Unsinkable: We Can’t Let Go Of The Titanic

From the archives. Why the sinking of the Titanic still fascinates, a century later: Unlike other disasters, it seems to hold meaning — a warning against technological hubris, a morality tale about class, a foreshadowing of the First World War. It “replicates the structure and the themes of our most fundamental myths and oldest tragedies. Like Iphigenia, the Titanic is a beautiful maiden sacrificed to the agendas of greedy men” (6,120 words)

Can We Forget The Man In The IRA Beret?

The presence of Martin McGuinness at a state banquet for the visiting president of Ireland in Windsor Castle this week truly marked the close of a century of conflict between England and Ireland. McGuinness commanded the Provisional IRA through a ruthless campaign of bombings and assassinations. Now he is deputy first minister of Northern Ireland. If he can dine with the Queen, is it time for a general amnesty? (Metered) (1,380 words)

Death And Identity In Rwanda

Short, lucid explainer of the Rwandan genocide clarifying the nature of the Hutu-Tutsi divide, the part played by Belgian colonialism, and, not least, the reason Western media didn’t pay much attention at the time. “The big event in Africa was the first democratic election in South Africa. All the world’s top journalists were there. The world’s media could not cope with two stories from Africa at the same time” (750 words)

Rwanda: Not My Worst Day

Sketch of life in the Rwandan capital, Kigali, as peace returned after the 1994 genocide. “One very uncomfortable element of searching for the dead was that we needed to ask around to find out where they were likely to have been killed. As we asked people, we were aware that they might have been involved in some way with the killings or, at least, have done nothing to try to stop the slaughter or offer refuge” (1,950 words)

Priest Who Witnessed 1,700 Executions

Notes from the diary of a priest who gave absolution to Republicans executed in Zaragoza during the Spanish Civil War, and was horrified by what he saw. “My attitude was in sharp contrast with that of other men of the cloth, including some of my superiors, who displayed extraordinary delight at the unfolding events, and not only approved of them but even clapped and cheered quite frequently” (740 words)

Never Say Never Again

Gruesome recollections of covering the Rwanda genocide of 1994; massacres and remains throughout. But Rwanda recovered quickly and well. “Visitors to Kigali wondered at its tidiness, as if the Africans were so busy picking up toffee wrappers they didn’t have a moment to chop each other up with machetes again”. Could more determined Western intervention have prevented the genocide? Probably not (Metered) (1,230 words)

The Man Who Went Looking For Freedom

Romanian émigré tells of the heroism of her father, who denounced Ceausescu and suffered horribly for it. The story is pieced together mainly from the thousands of files that the Romanian secret police compiled on the family. “The transcriber knew us so well, he or she was able to read and duly note our moods. Some even took sides in family arguments, noting on the margins of the transcripts who they thought was right” (3,300 words)

Hold Or Fold

On Paper, by Nicholas Basbanes, celebrates the 2,000-year history of a medium that has so far outlasted clay, stone, papyrus, parchment, metal, bark, bones, seashells and floppy discs. If the paperless office does arrive, it will do so only after a highly successful rearguard action by paper. Desktop computers (and printers) have only increased consumption of the commodity they were expected to render obsolete (680 words)

A Captivating Mind

Portrait of the Bulgarian writer Georgi Markov, who turned his back on fame at home to become a dissident in exile, and was poisoned on Waterloo Bridge in London by communist-era secret agents. Nobody will ever face trial for his murder; the Bulgarian prosecutor has closed the investigation and the files have been destroyed. “The memory of communism in Bulgaria is a vast, unsolved problem” (9,300 words)

In The Jungle

From the archives: The story of The Lion Sleeps Tonight, the “most famous melody ever to emerge from Africa”. Solomon Linda, “the Elvis Presley of his time and place”, improvised his “haunting skein of fifteen notes” in Johannesburg in 1939. “There was something terribly compelling about the underlying chant, a dense meshing of low male voices above which Solomon yodeled and howled for two exhilarating minutes” (10,800 words)

To Russia With Love Pick of the day

Beguiling, rose-tinted reminiscence of the twenty-plus years spanning late Gorbachev to early Putin during which Russia was a relatively open and Western-friendly country — a period now seemingly at an end. This was a wonderful interlude especially for returning emigrés who could find in Russia, briefly, the best of their East and their West. My highest praise: I could have wished this piece were twice as long (3,670 words)

Review: Revolutionary Ideas

New study by Jonathan Israel, Princeton history professor, portrays the French Revolution as primarily a “revolution in ideas” rather than a “class conflict”. The modern secular political order which inspired France took shape in the 17C Dutch Republic and was elaborated by Benedict Spinoza, who gave “philosophically defensible form” to ideas of “self-government and freedom of expression”, with Nature in the role of God (1,020 words)

