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

Judging the Past: Can We Really Afford Not To?

University of Edinburgh historian Donald Bloxham has provided much food for thought in his recent article for the March edition of BBC History Magazine, entitled ‘Why History Must Take a Stance’. In it, he challenges the dogmatic insistence on neutrality that pervades the historical profession. Instead of feigning an unattainable neutrality, he argues, historians should take ownership of the judgements they make and the moral ‘prompts’ that they provide to their readers. Proclaiming neutrality is misleading, and possibly dangerous. I am inclined to agree.

Whilst neutrality is an honourable and necessary ambition for any historian, it is an ideal, and it is folly to suppose otherwise. No morally conscious human being can honestly claim to provide a totally neutral account of British imperialism, for instance. We tell a story in the way that we want to tell it, and there are plethora ways of telling that story, all of which have moral implications in the present. Language, as Bloxham observes, is a key factor. Can a historian who writes about the ‘exploitation’ and ‘subjugation’ of millions of human beings as a result of the Atlantic slave trade truly claim that they are providing a ‘neutral’ impression to their reader? These words carry weight, and rightly so. To talk about the past in totally neutral terms is not only impossible, but also heartless. The stories of the people whose lives were torn apart by past injustices deserve to be told, not only out of respect or disengaged interest but because they bear lessons that exert a tangible and morally didactic hold over us in the present.

The Lady of Justice statute outside the Old Baily. (Credit: Into the Blue)

That is not to say that historical writing should take the form of a moral invective, lambasting the behaviour of dead people whom we can no longer hold to account. Nor is it to argue that historical relativism is not a vitally important and foundational principle of the profession. What I am proposing, however, is that when Richard J. Evans claims, in his otherwise brilliant ‘In Defence of History’, that we should refute E.H. Carr’s argument – that the human cost of collectivisation in the USSR was a necessary evil – in the ‘historian’s way’, by undermining its ‘historical validity’, he seems to be suggesting that we are not doing so with a moral purpose in mind. Indeed, suggesting that the costs outweighed the benefits is itself a moral judgement, for is it not judging the value of people’s lives? Whilst Evans claims that it is the reader who must infer this conclusion, not the historian, his economic argument (that collectivisation was no more successful than the policies that preceded it) is surely intended to ‘prompt’ it.

Evans, like most people, clearly opposes the morality of Carr’s argument, and his way of communicating this is in the (highly effective) ‘historian’s way’. But his purpose nonetheless is to influence the opinion of his readers, not simply to fulfil the role of historical automaton, providing those readers with every fact under the sun. The process of omission and admission is one that, try as we may to temper it, will always involve some degree of value judgement about which facts matter for the purpose of our argument and which do not. Such a value judgement will inevitably, at times, operate on a moral criterion.

This debate may, as is often the case with those that take historiography as their subject, appear somewhat academic. In a world in which our history does so much to define the identities of (and relations between) ethnic, social, cultural and political groups, however, it is anything but. What we can call the ‘neutrality complex’ runs the risk of imbuing the historical profession and its practitioners with a sense of intellectual superiority, forgetting the political consequences of its output. One can find little fault in Bloxham’s assertion that certain histories carry less moral weight, and are therefore more conducive to neutral assessment, but subjects with as much emotional resonance as the history of slavery, the Holocaust or Mao’s Great Famine cannot but be judgemental in nature. 

‘Neutrality’ can be a mask for the covert projection of nefarious ideologies and interpretations. Presenting something simply as ‘fact’ is irresponsible and shows great ignorance of the moral dispositions that influence what we write and how we write it. There is space and need for some degree, however tentative, of self-acknowledged judgement in historical writing. We owe it to our audience to declare our judgement and to justify it. The crimes of imperialism, genocide and slavery are universally evil. The historian has a concern and a duty to show their audience why those that claim otherwise, who hyperinflate relativism and claim neutrality, are guilty both of intellectual hubris and moral cowardice.

Samuel Lake, History in Politics Writer

Is It Time For An Elected Head of State?

