Going Global: BBC launch new ‘World Histories’ magazine

The publishers of the very popular BBC History magazine, a monthly publication which covers all aspects of history and the past, but mainly with a focus on Britain and Europe, have just launched an exciting new companion magazine entitled World Histories.

Issue no. 1 (Dec 2016/Jan 2017) of the new magazine appeared in UK retail outlets on 30th November. The magazine promises to provide what it calls ‘Fresh Perspectives on Our Global Past’. In an editorial to welcome readers, the new publication’s editor, Matt Elton, notes that one of the inspirations behind the new magazine is the idea put forward by bestselling historian Peter Frankopan that the ‘world is changing’ and, consequently, as Frankopan himself has put it: ‘understanding how and why is the greatest challenge for those who believe that knowing about the past is the key to making sense of the present’.

world-histories-colour-cover-issue-1According to the World Histories editor, each issue of the new magazine will draw on the expertise of leading writers and historians from around the world to help tackle some of the defining issues of the 21st century.

And the launch issue certainly delivers on these ambitions: there is, for example, an article by Oxford Professor Yasmin Khan on how India’s experiences in the Second World War shaped its future for decades afterwards, while author William Dalrymple charts the story of the famous Koh-I-Noor diamond, and what it possibly tells us about the legacy of colonialism. In addition, the award-winning journalist Svetlana Alexiech recounts her fascinating experiences on the ground in the months after the devastating Chernobyl nuclear reactor disaster of 1986, while elsewhere in the issue readers can find material on the artwork of South Africa’s distant past, a panel discussion of why the West seemed to hold sway over global power for centuries (but is this coming to an end?), and the intriguing story of how the final world tour of the Beatles pop group saw them offending audiences in at least three nations.

Moreover, a ‘Briefing’ section offers a very useful overview on the new wave of populism that appears to be gathering momentum across the world, especially in light of the recent shock presidential victory of Donald Trump in the USA, and the worrying rise of anti-immigrant movements in Europe. ‘Populism’, the articles notes, can be tricky to define, but historians appear to agree that one key feature of such movements is that they proclaim themselves to be on the side of ‘the ordinary citizen’ – people who may feel that they are threatened by globalisation, immigration or terrorism, and seem to be fed up with the alleged ‘elitist’ nature of mainstream politics. The article asks whether we have seen comparable populist surges in the past? There is also a handy section on how such populist movements have exploited the new mass media in recent years.

With the added bonus of a ‘Book Reviews’ section and a nicely arranged set of quick entries on the ‘cultural’ aspects of world history, the launch issue of World Histories is both informative and well-designed, and is a great new addition to the various history magazines that are currently available. It will certainly tap into the growing appeal of international history to scholars and students, as well as to the general public who have a big thirst for all things ‘historical’.

A preview of issue no. 2 promises articles on the upcoming 2017 anniversary of the Russian Revolution, a retracing of the steps of an epic historical journey across the Himalayas, and an exploration of the life of Ruth Khama, who is the subject of a major new film. It all sounds very promising. With a price of £6.99, the magazine might be quite financially challenging for some people, but let’s hope the new publication sells well and thrives.


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Searching for the Real Story: the challenge of biographical research

Why have some major political ideologues and activists often been tempted to fabricate or spin myths about their own lives? Moreover, what research challenges do such people pose for the historian when it comes to writing accurately about their careers? These are just some of the questions that arose in a lecture given by Emeritus Professor Colin Holmes at the Wiener Library last Monday evening (21st November).

The occasion was a special talk and book-launch event for Searching for Lord Haw-Haw: The political lives of William Joyce (Routledge, 2016), a lecture and reception held by Routledge Publishers, in conjunction with the Wiener Library, an important archive and library on Jewish history and the Holocaust, which is located in Russell Square in central London.

colin-holmes-searching-for-lord-haw-hawI was very pleased to be part of the audience, and to hear Professor Holmes deliver a fascinating talk on William Joyce (who became known as ‘Lord Haw-Haw’ during the War for his notoriously pro-Nazi radio broadcasts from Hitler’s Germany). The talk was introduced by the well-known Guardian journalist, author and historian Francis Beckett, who has just published a biographical study of his own father, the fascist-supporting former Labour M.P. John Beckett, entitled A Fascist in the Family (Routledge, 2016). Francis Beckett spoke about the generous help that Professor Holmes had given him while he researched the life of his own father, John.

Professor Holmes revealed some of the big challenges that he had faced when researching into the life and psychology of William Joyce who, from a very early age, began to ‘construct’ a number of versions of his own career, and sought to be deliberately obtuse or untruthful about some of the key events in his life, including – for example – his actual date of birth, the precise country where he was born, and the real circumstances surrounding the prominent scar that had resulted from him being attacked at a fascist meeting in London in 1924. Holmes also faced some tricky legal obstacles placed in his way by surviving members of Joyce’s family.

Prof. Holmes also pointed to some of the myths about Joyce’s life that had been uncritically reproduced in previous biographies of Lord Haw-Haw, including versions of watershed events in Joyce’s career that the ideologue himself had created and put out into the public domain, undoubtedly in order to throw people ‘off the track’, or to try to present him as a ‘heroic’ figure for future generations of racists, or to shape perceptions about him in the subsequent history books. Joyce maintained this manipulative strategy even after he was imprisoned by Britain and tried for treason, something that was very evident in his prison letters. As Holmes also pointed out, Joyce’s politics also became dominated by an obsessive Jew-hatred, an anti-Semitic hostility that ran right through his political career and which led to Joyce blaming the Jews for just about everything that he felt was wrong with the world. Moreover, Joyce came to embrace what can only be called an ‘exterminatory strand’ of anti-Semitism, which is possibly why he felt so at home in Nazi Germany, the country to which he fled (along with his equally pro-Nazi wife, Margaret) in 1939.

Added to this, Holmes challenged (rightly, in my view) the idea often promoted by previous biographers and other commentators that the pro-Nazi English-language radio broadcasts made by Lord Haw-Haw from Germany in World War Two were somehow ‘harmless’, and were not taken seriously by British listeners. He gave examples of the notably negative impact that the mocking and doom-laiden broadcasts made by Joyce had exerted on British morale, leading – in some cases – to people commiting suicide. In the dark days of summer, 1940, it really did seem as if, after the conquest and defeat of France by Nazi Germany, it was Britain’s ‘turn next’, a threat that Joyce regularly voiced in his radio talks.


Colin Holmes speaking at the Library (photo: Wiener Library)

What came across especially strongly, though, was Joyce’s strong narcissim and his yearning to become a major politician who would deal in grand schemes and human destinies. He could tolerate no shades of grey, sought simplicity and order, and tended to divide the world into good and evil. This latter point, repeated towards the end of Professor Holmes’ talk, also raised interesting points about some current-day and highly egotistical politicians, such as President-elect Donald Trump and the former UKIP leader Nigel Farage. There were certainly a few wry smiles from the audience when this topic was explored.

All in all, I picked up some invaluable lessons about the challenges and processes of writing biographical accounts of history, especially if the subject under investigation is out to deliberately fabricate and mythologise key aspects of their lives.

Dr. Steve Woodbridge is Lecturer in History at Kingston University

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Nazis in Comic Books: A historical perspective

In the following blog Charlotte Mears, History PhD student at Kingston, points to some important questions arising out of her research.

Those Nazis seem to get everywhere, don’t they? It seems that every month a TV channel shows a new documentary on Hitler’s reign of terror or on a leading Nazi, while Hollywood remains fascinated by the topic of the Third Reich. While our continuing quest to learn from history and never repeat the mistakes of the past is a noble goal, has this fascination with the Nazis gone too far?

Rather than confining ‘the Nazis’ to the world of scholarship, the Nazi ‘baddie’ has now become the token villain in a series of popular comics and video games, as well as becoming a new staple in the ‘horror’ market, as I have discovered during my research into the visual representations of female concentration camp guards in wider culture. This raises a difficult question: has artistic licence allowed the crimes of the Nazis to become free reign for popular mass entertainment?

red-skull-1The world of comic books is a good case here. Comic books in general are a long-running media, popular with both children and adults. They go through some of the biggest peaks and troughs in terms of their cultural popularity, but the main superheroes and their foes are somewhat consistent. How many times, for example, has the villainous Nazi ‘Red Skull’ (see images) appeared to face his final defeat, yet somehow always returns from the dead for another evil scheme?

In fact, what does not change is the comic world’s fascination with the Nazis. Fascism has been a major story arc in both the Marvel and the DC world, as well as in numerous independent comics. This popularity is such that this fascination has also transferred into the Hollywood movie adaptations of superheroes as a popular plot device.

