From linking the Irish Revolution and the First World War to today’s lessons from the Warsaw ghetto, here are this week’s top picks in imperial and global history.
Richard S. Grayson
As the 1918 Armistice is marked on November 11th, the focus of the “Decade of Centenaries” will change. Gone will be parallel remembrance of the first World War and events of the Irish Revolution. In its place will be complicated and perhaps even raw commemorations of revolutionary centenaries which still have political resonance today. It will be easy to assume that commemoration of the first World War is over, but that would be a mistake, partly because there is still an appetite among many Irish people to research and mark the dead of that conflict. Family history is not going away. It would also be mistaken because the first World War and the Irish Revolution were intimately connected processes which are hard to understand without constant reference to the crossovers between the two.
Instead of seeing the First World War and the Irish Revolution as two separate events which happened at the same time, incidentally sharing some connections, we should see them as part of a series of “Great Wars” in which conflicts of nationalism, imperialism and military service were played out from the turn of the century to the 1920s and beyond. [continue reading]
The Ryukyu Islands are a chain of Japanese islands that stretch southwest from Kyushu to Taiwan. The former Kingdom of Ryukyu was formally incorporated into the Japanese state as Okinawa Prefecture in 1879. From the end of the fourteenth century until the mid-sixteenth century, the Ryukyu kingdom was a center of trade relations between Japan, China, Korea, and other East Asian partners.
According to his journal, when Commodore Matthew C. Perry demanded that the Ryukyu Islands be opened to his fleet in 1854, the Tokugawa shogunate replied that the Ryukyu Kingdom “is a very distant country, and the opening of its harbor cannot be discussed by us.”2 The few English-language studies3 of this encounter interpret this reply as evidence that the bakufu was reluctant to become involved in discussions about the international status of the Ryukyus; no further work has been done to investigate the bakufu’s foreign policy toward the Ryukyus between 1854 and the early Meiji period. In what follows, I compare American sources with Japanese documents to show that in 1854 the bakufu did not define the Ryukyus as a “country,” that is, as a state completely independent from Japan. More importantly, I point out that during negotiations with Perry, the bakufu’s understanding of the status of the Ryukyus was very similar to that of the Matsumae domain in Hokkaido, which the bakufu considered a territory under the authority of the Matsumae clan. In short, the bakufu never used the word “country” to describe either the Ryukyus or Matsumae and it deliberately defined its relations with these distant territories in ambiguous terms in order to deter interest by foreign powers. [continue reading]
After overseeing his country’s rapid economic development for nearly a decade, the leader of an Asian nation abolishes term limits and assumes absolute power. As justification, he cites the need for national unity in an increasingly uncertain security environment. Western-style democracy, he argues, is neither necessary nor inevitable; the country needs a strong leader and a government with distinctive national characteristics. To counter the influx of Western values, he rehabilitates Confucianism, once shunned as the root of the country’s backwardness. In the West, meanwhile, observers lament this political regression, wondering why economic growth has not led to political liberalization; some argue that the country represents a new model of development.
The country is not China under Xi Jinping but South Korea under Park Chung-hee. The year is not 2018 but 1972. At the time, few imagined that South Korea would be a functional democracy and a member in good standing of the liberal international order within a decade and a half. The heavy industrialization program that Park launched when he consolidated power not only helped South Korea overcome poverty to become a producer of high-value goods such as automobiles, ships, steel, and chemicals; the reforms that made South Korea’s economic development possible also undermined Park’s authoritarian government. The regime tried and failed to stem the tide of liberalization: in 1987, South Korea made a successful transition to democracy. [continue reading]
The head of the World Trade Organization has responded to President Donald Trump’s threat to leave the institution by warning such a move would cause chaos for U.S. companies operating around the world. In an Oval Office interview with Bloomberg on Thursday, Trump warned that he would withdraw from the WTO “if they don’t shape up.” The president also called the 1990s agreement establishing the body “the single worst trade deal ever made.”
Roberto Azevedo, the WTO’s director general, told Bloomberg on Friday that he was already working with the U.S. and other members to address some common complaints. But he warned that a U.S. exit from the WTO would have chaotic consequences for the global economy and the U.S. itself. “The scenarios are not going to be good for anyone,” he said. “The U.S. is about 11 percent of global trade. So leaving the organization would be a blow to the organization. But it would be a blow to the U.S. as well.” [continue reading]
Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel stated this summer that “when the generation that survived the war is no longer here, we’ll find out whether we have learned from history”. As a Polish Jew born in 1925, who survived the Warsaw ghetto, lost my family in the Holocaust, served in a special operations unit of the Polish underground, the Home Army, and fought in the Warsaw uprising of 1944, I know what it means to be at the sharp end of European history – and I fear that the battle to draw the right lessons from that time is in danger of being lost.
Now 93 years old and living in Tel Aviv, I have watched from afar in recent years as armchair patriots in my native Poland have sought to exploit and manipulate the memories and experiences of my generation. They may think they are promoting “national dignity” or instilling “pride” in today’s young people, but in reality they are threatening to raise future generations in darkness, ignorant of the war’s complexity and doomed to repeat the mistakes for which we paid such a high price. [continue reading]