From the Hollywood Nazi who spied for America to the myth of the spitting anti-war protester, here are this week’s top picks in imperial and global history.
Steven J. Ross
The neo-Nazi violence at Charlottesville, the persistence of hate speech by white supremacists such as Richard Spencer and the militant response of antifa forces in Berkeley, Calif., and elsewhere over the last few months have left many Americans wondering what to do when hate groups move from the margins into the mainstream of society, and when government authorities seem complacent or, as some would argue, complicit.
History provides us with potential answers. What we see today is a revival of the open hatred that permeated the American scene during the 1930s. Instead of neo-Nazis, white supremacists and hyper-nationalists screaming, “The Jews will not replace us,” real Nazis, Ku Klux Klan members and fascist groups with patriotic names such as the American Nationalist Party, marched in the streets of Los Angeles calling for “Death to Jews” on a regular basis. When Nazis held their first open meeting in Los Angeles in July 1933, seven months after Adolf Hitler became chancellor of the German Reich, they vowed to save America by destroying Communism and eliminating the Jewish menace — and they were prepared for murder if necessary. [continue reading]
While international editor of the Guardian, Anthony Hartley visited Amsterdam in 1958. Journeying in the opposite direction from Joris Luyendijk, he was immediately struck by the quiet confidence of the citizenry. It seemed such a contrast to the temper of 1950s Britain that he could not help contemplating the underlying cause. “They have learned to live in Europe as mere Europeans,” he ventured, “and—let us make no mistake—that is the way we ourselves and every ex-colonial power will have to live in the not-so-distant future.” Hartley marvelled at the extraordinary success of the Dutch in relinquishing an empire state of mind, not only in puncturing the moral imperatives of their civilising mission overseas but also their ready embrace of a new, downsized self-image drawn to a European scale.
In the early 1960s, Hartley returned to this theme in a series of articles for the Spectator, later published as A State of England (1963). By that time, Britain had caught up with the Netherlands in the liquidation of its empire, but rather than producing the same beneficial effects, it had caused “a narrowing of horizons and a sense of frustration in English society.” [continue reading]
The most intriguing thing about Donald Trump’s speeches and tweets about General Pershing around 1910—which claim he had his men shoot 49 captured terrorists in the Philippines with pig-dipped bullets in order to terrorize the rest—is not that he made the story up. That the tale is a fabrication is not pattern breaking when it comes to Trump’s general approach to history, or reality. One thing that is distinctive about the yarn is that it may qualify as the quintessential Trumpian use of history: the story’s naked and brutal hatred of Islam, its romance of aggressive, martial masculinity, its raw violence and obsession with blood released from bodies point squarely to its teller.
But while important, it’s not enough to simply call out a uniquely mendacious demagogue for playing fast and loose with historical facts for his own purposes. It is far more illuminating to ask why Trump has repeatedly (most recently, in response to an attack in Barcelona) chosen to transport his audiences to the early 20th century’s colonialist pith-helmet tropics. Where does the story comes from, how does it work, who is it meant to hail, and why—those exultant audiences—has it hailed them? Without doubt, the fable reveals more about its speaker than most would ever want to know. But what does it say about America? [continue reading]
What can history tell us about sexuality and asylum seeking? At a time when LGBTQI refugees have become an increasingly prominent feature of public and political debates about the ‘Refugee Crisis’, we might be left to conclude that ‘sexual refugees’ are a comparatively ‘modern’ phenomenon. However, the history of sexual exile, of displacement and of being out-of-place because of sexuality, has a long history, particularly in Germany: Weimar Berlin became home to thousands of people seeking sanctuary and sexual liberation from the prudish and homophobic values of their home countries. How has this history been remembered and called upon in attempts to understand present day sexual minority displacement?
Berlin, home to some 3,500 sexual minority refugees fleeing the crisis in Syria today, has revived its role as a haven for displaced queers. Almost a century ago, the city became home to a large number of homosexual exiles in search of sanctuary and sexual liberation. Most famously, Weimar Berlin welcomed Christopher Isherwood and W. H. Auden, whose writing reflects a perpetual sense of homelessness, of feeling out-of-place, only to find brief refuge in the city, in defiance of the coming Nazi storm. These figures are cast as ‘homosexual warriors’, the vanguards for today’s sexual freedoms in Europe and North America. Their writing is celebrated and their stories popularised by films like Bob Fosse’s Cabaret (1972) and the BBC’s Christopher and His Kind (2011), which present Berlin as a queer haven in defiance of the rise of fascism. [continue reading]
New York Times
“So where do these stories come from?” The reporter was asking about accounts that soldiers returning from Vietnam had been spat on by antiwar activists. I had told her the stories were not true. I told her that, on the contrary, opponents of the war had actually tried to recruit returning veterans. I told her about a 1971 Harris Poll survey that found that 99 percent of veterans said their reception from friends and family had been friendly, and 94 percent said their reception from age-group peers, the population most likely to have included the spitters, was friendly.
A follow-up poll, conducted in 1979 for the Veterans Administration (now the Department of Veterans Affairs), reported that former antiwar activists had warmer feelings toward Vietnam veterans than toward congressional leaders or even their erstwhile fellow travelers in the movement. [continue reading]