This Week’s Top Picks in Imperial & Global History

Sam Rothbort: Itka the Bundist Breaking Windows, 1930s–1940s

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

From why some Italian-Americans defend Columbus Day  to the global voice of Eric Hobsbawm, here are this week’s top picks in imperial and global history.

Why Some Italian-Americans Still Fiercely Defend Columbus Day

Christina Caron
New York Times

As cities across the country increasingly reject Columbus Day, choosing instead to celebrate Indigenous People’s Day, some Italian-Americans have sent a clear message: Their holiday isn’t going down without a fight. Columbus Day, named for the Italian explorer who sailed to the Americas on behalf of Spain more than 500 years ago, has become a painful reminder of the oppression endured by native peoples. At the same time, the holiday remains an important part of Italian-American heritage, and for many, it is one worth keeping.

“It serves as a unifying factor in our community,” Basil M. Russo, the national president of the Order Italian Sons and Daughters of America, said in an interview on Thursday. But to truly understand Columbus’s importance to Italian-Americans, he added, it’s necessary to understand how they were treated upon arriving in this country. Just as Mexican immigrants have been branded by some politicians as criminals, in years past Italians — especially dark-skinned Italians from southern Italy — were also vilified. [continue reading]

Seapower States: Maritime Culture, Continental Empires and the Conflict that Made the Modern World

Sarah Kinkel
Times Higher Education

A long line of encounters, from the Spanish Armada to Napoleon to the Blitz, have contributed to a national mythology of Britain as a continually scrappy underdog. What kept the ship of state afloat in the face of such superior odds? Andrew Lambert looks for the answer in a consciously constructed culture of seapower, which manifested itself everywhere from the dockyards to legal systems to maritime metaphors. In this, Britain was the heir to a longer tradition that stretched from Athens and Carthage to Venice and the Dutch Republic. All these were smaller states confronted by larger, wealthier opponents. Each turned to the sea to try to transform their weakness into strength.

Placing the national trust in ships was not simply a strategic choice: it was also a question of identity. Seapower States is at its core about the fusion of domestic culture and strategy, about the ways in which a society’s values are expressed and reaffirmed by its actions on the world stage. Lambert draws a distinction between deploying “sea power” – using maritime force to accomplish strategic goals, which anyone with money and a coastline could do – and embracing an identity as a “seapower”. The latter implied an entire approach to the world, comprising a more inclusive political system, a central role for commerce, strong legal institutions and an outward-facing openness to new progressive ideas. The sea was the foundation of the economy and the symbolic core of the community, depicted on temples and coins. The US and China are thus naval powers rather than seapowers: able to exert considerable force on the ocean but without a deep psychological connection to it. [continue reading]

An Australian Sinn Feiner’ on ‘Red Clydeside’: Ireland as a site of political pilgrimage

Sophco Cooper
Irish Diaspora Histories Network

“It was a month’s peep into the Dark Ages, surrounded by cruel, callous, cold-blooded savages who killed for the love of shedding human blood, for the money they could get off the dead bodies, and the loot they could get out of their victims’ houses. They had not the slightest regard for human life; no respect for personal property. In fact, I found very little traces of civilisation or human feeling among the Army of Occupation.”

These were the recollections of Harry Arthur Campbell, an Australian-born socialist stump- orator who travelled to Ireland in October 1920 to document British reprisals. Campbell, an increasingly oppositional member of the Independent Labour Party in Glasgow, was writing to urge his erstwhile colleagues in the New Zealand Labour Party to escalate their campaign for Irish independence. His observations, published as a six-penny pamphlet, The Crucifixion of Ireland, led me on a search earlier this year through British and Australian archives for clues about an activist who moved across and between identities. As Tim Ellis reports, a recognition of ‘back-and-forth’ encounters with Ireland emerged as a prominent thread in papers at the recent Global Irish Revolution workshop in Belfast. This post will examine such mobilities through the experience of an activist from beyond the Republican movement. What might political ‘pilgrimages’ reveal about the translation of the Irish revolution into other global imaginaries? [continue reading]

My Great-Grandfather the Bundist

Molly Crabapple
New York Review of Books

During his elder years, my great-grandfather, the post-Impressionist artist Sam Rothbort, tried to paint back into existence the murdered world of his shtetl childhood. Amid the hundreds of watercolors that he called Memory Paintings, one stood out. A girl silhouetted against some cottages, her dress the same color as the crepuscular sky above. A moment before, she’d hurled a rock through one now-shattered cottage window. On the painting’s margin, her boyfriend offers more rocks. “Itka the Bundist, Breaking Windows,” Sam captioned the work.

I may have been fifteen, seventeen, or twenty when I saw the watercolor, in my great aunt’s sunbaked living room or my mother’s apartment; I don’t recall exactly. What sticks with me is the Old World awkwardness of the heroine’s name. Itka. I turned the Yiddish syllables on my tongue. And Bundist. What was that? [continue reading]

The voice of Hobsbawm

Emile Chabal

Almost all Marxists have imagined themselves to be part of a global community. More than perhaps any other modern ideology, Marxism has given its adherents a sense of being connected across regions, countries and continents. The activists, thinkers, politicians, students, workers, guerrilla fighters and party apparatchiks who, throughout the 20th century, claimed Marxist ideals for themselves rarely agreed on what Marxism was or where it was headed. But they knew that they were not alone. At its height, Marxism created a web of interconnected communities at least as powerful as the Muslim ummah, complete with its own heretics, infidels, rogue saviours and clerics.

Historically, the impetus for this came from Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels themselves. Many of the concepts they deployed – such as ‘capitalism’ and ‘class’ – were transnational in theory and in practice. Some of their best-known political slogans – above all, the final line of The Communist Manifesto (1848), popularised as ‘Workers of the world, unite!’ – explicitly invoked the global power of their prophesy. Marx and Engels were hardly the only European political thinkers in the 19th century to paint their political aspirations on a global canvas, but their ideas proved to be extraordinarily influential. [continue reading]

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