Sport as Conflict

Sport fulfils a number of roles in society: it unifies people and nations behind a team, it provides children with role models, and often brings the international community together through tournaments. It could be said that it has another role— a less violent alternative to war. Nuclear deterrents, increased globalisation, effective international organisations, and a desire not repeat the horrors of the World Wars have made nations unprecedentedly reluctant to engage in warfare. So much so that a border skirmish or an invasion of national airspace causes anxiety. And so, nations have to find a new way to obtain the ends traditionally achieved by large scale war. Proxy wars, economic sanctions, and cyberwarfare do generally fill this void, but a more peaceful alternative is sport. Usually, international competitions are played in good spirit between friendly nations, but often they are politicised by nations seeking to dominate or get back at their rivals, demonstrate supposed superiority, or boost national pride. Ends traditionally achieved by warfare.

The Olympics have repeatedly been used as an outlet for nations to demonstrate supposed superiority. Infamously, Nazi Germany tried and failed to use the 1936 Munich Olympics to showcase ‘Aryan dominance’ only for African American Jesse Owens to win four gold medals. More recently, Communist China has seemingly viewed the 2020 Tokyo Olympics as an outlet to demonstrate national and ideological superiority. The ideological aspect was plain to see in the furore caused by two Chinese cyclists wearing pins of Mao Zedong after winning gold. In wearing those pins, the cyclists made clear for what and for whom they were winning their medals.

The Olympics have also been used by major powers in conflict. During the Cold War, the US and its allies famously boycotted Moscow 1980, to which the USSR and its allies retaliated by not attending Los Angeles 1984. In organising boycotts, the two superpowers both voiced their opposition to their rival and also showcased their global influence through the amount of countries they got on board with the boycott. With the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics approaching, worsening relations between China and the West have led to some figures in the US, UK, and Australia to call for a boycott of those games. Once again, conflict between major powers is accompanied by Olympic boycotts.

The 1980 Moscow Olympics. (Credit)

Fortunes on the battlefield were historically tied to national pride. Trafalgar made Nelson a national hero in Britain; Ataturk’s victories mean he is still revered in Turkey. Nowadays, sport has a similar, if not quite as strong, link. Italy’s Euro increases perceptions of 2021 being a good year for them. They have also won Eurovision and are having a political and economic turnaround under new Prime Minister Mario Draghi. Likewise, England reaching the Euros final for the first time coincided with the end of lockdown. The UK was seen as being on an uptick— a reversal of fortunes after a devastating pandemic and sporting failure for the last few decades. The unifying effect the football tournament had, and how many commentators argued that the England team came to ‘embody Englishness’, is testimony to the powerful effect of sport. England’s national pride was inexorably tied to football.

On the flip side, losing competitions to major rivals can wound national pride. The Tokyo Olympics once again provide an example of this when the Taiwanese badminton team beat the reigning Chinese champions. This provoked outrage among Chinese nationalists at the thought of being beaten by a country which they perceive as a breakaway province.

On that note, sporting competitions provide an opportunity for revanchism and to ‘get back’ at countries which players’ nations have been in conflict with. Famously this occurred in the 1956 Olympics during a water polo match between Hungary and the USSR. Hungary had recently been invaded by Soviet forces, something the Hungarian water polo team witnessed. When the competition went ahead, the match turned violent and a Hungarian player left with a bloody gash on his head, leading to it being dubbed the ‘Blood in the Water’ match. Recent controversy was abound in the Euros when Serbian-Austrian striker Marko Arnautovic made derogatory comments to the North Macedonian football team. The Balkan country has recently had tense relations with Serbia over its decision to support Kosovo.

And so, there are clearly ways in which nations use sport to fulfil the traditional role of conflict. Sports allow nations to best their rivals in a way that they cannot with other alternatives to conflict (such as proxy wars, cyberwarfare or sanctions). Likewise, sporting dominance is an alternate way to boost national pride in a similar way that military dominance did so in previous centuries. Nonetheless, sports between actual rival nations does not negate conflict, but rather creates another outlet for it. Taiwan may have beaten the PRC in a badminton match, but this does not mean actual war between the two countries may not break out. The US and USSR did boycott each other’s Olympics, but this did not negate that they were always at the brink of war. International tournaments, in many scenarios, are simply the modern, peaceful rendition of the age-old desire for nations to best each other.

Jonas Balkus, Summer Writer

Temporal over Spiritual Power in the Medieval Church? Part II: The Avignon Papacy and the Great Papal Schism

Although the Catholic Church had asserted its dominance over Christian Europe in both spiritual and temporal matters during the thirteenth century, this was not a state that would last. Not all nations were content with papal supremacy in temporal affairs, with France in particular having long had a tempestuous relationship with the papacy, resenting its attempts to assert temporal authority over secular rulers and disdainful of the exemption of the clergy to royal taxation. This came to a head at the beginning of the fourteenth century, with Pope Boniface VIII’s papal bull ‘Unam sanctam’. His assertion that submission to the Pope was the only way to achieve salvation, which, while a departure from the traditional belief that the Pope was only supreme in spiritual concerns, and was not to involve himself overmuch in temporal affairs, did not come as a surprise to those who had seen the papacy claim more and more temporal power, especially over the previous century. This resulted an escalation of tensions between the French Crown and the papacy, which culminated in the death of Boniface VIII at the hands of supporters of the French Crown, and led to the period known as the Avignon Papacy – a sixty-seven year period in which the papacy resided in Avignon. During this period, seven successive French popes ruled from the papal enclave of Avignon, all of whom were largely under the control of the French Crown. Such a level of influence from the Kingdom of France resulted in the papacy becoming even more entwined in the secular world, and as a result of this, the Church began to gain notoriety for its growing opulence, increasingly concerned with expanding its coffers through a variety of means.

