From the secret history of Marxist alien hunters to letting go of the ‘Anglosphere’, here are this week’s top picks in imperial and global history.
A. M. Gittlitz
In case you missed it — and there’s a lot of weird stuff going on, so it makes sense that some things would slip through the cracks — aliens exist. At least that’s what military officials and major politicians believe, according to a New York Times report from December that the Pentagon gave $22 million to aerospace research firms to investigate the UFO phenomenon. Much of that went to Robert Bigelow, a hotelier attempting to expand operations to space. Like Tom Delonge, the ex-Blink-182 guitarist who releases UFO videos and literature in an attempt to turn his To The Stars Academy corporation into a “perpetual funding machine”, he seeks to reverse-engineer UFO technology, and, in the process, give Ufology (the study of UFOs) a corporate makeover. While the “New Space Age” entrepreneurship of Elon Musk, Peter Thiel, and Jeff Bezos have caught criticism from the labor advocates and the left, Bigelow’s privatized Area 51 and Delonge’s “Uber for UFOs” ambitions have flown under the radar.
Though Ufologists tend to possess an anti-authoritarian streak (it’s hard to be pro-“The Man” when you’re convinced The Man is also lying to you about alien visitors), their singular focus on the truth being out there tends to overlook things like political economics. After all, wouldn’t the revelation of extraterrestrial intelligence be revolution enough? It’s hard to imagine that the global order — let alone the hierarchies of nationality, class, race, and gender — would remain the same after such an occurrence. But they also ought to question what it means that this new vanguard of Ufology appears far more interested in securing funding and turning a profit than bringing liberatory truth to mankind. Space has not always been such an apolitical void. It was the communists, after all, who started the Space Race by launching Sputnik in 1957. [continue reading]
If the East German central bank is remembered for anything, it’s usually only remembered for one thing — its sudden and utter demise. The Berlin Wall fell on November 9, 1989. A few months later on Sunday, July 1, 1990, the East German central bank handed over its monetary policy sovereignty to West Germany’s Bundesbank — more than three months before the two countries actually became one.
Suddenly the East German mark, called Mark der DDR, was out and the West German mark was officially in as the country’s sole legal tender. Money in East German banks was automatically converted. But the nearly 17 million East Germans only had six days to convert their hard cash or lose it. There were no actual exchange counters where currencies changed hands. All East German marks had to be deposited in a bank account in order to be exchanged. Cash found after July 6 was worthless. The race was on. A tiered exchange rate allowed for a one-to-one exchange, but only for a maximum of 6,000 marks for those over 60, 4,000 marks for adults and 2,000 for kids under 14. Any amounts over that were exchanged at the reduced rate of 2:1. [continue reading]
Dublin Review of Books
As the nineteenth century came to an end, rumours started to circulate widely about the violence perpetrated by the regime of King Leopold II in the Congo Free State. Parliamentary intervention followed from involvement by the two main NGOs: the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society and the Aborigines Protection Society. In 1903, a question was asked in the House of Commons by the Liberal MP Herbert Samuel. The foreign secretary, Lord Lansdowne, ordered the British consul and his man on the spot, Roger Casement, to journey into the upper Congo. Having spent five years reporting officially on many aspects of Leopold’s colonial administration, Casement was well-placed to investigate the stories. He would spend the next three months travelling through the region. On exiting the river with a dossier of hand-written reports, copied correspondences and memos, testimonies and a diary, he scribbled the first of nearly three hundred letters to ED Morel, a young activist-writer. He recommended him to read Heart of Darkness and suggested he contact the author, Joseph Conrad, to see if he would support a public campaign for systemic reform. Casement and Conrad had met in the lower Congo in 1890 and a friendship had developed between the two men.
Over the coming weeks, as the idea for a grassroots Congo reform movement grew green shoots, Casement corresponded with Conrad about the issue of atrocities and slavery. Casement’s letters have not survived, but five manuscript letters from Conrad to him are held in the National Library of Ireland. They reveal, on the part of Conrad, a sense of controlled outrage that the diplomatic will that had put an end to slavery at the start of the nineteenth century should have allowed an even more atrocious system to thrive in its place. Conrad was reticent. He may have expressed support for the campaign in spirit, but he declined to do so in public. [continue reading]
The television presenter Anita Rani will lead a delegation heading for the House of Commons this week to make the case for an annual day to commemorate the partition of India. Dr Binita Kane, whose father’s harrowing story was among those highlighted in a documentary presented by Rani last year, My Family, Partition and Me, has called for the day to both “remember the cataclysmic events of partition and celebrate the contribution south Asians have made to British society”.
Kane, supported by Rani and Virendra Sharma, the Labour MP for Ealing Southall and chair of the Indo-British all-party parliamentary group, will make her case at the Westminster event on Wednesday. “Before I took part in the documentary I was a fairly typical second-generation British Asian in that I hadn’t taken much notice of my roots,” Kane says. “I knew my father’s story but I hadn’t considered the human cost or how enormous the consequences of partition were.” [continue reading]
Michael Kenny and Nick Pearce
New York Times
Is there a family of English-speaking nations, united by cultural values, liberal market economies, the common law and democracy, that is waiting to welcome Britain with open arms after it frees itself from the constraints of the European Union? Some optimists think so. David Davis, the British government’s Brexit secretary until he left his post this week, said in a 2016 speech on the referendum: “This is an opportunity to renew our strong relationships with Commonwealth and Anglosphere countries. These parts of the world are growing faster than Europe. We share history, culture and language. We have family ties. We even share similar legal systems. The usual barriers to trade are largely absent.”
In 2013, Boris Johnson, a prominent Brexit supporter and foreign secretary until he also resigned this week, described Britain’s joining the precursor to the European Union in 1973 as when “we betrayed our relationships with Commonwealth countries such as Australia and New Zealand.” Both departed in protest of Prime Minister Theresa May’s most recent plan for Brexit, which includes concessions to European Union rules to make trading with the bloc easier post-Brexit and which, in Mr. Johnson’s view, has “suffocated” the dream of a global Britain, trading with the wider world. President Trump arrived in Britain on Thursday for a visit meant to “celebrate the strong business links between our two countries,” according to Downing Street. And maybe to renew kinship and ties between Britain and the United States? Unlikely. The problem is that in British politics, the Anglosphere has always been a paradox: a politically useful idea that has never lived up to the ambitions of its advocates. [continue reading]