Anticolonialism, Antifascism, and Imperial History

 Antifascist demonstrators in London, October 1935. Photo: National Media Museum/SSPL
Antifascist demonstrators in London, October 1935. Photo: National Media Museum/SSPL.

John Munro
Saint Mary’s University[1]

There’s a lot to be said for emphasizing the structuring role of colonialism and anticolonialism across the twentieth century. To contextualize the world wars, the Cold War, and contemporary global capitalism as embedded in a larger set of imperial continuities is to offer an indispensable corrective to the overemphasis of 1945 as epistemic break; the embellishment of US history as an empire-free zone; or the exaggeration of the distance between imperialism and free trade. Fredrik Petersson’s astute Versailles-to-Bandung emplotment of transnational anticolonial activism is thus a very compelling one, especially when read alongside several concurring periodizations.[2] But how we might conceive of antifascism in this empire-centered genealogy requires further attention. Whether antifascism was itself an anticolonialism, in other words, matters much for how we make sense of the twentieth century.

Was Fascism a Colonialism?

What I want to do first is consider the implications of this issue before giving an answer one way or the other. This inquiry is best begun with its flipside: was fascism a colonialism? Some recent scholarship has made it increasingly clear that German fascism was indeed a species of the colonial. Scholars interested in twentieth-century antifascism and anticolonialism have much to learn from this flourishing and insightful work. Not all of it, such as Woodruff Smith’s ideologically and economically focused study from the mid-1980s, is new, nor does it emerge entirely from the discipline of history, as exemplified by the landmark cultural studies collection The Imperialist Imagination.[3] Nonetheless, recent German historiography is rethinking Nazism in a colonial frame in ways that can inform our analyses of the antifascist-anticolonial continuum.[4] Let me therefore first draw some lessons from a small sample of this literature, before tacking back to our main question.

Fascism and the German Imperial Turn

Uta Poiger, in “Imperialism and Empire in Twentieth-Century Germany” (2005), did much to set a research agenda. Her article posed an array of relevant questions for investigation, but perhaps more important, Poiger made several tentative claims that the last decade of scholarship has borne out: that an imperial paradigm should apply to the study of eras of informal as well formal German empire; that the line from German colonialism between 1884 and 1918 to that of the 1933 to 1945 years is by no means a straight one; that economics, race, and culture are all necessary categories of analysis to understand German imperialism; and that empire and decolonization continued to shape Germany’s two societies after 1945.[5]

Though their narratives end with Hitler’s defeat, the two most important synthetic accounts of the last decade to consider fascism and colonialism together confirm Poiger’s suggestive contentions. In Mark Mazower’s Hitler’s Empire: How the Nazis Ruled Europe, we get a portrait of Nazi ambitions that were unique in their European territorial fixation, timetable, radically narrow racism, and their leaders’ view that they were reconquering territory that once was German. But in most other respects, Nazi empire-building efforts were comparable to those of its most powerful rival, Britain.[6] Shelley Baranowski’s more recent Nazi Empire: German Colonialism and Imperialism from Bismarck to Hitler, meanwhile, delves deeper into German imperial history to explain the nightmare of Nazi rule, and though Baranowski’s title bears resemblance to Mazower’s, Nazi Empire more fully exemplifies the new imperial turn in the study of German fascism. While arguing that “with due allowance for the discontinuities between the founding of the Second Empire and the end of the Third Reich, a common thread emerges,” Baranowski’s study shares Mazower’s due diligence to Nazism’s particularities.[7] This tendency repeats itself throughout Nazi Empire, in which temporal continuity within Germany and its empires, or resemblances between Germany and other imperial powers, is consistently tempered by what made the German experience singular during the Imperial, Weimar, and Nazi eras. Both Hitler’s Empire and Nazi Empire reveal the conceptual ground to be gained by thinking about fascism and colonialism together, while offering appropriate cautions against drawing careless equivalences between Kaiser and Führer, or British lions and German eagles.[8]

Expulsion of Poles from Warthegau territory under Nazi occupation, 1939. Photo: Bundesarchiv, R 49 Bild-0137 / CC-BY-SA.
Expulsion of Poles from Warthegau territory under Nazi occupation, 1939.
Photo: Bundesarchiv, R 49 Bild-0137 / CC-BY-SA.

Beyond broadly synthetic and historiographical treatments of fascism and empire, scholarship in this field is also engaged in more specialized questions. These include the nature of Nazi colonialism in specific case studies, such as Ukraine, where the consequences of Nazi ideology and implementation, and the gap between them, are all the more clearly discernible.[9] Historians of German women and imperial expansionism have been at the forefront of the recent attention to the colonial-fascist relationship in general, while also highlighting the gender dynamics of Nazi empire building, drawing connections to economics and culture, and offering novel ways to think about agency.[10] Comparative and transnational work looking at Germany and the United States has made connections to settler colonial studies, African American studies, and the renewed interest in the history of capitalism, prompting debate about the extent to which the frontier in the American West provided precedent for German conquest of the European East, and illustrating how German colonialism was inspired by racial rule in the post-Reconstruction US South.[11] Scholarship on fascism and colonialism might not have the same traditions or have produced the volume of scholarship as British imperial studies, but it is certainly engaged with the topics and approaches gathered under the heading of “new” imperial history in that field.[12]

Arendt’s Totalitarianism

This work cuts against the grain of Hannah Arendt’s influential paradigm of totalitarianism. Because Arendt’s 1951 Origins of Totalitarianism accords imperialism and antisemitism equal explanatory weight, it might at first seem counterintuitive to juxtapose Origins and the new imperial turn in German historiography. European imperialism from the 1880s functioned for Arendt as salient background for what came after 1933, in its ideology of expansion and accumulation of power, its welding of interests between capitalists and masses, its promotion of racism and proliferating bureaucracy, and its retraction of rights, combined with the European aspirations of the Pan-German movements.

Yet despite shared concerns, the effect of the recent scholarship I’ve been pointing to is to render fascism recognizable within a taxonomy of imperial formations. Arendt, on the other hand, placed fascism in a distinct political category, one of course shared with Soviet Communism.[13] In following this logic, some of the most important recent accounts of Nazi conquest in Eastern Europe, such as Timothy Snyder’s moving history Bloodlands or William Vollman’s monumental novel Europe Central, as well as some of the historians’ dissents from the German colonial continuity thesis, are best thought of as close to if not within the totalitarian paradigm, though all depart in various ways from Arendt’s formulations.[14]

Was Antifascism an Anticolonialism?

In its persuasive account of the political location of fascism, the recent work on fascism and colonialism encourages a rethinking of how we should conceive of the politics of opposition to both. For if fascism was a colonialism, which the imperial turn in German historiography convincingly suggests that it was, then antifascism was, necessarily, an anticolonialism. In the 1930s, though, not everyone would have agreed. The entire popular front strategy, for example, was premised on the distinction between antifascism and anticolonialism. And there was good reason for it. The catastrophe of 1933 immediately reverberated beyond Germany, but it was the especially intense weeks of August to October of 1935 that revealed the high stakes of the politics of that moment, and thus marked the crossroads at which antifascism and anticolonialism would either progress together or along separate paths. In the space of less than two months, Georgi Dimitrov officially launched the popular front in Moscow, the Nazis introduced the Nuremberg Laws, and Benito Mussolini’s armies invaded Ethiopia. Among those who abhorred the fascist regimes, many also rejected the imperialism of Britain and its allies. But few equated the two, even though Italy’s foreign policy indicated their affinity. Given the gravity of the fascist threat, “opponents of empire,” as historian Susan Pennybacker points out, “lost the weight of the argument in the face of fascism.”[15] Retrospective thinking about fascism as colonialism notwithstanding, to insist on their distinctness made sense at the time when it mattered most.

Antifascism and Black Internationalism

And yet, already at that point there existed an analysis that saw in fascism not something shockingly new but something distressingly recognizable in the colonial ordering of the world. In his magisterial Black Reconstruction, first published two months before Dimitrov’s popular front address, W.E.B. Du Bois situated Reconstruction’s defeat in the US South in the context of international imperialism. He also noted that in expunging democracy, the overthrow of Reconstruction heralded the arrival of fascism.[16] Du Bois was not alone in this assessment. For example, in the pages of The Crisis, the monthly journal of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, George Padmore argued in 1939 that unrest in the British colony of Sierra Leone had “caused a frightened imperialism to use frankly Fascist measures” to retain power.[17] Indeed, a capacious antifascism that encompassed anticolonialism has long been a hallmark of the Black radical tradition.[18]

George Padmore and Dorothy Pizer’s Cranleigh Street Flat, London: one of the twentieth century’s  informal anticolonial, antifascist, headquarters. Photo by author.
George Padmore and Dorothy Pizer’s Cranleigh Street Flat, London: one of the twentieth century’s
informal anticolonial, antifascist, headquarters. Photo by author.

