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Book Review


Daniel Brückenhaus, Policing Transnational Protest: Liberal Imperialism and the Surveillance of Anticolonialists in Europe, 1905–1945. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017. Pp. xi + 300. Bibliography and Index. $74.00 (cloth).


     In David Downing's four Jack McColl novels, the British intelligence agent McColl and the Irish-American socialist-feminist journalist Caitlin Hanley pursue each other as well as their conflicting callings from the eve of the First World War to the end of the Russian civil war.  We trail the two lovers from China to the United States and Mexico, Britain and Ireland, Belgium and Germany, India, Egypt, Mesopotamia, Persia, and Russia.  Along the way, a large cast of historical and fictional characters supports Downing's globalized version of the spy thriller first fashioned in W. Somerset Maugham's Ashenden stories and John Buchan's Richard Hannay novels during the world war.  Not just McColl's German counterparts but Chinese, Indian, Irish, and Russian characters on all sides of the political and imperial divides emerge as protagonists in this world in upheaval.

     It turns out that history can be even more fascinating than literature.  In an elegantly plotted study full of intriguing figures, Policing Transnational Protest, Daniel Brückenhaus explores the interplay of the guardians and challengers of European imperial world order from the first great wave of colonial unrest around 1905 to the liminal moment of 1945, when, after the defeat of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, the Fifth Pan-African Congress in Manchester, England signaled the renewal of anticolonial struggle.  His research took him deep into British, French, German, and Indian archives.  What he found there has allowed him to write a strikingly transimperial and transnational history that connects not one empire and its anticolonial opposition but several states and movements.  While the British and French empires held together throughout the period covered by Brückenhaus, radical regime changes took place in Russia in 1917 and Germany in 1918 and 1933.  The impact of the dissolution or transformation of the Russian and German empires and the new courses set by their successor states reverberated across anticolonial politics as well as global power balances.  The resulting narrative recounts the thrust-and-parry of anticolonial activists and procolonial officials surveilling them, the swordplay among rivals in the British, French, and German intelligence and security services, and the darts thrown by both right-wing and left-wing politicians, journalists, and activists when shadowy forms of cooperation between European governments became visible and controversial.

     Following an Introduction that puts forward the notion of a "feedback cycle" (2) governing the spread of this contest in Europe itself, Policing Transnational Protest is divided into six chapters and an Epilogue and Conclusion.  Chapter One tracks the shift of Indian and Egyptian nationalists from Britain to France and then Switzerland in the context of increasing security cooperation between Britain and France and inchoate suspicions that Germany was manipulating colonial dissent before the First World War.  Chapter Two follows British and French wartime efforts to prevent anticolonial activists from making contact with troops from Egypt, India, and Indochina in France and the simultaneous German bid for an alliance with these anticolonial activists, a move that began to call into question prewar European assumptions about racial and civilizational hierarchies.  Chapter Three examines the postwar entrenchment of French surveillance over colonial populations in France and Germany, both occupied and unoccupied, driven by what Brückenhaus calls an "agent theory" (77) that continued to assert the primacy of European and Russian state manipulators over the agency of anticolonial radicals.

     Chapter Four returns to British operations, which took account of new postwar realities by extending wartime cooperation with France on the basis of a shared opposition to anticolonialism while reaching out to Germany, now a state without overseas colonies, on the basis of a shared threat from communism in the forms of the Communist International as well as the Soviet state.  However, given the claim that Germany was an oppressed country not unlike colonies in Africa or Asia and the accompanying rapprochement between Germany and the Soviet Union in the early 1920s, the British had to seek the cooperation of those German officials who looked to the West rather than the East in making strategic choices.  Chapter Five focuses on the League Against Imperialism, which brought together anticolonial, nationalist, liberal, and leftist forces under the aegis of the Comintern in the late 1920s and early 1930s, and British, French, and German endeavors to contain and dismantle it in the radicalizing conditions of the world depression after 1929.  Chapter Six tells another extraordinary story, the partial revival of the alliance between some anticolonial activists and Germany under the Nazis between 1933 and 1945.  This alliance was carried over into France during the German occupation of 1940–44 but was resisted all along by other activists who combined anticolonialism with antifascism.  The Epilogue and Conclusion reminds us that, for all the differences between anticolonialist networks of the last century and terrorist networks of the present, the issues raised by surveillance and the discrepant statuses and rights of citizens and non-citizens like political refugees and exiles remain with us.

     Brückenhaus's rich and sophisticated treatment of spreading anticolonial and surveillance networks, one trying to get ahead of the other but continually meshing and morphing according to the changing terrain and shifting opportunities and constraints, is an innovative contribution to transnational and global history.  It complements studies of transcolonial and transimperial movements like Ghadar in the Pacific world and Garveyism in Africa and the African diaspora, not to mention collaborations between colonial powers in increasingly turbulent regions like Southeast Asia in the 1920s and 1930s.  By connecting a variety of operational fields and contact zones in Europe, including Belgium, the Netherlands, and Sweden, it provides a crucial web-like context for appreciating recent work on cities like London and Paris, where colonial subjects, anticolonial activists, and Europeans of color settled or sojourned and developed overlapping communities and political alliances.

     Policing Transnational Protest has much to offer teachers and researchers in twentieth-century world history.  For example, it complicates conventional problems of history, like the failure of diplomacy or the polarities of ideology between the world wars, in surprising ways.  Indeed, by weaving together the threads of anticolonialism and attempts to control it, Brückenhaus provides a new and suggestive pattern for periods—the prewar era, the world wars, the interwar era—that are still too often seen as anterior to and separate from the age of decolonization.  Thus his book certainly deserves a place in reading lists for advanced undergraduate and graduate courses on Europe and empire.  The intriguing stories of Brückenhaus's protagonists, some well known, many relatively unknown, and in any case too numerous to name here, also belong in the lessons and lectures of our high-school and college surveys of modern world history.  Students can grasp the dynamics of world history through the experiences of the people who make it.  Whatever one thinks of the visions and actions of specific historical figures, the way the men and some women who populate Policing Transnational Protest make choices, commit to projects, build networks, and face the contingent nature of their situations is compelling evidence of the human in the history.

Ian Christopher Fletcher teaches modern world history at Georgia State University. You may reach him at


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