The End of Empires

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Wounded French soldiers are being evacuated in Indochina, 1954

For centuries, European history was a history of empires, both within the ‘old world’, and in terms of maritime exploration, expansion, and conquest of overseas territories. In the modern period, from the days of Christopher Columbus, an Italian trained in Portugal and financed by the Spanish crown in the fifteenth century, to the transnationally coordinated wars of European decolonisation in the 1950s and 1960s, imperialism became a defining aspect of European culture. It was not only a constant source of rivalries between European nation-states but also a shared (though clearly varied) European experience characterized by transnational learning processes, particularly with respect to ways of establishing and upholding colonial rule, the treatment of imperial and colonial subjects and the construction of identities of ‘white supremacy’. At the peak of Europe’s imperial expansion, much of the inhabited world was divided into European empires and economically dependent territories.

That world unraveled dramatically in the twentieth century, as Europe’s vast land empires, under strain since the ‘Eastern crisis’ of the late nineteenth century, collapsed in the cataclysm of the First World War. A few decades later, during and after the Second World War, Europe’s blue water empires gradually disintegrated. The project will explore – through close collaboration with the NIOD in Amsterdam, the CEGES-SOMA in Brussels and the Herder-Institut in Marburg  – why and how Europe’s centuries-old internal and external empires fell apart within a relatively short-time span, and how the collapse of empire transformed Europe proper.

Project Coordinator is Prof. Robert Gerwarth: