Editor’s pick: 9 favourite articles from the BBC World Histories archive to read right now

From the horrors of the Holocaust to the historical perceptions of Afro-textured hair, HistoryExtra hosts a wealth of history articles from top historians, which first appeared in BBC World Histories magazine. With all subscriber areas of the site currently open to all readers, the title's editor Matt Elton selects nine articles from our archive that you can read for free, right now…

Hungarian Jews arrive at Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in 1944
1

The aftermath of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster

On 26 April 1986, an experiment on the cooling pump system at Chernobyl power station, in the then-Soviet city of Pripyat, Ukraine, went badly wrong. The nuclear reactor exploded, causing a fire that raged for nine days and emitting large quantities of radioactive debris. Fallout settled largely in nearby Belarus, Ukraine and Russia, but the radioactive cloud covered much of Europe. Shortly after the catastrophe, journalist Svetlana Alexievich visited the region affected by the Chernobyl disaster. She described her experiences for the first issue of BBC World Histories

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Bemused families in Narodychi, Ukraine watch neighbours preparing to leave home shortly after the nuclear accident at Chernobyl, just 50 miles (80km) to the east. The Soviet state proposed to re-house rural inhabitants in badly affected districts, but many preferred to stay despite (or perhaps unaware of the danger of) the high radiation detected by Geiger counters. (Photo by Igor Kostin/Sygma via Getty Images)
Bemused families in Narodychi, Ukraine watch neighbours preparing to leave home shortly after the nuclear accident at Chernobyl, just 50 miles (80km) to the east. (Photo by Igor Kostin/Sygma via Getty Images)

 

2

In their own words: the team behind Apollo 11 describe the 1969 mission to the Moon

In July 1969, a team of astronauts, scientists and computer engineers achieved a remarkable feat: they landed two people on the Moon. As the world marked 50 years since the landing, BBC World Histories spoke to several Apollo 11 team members, who recalled the mission’s trials and triumphs…

3

Spanish flu: the virus that changed the world

In spring 1918 a disease began to sweep around the planet – a lethal virus that infected a third of the world’s population and left upwards of 50 million dead. Laura Spinney explores the devastating impact of the Spanish flu pandemic and – in an update since its first publication – how it compares to the Coronavirus crisis. Read the full article here

You can also listen to Laura discuss Covid-19 and pandemics of the past on a recent episode of the HistoryExtra podcast:

 

4

The big question: should museums return their treasures?

Amid calls for the ‘return’ of artefacts such as the Benin Bronzes, the Elgin Marbles, and art looted by the Nazis during the Second World War, now held in museums far from their places of origin, four experts discuss the ethical and historical aspects of the ‘restitution’ of such treasures. Read the full article here.

Illustration by Davide Bonazzi
(Illustration by Davide Bonazzi)

 

5

Rewriting the past: the history that inspired Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four

George Orwell called Nineteen Eighty-Four “a novel about the future” but it was also a deeply researched story about the recent past. While she was writing The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), Margaret Atwood set herself a rule: “I would not include anything that human beings had not already done in some other place or time.” Similarly, Orwell drew many of the most disturbing elements of his fictional dictatorship of Oceania from totalitarian reality. From Stalinist Russia to the Spanish Civil War, the 20th century offered George Orwell a huge array of material for his dystopian novel. Here, Dorian Lynskey charts the events that inspired a masterpiece.

 

6

Emma Dabiri on the changing perceptions of Afro-textured hair

“Afro-textured hair had no stigma before the dehumanisation of black people that emerged from slavery”, says Emma Dabiri. Here, the historian, writer and broadcaster talks to Matt Elton about her book, Don’t Touch My Hair, exploring how perceptions of Afro-textured hair fuelled historical prejudice, oppression, slavery and colonial attitudes. Read more here.

Emma Dabiri in conversation about her book 'Don't Touch My Hair'
Emma Dabiri photographed in London. “The hours spent grooming hair were important social time during which information was exchanged and the bonds of a community strengthened”, she says.(Fran Monks for BBC World Histories magazine)

 

7

The hidden stories of the Holocaust

“There are many aspects of the Holocaust that deserve greater attention. Those who are familiar with Auschwitz might think that there is not much more for us to learn or to discover when, actually, there is plenty more for us to find out and to explore.” Seventy-five years after the liberation of Auschwitz in January 1945, historian Nikolaus Wachsmann talks to Matt Elton about the hidden stories of the Holocaust.

 

8

From conqueror to youth icon: who was Cyrus the Great?

Why has a simple stone tomb in south-central Iran, used by authoritarian leaders to legitimise their hold on power, now become a focal point for disaffected youth? Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones explores the changing public image of an ancient Persian emperor, you can read the full article here

9

Out of the closets and into the streets: the legacy of the Stonewall Riots

People outside the Stonewall Inn attempt to block police arrests, 28 June 1969. The crowd did not disperse until 4am the following morning (New York Daily News Archive/Getty Images)
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More than 50 years ago, a riot at a grimy bar in New York City kick-started the nascent US gay rights movement. Writing for BBC World Histories magazine, Chris Parkes explores how the Stonewall Riots transformed the lives of queer people around the world. You can also listen to Chris talking about the revolutionary episode on the HistoryExtra podcast:

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