Even after the papacy removed itself from the orbit of the French Crown, returning to Rome in 1377 under the leadership of Pope Gregory XI, this was not the end of  either this tension or the papacy’s increasing concern with temporal matters. An elderly man, Gregory XI died less than a year after his return to Rome, ironically shortly after announcing his intention to return once again to Avignon with his court. The people of Rome, having not had a Pope in the Vatican for almost three quarters of a century, were determined to prevent the return of the papacy to Avignon, forcibly ensuring the election of a Roman pope, which culminated in the election of Bartolomeo Prignano as Urban VI in 1378. Although seemingly a fitting candidate, he swiftly alienated many of those amongst the Church who had initially backed him, and the college of cardinals, who now regretted their papal candidate, soon backtracked on their decision. It was not long before they elected Robert of Geneva as Clement VII, returning to Avignon with their new figurehead and restoring the line of popes in Avignon. With two popes having now been elected by the cardinals, neither of whom was willing to relinquish the position, this put Christian Europe in a delicate position, as both secular and spiritual leaders were forced to choose between the two rival claimants. 

This dispute sent fractures throughout Europe, as a number of conflicts, especially in the Iberian Peninsula, erupted over who they believed was the rightful pope. However, these were vastly overshadowed by the Hundred Years War, which had been raging in Europe for decades before the schism had even begun. The English and their allies typically supported Urban and the papacy in Rome, whilst the French and their allies tended to support Clement and the Avignon papacy. However, it was not always as clear-cut as this and, even amongst religious leaders, the politics of the secular conflict outweighed their religious obligations to the schism. This was notably evident in the cataclysmic failure that was Despenser’s Crusade of 1383. Although the initial objective of the English crusading forces of Bishop Despenser was to relieve the city of Ghent in Flanders, the crusade swiftly floundered, turning its attention to the city of Ypres, which, despite its alliance to France in the wider war, was actually a supporter of Urban in the papal schism. Abandoning all pretences of being an expedition driven by religion, the crusaders laid siege to a city on the same side of the schism in order to gain an advantage in a secular conflict. This shows how the Church was riven at all levels by this conflict on both a temporal and spiritual level, and how ultimately the former outweighed the latter .

Even the deaths of both rival popes who had initiated the conflict did not serve to end the schism, as their factions refused to reconcile, instead choosing to elect successors and prolong the dispute. Neither did the loss of secular allies sway them, with the Avignon papacy notably losing the support of France, once its most staunch ally, in 1398. This refusal to back down despite such notable setbacks emphasises the growing temporal concerns at the heart of the role, with the power that maintaining their claims brought them. Concerted attempts at resolution in 1409 at the Council of Pisa failed to resolve the schism, with the council instead electing a third Pope to rival those of Rome and Avignon. However, this was not to say that it was a wholly unsuccessful endeavour, as many nations who had previously backed the other two popes threw their weight behind this new pope. Finally, at the council of Constance, after three years of deliberation, the dispute was finally resolved, with the abdication of the Roman and Pisan popes, the excommunication of the Avignon pope and the election of Oddonne Colonna as Martin V in their stead as the one, undisputed pope, ruling from the Holy See in 1417. Although this brought an end to the Great Papal Schism, the papacy had been weakened by its decades of infighting. The corruption of the Church had been laid plain for all to see, and this revelation would soon pave the way towards future discontent and dissent.

Henry G. Miller, Summer Writer

Bauhaus: Redefining Modern Art and Design in Weimar Germany 

The Bauhaus art movement can be seen as defining not just a generation, but an entire century of modern art and design, influential since its formation and still pre-eminent today. Bauhaus style, of which has defining political roots, stemmed from the German art school of the same name, created in 1925 as a reactionary force amidst the stifling contemporary Weimar landscape. The school is known for having produced some of the most notable modern artists of the century, such as Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee. However, what is most notable is the way in which Bauhaus has impacted modern society. It was a revolutionary idea, one of which transformed modern art and design into commercial success, and its ethos created the philosophy that the purpose of art should be to serve the people around it. 

The Bauhaus school designed by Walter Gropius. (Credit: The Bauhaus Dessau Foundation, Dessau)

Contemporary traditional art schools were elitist and conservative. Founder of the Bauhaus school, Prussian architect Walter Gropius, wanted to create something entirely challenging this consensus. Rather than teaching how to sketch nudes or paint with oils, the school focused on the practicality of design and how it can translate across society, aiming to unite all branches of art in one location. In essence, it completely abandoned the education of traditional fine arts, and thus creating a major political statement for the era. 

Looking at the movement from a twenty-first century perspective, the word Bauhaus may simply conjure up a certain style of modern architecture and design, one of geometry and abstract nature. For contemporaries, however, connotations were far deeper. The Bauhaus represented an entirely new way of thinking, its ideas controversial and laying the foundations for practical modern design in a way the world had never seen before. The signature style was far harsher than anything that defined the contemporary art world and society. Reactionary to art of the time, Bauhaus artists removed emotion and historicity from art, reducing it to visually simplistic geometrics and primary colours. The political intentions in these decisions of style and design, however, were irrefutable, with the school’s continuation becoming increasingly under threat during the interwar period under the increasing power of the country’s national socialist party. 

The font chosen to represent the Bauhaus was a bold political act in itself, using curved letters in contrast to the harsh Fraktur branding of the Nazi Party. These modern typographers of the twenties were aiming to make their style of graphic design revolutionary and international, and lead to a form of universal socialism, of which ironically ended up becoming international capitalism.

Herbert Bayer, BAUHAUS, 1968 (Credit: Omnibus Gallery)

The school itself was extremely short lived, making its long-lasting legacy all the more pre-eminent. Originally opening in Weimar in 1925, it was then forced to close its doors due to political motivations and relocate to Dessau in 1932. It made one further relocation to Berlin in the final few months of existence before it could no longer continue in Weimar society, due to increased pressure from the Nazi Party for the school’s closure and the demise of this style of ‘revolutionary’ design. However, following the end of the Second World War, the legacy and influence of the Bauhaus’ design only continues to spread globally alongside capitalism and democracy. 

There is no doubt that Gropius’ rejection of tradition and Weimar consensus in the school’s creation led to a movement defined by a philosophy of how art should be in place to serve people rather than the designs themselves. However, the overwhelming influence of Bauhaus on modern design must be attributed to the political pressure of the time, as it was only this that led to the creation of such reactionary design, the subsequent emigration of these designers and the spread of their ideas globally. Therefore, Bauhaus was not born as a single style, but an insurgent idea, and a necessity of modernity, creating the aesthetic for what essentially became the foundations of modernist style.

Miriam Shelley, Summer Writer

Olga Romanov – the One Who Could Have Saved Russia’s Royal Family?

On 17 July 1918, the Royal Family of Russia: Tsar Nicholas II, Tsarina Alexandra, Grand Duchesses Olga, Tatiana, Maria, Anastasia and Tsarevich Alexei were rounded up, led downstairs to the basement and brutally murdered one by one by members of the Bolshevik Party. Their death was tragic, brutal and unnecessary. 

The Tsar’s abdication on 1 March 1917 and eventual murder was preceded by a series of events leading to a general distrust in the monarch. While the Tsar seemed unaware of his citizens’ wants as he continued to make disastrous decisions, one royal family member could have saved them from their fate: Olga.

Olga Romanov Alexandrovna was the first-born of the last Tsar of Russia. One of four sisters and a brother – Alexei – the heir, life for Olga was remarkably different to her sisters. Unlike them, she was the eldest and came close to the chance of becoming the next reigning monarch.

As the Tsarina struggled to produce a healthy male heir, in 1912 Tsar Nicholas began to put a motion for the line of succession to be changed. The solution was for Olga to be co-regent with her mother until Alexei was of age to rule by himself. He ordered this manifesto to be publicised throughout the country following the 1913 tercentennial celebrations, placing Olga in a position traditionally occupied by the male heir,thus announcing her political significance. American newspapers reported that ‘it is now considered that the law of succession may be changed in Russia to make it possible for Grand Duchess Olga to succeed the imperial family.’

Grand Duchess Olga Nikolaevna and her brother Tsarevich Alexei of Russia. (Credit)

Due to opposition from the Duma, these plans failed to materialise. Nicholas’ actions contravened the 1906 version of the Fundamental Laws, which the Tsar had, reluctantly, made in the Duma’s Fourth Assembly. The laws stated that no new law could take effect without the State Duma’s approval . The Duma blocked the change in succession, and it is speculated that the Amended Regency Act caused public opinion of the Tsar to deter, with many believing the act meant that the Tsar did not trust his male heir to rule Russia. It exposed an instability in the crown. 

Olga appeared to be a born leader. Throughout her childhood she showed a keen interest in national affairs in comparison to her siblings; this was ignited in 1905 with the Russo-Japanese war. She told staff Mrs Eager that ‘I hope the Russian soldiers will kill all the Japanese; not leave even one alive’. Her opinion changed though, as Mrs Eager told her of the innocent women and children who were unable to fight. According to historians, Olga asked a few more questions, concluding that the Japanese were not very different from Russians. It is said that she then ‘never made another comment about being pleased about the Japanese dying’.

But it was during World War One that Olga became increasingly concerned for the country and their opinion of the monarchy. As she and her sisters volunteered on hospital wards, the friendships made opened her eyes to the general opinion of her father. She asked her lady-in-waiting ‘Why has the feeling in the country changed against my father?’, wondering if there were more ominous reasons for the ‘unrest and ferment that she sensed rather than knew about, which filled her with a growing anxiety’.

One of these friendships was with a young soldier named Mitya. Olga spent a lot of time with him, taking photographs of him and friends, having long conversations and eventually falling in love with him. Mitya claimed he would ‘slay Rasputin’ to save her family from embarrassment – an opinion remarkably different to that of her family. 

But the war, nursing and her anxiety wore on Olga over time. Prone to depression throughout her life, it became clinical, leading to her discharging from the healthcare service. Her heartbreak over Mitya didn’t help – he left the hospital after healing to go and fight in the war again. Olga became reserved, shy, and slept often. 

It’s this kind of compassion that many historians mark Olga with. Gleb Botkin – son of the family’s physician – remarked that Olga was ‘by nature, a thinker’ and ‘as it later seemed to me, understood the general situation better than any member of her family, including even her parents’. Much to the dismay and hurt of her German mother, Olga understood the country’s dislike of the Tsarina due to her German ancestry. When talking with another nurse about a wedding of friends and the ancestry of a groom’s German grandmother being kept hidden, she remarked, ‘of course he has to conceal it. I quite understand him, she may perhaps be a real bloodthirsty German’. 

Perhaps if the line of succession did change in 1912, Olga would have become the Grand Empress. With no need for a male heir, and therefore no need for the mystic Rasputin to heal Alexei’s haemophilia, the fall of the Russian crown could have been delayed – or not as aggravated by these conditions. In fact, with Rasputin, Olga remarked that whilst his murder was ‘necessary’ it should never have been done ‘so terribly’ and was ashamed that it was done by her relatives. Again, Olga understood the political ramifications of Rasputin’s influence, but also, that his murder could bring more shame to a family already losing support, showing that she was sensitive to ideas and understanding of the political situation her family were in. 

It will never be clear as to what future Russia could have had- there were so many components that led to the downfall of the monarchy after 300 years;serfdom, World War One, Rasputin, Nicholas’ strategy, socio-economic reasons. Whilst Olga was intensely sensitive and was far more aware of the issues and situation at hand at the time,it doesn’t mean that her reign could have saved Russia. That would be purely speculative. 

What’s sure is that the line of succession, made in sexism, reproduced sexism. Russia’s greatest leaders under the monarchy have often been women: Empress Elizabeth and Catherine the Great. Olga could have been a name among them, but her fate was otherwise due to this sexist law. While monarchy is feudal, if Olga had been in control or next in line, perhaps the outcome of the Russian royal family would have been different, and less bloody, than the one that they got.

Aoifke Madeleine, History in Politics Summer Writer

Temporal over Spiritual Power in the Medieval Church? Part I: Pope Innocent III and the Politicisation of Crusading

The Catholic Church was one of the most powerful entities in Christian Europe in the mid-late medieval period. Commanding the fealty of the majority of Europe, the Church was able to muster vast swathes of men to partake in the religious wars known as ‘The Crusades’. Traditionally, these Crusades had been used to unite men from Christian nations against Islamic forces, first against the Saracens who had conquered Jerusalem, and later the Muslims of the Iberian Peninsula during the centuries-long Reconquista. Under the influence of Pope Innocent III and his successors, however, the limits of what the Pope could call Crusades against began to expand, first to a broader definition of the enemies of Christendom, and later, perhaps more cynically, to any enemies of the papacy, regardless of their creed.

Ascending to the papacy at the end of the twelfth century, Lotario di Segni, who would take the name Innocent III, was arguably the most powerful medieval pope of them all. Presiding over the Catholic Church at the height of its power, Innocent sought to greatly increase the temporal power of the Church and establish its pre-eminence over all secular nations. Although he would be responsible for a great many accomplishments during his tenure as Pope, it is perhaps in his part in the changing and expanding role of Crusades that was his most striking legacy in the centuries following his death. His firm belief in ‘papal primacy’ and his desire to increase the temporal power of the papacy, combined with the recent fall of Jerusalem to Saracen forces in 1187, made for fertile soil in which an interest in crusading could take root. He began to draw up plans for the Fourth Crusade within a year of his appointment, issuing the papal bull Post miserabile to this effect. Criticising the current state of affairs in Europe, the bull called for a new crusade to retake the Holy Land. At this time, Christian Europe was riven by civil conflict. War between England and France had broken out once again, with the papacy’s typically closest ally, the Holy Roman Empire, estranged and undergoing its own succession crisis. As a result of this, the call for a Crusade against external forces served as a papal attempt to unify the forces of Christendom against a foreign enemy, emphasising the increasingly political nature of crusading under Innocent III. 

Pope Innocent III. (Credit: Martin Kuilman via Flickr)

However, despite the fact that the Fourth Crusade had rampaged through Christian lands, including the port city of Zara, culminating in the sack of Constantinople, this had not been the intention of the papacy at the Crusade’s inception. Instead, it was the Cathars of Languedoc, in southern France, that would gain the dubious honour of being the first sect of Christianity to be explicitly declared the target of a Crusade by the papacy. Having been declared heretical for their dualist creed in 1176, they had long been a target of Innocent III for their defiance of the papacy. Only a minority in the region, the promise of indulgences to assuage any guilt that the Crusaders may have had about killing innocent, devout Christians alongside Cathars is a clear sign of how the Church increasingly valued the temporal power afforded by the success of the Crusade over any spiritual qualms.

This also set a precedent for a widening scope for Crusades, which went along with the growing power of the papacy in the thirteenth century and its increasing desire to involve itself in the secular as well as the spiritual realm. For the Pope, Crusades became a way to exert dominance over Christian Europe as a whole. Rather than just a unifying force as they had previously been, they swiftly became a way to remove political threats. By declaring those who had earned the ire of the papacy as heretics, this gave the Pope justification under the precedent set by Innocent III to call a Crusade against them. This was first seen little more than a decade after Innocent III’s death, in the papal conflict with the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II of the Hohenstaufen. Differing interpretations of the ‘two swords doctrine’ that defined the relationship between the Holy Roman Empire and the papacy, with Frederick seeing them as equals who attended to separate spheres, whereas the papacy saw itself as the ultimate arbiter over both temporal and spiritual power, with any power held by the Emperor merely granted by the Pope, saw Innocent’s successors call two Crusades against the excommunicated ruler. Although these were risky ventures by the papacy, these Crusades, combined with papal machinations, ultimately resulted in the destruction of the Hohenstaufen and a weakening of the Holy Roman Empire for centuries to come, serving to remind the rest of Europe of the temporal power of the papacy and the supremacy of the Pope in matters both temporal and spiritual.

The legacy that Innocent III left on crusading was profound, with the decisions that he made influencing his successors for generations to come, though he would not live to witness the true extent of the consequences of his actions. The increasing willingness of the papacy to use Crusades to achieve their own personal goals in the name of gaining more temporal power had largely proven useful for the Catholic Church, allowing it to use these Crusades to assert its authority throughout Christian Europe, especially given the loss of all Christian lands in the Holy Land following the fall of Ruad in 1302. However, the reliance on French intervention to end the Albigensian Crusade had strengthened the French monarchy at the expense of the papacy, leaving an indelible mark on the relationship between the French Crown and the papacy. This led to France taking increasing liberties in their relationship with the Church, assured by their own strength in contrast to the other nations of Christian Europe, and by the end of the thirteenth century, this would reach a head, with devastating results for the papacy.

Henry G. Miller, History in Politics Summer Writer

Hong Kong issues: Brief summary of how the UK ruled Hong Kong during the early 20th century


Hong Kong was a British colony from 1841 to 1997. How it was actually run is rarely discussed, especially nowadays. Let’s look at four main features of the British administration in the early 20th century (1900 – 1941). 

The view from Victoria Peak in Hong Kong. (Credit: China Highlights)

Executive-led government 

During the period, the whole government was mainly led by the executive branch, i.e. the Governor. The Governor was the president of councils and had the right to appoint and dismiss members of the legislative and executive council. Governor-led government secretaries make and propose all bills and policies. The councils played merely consultative and not binding roles. Ultimately, legislation was proposed, approved and passed by the executive branch. Then it was ‘rubber-stamped’ by the legislative council.

The executive branch also had enormous power spanning a vast range of areas. The Governor exercised tremendous judicial powers by having the power to dismiss and appoint judges and grant amnesty to prisoners. Being the Commander-in-chief of the British force in Hong Kong, the Governor was also in charge of military and foreign affairs. There was no separation of powers for smooth administration. It is fair to say that the government was led by the executive and was a ‘one branch band’.

Lacked legitimacy 

The legitimacy of a government refers to the approval by a majority of the population. During the period, the nature of the British colonial government led to its low legitimacy. At that time, 98% of the population were Chinese and only 2% were foreigners. Also, it was the early years of the British government officially taking over the whole administration. It is expected that local Chinese did not trust the British colonial government. What is more, the reason the British government occupied Hong Kong is that China lost a war against the British. In the minds of the Chinese in Hong Kong, the British were enemies that invaded their motherland; some Chinese in Hong Kong hated the British administration. 

The local Chinese did not feel that the Governor cared about them. The Letters patent, Royal instructions and Colonial Regulations guaranteed the Governor’s ruling power. This means that he was not empowered by the general public. The Governor was also nominated by, thus answerable to, the British Prime Minister, and not the people. It was simply impossible for a local Chinese to relate to or feel represented by the government. 

Nor were British administration willing to let locals participate in the governance in any meaningful sense. Elections were only held in one council, the Urban Council, and only for 2 of the 13 seats. It was also hard for local Chinese to actually be inside the administration, as shown by the lack of Chinese personnel. Local Chinese had no representation in the government who could voice their demands. Officials were usually British merchants. The civil service was also monopolised by British people with key positions all occupied by British people. 

Indirect rule featuring control and conciliation 

The low legitimacy of the British colonial administration led to riots and strikes in the early years. For example, there was the Seamen’s Strike in 1922 and the Guangdong Hong Kong General Strike in 1925. The British administration also suffered ineffective implementation of policies as the local Chinese simply did not support the policies. For instance, the local inhabitants in the New Territories firmly resisted the UK’s Convention for the Extension of Hong Kong Territory. In 1923, they strongly resisted the policy regulating the building of houses. All these incidents forced the British administration to come up with new measures to maintain peace and order. 

The first measure was indirect ruling featuring control. Western education was carried out and local Chinese had to learn English. The second measure was indirect ruling featuring conciliation. Small groups of influential Chinese elites and businessmen were allowed to participate in politics to smooth tensions regarding the lack of Chinese representatives. For instance, Mr Chow Shouson, an influential Chinese man, was a consultant and mediator for the government. The government also placed heavy emphasis on these people’s opinions as they understand the local culture better. The local Chinese’s resentment towards western officials was mitigated in this way. The government also set up channels to listen to the needs of the local Chinese. For example, in 1926, Heung Yee Kuk was set up to deal with affairs in the New Territories. The British colonial government hoped that the local Chinese would feel valued and their disobedience would reduce. Other conciliatory measures were implemented, with permission given for firecrackers to be set off in the New Territories during the Lunar New Year as one illustration of how the British administration would avoid meddling in the Chinese traditional lifestyle. In addition, all male indigenous residents were allowed to own a piece of land in the New Territories, another measure by the British administration to please the local Chinese. 

Discrimination against Chinese 

The last feature of the early British colonial administration is that most measures discriminated against local Chinese. Discrimination was serious within the government. As mentioned above, local Chinese had no representation in the government as officials were usually foreigners. In the civil service, British civil servants had higher salaries and better benefits compared to Chinese civil servants of the same rank. 

In socio-economic policies, discrimination was equally clear. For example, the Peak District Reservation Ordinance restricted local Chinese from living in the Peak District which had a cooler temperature and excellent views of the city. Clubs such as The Hong Kong Club and Royal Hong Kong Jockey Club only served whites. Perhaps most strikingly, English was the only official language and the legal system was all in English. As a result, local Chinese would be greatly disadvantaged in trials as they could not even understand the language. It is shown that most policies were highly discriminating against local Chinese. 

Chan Stephanie Sheena

“It’s not the Virgin Mary. It’s a painting.” Whiteness’ politicised grip on Iconography explored around Ofili’s depiction of the Holy Virgin Mary.

16 December 1999. New York City. With his hands as his weapon of choice, Dennis Heiner waltzes into the Brooklyn museum with vengeance, walking purposefully to the corner of the Sensation exhibit in which his victim awaits. Dipped in white paint smuggled inside in a hand sanitizer bottle, Heiner’s hand meets its target, the “blasphemous’ depiction of the Virgin Mary painted by British artist Chris Ofili two years earlier. Failing to prevent the attack, guards protecting the painting reportedly state “it’s not the virgin Mary. It’s a painting”.

Iconographic imagery proliferates in Western art history. Whether in the form of paintings or sculptures, from Da Vinci’s The Last Supper to Duccio’s Madonna and Child, one theme is consistent throughout the canon: the whiteness of its figures. Ofili’s Black Virgin Mary embodies an attempt to broaden the canon in line with non-western expressions of religiosity, and Heiner’s vandalism embodies the Western canon’s resistance to change. Supposedly incensed to violence by Ofili’s use of pornographic cut-outs surrounding the Madonna, why then did Heiner smother her face rather than her surroundings with white paint? This was nothing short of a political, defensive and violent display of whiteness. Ultimately, Heiner’s smearing of white paint on the figure of the Black Madonna symbolises the whiteness which has historically been imposed onto Western understandings of Christianity and continues to mark both art-political and theological discourse, as is explored here.

The Ofili piece being vandalised. (Credit: Philip Jones Griffiths, Magnum Photos, accessed here)

Upon a yellow-gold background which harks back to medieval iconographic trends, Ofili’s Madonna features a breast moulded from elephant faeces and a beautiful blue outfit interwoven with the contours of her body. Inspired by his time in Zimbabwe and appreciation of artistic technique in the region, Ofili’s work mixes European and African tradition with an expert experimentalist hand. However, its beauty has often been overlooked. 

Chris Ofili, The Holy Virgin Mary (1996) (Credit: MoMA

The controversy surrounding the painting was not limited to the violence of Heiner on that December afternoon. Upon its showcase in galleries lawsuits abounded, including from the Mayor’s office of New York in which Ofili’s use of pornographic clippings and elephant faeces was labelled ‘disgusting’ and ‘sick’. In  a seeming attempt to find a middle ground, some commentators have described the piece as a ‘juxatposition between the sacred and the profane’, but this is a misguided conclusion which reinforces the hegemony of whiteness’ grip on Iconography. Within Africa the piece was interpreted very differently. Nigerian Art historian Moyosore B. Okediji wrote that elephant dung was a material used in both art and architecture in Yorubaland, also commenting that in artistic depictions of indigenous deities called Orisha, the nude female form was commonplace. In specific relation to Western reactions to the piece, he exclaimed “the learned West always fails to understand Africa”.

Ultimately, the use of elephant dung was not an act of defamation but a display of Christian identity based in African tradition. Born in Britain and of Nigerian heritage, a country which now has a Christian population of around 102 million people, Ofili’s aim with this project  was to display anAfrican form of Christianity, rather than mount an anti-Christian attack. Whilst some commentators have described the sacred intentions of Ofili’s painting as ‘ironic’ in relation to the reaction it garnered, we must acknowledge that his use of images of the body and earthly materials is not objectively irreligious. In fact, there is nothing ‘ironic’ about a painting espousing a form of Afro-centric religiosity. Rather than conveying Ofili’s intentions, the label of ‘irony’ imposed onto his combination of African tradition and Christian ideas instead displays the extent to which whiteness has been defensively protected in Western Christian expression.

Therefore, it is vital that we acknowledge that the lawsuits and physical assaults inflicted on Ofili’s depiction of ‘The Holy Virgin Mary’ are innately political and are the product of centuries of European Christian history in which whiteness was not just centred but expected when speaking of divinity. The piece being deemed ‘blasphemous’ by a plethora of white Americans, art commentators and religious leaders at the turn of the twenty-first century shows how Christianity’s global reach remains overlooked in favour of centring whiteness. Ultimately, it must be said that the security guards tasked with her protection stating “It’s not the Virgin Mary, it’s a painting” embodies a reluctance to associate holiness with anything other than white skin. 

By way of a conclusion, Ofili’s depiction of the Holy Virgin Mary is nothing short of an emblematic display of Afro-centric Christian theology. The reaction shown to the piece both within and without the art and theological worlds reveals the seemingly inextricable link between whiteness and holiness in Western thought. As Black theologians both in the west and throughout the world challenge these ideas and artists such as Ofili display the debate in the public eye, the politics of race and theology will no doubt continue to be a much-needed region of inquiry.

George R. Evans, History in Politics’ Summer Writer

Is ‘Ever-Closer Union’ The Right Path for the EU’s Survival?

Depending on whether you supported the UK leaving or remaining in the European Union, you might presume that the EU is either an undemocratic mess destined to fail, or an international organisation bound to grow and strengthen in a world where cooperation is key. The problem is, in the long-run, it really is impossible to tell which possibility will prevail. 

One the one hand, this last decade has seen a rise in nationalistic sentiment and a resurgent hunger for the principles of sovereign independence; Brexit, the election of Donald Trump accompanied by the slogan ‘America first’, and Orbán’s rule in Hungary serve as just a handful of examples of such a sentiment. On the other hand, it may seem impossible that any nation could fully address its challenges alone in an age of unprecedented interdependence and interconnectedness (and the pandemic speaks for itself here). 

Since its beginning, the EU has been guided by the latter view; states must share resources, work collaboratively under formal rules, and pool their sovereignty in order to survive and prosper in a globalised world. Indeed, the European Coal and Steel Community, which evolved into what we know today as the European Union, was formally established in 1951 with the aim of regional integration in order to avoid war between France and Germany following the horrific conflict of World War II. Underlying all this was a simple perspective: without internationally agreed rules and standards, states would inevitably compete and conflict, and so overarching structures were necessary to prevent this. 

Flags at the European Union headquarters in Brussels. (Credit: Wiktor Dabkowski, action press, via Flickr)

This may appear surprising, as in recent years we’ve often heard from leave campaigners that the EU was originally a mere free trade bloc which morphed into a political union over time. However, the language of ‘political union’ and ‘ever-closer union’ has been in the treaties right from the start, and those ideas have increasingly manifested themselves. Illustrating this, just recently the German Foreign Minister went so far as to call on the EU to abolish the veto power of individual member states when it comes to foreign policy. It seems, therefore, that the EU is set to continue on its pathway towards ever-closer union and increased integration between its member-states. But is that the right path for the union to follow?? 

Despite major challenges – namely the eurozone crisis, the migration crisis, and even Brexit – the EU has succeeded on its slow march towards integration and expansion, and public support across the region has held steady. Whatsmore, continued access to the world’s largest single market area is a great benefit of EU membership, especially in the aftermath of the pandemic and its economic effects. The EU also remains a key player in global governance, attending and influencing the G7, giving the member-states a collective power that they would otherwise lack as independent nations. 

However, increased integration and ever-closer union are not guaranteed to succeed. There is t a possibility that continued allegiance to those principles could prove to be the Achilles’ heel of the EU. Vaccine access and roll-out across the EU during the pandemic highlighted the weakness of the EU in dealing with crises as a large collective, resulting in major dissatisfaction with its leaders, as well as reducing public confidence in the vaccine itself. 

Furthermore, the UK’s future success or lack-thereof as a post-Brexit independent nation will play an important role in shaping perceptions about the benefits of an ever-closer union. If the UK is seen to succeed as a nation unbound by a supranational authority in areas of trade, security, and global leadership, then the integrationist approach of the EU will be put under the spotlight.

Crucially, the sense of Europeanism among the population will likely play the key role in determining just how much further EU integration can go, whilst succeeding. If there is a strong enough European identity, as there is now, then further integration is likely to succeed. However, as we witnessed with Brexit, the electorates of Europe will not sit quietly if they feel that their national identity is being significantly displaced on the altar of ever-closer union. For now it seems as though the current path is working, and public support is holding steady. However, in the long term, the future of the EU is impossible to predict.

Leo Cullis, History in Politics Writer

NATO summit: How to Avoid a New Cold War?

The 28th NATO summit on Monday, 14 June 2021, saw the members of the Organization step up their tone regarding China and Russia. Both powers have demonstrated a certain aggressiveness in their foreign policies while also forming alliances that pose threats to the international alliance of 30 European and North American nations.  

The summit could certainly be deemed successful from a diplomatic point of view: the essential task of agreeing a common strategy until 2030 between the Allies was completed. NATO General Secretary Jens Stoltenberg noted that “[t]o do more, Allies agreed that we need to invest more together in NATO”. This investment is to be made in the military, civil and infrastructural sectors of the alliance to ensure it is ready to “face the challenges of today and tomorrow”. 

NATO summit in Brussels, 14 June 2021. (Credit: CSactu)

Among these challenges feature cybersecurity, terrorism and the rise of authoritarianism. The summit centered on the imminent problems relating to Russia and China in particular. Notable among these is their aggressiveness on the international scene and the threat they pose to European and American security. The Allies however reaffirmed the importance of defending “our values and interests”, especially “at a time when authoritarian regimes like Russia and China challenge the rules-based order”. This strong separation between Russia and China on one side and NATO countries on the other hand is polarising; the words “Cold War” do not seem that far out of reach. 

When looking back at history, we can notice an astounding number of parallels, but also of differences, with the political tensions of today. The Cold War was born out ofof the most horrifying conflict of the twentieth century and left the world barely a minute of peace before the separation into Eastern and Western blocs began. Yet as in the twentieth century, political powers find themselves in similar camps: the influence of the US under Biden has grown, and its alliance with Europe is thus stable; Russia, successor to the Soviet Union, stands again in defiance of the traditionally “Western” nations, and large parts of Africa and South America function once more as zones of influence and battlefields of obscure conflicts between the two traditional opponents. Of course, there are differences between the civil war in Syria, which sees Russia aiding the regime and Western powers indirectly supporting rebel forces, and the Vietnam War; yet they both fall into the category of proxy wars, which, ultimately, are a sign of continuing tensions between Western and Eastern powers through their relations to respective opponents in such national conflicts. One difference that must be noted however, is the threat of nuclear war so directly associated with the Cold War. While this threat has, in relative terms, not at all diminished today, nuclear armament became a symbol of the period between 1950 and 1970, when notably the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 brought the world to the brink of nuclear annihilation.

With these events still very much present in the political and military memory, communication from NATO during the 2021 Summit has thus been very specific: a new Cold War is to be avoided at all costs. Ideally, this would best work through cooperation with respective opposing powers to ensure global peace as effectively as possible. Cooperation is however not always a given, especially with regards to China and Russia. NATO thus faces a difficult balancing act between marking its territory on the international scene and de-escalating potential conflicts with aggressive counterparts. 

Concerning Russia, NATO is trying to follow a dual approach of diplomatic dialogue and defence. The effectiveness of this approach has however been less than satisfactory until now; it has neither deterred Russia from attacking Georgia in 2008, nor annexing Crimea and supporting separatist rebels in Eastern Ukraine in 2014. While NATO troops are present in the Baltic states and Poland to defend Europe’s borders, this has not kept Moscow from conducting menacing military manoeuvres on its side of the frontier.

China on the other hand is a relatively new and different threat, as its power has considerably increased over the last few decades in comparison to its role in the Cold War. In stark contrast to the 1970s, China is now being considered an actual enemy by the US and Europe, whereas it was once seen as a possible ally against the Soviet Republic. Nowadays, China does not share a direct border with NATO members, unlike Russia; yet this does not mean that it has not become a military threat. While it does not have the traditional status like Russia of being the “West’s” – and especially America’s – enemy, it has shown the same expansionary ambitions and defiance as Moscow. The situation today is thus different from the second half of the twentieth century; China has taken over Russia’s role as the communist power defying the US, yet has to co-exist with Moscow, which has only stepped up its expansionary attempts. In a bid to compete, Chinese aggressions reach from territorial threats towards Taiwan and Hongkong to oppressing the Uyghur minority; China thus makes clear that the world is no longer led by a “small group of countries”, as Chinese officials said following criticism from the G7.

There lies perhaps another problem. Even though NATO is formed of nations with similar interests and sometimes long-standing histories of alliance, it is far from unified. Its individual member states still have differing objectives and approaches to foreign policy and matters of defence. This makes a globalised approach to security concerns difficult. The agreement on the 2030 Agenda suggests however a willingness for more cooperation and more specific goals for the alliance. It is to be hoped that nobody outside NATO seeks military escalation; after all, a new Cold War would be in nobody’s interest. Not even Russia and China, ostensibly aggressive, would wish for a global conflict on that scale, contrary to the escalations between 1950 and 1960, when the threat of war became once again very real for the world. However, it will take a joint effort from NATO and those outside of the alliance to ensure global peace as it is now.

Cristina Coellen, History in Politics Contributor

Book Review: The Great Imperial Hangover, Samir Puri

Samir Puri’s The Great Imperial Hangover provides a fresh assessment of the oft over-simplified historical phenomenon of empire. In it, Puri pulls apart the ‘intersecting imperial legacies’ that provide the undercurrent of modern politics, and demonstrates that those legacies continue to manifest in the greatest issues of our times – from Blair and Bush’s rehashing of the old imperial ‘white man’s burden’ in the Middle East and Africa, to the debates around the legitimacy of China’s borders. Such questions are often thorny ones, as British readers will know from the vehemence of the ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ protest movement that has engulfed Oriel College in recent years. Yet Puri manages to show that the legacies of empire are too complex to ever be classified under a catch-all categorisation of ‘good’ or ‘bad’. They are a foundational component of the modern political landscape, with fluid and mixed meanings dependent on their audience and subject to interpretation and reinterpretation based on political utility and shifting moral parameters.

Empire was the default in human history before the nation states that we have come to take for granted displaced them during the twentieth century. Puri points out that whilst for most nationalism meant the fracturing of the old empires, the Chinese republic (formed in 1911) was unique in its incorporation of the borders created by the expansion of the Qing empire into the new nation state, under the founding principle of ‘Five Races Under One Union’. If we accept the interpretation of China as an empire-in-disguise, the plight of the Uighurs – resettled by the Qing to Xinjiang following the extermination of the region’s Dzungar people in the 1750s – appears not as the plight of a mistreated minority, but as the systematic cultural genocide of an entire colonised people. The next chapter in a saga of imperial expansion and assimilation that spans thousands of years.

Front cover of The Great Imperial Hangover. (Credit.)

This domestic imperial inheritance is but one of the ways that Chinese politics remains in the shadow of the country’s empire-riddled history. Another – one that Puri singles out for particular analysis – is the legacy cast by the clash of the Qing with the European empires during the nineteenth century, and the influence that this has had on China’s self-perception relative to the West. As China emerges from its ‘century of humiliation’, Puri argues that clash of empires will remain China’s historical point of reference. It represents a low point in its history of competition with the western imperialists against which it shall seek to define itself as it vies for global supremacy with another great empire-in-disguise, the USA. Empires never went away, they simply recast their modes of operation to fit the mould of the modern world.

The Great Imperial Hangover is a fantastic book that provides ample justification for the use of history as a paradigm through which to view current affairs. Puri – a former diplomat and RAND employee – makes no attempt to hide his work’s didactic purpose. To remain ignorant of our imperial past, to seek to tarnish it all with the same brush, or simply to attempt to cover it up, as has so often been the case, is to severely limit our understanding of the modern world’s diplomatic roots. The imperial legacies that structure modern politics warrant close analysis, and Puri’s work should provide a starting point for both the interested observer and those in the diplomatic profession whose job it is to manage our relations with those who view such legacies in ways that often differ from – or directly oppose – our own.

Sam Lake, History in Politics Writer