Review of Thomas, M., Moore, B, and Butler, L. J., "The Crises of Empire: Decolonization and Europe's Imperial Nation States, 1918-1975", by Marc Becker for H-LatAm

Martin Thomas, Bob Moore, L. J. Butler. The Crises of Empire:
Decolonization and Europe's Imperial Nation States, 1918-1975. London
Hodder Education, 2008. xiii + 457 pp. $39.95 (paper), ISBN

Reviewed by Marc Becker (Truman State University)
Published on H-LatAm (November, 2010)
Commissioned by Dennis R. Hidalgo

Anti-Colonialism and Eurocentrism Redux: Where Is the Global South?

In the preface to his 1961 manifesto "I Speak of Freedom", Ghanaian
independence leader Kwame Nkrumah argued that it was important for
Africans to study the example of South America as they struggled for
their independence. In contrast, rather than looking to the global
South, in "Crises of Empire" authors Martin Thomas, Bob Moore, and L. J
Butler turn to Europe's metropolitan core to understand third world
decolonization efforts between the end of the First World War and 1975.
The result is a lengthy and dense text that communicates more about
Europe's internal politics than emerging developments in the colonial

The purpose of "Crises of Empire" is to help students understand
twentieth-century decolonization efforts in Europe. The authors note
that most of the existing studies focus on the British, and their stated
goal is to bring in the French and Dutch examples as well as reflections
from the Portuguese and Belgian empires. They note that "decolonization"
was an academic rather than a policy term, but that this is a useful
concept for understanding these developments.

The book begins with a discussion of Britain's colonial empire. The
cost of defending the empire during the Second World War, this book
argues, was the empire itself. After the war, the British left India
largely unscathed--this did not lead them to reassess their colonial
project. In Africa, conservatives attempted to manage Ghanaian
independence. Rhodesian decolonization, however, became the most
difficult issue as it challenged British commitment to multiracial
societies. The authors note that the 1982 invasion of the Islas Malvinas
(Falkland Islands) indicated that Britain's lingering imperial impulses
had still not disappeared.

The second section examines the French empire, and its contradictions
between liberal ideals and its colonial project. The French fictitiously
cast their possessions as overseas territories rather than colonies.
Notably, even French leftists tended to be in favor of the empire.
Colonial reforms were designed to consolidate and rationalize imperial
rule. Perhaps the most famous French colony in the twentieth century was
Algeria, which France governed as a department rather than a colony. The
brutal Algerian independence war provides for one of the best
discussions in the book.

The final section positions the Dutch decolonization process in terms
of its inward looking attitude and reliance on the British during the
Second World War. After the war, the Dutch were desperate to regain
colonial control over Indonesia rather than give in to nationalist
demands. The Dutch, however, underestimated nationalist impulses, pushed
their case too far, and in the process lost opportunities to regain
their colonial control. In New Guinea, the Dutch attempted to hold on to
a colony with little economic value. The United States and Australia
supported the Dutch colonial overlords against a perceived communist
threat even as the colony became a liability. Despite its rhetoric, both
here and elsewhere, the United States preferred a continuation of
colonial empires to the threat of communism under an independent
country. The Dutch decolonization process remains incomplete, with the
last vestiges of its colonial empire still present in the Caribbean.

Rather than a comparative study, "Crises of Empire" is really three
separate books with individual sections authored by each contributor:
Butler on the British, Thomas on the French, and Moore on the Dutch.
Thomas contributes a final chapter on Belgian and Portuguese Africa in
which he notes that these histories were much more bloody and chaotic
than the other decolonization models. But even this chapter extends the
discussion rather than highlighting key comparative themes across the
various case studies. The introduction briefly mentions dependency and
modernization theories, but the volume largely lacks unifying themes or
factors that the authors consciously pull as a central thread throughout
the book. While not a truly coauthored work, it does have the
significant advantage of drawing on the strong expertise of multiple
scholars and the unique insights they bring to the material.

My biggest concern with this volume, however, is the perspective that
it brings to the issue of decolonization. The discussions are largely
contextualized in terms of domestic power struggles in Europe and
international cold war concerns, and we learn more about European power
politics than independence movements in the colonies. While the book
includes extended discussions of parliamentary debates in Europe, few
colonial voices emerge in the conversation. This is unfortunate, because
the authors are aware of significant variations between the colonies and
acknowledge in the introduction that those variations were vital factors
in determining the different outcomes. A more serious engagement of what
these developments look like from the point of the view of the colony
rather than the empire would have significantly contributed to
understanding these variations.

The final chapter on Belgian and Portuguese Africa is partially framed
in terms of a cold war context and U.S. fear of Soviet-friendly states
emerging in the region. The chapter, as well as the rest of the book,
contains little discussion of how Nkrumah as well as other nationalist
leaders, such as Patrice Lumumba and Amílcar Cabral, were moving toward
socialism as a way to lead Africa forward and keep their multiethnic
societies from collapsing into fratricidal chaos. Thomas briefly
mentions Cuban military support in the Congo and Angola, but significant
South-South alliances receive little exploration. These alliances
undeniably placed strong pressure on Europe's moves toward
decolonization, and are worthy of another book.

The question of sources is also of concern. As is typical of books
designed to be used as texts, _Crises of Empire_ draws principally on
secondary material, with relatively few primary sources or archival
investigations being brought into the study. Unfortunately, the sources
are also overwhelmingly European in their focus. Although the colonial
world contributed a significant intellectual production during the
twentieth century, the authors have largely silenced these voices in
this work.

The book might also have been strengthened with a broader historical
framework, curiously missing, with some exceptions, in a volume penned
by historians. Although the focus of this volume is on the twentieth
century, as Nkrumah noted, these developments can be contextualized in
terms of the collapse of Iberian empires at the beginning of the
previous century. Perhaps more curious is a failure to mention the
Haitian Revolution waged against the French, given that the French are a
major case study in the current volume under review.

Furthermore, in terms of the authors' historical interpretations, they
seem to assume that the process of decolonization must have turned out
the way it did, with little interrogation of how the decisions of
various actors influenced these outcomes or what other possible outcomes
or models might have developed. Examining this history from the
perspective of the global South, situated in the context of successful
liberatory struggles in Latin America, casts this history in a different
light. Finally, while the authors present this volume as a text for
students, it does assume a certain amount of background knowledge.
Rather than an introductory text, it works best for its detailed and
in-depth discussions of internal political discussions in Europe and how
those impulses contributed to twentieth-century decolonization

Citation: Marc Becker. Review of Thomas, Martin; Moore, Bob; Butler, L.
J., "The Crises of Empire: Decolonization and Europe's Imperial Nation
States, 1918-1975". H-LatAm, H-Net Reviews. November, 2010. URL:
https://www.h ( https://www.h/)