The end of colonial rule in Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean was one of the most important and dramatic developments of the twentieth century. In the decades after World War II, dozens of new states emerged as actors in global politics. Long-established imperial regimes collapsed, some more or less peacefully, others amid mass violence. Decolonization by Jan C. Jansen and Jürgen Osterhammel takes an incisive look at decolonization and its long-term consequences, revealing it to be a coherent yet multidimensional process at the heart of modern history. Recently, the authors answered some questions about their new book:
You describe the dissolution of colonial empires as a major process of the twentieth century. What makes decolonization important?
In a way, decolonization is both among the most overrated and underrated historical processes of the twentieth century. On the one hand, many contemporaries pinned high expectations to the end of colonial rule: a new age of social and international equality, post-racism, peace, empowerment of the South, economic redistribution, cultural self-determination, democracy, technological progress, etc. Many of these expectations did not, or only partially, materialize. Hierarchies and inequality continue to shape the relations between formally independent states. It is thus only natural that many see decolonization through the prism of historical disappointment and disillusion. They regard decolonization as a failure. Yet we also have to see what decolonization did change: It dramatically altered the norms that govern the word-wide relations between nations and peoples. While in the late 1930s large parts of the world population still lived in territories that were under alien rule, this has become an anomaly in the present time. Racial hierarchy is no longer an accepted structuring principle of world order. This fundamental normative change is a major dimension—and yes, also an achievement—of the decolonization era. In general, it is important to go beyond these narratives of failure and success and to understand decolonization as a fundamental restructuring—and geopolitical fragmentation—of the international system. This is a perspective we put forward in the book.
How do you explain this international sea change?
This is a question that many contemporaries and witnesses of decolonization were already debating, and today’s historians and political scientists have inherited several ways of explaining the end of colonial rule: that the colonial powers simply could not stem against the rising tide of national liberation movements, that the new postwar international scene of the Cold War and international organizations forced Europe’s colonial powers to give up colonial rule, or that the colonial powers, in association with influential big business interests, realized that they could pursue their interests in more cost-effective ways than colonial rule, the classical “neo-colonialism” theory. In our book, in line with today’s excellent scholarship, we try to avoid overtly simplified models. Decolonization was a multifaceted and complex historical process, and its sheer geographical breadth should caution us against one-factor-theories. The book seeks to provide an analytical grid that takes into account various levels of historical action (local, imperial, international) and time frames. This grid may be used by our readers to analyze and describe specific cases, and may also help to explain decolonization in comparative perspective.
How irreversible is this process, in light of the current international scene? Are there no clear signs that the international order marked by decolonization is coming to an end?
Decolonization never did away with power structures between nations and peoples. Rather, it changed the ways in which these hierarchies are arranged and exercised. The formally sovereign nation-state—and no longer the empire—has become the basis of the international system. Despite the current renaissance of “spheres of interest” and “interventions,” as worrisome as these tendencies are, we do not see the reemergence of internationally codified hierarchies between “metropoles” and “colonies.” To be sure, the post-1989 international order has been under great pressure. Yet, there are no historical precedents for the reappearance of once collapsed empires. If current talk of a “Greater Russia” really leads to Russian “re-imperialization” remains to be seen. In that case, Russian ambitions will eventually clash with a self-confident China, ironically its old Asian rival, which, by the way, has never really ceased to be an empire. Elsewhere, the rise of xenophobic and racist movements throughout the Western world hardly seems to be inspired by the desire to be again at the pinnacle of a diverse and multi-ethnic empire. These movements want to minimize interaction with what they conceive as the inferior and dangerous other (be they Syrians, Eastern Europeans, or Mexicans); their new symbol is “the Wall.” Colonial re-expansion would necessarily go in a different direction.
You also argue that decolonization marked “a crucial phase in West European nation-building.” What do you mean by this?
Of course, decolonization did not bring about new European nation-states. This happened in the global South. Yet, it did have a considerable impact on the European metropoles, and also on Japan, which had built up its own colonial empire in Asia from the late nineteenth century on. These metropoles were closely tied to their overseas possessions, and it is one of the paradoxes of the decolonization era that such ties intensified at the very moment of imperial demise. After the Second World War, Great Britain and France, the two leading colonial powers, sought to facilitate mobility within their imperial spheres and set up, by today’s standards, relatively liberal citizenship laws for people from their respective empires. Decolonization, in this context, came as no less than a rupture in longstanding geopolitical orientations. It set off a new phase in European nation-building, a sort of nation-building by way of contraction. The metropoles had to dissolve or redefine the many—economic, political, social, also mental—ties to their respective empires. In light of increased immigration from their former colonial territories, they also had to redefine what it meant to be British, French, or Dutch. Though not produced by the end of empire, European supranational integration became enmeshed in European decolonization: the postcolonial European nation-states started to focus on Europe and the European market, which more than made up for their losses in former imperial trade. Great Britain, marked by a long-standing ambivalence toward continental Europe, made its first attempt to join the European Common Market in 1961, after the disaster of the Suez crisis and at the apogee of African decolonization. In a way, the 2016 “Brexit” vote to drop out of the European Union concluded this period of postimperial British supra-nationalism.
How present is the history of decolonization today?
Remnants of the colonial past and the decolonization era are pervasive. They remind us that our current world was built out of the ruins of empire. For example, a large portion of international borders between states, including the conflicts they sometimes nourish, have been the result of colonial rule. Decolonization basically enshrined most of them as the borders between sovereign nation-states. Some of the most troubling conflicts in the world—such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or the conflict between Pakistan and India—can be traced back to the decolonization era. Yet, notwithstanding the many apparent links, assessing the long-term impact of decolonization and the colonial past remains a tricky operation. Postcolonial countries have taken very different trajectories, sometimes starting from the same colonial system. Consider the two Koreas which had been under Japanese rule and which took diverging paths. The Syrian civil war, to cite another case, can hardly be seen as the ineluctable result of Franco-British quasi-colonial rule in the Middle East during the interwar years.
While the impact of the colonial past and the decolonization process may be fading with time, memories relating to this period have experienced a boom over the past two decades. Certainly, many episodes of the decolonization period remain largely forgotten. Who remembers the bloody repression of a major insurrection in Madagascar in 1947–49? Yet, debates about the colonial past and its end have attracted a great deal of attention not only in formerly colonized countries, but also in Japan and in many European countries. These memories have even become a concern in the diplomatic world. Internationally concerted efforts at remembering the effects—and the many victims—of colonial rule, similar to what we have seen with regard to the Holocaust or the world wars, however, are still no more than a wild dream by some historians.
Why did you write this book?
Decolonization has become an important topic in international historical scholarship, a development not completely detached from the memory boom we just talked about. Over the past two decades, historians and social scientists around the world have worked at piecing together a complex picture of this process and its reverberations. In many cases they have unearthed new archival evidence, a lot of which has only recently become accessible. Decolonization is in the process of turning into a highly productive—and specialized—research field. The wealth of new empirical studies, however, has been rarely accompanied by attempts at synthesis or general interpretation. The book offers such a broader survey. We sought to write it in a clear, accessible prose which addresses students and scholars, but also readers from outside the historical profession who are interested in this process.
Jan C. Jansen is a research fellow at the German Historical Institute in Washington, DC. Jürgen Osterhammel is professor of modern and contemporary history at the University of Konstanz. He is a recipient of the Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Prize, Germany’s most prestigious academic award. His books include The Transformation of the World: A Global History of the Nineteenth Century (Princeton).