This Week’s Top Picks in Imperial & Global History

A bank in Berlin damaged during violent clashes between police and demonstrators in June 1931 © Getty

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

From the postcolonial case for rethinking borders to why more and more black Americans are moving to Ghana, here are this week’s top picks in imperial and global history.

The Postcolonial Case for Rethinking Borders

E. Tendayi Achiume

The specter of the “illegal immigrant” looms large today in North American and European political consciousness, serving as a justification for the often violent hardening of borders. While there is much disagreement about what counts as lawful, fair, just, and prudent border governance, there is a far-reaching but rarely remarked upon consensus that these nations ultimately have the right to exclude non-nationals. Even many of those who reject explicitly ethno-nationalist border agendas seem to believe that immigration, and in particular unauthorized immigration, is a problem out of control. They describe it as a problem of political strangers—people who originate politically outside of the nation.

For some, the problem is that there are too many of these political strangers. For others, the problem is that the wrong kind of political strangers are seeking national inclusion, either because of their reasons for migrating (because they are “economic migrants” and not political refugees) or because of traits imputed to them (they are criminals, or they are a cultural, religious, or racial threat). Even among humanitarians working against racist and xenophobic politics, there is a careful commitment to framing immigrants as political strangers who, nonetheless, may warrant national admission for moral reasons. [continue reading]

Britain’s story of empire is based on myth. We need to know the truth

Priyamvada Gopal

These days we’ve become wearily accustomed to depictions of Brexit Britain as oppressed by a villainously imperial Europe. Annexed “without permission”, Nigel Farage claimed melodramatically, defending Brexit party MEPs against charges of “disrespecting” the European Parliament. In a particularly far-fetched comparison, Ann Widdecombe MEP has compared Brexit with the resistance of “slaves against their owners” and “colonies against empires”. Prime ministerial frontrunner Boris Johnson too has spoken of Britain’s supposed “colony status” in the EU though, with a familiar double standard, he also believes that it would be good if Britain was still “in charge” of Africa.

These bizarre comparisons can be made and go unchallenged because the stark fact remains that most Britons know very little about the history of the empire itself, still less the way in which its long afterlife profoundly shapes both Britain and the wider world today. [continue reading]

1931 by Tobias Straumann — how things fell apart

Adam Tooze
Financial Times

With hindsight we date the onset of the Great Depression back to the Wall Street crash of October 1929. But that was not obvious at the time. At first it seemed the world economy might merely be entering a normal cyclical downturn. It was in 1931 with the sequence of the Austrian banking crisis, the shutdown of the German financial system and then Britain’s departure from the gold standard that it became clear that this recession was, indeed, a major turning point in world history. The value of Swiss historian Tobias Straumann’s book is that it focuses our attention squarely on the drama of that year, the moment when the fragile political and financial order restored after the first world war came apart.

Germany is at the centre of the drama but Straumann takes an admirably international view. The options of Germany’s centre-right government, headed by Chancellor Heinrich Brüning, were limited first and foremost by external constraints. After war, revolution and hyperinflation, Weimar Germany had been stabilised in 1924 on the gold standard. This restored its financial respectability but limited the freedom of the central bank to expand credit, while permitting a massive outflow of foreign money when confidence collapsed. [continue reading]

Books, PhDs under threat as scholars fear national archives ‘starved of funds’

Max Koslowski
Sydney Morning Herald

At the beginning of 2012, Professor Anne Twomey asked to access historical records at the National Archives of Australia while researching her book on reserve powers. The Sydney University constitutional law expert emailed them in frustration when she had not received her documents by the end of the year. Told nothing could be done to speed up the process, she went on and wrote her book. Seven years later, well after the nearly 1000-page tome was published, the national archives let her know the documents were now available.

“There was some really interesting stuff about Samoa in the documents that I would have used in my book had I been able to,” Twomey says. “Once you’ve written a really big book on the reserve powers, that will be the work that everyone will use for the next 50 years. “Once history is written, it’s written.” The legal expert is one of dozens of top academics and archivists who have complained of extraordinary delays and abandoned research projects ahead of an all-encompassing review into the national archives. [continue reading]

Why more and more black Americans are moving to Ghana

Mark Beckford

When Lakeshia Ford decided she was going to pack up her life and her budding career and move from New Jersey to Ghana, her family could not understand why she wanted to make the trek to a country thousands of miles from home. Even more surprising, to some, was Ford’s reason: the shooting death of Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. The incident, which set off protests across the United States, was a tipping point for the 30-year-old Ford and her relationship with the country of her birth.

“Mike Brown got shot and it just put this huge distaste in my mouth for, like, the country and the flag and what it means to be American and representing the American flag,” Ford says. “I felt very detached from that identity. I felt very excluded.” While that feeling was certainly shared by many across the country, Ford is part of a small but growing group of black Americans who have become so fed up with racism in the United States that they have decided to move to Africa. [continue reading]