Imperial Apocalypse World War I

Imperial Apocalypse – Response regarding “decolonization”

I too want to begin with more than formulaic thanks to Alison, John Paul, David, and Willard. Alison did a wonderful job of soliciting commentators for this conversation, and (shameless plug #1!) readers should keep an eye out later this summer for a conversation on her own excellent new book, For the Common Good and Their Own Well Being: Social Estates in Imperial Russia. John Paul, David, and Willard were not only kind in their comments but also unusually reflective and probing. Thanks!

Those who have read the previous three posts know that there is a lot of terrific food for thought there. This is the stage in a blog conversation where it would be terrific to get lots of back and forth going, not only among the “panelists,” but the “audience” as well. Readers should feel free to use the comments section to question or hold forth on points briefly or at length. I will be responding to these comments in a series of posts over the next few days rather than writing one long response, as that seems to fit the idea of “conversation” a bit better. Plus, I need time to chew on this “food for thought!”

In this first response, though, I’d like to address some of the questions related to the concept of decolonization, as the use of this term has been one of the most controversial aspects of this project as I have presented parts of it in various venues over the years. Criticisms along this line are certainly valid. As Willard notes, the term is both central to my monograph and yet not fully explored in a theoretical or comparative way. This is an issue, naturally, that I have long been aware of. At a certain point in this project, I had to decide what the fundamental nature of my book was. If my core concern was to make a point about decolonization in its global context, with the Russian war experience as a particularly important case study, then I would need to write a comparative and theoretical text that left out much of the various aspects of the Russian war experience that interested (and still interest) me. If my core project was to describe and interpret the apocalypse of the war years, then I felt I had to have a somewhat lighter comparative and theoretical touch. In the end, I chose the latter, largely for reasons having to do with audience.

To be sure, I would love to be read by the elusive “general reader” (and this species does still exist!) Primarily, though, I had more specific audiences in mind. I wanted to be read by Russianists, of course, and also by their undergraduate and graduate students (shameless plug #2 – OUP agreed to come out with the paperback edition this August (earlier than contracted) so that it could be included on fall syllabi :). But I also attended more than my fair share of very stimulating conferences on World War I in which Russianists were a distinct minority, sometimes a minority of one. These other scholars (and the many general readers who follow their works) were always eager to learn more about the Russian experience, even in its most basic details. They were as aware as anyone that continually citing books written 30, 40, even 80 years ago might be problematic. Indeed, this book landed at Oxford largely because of the eagerness of non-Russianists, Robert Gerwarth in particular, to solicit and promote work that extended beyond the Western Front. So I chose door number two.

What did a “light touch” regarding comparison and theory entail? As part of my research I read accounts of decolonization in Africa and Asia. I also read the news, a more or less constant stimulus over the past ten years for those interested in questions of war, military occupation, state capacity, violence, and economic collapse. The answer to David’s question about where I got my four-part schema for decolonization (imperial challenge, state failure, social collapse, state-building) is thus that I got it not from Platonov but from inducing it from other spots: Angola, Chad, Pakistan (and Iraq and Afghanistan). The key to this schema – one that I believe applies to other decolonizing processes too – is that we have to take the question of state function as central to decolonization rather than, say, putting the acquisition of national “consciousness” in that central spot. Other specific notions about decolonizing processes (such as the importance of a “moment” of decolonization that allows for various imperial challengers and imperial states to interact within a decolonizing framework) come from Frederick Cooper, Prasenjit Duara, and others. I do regret that these engagements occur largely as citations rather than extended analysis in the text, but either that wasn’t possible given my other goals for the narrative or I am not a talented enough writer to have figured out how to do it.

Finally (at least for now), there is the important question raised both by David and Willard about whether stretching decolonization to cover the corpse of the Russian Empire leaves the term so frayed and weakened that it can no longer do useful work. Perhaps. But if this is so, then the stretching occurred well before my intervention. Any term used to describe the end of empire throughout the wildly various former British colonies, not even to mention all of the European holdings in Africa and Asia, has already been stretched very thin, thin enough in my view to easily encompass the imperial detritus of the First World War. But I actually think that these broad terms actually do perform useful work, even though they are difficult to precisely pin down (the term “empire,” for instance, is subject to the same criticism). As my reference to decolonizing “moments” suggests, the precise details of colonial settlement patterns or of institutional forms of governance could sometimes be transcended and people could see themselves as participants in a global movement, a not insignificant development, either in the wake of World War I or of World War II. In short, my aim in using decolonization as my framework was not so much to define or redefine that term but to encourage readers to shift the frame in which they considered these terrible, but also world-defining, events. John Paul is right, in my view. The war was really an ur-event, not simply pure catastrophe. Apocalypse brings violent destruction, of course, but it also creates the conditions for the new world that is born.

By Joshua Sanborn

David M. '70 and Linda Roth Professor of History
Department of History
Lafayette College (Pennsylvania, USA)

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