From imprisoning ‘bad’ historians to Alice in a world of wonderlands, here are this week’s top picks in imperial and global history.
Jan Grabowski, a historian at the University of Ottawa, expects his upcoming book to be controversial in his native Poland. But if a proposed new law is approved by Poland’s parliament this fall, as expected, Grabowski’s book, which examines the role of Poland’s police force in robbing and murdering Jews under the Nazis, may also get him sentenced to prison if he visits the country. “Young people will now think twice before even studying Jewish-Polish relations” if the legislation is passed, warned Grabowski, who noted that teaching and research jobs are already scarce in Poland, where government-funded universities are the major employer.
The government bill, prepared by the Ministry of Justice, would make it a criminal offense, punishable by up to three years in prison, for anyone to implicate Poland, or the Polish people, in the crimes of the German Third Reich. The bill, which was sent to the Polish Sejm, or parliament, on August 16, is expected to become law when it is voted on in September, because the ruling Law and Justice party, which backs it, holds a large parliamentary majority. [continue reading]
A few years ago, I was chatting with some US politicians in Washington when the conversation turned to Afghanistan — and the Allied strategy there. “Let’s hope we don’t see a repeat of Gandamak,” I joked grimly. “Gandamak?” one of the group asked, looking baffled. I explained that I was referring to the first ill-fated effort that the British had made to conquer Afghanistan, in the 19th century, which ended in retreat — and brutal slaughter at the village of Gandamak.
My explanation was met with blank stares. These particular policymakers had only a hazy idea that Britain had twice tried to conquer Afghanistan, and that both these attempts — like those of the Russians a century later — ended in failure. This is dispiriting. When the Allied forces went into Afghanistan a decade ago, with the objective of subduing al-Qaeda and the Taliban, American voters were assured that it would be a short and easy campaign. But anyone with a cursory knowledge of the so-called “Great Game” that Russia and Britain played in 19th-century Central Asia would have known this was not going to be the case: while outsiders have often subdued Kabul, they have never controlled Afghanistan for long. [continue reading]
In January 2016, I attended Tate Britain’s Artist and Empire: Facing Britain’s Imperial Past, a disappointing exhibition that in spite of its title did not face Britain’s past in any meaningful way. On the contrary, as I argued in my review, it shied away from this bloody history in favour of quasi-glorification, non-committal wording and vague descriptions that resulted in an exhibition sorely lacking any critical analysis of the realities of colonialism and imperial rule. A few days after I visited this exhibition, the results of a survey concerning the UK public’s attitude towards the British Empire were announced. This survey found that 44 percent of the public were proud of their country’s colonial past and 43 percent believed that the British Empire was a good thing.
A similar survey in 2014 discovered that a staggering 59 percent of the public believed that the Empire was something to be proud of and that 34 percent would like it if Britain still had one; a paltry 19 percent saw it as something to be ashamed of. With these statistics in mind, I began to think about how Britain’s violent past, as well as its present, is portrayed in other museums and cultural institutions around the country and how these depictions may have contributed to the public holding such ill-informed ideas about Britain’s history of imperialism. [continue reading]
Paul A. Kramer
Something about walking naked through the ruins of St. Bernard Parish at 2 in the morning helped Tech Sgt. Mickey Giovingo leave Iraq. Since returning from war, he had slept in his car in the driveway of his smashed, cream-colored ranch house, in his uniform—the only clothing he had. He remembers sitting out there at night, thinking, “There are more noises at night in the desert than here.” He was hypervigilant, startling at the smallest sounds.
Sometimes, he went out on patrol. He’d hear a car pull up and head over to confront the driver; copper thieves were ransacking abandoned houses, tearing out their plumbing. He says he never threatened them but told the invaders to leave or he’d call the police. He always took along the gun he’d bought as soon as he arrived home, tucked behind his back. “A combat-mode kind of thing,” he said. One night, the isolation felt unbearable, and he had an idea. He took off his clothes, put on his tennis shoes, and went out into the devastation. He’d been subject to military discipline for months. He’d lost everything. Walking up the street stripped bare, he at last felt under his own command. When else could he do this without getting thrown in jail? “It was freeing,” he said. [continue reading]
During the last two decades a revisionist wave has gripped the historiography about imperial breakups. A venerable topic at least since World War I, generations of historians strove to explain why multinational empires crumbled to give way to nation-states. The entire scholarly field of nationalism studies was in good part a branch of this gigantic question, which the Yugoslav Wars once more thrust on historians’ minds.
Yet with the memory of these wars fading, the tables have turned. The tide of revisionism has been of such vast proportions as to become the new mainstream. In the academic field of global and imperial history today, hardly anyone argues that empires were doomed to be replaced by nation-states. It was all more complex and, above all, contingent, we learn instead. As I have argued in my last book, it is time to challenge this new revisionist mainstream. [continue reading]
Rebecca L. Walkowitz
LA Review of Books
When we read comparatively, we are actually reading across time as well as across space and language. And we now have a very unusual opportunity to do so. To honor the 150th anniversary of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, first published in 1865, a group of 250 translators, scholars, and literary historians banded together to produce Alice in a World of Wonderlands: The Translations of Lewis Carroll’s Masterpiece. This three-volume, 2,656-page compendium, heroically edited by Jon A. Lindseth and Alan Tannenbaum, has all the trappings of rigorous scholarship — Three heavy volumes! Lists and charts! An entire volume devoted to bibliography! — but it also contains many unexpected and quirky delights. Since this is a book about the work of Lewis Carroll (né Charles Dodgson), inventor of the Mad Hatter, the Queen of Hearts, and a host of other seriously absurd and absurdly serious characters, it is only right that the learned enterprise has a bit of playfulness around every corner.
There are numerous essays about the book’s history of publication, adaptation, and translation into 174 languages (serious). But those languages include not only alphabetic idioms such as Korean, French, Hindi, Yiddish, Cockney, Ladino, and Brazilian Sign Language — to name a few — but also non-alphabetic idioms such as Shorthand, Cipher, and QR BarCode (absurd). We learn that Alice in Wonderland has been translated into eight “invented languages” such as Esperanto, Volapük, and Alphagram. Nobody speaks these languages, at least not in their everyday life, but that hasn’t kept translators from wanting to create La Aventuroj de Alicio en Mirlando (Esperanto), Ventürs jiela Lälid in Sunalan (Volapük), andAceil in addelnnorW (Alphagram). There are also numerous translations in archaic languages, including three “Middles” (Middle Breton, Middle English, and Middle Irish) and two “Olds” (Old English and Old Norse). Why render Alice in a language nobody speaks? Translation confers value and longevity: the languages live because Alice lives in them. [continue reading]