From being grounded in the Bandung Era to the African American engineer who got stuck in the USSR for 50 years, here are this week’s top picks in imperial and global history.
In this earlier post, Su Lin Lewis shows how increased access to air travel did not just facilitate the Afro-Asian conferences of the 1950s. It also shaped the composition and location of such meetings and, as a consequence, the connections and relationships that were built there. When it comes to Bandung, travel to and from the conference is both under- and overestimated. In terms of observers, journalists, activists, and even family members, Bandung hosted a greater number of illustrious names than accounts from inside the Gedung Merdeka can ever hope to show. On the flip side, historians also like placing politicians in Bandung who were never really there. Paul Robeson should be counted among those who “should have been at Bandung”. Not because they were officially invited — that privilege was accorded to state representatives alone — but because they wanted to be part of the conference’s orbit.
Despite his status as a key African-American ally of the Afro-Asian movement (as well as a much-loved performer), Robeson’s presence at Bandung was limited to a message of solidarity with “the power and the determination of the peoples of these two great continents”. In 1950, Paul Robeson’s ability to travel outside of the continental United States had been taken away by a “stop notice” from the State Department. As Martin Bauml Duberman shows in his biography of Robeson, this decision can be understood in a Cold War context, but was rationalized explicitly as an attempt to curb his popularity in the decolonizing world, and the criticism of the United States he voiced there. [continue reading]
In early 1916, the countries surrounding Switzerland – Germany, Austria-Hungary, Italy and France – adopted Daylight Saving Time and moved their clocks an hour ahead in the summer months. But Switzerland didn’t. The Swiss government didn’t want to rock the boat, so it chose not to adopt Daylight Saving Time in 1916 in order to properly analyse the situation. Following a consultation procedure and a lengthy debate, cabinet definitively decided against it in March 1917.
Switzerland’s neighbours adopted Daylight Saving Time in order to save energy during wartime, since coal grew scarce after the outbreak of the First World War. But in Switzerland, neither the interior ministry nor the cabinet saw potential for the same energy savings, since most electricity was produced with hydro power. What’s more, lawmakers feared that adopting Daylight Savings Time would hurt the home-grown water power sector. [continue reading]
Mads Bomholt Nielsen
The colonial world is often seen within the confines of the colonial powers and is divided into ‘British’, ‘French’ or ‘German’ territories. However, if we are to truly understand the context in which colonial rule and resistance to it operated, we need to see it outside the scope of the European national borders extended to the colonial world. German Southwest Africa (GSWA), present day Namibia, remains a striking case for a nationally-derived historiography. Between 1904-8, the German Schutztruppe (‘protection force’) embarked on a brutal campaign against the Herero and Nama peoples that ended in the first genocide of the twentieth century. Concentration camps were established where the prisoners were kept in inhumane conditions and were subjected to forced labour, intentional malnutrition and even medical experiments.
Over the last 15 years, German colonialism has received increasing attention by historians. However, the tendency in the historiography has been to link the genocide in GSWA as a precursor to the Holocaust. Some have observed either subtle or explicit continuities while others have even argued for a causal link ‘from Africa to Auschwitz’.  This has rekindled the old notion of Sonderweg – the idea that Germany took a unique path to modernity which deterministically ended in the Holocaust – and brought it into colonial history. [continue reading]
Stephen Burgen and David Agren
A diplomatic row has broken out between Mexico and Spain after the Mexican president wrote to King Felipe VI demanding he apologise for crimes committed against Mexico’s indigenous people during the conquest 500 years ago. In a video filmed at the ruins of the indigenous city of Comalcalco, in southern Mexico, Andrés Manuel López Obrador called on Spain and the Vatican to recognise the rights violations committed during the conquest, led by Hernán Cortés. The video was posted on the president’s social media accounts.
“There were massacres and oppression. The so-called conquest was waged with the sword and the cross. They built their churches on top of the [indigenous] temples,” he said. “The time has come to reconcile. But let us ask forgiveness first.” The remarks came two months after the Spanish prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, made an official visit to Mexico; his government reacted angrily to López Obrador’s letter. “The Spanish government profoundly regrets the publication of the Mexican president’s letter to his majesty the king on 1 March and completely reject its content,” a government statement read. [continue reading]
In 1929, an African-American Ford engineer, Robert Robinson, was recruited to work in the USSR. After being elected to Moscow’s communist City Council, the USA revoked Mr Robinson’s citizenship. He was forced to stay in the USSR, against his will for nearly 50 years. He spoke to the BBC in 1991.