From the Spanish electrician who sabotaged the Nazis to the remarkable influence of Walter LaFeber, here are this week’s top picks in imperial and global history.
Guinean, Spanish and French, José Epita Mbomo was an airplane mechanic and the first Black man to marry a white woman in Cartagena, if not the whole of Spain. He went into exile in France after the Spanish Civil War and used his skills as an electrician to sabotage Wehrmacht networks and facilities. He was later deported to the Neuengamme concentration camp in Germany where he helped to save three lives, as far as his family knows. His war-time odyssey ended with his survival of the Cap Arcona massacre – the bombing by the British Royal Air Force (RAF) on May 3, 1945 of a German ship carrying 4,500 evacuees from Third Reich camps.
José was a modest man who scarcely ever talked about his war experiences with his five children, who would ask him about the scars on his back without ever getting an exact answer. He was an active communist back when communism was almost a religion, but tore up his party membership card when the Soviet Union crushed the Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia. After leaving the Guinean island of Corisco in 1927, he had first-hand experience of the best and the worst of the 20th century. He was both victim and hero during Europe’s darkest hours. An ordinary working man, his epic experience was largely concealed from his family and is only coming to light now. [continue reading]
People v. Hall
Chinese immigrants began coming to the United States in significant numbers in the 1850s, largely to California and other Western states, to work in mining and railroad construction. There was high demand for these dangerous, low-wage jobs, and Chinese immigrants were willing to fill them. Almost immediately, the racist trope of “Asians coming to steal White jobs” was born. And in 1854, the California Supreme Court reinforced racism against Asian immigrants in People v. Hall, ruling that people of Asian descent could not testify against a White person in court, virtually guaranteeing that Whites could escape punishment for anti-Asian violence. In this case, it was murder: George Hall shot and killed Chinese immigrant Ling Sing, and the testimony of witnesses was rejected because they were also Asian. [continue reading]
S. Nathan Park
In December 2020, the Harvard Law School professor J. Mark Ramseyer published a paper titled “Contracting for Sex in the Pacific War” regarding “comfort women”—the euphemism used by imperial Japan to describe the women, the majority of whom were Korean, held in military sex slavery during World War II. In the companion op-ed published in Japan Forward, Ramseyer argued that the comfort women in fact “chose prostitution” by entering into a contract, and the economic structure of those contracts indicated that women voluntarily chose sex work. Since then, Ramseyer has been blasted for historical revisionism and shoddy scholarship. The coercive nature of imperial Japan’s military sex slavery is well established through United Nations investigation and decades of scholarship. Although Ramseyer purported to analyze the contract that the comfort women entered into, by his own admission he never reviewed an actual contract involving a comfort woman.
Critics of Ramseyer rightly point out that Ramseyer’s paper is an extension of the denialism of Japan’s far-right. Despite having admitted culpability regarding comfort women in the 1993 Kono Statement, the government of Japan—especially under the conservative former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo—has increasingly reverted to reactionary positions, such as by pressuring to have the city of Berlin remove a memorial statue last year. Less highlighted, however, is the role of South Korea’s historical scholarship that contributed the intellectual structure of Ramseyer’s revisionist claims. Contrary to a simplistic picture that paints Koreans as unified under the banner of nationalism against Japan, it was South Korea’s right-wing historians, who rose to prominence in the late 2000s, who supplied the argument that imperial Japan’s military sexual slavery was a voluntary economic exchange. [continue reading]
LA Review of Books
NAVIGATING UNCERTAIN TIMES, it is tempting, and helpful, to search the past for precedents that might help guide understanding and action — inevitably with the risk of drawing false equivalences. Comparing Trumpism to 1930s fascism, especially, has struck some historians and political theorists as likely to blind us to the longer trajectories of Trump’s reactionary politics — his quintessential Americanness.
The question of historical analogies has also defined the United Kingdom’s memory wars. With respect to Britain’s imperial past, Boris Johnson’s government has rejected all fascist implication. Britain’s schools, museums, and country houses, it insists, must not reflect on restitution, statue-removal, or the idea of white privilege; these worries are the province of nations that truly have something to apologize for — namely, Germany. As the Times explained last year, the moral case for returning colonial artifacts is unlike that of returning artworks stolen by the Nazis. After all, Britain, led by Johnson’s hero Churchill, defeated the Nazis — the finest hour of its proud past. The National Trust’s efforts to explore country houses’ ties to colonialism and slavery similarly outraged the Churchill biographer Andrew Roberts by implying a “moral equivalence between colonialism and slavery,” as if the empire was not founded on slavery and did not continue to depend on forms of bonded labor well after abolition in 1833. [continue reading]
Few historical events mattered as much to Lenin and the Bolsheviks as the Paris Commune of 1871. Shortly after coming to power, the Bolsheviks made March 18 — the date the Commune was founded — a Soviet public holiday. The Paris Commune was celebrated as the prototype of the new Soviet republic. Mass festivals and public reenactments took place in its honor in towns and cities across what was now the world’s first avowedly socialist state. It was not uncommon for Pravda and other leading press organs to refer to this new state as the “Russian” or “Soviet Commune.” The implication was that this, much like Paris in 1871, was a revolutionary bastion amid a sea of imperialist aggressors.
Back then, the radicals and discontents of Paris had rejected the authority of the French government, established their own elected municipal administration, and set about implementing a new social and political agenda. They held out for just seventy-two days before the French Army reentered Paris and cut through Commune forces in a series of bloody street battles. [continue reading]
If you’ve read any of the many tributes or obituaries for the Cornell University diplomatic historian Walter LaFeber, you may have some inkling of what a remarkable individual he was. LaFeber taught at Cornell from 1959 until his retirement in 2006, which he marked with a farewell lecture to 3,000 or so former students at Manhattan’s Beacon Theater. During that period, he wrote or edited 20 books, many of which had multiple editions. (His history of the Cold War, for instance, is in its 10th printing.) LaFeber’s interests were wide-ranging. His first book, The New Empire: An Interpretation of American Expansion, 1860–1898, published in 1963, transformed the field of the history of 19th century US foreign policy. Later, he wrote a series of books designed to provide necessary historical correctives to contemporary political debates. These include: The Panama Canal: The Crisis in Historical Perspective, addressed to Jimmy Carter’s Panama Canal Treaty; Inevitable Revolutions: The United States in Central America, inspired by Reagan’s wars in Central America; The Clash: US-Japanese Relations Throughout History, which arose out of the trade tensions of the 1990s; and finally, on sports and globalization, Michael Jordan and the New Global Capitalism, published in 1999.
LaFeber is justly celebrated as a pioneer “revisionist historian” of the Cold War, and is widely considered a member of the “Wisconsin School”—though the truth is a bit more complicated. He did receive his PhD from the University of Wisconsin during the heyday of William Appleman Williams’s time there, and like Williams, he examined the United States as an economically driven imperialist power rather than one exclusively seeking to spread democracy. LaFeber, however, departed from most of these historians by considering ideas just as important as economic imperatives. In this way, he married the work of Richard Hofstadter to that of Williams, while adding a commitment to archival research and documentary accuracy unknown to either man. In a 2004 article in Diplomatic History entitled “Walter LaFeber: Scholar, Teacher, Intellectual,” Andrew Rotter and Frank Costiglioa surveyed LaFeber’s influence, calling his scholarship “an antidote to provincialism” and “the enemy of complacency.” [continue reading]