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Book Review


Jan C. Jansen and Jürgen Osterhammel, Decolonization: A Short History. Translated by Jeremiah Riemer. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2017. Pp. xi + 252. Bibliography and Index. $27.95 (cloth).


     In recent years, scholars have given the historical study of decolonization a new lease of life. As a consequence, an ever increasing number of articles and books in multiple languages have been added to the historiography of the field. The work under review is part of this growing scholarly literature. Originally published in German in 2013, the book is not a case study of any particular decolonization. Rather, it offers a survey of the dissolution of empires in the post-1945 era and reflects on the legacies of such a development. Indeed, Jan C. Jansen and Jürgen Osterhammel want to "provide a concise and comparative interpretation of decolonization that inserts this dramatic process of global change into the wider history of the twentieth century" (viii).  Thus from the outset, the authors make it clear that theirs is more an analytical rather than a narrative essay.

     Of the book's seven chapters, the first two are arguably the most analytically useful since they offer the key conceptual tools and historiographical contexts needed to tackle the problem of decolonization. We learn that decolonization may be posited as "the disappearance of empire as a political form, and the end of racial hierarchy as a widely accepted political ideology and structuring principle of world order" (1). By delegitimizing colonial subjugation, decolonization not only sped up imperial breakups, but it also fostered the creation of nation-states worldwide and sanctified both national sovereignty and later human rights as fundamental principles of international relations (1–2, 6–9). But decolonization was not just a political process. It also involved other spheres, including the economic, cultural, and memorial, which collectively and interactively transformed the world. To understand this epochal transformation, the authors pragmatically suggest that the study of decolonization be approached through three broad perspectives: the imperial, the local, and the international (22–25).

     Jansen and Osterhammel also demarcate decolonization's temporal frame. While they are adamant that the three decades after the Second World War constitute the core era of decolonization, the two historians nonetheless emphasize that one has to trace the process of the dissolution of colonial empires to the First World War and the new deal of nationalisms that the Great War begot (35–53). Revealingly, we learn here that V. I. Lenin and the Bolsheviks anticipated US President Woodrow Wilson's idea of "self-determination" by a few years, even if in the end it was Wilson's name that came to be associated with the notion (39-40).This idea later came to play an important role in the drive to independence in many corners of the colonial world. Despite this, the authors maintain that the so-called "Wilsonian moment" should not overshadow the fact that the Second World War "acted as a catalyst for different developments from the interwar period," including the rise of anticolonial activism across imperial domains and the globalization of the ideal of self-determination (68). And when the United States and the Soviet Union emerged as the new superpowers in the aftermath of that war, it was clear that a new world order, presumably an international order where colonial imperialism was frowned upon and national sovereignty was rewarded, was in the making.

     Chapter Three details how sovereignty was achieved in various regional contexts. The most narrative chapter, it follows a chronological approach, starting with South Asia in the immediate aftermath of the war and ending with the "late decolonization" sagas of 1990s. Of importance in this chapter is the authors' notion of "domino effects," that is, the idea that "what happened in one part of an empire could not remain without consequences in its other parts." To be sure, this demonstrated that "[e]ach of the individual empires also constituted an interactive field of forces" (72). A good illustration of this point, even though not discussed in the book, is the interaction between the independence war in Vietnam and nationalist agitations in French West Africa. Going beyond intra-imperial interactions, one could also mention the transnational impact of the independence of the British Gold Coast (Ghana) on African students in France, many of whom took inspiration from the writings of Kwame Nkrumah to seek independence for the French colonies in Africa.

     The remaining chapters are more thematically focused. Chapter Four deals with the economic aspects of decolonization. This is a refreshing synthesis of the historiography that has been called the "business of decolonization." One of the major conclusions that Jansen and Osterhammel reach is that only in situations of confusion did business interests play a role in the process of decolonization. Otherwise, "European governments' major decisions about decolonization were made without any ultimate decisive influence from organized business interests" (132). Moreover, and perhaps with the exception of the agricultural sector, foreign companies and businesses involved in the colonial economy successfully adapted to the "changing circumstances" of imperial dissolution (136).

