From America’s Cold War delusions to indigenous London, here are this week’s top picks in imperial and global history.
Odd Arne Westad
New York Times
The Cold War as a system of states ended on a cold and gray December day in Moscow in 1991, when Mikhail Gorbachev signed the Soviet Union out of existence. Communism itself, in its Marxist-Leninist form, had ceased to exist as a practical ideal for how to organize society. “If I had to do it over again, I would not even be a Communist,” Bulgaria’s deposed Communist leader, Todor Zhivkov, had said the year before. “And if Lenin were alive today, he would say the same thing. I must now admit that we started from the wrong basis, from the wrong premise. The foundation of socialism was wrong. I believe that at its very conception the idea of socialism was stillborn.”
But the Cold War as an ideological struggle disappeared only in part, despite Communism’s implosion. On the American side, not so much changed on that day. The Cold War was over, and the United States had won it. But most Americans still believed that they could only be safe if the world looked more like their own country and if the world’s governments abided by the will of the United States. [continue reading]
While Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo, and Desmond Tutu are rightly venerated for their role in opposing and ending white minority rule in South Africa, another leader of the liberation years has been remarkably overlooked: Bantu Steven Biko, who led the enormously influential Black Consciousness Movement. Four decades after his death in police custody on September 12 1977, he deserves to be recognised as one of the towering heroes of the anti-apartheid struggle.
Black Consciousness re-energised black opposition to apartheid and helped draw the world’s attention to the brutality of South Africa’s white minority rule. It began after the Sharpeville Massacre in 1960, when established liberation movements such as the African National Congress (ANC) and the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) were banned by the South African government and forced into exile. With the organised opposition apparently moribund, the South African state presided over an economic boom for the white minority and created the conditions for apartheid’s so-called golden age. [continue reading]
Joseph Ben Prestel
Global Urban History
Around 1900, contemporaries in Cairo and Berlin made remarkably similar arguments about the effects of urban change on city dwellers. A variety of actors from journalists and psychologists to police officers and city clerks portrayed entertainment districts in the two cities as having a problematic effect on emotions. They depicted the neighborhood of Azbakiyya in Cairo and the area around Friedrichstraße in Berlin as reducing people’s ability to control their feelings. My recently published book Emotional Cities: Debates on Urban Change in Berlin and Cairo, 1860-1910 examines these arguments. In it, I ask what historians can deduce from the similarity of arguments about urban change in these two geographically distant cities.
Between 1860 and 1910, Cairo and Berlin underwent a tremendous transformation in terms of their populations, cityscapes, and social compositions. Authors in both places started to portray these changes as affecting city dwellers’ emotions shortly after the middle of the nineteenth century. Various observers described activities such as newspaper reading, dancing in dance halls, and strolling through city streets as transforming people’s rationality, love, disgust, anger, or fear. [continue reading]
“The Room Where it Happens”: Enforcing Neutrality in the West Indies During the American War of Independence
International agreements are often touted as great achievements of a nation’s foreign policy and are usually accompanied by great fanfare. Peace treaties, meant to offer some form of conflict resolution, and treaties which govern the conduct of neutral nations during times of war are no exception. Once the fanfare has subsided, however, there remains the problem of enforcement and interpretation. In a time of fanfare around the Paris Climate deal, Britain’s EU referendum, and America’s changing relationship with Iran, it is perhaps apposite to look to the late 18th Century when the balance of power within Europe’s empires, and the treaties which governed it, witnessed shifts as dramatic as those we are experiencing today.
The opening of hostilities between Britain and her North American colonies in 1775, followed over the subsequent five years by ruptures with France, Spain, and Holland, created an increasingly hostile environment in the West Indies. Since the Seven Years’ War (1756 -1763) commerce between two of the largest colonial empires, Britain and Spain, had supposedly been regulated by the 1763 Treaty of Paris which was partly written to codify the rights and limits of neutrality should one signee enter a war in which the other declared itself neutral. The treaty failed in its most basic task because neutrality in the Americas was almost impossible to enforce. When the War of American Independence began Spain declared itself neutral. However, the war raging in North America opened up very lucrative smuggling opportunities for Spanish and British merchants operating in the West Indies: the rebels needed military supplies which came mostly from Europe through the West Indies and the British islands needed food from the mainland American colonies to feed their slave populations. [continue reading]
Today Coll Thrush speaks with The Junto about his most recent book, Indigenous London: Native Travelers at the Heart of Empire, which examines that city’s history through the experiences of Indigenous travelers—willing or otherwise—from territories that became the US, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand….
JUNTO: You say in your first chapter that you expected to discover an “invisible Indigenous version of the urban past,” and then admit your error and admission that the people you ended up writing about “did not need discovering. Indigenous people never do.” This project seems like it required constant readjustment of what you knew, or thought you knew. What have you learned that you’d share with other historians keen to engage more deeply with Indigenous studies? [continue reading]