Crafting Entanglements: Afro-Asian Pasts of the Global Cold War (CRAFTE)

Leibniz Collaborative Excellence Project (Funded within the Leibniz Competition 2023)

Host Institute: Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient, Berlin

Principal Investigator: Dr. Anandita Bajpai

Duration: 2023-26

Partners: Leibniz Centre for Contemporary History (ZZF, Potsdam), Leibniz Institute for Research on Society and Space (IRS, Erkner), Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU, New Delhi, India), Afro-Asian Futures Past (Andrew W. Melon Project, Howard University, Washington DC, USA)


The project explores Afro-Asian entanglements during the Cold War, focusing on actors, practices and their everyday sites of interaction. The Cold War’s ambit of influence extended far beyond the geographical bounds of Euro-America and the Soviet Union. Recent research has taken note of voices from Africa and Asia, yet little is known about their interconnections. Overlooking these has given us a one-sided picture of the Cold War in which the global South only appears as a theatre of bloc politics. CRAFTE proposes to fill this gap by critically engaging with the lived world(s) of Afro-Asian connections, to show how these were embedded in, but also, how they shaped the global Cold War. Four kinds of actors and their sites of entanglement are at centre-stage: student networks, women’s networks, the media sphere, and African-Asian lives in the divided city of Berlin. CRAFTE’s central aim is to foreground the vitality of South-South connections and reveal how they were ‘crafted’ through material, symbolic and everyday practices. Going beyond existing scholarship’s focus on state-driven programmatics, CRAFTE’s novelty lies in that it: (1)questions the assumed passivity of Afro-Asian actors, restoring their agency as critical co-shapers of the Cold War; (2)employs the framework of global-entangled histories, thus expanding the narrow spatial ambit of Cold War research; (3)privileges the histories of non-elites, focusing on groups such as students, women, shopkeepers, not-so-well-to-do migrants, radio journalists/listeners;(4)calls for a nuanced approach to entanglements, which are not only seen as romanticized forms of solidarity but also as spaces that bred friction and competition, thus mapping the pre-history of existing discourses on sameness/difference/racial othering across Afro-Asia. A first-of-its-kind in Cold War research, the interdisciplinary project combines archival research, oral history and ethnographic fieldwork to expand the remit of the Cold War archive.

Funded projects in the Leibniz Competition


As a contestation of political ideologies, a competition to ‘win hearts and minds’, and a struggle for forging transnational loyalties, the Cold War unfolded in sites spread across the world. Its ambit of influence, relying both on soft and hard power, extended far beyond the geographical bounds of Europe, North America and the Soviet Union. And yet, voices from the globe’s two largest continents–Africa and Asia–which were at the heart of Cold War scenarios, often seem to be closeted, even invisible, in Cold War historiography.

 While some scholars have diverted their attention independently to these two world-regions, mainly by looking at their interactions with the ‘blocs’, little is known about their interconnections (Westad 2012, Calori et al 2019, Slobodian 2015). Missing out on these interconnections has given us a one-sided picture of the Cold War in which the global South appears either as an extended theatre of Euro-American/Soviet politics or marginally as a constellation of satellites left with the only choice of aligning with either of the two blocs. It is only recently (a decade to be precise) that a handful of scholars have begun to investigate Afro-Asian entanglements during the Cold War (Bystrom et al 2021, Lewis and Stolte 2019, Leow, Lewis and Stolte 2018, Lüthi 2020, Menon 2014, Shimazu 2014, Stolte 2019). Although a necessary intervention, this scholarship is sparse and comes with its own limitations, whereby entanglements are either spatially restricted to the geographical ambits of the two continents or studied only in sites located in Euro-America and the Soviet Union. Both by looking at Afro-Asian interconnections across Africa and Asia as well as by charting them in sites located in the blocs, CRAFTE goes beyond the limiting spatial lens through which even the few entangled histories have been written so far. At the same time, critically following actors’ trajectories and practices, the project goes beyond the analyses of state programmatics, institutions and discourses, which have dominated Cold War research. At its centre-stage is the question: How were Afro-Asian actors embedded in, and in turn how did they shape, the global Cold War?

In order to understand the nature of ‘interconnections’, CRAFTE deploys the framework of entanglements “horizontally”, i.e. without postulating any centre-periphery divides or spatial hierarchies. The project’s central aim is to explore the scope and extent of South-South connections and how they were ‘crafted’ through material, symbolic and everyday practices during the Cold War. By focusing on networks, organizations, unions, cultural events, and not the least, technologies, the project aims to show how Afro-Asian actors shaped the global Cold War and how these interconnections in turn informed mutual representations/imaginaries of the other. After all, not only did these interactions forge dynamic (though asymmetrical) relationships between Euro-America/Soviet Union and Asia-Africa, but also those between Asia and Africa. As an interdisciplinary endeavour, CRAFTE’s novelty lies in that: firstly, it foregrounds an entangled history of the Global Cold War, whereby African and Asian actors are not treated as passive receivers but active co-shapers and ‘political engineers’ of this global phenomenon; and secondly, it expands the spatial remit of Afro-Asian interconnections across sites in both the global north and the global south, in which interactions are approached through a textured understanding of power asymmetries and not necessarily through idealized forms of solidarity.

