obama said. That failure to speak out looks benign in contrast to the active role Washington played in the “dirty war” in El Salvador in the 1980s, which pitted a right-wing government against Marxist guerrillas. The United States sent military advisers to help the Salvadoran military fight its dirty war, as well as hundreds of millions of dollars in economic and military aid. [continue reading]
A key question in the debate about Britain’s future in Europe concerns the alternative global economic connections available to the UK. The North American Free Trade Agreement, the European Free Trade Association and free-wheeling bilateralism all have their advocates. Yet one other alternative carries particular emotional resonance: the Commonwealth.
For some Brexiters the Commonwealth is the perfect global trading network for the 21st century. At times this position carries a hint of nostalgia. In the leaders’ debate before the 2015 general election UKIP leader Nigel Farage described leaving the EU as a chance to reconnect with the rest of the world, “starting with our friends in the Commonwealth”. Yet is there in fact such an alternative? [continue reading]
Panama City, Panama – Celso stands on the tip of a canoe, looking out into the Panamanian rainforest. He steers the boat along the shallow river that weaves through Chagres National Park. The 25-year-old is a member of the Embera, one of Panama’s seven indigenous tribes. “Some Indians move to the city, but many come back,” he says. “Life is simpler here. It’s too fast in the city.” Celso went to high school in the capital for four years, but decided to return to his village, where his seven brothers live. “I prefer living here. We are freer than the people in the city,” he says.
Just an hour’s drive south lies busy Panama City. There, seemingly worlds away from Celso’s village, glass and steel skyscrapers line the harbour front, home to the offices of multinational firms. Right in the heart of the capital is the office of a law firm that is at the centre of the biggest leak of confidential financial data in the history of journalism: Mossack Fonseca. The so-called Panama Papers exposed a global web of 214,000 offshore shell companies, involving heads of state, athletes, financial institutions and criminals. [continue reading]
In 1968, East Germany went about adopting a constitution that would provide the legal basis for country’s state-socialist system. Rather than simply imposing this new document, as the ruling Socialist Unity Party (SED) could have easily done, it instead chose a more labour-intensive option: a mass national discussion followed by a plebiscite. Between February 2 and the vote on April 6, 1968 nearly a million events and meetings were held throughout the German Democratic Republic (GDR) to discuss the contents of the proposed constitution. Over the course of this Volksaussprache, the constitutional commission received more than 12,000 letters and post cards from East Germans, expressing their support, concerns, and criticisms.
But wasn’t East Germany a dictatorship? What was the point of such activities when it was clear to all from the beginning that the new Socialist Constitution would become law if the SED wanted it to happen? Much of the political structure of the German Democratic Republic appears similarly strange in retrospect. Even before East Germany was officially founded in 1949, the SED was clearly the sole power due to the influence of its Soviet patrons. In spite of this fact, there were several other political parties such as the Christian Democrats and the Liberal Democrats who also held seats in the national parliament, the Volkskammer. Article 1 of the new constitution of 1968 made it official that the SED was the leading party of East Germany, yet there continued to be elections until 1989. What was the point exactly? [continue reading]