When Bad History Leads to Bad Politics: ‘The Graveyard of Empires’

When a major political event happens, politicians and scholars usually cram desperately to fit the event into a simple framework: ideological, historical, or another type. Sometimes this is done to explain the events in a general pattern. Alternatively, it is done to fit the event into a set worldview (something often done by politicians). ‘The Graveyard of Empires’ is one such example of a thesis used to explain political events. This theory has been an essential part of the Western understanding of Afghanistan since its conception in 2001 by Milton Bearden. Bearden, reflecting mainly on the experiences of the British and Soviet Empires, asserted that the unruly geography and peoples of the country made any imperial project in Afghanistan doomed to fail. Contextually, he wrote this thesis around the start of the US invasion as a warning for the dangers of US intervention in the country, a warning that has formed a crucial part of the Western understanding of Afghanistan. President Biden, for instance, directly used the thesis to explain why his withdrawal of US troops was necessary. In his speech recently he echoed Bearden and attributed the clear failure of US statecraft in Afghanistan to the ungovernable nature of the land itself.

There are multiple issues here, all stemming from one major problem that is often overlooked: the thesis is not true. Afghanistan, over its history, has not been a ‘Graveyard of Empires’, indeed it has been far from it. Professor Alexander Hainy-Khaleeli has shown how the country was the heartland of many great empires across history, including even empires often used as supporting evidence for proponents of Bearden’s thesis. Alexander the Great’s empire, used by Bearden as an example in favour of his argument, successfully ruled Afghanistan for over one hundred years, and the often-cited British experience ignores the broad success of British policy after the Third Afghan War. When imperial missions did fail, it was not due to the overriding lawlessness of the Afghan terrain or peoples but instead a variety of case-specific factors.

Thus, Bearden’s thesis is a case of bad history, with Afghanistan’s past stuffed into an overly simplistic historical framework. Its usage by politicians is therefore problematic, as it means public policy and discourse is based on incorrect perceptions and knowledge. For example, by describing Afghanistan as ‘the Graveyard of Empires’, Biden oversimplifies the complex failure of the American project in Afghanistan. It assumes that the failure of American statecraft is not a failure of Washington but a result of Afghanistan’s unique nature. By imposing Bearden’s framework, it assumes no imperial policy in Afghanistan could ever be successful regardless of what the imperial power does. Biden’s speech was overwhelmingly centred around this idea – an inevitability of failure that no policy of his could ever rectify. 

US and UK troops leaving Afghanistan. (Credit: U.S. Department of Defence)

This has three significant implications, demonstrating the danger of basing politics on flawed historical theory. Firstly, it stifles the development of effective policy. When addressing an issue that you deem impossible to benefit from, policy becomes solely about mitigation. Biden’s long-held belief that the US was doomed to fail in Afghanistan in line with Bearden’s thesis means that he has approached Afghanistan from a position that the US needed to leave the ‘graveyard’ irrespective of the consequences, explaining, for instance, the unnecessary withdrawal of American contractors that led to the complete collapse of the Afghan army. It also explains the frantic nature of the evacuation effort because the clear urge to withdraw as soon as possible meant that there was little planning for, say, the evacuation of the Afghans who had helped US personnel. 

Further, through basing politics on a largely flawed historical framework, there is a real possibility that we will not learn the correct lessons from the Afghan war. By attributing blame for the operation’s failures on the nature of Afghanistan and not bad policy, the US risks failing to understand the reasons for the failures in the country over the last twenty years, and thus fail to make the necessary changes. In an era where the American Empire is under threat from another would-be hegemony China, failing to learn the correct lessons could be costly. As such, it is more important than ever that the US takes a nuanced look at its role and activity in the global system, which will be significantly hindered by viewing its largest single project over the last two decades through an overly simplified and ignorant framework.

Finally, the oversimplification of Afghanistan and the blaming of it for the West’s failures is deeply immoral. The graveyard thesis crams Afghan history into how it relates to predominantly European Empires, denying it credit outside the framework of imperial history. In reality, Afghanistan has had a fascinating and proud history outside of its relations with the European powers, and thus the promulgation of this thesis risks making discourse around Afghanistan incredibly demeaning. Moreover, calling it the ‘Graveyard of Empires’ suggests that the primary victims of imperial projects in the country are the Empires – British, Soviet, and now American – and not the people of Afghanistan. The country’s people have faced endless war and persecution due to Imperial ends and are the actual victims of the country’s recent past. By framing Afghan history as a one of imperial failure, political discourse is prejudiced in favour of the West at the expense of the true victims of imperial policy. 

These are, unfortunately, inevitable consequences of applying a single and incorrect historical framework to contemporary politics: it can be profoundly immoral but also practically ruinous. Further, it can cloud the judgement of policy makers looking to draw lessons from past failures. As such, while there are good reasons to base politics on history, when that history is incorrect, the results can be ruinous.

Julius Balchin, Summer Writer

Peace Lines, Borders, and Brexit: Northern Ireland’s Dilemma

The Shankill is one of the main roads leading through Belfast and home to the city’s predominantly Protestant and Loyalist supporters– citizens who are in favour of the country remaining under British control. On the other side is Falls Road– the Republican Catholic community who are in favour of a United Ireland out of British control. 

Whilst fundamentally different and opposed– what unites these communities is their segregation– in the 25 ft high physical peace walls dividing them, manned by police– some have gates where the passage between the areas at night-time is blocked in an attempt to lower inter-communal violence. 

This border is one of many on the island: between the Republic and the region of Ulster, but also, between mainland Britain and Northern Ireland due to the Brexit border crisis. 

The 1921 Partition of Ireland separated the island to create two devolved governments both under British control, in hope that this would then lead to reunification. Violence ensued as Southern Ireland refused to create a government, therefore, defying British rule– declaring an Irish Republic independent from the UK. This resistance led to the Irish War of Independence. The outcome of this guerilla war was the Anglo-Irish treaty that recognised the Republic of Ireland as independent from Britain. 

Supposed peace was futile. Borders created discrimination and differences in Northern Ireland between Protestants and Catholics, with the latter oppressed. In response to housing and employment prejudice, as well as issues with the Electoral Representation of Catholic towns, the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association led a campaign in favour of equality. Met with opposition, violence ensued– most notably in the Battle of Bogside– leading to the thirty-year conflict known as The Troubles.

Whilst most of this violence ceased with the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, the borders and peace walls are representative of a conflict still unsettled.

The 2016 Brexit referendum has proved many complexities. Most British citizens did not know what the European Union was upon voting. For Northern Irish citizens, the vote complexified their relationships with both the Republic and Westminster. 

Self-imposed apartheid has characterised the communities in Belfast, Derry, Portadown and Lurgan. Decisions to not mingle with those different to them has contributed to the growing tensions– the Orange Order walk on July 12th celebrating the Protestant William of Orange’s invasion and subsequent oppression of Catholics in the 17th century, and in the 2021 Northern Ireland riots. These recent riots were incited by the border and goods crisis as a result of Brexit– where a fifth of businesses surveyed said that suppliers were ‘unwilling to engage with the new requirements of shipping– and in some cases, businesses from Great Britain are no longer supplying Northern Ireland. 

Loyal Orange Order March, Edinburgh. (Credit: Des Mooney, via Flickr)

Unionist or Nationalist self-identification was the most important determinant of referendum choice on Brexit. For many, voting Leave became part of a British identity– much like how in England, voting Leave became a point of taking back control. For Unionists in Northern Ireland, this was felt strongly. Even those who wished to stay in the EU– but were Unionists– voted leave, mainly out of principle. Due to the religious and political separation in the country, there’s a separation in politics manifesting itself in the nationalist party of Sinn Fein and the Protestant Democratic Unionist Party.

This is furthermore complicated by the fact that Sinn Fein MPs do not take up their seats in Westminster, as in doing so, it would give legitimacy to an institution they do not recognise . But this meant that the party could not argue against Britain’s withdrawal from the EU nor fight to remain there.

For a history marked by separation, the departure of the UK from the EU was just another chapter in a long story. The Lanark Peace Gates are not only divided by religion and ethno-nationalist beliefs but also the difference between Remain and Leave voters. These are some of the most deprived areas in the whole of Northern Ireland– their deprivation and poverty levels are what unites them, but their perceived solutions mark the difference and creates conflict. 

Northern Ireland has the lowest poverty rate of any UK region. Its unemployment rate is small also, but its educational attainment and health and disability are where the country draws short. More than two-thirds of students on the Shankhill– the Protestant area– and Falls Road– the Catholic area– perform below Belfast’s average. The poverty in these areas is most likely incited by the Unionist andRepublican division– balancing the demands of the integrated educational system has led to many falling behind in their exams. Brexit has only worsened this.

For a generation that was promised peace in 1998, 23 years later– the situation remains in conflict.

Under Sinn Fein and the opinion of Republicans was that Northern Ireland needed to stay in the EU as an important way of working towards a united Ireland, eventually, especially as it was EU integration that ceased the patrolling of British soldiers in Northern Ireland. 

In contrast, UK sovereignty is the most important thing for British Unionists, given that the Unionist working-class was the likely sector to vote for Brexit, with the Democratic Unionist Party encouraging those to vote to Leave. 

Due to Brexit, the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic could be stronger due to EU laws– that an EU country must have a hard border with a non-EU country. At the same time, a new border has emerged between Northern Ireland and the UK– one that was separated by water is now in conflict due to Brexit– a complication many were not prepared for.

Northern Ireland has not known peace in its entire existence. Whilst most of its citizens still favour remaining a part of the UK, due to Brexit and heightening tensions– this could change. Ireland could become unified sooner than many realise.

Aoifke Madeleine, Summer Writer

The European Union— A Modern Idea?

Is the European Union simply the modern rendition of the age-old concept of a united Europe?  Comparisons are often drawn between the modern EU and historical examples of entities which united or attempted to unite Europe, such as the Roman Empire, the Holy Roman Empire, and Napoleonic France. While it is true that many of the leaders and ideologues of the EU share the same desire for European unity as their predecessors, it is more unclear whether their concept of European unity is related to their historical predecessors’ conceptions of it. After all, it is often said that the ideology driving the EU was mostly born out of the aftermath of WW2; Winston Churchill’s call for a ‘United States of Europe’ became one of the most well-known verbalisations of this drive for unity. It seems necessary then, to examine the history of ideas of European unity to see whether the European Union truly is a modern idea or not. 

European unity was first conceptualised in the millennium following the deposition of the last Western Roman emperor in 476. It was characterised by attempts to reclaim and preserve the legacy of the Roman Empire. Culturally, Latin remained as a lingua franca throughout Europe which facilitated scholarly exchange and communication across borders. Roman titles such as comes (Count) and dux (Duke) continued to be used, and Roman Catholicism remained the dominant religion. 

The European Parliament in Brussels. (Credit: Jordiferrer, via Wikimedia Commons)

Actual attempts at political union were most thoroughly pursued by the Holy Roman Emperors— beginning with Charlemagne, who was crowned ‘Emperor of the Romans’ in 800, and claimed the universal authority of the old Western emperors. Eventually, however, lands such as France and Italy drifted away from the Empire, and its imperial ambitions stopped at its German borders.

Attempts to reclaim the Roman legacy were not exclusive to the Holy Roman Emperors nor the Middle Ages; other rulers such as Alfonso X of Castile issued law codes in the style of Roman imperial edicts. Later rulers invoked imperial imagery—in particular, Napoleon introduced Roman eagle standards into his armies and established the Legion d’Honneur which had a structure loosely based on Roman legions. He also alluded to Charlemagne in his coronation and issued a ‘Napoleonic Code’, no doubtl building on the legacy of imperial edicts.

A related unifying force to the Roman imperial legacy in medieval Europe was Roman Catholicism. Unity along ‘Latin Christian’ lines was spearheaded by the clergy and the papacy. Most notably, during the Crusades, the papacy focused on uniting Latin Christendom against Islam. This, along with increased exposure to Muslims and Orthodox Greeks, helped create a pan-European identity in contrast to these other religious groups. The role of the papacy, as a supranational body often cooperating or in conflict with the governments of Latin Christian territories, could be compared to the role of modern EU institutions such as the Commission and the Court of Justice in their goal to promote liberal democracy among EU member states, seen most clearly in recent action against Hungary and Poland for anti-LGBT legislation. However, these comparisons are only superficial given the huge ideological differences between the medieval papacy and the modern EU.

As the Early Modern Era progressed, papal power diminished and the Crusades were seen as a thing of the past. The concept of Europe united by one faith was shattered by the Reformation and subsequent wars between Catholics and Protestants. In this period, European unity became something to be feared, as it often meant domination by a nearby hegemonic power attempting to create a ‘universal monarchy’. For instance, Protestant states such as England feared that Catholic Spain could become a universal monarchy, especially under Charles V.

New ideas on European unity developed from the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries. Whereas before, European unity meant the restoration of the Roman Empire by a hegemonic imperial power, these centuries saw some thinkers developing the idea of a union of European states, created in order to prevent conflict— which had become increasingly more bloody and devastating as military technology advanced. On one end, some, like Quaker William Penn, argued for a European Parliament where disputes could be settled rather than on the battlefield, while on the other end,  Victor Hugo and anarchist Mikhail Bakunin among others called for a fully-fledged ‘United States of Europe’.

Avoiding the carnage of warfare became imperative following the two World Wars, and thus the Treaties of Paris and Rome following the Second World War set Europe on course for the creation of the European Union. The ideology behind the European Union was born against the backdrop of the Enlightenment and the devastating conflicts of the Modern Era. However, avoiding war is not the only uniting factor of Europe. Shared values developed from the Enlightenment (namely, liberal democracy), unite modern Europe culturally and ideologically. The ideas that united Europe before the modern era, such as Latin Christendom and the legacy of Rome, may not be those that justify the existence of the modern European Union, but they still form an important part of shared European history and culture. They also show that, while the European Union may be a modern idea, the concept of a united Europe is thousands of years old.

Jonas Balkus, Summer Writer

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

Disraeli’s Public Health Reforms: How to Improve Social Care Today.

The Coronavirus pandemic has laid bare the realities of a struggling care sector unable to cope with the demands of an ever-aging society. Despite Health Minister Sajid Javid’s full job title being the Secretary of State for Health and Social Services, a chronic imbalance between his two briefs has grown and has highlighted that action needs to be taken. Using the lessons of Disraeli’s ground-breaking public health reform in the 1870s, this article makes the case that the time is now for a National Care Service.

Development in British public health policy has a gradual beginning, with its roots in the 1848 Public Health Act. Spearheaded by the work of Edwin Chadwick and following the particularly severe outbreak of cholera in the same year, the act created a Central Board for Health, and became the first law within Britain regarding public health. 

PM Disraeli. (Credit: James Gardiner Collection)

Public health policy really began to evolve in the early 1870s when Prime Minister Disraeli’s reformative government sought to further address the issue of poor public sanitation. Both the Public Health and Artisans’ Dwellings acts were passed in 1875, beginning the first concerted push to improve public health. Provisions were made to build housing with running water and to enable local authorities to begin replacing slums with better quality housing. Progress was slow, but was nevertheless a radical first step forward in the context of Victorian Britain, which was lauded by early trade unionists who recognised the government’s actions as extensively improving the public health of the masses.

What brought about such radical reform? The source of Disraeli’s public health reform can be found from two places. The first, necessity. The second, external pressure. The first is perhaps self-explanatory. Poor sanitation amongst the working classes helped no one. In fact, as Edwin Chadwick had noted in his commission on working class sanitary conditions back in 1842, families of working men who got sick were more likely to need the government’s poor relief. 

However, it was the large human cost of repeated outbreaks of disease that ultimately forced the government to act. The 1860s saw a significant push for greater rights for the working classes. In 1866, as Parliament discussed expanding the voting franchise, 200,000 protested in Hyde Park. Furthermore, Marx’s Das Kapital had its first volume published in 1867, and philosophers-turn-parliamentarians such as John Stuart Mill were influentially bringing their ideas into the public foreground. The government, undoubtedly casting their mind back to continental Europe 1848, conceded that public health had to become a political priority. 

How, however, can we apply such lessons from Disraeli’s reformative public health policies to a contemporary, 21st century setting? If sanitation was the central public health issue plaguing Disraeli’s government, what then is Johnson’s public health dilemma (putting aside momentarily the overtly obvious answer of the pandemic)? 

The answer is social care. The century-and-a-half following Disraeli has seen significant progress in the forum of public health. Sanitation and hygiene have been expanded to the point where all have access to clean water, a working sewer system, and are free of poor-hygiene related outbreaks of disease. And of course, the jewel in the British state, the National Health Service, founded through the necessity of rebuilding after the War, and the external pressure economic advisors such as Beveridge placed on the government, has provided access to free healthcare for everyone. 

Social care, however, has been largely untouched. As a private industry, it has often remained out of reach of the less privileged within our society, much as basic sanitation remained out of reach for the working classes of Disraeli’s day. Consequently, as our country’s population continues to age and a greater proportion of us reach the stage where we require assistance to carry out some of our basic functions, many are being priced out of having a meaningful last few years of their lives. 

In other words, as our country ages, we will reach a point where it is unsustainable not to approach the issue of social care. As was the case in 1875, reform is necessary. A lack of social care services only serves to provide greater pressure on the NHS, which often cannot discharge patients due to limited support. 

This reform should take place in the form of the creation of a National Care Service. A radical assumption of responsibility by government, as with Disraeli’s public health policies, will better organise social care. The pitiful distribution of PPE during the pandemic within care homes shows that a market model is not just pricing many out of social care, but also failing to properly supply those who can afford it. 

When Jeremy Hunt proposed a National Care Service as part of his campaign to become Conservative Party leader in 2019, that urgent need to reform was there, yes, but the external pressure that Disraeli’s government had was not. Whilst Corbyn’s Labour Party included plans for a National Care Service within both their 2017 and 2019 manifestos, these pledges were often overshadowed, both by other manifesto pledges which gained greater media attention, such as free tuition, and the ubiquitous topic of Brexit. 

Covid’s refocusing of the political lens from issues surrounding exiting the European Union to those surrounding public health has finally provided the opportunity to pressure the government into action. As the NHS was built from the recovery of the War, so too must the National Care Service be built from the recovery from the pandemic. 

Overall, Disraeli’s example is one that must be followed. Social care reform must start. The creation of a National Care Service will serve to help address the issues of our increasingly aging and unequal population, just as Disraeli’s reforms did 150 years ago.

Matthew Lambert, 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