Rethinking the History and Value of Empires

Budapest, like London, offers both the appeal of a one-time imperial capital and the opportunity for reflection on the continued value of the empires in question and of empire in general. Now let us stop for a minute and appreciate that this approach is scarcely one that is acceptable to many commentators. To consider empire on its merits, let alone to find reasons for praise, flies in the face of dominant themes in public life. Moreover, to do so means that you will be accused of misplaced nostalgia at best and more commonly of being a reactionary or a racist. These are charges that lead to career death in the worlds of academe and the media today.

Thus, discussing empire is not simply a matter of objective assessment but also an aspect of the culture wars that are so important to the modern politics of identity. Moreover, this is the case pretty well everywhere, as most countries are one-time empires, as with Britain and Hungary, or remain empires, as with China and Russia, or have experienced imperial rule.

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The discussion of empire is generally today part of a standard anti-Western “discourse”, one that was honed by the Left before, but even more during, the Cold War from 1945 to 1989, and that is painted thickly onto the British past and the American present. From those original sins of empire comes the use of imperialism as a standard critique of “the West”, past, present and future.

This approach needs unpicking if we are to understand the past of a range of states, including Britain, Hungary and, indeed, Australia, which has been accused of being an empire in the South-West Pacific. Moreover, the use of empire as a building-block in the Left’s dominance of culture wars also requires attention.

We could start with the past—most historians would, and feel that they should; but let us begin with two episodes in 2019, both in Britain’s former empire, one in Hong Kong, the other in Indian-ruled Kashmir. The first, and most striking, was to see brave Hong Kong demonstrators, who in part remind me of the Hungarian patriots of 1956, referring positively to British rule, and even using the Union Jack as an insignia. That, indeed, helps underlie the anger and concern of the Chinese authorities.

There was a different imperial echo, one that was not brought out, in Kashmir. The authoritarian policy and brutal means of the Indian government and military towards the Muslims in Indian Kashmir were such as to conform to the worst stereotypes of imperial rule. So, earlier, was the brutality shown towards Sikhs in 1984. Yet, left-wing Western intellectuals prefer to emphasise the historical iniquities of Western empires rather than the current situation. The brutal British response to a Sikh demonstration at Amritsar in 1919 instead continues to attract considerable attention. In part, this may ironically be because it was atypical of British imperial rule; whereas the use of violence is more common in modern Indian “civil control”. Those apt to focus on 1919 do not like to address the widespread violence towards Sikhs in 1984. Nor do they like to consider the question of comparative “civil control” as a whole.

So also with the Austro-Hungarian empire. Violence was rarely on display in the government of what is now the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Croatia and southern Poland. Indeed, the Russian use of considerable violence in Russian Poland, as in 1794, 1831 and 1863, was not matched by the Austro-Hungarians.

This perspective can further be reassessed by considering the earlier “imperial” policy of dynasties, such as those that ruled in England and Hungary for portions of what are now called the Middle Ages, which, in practice, is a singularly unfitting term to describe the variety, length and richness of the centuries from about 400 to about 1500. In each case, it is the ability of dynasties to advance and sustain claims to status and territory that is of interest, because this leads to the suggestion that, far from being atypical or, indeed, a pathology of Western power in recent centuries and even the present, the nature of empire is much more deeply rooted. Moreover, the normative background was of power and authority being linked, and each reliant on scale.

A similar point about anachronistic judgments can be made about slavery. In practice, coercive labour systems have persisted for most and probably all of human history, just as they are now very much on display in dictatorial states such as North Korea.

In the case of empire, Hungarian rulers extended their power to the Adriatic and into the Balkans, while dynastic links included those with Naples in the later Middle Ages. England was created as a state in the tenth century as a result of the conquests of the House of Wessex, and then sought imperial status in Britain as a whole.

There was scant sense that such power should be limited by the modern equivalent of democratic self-determination by readily identifiable peoples. That idea was advanced by opponents of imperial power, or, at least, given to them by historians and other commentators. Thus, the Picts (successfully) and Jews (unsuccessfully) were given such a stance with reference to ancient Rome, while Flemings, Swiss and Scots were provided with the same for resistance in the fourteenth century to the French, Habsburgs and English respectively.