This tradition has not been known for its insularity. “Black internationalism,” as Ruby Tiffany Patterson and Robin Kelley have suggested, “does not always come out of Africa, nor is it necessarily engaged with pan-Africanism or other kinds of black-isms.”[19] Perhaps those kinds of engagements help explain George Orwell’s 1939 question about the repercussions of aligning with Western imperialism in order to defeat the Nazis: “how can we ‘fight Fascism’ except by bolstering up a far vaster injustice?” Or perhaps those engagements provide some of the setting for those fleeting moments of comparison between imperialism and fascism in Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s 1944 Dialectic of Enlightenment.[20] Whatever the case, it is clear that the idea of fascism and colonialism’s comparability, if not compatibility, was established before and during World War II.

The Antifascist Interregnum?

What is less obvious is what this means for the anticolonial arc with which we began, that stretching from interwar to postwar periods. Here we can learn from the critics of the time, like Adorno, Orwell, Padmore, and Du Bois, as well as contemporary scholars such as Baranowski, Mazower, and Poiger. Reading them, we are reminded that although fascism was a colonialism, it was a special case, as the unprecedentedness of the Holocaust reminds us.

Antifascism, meanwhile, was indeed an anticolonialism. It was also unique. We might say that in the anticolonial arc of the twentieth century, the 1935-1945 decade represented an antifascist interregnum, in which the defeat of Hitler’s empire was given top priority before decolonization would resume across the rest of the colonial world.

On May 8, 1945, when representatives of the German military signed the definitive act of surrender and Nazi imperialism was no more, celebrants in places like London, Moscow, and New York took part in the creation of the postwar, soon to be cold war, world. But it was the crowds in the Algerian town of Sétif who were present at the resumption of the anticolonial century. They greeted the news of fascism’s defeat on May 8 with demonstrations calling for national independence, and though few of their names have been recorded by history and many would soon be killed in the ensuing crackdown, they were nonetheless harbingers of what was to come.[21]

Independence demonstrations in Sétif, 08 May 1945. Photo: public domain.
Independence demonstrations in Sétif, 08 May 1945. Photo: public domain.

[1] Thank you to Kirrily Freeman and Chike Jeffers for helping me to think through the issues raised here.

[2] Fredrik Petersson, “Prelude to Bandung: The Interwar Origins of Anti-Colonialism,” Imperial and Global Forum, 20 October 2014: https://imperialglobalexeter.com/2014/10/20/prelude-to-bandung-the-interwar-origins-of-anti-colonialism/. Also see Vijay Prashad, The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World (New York: New Press, 2007), 16-30; Tony Ballantyne and Antoinette Burton, Empires and the Reach of the Global, 1870-1945 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014), 131-181; Joseph Fronczak, “Local People’s Global Politics: A Transnational History of the Hands Off Ethiopia Movement of 1935,” Diplomatic History 39, no. 2 (April 2015), 273. Petersson’s narrative is perhaps in need of geographic renovation in order to make room for opposition to colonialism in Latin America or to settler colonialism further north, among other things, but that’s a discussion for another time.

[3] Woodruff D. Smith, The Ideological Origins of Nazi Imperialism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986); Sara Friedrichsmeyer, Sara Lennox, and Susanne Zantop, Eds. The Imperialist Imagination: German Colonialism and Its Legacy (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1998).

[4] For a knowledgeable historiographical overview, see Geoff Eley, Nazism as Fascism: Violence, Ideology, and the Ground of Consent in Germany, 1930-1945 (New York: Routledge, 2013), 131-155.

[5] Uta G. Poiger, “Imperialism and Empire in Twentieth-Century Germany,” History and Memory 17, no. 1/2 (Spring/Summer 2005): 117-143. I am less concerned with the post-1945 story here, but for an excellent example, see Quinn Slobodian, “Bandung in Divided Germany: Managing Non-Aligned Politics in East and West, 1955-63,” Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History 41, no. 4 (2013): 644-662.

[6] Mark Mazower, Hitler’s Empire: How the Nazis Ruled Europe (New York: Penguin, 2008).

[7] Shelley Baranowski, Nazi Empire: German Colonialism and Imperialism from Bismarck to Hitler (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 6.

[8] For an argument that also emphasizes “connective dynamics” between Imperial and Nazi periods while insisting on the specificities of the latter, while also filling in the historiography missing from my discussion, see Geoff Eley, “Empire by Land or Sea? Germany’s Imperial Imaginary, 1840-1945,” in Bradley Naranch and Geoff Eley, Eds., German Colonialism in a Global Age (Durham: Duke University Press, 2014), 19-45.

[9] Wendy Lower, Nazi Empire-Building and the Holocaust in Ukraine (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005).

[10] Lora Wildenthal, German Women for Empire, 1884-1945 (Durham: Duke University Press, 2001); Elizabeth Harvey, Women and the Nazi East: Agents and Witnesses of Germanization (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003); Uta G. Poiger, “Fantasies of Universality? Neue Frauen, Race, and Nation in Weimar and Nazi Germany,” in Alys Eve Weinbaum et al, Eds., The Modern Girl Around the World: Consumption, Modernity, and Globalization (Durham: Duke University Press, 2008), 317-344; Wendy Lower, Hitler’s Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields (New York: Mariner Books, 2013).

[11] Jens-Uwe Guettel, “From the Frontier to German South-West Africa: German Colonialism, Indians, and American Westward Expansion,” Modern Intellectual History 7, no. 3 (2010): 523-552; Carroll P. Kakel, III, The American West and the Nazi East: A Comparative and Interpretive Perspective (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011); Jens-Uwe Guettel, “The Us Frontier as Rationale for the Nazi East? Settler Colonialism and Genocide in Nazi-Occupied Eastern Europe and the American West,” Journal of Genocide Research 15, no. 4 (2013): 401-419; Andrew Zimmerman, Alabama in Africa: Booker T. Washington, the German Empire, and the Globalization of the New South (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010).

[12] On this point, compare the work cited here with that discussed in Durba Ghosh, “Another Set of Imperial Turns?” American Historical Review 117, no. 3 (June 2012), 772-793.

[13] I have learned here from two articles in particular: Anson Rabinbach, “Moments of Totalitarianism,” History and Theory 45, no. 1 (February 2006): 72-100; and A. Dirk Moses, “Das Römische Gespräch in a New Key: Hannah Arendt, Genocide, and the Defense of Republican Civilization,” Journal of Modern History 85, no. 4 (December 2013): 867-913.

[14] Timothy Snyder, Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin (New York: Basic Books, 2010); William T. Vollmann, Europe Central (New York: Penguin, 2005); Robert Gerwarth and Stephan Malinowski, “Hannah Arendt’s Ghosts: Reflections on the Disputable Path from Windhoek to Auschwitz,” Central European History 42, no. 2 (2009): 279-300.

[15] Susan D. Pennybacker, From Scottsboro to Munich: Race and Political Culture in 1930s Britain (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009), 274.

[16] W.E.B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880 (1935; New York: Atheneum, 1962), 30, 382.

[17] George Padmore, “Fascism Invades West Africa,” The Crisis 46, no. 10 (October 1939): 297.

[18] Cedric J. Robinson, Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition (1983; Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000), 313; Robin D.G. Kelley, Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination (Boston: Beacon Press, 2002), 55-57; Nikhil Singh, “The Afterlife of Fascism,” South Atlantic Quarterly 105, no. 1 (Winter 2006), 79; Minkah Makalani, In the Cause of Freedom: Radical Black Internationalism from Harlem to London, 1917-1939 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011), 203-204; Penny Von Eschen, “Civil Rights and World War II in a Global Frame: Shape-Shifting Racial Formations and the U.S. Encounter with European and Japanese Colonialism,” in eds Kevin M. Kruse and Stephen Tuck, Fog of War: The Second World War and the Civil Rights Movement (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 180; David Featherstone, “Black Internationalism, International Communism and Anti-Fascist Political Trajectories: African American Volunteers in the Spanish Civil War,” Twentieth Century Communism 7 (September 2014): 9-40; Marc Matera, Black London: The Imperial Metropolis and Decolonization in the Twentieth Century (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2015), 96-99.

[19] Tiffany Ruby Patterson and Robin D.G. Kelley, “Unfinished Migrations: Reflections on the African Diaspora and the Making of the Modern World,” African Studies Review 43, no. 1 (April 2000), 27.

[20] George Orwell, “Not Counting Niggers,” in The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell, Volume 1: An Age Like This, 1920-1940, Eds. Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus (1939; New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1968), 397; Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944; New York: Continuum, 1998), 110, 232. The connection between these figures and the Black radical tradition would certainly be through C.L.R. James, who had thought deeply and written about the colonial-fascist relationship in the 1930s, and was known to Orwell and Adorno.

[21] Space constraints have led me to neglect Asia in this discussion, but we can draw a parallel between the demonstrators in Sétif and the crowds gathered in Hanoi’s Ba Dinh Square to hear Ho Chi Minh declare Vietnam’s independence on the very day that Japan signed its formal surrender in Tokyo Bay on September 02, 1945.

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