This Week’s Top Picks in Imperial & Global History

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

From revisiting grand theories of history to topics you’re not supposed to discuss at dinner, here are this week’s top picks in imperial and global history.

Repetition and rupture

Stefan-Ludwig Hoffman

In the summer of 1947, two years after the end of the Second World War, the British historian Eric Hobsbawm travelled to the British occupation zone of Germany to re-educate young Germans. A recent graduate of King’s College, Cambridge, where he had also joined the Communist Party, Hobsbawm was working on his PhD dissertation and had just secured his first appointment as a lecturer at Birkbeck College in London. Born in 1917 into a Jewish family in colonial Egypt, Hobsbawm grew up in Vienna, his mother’s hometown, and witnessed the street clashes between Nazi stormtroopers and Red Front fighters in Berlin in the tumultuous last years of the Weimar Republic. His parents had died young, before 1933, but most of his Viennese family was murdered in the Holocaust. The British government didn’t make use of his German during the war, and his career in re-educating postwar Germans, arranged by his Cambridge colleagues, was cut short by the anti-Communist purges of the early Cold War.

A seminar at an imperial hunting lodge in the countryside of Lower Saxony was Hobsbawm’s first encounter with Germans who grew up in the Third Reich. Among the participants was Reinhart Koselleck, then in his first semester at Heidelberg University. Koselleck had joined the Wehrmacht in February 1941, two months before he turned 18. The following year, a German artillery wagon crushed his foot on the march towards Stalingrad, which probably saved his life. Koselleck was sent home before the gruesome debacle of Hitler’s army began. His two brothers were killed in the war – the younger brother during an Allied bombing raid that destroyed the family home, and his older brother, a committed Nazi, in the final weeks of the war; one of his aunts was gassed in the Nazi euthanasia campaign in 1940. In the last months of the war, Koselleck was sent again to the Eastern Front, which by then had reached German territory. His unit fought against the Red Army in Moravia. Captured by the Soviets on 9 May 1945, he had to march on foot to Auschwitz for two days, together with thousands of other German prisoners of war. There he took part in the dismantling of the IG Farben chemical factories, which were sent by train to the Soviet Union for reassembly – the very same factories adjacent to Auschwitz-Birkenau where Primo Levi was forced to work until the liberation of the camp by the Red Army in January. [continue reading]

W.E.B. Du Bois: A Life in American History

Edward Carson
Black Perspectives

In 2018, scholars celebrated the 150th anniversary of the birth of W.E.B. Du Bois via published essays, symposiums, and commemorative celebrations, such as the one held in his hometown of Great Barrington, Massachusetts—a community that once rejected the scholar due to his communist affiliation. Charisse Burden-Stelly and Gerald Horne’s W.E.B. Du Bois: A Life in American History is a timely book, addressing Du Bois’s challenges as a radical, with contemporary issues in mind. Today, terms like socialism, communism, and hash tags pronouncing Black Lives Matter are trendy among those suspicious of the police state and capitalism; however, one is reminded throughout this book of his exhaustively yet committed life devoted to socialism, democracy, and the souls of Black folks. And his work was not just confined to the Jim Crow South; the crisis of the race problem extended beyond its periphery to Du Bois’s home in New York. “It was no accident that African Americans were sited mostly in segregated neighborhoods, such as Harlem, and were subjected to harassment by often trigger-happy police officers” (131).

W.E.B. Du Bois: A Life in American History is a well-crafted compilation of primary and secondary sources. Burden-Stelly and Horne skillfully navigate the reader through twelve chapters of exquisite narratives, and ninety-five years of Du Bois’s life, using illustrative constructions of his transformation from his childhood in the Berkshires of Western Massachusetts, to his resting ground in Accra, Ghana. Along this journey, the reader is captivated by Du Bois as a global and domestic intellectual, an activist prophesying within an ever expansive radical framework. The authors persistently juxtapose the American color line to the endemic forces of global imperialism and capitalism, and how they were construed in a fashion shaped by a paradoxical Du Bois. A man who sought justice for Black Americans, but found himself rejected, particularly when it came to his regrettable endorsement of Woodrow Wilson in 1912, and again when he campaigned to support the war effort (80-81). “Du Bois had failed African Americans, who no longer trusted him and now rejected his leadership” (86). The nuance of such complexity entices the reader by examining his desire for a better world. [continue reading]

It is not Hans Sloane who has been erased from history, but his slaves

David Olusoga

How do you erase a figure from the past and rewrite British history? According to some, it is done by taking a bust or statue of the figure in question and carefully placing it inside a climate-controlled glass cabinet that is then put on public display, alongside “artefacts explaining his work” in a free-to-access national museum, in the heart of our capital city. Oddly, this is not the form of “erasure” favoured by al-Qaida and the Taliban, who tend to opt for alternative methods involving sledgehammers and explosives. Perhaps they have been going about things the wrong way.

The supposed victim of historical erasure last week was Hans Sloane, the wealthy physician and naturalist whose collection of artefacts formed the nucleus of what became the British Museum. Accusations that the museum was rewriting history arose when it was reported that a bust of Sloane had been taken off its pedestal and moved, literally just a few metres, so it could be put on display inside a case with other objects. This new display made it possible for the museum to explain the links between Sloane, his collection and slavery. [continue reading]

The world to come: The cycles of history

Quinn Slobodian
New Statesman

Bazookas, heart attacks and artificially induced comas. The war over the economics of the Covid-19 crisis has been fought in metaphors. The future will be too. Which ones should we expect? Which ones should we hope for? The three decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 were dominated by metaphors of frictionless movement: flows, scapes and webs. We were presented with a latticework of circuitry strewn across the Earth’s surface, constructed with great precision to line up consumer demand and supply.

This year another metaphor became inescapable: supply chains. And the chains were heavy. Fights over face masks, hand sanitiser, testing kits and rubber gloves revealed simmering conflicts over economic dependency, especially between the US and China. The US-China trade wars of the past three years had pointed in two different directions: either towards a globalisation rebooted under the fist of American unilateralism, or a reduction in the volume of cross-border flows. Despite predictions from commentators and economists, the latter has not yet happened. As the Wall Street Journal pointed out, global trade contracted by 1 per cent in 2019 – but this still left it the second biggest year on record. [continue reading]

Topics You’re Not Supposed to Discuss at Dinner: The Role of Evangelical Religion in U.S. Foreign Policy

Lauren Turek, Ashlyn Hand, and William Inboden
War on the Rocks

In this episode of Horns of Dilemma, Will Inboden, editor-in-chief of the Texas National Security Review, and Ashlyn Hand, a Ph.D. candidate at the LBJ School at the University of Texas at Austin, speak with Lauren Turek, a professor at Trinity University, about her new book, To Bring the Good News to All Nations: Evangelical Influence on Human Right on US Foreign Relations.

American foreign policy has often had a strong religious component, whether that be in the form of manifest destiny, or in the idea of American exceptionalism. But as Turek documents, in the late 20th century, the specific notion of human rights intersected with evangelical missionaries and their perceptions of the risks associated with communism and other important foreign policy questions, and were able to organize and influence U.S. foreign policy in a new and important way. [listen here]