The empires of antiquity, however, were regarded not inherently as a source of iniquity. Instead, there was a complex interaction with the idea and practice of empire, one, indeed, that has lasted to the present. This interaction in part reflected the extent to which authority was not a matter of an optional pathway in some sort of utilitarian vision of best-practice government, but rather a matter of identity and, in a providential and quasi-sacral fashion, of identity through time. Thus, the empires of antiquity offered a religious sense of total explanation. That of Rome, whether republican or, from Augustus, monarchical, was key to the Western tradition of empire, and this positive account was further enhanced when Constantine was responsible for the introduction of Christianity as the official religion. So also in China, Japan, or with the sacral character of rulership more generally.

In the West, the legacy of Rome drowned out the alternative anti-imperial one that came in large part from ancient Greece. Opposition to imperial Persia as a tyrannical “other” in the fifth century BC in turn became opposition, most obviously with Demosthenes, to Philip of Macedon. Yet, once conquered from 338 BC, the Greeks were to find, first under Macedon but more lastingly under Rome, that being imperial subjects brought benefits.

Moreover, Athens itself had earlier become an empire after the defeat of Persia. Prefiguring the extent to which modern states that owe their identity narratives to anti-imperialism, such as Egypt, India and Indonesia, have all, from the outset, become imperial in their attitudes and policies toward neighbours and subjects, Athens had done the same in the fifth century BC.

This legacy was the one that affected rulers and elites in states such as England and Hungary as they pursued their ambitions across the centuries, whether the Middle Ages or later. Empire appeared normative. It had the weight of history behind it and the aura of prestige. The iconography of kingship looked back to Rome. The most successful of the “Barbarians” had himself crowned Emperor by the Pope in Rome in 800. Napoleon was to echo this in 1804, although with a different format. That is a continuity that puts modern values into a more limited chronological context.

Moreover, the choice repeatedly, across history and area, was not that of cruel empire versus pleasant, benign, self-governing peoples, but rather of empire versus empire. Hungary was a player in a great-power environment defined by empires to the west (the Holy Roman Empire) and the south-east (Byzantium, Bulgaria, the Ottomans), with other imperial forces intruding, as with the Mongols in 1241 or Napoleon in the 1800s. England was an empire by the late tenth century, only to be conquered or absorbed by those of Cnut, the Normans and the Angevins, and threatened, invaded or would-be invaded across its subsequent history by French, Spanish and German empires. And so elsewhere, whether in East, South and South-West Asia, North Africa, sub-Saharan Africa, Mesoamerica, the Andean chain, or Oceania.

This approach to global history is one that has to be recovered from the presentist tendency to focus on empire as a Western cause, condition and pathology. Antiquity might appear to be a jumble of names and dates, but the last three centuries provide more readily graspable points. Alongside European empires came those of China, Mughal India and Ottoman Turkey, and also far-flung imperial-style states such as that of Nadir Shah of Persia who conquered Delhi in 1741, or the Afghans who at various times in the eighteenth century also conquered modern Iran, Pakistan and north-west India.

In the nineteenth century, local empires replaced those of Europe in the Americas. This was formally so in the case of Brazil, which had a ruling imperial dynasty, and informally so in that of the United States which was determined to rule from “coast to coast” and became a form of federal empire with an elected monarch on the pattern of the Dutch stadtholders and the elected rulers of Venice, Genoa and Poland.

In Washington, as in London, Rio de Janeiro and Budapest, members of the elite looked back to the example of Rome, which was a recovered memory through the texts they were taught at school and university. These texts brought forward the idea of an elite to be both social and political. That elite was seen not as an exploitative force but as a civilisational one extending benefits to others. That was the logic underlying the self-image of both the British and Austro-Hungarian empires, but also more generally. It encompassed Han China and ancient Rome, but also less benign empires, notably the Soviet Union.

