This Week’s Top Picks in Imperial & Global History

Marc-William Palen
History Department, University of Exeter
Follow on Twitter @MWPalen

From how First World War colonial violence came home to what if the Soviet Union hadn’t collapsed, here are this week’s top picks in imperial and global history.

How colonial violence came home: the ugly truth of the first world war

Pankaj Mishra

oday on the Western Front,” the German sociologist Max Weber wrote in September 1917, there “stands a dross of African and Asiatic savages and all the world’s rabble of thieves and lumpens.” Weber was referring to the millions of Indian, African, Arab, Chinese and Vietnamese soldiers and labourers, who were then fighting with British and French forces in Europe, as well as in several ancillary theatres of the first world war.

Faced with manpower shortages, British imperialists had recruited up to 1.4 million Indian soldiers. France enlisted nearly 500,000 troops from its colonies in Africa and Indochina. Nearly 400,000 African Americans were also inducted into US forces. The first world war’s truly unknown soldiers are these non-white combatants. [continue reading]

Capitalists and Climate

Glenda Sluga

A number of the world’s political leaders are currently making a lot of fuss about their business credentials. The President of the United States is a “dealmaker.” The Prime Minister of Australia tells him on the phone that because they are both “businessmen” they understand each other and their “transactional” instincts. In other words, political exchange is not driven by any underlying ideal, but merely a quid pro quo. Although, to tell the truth, Malcolm Turnbull is less a businessman, and more, like the President of France, a banker, although Emmanuel Macron honed his “business” skills in the corridors of the Paris-based Rothschild investment bank, Turnbull at the “global” Goldman Sachs. In today’s world, both businessmen and bankers seem to fit comfortably into the business-suited profession that is politics. Trump is no banker, but his “Make America Great Again” government has been called “Government Sachs” precisely because of the number of that one bank’s alumni now responsible for governing the most powerful nation on earth.

For anyone who remembers the global financial crisis of 2008, it might seem odd to see so many bankers in government, even if bankers, like businessmen, have always influenced politics. At the height of the crisis, banker had become a profession hard to admit to. After all, Goldman Sachs, it was discovered, had played a critical role in accelerating the crisis by unconscionably selling dubious mortgage-backed securities. After the collapse, there was a tendency to view bankers as the problem, not the solution. Governments put regulations into place to manage their individual and collective behaviors (Goldman Sachs was fined $5 billion, although bankers avoided individual culpability, and banks also benefited from government bailouts). In less than a decade, it might feel better to identify as a businessmen, but bankers too are unabashedly back. [continue reading]

How Japan’s youth see the kamikaze pilots of WW2

Mariko Oi
BBC News

Irrational, heroic and stupid: this was what three young people in Tokyo said when I asked them about their views on the kamikaze. “Heroic?” queried Takumi, of his younger brother Shunpei’s choice of word. “I didn’t realise you were so right wing?” It is difficult to verify the figures but it is believed that 3-4,000 Japanese pilots crashed their planes into an enemy target on purpose. Only 10% of missions were believed to be successful but they sank some 50 Allied vessels.

Decades after the war, opinions on the kamikaze pilots remain divided, partly because their legacy has been used repeatedly as a political tool. “During the seven years of the Allied occupation of Japan, the kamikaze reputation was one of the first things that they went after,” Prof MG Sheftall from Shizuoka University explained. The suicidal tactic was portrayed as “insanity”. “But when the Allies left in 1952, the right wing nationalists came out strongly and they have carried out multi-generational efforts to seize back control of the narrative,” he says. “Even in the 1970s and 80s, the vast majority of Japanese people thought of the kamikaze as something shameful, a crime committed by the state against their family members. “But in the 1990s, the nationalists started testing the water, seeing whether they could get away with calling the kamikaze pilots heroes. When they didn’t get much push back, they got bolder and bolder,” he added. [continue reading]

Narrating New Zealand’s colonial past through convict micro-histories

Kristyn Harman

Tasmania’s world-heritage listed convict records provide extensive access to accounts of the lives of largely working-class nineteenth-century individuals. As well as containing rich physical descriptions of these individuals, they reveal narratives of a person’s life leading up to conviction (including family connections) as well as lists of additional offences, punishments, and indulgences received while under sentence. Read in conjunction with related record sets such as criminal trials, this documentation can be repurposed from its original intent and used to narrate micro-histories of convict lives.

Taken together, micro-histories of people with a common place of trial, for example, illuminate the wider socio-economic, political, and legal contexts within which they were sentenced. New Zealand is a case in point. [continue reading]

What if the Soviet Union Had Not Collapsed?

Tarik Cyril Amar
The Red Legacy

As states go, the Soviet Union died young. It also never made it to where it really wanted to be: communism. The first socialist state – and empire, and then superpower – did not die innocent or, actually, without achievements. It has left humanity a rich record of stifling bureaucracy, ideological mulishness, and, last but not least, a legacy of tyranny and oppression, at first manically bloodthirsty and then (mostly) depressingly drab. But it also left us – almost hidden in plain sight – the imprint of its crucial contribution of eliminating the scourge posed by Nazi ideology. It is a fact abused for propaganda, but it is still a fact.

The centenary of 1917 brings home just how short the life of that country so ambitious, so failed, and so consequential really was. While its mythical birthday is only a century ago, it has already been more than a quarter century since its death. Middle-aged professors – like this author – who teach about it can remember it, but most of their students cannot. This simple fact must have consequences for how we think about the Soviet system, which the October Revolution of 1917 spawned. [continue reading]

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