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