From humanity’s weird history with fire to Putin’s parallels with 19th-century US imperialism, here are this week’s top picks in imperial and global history.
Humans didn’t “start the fire”, the noted pyrohistorian William Martin Joel has argued. “It was always burning, since the world’s been turning.” The Joel Hypothesis, we now know, is only half right. People didn’t invent fire – that part is true. But, surprisingly, it’s a relatively recent phenomenon. For something like the first nine-tenths of Earth’s history, a stretch of around 4bn years, the planet was an unburnable rock.
Fire requires fuel, oxygen and a spark. Lightning, volcanoes and even tumbling rocks can provide ignition, but without vegetation and oxygen, nothing will burn. It was only after cyanobacteria pumped the atmosphere full of oxygen and mosses and stemmed plants spread over land, which they did around 450m years ago, that the world’s first fire broke out. [continue reading]
The Low Countries
I recently visited the exhibition “Revolusi! Indonesia Independent” at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. Browsing in the museum bookshop I noticed how, like all bookstores in the city, the main display contained numerous recent volumes about the Indonesian War of Independence (1945-1949). The following day I attended the online presentation in which over a dozen historians summarized the findings of their state-subsidized research into the role of Dutch military violence during the conflict.
That evening I watched the news as prime minister Mark Rutte apologised to the people of Indonesia for the systemic violence of the Dutch military during the war. Later I heard historians explain their findings during television interviews. The next day I noted the prominence that national newspapers gave to the historian’s findings; history dominated the headlines, knocking the covid-19 pandemic and the imminent outbreak of war in Ukraine off the front page. [continue reading]
Mary Elise Sarotte
New York Times
Keep the airspeed, altitude and course steady: That was the mantra for American pilots who regularly encountered Soviet aircraft during the Cold War. And the Soviets often returned the favor. Off the coast near the Russian port city of Vladivostok, helicopter pilots from U.S. Navy frigates kept an eye on the Soviet fleet in the 1980s by flying regular surveillance missions. The Americans came to expect a pattern of behavior: Usually within 20 minutes or so of their helicopter becoming airborne, Soviet MiG-27 fighter jets would zoom out for an initial visual identification of the U.S. aircraft. Two Soviet Mi-24 “Hind” helicopter gunships — larger than the American helicopters — would follow behind, flying alongside the Americans for about two hours.
Even though they were adversaries, the Soviet and American pilots abided by a tacit code of conduct, rooted in patterns of predictable behavior. At the end of the day, everyone got home safely. I’ve been thinking a lot about this code as I watch the war unfolding in Ukraine. I am awe-struck by the bravery of Ukrainians. But as a Cold War historian, I fear that Russia’s invasion, regardless of its outcome, portends a new era of immense hostility with Moscow — and that this new cold war will be far worse than the first. [continue reading]
Fighting rages as Russia continues its invasion of Ukraine. Just days ago, Russian President Vladimir Putin justified his aggression by claiming he was recognizing the independence of two separatist regions, the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk People’s republics. It was clear from the beginning, however, that the separatist regions were merely a convenient excuse to justify a full-scale invasion of the country and expand “Greater Russia.”
The role played by these separatist regions in the war brings to mind the history of the Republic of Texas’s breakaway from Mexico on March 2, 1836, which set in motion the events that led to the U.S. invasion of Mexico and a massive land grab. Much like how Russia first recognized the independence of the two breakaway republics in eastern Ukraine before launching its wider invasion, the United States recognized Texas and soon thereafter invaded Mexico. By the end of the U.S.-Mexico War, Mexico would cede to the United States around half of its territory, including parts of present-day Arizona, California, New Mexico, Texas, Colorado, Nevada and Utah. [continue reading]