Fantasy Adventures Of Early-Modern Walter Mitty

Note on “George Psalmanazar”, an 18C Frenchman who claimed to be a native of Formosa brought to Europe by a Jesuit missionary. He spoke a language of his own devising, and wrote a best-selling History Of Formosa describing the island as a place where “the nobility live in underground palaces and dine on vipers’ blood for breakfast”. Later, he settled in London and wrote theological pamphlets (984 words)

Tony Benn: Wicked Or Merely Stupid? (1981)

From the archives. Profile of Tony Benn (who died this week) from 1981 when Benn was the champion of socialism, Britain was in turmoil, and Mrs Thatcher was beginning her revolution. “There is war in Ireland; the cities are on fire; the pound sterling has become a joke: productivity is at prewar levels. In a country like this it is not surprising, and may even be necessary, that the leader of the Left is a member of the aristocracy” (5,200 words)

Review: A Spy Among Friends

Ben Macintyre’s account of Kim Philby’s long friendship with the MI6 spy Nicholas Elliott is “an unputdownable postwar thriller whose every incredible detail is fact not fiction”. The two men’s relationship “scaled Olympic heights of denial”, as Elliott, blinded by friendship and class loyalty, refused to see that Philby might be a KGB double agent, and, when confronted with the facts, allowed Philby to escape (980 words)

Why Are Jews So Afraid Of Stepan Bandera?

Short primer on the complicated life of Ukrainian nationalist Stepan Bandera, whose “proto-fascist nationalist group” advocated “sovereignty for ethnic Ukrainians” in the 1930s, and helped the invading Nazis murder Jews in 1941. “While Bandera and his men were responsible for killing Jews, their ideology wasn’t fundamentally anti-Semitic; rather, it was pro-Ukrainian”. In 2010 he was declared “a hero of Ukraine” (860 words)

The Lessons Of China’s Collapse

China was “by far the greatest nation on the planet” in the 15th and 16th centuries. Its subsequent fall and stagnation may hold lessons for America. China lost out to Europe, culturally and economically, because it turned inward, and turned against science. America is listing in that same direction. It is geographically isolated. Its tech companies “import engineers much as China imported Jesuit mathematicians” (1,040 words)

The Fate Of Denmark’s Jews

Gripping short interview on the political and moral choices of Denmark during WW2. The Danish government “co-operated” with the Nazis, but did not “collaborate”; the relationship was strictly pragmatic. Pre-war laws against immigration had prevented German Jewish refugees from entering the country; this made it easier for Denmark to protect Danish Jews, and help them escape, once Denmark was occupied (1,160 words)

Imaginary Jews

David Nirenberg’s “brilliant, fascinating, and deeply depressing” new book, Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition, is “an intellectual history of Western civilization, seen from a peculiar but frighteningly revealing perspective”. It shows how centuries of “Christian heresies, political tyrannies, medieval plagues, capitalist crises, and revolutionary movements” have been blamed upon the imaginary behaviour of “imagined Jews” (3,900 words)

A World Without World War One

For all the turbulence and tragedy of the past century, if you’d fallen asleep in February 1914 and just woken up you would find Europe’s fundamentals little changed. Germany is prosperous and dominant; Russia is rude and authoritarian; Britain is uncertain about its European role. History cleaves to “profound processes of demographics, technology, culture and institutions” running deeper than events (725 words)

What Really Happened To Michael Rockefeller

His catamaran overturned on a river in New Guinea in 1961. He made it to shore, where he met travellers from a nearby village. Descendants of the villagers tell what happened next, and they have the bones to prove it: “Pep speared him in the ribs. They rowed him to a hidden creek where they killed him and made a big fire”. The Dutch colonial government heard the story from missionaries, but hushed it up (8,400 words)

Political Hatred In Argentina

Gripping interview with Uki Goñi, who covered the Dirty War of the 1970s for the Buenos Aires Herald. “Argentine historians use the French style to write about something. You lock yourself in your apartment with a bottle of wine and lots of coffee and you think about a subject and then you write whatever your opinion is about the subject. But you don’t do any research or get your hands dirty, except maybe with coffee” (8,760 words)

The Parthenon Enigma

Britain bought Lord Elgin’s “Sculptured Marbles” grudgingly in 1816. Experts said they were not great art. Some doubted Elgin could have taken them legally from the Parthenon. Parliament paid Elgin half the £75,000 he asked. Opinions of the frieze have since improved; but art historians still debate what story it depicts. Most say a religious festival, the Panathenaia. Others see preparations for a human sacrifice (1,900 words)

Proto-Fascist Megalomaniac Prince Who Shaped Modern Italy

Gabriele D’Annunzio, writer and libertine, is remembered today, if at all, as “the very personification of Italian decadence, a creature of unembarrassed and unbridled appetite”. His radical political posturing enthralled Marinetti’s Futurists and prepared the way for Mussolini’s Fascists. Hemingway called him “a jerk”. Lucy Hughes Hallett’s new biography argues that he was, for all his faults, a “major poet” (3,500 words)

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