“Split the difference” is My Own True Love’s favorite way to solve a difference of opinion. It’s a pretty effective tactic when you’re negotiating a contract, eyeing the last piece of pie, or deciding what time you need to leave the house to catch a 6:00 AM flight. Win-win.
When it comes to settling geopolitical differences that same strategy can lead to lose-lose.
Over the last few months, I’ve read a lot about Britain untangling itself from empire in the first half of the twentieth century.* (Sometimes that’s the way the assignments crumble.) In the process, I connected some dots I’d never connected before . Faced with competing nationalisms in Ireland, Palestine, and South Asia, Great Britain used a one-size fits all strategy: Partition.
It works better with pie.
*Want to read along? Try these three:
- Troubles J. G. Farrell’s satirical novel about Ireland in the uprisings of 1919,
- The Makers of the Modern Middle East I know I’m repeating myself here, but this is an excellent account of how Britain jerked the strings in the Middle East after WWI
- Tamas Indian novelist Bihisham Sahni’s heart-rending story of loosing home in the name of nationalism in the Indian Partition
There are plenty of good reasons to visit the Art Institute of Chicago: the Impressionist collection, the Chagall window, the under-appreciated collection of South Asia art, the gift shop. But the Art Institute usually isn’t my first choice for a history lesson. In fact, it doesn’t generally take much to set me off on the inadequacy of their labels. I want context, dang it all. Not just size, date, and medium.
Last Thursday, I took it all back. The exhibit Windows on the War: Soviet TASS Posters at Home and Abroad, 1941-1945 is an amazing combination of art, intellectual history, military history and curatorial chutzpah.
On June 22, 1941, Hitler invaded the Soviet Union. Stalin’s government girded its loins for war. So did the Soviet Union’s artists. On June 23, three Russian artists asked for permission to create window propaganda posters as part of the war effort. With government approval, a dozen artists set up the TASS Window Poster Studio. Unlike the war posters that most Americans are familiar with, the TASS posters weren’t printed. They were hand-painted using a stencil method that allowed the studio to mass-produce intricate images. At the beginning of the war, the studio was producing several hundred copies of each design. As more artists joined the studio, outputs rose. At its height, TASS could produce 1400 copies of a design. Between 1941 and 1945, the studio produced a poster for almost every day of the war.
The artists came from many backgrounds: political cartoonists, fine artists, even a children’s book illustrator. The diversity of the posters reflects the diversity of their backgrounds. Some were comic book style, telling a story in a series of panels. Some were gorgeous. Some were flat out funny. Many were–disturbing. As the war went on, the level of violence and gore in the posters grew. (I must admit, I stopped looking at the posters related to the Battle of Stalingrad.) As My Own True Love put it, the posters gave a new meaning to the phrase “graphic art”.
Windows on the War is on display through October 23. (Sorry to give you such short notice, but I wasn’t expecting history.) If you’re in or near Chicago, be sure you take the opportunity to see it. If you’re actively interested in war posters or the eastern front in WWII, it’s worth a special trip. If Chicago isn’t in your plans, the exhibition’s website will give you a taste. The Art Institute has also set up a tumblir * , where a new poster is added daily.
*Don’t ask me to explain it. Just trust me and click.
The simple answer is: Great Britain. You want the long version?
In The Makers of the Modern Middle East historians T.G. Fraser, Andrew Mango, and Robert McNamara tell the story of how today’s Middle East was created from the remains of the Ottoman Empire during the peace negotiations at the end of the First World War.
The Allies weren’t the only powers that had an interest in the future of the region. Prince Feisal, who led the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire with British aid, hoped to build an Arab kingdom based on Syria and Palestine. Dr. Chaim Weizmann had laid the political groundwork for British support of a Jewish National Home in Palestine. Mustafa Kemal, later known as Ataturk, created the modern, secular Turkish republic in the teeth of Allied opposition.
Fraser and his co-authors weave the details of competing territorial claims, conflicting political agreements, ignored reports, and colorful characters into a narrative as intricate as an Oriental rug, with a warp of Allied imperial ambitions and a weft of the emerging claims of Arab nationalism, Turkish nationalism and Zionism.
* * *
The bottom line? If you promise the same piece of land to France, the Zionists and an Arab king, someone’s going to be unhappy when the war is over
This review previously appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers.