Roundtable Review, cross-posted from H-Diplo
Martin Thomas. Fight or Flight: Britain, France, and their Roads from Empire. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014. ISBN: 978-0-19-969827-1 (hardback, £25.00).
- Introduction by Christopher Goscha, Université du Québec à Montréal 2
- Review by Robert Aldrich, University of Sydney. 7
- Review by Nicholas J. White, Liverpool John Moores University. 14
- Review by Andrew Williams, University of St. Andrews. 18
- Author’s Response by Martin Thomas, University of Exeter. 21
One thought alone preoccupies the submerged mind of Empire: how not to end, how not to die, how to prolong its era. By day it pursues its enemies. It is cunning and ruthless, it sends its bloodhounds everywhere. By night it feeds on images of disaster: the sack of cites, the rape of populations, pyramids of bones, acres of desolation.
-J.M. Coetzee, Waiting for the Barbarians
In the comparative study under review here, Fight or Flight, the talented and prolific British historian Martin Thomas provides an in-depth account of how and why the French and the British tried to hold on to their empires against all odds but in the end had to let go. Sometimes, Thomas tells us, the colonizers chose to cut their losses and get out in order to focus on other parts of the empire. It was a question of preservation. On other occasions, Thomas counters, they went to war to hold on to their prize possessions. In both cases, it –what we now call decolonization – was a messy, complicated, unpredictable, and terribly bloody business. There was no roadmap for ending empires because, at least in the immediate wake of World War II, neither the French nor the British decision-makers could fathom that imperial time was perhaps not universal.
Nor could they imagine that the ‘barbarians’ were thinking of historical time in different terms and were willing to fight to force that change upon their colonizers. While Thomas’s comparison turns on the French and British imperial endgames, he successfully weaves in the stories of the Africans and Asians. For many colonial nationalists, Thomas reminds us, decolonization did not magically begin in the wake of World War II; but emerged in many colonial minds as the only response to failed reformist promises. Nicholas White is right to suggest that Thomas is on to something big by suggesting that the colonial crisis that coalesced in the 1930s was as important as anything that came after ‘1945.’ Some chose communism, like Ho Chi Minh, the future father of Vietnam, and Thomas shows how that pre-WWII communist connection would differentiate the French war of decolonization in Indochina from other ‘fight experiences’ in French Algeria and British Malaya. Continue reading “Roundtable Review of Martin Thomas’s ‘Fight or Flight’”