     Chapter Five, which explores how "World Politics" interacted with decolonization, opens with a useful distinction between the East-West conflict and the North-South conflict. For the two historians, this analytical distinction allows us to "disentangle the dynamic complexities of an age when international relations could no longer be described merely in terms of war and peace between great powers and their empires" (139). In fact, they situate the sagas of decolonization "at the intersection of the East-West conflict and the North-South antagonism." In that, decolonization was "always embedded in a two dimensional matrix" (144). And this was more often than not a two-way street: if "world politics" impacted the very process of decolonization, the "imprint decolonization left on the normative foundations of the international order quickly developed a life on its own" (155).  This is quite an intriguing discussion, although it would have been more convincing to see the agency of the (ex-)colonial subjects at work in this process at international fora.

     However, the agency (of at least some colonial subjects) is readily visible in Chapter Six, where Jansen and Osterhammel tackle decolonization in the realm of ideas and culture. Indeed, their review of the intellectual contributions of Mohandas K. Gandhi, Aimé Césaire, Léopold S. Senghor, Frantz Fanon, Albert Memmi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Ho Chi Minh, and many others suggests that political decolonization was certainly in dialogue with an intellectual project of deconstructing and unthinking colonialism. In their work of unmasking colonialism, these writers and intellectuals collectively demonstrated that violence and racism, as evil twins of colonialism, were constitutive of the age of empire. In this view, "racism and violence no longer appeared as the misdemeanor acts of some individuals (as metropolitan politicians persistently claimed) but instead articulated an inherent feature of colonialism as a system of rule" (164). At the same time, these critical thinkers understood that the "colonial situation" transformed both the colonial subjects and the metropolitan citizens. No wonder that these anti-colonial thinkers have become canonical in the field of postcolonial studies.

     The last chapter of the book deals with the issue of legacies and memories of decolonization. It demonstrates that while decolonization began almost a century ago in some ways, "remnants of colonialism" are still visible in many "postcolonial" societies today. The chapter also emphasizes that the legacies of decolonization were similarly felt in the metropoles. The memories of the various decolonization migrations in Europe (for instance, the "repatriation" of former settlers in France) are an excellent illustration of this point. More generally, Jansen and Osterhammel hit home when they argue that "decolonization amounted to more than its obvious outcome—the serial production of sovereignty for one nation-state after another" (172). For this reason, any meaningful study of decolonization must explore the customary transfer of political power alongside with "more protracted processes of transformation in different spheres, such as international or local politics, the economy, and culture." This is so because these processes "followed different temporalities; some of them only materialized at a slow pace, gradually, or after intervals and intermissions" (172–73).

     Overall, Jansen and Osterhammel's Decolonization is a very good survey of the subject of the end of colonial imperialism. In line with a multifaceted historiography, it encourages us to move beyond political histories of decolonization without downplaying the importance of politics. This should not come as a surprise for an insightful work that operates an analytical distinction between political, economic, and cultural decolonizations. Yet the book has a few issues. The first involves the problem of mislabeling Sub-Saharan Africa as "Southern Africa." This can be confusing as most people readily associate the term with the southern region of the continent. Moreover, the book requires some prior knowledge of the cases that the authors have synthesized. In this regard, it may be more appropriate for advanced undergraduate or graduate students seeking an overview of the field as a whole. Furthermore, the analysis may seem at times Western-centric, especially in the sections dealing with world politics and the Cold War. Finally, in terms of pedagogical value, the book will be a wonderful resource for teachers themselves who instead might find Todd Shepard's Voices of Decolonization: A Brief History with Documents more useful as textbook in the classroom.1

Abou B. Bamba is Associate Professor of History and Africana Studies at Gettysburg College. His research interests include the post-1945 history of development and modernization, French migration to Africa, and decolonization. He is the author of African Miracle, African Mirage: Transnational Politics and the Paradox of Modernization in Ivory Coast, which was published by Ohio University Press in November 2016. You may contact him at You can also follow him on twitter at @bambaab1.



1 Todd Shepard, Voices of Decolonization: A Brief History with Documents (Boston: Bedford / St. Martins, 2015).



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