History Department, University of Exeter
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From the return of the European far right to a trip to Tolstoy Farm, here are this week’s top picks in imperial and global history.
The dark European stain: how the far right rose again
hen the last zoning war is won, and the Donald J Trump Presidential Library finally opens for business in Manhattan, it is not hard to imagine future historians idling inside the gift shop, regretting that their subject had not done them all a favour and gone full fascist. How much easier the history would be to write if one could date the beginning of the end of the democratic era to the day Trump took office? How much more convenient if the echoes of the 1930s had been of perfect pitch: if Trump had locked up Hillary Clinton, if the trade wars had turned hot; if, instead of withdrawing security clearances from his enemies, Trump simply had them shot.
The intellectual reflex of today’s Western liberals is to invoke the spectre of fascism. It is the most solemn way of registering their revulsion at the course politics has taken. Madeleine Albright, the former US secretary of state and herself a child of fascist Europe, writes that fascism “pose[s] a more serious threat now than at any time since the end of the Second World War”. Fintan O’Toole, Ireland’s leading liberal intellectual, declares fascism is under way. “What we are living with is pre-fascism,” he writes. Michelle Goldberg of the New York Times agrees: fascism “is already here”. [continue reading]
Lisbon museum plan stirs debate over Portugal’s colonial past
A campaign pledge to build a museum in Lisbon dedicated to Portugal’s colonial history has sparked a debate over Portuguese national identity, the nature of historical memory and the question of collective guilt.
The controversy centres on the so-called Age of the Discoveries – the period starting in the 15th century when expeditions by Portuguese navigators helped the country lay claim to territories stretching from Asia to South America. The period is widely regarded as both the apex of Portuguese history and the bedrock of national identity. But a growing chorus of critics has begun to question it, drawing attention to the crimes committed in the service of Portugal’s colonial project. [continue reading]
Why Europe should focus on its growing interdependence with Africa
It is a peculiarly modern habit to think of the Mediterranean Sea as a boundary. For over two millennia, civilisations bled across it and intermingled. Roman, Carthaginian, Moorish and Venetian empires expanded primarily along maritime routes. It took four days to get from imperial Rome to today’s Tunisia, but 11 days to reach Milan. The Sahara restricted contact between this Mediterranean Eurafrica and the regions to the south, but not entirely. A study of 22 skulls from Roman London found that four were African, for example. The medieval wealth of desert trading cities like Timbuktu and Agadez spoke of extensive north-south commerce. Later European colonialists penetrated, pillaged and parcelled up the continent; African troops fought in the trenches of the first world war; Europeans fought in Africa in the second.
Three subsequent events curbed this trans-Mediterraneanism. European powers left Africa with decolonisation; many African states sought to be neutral during the cold war; Europeans turned towards Asia’s booming markets as globalisation took hold. Tellingly, the geopolitical buzzword of the moment is “Eurasia”. Europe and Asia are integrating along old Silk Road routes, especially under China’s Belt and Road infrastructure splurge, yet “Eurafrica” remains relatively little discussed. Europe is too busy rushing into Asia’s arms to embrace a continent on its doorstep which may be even more significant in the long term. [continue reading]
Alternative museum tours explore colonial loot, biased narratives
“The South Sea Company did not trade in fish,” says Alice Procter, as she shows visitors around Queen’s House, a maritime museum in Greenwich, southeast London. “They traded in something far more valuable to the English monarchy – slaves.” The 23-year-old Australian art historian is behind the “Uncomfortable Art Tours”, a series of museum visits in the capital exploring history with a twist.
She focuses on what she describes as racist narratives and an ideology that underpins the objects displayed in European exhibitions from the colonial period, which isn’t always mentioned. On the Queen’s House tour, portraits, botanical records, curios and engravings commemorating various European expeditions are analysed and put into context, sometimes to the discomfort of some of her tour group, who are mainly young white women – like Procter herself. [continue reading]
A Trip to Tolstoy Farm
Jordan Michael Smith
Gandhi first read Tolstoy’s The Kingdom of God Is Within You in 1893. “I was at that time a believer in violence,” he later remembered. “Reading it cured me of my skepticism and made a firm believer in [nonviolence].” He carried the book with him to court and from one prison to another. He visited a Tolstoy colony in England, and read Tolstoy’s “A Letter to a Hindu,” eventually having 20,000 copies printed. “A Letter” advised Hindus in India to resist Britain nonviolently, since using violence would mean employing the same methods as the very enemy they aimed to defeat. Gandhi opened a fruitful correspondence between the two, in which they recommended each other books they had written and read; the last long letter Tolstoy ever wrote was to Gandhi. In 1910, Gandhi helped found Tolstoy Farm, in South Africa, where he cultivated and taught his philosophy. When Tolstoy died later that year, Gandhi wrote an obituary in Indian Opinion: “He was for us more than one of the greatest men of his age. We have endeavored, as far as possible, and as far as we understood it, to follow his teaching.”
Tolstoy’s adherents were globally dispersed and influential on the nonviolent social movements that still bring people into the streets, but the movement itself disappeared within a generation. The Tolstoyans discovered what Piper did decades later. Tolstoy’s philosophy was too demanding, its devotees susceptible to the same foibles and flaws as all other humans. Even if people felt compelled to love each other above all else, they were cursed with other, equally powerful impulses: to luxuriate, to hate, to enjoy physical pleasures, to seek power and status. When recalled at all, by obscure historians, Tolstoyism is remembered merely as another one of humanity’s failed, fruitless experiments with utopia. [continue reading]
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