Category Archives: Autumn 2016 Seminars

Winter Round table: Critical Histories of Energy & Extraction

We round off the term on Thursday 8 December, 2-5 pm, with a round-table in association with the Birmingham Seminar for Environmental Humanities: all are welcome and our speakers are Dr. Marta Musso, Prof. Tait Keller & Dr. Frank Uekotter.



Dr. Marta Musso:

Taking Control: Sonatrach and the Algerian Decolonization Process

e role that hydrocarbons played in decolonisation processes has so far been overlooked by historians. However, the oil industry played a pivotal role in the history of decolonisation, both on an economic level, as basis for self-directed industrial development, and an ideological level, as “the weapon against the West” that Gamal Nasser theorised in 1952 in his pamphlet “Philosophy of the Revolution”.

This paper aims to analyse the specific case of Algeria. The Saharan hydrocarbon reserves were discovered in 1956, two years after the outbreak of the hostilities with France; for the French government, it was the occasion to cover its energy deficit and to become a producer country. For the Algerian nationalists, the struggle to gain control over the Sahara became the symbol of future wealth and economic independence. Foreign oil companies, on their part, immediately saw the war as an occasion to penetrate a new market and to seize promising resources.

After the independence, building a national oil industry that would directly manage the Saharan hydrocarbons became one of the main goals pursued by both Ahmed Ben Bella first and Houari Boumediénè later. This paper will reconstruct the establishment of the Algerian National Oil company Sonatrach and the entrepeneurs that founded, focusing on the relations between the people running the company and the Algerian establishment, on the one hand, and the relations with the foreign oil industry, namely French and American companies, on the other hand. In particular, the paper will focus on the problem of technological transfer and nationalization in the context of globalized enterprises such as oil companies in producer countries.

Prof. Tait Keller:

The Energy History of World War One

My paper focuses on how energy geopolitics linked the battle lines and home fronts with industry and agriculture in ways that fundamentally shaped the twentieth century. Few human endeavors have altered the natural world in the modern era as agriculture, industry, and warfare. In 1914, the three formed a violent triad geared for the production of destruction. While battlegrounds seemingly suffered devastation, the resulting damage to nature was normally short-lived. Paradoxically, major environmental change occurred behind the lines, away from the killing fields. Scholars have typically studied armies in the First World War as social entities, but I classify fighting forces as biological systems, which depended on a “military ecology” of energy extraction, production, and supply to function. To maintain the “biological welfare” of soldiers and power engines of war, belligerent countries commandeered energy resources throughout the biosphere. The duration and scale of the conflict altered military ecologies around the world and led to new “material flows” of foodstuffs and fossil fuels. Militarized material flows of energy transformed relationships from global geopolitics down to individual consumption patterns.

Dr. Frank Uekotter

‘The Men of Energy’

The presentation discusses the biographical dimension of large infrastructure projects. What are our historical experiences with the men leading these projects? How has the role of the “infrastructure czar” changed since the late nineteenth century? Can we identify distinct national styles of leadership? And what kind of leadership should we expect in the twenty-first century? The presentation provides some insights into a work-in-progress about a collective biography of what Tom Hughes called “system builders”.


Week 11 Seminar: Tamson Pietsch (Sydney), ‘Great Gatsby Gap Year: The Floating University and the Politics of Knowing in America and the Interwar World’.

Our week 11 research seminar speaker is Dr. Tamson Pietsch who is hosted jointly with MBS. Tamson blogs on the original knowledge economy over at Cap & Gown



When the Floating University set sail from New York in September 1926 on its seven-month cruise around the world, its educational status was already uncertain, undermined by New York University’s last minute withdrawal of sponsorship. However, once underway, the voyage was to face another kind of difficulty. As a ‘pedagogical experiment’ that emphasised individual experience as the way to know the world, the Floating University grew out of contemporary discourses within both popular culture and the new discipline of psychology. But as a world cruise of 500 wealthy American young people, it was also rooted in interwar cultures of consumption and production that brought it into close contact with an increasingly global mass media hungry for scandal. And scandal was something that students of the Floating University readily provided.

This paper is interested in how the question of the success or failure of the Floating University was determined not in academic journals, student assessments or university classrooms, but instead in the newspapers, not only of the United States but of countries across the world. In doing so it presents research-in-progress that takes up the insights of a generation of historians of science who have shown that what counts as success in experimentation is constituted by social cultures and contexts and their measures of trust and respectability. This, indeed, was something the leaders of the Floating University were to discover, much to their cost.


Forests, Fields, and Peasant Revolution: The “Green Cadres” and the Collapse of the Habsburg Empire

Our guest blog-post this week is by our research seminar speaker next week, Dr. Jakub Beneš, who is speaking within the Brihc Materiality series. Thanks Jakub!


This Green Cadre of ours

Like stags they hunt us

But when we come from the wood into the fray

The red banner will wave

– a song heard in summer and autumn 1918 in the hills of Czech southwest Moravia


Although the Green Cadre was talked about quite a lot, nothing has been preserved in writing, unfortunately

– Marcel Bimka, a Moravian villager and former Green Cadre, 1931


On 16 November, I will present on a lost chapter in the history of war and revolution in east central Europe. In 1918, armed and organized groups of ‘Green Cadres’ formed across the empire’s hinterland from Austro-Hungarian army deserters and rebellious peasants. They violently resisted their reenlistment for the war effort and staged attacks on the authorities as the multinational state collapsed in October and November of that year. In some places, particularly Croatia-Slavonia, they offered inchoate programs for societal renewal based on land reform and peasant democracy. Their numbers reached into the low hundreds of thousands and the threat they posed helps to explain how power was consolidated in the wake of the Great War by the new ‘successor states’.


