Elizabeth Buettner has written an exceptionally useful book the great strength of which is to bring together Europe’s withdrawal from empire after 1945; the great migrations into Europe which began before the end of empire but expanded enormously in the decades thereafter; the cultural shocks which this inflicted upon Europe’s ex-imperial nations; and the after-view of empire, described here as ‘forgetting and remembering empire’. To cover these topics across a single state with such sophistication would be an impressive achievement. Here the experience of Britain, France, the Netherlands, Belgium and Portugal (though neither Spain nor Italy) is brought together and at certain points usefully compared. This will make it an essential text for a wide range of courses in European, global and imperial history—and indeed for anyone interested in the roots of Europe’s contemporary anxieties. Part One of the book, on Europe’s transition to the post-colonial era, will be the most familiar to those who have followed the growing literature on decolonisation and the end of Europe’s empires. Buettner helpfully reminds us that the recognition that empire must be given up did not follow directly from the end of the Second World War and the onset of the so-called ‘Superpower’ era. Far from it. The enormous damage that the war had wrought on Europe’s economies, even those (like Britain’s) that had escaped invasion, meant that the value of colonial raw materials, purchased with soft currency (not dollars) at below world prices, was hugely increased. The result was what has been called (in the Anglophone literature) the ‘second colonial occupation’, in which economic controls, ‘development’ programmes and (in some places) significant European settlement, replaced the stagnation and indifference of the ‘nightwatchman’ policies of the inter-war years. In the British case, Buettner steps cautiously into the debate set off by Bernard Porter’s sceptical analysis of the extent to which British popular culture was permeated by imperialism. Even after it was acknowledged as anachronistic, she suggests, empire ‘closely informed common understandings of national identity, patriotism, and race-consciousness, structuring attitudes about racial “others” and white Britishness alike’. But there is, of course, a certain contradiction here. If empire was so deeply embedded in popular consciousness, it is surprising, even astonishing, that the electorate and (so far as it can be measured) public opinion displayed such extraordinary indifference as its leaders abandoned colony after colony. No significant popular protest was made. Whatever empire’s enduring appeal, public attachment to the thing itself was much too feeble to delay its abolition. That ought to make some of the commentary cited here a little more careful. However, the heart of the book is to be found in Part Two, where we follow the story of colonial ‘returnees’ and the subsequent ‘ethnic minority’ migrations from the ex-colonies. The scale of return migration varied widely across Europe: relatively trivial in Britain; substantial in France (at 1.4 million); proportionately massive in Portugal (between 500,000 and 800,000 ). In general, with the partial exception of France, returnees were absorbed comparatively easily. Much more complicated was the question of ‘ethnic’ migration. On this, Buettner provides an extremely interesting survey of their reception by the ex-colonial powers. Much of it is a sadly familiar tale of indifference, hostility, racism, some racial violence and discrimination. All too often such migrants found themselves in low-paid occupations, slum housing and racial ghettoes—precisely the fate of (white) emigrants during Europe’s great out-migrations: Irish, Germans, Italians, Jews, East Europeans. Not surprisingly, this has induced bitterness, resentment and protest, although, as is the way with such studies, we hear less about those for whom Europe has been a haven of security and economic opportunity. The running theme, sometimes implicit, sometimes explicit, is that the treatment of such migrants was a carry-over from empire. This has become such a conventional view as to be all but a cliché. But it deserves more scrutiny than it is usually given. First, it is certainly true that European attitudes towards ‘non-European’ peoples reflected the assumption of Europe’s cultural superiority that pre-dated the great colonial expansion of the late nineteenth century; these were extended to peoples never formally colonised, and were endorsed by Europeans whose colonial moment was very brief or never came at all. This Euro- or West-centric view has survived the end of empire and informs a range of attitudes, including compassion and charity (sanctioning humanitarian intervention) as well as fear and dislike. ‘Empire’ is thus a concept to be used with caution. Secondly, some rigorous sociological investigation has concluded that hostility to immigrants has more to do with conflicts over entitlements in welfare-state societies than racial antipathy. Thirdly, anti-immigrant feeling (certainly in Britain) has been aimed at Europeans as well as non-Europeans, and it is very doubtful whether animosity towards Muslims has much, if anything, to do with old ‘imperial’ attitudes: much more obvious causes suggest themselves. Finally, it is not hard to suspect that empire, since it has for good reason no respectable champions in the political and intellectual mainstream, has become a convenient explanation for embarrassing attitudes—a hangover from the disreputable past, not a product of the uncertain present. In the final two chapters, Buettner invites us to reflect on how the end of empire has ‘reconfigured the nation’ and the ways in which empire has been remembered and forgotten. These are stimulating and thought-provoking chapters. The emphasis here is upon the impact of multifarious immigrant cultures—on music, cuisine, art and literature. This needs to be set alongside other powerful (arguably much more powerful) forces of change: information technology; globalisation and the rise of China; the flood-tide of commercial entertainment. Nor is it obvious how we should remember the ‘colonial past’—a past that in many parts of the world was the briefest of interludes (perhaps seventy years, at most, in much of tropical Africa). Indeed, the very term ‘colonial past’ risks implying uniformity where there was none and endorsing a simplistic tale of oppressors and victims. But this excellent book should encourage us to engage more fully in these debates, and to do so on a European not merely national scale. © Oxford University Press 2018. All rights reserved. This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
The English Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: May 4, 2018
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