‘The colonial past is never dead. It’s not even past’

Matthew G. Stanard (Berry College) on ‘Histories of Empire, Decolonization, and European Cultures after 1945’, in the recent issue of European History Yearbook (open access), addresses the theme of imperial legacies and the persistence of empire in the former imperial metropoles of Europe through the lens of three recent publications.


Elizabeth Buettner, Europe after Empire. Decolonization, Society, and Culture (2016)

It is a timely choice to publish an essay on the topic because there seems to be a generational change. The books in the centre of the article reflect this change, with Bill Schwarz in one group, Elizabeth Buettner in the other, and the volume edited by Kalypso Nikolaïdes, Berny Sèbe, and Gabrielle Maas combining both. The theme treated in Stanard’s essay has been a vibrant field of research over the last quarter of a century, and the study of Empire and its reflection has recently been boosted by an astonishing degree of self-reflective books and articles by some of the foremost practicioners of imperial history. Apart from the book project by Bill Schwarz one could also mention the recently published How Empire shaped us (2016), by Antoinette Burton and Dane Kennedy. Such reflections are about justification as much as they are about securing a legacy, and they indicate that, among other things, the interest in the topic and the paradigms chosen for its analysis have a lot to do with the generational experience of scholars who often had imperial family roots in the empire. This is as true for a defining generation of white male British imperial historians as for those academic and intellectual migrants who articulated their presence in the centre and tried to subvert the dichotomy of colonizer and colonized under the banner of postcolonialism.


Bill Schwarz, Memories of Empire, vol. I: The White Man’s World (2011)

The review of these books is embedded in reflections upon the historiography of Empire since the 1980s, the maximalist-minimalist-debate about the significance of Empire for European societies, and a wealth of avenues for future research. The author has an appropriately broad gaze, and the reader is provided with valuable insights and thought-provoking discussions, as e.g. on the problem of the categories many students employ in the analysis of colonial immigration into European societies.
Stanard highlights some directions for future research. Among them are the need to incorporate other empires and colonization efforts than the British or French prototypes into the analysis, e.g. Spain, the Netherlands, Russia, Japan, or the U.S., South Africa and Australia. Another direction is towards an even greater openness to the complexity of constellations. Decrying inequality, racism, sexism, and brute force happens for good reason, Stanard writes: ‘But there is a risk of prejudging the colonized as victims or the colonizer as prepratator rather than actors with agency – albeit of differing degrees and kinds’ (p. 172).


Kalypso Nicolaides, Berny Sèbe, and Gabrielle Maas (eds.), Echoes of Empire. Memory, Identity, and the Legacy of Imperialism (2015)

A further subject deserving more study is the question how imperialism shaped Europe’s states, not just its cultures. The examples Stanards quotes are effect which the loss of Algeria had on notions of the French Republic and citizenship, or the loss of Empire and the devolution of power to Scotland and Wales and English nationalism. Brexit as spelled out by Theresa May on ‘Global Britain’ on 17 January 2017 would be a most recent example of these echoes of empire reverberating in Europe.




Cite this blog post
Johannes Paulmann (2017, February 6). ‘The colonial past is never dead. It’s not even past’ Europe Across Borders. Retrieved June 15, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/ollz

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