From the end of war in the West to getting high with Hitler, here are this week’s top picks in imperial and global history.
Fidel Castro and his rag-tag band of fighters assembled on the shores of Mexico, stealthily navigated their overcrowded boat to southeastern Cuba, and unleashed a 1956 insurgency that rocked all of Latin America. That temblor lasted 60 years and ended, more or less, on Monday. Castro seized power in 1959, and his brother Raul still rules Cuba today. The revolution washed over the entire region, inspiring leftist insurgencies throughout Latin America for decades until the final one effectively came to a close as the Colombian government and the FARC rebels signed a peace deal in the Colombian coastal city of Cartagena.
“Long live Colombia, long live peace,” the crowd chanted as Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and rebel leader Rodrigo Londono, both dressed in all white, shook hands on Monday evening. The deal brings peace to a country that has endured more than a half-century of civil war. Yet widely overlooked is the far more sweeping notion that it brings down the curtain on six decades of nonstop conflicts in Latin America. [continue reading]
Timothy W. Ryback
Every year since 1903, on the third Tuesday of September, the Golden Coach—Gouden Koets—has carried the reigning monarchs of the House of Orange from a royal palace to the Dutch parliament for a “throne speech,” an annual assessment of the state of the kingdom. Thousands of jubilant subjects gather to watch the horse-drawn carriage clatter along the leafy streets of The Hague and to catch a glimpse of their beloved monarch. It is known asPrinsjesdag, the day of the little prince.
Last September, the Golden Coach, drawn by a team of eight horses and fitted with the full regalia of empire—crests, murals, gold-gilt curlicues—had a headlong collision with the twenty-first century. On September 5th, two weeks before the annual carriage ride, several dozen protesters gathered on Museum Square, in Amsterdam, to denounce the carriage itself. The Golden Coach, which dates to 1898, has on its left flank a triptych painted by the decorative artist Nicolaas van der Waay, called “Homage from the Colonies.” The two outer panels show half-naked black men shouldering massive bales and satchels. The central image is of a statuesque woman seated on a throne, with two black figures in supplication before her. One kneels in reverence, hands clasped and head bowed as if in prayer. The other prostrates himself, back bent, head lowered, with his right arm outstretched over clusters of bananas and other produce offered as homage to the allegorical queen. It is an appalling sight. [continue reading]
THIS MONTH The Battle of Algiers turns 50. But Gillo Pontecorvo’s acclaimed movie about the Algerian people’s fight for liberation from French colonialism shows little sign of aging. Often described as a “classic” that has “stood the test of time,” the film has been acknowledged as an influence on everyone from the Black Panthers and the Red Army Faction to the military juntas of the Southern Cone. It may, however, have had the greatest impact in the United States, where it has appealed both to scholars of colonial and postcolonial history, such as myself, and to members of the military and defense community.
A screening of the film at the Pentagon in August 2003 unleashed a small media storm, as journalists reacted with skepticism and scorn: was the Bush administration at such a loss in Iraq that it needed to draw lessons from a 40-year-old Italian movie? “It seems far too late for Mr. Bush to begin studying about counterinsurgency now that Iraq has cratered into civil war,” opined Maureen Dowd. “Can’t someone get the president a copy of Gone With the Wind?” [continue reading]
EP Thompson, one of the most influential historians of the 20th century, wrote an impassioned denunciation of the leadership of the British Communist party at the height of the cold war, but few outside MI5 knew anything about it after the agency intercepted the letter. The party’s leaders, Thompson said, were despotic and untrustworthy, and would sweep away long-cherished political freedoms if they ever achieved power.
Thompson, himself a Communist party member at the time, wrote the letter in 1956, shortly after the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev gave a speech in which, for the first time, he criticised Joseph Stalin, who had died three years earlier. A copy of the letter lies within MI5’s files on Thompson, five of which have been declassified and transferred to the National Archives at Kew, in south-west London. [continue reading]
I begin with two recent interrogations on two poles of the African continent. The first materialised on the pristinely repurposed white walls of an old factory building in the district of Maboneng, Johannesburg, on June 10, 2016. Pasted onto a piece of cardboard and hanging on the wall was a photograph of Mohammed Ali, arm stretched across his powerful frame in the upward swing that had just knocked Sonny Liston to the mat and won him the heavy-weight title. Scrawled in red magic marker across the photograph was the question: “Does reactivating the past help us to change the now”?
Was mourning the death of Ali a simple act of respect, a collective ritual of tribute to a great man? Or could the re-entry of Ali’s image and message actually serve as an active force in present struggle? Created as part of two weeks of “Emergency Art”, where artists produced pieces on a daily basis that responded to immediate issues, Thierry Colonel Geoffroy’s focus upon the global mourning of Ali’s death on 3 June, 2016, highlights several resilient aspects of African contemporary life, including: the continuing connection between the diaspora and Africa, the uses and abuses of physical force, and the significance of history in the present conjuncture. What did it mean, in June 2016, for people to be confronted with this image and to assess the life and legacy of this strong, proud, determined black man who defied every attempt to rein him in – both inside and outside the boxing ring? [continue reading]
The German writer Norman Ohler lives on the top floor of a 19th-century apartment building on the south bank of the river Spree in Kreuzberg, Berlin. Visiting him there is a vertiginous experience. For one thing, he works – and likes to entertain visitors – in what he calls his “writing tower”, a flimsy-seeming, glass-walled turret perched right on the very edge of the roof. (Look down, if you dare, and you will see his little boat moored far below.) For another, there is the fact that from this vantage point it is possible to discern two Berlins, one thrusting and breezy, the other spectral and grey. To our left, busy with traffic, is the Oberbaum Bridge, where there was once a cold war checkpoint, and beyond it the longest remaining section of the Berlin Wall, its doleful length rudely interrupted by the block of luxury flats that went up in 2013. As for the large building immediately opposite, these days it’s the home of Universal Music. Not so very long ago, however, it was the GDR’s egg storage facility.
Does all this press on Ohler as he sits at his desk, the light bouncing off the screen of his laptop? Is it ghostly sometimes? “Yes, it is strange,” he says, smiling at my giddiness. But then he has long believed in a certain kind of time travel. “I remember the 90s. The wall had just come down, and I was experimenting with party drugs like ecstasy and LSD. The techno scene had started up, and there were all these empty buildings in the east where the youth [from east and west] would meet for the first time. They were hardcore, some of those guys from the east – they didn’t understand foreigners at all – and the ecstasy helped them to lose some of their hatred and suspicion. Sometimes, then, you could step into a room, and you could just see the past. Of course, it’s not like that now. I don’t take drugs any more. But I can remember it, and maybe that was why I was able to write this book.” [continue reading]