Four kinds of actors and their specific sites of engagement constitute this project:

  1. Students’ networks within the World Federation of Democratic Youth (WFDY), the International Union of Students (IUS) and the International Student Conference (ISC);
  2. Women’s networks emerging from the Afro-Asian Women’s Conferences (Colombo 1958 and Cairo 1961) (AAWC), the Women’s International Democratic Federation (WIDF) and the United Nations Decade for Women (1975-85);
  3. Media entanglements enabled by foreign broadcasting radio stations and their global listening publics (Deutsche Welle (DW), Radio Berlin International (RBI), British Broadcasting Service (BBC), Radio Moscow and Voice of America (VOI)), and International Film Festivals (Moscow, West Berlin, Leipzig, Cannes, and Afro-Asian Film networks at festivals in Beijing, Tashkent and Cairo);
  4. Everyday lives of Afro-Asian actors in the divided Cold War city (East and West Berlin), particularly focusing on non-elite groups such as traders, shopkeepers, journalists, migrants, political asylum seekers, students, friendship societies and Afro-Asian unions on both sides of the Wall.


In setting out to write uncharted histories of Afro-Asian interconnections, CRAFTE’s objectives are as follows:

  • Mapping an inclusive, entangled and polycentric history of the Global Cold War. Afro-Asian pasts are not seen here as alternative histories to, or a counter illustration of, existing Cold War histories. Instead, they reveal how actors from Africa and Asia were deeply enmeshed in these pasts as ‘active’ co-shapers, advantage seekers and “political engineers” of postcolonial futures.
  • Envisaging non-elite, social histories of the Cold War. In doing so, it moves beyond existing international and diplomatic histories which dominate Cold War historiography. Historiography on South-South engagements during the Cold War, NAM being the best example, has also largely remained confined to state programmatics. At its best, we now have intellectual histories which dominate ‘South-South Solidarity’ research. CRAFTE will push this strand from intellectual towards social history in which a variety of social actors such as radio listening publics, women, students, migrants, traders etc. find a prominent place.
  • Expanding the remit of the Cold War archive by moving beyond state and national archives to include local and regional archives, private collections and oral testimonies. Particularly in the two continents, the last generation of actors who were at the forefront of these exchanges is now slowly dwindling. Their narratives are an important source base (as has duly been recognized in the case of their counterparts from the blocs). Incorporating voices from the global South not only makes CRAFTE significant in its aims but also timely in its execution. One of the envisioned objectives is to establish a database of oral testimonies “Crafting the Cold War: Afro-Asian Voices” as an ongoing digital source-base.
  • Substantially expanding the spatial ambit of Cold War. Actors’ life stories reveal that Cold War divides were often not as rigid as they are made out to be. The trajectories of people, technology and ideas moved, overlapped and intersected in spite of existing constraints and control mechanisms.
  • Casting a new lens on the pre-history of South-South relations. Entanglements are not approached as a set of romanticized solidarity networks. A crucially missing element is how historical interconnections have not obliterated discourses of otherness. For instance, in spite of interstate cooperation, South Asians were expelled from Uganda in 1972. Similarly, the racial profiling of/discrimination against African students is widespread in several Asian countries today. With growing academic interest in contemporary South-South relations, uncovering the recent pre-histories of these existing discourses becomes pertinent, though it is largely missing. Economic ties and cooperation did not always produce cultural empathies, and and prejudices were part of the processes that forged entanglements.


Modules and Institutional Partners

  1. Afro-Asian Student Networks (PhD Project, ZZF, Potsdam)
  2. Afro-Asian Women’s Networks (PhD Project, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India)
  3. Media Entanglements (PI Project, Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient, Berlin)
  4. The Divided City as a Resource for South-South Entanglements (Post-Doc Project, Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient, Berlin)
  5. Oral History Database (Database Management/Co-ordination position, IRS, Erkner):
  6. Extended Institutional Partner, Visiting Research Fellow: Prof. Anaheed Al-Hardan, Howard University. Washington DC, USA, Principal Investigator, Afro-Asian Futures Past, Andrew W. Melon Foundation Project

Photo credits

  1. Solidarity Magazine, Issue 6, November-December 1989, Pub: Czechoslovak Committee for Solidarity with the Peoples of Asia, Africa and Latin America, Prague.
  2. Envelope, Weltfestspiele der Jugend und Studenten, Berlin, German Democratic Republic, 1973, Private Collections A. Srivastava, Madhepura, Bihar, India
  3. Asian African Conference Bulletin, 21.04.1955, No. 6, Pub: Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Republic of Indonesia