This Week’s Top Picks in Imperial & Global History

A potester demonstrating against the continued conflict in Yemen. Parliament Square, London,  July 5, 2020. JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP via Getty Images

Marc-William Palen
History Department, University of Exeter

From how the Soviets recruited Nazi war criminals to spy on the West to misremembering the British Empire, here are this week’s top picks in imperial and global history.

How the Soviets Recruited Nazi War Criminals to Spy on the West

Ofer Aderet

Former Nazis who served in the SS and Gestapo infiltrated the West German intelligence agency as moles and caused it serious harm. After World War II, these spies were controlled by the Soviet Union, which had been their sworn enemy just a short time before. This surprising episode is documented in a new study by historian Danny Orbach based on recently published intelligence documents from the CIA and BND (West Germany’s – and now united Germany’s –  Federal Intelligence Service).

Orbach describes how the Soviets, through the use of these double agents, managed to get their hands on West Germany’s most highly classified information and to “cause mortal harm” to its intelligence community. And how did these supposedly rabidly anti-Communist Nazis come to be working on behalf of their detested former enemies? “Some were thrill-seekers and opportunists,” Orbach says, “and some worked as mercenaries and moles for the highest bidder.” He says that besides the Soviet Union, former Nazis also worked, in different ways, on behalf of Arab countries, and even Israel, according to some partial reports. [continue reading]

The Fifth Pan-African Congress, 1945: A Landmark Moment in British Radical History

Theo Williams
History Workshop

Anniversaries have long been used as an occasion to celebrate the struggle for democracy and equality in Britain, and to create powerful connections between the radical politics of the past and the radical politics of today. In August 2019, the Peterloo Memorial was unveiled in Manchester city centre. The unveiling coincided with the bicentenary of the Peterloo Massacre. On 16 August 1819, 60,000 people assembled peacefully in St Peter’s Field in Manchester to call for democracy and an end to hunger. Cavalry attacked the protestors, killing eighteen people and injuring hundreds. The British establishment has been reluctant to commemorate the episode, and the Peterloo Memorial was thus hard fought for. Today, the demonstration and subsequent massacre in St Peter’s Field are — quite rightly — firmly etched into British radical memory.

In October 1945, delegates from across the world gathered in Chorlton-on-Medlock Town Hall, half a mile south of St Peter’s Field, to take part in the Fifth Pan-African Congress. Three future African presidents attended the Congress: Hastings Banda of Malawi, Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya, and Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana. Nkrumah — one of the icons of mid-century anti-colonialism — later remembered the Congress as a turning point in the struggle for African independence: ‘we went from Manchester knowing definitely where we were going.’ Within two decades, most African nations had won their freedom from the colonial powers. This was the defining geopolitical process of the twentieth century. However, the Fifth Pan-African Congress has been little celebrated in British radical memory, despite representing one of the most important moments in British radical history. As the Congress reaches its 75th anniversary, as the Black Lives Matter movement confronts global white supremacy, and as we celebrate Black History Month, the British Left must strive to incorporate Black and anti-colonial politics into its understanding of the ways in which people in Britain have fought for democracy, equality and freedom. [continue reading]

Trump may have bombed Yemen more than all previous US presidents combined, new report finds

Charles Davis
Business Insider

Within days of taking office, President Donald Trump, who had campaigned on killing the families of alleged terrorists — and essentially doing the opposite of whatever President Barack Obama had done — ordered US commandos to carry out an early-morning raid in Yemen that had been vetoed by his predecessor.

“Almost everything went wrong,” one US official told NBC News. The attack, intended to take out a suspected group of al-Qaeda militants, began with a botched landing and ended with a Navy Seal dead. An eight-year-old girl, Nawar al-Awlaki, a US citizen and the daughter of an extremist preacher who was assassinated-by-drone in the Obama years, was also killed, as were more than a dozen others. Civilians were “likely killed,” the US military conceded. [continue reading]

Beyond Pan-Arabism: Suez and Afro-Asian Solidarity in Abdel Nasser’s Egypt

Reem Abou-El-Fadl

“It was the abortive Suez adventure of 1956… that united all Africa, and Africa with Asia and the Arab world, to give a great spurt forward to national independence… Africa was never the same after Suez…”

– Kenyan independence activist and later vice president Oginga Odinga, Not Yet Uhuru, London: Heinemann, 1967, 175 

“When we saw that Nasser could nationalize the Suez Canal, resist the French and the British, and win, we said to ourselves, this is someone who can really help [the UPC].”

– Marthe Moumié, Union of the Peoples of Cameroon activist, Victime du Colonialisme: Mon Mari Félix Moumié, Paris: Duboiris, 2006, 100 

These words come from the memoirs of leading figures in two major African national liberation movements. Both of them formed close connections with Egypt’s leadership in the mid-1950s, and were hosted in its capital. Their engagement with the Suez nationalization forms part of a largely unknown story, despite the extensive historiography on the period. This is the story of the production of Cairo as an anti-imperialist hub under Gamal Abdel Nasser, through the construction of an infrastructure of solidarity that connected progressives in Asia and Africa, Europe, and eventually South America.[1] It is one fraught with obstacles, compromises, and competition, but equally reflects a politics of hope and liberation that is key to the resonance of the Nasserist experience to this day. [continue reading]

Misremembering the British Empire

Maya Jasanoff
New Yorker

On a cloud-spackled Sunday last June, protesters in Bristol, England, gathered at a statue of Edward Colston, a seventeenth-century slave trader on whose watch more than eighty thousand Africans were trafficked across the Atlantic. “Pull it down!” the crowd chanted, as people yanked on a rope around the statue’s neck. A few tugs, and the figure clanged off its pedestal. A panel of its coat skirt cracked off to expose a hollow buttock as the demonstrators rolled the statue toward the harbor, a few hundred yards away, and then tipped it headlong into the water.

The Black Lives Matter movement has accelerated a reckoning across Europe about the legacies of slavery and imperialism, nowhere more urgently than in Britain, which presided over the largest empire in world history. The Colston statue stood on Colston Avenue, in the shadow of Colston Tower, on Colston Street, around the corner from Colston Hall. Scratch almost any institution with roots in Britain’s era of global dominance and you’ll draw imperial blood—from the Rhodes Trust, established by the fervent expansionist and white supremacist Cecil Rhodes, to the British Museum, whose founding collection was funded by profits from Jamaican plantations worked by slaves, and the Booker Prize, launched by a food company once notorious for its exploitative practices in the cane fields of British Guiana. Every year, the Queen honors hundreds of citizens with the Order of the British Empire. (A 2004 parliamentary committee recommended changing the name to the Order of British Excellence, to no avail.) [continue reading]