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Let Pass or Die: Passport History

December 11, 2019

Book Review by Thomas Tass

Let Pass or Die: Passport History
By Tom Topol Self Published, 353 pages

I have just finished reading Tom Topol’s book on the history of passports. The 353-page book is a very interesting review of the evolution of the little cardboard binder book we are so familiar with. It is an easy read and does not require the reader to be associated with the community of border or consular officials.
The collection of old passports is an interesting pastime when looked at in the context of traditional collectibles. Collecting valuable objects such as coins, antiques or paintings have objective values that are cataloged by experts. Passports may hold only nominal value to the person who owns one but Tom Topal has gathered them into a niche collection whose value may be less subjective given the history of the person to whom it was issued. That is probably the most interesting part of the book, because it outlines the history of the owner of the passport, particularly if it is a person of repute or historical significance.
For example, the author writes about Anna Pavlova who was a Russian prima ballerina during the late 19th and early 20th centuries and the passport she used to travel in various locations worldwide from 1914 and 1926. What I found was interesting about her “passport story” was that it was auctioned off in 2012 for $1300. He suggests that passport collecting can be a desirable investment and even advises that if you are interested as a collector of vintage paper items such as passports it is important that you go to an auction house to buy or sell such collectibles.
The author links the lives of famous people to their passports through brief but interesting historical anecdotes. One such example is that of Francis Gary Powers the American U2 spy aviator shot down over Russia in May 1960. His last passport was issued in 1975 but never used as he had died in a helicopter accident over Los Angeles shortly after it was issued.
Various versions of contemporary passports from the early 19th century and from around the world are reviewed. Too numerous to mention but very interesting from a strictly technical perspective. For example, I knew commemorative passports were issued by the United States during their bi-centennial in 1976 because in my early career I examined many of them at passport control. What I did not know was that Canada issued a commemorative passport to Canadians who wished to visit the Canadian National Memorial in Vimy, France. In 1936 Canada issued over 6,000 free Special Vimy Passports to those who did the pilgrimage that year to honor the over 60,000 Canadians who fought and died in World War One.
I particularly enjoyed reading about the Nansen passport. It is named after Fridtjof Nansen who devoted himself to the League of Nations, following his appointment in 1921 as the League's High Commissioner for Refugees. In 1922 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his work on behalf of the displaced victims of the First World War and related conflicts. Nansen recognized that one of the great obstacles for refugees was their inability to identify themselves and travel across international borders. In today's parlance he thought outside of the box and simply invented an identification document issued under his authority as High Commissioner for Refugees. It was actually called the Nansen Passport.
The title of Topol’s book Let Pass or Die is intriguing until the reader gets to page 45 and learns about the “Paiza” of Genghis Khan the Mongolian warrior-ruler and one of the most famous conquerors of history. Khan consolidated tribes into a unified Mongolia and then extended his empire across Asia to the Adriatic Sea. The writer suggests that the first passports were actually in the form of a Paiza which would in today's world look like a key fob. The 13th century fob was bronze with 24 carat gold foil and was issued to Khan’s Ambassadors with the following inscription, “I am the emissary of the Khan. If you defy me, you die.” One can only imagine that if there was such a job as passport control official in the 13th century the holder of the Paiza was likely to be processed very quickly.
I recommend Let Pass or Die. It is a fascinating read if you are or have been directly or even peripherally associated with consular or border management matters. It is rich with over 180 color illustrations. It’s also a curious mix of history and travel identification technologies reflecting our ever-changing world especially over the past 150 years. The author concludes with a chapter entitled Collectors Guideline. From that this reader presupposes that the collection of passports as a niche hobby may grow as the little booklets become as passé as postage stamps due to the further spread of shared data protection systems and the acceptance of advanced safe and secure personal identification technologies.
Only time will tell.
Thomas A. Tass

December 11, 2019