From Germany’s answer to the JFK assassination to Wendell Willkie’s world without borders, here are this week’s top picks in imperial and global history.
Three bullets fired from a long-range rifle, a prime suspect who died before he could confess, and enough unanswered questions to spawn numerous conspiracy theories: the death in 1991 of Detlev Karsten Rohwedder had all the hallmarks to become Germany’s version of John F Kennedy’s assassination. The murder of the Social Democrat politician tasked with overseeing the de-nationalisation of thousands of state-owned businesses after the merger of East and West Germany will attract renewed speculation from Friday with the launch of A Perfect Crime, the first German documentary commissioned by the US streaming giant Netflix.
The four-part programme reconsiders Rohwedder’s death from the views of three possible perpetrators: the Red Army Faction (RAF) terror group who claimed responsibility for the murder in a statement left behind at the scene, disgruntled former members of East Germany’s secret police, or an unspecified West German “deep state” actor using the spectre of extreme-left militants as a cover. [continue reading]
THE TRANS-ATLANTIC SLAVE TRADE DATABASE documents more than 36,000 voyages in which enslaved persons were shipped across the Atlantic Ocean. Select any entry in the register and you’ll find a checklist of shockingly precise information: the size of the ship, the name of the captain, the number of enslaved persons initially on the ship as it embarked from Africa—and the number of those who died on the Middle Passage. It’s an eerie testament to the clerical cruelty of the slave trade as big business. “For those Europeans who thought about the issue,” the Emory University historian David Eltis wrote in a 2018 introduction to the database, “the shipping of enslaved Africans across the Atlantic was morally indistinguishable from shipping textiles, wheat, or even sugar.”
Despite the overwhelming density of these kinds of records, masking brutality with meticulous documentation, far less survives to describe daily life on these ships, or the experience of being on board. That’s what distinguishes the “Journal of the Slave Ship Mary,” recently acquired by Georgetown University Library in Washington, D.C. Written by an unidentified assistant of the ship’s captain, Nathan Sterry, it’s one of only a dozen or so known logbooks, or dated journals with daily entries, that survive from slave ship voyages between Africa and North America. [continue reading]
Edward Said, who died 17 years ago today, has been called many things. A literary critic and an exile, an unyielding voice for Palestinian self-determination, an educator, a trailblazer, a “normalizer”—and even “a prophet of the political violence” unfolding in the United States today, almost two decades after he took his final breath.
During a lifetime that spanned nearly sixty-eight years and witnessed definitive geopolitical currents and shifts, Said stood apart as one of the world’s most incisive public intellectuals. A Palestinian by birth and an American by choice, Said took on this role in the early 1980’s, following the publication of Orientalism, a text that dismantled European misrepresentations of Islam in its annals of literature. This moment converged with the aftermath of the Iranian hostage crisis and ascendance of the Islamic Republic of Iran, which reoriented the whole of Islam as the “enemy of the West.” And, in turn, propelled Said and his work onto the center of the public stage. [continue reading]
On a brisk morning in late August 1942, Wendell Willkie—a corporate lawyer, failed presidential candidate, and media darling—got onto an airplane for a trip around the world. Soon, he’d be holding court with kings, premiers, the shah, as well as soldiers and civilians across Africa and Asia. As the Axis powers seized a terrifying amount of territory, Willkie had been dispatched by the president of the United States on an audacious, if vague, mission to introduce the U.S. to the world.
From his perch in the sky, Willkie saw the planet differently—a planet that could be. Looking down, there weren’t any nation states, or, in his words, “splotches of color” that you’d find on a map. The world was “small and completely interdependent.” Going abroad also gave him a unique vantage point on the different people of the world. Schmoozing with government officials in Chongking or mingling with ordinary Egyptians in cafés, Willkie witnessed firsthand the shared desires of people around the world: peace, freedom, self-determination, the fulfillment of material interests. [continue reading]