This Week’s Top Picks in Imperial & Global History


Marc-William Palen
History Department, University of Exeter
Follow on Twitter @MWPalen

From Europe’s 1989 in reverse to how neoliberalism came to be, here are this week’s top picks in imperial and global history.

Europe’s Walls are Going Back Up – It’s Like 1989 in Reverse

Timothy Garton Ash

The walls are going up all over Europe. In Hungary, they take the physical form of razor and barbed wire fences, like much of the old iron curtain. In France, Germany, Austria and Sweden, they are border controls temporarily reimposed, within the border-free Schengen area. And everywhere in Europe there are the mind walls, growing higher by the day. Their psychological mortar mixes totally understandable fears – after massacres perpetrated in Paris by people who could skip freely to and fro across the frontier to Belgium – with gross prejudice, stirred up by xenophobic politicians and irresponsible journalists.

What we are seeing in 2015 is Europe’s reverse 1989. Remember that the physical demolition of the iron curtain started with the cutting of the barbed wire fence between Hungary and Austria. Now it is Hungary that has led the way in building new fences, and its prime minister, Viktor Orbán, in stoking prejudice. Europe must keep out Muslim migrants, Orbán said earlier this autumn, “to keep Europe Christian”. [continue reading]

The Paris Attacks and France’s Long History of Colonialism

Frank Gerits
Africa is a Country

In the wake of the #ParisAttacks earlier this month, lots of think pieces emerged that tried to make sense of  the vile acts that took the lives of 130 people on terraces and in the Bataclan concert hall. Two competing narratives emerged: one emphasizes how the French way of life with its universal republican values was attacked, another – less publicized – explanation focuses on the tormented legacy of Frenchcolonialism in Algeria. However, it is only by unpacking the complexities that tie both narratives together that we can begin to understand the position of the Paris attacks within the international history of the 20th and 21th century.

First of all, on the day of the attacks, French President François Hollande declared a state of emergency. While touted as an ‘exceptional’ measure, Hollande’s decision should be more accurately viewed as an historical reflex. After all, the French state of emergency is intimately connected with colonialism and its effects: it was declared during the Algerian War of independence in 1955, 1958 and 1961, in the course of a secession movement in New Caledonia in 1984 and during the riots of young Parisians of North African and African decent in 2005. The state of emergency was instated once again because a vicious civil war in a former semi-French territory –Syria became a mandate territory after World War I – has provided a fertile ground for terrorist attacks. [continue reading]

Dangerous Shortcuts: Paris Attacks and the War of Independence

Natalya Vince
Textures du Temps

[…] Recent analyses by commentators for the BBC, The Independent and The Guardian are all the more troubling precisely because they are presented as expert knowledge, rather than rabid ranting. They are all the more deceptively authoritative because snippets of factual information are embedded within them: Fisk, for example, points out that contrary to widely made claims that the 13 November attacks had provoked the highest death toll in France since the Second World War, on 17 October 1961, up to 200 Algerian peacefully demonstrating in Paris in favour of independence were killed by the French police. But although this reference to the past might be factual, his frame of “unfinished war” to read the present is highly questionable and deeply problematic.

The legacy of the Algerian War of Independence in contemporary France is complex and multifaceted. But rather than acknowledging this, and the limits of their knowledge (and indeed knowledge in the field more broadly), our “experts” seem to project onto their subjects what they imagine that they would do if they were of Algerian origin and living in France today. The result is a neo-oriental fantasy of avenging the ancestral sin of colonialism, in which “the Algerian” remains forever outside history. Under the veneer of “understanding” the “oppressed” and the “outsider”, sweeping generalisations about “Franco-Algerians” and insidious juxtapositions of past and present reveal profoundly reactionary attitudes. [continue reading]

Wrocław, Capital of Culture?

Neil Gregor
Huffington Post

I have just returned from an enjoyable week in Wrocław, where I was advancing a research project on provincial cultural life in the Third Reich by examining records held in the state archives there. As always on such trips, I spent most of my time in the archive; however, in lunch breaks and in the evenings I was able to stroll the town, visiting a couple of museums and churches, taking in a trip to the theatre, and generally getting a feel for the place.

Supporters of the National-Radical Camp (ONR) and the All-Polish Youth demonstrate against refugees in Wroclaw, Poland, Nov. 18, 2015. Courtesy of Slate.
Supporters of the National-Radical Camp (ONR) and the All-Polish Youth demonstrate against refugees in Wroclaw, Poland, Nov. 18, 2015. Image courtesy of Slate.

I greatly enjoyed the mix of medieval and Renaissance, Baroque, historicist and Communist-era architecture; I loved the ways in which an indeterminate variety of German, Polish, Silesian, and central European traditions and identities echoed not only through the material fabric of the city but also through the food I ate, merging with a more contemporary, globalising aspect as they did; I was charmed by the Christmas market, through which I ambled on my way to work each day. Much as I kept reminding myself that this is a deeply conservative political culture characterised by much that I dislike intensely – its homophobia, its hostility to immigration – I also had to admit that I saw nothing of that during my time there. [continue reading]

A specter is haunting the academy—the specter of neoliberalism. In response to assaults on racial, gender, and economic equality, scholars from multiple disciplines are turning to neoliberalism as the culprit. Timelines and definitions vary, but essentially the idea is this: after 1945, a social democratic consensus reigned across the Atlantic world. The sacrifices of the war engendered a sense of common purpose, and states invested in the infrastructural and educational demands of the citizenry to build highways, railroads, public universities, and other goods. In the 1970s and 1980s, however, this consensus fractured amid stubborn economic depression and the increasing radicalism of the student movement.

The unfettered market, once viewed as the cause of economic distress, emerged as the solution to it. The idea that the state could, or should, leverage its power to alleviate suffering came to seem naive, economically wasteful, and even immoral. Economists such as Friedrich von Hayek and Milton Friedman provided the intellectual underpinnings of this ideology, and, following them, elected officials led by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher forged political coalitions to roll back the welfare state and confront organized labor. At a global scale, the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization embraced a “Washington Consensus” according to which free market reforms, irrespective of social outcomes, provided the only possible pathway to economic growth. [continue reading]