Should mention of the last bring us to a stop, by discrediting the idea of empire? The Soviet empire was certainly malign, like in some respects its Nazi counterpart. That tells us not that empire itself is inherently malign, but, rather, that, like every system of government, there are good and bad exemplars. St Augustine’s comparison, in The City of God, of Alexander the Great with a band of brigands is pertinent here. It can be made for all governmental systems. Most obviously, our own fondness for democracy can ignore the problems with the demos. Moreover, the manner in which minority groups, such as Copts and Jews, have been treated in post-imperial states serves as a reminder that empires were often (but not always) better in this respect, not least because they were inherently polyglot rather than the monoglot of national self-determination. Again, the Austro-Hungarian and British empires of the late nineteenth century deserve much praise on that score.

Another modern echo of empire is provided by suggestions that the European Union is a form of empire. Indeed, from very different perspectives, that observation has been made in recent years. It raises questions about the process of defining empire, as well as concerning the existing range of definitions, and the extent to which definitions should change with time. There is also, and this is pertinent for both Britain and Hungary, the question of how far opposition to the demands of the EU can apply an anti-imperial rhetoric. These points may appear tangential at present, but the issues of the present become the history considered in the future, and so also with the discussion and assessment of empire.

The inherently controversial nature of the EU further clarifies the difficulty of assessing how best to handle the debate over empire. The suggestion here is that the obloquy attached to some past empires, notably those of Britain and Austria-Hungary, appears less grounded, once a fuller range of empire, past, present and future, is considered. Such a range leads to the conclusion that, far from being a political pathology, there is no “ur” or fundamental identity of empire. As a consequence, each empire should be judged on its merits. This poses difficulties as it involves work as opposed to the lazy habit of arguing from a definition. As such, empire moves from being an easy label in culture wars and becomes, instead, as it should be, a complex phenomenon central to much of the history of government.

Jeremy Black, Professor of History at the University of Exeter, is the author of many books including Imperial Legacies: The British Empire Around the World, published by Encounter Books last April

10 thoughts on “Rethinking the History and Value of Empires

  • Bwana Neusi says:

    Having plowed through the pomposity of speech that strangled this article, I found it wanting.

    The British Empire of which Australia was part benefited greatly from the “Imposition” of British governance and rule of law. I have seen first hand the decay of colonies that achieved their freedom from the shackles and yoke of British imperialism.
    Has this learned professor actually been on the ground to see the reversion of civilised colonies to third world status in less than half a century.
    I thought the article was going to discuss the relative benefits of a western empire when compared to say the Muslim Caliphate

  • Doubting Thomas says:

    I certainly found no such .strangulation” in the article, perhaps because I did not have any preconceived idea of what I “thought the article was going to discuss”. In fact, I thought it quite neatly achieved the aim set out in the introductory paragraph, ie inter alia, “(T)o consider empire on its merits…”. Professor Black’s last sentence summed his point up perfectly.

  • Stephen Due says:

    A large and complex topic. I think modern academic and social discourse needs to be understood in terms of identity politics and progressive ideology. In addition, discourse around empire tends to focus on the empires of the West, rather than the East, which suggests it is being used primarily as a source of anti-Western rhetoric. One result of these factors is that discussion about empire tends to be anachronistic i.e, it imposes on the past viewpoints and value systems that are popular today but irrelevant in historical context.
    It is important to remember when discussing Australian history that Australia was part of the British Empire for a long time. This includes the entire nineteenth century, which was a period of enormous social, technological, scientific and industrial change. For several generations, immigrants to Australia from the UK during that period provided the entire professional workforce. What are now the Australian states were called colonies. Furthermore, the immigrants regarded themselves as colonists and were proud of being part of a great empire. To write all this off, as if it was all a big mistake, is to show contempt for the past and for the people who made our nation what it is today. Perhaps if the last few generations had been more like the colonists, Australia would actually be a much better place now. I’m not asserting this, but it is not an impossible conclusion based on an objective assessment. Certainly, disrespect for past generations, combined with an inflated opinion of ourselves, is a bad recipe all round, and particularly bad when applied to the study of history.

  • Doubting Thomas says:

    Couldn’t agree more. Anachronistic thinking is a scourge that, in academic historians and journalists, out to be a sacking offence.

  • Stephen Due says:

    Bruce Gilley, an academic at Portland, Oregon, published an interesting article on this topic in the peer-reviewed journal Third World Quarterly in 2017. His title was ‘The Case for Colonialism’. The resulting backlash (which the reader can well imagine) caused the author to be investigated over a period of four months by the university’s diversity office, and forced him to employ a lawyer to defend himself. He voluntarily retracted the article after the journal editor received credible death threats.
    An interesting related topic is decolonization. The history of decolonization has not been an entirely happy one. In many cases, it might be argued the cure was worse than the disease, though driven by an ideology still hallowed in the majority academic literature. Professor Gilley, who is a political scientist, went so far as to suggest that some form of recolonization might be fruitful in some situations today.
    Anyone wishing to read the retracted article can find it, along with his more recent publications, on his website. There’s a link to his website on his page at Portland State University online.

  • PT says:

    I largely agree with Stephen. In Australia’s case, I get annoyed with the attempt to reinvent the past: how we “chafed under the colonial shackles”; and how hard done by we were, and Eureka Stockade and all that (they push Eureka because it’s the only episode apart from a farcical declaration of an “Empire” by a handful of convicts that comes anywhere near this claim. The truth is we gloried in the Empire. I get that. Why is it so hard to understand? And the “glorying in the Empire” isn’t why aboriginals were treated the way they were either. Americans gloried in breaking from the Empire in the 19th Century, but were the Amerindians treated better in that time?
    I often think Mahartia Mohammed’s criticism of Australia (at least our self appointed opinion makers) is valid. He wrote us off saying that when Britain was the richest and most powerful state we called ourselves British; when America dominated, we wanted to be associated with the US, and now Asia was the place to be (this was before the Asian crash) we call ourselves Asian! A neat description of the Keating/Fitzgibbon/“with it journo” view of the world! Personally I think much of this is that we long for the invincible Empire to make us feel secure and valid.

  • Doubting Thomas says:

    I was in the then TPNG in 1963 when representatives of the UN Trusteeship Council toured the territory urging Australia to speed up the “self-government” process. They recommended that Australia redirect its expenditure from the then heavy emphasis on education to public infrastructure projects. Like good little vassals of the nascent World Government, Australia complied. One immediate effect of the sudden reduction in education funding was that chalk and other teaching materials became almost unobtainable.
    Some few few years later after a career change, I was duty air traffic controller at RAAF Richmond late one evening when Gough and Mrs Whitlam arrived from Port Moresby in their VIP aircraft. Gough, then leader of the Opposition, had a few days earlier made his infamous statement during his visit to TPNG that when elected to Government he would immediately grant PNG not self-government but full independence. Needless to say, this extremely controversial statement attracted the enthusiastic attention of the media, and all the media outlets sent teams of TV, radio and print journalists to Richmond in the hope of interviewing the great man. The base air terminal was packed with a rowdy crowd.
    Not being quite prepared or willing to face the music, Mr Whitlam somehow let it be known to the base hierarchy that he wished to be spared the experience, so we were directed to park his aircraft down on the far western tarmac adjacent to the control tower. From there his party were met by the Base Commander and whisked off to the Officers Mess where they were entertained, at the officers’ expense, while the howling hordes of the media were sent packing. When that had been achieved, he was sneaked in his official car out the back gate and driven home. A truly courageous and admirable man was Mr Whitlam, as was later confirmed by his brave decision to expressly forbid the RAAF to rescue the loyal locally employed Vietnamese staff of the Australian Embassy in Saigon, condemning them to years of “re-education” or worse.
    As anyone visiting PNG these days will attest, the decolonisation of that lovely country has not been a resounding success.

  • Bwana Neusi says:

    Doubting Thomas – A bit disappointing to see intellect signalling (paradigm from virtue signalling) creeping into the discussion.
    If the article was to discuss the merits of the Empire, I would have expected, not only the Pros and Cons, but a comparison to other forms of government.
    You are probably right when you say that the article did not tell me what I expected. But there are many forms of an Empire, not least the CPC and the USSR and the Caliphate.
    Whilst I note your experience in TPNG, mine was in the various African arenas, where British, French and German Empires gave way to Uhuru and other Freedoms of independence.
    In Guinea for example, a French colony, where independence was given in 1959, Siguiri the regional centre with a population of 70,000+ no longer had any electricity, water or sewage systems that had been operational when the French departed. An old man stated that whilst this independence was OK, when he asked were we going to go back to the old ways.

