From black radicalism’s complex relationship with the Japanese Empire to how Soviet tanks shook up the Australian Left, here are this week’s top picks in imperial and global history.
September 1905. Japan had just become the first Asian power to defeat a European Empire with the conclusion of the Russo-Japanese War. For more than a year, the Japanese Empire and Tsarist Russia had been vying for control over Korea and Manchuria. On September 5th, Japan forced a Russian retreat, sending shockwaves across the intellectual sphere of black America and the colonial world. As Bill V. Mullen of Purdue University eloquently notes in his 2016 book, W.E.B. Du Bois: Revolutionary Across the Color Line, Du Bois was so moved that he declared: “The magic of the word ‘white’ is already broken.” Du Bois was convinced that “the awakening of the yellow races is certain… the awakening of the brown and black races will follow in time.”
For anti-colonial intellectuals and black activists in the U.S., the Japanese victory presented a moment of realization: If, with the right strategy, European colonialists could be forced to retreat from far east Asia, why couldn’t they be forced to leave the Caribbean and Africa? By the time World War I began, Du Bois would write a seminal essay, “The African Roots of War,” wherein he would ask why African workers and laborers would participate in a war they couldn’t understand. Why, he wondered, would “Africans, Indians and other colonial subjects” fight for the sole aim of “the exploitation of the wealth of the world mainly outside the European circle of nations?” He demanded that they take inspiration from “the awakened Japanese.” [continue reading]
Manfred von Richthofen is undoubtedly the most famous aviator of the First World War, possibly of all time. But he’s not famous by name, so much as by nickname: he is the Red Baron, a reference to his red aircraft and his aristocratic birth. It instantly evokes images of knights of the sky, grappling together in mid-air until one is felled, tumbling to the ground far below. As an example, here’s an account from the British press of ‘The end of the Red Baron’ (with Joseph Simpson’s illustration, above):
Cavalry Captain Baron von Richthofen was shot down in aerial combat on the day when the German papers announced his 79th and 80th victories. Boyd Cable writes: ‘The Red Baron, with his famous “circus,” discovered two of our artillery observing machines, and with a few followers attacked, the greater part of the “circus” drawing off to allow the Baron to go in and down the two. They put up a fight, and, while the Baron manoeuvred for position, a number of our lighting scout machines appeared and attacked the “circus.” The Baron joined the mêlée, which, scattering into groups, developed into what our men call “a dog fight.” In the course of this the Baron dropped on the tail of a fighting scout, which dived, with the Baron in close pursuit. Another of our scouts seeing this dived after the German, opening fire on him. All three machines came near enough to the ground to be engaged by infantry machine-gun fire, and the Baron was seen to swerve, continue his dive headlong and crash in our lines. His body and the famous blood-red Fokker triplane were afterwards brought in by the infantry, and the Baron was buried with full military honours. He was hit by one bullet, and the position of the wound showed clearly that he had been killed by the pilot who dived down after him.’
The odd thing is this is the only use of the phrase ‘red baron’ in the British Newspaper Archive in reference to Richthofen for the entire war — and even then, it’s after his death. [continue reading]
Newly found documents about the government’s intervention into the media reporting of the “Sorge Incident” in the 1940s show in detail the intensity of relevant bureaucrats’ efforts to minimize the fallout from the international espionage case that the home affairs ministry made public on May 16, 1942.
“Please delete line 6 of Page 1 of justice authorities’ comment,” said a memo dated May 14, 1943, describing the foreign ministry’s “unofficial opinion” regarding a draft of the home ministry announcement of the case. “Please delete item 5 on Page 2,” it continued. The memo is among the documents left by Justice Ministry bureaucrat Taizo Ota. Drafts of the home ministry announcement, bearing stamps saying “top secret” and “strictly confidential,” bear handwritten or typed corrections or redactions in several places reflecting the opinions of relevant government offices. These detailed changes indicate bureaucrats involved in the process paid utmost attention to getting the text right. [continue reading]
Toru Dutt, one of 19th century India’s greatest poets in English, was also one of the first Indian authors to write in French. An ardent Francophile, she translated dozens of poems and completed a novel before her death at the age of 21 in 1877. During her short life, Dutt was almost unknown in France, which she had visited only for a few months in 1869, as part of her parents’ programme to provide her and her siblings with a European education. In early 1877, however, Dutt – already suffering from a fatal illness – wrote a letter that would transform her reputation, making her a celebrity figure of francophone literature. She had just read Women on Ancient India and wrote a note of appreciation to its author, Clarisse Bader. A journalist, historian and Orientalist, Bader had written the book when she was 22 and recognised Dutt as a kindred spirit.
The two women exchanged several letters, discussing Sanskrit and French literature, as well as their shared Catholic faith, until their correspondence was cut short by Dutt’s demise. Dutt’s father sent Bader the manuscript of his daughter’s French-language novel, The Diary of Mademoiselle d’Arvers, asking her to ensure its publication in France. Bader succeeded spectacularly, engaging a major French publisher the following year and she wrote an introduction to the novel which set the stage for France’s enthusiastic reception of Dutt’s work. [continue reading]
The year 1968 saw an upsurge of unrest all round the world. It began, after the Tet Offensive, with demonstrations against the Vietnam War in London, Berlin, Tokyo, Rio de Janeiro, New York and Washington. Student protests in France led to the closure of universities in May and a wave of strikes that spooked President Charles de Gaulle into temporarily fleeing the country. The year before, Cuban revolutionary leader Che Guevara, who would be killed leading a guerrilla movement in Bolivia, had called for ‘two, three, many Vietnams’ around the world.
By 1968 these wars of national liberation in developing countries were being accompanied by disorder across the developed ones. After Martin Luther King was shot in Memphis in April, violence erupted in a hundred US cities. The National Guard opened fire on demonstrators at Kent State University, Ohio in the following month, killing four of them. Then, in August, a Soviet airborne division secured the Prague airport as 2,000 tanks and 250,000 soldiers of the Warsaw Pact countries crushed Alexander Dubcek’s reform government of Czechoslovakia. The protest movement continued in the West with the ‘Black Power’ Olympics in Mexico and the police violence at the Democratic Convention in Chicago. Here in Melbourne there was a march on the US consulate on the fourth of July. There were marches, sit-ins and occupations of administration buildings on Australian universities. [continue reading]