Democracy and equality under the law have increasingly come to be seen as the gold-standard for structuring societies ever since the enlightenment. it may therefore appear odd to some that the United Kingdom, the ‘mother of parliamentary democracy’, is still reigned over by a monarchy. Stranger still is that despite the drastic decline in the number of monarchies worldwide since the start of the 20th century, the British monarchy continues to sit in the heart of a proudly democratic nation and continues to enjoy significant popular support amongst the general public. Perhaps this will change with the passing of our current and longest serving monarch Queen Elizabeth II, perhaps the royal family will lose its purpose, or perhaps it will continue to hold steadfast as it has done in the face of major social transformations. But while there may be calls for the monarchy to be replaced by an elected head of state, we should ask ourselves what the monarchy both means to us and offers us, domestically and internationally, before we rush to any conclusions. 

Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip. (Credit: AY COLLINS – WPA POOL/GETTY IMAGES)

While certainly debatable, I would contend that in its history, structures, and character, Britain is fundamentally a conservative nation. Not conservative in the sense that it strictly aligns with today’s Conservative party, but more in the sense of Burke or Oakeshott; we sacrifice democratic purity on the altar of an electoral system that is more inclined to produce stable and commanding governments; we still retain a strong support for the principle of national sovereignty in a world of increasing interdependence and cooperation; we take pride in our institutions, such as parliamentary democracy and our common law; and as evidenced by our addiction to tea, we value tradition. So is it really surprising that monarchy, the oldest form of government in the United Kingdom, still not only exists but enjoys significant public support? 

The monarchy is intended as a symbol of national identity, unity, pride, duty, and serves to provide a sense of stability and continuity across the lifespan of the nation (according to its website). Its whole existence is rooted in the conservative disposition towards traditions, historical continuity, and the notion of collective wisdom across the ages that should not be readily discarded by those in the present. The monarchy is also politically impartial, and so able to provide that described sense of unity as it is a symbol that should cut across factional lines. Finally, the royal family is not necessarily an obstacle to democracy anymore; we have a constitutional monarchy, whereby the politicians make the decisions without arbitrary sovereign rule. The Sovereign’s role is not to undemocratically dictate legislation, it is to embody the spirit of the nation and exemplify a life of service and duty to country.

Conversely, many may say with good reason that the monarchy is outdated, elitist, and a spanner in the works for democracy. Indeed monarchies are increasingly becoming a thing of the past, and in today’s world it may seem out of place to see a family of people living a life of unbounded riches and privileges simply by birth right. This is a view that is becoming increasingly popular among younger Britons. Additionally, one might contend that the monarchy has lost its magic; it no longer inspires the same awe and reverence it once did, and is unable to invoke the sense of service and duty to country that it once could. 

Prince Harry and Meghan Markle being interviewed by Oprah Winfrey. (Credit: Marie Claire)

While support for the British monarchy appears to be holding steady, even in the wake of the latest saga with Harry and Meghan, I believe that the monarchy is on thin ice. The age of deference has long since passed, and in an era of materialism and rationality, the ethereal touch of monarchy has arguably lost its draw. Perhaps this is a good thing, or perhaps now more than ever we need a symbol of unity and duty to do our best by our neighbour and country. What is worth pointing out though is that Queen Elizabeth II, our longest serving monarch, has led the country dutifully throughout her life, and it is worth considering deeply whether the alternative (President Boris Johnson?) is really a better option.

Leo Cullis, History in Politics Writer

Seeing like Cassandra: a New Role for Literature in Political Risk Analysis?

Political conflicts and situations of crises in a multitude of forms continue to mark our present. Indeed, early crisis prevention is a question so pertinent to our times that it has prompted researchers at the University of Tübingen in Germany to explore an unusual  method of conflict prediction: studying fictional literature of specific regions prone to crises  to examine if it is possible to identify potential future threats through literary texts. The project is entitled “Projekt Cassandra”, alluding to the Greek mythological figure of Cassandra, who was famously able to predict the future, although cursed so that nobody would believe her prophecies. 

The study led by Tübingen  appears to have demonstrated potential  as an alternative method of strategic analysis  and is being partially being funded by the German Ministry of Defence. The “Projekt Cassandra” has so far investigated three centres of conflict for model analyses, notably the Serbo-Kosovan conflict (1998-1999), the Nigerian terror epidemic caused by the group Boko Haram, and the tensions in Algeria preceding the election in 2019. While the study is still underway, it poses an essential question: can literature truly function as a tool for the early detection of crises?

Tens of thousands of Algerians protesting Algeria’s presidential vote, Algiers, December 12, 2019. (Credit: Ramzi Boudina, via Reuters)

Conflict and crisis prediction are an essential part in the field of risk analysis. With regard to the hypothesis of “Projekt Cassandra”, we can draw parallels with the idea that “history repeats itself”. While the extent to which the past really “repeats” itself is debatable, this argument  rests on the assumption that history provides us with patterns which allow for a certain degree of “prediction”. A similar concept could be applied in the case of literature through the ages, where the identification of patterns relating to past crises could help identify future potential conflicts. 

In considering concrete examples, the picture becomes more complex. By association, we might immediately consider literature as actively imagining the future, such as the famous 1984 by George Orwell. This dystopian classic from 1949 is set in a distorted future of censorship and surveillance, which could be interpreted as a prediction of certain elements that we now  find in our present. However, it must be noted that  science fiction and dystopian literature often provides less a prediction of the future,  than a reflection of respective historical circumstances. 1984 for instance stems from the context of the beginning Cold War, in which surveillance and espionage were considered primary threats. This however does not mean that there is a necessary correlation between the content of a novel like 1984 and the  realities of the future. 

The ‘Projekt Cassandra’ logo. (Credit: Project Cassandra, via Twitter)

 So how can early crisis detection through literature function? Predicting crises is a lot about the identification of patterns. This is why it also matters what type of crisis is being investigated. For instance, a health crisis such as the Covid-19 pandemic can hardly be said to have been predicted by Camus, merely because his novel The Plague (1947) describes a situation that is eerily similar to current events. 

We do however find a poignant example favouring this hypothesis relating to military conflict in British literature. Starting in the 1870s, literature imagining a new European war, at various instances between Britain and France or Britain and Germany, was increasingly popularized, so much so that “invasion literature” became an entirely new genre in British literature. The most famous example is the novel The Invasion of 1910 (1906), which propagated Germanophobia in Britain, through its imagined German invasion of Britain.  This can in hindsight, be considered a near-prescient account of elements of the First World War. Invasion literature even influenced politics:popularised concerns  of a new European conflict accelerated the arms race of the 1900s,which ultimately played  a role in the eruption of the First World War. 

Literature, it must be reiterated, is not an accurate tool of strategic prediction. It does however frequently capture underlying social currents that can later become problematic, such as ethnic tensions or larger societal unrest. These currents are often subtle, yet can function as inspiration for authors. To the extent that these societal undercurrents can effectively alert us to the potential of future crises and conflict, only Cassandra knows.

Cristina Coellen

History as a Tool of Fascist Revolution

The past is a powerful weapon, one that in the wrong hands has the potential to tear asunder the present. Its utility is one that spans the political spectrum, and propagandists have long recognised its appeal. The most effective appropriation of the past as a tool of persuasion has undoubtedly been central to the exclusionary policies of fascist regimes; most apparent in Mussolini’s Italy and, perhaps lesser known, in China under the leadership of Chiang Kai-Shek’s Guomindang. Whilst communists sought to destroy the past, fascists chose to worship their own national version of it.

Chang Kai-Shek in 1943. (Credit: Public Domain)

Looking first to the use of history as the binding glue of the revolutionary Chinese republic, a peculiar relationship with the past that emphasises both rupture and continuity becomes apparent. The May 4th Movement, which reached its climax in 1919, had stressed the importance of a break with the Confucian past, embodied by the ‘backwards’ Qing Dynasty, as the only means of competing with the ‘modern’ West. 

As the movement split into communist and nationalist camps throughout the 1920s, the Guomindang (a nationalist party) increasingly came to cast themselves as the defenders of a Chinese, Confucian culture against the ravages of the Red Menace encroaching from the USSR by means of Mao Zedong’s CCP, who were at this time seen as a periphery, almost foreign force. The Guomindang thus found themselves promulgating a policy of revolutionary conservatism, what would come to be known as ‘Confucian fascism’. They took the legacy of the Confucian social order and bound it to a fascist future; as Chiang himself put it in 1933, ‘as members of the revolutionary party we must dedicate ourselves sincerely to the preservation of the traditional virtues and the traditional spirits.’ The restoration of the ancient past was the goal of the revolutionary present, a means by which the new Chinese ‘nation’ might define itself against the world. History was front and centre of the nationalist ideology. Out with the old and in with the older.

Indeed, the invocation of antiquity was not unique to Confucian fascism. The blind admiration of days long forgotten is one of the key features that the Chinese regime shared with the better-known fascist movements sweeping through Europe during the 1920s and 30s. The Nazis claimed descendance from the Holy Roman Empire or the ‘First Reich’, dissolved in 1806, and even constructed a somewhat less palpable link to the Vikings (see the SS Viking Division). Neither the Chinese nor Germans, however, could compare in their reverence of the past with the imperial illusion incubated by Benito Mussolini throughout his reign.

Il Duce sought to construct a ‘vast, orderly, powerful’ Rome, as it had been under the Emperor Augustus. He built the Via dei Fori Imperiale, which led through the ancient monuments of Roman power and civilization, and along which his 1938 parade welcoming Hitler was to proceed. Furthermore, he reintroduced the Roman salute that we now recognise as the quintessential declaration of fascist loyalties and explicitly pursued a restoration of the Roman empire in his failed invasions of North Africa. Drawing on more recent history, his Blackshirts were modelled on the Redshirts of the father of Italian unification, Giuseppe Garibaldi. Like Chiang, he sought an exclusively Italian culture. His promise was a return to the splendour and majesty of Rome’s glory days – an end to the division that had plagued the peninsula for centuries, and a remedy to the humiliations of the Great War.

These appeals to the past, like those of Adolf Hitler and the Chinese nationalists, exploited a population facing crisis: in Germany, the 1929 financial crash obliterated the economy; China had fallen into fracture following the 1911 fall of the Qing dynasty and the subsequent ‘warlord’ years. In Italy, it was the end of the First World War and the ‘Red Years’ of leftist agitation that granted Mussolini his opportunity. 

In times of turmoil, when the present seems under threat, people often look to the idealized past. This tendency leaves them vulnerable to the forces willing to seize upon it. Amidst the crises of our time, we would do well to bear that in mind.

Samuel Lake, History in Politics Writer

Historical Narratives: The Glorified and the Silenced Narratives of Spanish History

The bare, granite landscape of the Sierra de Guadarrama in Spain gives way to a 3,000-acre woodland that is home to the country’s most controversial monument. Soaring an impressive 150-metres high is a granite cross, raised dramatically above the basilica and valley. Beneath the Valle de los Caídos, or the Valley of the Fallen, are the graves of 40,000 people, both Republicans and Nationalists, killed during the 1936 to 1939 Spanish Civil War.

From 1975 to 2019, Francisco Franco was also buried in the valley. Franco, dictator of Spain since leading the Nationalists to victory in the Civil War, was one of only two people to have a named grave there, which was placed behind the altar. 

The monument was constructed between 1940 and 1959 with the intention of honouring those killed on both sides during the Civil War and was approved by Franco as a masterpiece defying time. It claims a degree of neutrality through honouring all victims. However, the grandeur of the unique Spanish architecture, constructed under a fascist dictator, glorifies a narrative that tells of the power and splendour of the victors – the side that erected such an impressive monument. 

Valley of the Fallen (El Valle de los Caídos). (Credit: Domingo Lorente, via Flickr.)

Spain battles with such narratives. Last year, Spain’s socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez vowed to exhume Franco’s remains. He claimed that their presence glorified Franco, drawing attention to the dictator through the monument and allowing his followers to continually pay tribute. Millions watched ahead of the election as his remains were airlifted to a cemetery just North of Madrid. Whilst Sánchez remained Prime Minister post-election, Vox, a far-right party, made huge gains becoming the third largest party in parliament. 

The attempt to alter the narrative away from Franco’s power and grandeur was met with strong opposition calling for the former leader to continue to be glorified. The political battle was fought over such a visual representation in the Valle de los Caídos of Franco’s power, despite the years of oppression many suffered under his leadership. Some of those who built the monument were serving in forced labour under the regime. The political significance of the monument held power to sway the elections, marginalising both right and left of the spectrum. 

The imposing visibility of the monument differs greatly from the hidden past of the Civil War and Franco-era. The atrocities committed by both Republicans and Nationalists during the civil war era and beyond were intentionally left to rest in a politically organised Pacto del olvido, or Pact of Forgetting, intended to make the transition to democracy after Franco’s death as smooth as possible. Such a pact left behind trials, judgement and retribution, and served to hide a whole narrative of suffering and brutality. 

Significance lies in Spain’s hidden narratives as well as the glorified ones. As attempts to silence glorified narratives through the likes of removing Franco’s remains in the Valle de los Caídos occurs, so too does increased political conversation around the Pacto del olvido as narratives suppressed for decades are brought into conversation. Spain grapples with both, one pulling against the other in a country in conflict about all narratives of its history.

Maddy Burt

Does History Link to Geography?

Although separate disciplines, history and geography are tightly intertwined. While history attempts to examine human society, culture and experience through a temporal lense, geography does so through a spatial one.

A map of the world, surrounded by classical imagery. (Credit: Marzolino, via iStock.)

Physical geography and natural phenomena have undoubtedly influenced the course of history: the 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora, which caused massive global cooling, attests to this. It is human geography, however, which is more closely linked to history. History is, for example, an incredibly important factor in the development (or decline) of cities. The relative economic power of London, owing to it’s strategic location and history as the Roman capital of Britannia, encouraged the Hanseatic League to set up it’s main English trading post there. At this time the government was located in Westminster, but the relative autonomy afforded to the Corporation of London made it the main commercial centre on the island. Having its own government and liberal economic laws, and a notable lack of interference from the national government, made it attractive to traders. The wealth this generated caused an explosion in the urban population and forced the city to abandon the grid-iron street patterns favoured by the Romans to accommodate the growth. This led to an incredibly dense settlement with narrow winding streets, which in turn necessitated the development of public mass transit come industrialisation, now an essential component of every major city in the world.

In stark contrast to the wealth historical factors have helped to produce, an inability to develop regions of Southern Africa can, to a large extent, be traced to apartheid era debt afflicting the region. Not only must South Africans repay debts of a regime that oppressed them, but people in countries such as Lesotho, Malawi, and Mozambique have been saddled with enormous debts fighting South Africa’s apartheid wars. These debts have made Southern Africa the poorest region in the world. As poverty is closely linked to high birth and mortality rates, the region’s history has resulted in modern demographics unseen in other parts of the world, with incredibly young populations and rapid growth. This has resulted in dense urban developments and rapid land degradation as a result of overgrazing and the necessity of intensive agriculture. 

Migration, another incredibly topical theme in modern geography, has also been affected by historical European colonialism. Push and pull factors are a foundation of modern studies of migration, and yet colonial ties have only been appreciated as a significant pull factor in recent history. While much credence was traditionally given to economic and social factors, historical factors have recently been afforded more attention. The Caribbean is a region characterised by a diverse group of people – forced migrants (slaves) from Africa as well as indentured and voluntary migrants from Europe and Asia. In the twentieth century the migration flow reversed and citizens emigrated in large numbers – overwhelmingly to the colonial motherland. While Britain was notable in its extensive attempts to restrict the volume of migrants, France and the Netherlands welcomed and indeed encouraged migration from the French Antilles and Suriname respectively. This is responsible for rapid demographic and social changes in those nations in the late 1900s which have shaped their population pyramids and urbanisation to this day.

History is also an oft-cited reason for territorial claims, such as those in the South China Sea. While geographical factors are the predominant reason why these islands are desirable, – with an abundance of oil and militarily strategic locations – a lack of clarity as to historical ownership has been used to justify claims. The 1951 Treaty of San Francisco failed to specify the status of the islands which left them open to competing territorial claims. China, following a border dispute with the Soviet Union, laid claim to all of the islands, not wanting Soviet ally North Vietnam to exert control over its coastline. After a minor naval skirmish with North Vietnam, China occupied Johnson reef and used this as a base to further its influence in the region. Today no less than seven nations compete for control over this trade passage worth $3.37 trillion.

Although it is obvious from these examples and countless more that history and geography are almost inseparable, historical geography remains a relatively new field with innumerable unexplored areas of research. Ultimately, it is only through an interdisciplinary approach that we can truly appreciate and understand that which we study. Hopefully, geographers and historians can move beyond their differences and appreciate this in future.

Michael Hendöe