  • Doubting Thomas says:

    BN, early in my time in TPNG, I was in Rabaul, New Britain for six months, and could happily have stayed there forever, volcanoes or not . Sadly, it was not to be.
    Rabaul had been the German Administration Headquarters until they lost their Pacific territories in World War I, and there were native people still alive in the early 1960s who still remembered the Germans with great respect if not fondly. The Germans treated the natives firmly, but not harshly. We were told that they required native landholders to meet certain targets each year in terms of primary production, eg plant so many hectares with coconut, coffee or cacao. New Ireland had an all-weather road built of coral rock which ran the entire length of the island. It was built in stages by native labour again, I understand, as targets to be met by local native landowners. The Germans bought their produce and exported it. The end result was that those landowners became relatively very wealthy.
    The Australians tended more to purchase or otherwise obtain plantations and manage them using native indentured labour. (Many of the Australian labour recruiters joined the ANGAU – the Australian New Guinea Administrative Unit – during World War II, where they did for the military what they had previously done for the planters, ie recruit labour, eg Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels among others. After the war, quite a number of those people benefitted from Soldier Settlers legislation and became planters themselves.)
    Having their own plantations, the Tolai people of the Rabaul area did not willingly work as plantation labourers, so people from other parts of New Guinea were imported. This led to cultural conflicts that culminated in vicious inter-tribal warfare in Rabaul in 1962, ostensibly started when a highlander sexually assaulted or otherwise mistreated a Tolai woman. This fighting went on for weeks in and around Rabaul. It was said that a European living in Rabaul could walk through the middle of this seething mass of fighting humanity, emerging unscathed. Unless they were police, when both sides would combine against them.
    I think that the New Guinea peoples, at least in the coastal regions, benefitted more from their German colonial masters than they did from ours. Some 20 years or more after the end of World War II, when self-government was eventually granted there is no way that the people had been adequately prepared, and by the time I left in 1967 it was very hard to believe they would be truly prepared in the foreseeable future. Multi-tribal societies probably never will be prepared for democracy as we understand it.

  • Geoffrey Luck says:

    Doubting Thomas: It was most interesting to read your account of the Whitlam arrogance as displayed at Richmond RAAF base, but that was indeed merely a sequel to the main story. As the ABC’s News Editor, PNG, I was present, along with other journalists – Steve Stevens of the South Pacific Post, Dick Myerscough of AAP Reuters and freelancer Don Hogg – at the Pt Moresby dinner, organised by the local Apex Club (of which I was also a member) to hear Whitlam’s views on the future of PNG, as the end of his tour of the Territory. (He had already created mayhem in Rabaul with his endorsement of the revolutionary Mataungan Society).
    Pt Moresby citizens were nervous. Every year came more insistent demands for independence from the UN Trusteeship Committee, and the ALP was an unknown quantity, should it attain government. With the pudding served, Whitlam took to the microphone. “Are there any journalists in the room?” he asked, “and if so please stand up.” Then: “What I am going to say cannot be reported; if you are not willing to accept that, I am not going to say it.” You can imagine the pressure on the four of us as 400 pairs of eyes conveyed the answer we must give. Then the Great Man delivered his electrifying promise of immediate independence for PNG when Labor gained power. Typical of his arrogance in spitting the eyes of Territorians who had been gracious hosts on his visit, despite their political suspicions. And what we didn’t know then was that it was also a calculated smack at his leader, whom he despised as intellectuallly bereft. It is the one great regret of my journalistic career that I held to my (enforced) promise and did not report Whitlam’s remarks. Apparently someone else did. With a little more experience and knowledge of casuistry perhaps I could and should have filed! I am grateful to DT for filling in details of the aftermath, which I had never known.

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