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Josef Pavel, Zeleny kadr (The Green Cadre) (Prague, 1927), frontispiece. Courtesy the author.

Though apparently short-lived, this movement reshaped rural culture and politics in (post-) Habsburg central Europe during the ‘age of catastrophe’. It combined old scripts—that is, meaningful roles or patterns of behavior understood to be appropriate to certain situations—of peasant recalcitrance with new scripts of national and social revolution, which emerged in the apocalyptic end phase of the war. In this paper, I also consider the materiality of these newer roles that the Green Cadres assumed and how that amplified their impact. For their legacy stretched not only into the immediate postwar years, but also into the period of the Second World War when they were resurrected, usually as forest-based anti-Nazi partisans.

I suggest that the scripts of social revolution and national emancipation that the Green Cadres embodied were particularly forceful because of the uniforms they wore. These were Austro-Hungarian infantry uniforms that they re-used and repurposed, which made these everyday things of empire into potent symbols of subversion. The uniforms signified a modern, forward-looking movement, far more so than the traditionally extravagant bandit garb that the Green Cadres in some places also donned.

With the national revolutions that swept east central Europe as the empire collapsed, the uniformed deserters had to be brought into line. Their continued defiance again problematized their uniforms, which, outside of the new national armies, were increasingly associated with criminality. The radical potential of the Green Cadres was thus marginalized. On the other hand, their undeniable contribution to the national revolutions had to be normalized and consigned to history. The landscape of memory that took shape in the 1920s to commemorate the war and its victims partially succeeded in doing this.



Week 7 Seminar: Simon M. Stevens (Cambridge), ‘The United Nations and Sanctions against South Africa, 1946-1965’

Our research seminar speaker next week is Dr. Simon M. Stevens. All are welcome and the talk is held in cooperation with the wonderful DASA.



The United Nations and Sanctions against South Africa, 1946-1965

Our guest blog-post this week is by our research seminar speaker next week, Dr. Simon M. Stevens. Thanks Simon!


First Phase Digital

Special Committee on Policies of Apartheid Resumes Meetings. Here, Miss Makeba, who appeared as a petitioner, is seen conversing with Sir Hugh Foot (United Kingdom), member of the Expert Group on South Africa. 9 March 1964. UN Photo by Teddy Chen, reproduced under fair use rules, courtesy the author.


Next week in Birmingham I’ll be talking about the shifting role of the United Nations in the strategies of opponents of white minority rule in South Africa. Reflecting widespread interest in and excitement about the new international organisation, South African opponents of segregation were one of the first non-governmental groups to attempt to use it to advance their domestic political struggle. Domestic campaigns were carefully coordinated to influence UN deliberations, and representatives were sent to New York. Through the efforts of the delegation of decolonising India, South African issues dominated the General Assembly’s first session in 1946.

Within three years, however, the refusal of the Indian delegation even to propose a a UN sanctions regime left South African activists disillusioned with the “weakness” of the UN and its domination by “imperialist powers.” Though the General Assembly continued to debate South African issues every year throughout the 1950s, South African activists accorded little strategic significance to these deliberations and concentrated on their own domestic campaigns.



Anti-Apartheid Movement Poster. Copyright AAM Archives Committee, reproduced by kind permission.

In 1960, however, anti-apartheid interest in the United Nations was reignited by African decolonization and the consequent transformation of the UN’s membership. South African activists and their allies in the emerging global anti-apartheid movement now accorded central significance to securing a UN sanctions regime. In 1962, the new “Africa Group” at the UN secured the first General Assembly sanctions resolution.

But the high hopes entertained in the early 1960s that the emergence of a postcolonial majority in the General Assembly would be sufficient to transform the UN into a vehicle for promoting African states’ interests and agendas were dashed on the rock of the vetoes held by the permanent members of the Security Council. Disillusioned by the inability of the African states to generate sufficient leverage to compel the veto-wielding great powers to accede to their demands, anti-apartheid activists disengaged from the United Nations after 1965. Annual debates in the General Assembly would continue. But never again would the anti-apartheid movement see the United Nations as such a central actor in the struggle for South African liberation.


Dr. Stevens’ talk takes place in association with DASA, at 16:30h, Wednesday 9 November, Danford Room, Arts Building and details can be found here – all are welcome!

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Week 2 Seminar: ‘Making the Brazilian Northeast’ – Dr. Courtney J. Campbell (Birmingham)


Abstract: In a so-called globalizing world, how have sub-national regions gained a specific sense of place and fixed cultural identity? In this seminar, I will present how the Brazilian Northeast morphed from a meteorological designation (defined by a lack of rainfall) into a cultural and social identity through an examination of international events. The seminar focuses on how Brazilians discussed the meaning of belonging to the Northeastern region from the 1920s through 1968 and how this historically specific cultural identity was both influenced by and influenced the region’s relations with the world around it. I analyze a variety of sources from both state and non-state actors to explore how ideas about the region and its meaning circulated among social groups and across international lines. To do so, I will present international events in which the region’s inhabitants engaged with the world around them, including a World Cup soccer match, beauty pageants, and even international aid agreements. Within these international events, race was often mobilized as a defining characteristic. Yet, how Brazilians talked about race and region through these events depended on the geographic scale of the discussion. Specific sub-regions of the Northeast developed uniquely Afro-Brazilian or indigenous identities, narrating their culture through particular historical events and symbolic folklore. At the national level, the region came to represent a mixed-race population whose culture curated an authentic Brazilian past, in this way adding value to the region, while also allegedly holding it back from economic progress. It was when the conversation trespassed into the international scale that anxieties about the region’s potential for representing national inferiority were expressed and it was this level of conversation that set the limits of the definitions of the Brazilian Northeast.


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