The most infamous Nazi villain in the comics must be ‘Red Skull’, mentioned earlier, who was the nemesis of Captain America. Red Skull (whose name was Johann Schmidt) first featured in the Marvel universe in Captain America #1 (March, 1941), during the War. Hitler declared he would make Schmidt into a ‘perfect Nazi’. The story evolved in multiple veins until, when fully developed, Red Skull had become an immortal monster, who was the righthand man of Hitler and was intent on destroying both Europe and the rest of the world in his fight for the dominance of the Aryan race.

This was not Marvel’s only foray in to the world of Nazism for its super-villains: indeed, there were several super-villain groups all operating according to fascist ideals. This began with the ‘Super Axis’ who were defeated by the heroic invaders, but appeared again later as part of ‘Axis Mundi’ (apparently a play on the description of Auschwitz as the ‘Anus Mundi’ – ‘Arsehole of the World’). Following the defeat of this particular group, the fascist survivors went on to found several neo-Nazi groups which are ultimately destroyed by the super-heroes.

red-skullMarvel was not the only major comic house to buy into the gold-mine of using ‘the Nazis’ as their super-villains. DC are well-known for this, too. ‘Wonder Woman’ first came onto the scene battling the Nazis, and this was then expanded into a whole comic book realm of Nazi super-villains in the ‘New World’ Universe. If Marvel have the ultimate Nazi in ‘Red Skull’, then DC can match it with ‘Captain Nazi’.

Both villains, in turn, seem to command multiple Nazi henchmen, all intent on promoting fascism but all – in the end – overthrown by good old America and its heroes. In fact, what you can be certain about in such comics is that the Stars and Stripes will always save the day (other Allied countries that fought in the War were often ignored in favour of the idea that it was only America that had the power to defeat those ‘pesky’ Nazis).

The phenomemon of Nazis as the ‘go to’ bad guys in comics is not just linked to the main comic-book houses, but can also be seen in numerous independent comic publications, such as (to name just a few) Iron Siege, Nazi Werewolves, and Fearless Dawn. It is very apparent to me that when a villain is needed it is far too easy for the comic-houses to turn towards the Nazis. But is that okay? Are we in danger of minimizing the Nazi crimes of the past by making them the fodder of the world of comic-book villains?

This is an ongoing part of my main research, where I have been exploring the backstories of the comic characters and their creators, especially those who have made regular use of ‘the Nazis’. If you are an avid comic-book fan, by any chance, or know these comic characters and want to share some of your thoughts and opinions, then this blog will be continuing at: www.charlotteschatter.wordpress.com

Or you can continue the conversation @Charlieemears

Images: WikiMedia Commons



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Eyewitnesses to Revolution: British writers in Russia in 1917

I recently gave a lecture on Britain and the challenge of Soviet Communism during the interwar years and, while I was updating my rather dog-eared lecture notes and refreshing my knowledge of the latest historiography on the topic, I came across some excellent recent work on British writers who happened to be in Russia at the time of the Revolution in 1917.

An article by Jeffrey Meyers in Standpoint magazine from October, 2015, and a recent book by Helen Rappaport, Caught in the Revolution: Petrograd 1917 (Hutchinson, 2016), both furnished me with some really interesting insights into the various British nationals who were eyewitnesses to the events of 1917, and who penned some important accounts of what they saw and experienced.

riot_on_nevsky_prosp_petrogradIn Meyer’s article, he explores the work of five British writers on the Revolution, all of whom were closely watched by the Russian secret police but still wrote about their experiences in letters, diaries, dispatches, articles, memoirs and novels: Somerset Maugham; Arthur Ransome; Hugh Walpole; Robert Bruce Lockhart; and William Gerhardie. At the time in question, Maugham was a novelist turned spy, Ransome was a foreign correpondent, Walpole was a Red Cross volunteer, Lockhart was a diplomat (and also a spy!), and Gerhardie went to Russia as a soldier.

As Meyer points out, ‘in the hermetic foreign community of Russia’, all of the five writers knew each other ‘and had various degrees of experience and expertise’. Knowledge of the Russian language was especially helpful. Gerhardie, for example, was a native speaker of Russian, while Lockhart spoke it fluently and, according to Meyers, ‘was sometimes mistaken for a Russian’. Similarly, Ransome, Walpole and Maugham all learned to read and speak the language.

leninAs is now well-known, Russia had – in a sense – two ‘Revolutions’ in 1917. In March, 1917, Tsar Nicholas II abdicated, ending 300 years of Romanov family rule. A new Provisional Government took control, a very uneasy coalition of parties held together by Alexander Kerensky. In April, 1917, the Bolshevik revolutionary Lenin (pictured), with German assistance, was able to get back into Russia and begin the carefully planned process of organising a coup d’etat against the Provisional Government, a coup which became the Communist Revolution of November, 1917. The latter Revolution first broke out in Petrograd (formerly St. Petersburg) and, with Lockhart’s help, Kerensky was able to flee the country. Lenin became Chief Commissar – effectively a dictator – and, in March, 1918, the new Bolshevik government took the highly controversial decision to sign the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk with Germany, which enabled the new Communist state to take Russia out of the War, to the evident alarm of Britain and her allies.

