From inside Britain’s secret underground Cold War city to why we need international history, here are this week’s top picks in imperial and global history.
Inside Britain’s secret underground city built during the Cold War to protect the government from nuclear attack
In December 2004, a short announcement was posted on the Ministry of Defence’s website. It read: “A formerly secret Government underground site near Corsham in Wiltshire, which was a potential relocation site for the Government in the event of a nuclear war, was declassified at the end of 2004.”
This was the first official acknowledgement of an urban fortress lying beneath the picturesque English town of Corsham which was, for around forty years, the British military’s most closely-guarded secret. The threat of war hung over the west in the 1950s, and the Cabinet Office decided that an alternative seat of government was needed to prepare for the worst-case scenario: all-out nuclear war. [continue reading]
Gareth Stedman Jones
It is a striking fact that Brexit has been swept into existence by a Parliament made up mostly of members who believed, on their election, in the principle of remaining within the European Union. The fact that so many have voted against their expressed opinions is a clear and disturbing departure from the principles of parliamentary sovereignty, by which Parliament is the sovereign body. The referendum of 23 June, according to this system, was purely advisory. In reality, it was opportunistically invented to manage a cleavage in the Tory Party. However, following its shocking and unintended Brexit result, the referendum has since been crudely advanced by its supporters as the embodiment of ‘the will of the British people’. A glance at the history of referenda shows why it remains so contentious a tool.
The first serious modern discussion of referenda occurred during the French Revolution and concerned the most sensitive of all the political questions: what to do about the King. In 1791, Louis XVI attempted to escape from France, having reneged upon his acceptance of all the revolutionary measures enacted since the fall of the Bastille in 1789. Once he was recaptured, the king was tried and condemned by the Convention. But opinion was then divided between those who supported the King’s execution (the Montagnards) and those who believed that this decision should be made by the ‘people’ through a referendum (the Girondins) – the hope being that the rural population would be more merciful towards the King. The English radical Tom Paine, a member of the Convention, opposed the proposal to use a referendum. He argued that it contradicted the principle of representative government. Instead, Paine suggested that rather than face execution, the royal family should be banished to America. [continue reading]
War crimes files revealing early evidence of Holocaust death camps that was smuggled out of eastern Europe are among tens of thousands of files to be made public for the first time this week. The once-inaccessible archive of the UN war crimes commission, dating back to 1943, is being opened by the Wiener Library in London with a catalogue that can be searched online.
The files establish that some of the first demands for justice came from countries that had been invaded, such as Poland and China, rather than Britain, the US and Russia, which eventually coordinated the post-war Nuremberg trials. The archive, along with the UNWCC, was closed in the late 1940s as West Germany was transformed into a pivotal ally at the start of the cold war and use of the records was effectively suppressed. Around the same time, many convicted Nazis were granted early release after the anti-communist US senator Joseph McCarthy lobbied to end war crimes trials. [continue reading]
In commemorating 1917, even if October 1917 is at the center of our preoccupations, we are commemorating many anniversaries. An event about “The Russian Revolution and the world” that confines itself without comment, apology, explication or apparently even second thought to October 1917 is clearly inadequate. At the very least we need to recognize the complexity of the February revolution in its amalgam of Menshevik, SR, Liberal, conservative nationalist and early, local Bolshevik elements. We should recognize the revolutions of the major regions and nationalities of the Tsarist empire. We should recognize the Greens and the Kronstadt rebellion. All of these have a legitimate claim to be considered part of the “Russian revolution (of 1917)”.
If the focus of attention is indeed to be placed on the Bolsheviks, as well it may be, it is only against this broader backdrop that that choice acquires its political and historical meaning. Insisting on the complexity of 1917 is not an academic, pedantic or liberal quibble. It is only against that broader backdrop that the questions of “success” and “failure” and of “legacies” can be intelligently posed. To proceed otherwise, is historically and politically illiterate. Or it is simply to fall in with the cruder varieties of Bolshevik and Stalinist fellow travelling and/or their conservative and liberal opposites. [continue reading]
International history is not in vogue. Ambitious doctoral students gravitate to international relations theory, or, to one of the more fashionable historical research themes such as transnational or global history. While the study of how transnational processes such as migration, the diffusion of ideas or trade shaped contemporary life is important, the neglect of international history is certainly regrettable and perhaps even dangerous.
It is worth reflecting on when and why the field took shape to appreciate its values and purpose. The study of diplomacy dated back to the renaissance and nineteenth century historians such as Leopold von Ranke brought rigor to the study of foreign policy making. But the study of international politics as a whole, or more precisely the inner workings of the system of states, only began with the outbreak of the First World War. [continue reading]