This Week’s Top Picks in Imperial & Global History

Abjad al-ḥarb ʻThe alphabet of warʼ (British Library, COI Archive, ‘Arabic A.B.C.’ PP/1/28L). © British Library, 2016

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

From how history can save the global economy to African utopias of the 1960s, here are this week’s top picks in imperial and global history.

How history can help us solve global economic issues

Anne McCants
MIT News

Q: How can the field of history help us in solving the world’s economic issues?

A: In the same way that cosmology and geology (the two historical sciences) have been absolutely critical to most important developments in science — for example, we depend on the fossil record, the tectonic record, and the cosmic record for much of the evidence necessary for the study of everything from biology to theoretical physics — so too the study of history provides the accumulated evidence of how human systems function, and more importantly thrive. History matters because without a credible story about where we have been before, we truly have no idea where we are now. And without evidence about past sequences of cause and effect, it is well-nigh impossible to develop intelligent plans for the future.

Moreover, it is not sufficient to say, “Well then, let’s just study the important things from the past, but not all that trivial stuff that distracts so many historians.” Unfortunately, humans are notoriously bad at knowing in advance which things will turn out to be important. To take just one simple example, we now know that conditions of gender equity, especially female education, are critical to economic development. Yet for centuries it did not occur to anyone to record what women did, let alone study that. [continue reading]

The British Government’s Arabic-Language Output during WWII

Louis Allday
British Library Asian and African Studies Blog

Throughout the Second World War, Britain’s Ministry of Information (MOI) produced and disseminated a remarkable assortment of propaganda material in Arabic. The material that it produced was intended to counter pro-Axis sentiment in the Arab World and bolster support for Britain and its allies. This propaganda effort arose largely in response to the German and Italian Governments’ own large scale propaganda campaigns that, with some success (more so Germany than Italy), targeted the Middle East and North Africa from the 1930s onwards.

The German Government broadcast Arabic language radio programmes to the region seven days a week before and throughout the duration of the war. These broadcasts portrayed the Nazis as friends of Islam and staunch supporters of anti-imperialist movements, especially those that were opposed to the British Empire. Unsurprisingly, they found a receptive ear amongst some individuals then under the control of British colonial authorities; notably so after the fall of France in May 1940, when the prospect of Britain losing the war appeared a likely outcome to many. Pro-German sentiment in Iraq and other areas has been well-documented, but the broadcasts also had an impact on the periphery of the region. For example, in Sharjah on the British controlled Trucial Coast (present day UAE), pro-German graffiti was written on walls and large crowds gathered around the palace of its ruler, Shaikh Sultan bin Saqr al-Qasimi, to listen to the German radio broadcasts. [continue reading]

Histories of Food and Hunger

Rachel B. Herrmann

Here’s the thing about histories of food and hunger: they’re tricky to write because food and hunger are everywhere and nowhere. Food is everywhere in the sense that it often gets mentioned in passing in works of history that don’t focus on food—particularly histories of the environment, and histories of contact between different groups of people. Food also appears to be everywhere when one thinks about culinary microhistories, or narrative histories of individual spices, fruits, and other edible items that “changed the world.”

One could say that food was nowhere as of ten or twenty years ago, because although lots of people had written culinary microhistories, only a small number of chronological histories existed—and many of them focused on the late-nineteenth and twentieth centuries. More recently, historians have turned their attention to the colonial period and the early nineteenth century, asking questions about race formation, power relations, and environmental changes over time. People in the historical record itself also sometimes recorded the physical absence of food, which is where I think things get really interesting. Food absences have yielded provocative histories of hunger and protest that are just as much about imperialism and modernity as they are about starvation. [continue reading]

‘Vindictive’ Polish leaders using new war museum to rewrite history

Alex Duval Smith

A spectacular new museum of the second world war is at the centre of an extraordinary row between international academics and Poland’s political leadership, amid claims that the country’s ruling Law and Justice party is putting history at the service of politics. Due to open in December in the northern city of Gdańsk, the museum is billed as one of Europe’s prestige cultural projects for 2016. It comprises 13 storeys – six of them underground – and has been built at a cost of £72m. Dozens of countries across Europe and beyond have donated artefacts, including a Sherman tank and a Soviet T34 tank.

The British historian Norman Davies, who is revered in Poland for his many books about the country, has been closely associated with the project for eight years and heads its high-ranking international advisory board. He told the Observer that attempts by the Law and Justice government to hijack the museum are “Bolshevik’’ in style and “paranoid’’. He said: “The Law and Justice government does not want a bunch of foreign historians to decide what goes on in ‘their’ museum.’’ The Oxford-based academic said one of the driving forces behind government hostility towards the project in its present form was Law and Justice strongman Jarosław Kaczyński, “who runs everything like a personal politburo.’’ [continue reading]

The Sixties and Red Africa: the decade of searching for African utopias

Gerard McCann

Congo’s first democratically elected prime minister Patrice Lumumbawas a celebrity in Yugoslavia. Lumumba’s execution in 1961 caused such outrage that the Belgian embassy in the Yugoslav capital Belgrade was ransacked. Yugoslav leader Josip Tito was himself a regular visitor to Africa – he went to Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Egypt 20 times. Tito’s aim was to consolidate the socialist friendship sweeping through the 1960s. Such connections in the 1960s-70s and their contemporary legacies are revealed in two striking recent cultural seasons: “Red Africa” at the Calvert 22 in London and “The Sixties – A Worldwide Happening” in Amsterdam’s Tropenmuseum.

‘Red Africa’ banner at London’s Calvert 22 gallery. Calvert 22

“The Sixties” and its book was more catholic. It foregrounded the non-Western history of this most iconic liberation era. Through fashion, art and music it stressed the promiscuous connections that pulsed across the world. [continue reading]