From how Britain dishonored its African first world war dead to liberalism according to the Economist, here are this week’s top picks in imperial and global history.
Next week marks the centenary of the first Remembrance Sunday. But over the decades, hundreds of thousands of war dead who served Britain in the first world war have been written out of the story. Both the first and last shots in that war were fired not on the western front but in Africa, where British and German empires fought for colonial territories.
In addition to soldiers, Britain recruited an army of porters to carry ammunition and supplies to the front line. Conditions were appalling and many faced what amounted to a death march. It was an operation of such a scale that, to this day, former mustering points in Kenya and Tanzania are known as Kariakoo after the Carrier Corps. [continue reading]
Drive 114 kilometres out of Pondicherry, three undemanding hours, through Tamil Nadu’s Nagapattinam District and you will arrive in Tharangambadi, a quiet fishing town situated on the Coromandel Coast where the Danes first arrived and settled in India. Unable to pronounce the name, they quickly christened it Tranquebar. That was way back in 1620. The Danes probably chose ‘Tranquebar’ as one experiences an overpowering sense of tranquility and restfulness here. In Tamil, ‘tharangambadi’ means ‘land of the singing waves.’ The otherwise turbulent waters of the Bay of Bengal lose their tempestuousness as they travel south and the sea hisses onto the warm shores of the town laden with unexpected gifts.
Historical accounts suggest that when the Danish ships set sail, they coursed through the Atlantic Ocean, then downwards, circumventing Africa, steered north and landed in the lush island of Sri Lanka. But the Lankans did not give Admiral Ove Gjedde permission to trade, and despite having been at sea for two long years, he started out once again. [continue reading]
Southerners in the USA dwell on the Civil War as if it were yesterday, but who in western Germany now recalls that Germany was never “united” in the first place? It was militarily defeated by Bismarck’s Prussia in 1866, after which Austria was kicked out, some of the beaten states simply annexed by Prussia, and some allowed a sort of half-life until 1871. Who, today, dares to say that the only definition by which East Germany was more German than Austria is Bismarck’s definition?
The founder of West Germany, Conrad Adenauer, knew his history. After the First World War he begged the French and British to help him split Prussia off from Germany. When he had to visit Berlin, he would always draw the curtains of his train compartment as he crossed the fatal River Elbe, muttering “Here we go, Asia again!” (“Schon wieder Asien!”) After the second war, though obliged in public to support re-unification, he told the British most secretly that he was determined it should never happen. [continue reading]
It was with some shock that I woke up to discover the full might of the Hollywood war-machine bearing down upon my tiny research topic. Roland Emmerich’s new film Midway, which opens in cinemas tomorrow, tells the story of one of the pivotal battles of World War II, fought between the Japanese and American navies on and around a tiny atoll in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. It is not a subtle film: its themes are courage, patriotism and pyrotechnics, served up with a side-portion of suffering spouses. This will not come as much of a surprise to anyone familiar with the director’s earlier work, such as Independence Day (1996) or The Patriot (2000).
But it also draws on a long tradition of Anglo movie-making (think Casablanca, Pearl Harbor or Darkest Hour) whose roots stretch all the way back to Allied wartime propaganda. In fact as Midway itself shows, the first ever feature film about the Battle of Midway was stitched together from actual documentary footage shot during the battle and rushed into movie theatres in order to congratulate US audiences on the successful defence of “your front yard” in the Pacific. [continue reading]
“Liberalism made the modern world, but the modern world is turning against it,” an article in The Economist lamented last year, on the occasion of the magazine’s hundred-and-seventy-fifth anniversary. “Europe and America are in the throes of a popular rebellion against liberal élites, who are seen as self-serving and unable, or unwilling, to solve the problems of ordinary people,” even as authoritarian China is poised to become the world’s largest economy. For a publication that was founded “to campaign for liberalism,” all of this was “profoundly worrying.”
The crisis in liberalism has become received wisdom across the political spectrum. Barack Obama included Patrick Deneen’s “Why Liberalism Failed” (2018) in his annual list of recommended books; meanwhile, Vladimir Putin has gleefully pronounced liberalism “obsolete.” The right accuses liberals of promoting selfish individualism and crass materialism at the expense of social cohesion and cultural identity. Centrists claim that liberals’ obsession with political correctness and minority rights drove white voters to Donald Trump. For the newly resurgent left, the rise of demagoguery looks like payback for the small-government doctrines of technocratic neoliberalism—tax cuts, privatization, financial deregulation, antilabor legislation, cuts in Social Security—which have shaped policy in Europe and America since the eighties. [continue reading]