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Munitions of the Mind Posts

‘Jungles To-day are Gold Mines Tomorrow’: Depictions of Africa and Africans in Empire Marketing Board Posters, 1926–1933

Written by Mark Connelly

In 1926 the British government launched a new initiative to stimulate the economy of the empire and encourage a sense of solidarity in the Britannic world. Although short-lived (it was wound-up in 1933), the Empire Marketing Board was a remarkable instrument of propaganda and persuasion. Designed to shape public opinion, the EMB drew upon the lessons the First World War had taught on the art of mass communication. Chief among the EMB’s tools was the poster. Commissioning leading commercial artists, the EMB produced a truly remarkable range of posters. Visually arresting, some boldly modernist, others more traditional, all were eye-catching and demanded attention. Among the output were many referring to Africa and Africans. Studying those posters, their visual and written messages, reveals much about British perceptions of Africa and race. As posters designed primarily for display in Britain, they reflected ‘a white gaze’ and white views of the world. As instruments of those in power, the posters reflected the official view that the Empire was a family, but like all families, it had seniors and juniors, and thus emphasised rank and hierarchy. Within this worldview, Africans were part of the family, but their position was one of dependence upon the white rulers. The visual tropes then implied a happy relationship of trust, confidence and assurance between the two. Economic prosperity, and with it happiness, for all was guaranteed by this relationship, or so the EMB proclaimed. Of course, the realities on the ground were a long way from such cosy visions.

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Unlearning Eugenics: Sexuality, Reproduction, and Disability in Post-Nazi Europe

Review by David Peace

On 30 October 2020, in defiance of anti-COVID-19 measures to restrict public gatherings, over 100,000 mask-clad demonstrators took to the streets of Warsaw to protest proposed changes to Poland’s abortion laws. Only a few days earlier, on 22 October, Poland’s constitutional tribunal ruled that abortions sought on the grounds of ‘foetal defects’ or ‘congenital malformations’ were ‘incompatible’ with Article 38 of the Polish Constitution. Consequently, abortion has now become only legally permissible in Poland in either cases of rape and incest, or where there is potential threat to a mother’s life or health, or instances of irreparable damage to a foetus. Reportedly, these cases represent only 2% of all legal terminations in Poland. As Dunja Mijatović, the Council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights, stated in a tweet shortly after the announcement, the new ruling has in effect removed the basis ‘for almost all legal abortions in Poland’ and amounts to ‘a ban and violates human rights.’ However, despite the days of protest marches across Polish cities and popular backlash against the ruling, Poland’s shift towards a curtailment of access to abortion services echoes a growing trend among traditionally Catholic European countries as populist parties in Slovakia, Hungary, Italy, Spain, and Croatia, seek to emulate the Polish legislative model to disrupt what they perceive to be the overt liberalisation of abortion as a reproductive right.

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The Life and World of Francis Rodd, Lord Rennell (1895-1978): Geography, Money and War

Reviewed by Edward Flint

More years ago than I care to remember, when starting my PhD, a colleague, Christopher Duffy, asked if I had found the people yet. I looked at him quizzically for my head was full of the big events, the organisations, theoretical frameworks, concepts and so forth – by the end of the process I knew exactly what he meant. Plenty of names had bubbled up in the PhD but three in particular had emerged as fundamental to the development and employment of British civil affairs and military government in the Second World War.

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The Palgrave Handbook of Britain and the Holocaust

Reviewed by Ellis Spicer

This new volume, edited by Tom Lawson and Andy Pearce, includes contributions from authors of a wide range of backgrounds and expertise. It does not shy away from awkward truths or confronting representations of the past that serve the interests of the present. The editors emphasise how the past is used to understand and shape the present. History is memory in action and it is fascinating that this book places the recent events of COVID-19, Black Lives Matter, legacies of slavery in statues, and Brexit as paramount to the ways in which history is consumed, reacted to and communicated in our modern society.

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The Napoleonic Wars: A Global History

Reviewed by Vittoria Princi

If the bicentenary of Napoleon Bonaparte’s death has managed to make everyone agree on one thing, it is that the Corsican-born general-turned-emperor remains as much a symbol of his epoch (the “soul of the world on horseback”, in the famous definition by Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel) as a deeply divisive figure. This was very true already in his intense life and times, and it is still so in the distant posterity of the 21st century, as even the celebratory speech given by French president Emmanuel Macron on 5 May 2021 had to acknowledge. Insisting on Napoleon as a “great man of history”, however, eclipses the bigger picture of a worldwide, two-decades-long conflict embroiling Europe and whose ramifications spanned nearly all over the global order of its times. A helpful book to keep this wider context in mind is The Napoleonic Wars: A Global History, by Alexander Mikaberidze.

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China

Reviewed by James Farley.

The Communist Party of China (CCP) recently released a new version of their appraisal of the country’s history, entitled ‘中国共产党简史’ (Brief History of the Communist Party of China). Following in the tradition of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, and their ‘short course’ that began in 1938, the China series has always provided a concise, and officially approved, guide to the history of the Party, and by extension the development of the country. The Brief History has always existed to combat what the Party terms ‘Historical nihilism,’ or rather what are perceived to be ‘incorrect’ analyses of China’s history. Whilst the content of each ‘short course’ is naturally heavily weighted in favour of the CCP, analysis of each entry in the series can provide insight into current development concerns and the standing of former leaders, as the books are framed to support current political, economic and social aims and objectives. The most recent edition, published in February 2021 for example, contains 530 pages, 147 of which focus on 2012-2021 and the leadership of the current Chairman of the Party, Xi Jinping. By comparison, the Mao years are only given 33 pages. The past is certainly being utilised to serve the future.

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Britain’s War: A New World, 1942–1947

Reviewed by Chris Smith

This book, the second volume of Daniel Todman’s mammoth history of Britain’s Second World War, picks up where the previous volume left off in 1941. Unlike the majority of histories of Britain’s conflict, which tend to focus on only one aspect of the war, Todman’s work aims to be completist – or rather as completist as any single history (even in two volumes) of Britain and the Second World War can hope to be.

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A Personal Reflection on the Recent War Graves Controversy

Written by Mark Connelly I first visited a Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery when I was sixteen years old. It was Dud Corner Cemetery and the Loos Memorial in France. I can remember the moment vividly. Having developed a deep interest in the First World War, I was on my first battlefield trip. Although my reading had made me aware of the work of the Commission, nothing prepared me for the beauty, calm and dignity of…

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Art, Men, and Masculinity in the Great War

Written by Laura Waters

People have been drawing people for millennia. Art is crucial to how we perceive ourselves, it both forms us and we form it. So when we think about identity during wartime, especially masculine identity as it relates to the male body, art is a vital source, often giving us as much information as written primary documents. Going into the Great War, we know that masculinity and gender expression were sometimes hotly contested in British society. The rise of eugenics, the classical body aesthetic, and the numerous debates over sports and exercise in schools all pushed and pulled at an ideal image of the male body, cementing its importance to one’s masculinity. As an added concern, men were expected to fulfil the role of heterosexual patriarch, to be domestic, to emote (but only within specific parameters).

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Turkey and the Soviet Union during World War II: Diplomacy, Discord and International Relations

Reviewed by Edward Corse

The Second World War produced some intriguing quasi-conflicts amongst the much larger and better-known battles of that period. Onur İşçi’s analysis of the relations between Turkey and the Soviet Union at that time carefully plots out one such fascinating story – one that is understudied and often misunderstood.

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