This Week’s Top Picks in Imperial & Global History

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

From spies, lies and doublethink to revolutionary conspiracies, here are this week’s top picks in imperial and global history.

Spies, lies and doublethink: Lea Ypi on growing up in Europe’s last communist state

Aida Edemariam

One day, when Lea Ypi was a child, an empty Coca-Cola can appeared in her house. This was communist Albania, in the 1980s, and the country, run by Enver Hoxha along Stalinist lines, was reputed to be the hardest to enter or exit in the world. So a Coke can was a rare and enviable sight. Her mother had put this new ornament in pride of place, on an embroidered doily. Then it disappeared – only for a Coke can to appear on top of the TV next door. Was it the same one? Perhaps.

The neighbours, who had been close, fell out. Finally, after a chilly stand-off, peace was brokered. At a party to celebrate the rapprochement, people were expansive, praising each other’s food, drink, generosity, when a young Ypi spoke up cheerily and silenced the room. “We were going to have a photo of Uncle Enver [instead],” she said, but “I don’t think they like Uncle Enver.” Eventually, as she tells it in her memoir, Free: Coming of Age at the End of History, her neighbour, a communist party member, called her to him. That was, he said sternly, “a very stupid thing to say … Your parents love Uncle Enver. They love the party. You must never again say these stupid things to anyone.” Her parents said nothing. [continue reading]

Documents that survived the Great Fire sit in a climate-controlled vault in the state archives. But it will take special technology to decipher them.

Sarah Freishtat
Chicago Tribune

What could be among the oldest surviving Chicago city records sit inside a special climate-controlled vault at the Illinois State Archives, largely indecipherable. These are volumes that survived the Great Chicago Fire 150 years ago. Some appear to contain early property assessments or official confirmations. One is in a box labeled “General Ordinances A, March 4, 1837 to July 8, 1851,” potentially dating back to Chicago’s incorporation as a city. But they are blackened and damaged from the fire, and what exactly they contain remains unknown. It could take infrared technology to read their contents and determine their legal, genealogical and historic implications.

“The fact is they’re legal records, and you never know what kind of a situation might arise where you need these records,” said Dave Joens, director of the state archives. They are not the only city records that survived the fire, but these volumes are believed to have ridden out the flames inside a safe, where they were “baked” in the heat instead of turning to ash. The pages are crisp, and some are shattered into pieces. [continue reading]

Pandora Papers: Massive Leak Exposes How Elite Shield Their Wealth & Avoid Taxes in Colonial Legacy

Vanessa Ogle
Democracy Now!

The Pandora Papers, described as “the world’s largest-ever journalistic collaboration,” have revealed the secret financial dealings of the world’s richest and most powerful people. “We’ve uncovered a system that benefits the few at the expense of the many,” says Ben Hallman, senior editor at the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, who details some of the project’s main revelations so far. We also speak with Vanessa Ogle, professor of history at the University of California at Berkeley and an expert on tax havens, who says the growth of tax havens like the Bahamas and Switzerland is directly linked to wealth extraction from the developing world. “The seed money for the expansion of these tax havens comes out of the colonial world,” she explains. [continue reading]

Contingency Plans: Toward an Intellectual History of the Digital Era

Michael J. Kramer

As Abigail De Kosnik points out in her study of what she calls “rogue archives,” the Internet “began as a fantasy of the perfect archive, a technology that would preserve the vast record of human knowledge” (p. 44). Early futurists such as Vannevar Bush and JCR Licklider pictured an automated retrieval system, a kind of instant history machine. A set of recent books grapple with whether this has become the case in the contemporary digital age. They draw upon the developing history of digital history itself to do so, and largely agree that digital technologies have turned out to be something very different from what Bush, Licklider, and other computer dreamers imagined. These recent books also diverge from the earliest explorations of digital history, which often took the form of how-to guides or manifestos (some were almost sales pitches for Silicon Valley). Instead, they adopt more reflective, scholarly responses to the transformations wrought by computers.

Taking topics such as mass digitization, networking, social media, data, the deeper logics of programming, and the history of digital history itself seriously, they offer a nascent intellectual history of how computers might be altering our contemporary understanding of the past. Joining a spate of scholarship in communications and media studies focused on how today’s digital technologies reinforce, and perhaps even exacerbate, long-running inequities in American culture when it comes to race, gender, and other factors, the books remind us that the time has come to treat digital history not merely as a flashy new method, but instead as a complex intellectual endeavor that demands full-throated theoretical scrutiny and more intensive historicization. [continue reading]

Revolutionary Conspiracies, Conspiratorial Gaming

Thomas Lecaque
Age of Revolutions

Umberto Eco wrote, “The lunatic is all idée fixe, and whatever he comes across confirms his lunacy. You can tell him by the liberties he takes with common sense, by his flashes of inspiration, and by the fact that sooner or later he brings up the Templars.” And it is those Templars—the fantasy ones—rather than the historical Templars, who live on in popular culture, in media, and, critically, in conspiratorial thinking. It is in the Oak Island Mystery, given new life from the Geocities pages of my youth into a History Channel television show. It is in the Dan Brown (and his inspirations) notions of hidden treasure that link to innumerable other treasure-based conspiracies, including those of Otto Rahn and his Nazi-era fellow travelers. It is in the violent manifestos of far-right terrorists like Anders Behring Breivik or Brenton Tarrant. 

These are all wrapped up in a web of popular conspiracies that inevitably fall into white supremacist and far-right ideological traps. But where on earth does this particular conspiracy come from? Why the Knights Templar, a military order from the Crusades disbanded on papal command at the start of the fourteenth century? Like so many things in the modern world, it emerges in the Age of Revolutions, specifically in the attempts of the ancien régime to deal with the intellectual aftermath of the French Revolution. The conspirators now find themselves reflected in the video game Assassin’s Creed: Unity. The game allows you to play as a member of a secret society—the Assassins—in the midst of a Templar conspiracy to cause the French Revolution and hasten its anarchical spread. This story is straight out of the late eighteenth-century conspiracy writings of anti-Revolutionary authors. [continue reading]