In the midst of all this, the five writers discussed by Meyers, together with the various other writers and observers (such as British Embassy staff in Petrograd) who are discussed in Rappaport’s important new book, all tried to record what they had just witnessed, or were continuing to observe. All the individuals tried to make some kind of sense of what they saw, but to greatly varying degrees of success. The challenge for historians today is trying to work out how reliable, or not, the output of these English writers and other observers was. Inevitably, some of the eyewitness versions of the key events conflicted and contradicted each other, or simply misinterpreted things.

Meyer is very good at conveying the very mixed and, in a number of cases, seriously biased accounts of what each writer saw at the time. A good example was William Gerhardie (1895-1997), who was the British military attache at our Embassy in Petrograd. In Meyer’s estimation – although he was an experienced soldier – Gerhardie proved to be an unreliable witness who ‘seriously misjudged the leaders, gravity and consequences of the revolution’. Gerhardie especially overrated the skills of Alexander Kerensky, with whom he was friendly. Moreover, as Rappaport points out, some of the foreigners resident in Petrograd at the time simply did not comprehend the sheer enormity of what was happening in both Revolutions. In hindsight, how could they? The Dutch Ambassador, referring to the November Revolution, wrote: ‘We did not realise what a great historical day we were living in’, while his French counterpart thought the Revolution was ‘too discordant’ for anyone to judge ‘its historical significance’. In the case of the British residents in particular, there was also a strange sense of ‘unreality’ among some in the community in Petrograd.

The British ambassador, Sir George Buchanan, apparently kept a maid whose sole duty was to queue at the local shops to ensure that a regular supply of decent food was still served in his impressive residence (there were increasingly severe food shortages at the time, with inflated prices, and many ordinary Russians facing starvation). Indeed, Buchanan remained baffled by the events as they happened, and could not quite grasp how to deal with the very fast-changing situation (he and his other officials returned to England in March, 1918).

At the risk of stereotyping the English character, it is evident that a number of British people were determined to carry on with life ‘as normal’, no matter what was happening around them. Bizarrely, as Rappaport also notes, while the districts of Petrograd had seethed with discontent earlier in the year, and trouble was already breaking out on the streets, the hottest ticket in town among British residents had still been the ballet at the Mariinsky Theatre. In the February Revolution, as rifle shots echoed on the streets, theatre patrons apparently stepped carefully around snipers to make sure they still got to a performance of Gogol’s The Government Inspector. According to Rappaport, in their weekly sewing circle at the British embassy, the aristocratic wives traded stories about the latest atrocities and their sights of severed heads on poles. One is almost reminded of a scene from a Carry On movie!

arthur-ransomeInterestingly, both Meyers and Rappaport seem to agree that Arthur Ransome (1884-1967) (see photo), who was later the author of the famous children’s classic Swallows and Amazons (1930), was one of the writers best able to capture some of the atmosphere associated with the key events in Petrograd, and offer good insights into what was actually happening in reality on the ground.  Ransome was a journalist for the liberal Daily News, secretly shared some valuable information with the British Intelligence Services, and attended many sessions of the Duma (the Russian Parliament) over the volatile summer of 1917. He also personally saw Lenin arrive at the Finland Station in Petrograd and, later in the year, even started an intense love affair with Leon Trotsky’s personal secretary (Ransome eventually married her in 1924).

Some of Ransome’s private correspondence to his family back in England paint a vivid picture of how tough life could be in Petrograd: ‘You do not see the bones sticking through the skin of the horses… You do not have your porter’s wife beg for a share in your bread allowance because she cannot get enough to feed her children. You do not go to a tearoom to have tea without cakes, without bread, without butter, without milk, without sugar’. He added: ‘If I ever get home, my sole interest will be gluttony’.

Significantly, as Meyers argues, given that Ransom was able to get himself introduced to some of the most influential of the Bolshevik leaders, some of the ‘inside’ information that appeared in his writings remains an important source on the events of 1917 even today.

Steve Woodbridge is Lecturer in History at Kingston University

Photos: WikiMedia Commons





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