From the captive photograph to Cold War disinformation, here are this week’s top picks in imperial and global history.
Ariella Aïsha Azoulay
In March 2019 Tamara Lanier filed a lawsuit against Harvard University and Peabody Museum for “wrongful seizure, possession and expropriation of photographic images” of her enslaved ancestors, Renty Taylor and his daughter Delia. After Lanier’s mother passed away in 2010, she had started researching information on Papa Renty. An acquaintance called her attention to the existence of the daguerreotypes of her ancestors, which Elinor Reichlin, on staff at the Peabody, had found in 1976.
Reichlin’s preliminary research showed that in 1850 Louis Agassiz had commissioned these daguerreotypes under the mantle of authority provided by his position at Harvard University. Photography was just at its beginning then, and he used the project to prove his polygenic theory: that different human races had evolved separately and that white people were superior to others. Thus, the plate daguerreotypes of Renty and Delia (alongside those seized during the same photographic sessions from other enslaved people—Drana, Alfred, Jack, George Fassena, and Jem) are unlike other daguerreotypes commissioned by enslavers, which aimed to portray slavery as a paternalistic and benevolent form of white rule. These images had a different purpose: to capture in silver plates the inherent “truth” of white superiority. Stripping Renty, Delia, and the others bare in front of the camera was part of Agassiz and his collaborators’ plan: to let what they considered the naked truth of Black inferiority imprint itself directly from the bodies to the photographic plate, without the interference of clothing or other props that were frequently used in photographers’ studios. “If it is a shock to see full frontal nudity in early American photography,” writes the photography scholar and curator Brian Wallis, “it is even more surprising to see it without the trappings of shame or sexual fantasy.” [continue reading]
On 28 September 1941, two businessmen on a mission arrived in Moscow. Lord Beaverbrook, the Canadian-British owner of the Daily Express, was minister of supply in Winston Churchill’s war cabinet. With him was W Averell Harriman, the railroad heir and banker who was Franklin Roosevelt’s envoy to Europe. What prompted these two capitalists to visit the centre of global communism was Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union. Fascist forces stood only 200 miles from the Kremlin.
The carrot that Beaverbrook and Harriman had brought was the Lend-Lease Act, written into law by Franklin Roosevelt earlier that year. In the struggle against Axis aggression, the bill enabled the Allied provision of supplies against deferred payment. On October 1, the delegates signed the Moscow Protocol with Joseph Stalin’s foreign minister. This unlocked massive Lend-Lease aid flows that delivered tens of thousands of aircraft, trucks, tanks and vast quantities of machinery, munition, food, fuel and clothing to anti-fascist armies worldwide. It sealed Allied victory in the war. [continue reading]
In 2014, the craft retailer Hobby Lobby purchased a rare cuneiform tablet inscribed with a portion of the Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the oldest known works of literature. The artifact was acquired for display at the Museum of the Bible, a Washington, D.C. institution funded by the family of Hobby Lobby founder David Green. But this week, reports Jordan Freiman for CBS News, the Department of Justice (DOJ) ordered the tablet’s forfeiture on the grounds that it was illegally imported into the United States and sold to Hobby Lobby under false pretenses.
Known as the “Gilgamesh Dream Tablet,” the artifact is inscribed in the Akkadian language and details a dream sequence from the ancient epic, according to Agence France-Presse (AFP). It is around 3,500 years old and originated in modern-day Iraq. The artifact’s forfeiture is part of a sweeping effort to return around 17,000 archaeological objects looted during the decades of instability spurred by the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, reports AFP. Over 36 hours in April 2003, some 15,000 treasures were stolen from the Iraq Museum in Baghdad alone. [continue reading]
WHEN KSENIA COFFMAN started editing Wikipedia, she was like a tourist in Buenos Aires in the 1950s. She came to learn the tango, admire the architecture, sip maté. She didn’t know there was a Nazi problem. But Coffman, who was born in Soviet-era Russia and lives in Silicon Valley, is an intensely observant traveler. As she link-hopped through articles about the Second World War, one of her favorite subjects, she saw what seemed like a concerted effort to look the other way about Germany’s wartime atrocities.
Coffman can’t recall exactly when her concern set in. Maybe it was when she read the article about the SS, the Nazi Party’s paramilitary, which included images that felt to her like glamour shots—action-man officers admiring maps, going on parade, all sorts of “very visually disturbing” stuff. Or maybe it was when she clicked through some of the pages about German tank gunners, flying aces, and medal winners. There were hundreds of them, and the men’s impressive kill counts and youthful derring-do always seemed to exist outside the genocidal Nazi cause. What was going on here? Wikipedia was supposed to be all about consensus. Wasn’t there consensus on, you know, Hitler? [continue reading]
Sources & Methods
The opening of former Soviet and Eastern Bloc archives allows fresh light to be cast on Soviet disinformation against Western countries during the Cold War. One such disinformation operation, revealed in now-opened archives of the StB, the former Czechoslovakian intelligence service, was codenamed “NEPTUNE.” In May 1964, the StB conceived and carried out this aptly-named operation. It involved hiding forged Nazi documents at the bottom of a lake in Bohemia, which were then “accidentally” discovered, publicized, and used to discredit the West German government. The nature of operation NEPUTNE is disclosed in the StB’s archives in Prague and in an interview that this blog’s author, Calder Walton, conducted with the StB architect of the operation, Ladislav (Larry) Bittman, shortly before his passing in September 2018.
Bittman was a senior StB disinformation officer, who defected to the United States in 1968 after a crisis of faith about the brutality of the Soviet regime; that is, after witnessing Soviet tanks roll into Prague in April 1968. After his defection to the United States and extensive debriefing by the CIA, Bittman dedicated his life to studying the threats posed to democracies by disinformation, testifying in Congress about it, publishing books, and teaching courses on the subject at Boston University. [continue reading]