World War II in Colour
When I first joined GPF two years ago, the entire analyst team read Gerhard Weinberg’s magisterial “A World at Arms,” an exhaustive, 1,200-page account of the causes of World War II and how it unfolded around the globe. In some ways, “World War II in Colour” reminded me of Weinberg’s book. Although it’s impossible to capture the same level of detail in a documentary series, its approach is similar to that of “A World at Arms.” The 13-part documentary methodically walks through all phases of the war from start to finish, covering every major theater on land and at sea in Europe and Asia. The series stitches the narrative together in a way that places each campaign within the broader global context, which helps the viewer better conceptualize the enormous scale on which this war was waged.
Then, of course, there’s the footage, which is remarkable. As someone who grew up watching WWII documentaries on the History Channel, I’m used to seeing the conflict through black and white images, which tend to create a distance between the present and the past – as if the lack of color made it somehow otherworldly. Color makes these events feel closer, the anguish of the participants more human, and the intensity of their experiences more real.
“World War II in Colour” includes footage – of both the front lines and the home front – from every major country that participated in the war. The series also uses dynamic maps that, together with the images and video, tell the story of why the armies maneuvered the way they did, why specific battles were fought, and the daily struggles of the men and women who endured their own personal horrors. Skillfully balancing between the impersonal forces that brought the world to war and personal stories of death and survival made for a series that was as engaging as it was informative, and is well worth watching.
Xander Snyder, analyst
African Perspectives on Colonialism
By A. Adu Boahen
In “African Perspectives on Colonialism,” A. Adu Boahen has a very clear mission: to add depth and nuance to understandings of colonial Africa. He’s not trying to rewrite African history, but he is trying to debunk certain mainstreams beliefs, reframe well-known narratives and add insight to certain events related to this period in African history. Because of this broad focus, the author assumes his audience already has a strong baseline of understanding of colonial history and, therefore, frequently references people, events and locations without providing much context. The book provides a general overview of major themes in Africa as a whole and then delves into discussions on subregions to illustrate the main ideas. One negative consequence of this approach is that the book doesn’t go into much detail on specific countries, tribes or kingdoms.
From a geopolitical perspective, Boahen left me somewhat conflicted. On one hand, there are moments where he provides serious geopolitical analysis to explain the behavior of African kingdoms – analysis that is often lacking in discussions around this part of the world. He shows, using concrete examples, how overarching interests and geopolitical imperatives drove African leaders to try to work with European authorities. He also does a good job of putting events in context. He discusses, for example, how European colonialism didn’t target only Africa but also extended to parts of Asia.
On the other hand, there were several areas where I found the analysis lacking. The first flaw was in the book’s very first sentence: “The most surprising aspects of the imposition of colonialism on Africa were its suddenness and its unpredictability.” This statement reflects a failure to understand the underlying trends and forces of the time. This lapse in the analysis may be due in part to the book’s narrow focus, which didn’t allow the author to delve too deep into discussions of motivations, interests and geopolitical considerations. His main purpose in writing this book is to provide clarity on African perspectives on European colonialism. He does so even through the terminology he uses to describe this period in history and its impact on African societies. He uses the word “partition” instead of “scramble” to describe the European division and colonization of African territory.
Toward the end of the book, there are two ideas that stood out to me. First, he shows (without directly stating) how European exposure and influence in Africa contributed to the demise of colonialism. African societies grew more resistant to colonialism as they became more aware of European political thought, other colonial revolutions and the Bolshevik revolution, and following the introduction of trade unions and World War I. The second idea he presents is one that I take issue with. Boahen argues that the borders of African nations should have been drawn more thoughtfully with consideration for how local ethnic groups and resources are distributed. But redrawing borders would have caused major chaos. The choice to follow colonial boundaries helped avoid having to negotiate new borders for an entire continent, which almost certainly would have led to complete turmoil and made the region even more vulnerable to European encroachment.
That I finished this book both appreciating and disagreeing with some of its main arguments is what made it a worthwhile read. The book provided numerous ideas for contemplation and forced me to rethink my views of the colonial era. Since this book was published in the 1980s, I look forward to seeing how the discourse on Africa’s colonial experience has evolved in the past 30 years.
Allison Fedirka, analyst