Category Archives: Blog Post

Researching an MA dissertation at the Centre for Modern & Contemporary History – Reflections on a Visit to Archives in Lausanne, Switzerland, Summer 2017.

We are grateful to one of our recent MA Contemporary History students here at the Centre for Modern & Contemporary History for writing this reflection on an archival visit undertaken in the context of dissertation research.


This is a short blog about an opportunity I had this summer (2017) to undertake three days of archival research in Switzerland, for my dissertation project in the MA in Contemporary History at the Centre for Modern & Contemporary History at the University of Birmingham. I travelled there to consult the records of the Monnet Action Committee, which are located in the Jean Monnet Foundation in Lausanne, and was fortunate enough to receive partial assistance towards the costs from a research travel grant from the Centre.

My MA dissertation looked into the wider context of European integration as it developed in the mid 1950s, through the specific case study of the Monnet Action Committee. This is a relatively little-known organisation today that was active at that time in promoting European integration.

Below is a description of and reflection on my trip, which may perhaps encourage other MA students to cast their archival net more widely. Crucially, both my topic and the archives chosen offered the possibility of looking beyond solely British based sources and English language historiography.


Monnet Archive, Lausanne, Switzerland. Photo courtesy the author.

It was important to be organised prior to my departure for Switzerland, as it would only be possible to visit once. First, from my previous research I had already gathered together existing work that others had done on the Committee. This was not a large literature, but did include a collection of published official resolutions and declarations. I studied these carefully for the period I was interested in, which was roughly from 1955 to 1958.

Secondly, I checked the archive’s website which provides additional information regarding the Committee, namely an inventory of the records held, together with contact details for the archivist. The next step was to get in touch with them, which I did by e-mail. This was essential as they are a small centre and need advance warning of any visit. I asked questions and provided them with an idea of which records I was particularly interested in. Once this was done I could determine how many days were needed onsite and could then arrange the practical details of booking transport and accommodation.

The archives are located within the grounds of the Lausanne University. I made sure to book accommodation somewhere within walking distance of it, in addition to allowing extra time for a little sightseeing. A note on language: I speak French, which made it easy, and some level of language skills is obviously needed for this type of trip. However, it is not an insurmountable barrier: in terms of the preparation described above for example, the website is in multiple languages and the archivists could speak some English. Being enthusiastic and interested in their archive also helped when communicating with them.

My impression on arrival was positive. The weather was warm and the foundation is housed in an old farmhouse set in woodland within the wider university campus and close to the shores of Lake Geneva. It is a lovely setting and each evening I went down to the lake to review the notes taken during the day and plan what to do for the following one. The archivist was helpful: I was shown where everything was and the procedure for ordering documents was explained. They have a small room reserved for visiting researchers, which I had to myself.

The majority of the Committee’s records are available on microfiche. These were created some time ago and are of variable quality, in particular handwritten notes were often difficult to decipher. However this was easily resolved as on querying it, I was provided with the originals of the unreadable microfiches. Perhaps another advantage of visiting a small archive was that, up to a certain quantity, it was free to request copies of documents. These were collated and sent to me as a PDF file by e-mail, within a few days of my trip.

On language, most of the records were in French with a few in other languages. I would advise anyone working on their research language skills with a view to a future trip to the archives to firstly focus on the specific vocabulary that arises around your particular subject, and secondly to keep in mind that you can reach a level of passive understanding of a written text on a familiar topic much sooner than attaining a more general mastery, such as being able to speak or write.

The three days I had allowed for the research passed quickly. I was aiming to build a general picture of the Committee to set it within its wider context. To do so I consulted the records in a variety of ways, following the general plan I had previously prepared, but not sticking to it so rigidly as to be unable to react to what I was finding. For instance, I studied various draft resolutions and declarations, tracing aspects that had both changed and not changed before the final published versions. This is a good example of how an archival visit can reveal a completely different story to the one that might be interpreted from simply using digital access to the final published text. In the Committee’s reports I was interested not only in what topics were being raised but in the language used to justify and explain specific courses of action, together with how they defined certain concepts.

Of particular use was a large file relating to the set-up of the Monnet Action Committee. In this I was lucky to find additional details of the background experience of several participants that I had struggled to trace previously. There was also some interesting correspondence which gave insights into individuals’ thinking and opinions. Finally, I didn’t ignore what could be termed administrative records, for example the legal statutes of the committee and details on its funding and spending, which all provided additional information on how it worked internally as an organisation.

In summary, I came away with a full notebook for my project. But it was also an interesting experience in itself to visit an archive in Switzerland and wouldn’t have been something I would have had the opportunity of doing outside the context of a History MA course. Based on my experience I would encourage others to consider broadening their research agenda to include non-British sources where appropriate, and to take advantage of the support that is available for such projects.


Gillian, 2016/17 MA Contemporary History student, University of Birmingham.



Careering: Precarity & Solidarity in Higher Education

Many thanks to Dr Tom Cutterham for this report on the forum event we held on Wednesday 8th March 2017.


It’s always been the case that the most precarious and vulnerable workers face the greatest barriers to organising their labour. In a career like academia that often seems to promote isolation, the challenge of precarity is all the greater—overshadowed as it is by competition for permanent positions. Those are the conditions faced by early career researchers (ECRs), be they graduate students, teaching fellows, research assistants, or newly-employed lecturers.


How do those circumstances influence the teaching and research environments of the university? How can we—as institutions, individuals, and as a community—take action to overcome these barriers and transform exploitative structures? At the very least, what can ECRs share with each other, and how can we work together, to make things a little easier? Those were the questions under discussion at the first ECR forum held last week under the auspices of the Centre for Modern & Contemporary History Research Seminar series, and co-sponsored with the Birmingham Research Institute for History and Cultures.

Sharing their stories and ideas, early career historians at every level from MA students to new lecturers joined in the conversation. One lecturer recently hired at another Midlands university told us about the three phases that characterised the time between his PhD and first permanent job, emphasising the variety of experiences that can make up ECR life. One moment you’re unemployed and living at home, wondering if you can afford the train fare to take up a part-time job that might not pay you for months; the next you’re on a 95% teaching contract, expected to find time for your own publications while writing and teaching four new courses.

Indeed, the question of fractional contracts and their relationship to career expectations was a substantial part of our conversation. A Teaching Fellowship is supposed to be a stepping-stone to permanent academic jobs, but without paid time allocated for research and publications, such roles are hardly calibrated to develop good job candidates. Fractional contracts allow employers to fill teaching needs at minimal cost in salary—but the real costs are passed onto young academics. In turn, access to housing and transport can become a big issue, which means structural privilege comes into play too. When universities like ours pay out big bucks for some salaries, the situation for Teaching Fellows seems hard to justify.

But even where reliance on fractional teaching teaching staff is being reduced, there’s a question over who will take over their work. It seems likely part of the university’s solution lies in Postgraduate Teaching Assistants on zero-hours contracts. Graduate students who attended the forum agreed that teaching experience is valuable, and the money is useful too—but that comes with a fear that valuable research time can be sacrificed to departmental demands that are hard to turn down. They reported, too, that Birmingham’s “Worklink” system often leaves them unpaid for months at a time, increasing financial precarity and raising barriers to academic life.

These questions of pay and working time are often rendered invisible by the prevailing culture of polite silence. And so are some even more insidious problems, like the fact that non-EU citizens face draconian rules around personal mobility (like being told to report to central office whenever they leave Birmingham!) and prohibitive visa costs borne out of their own pockets. Meanwhile, we heard how the often-hidden emotional labour through which academic work is supported falls disproportionately on the female workers who already suffer structural disadvantages. Such unequal structures of surveillance and support help maintain the existing balance of power and privilege.

Working together, though, there are things we can do to improve the situation—and to fight worsening conditions. With the help of student allies, and a creative approach to publicity, Warwick University’s anti-casualisation group successfully fought off an attempt to outsource teaching to a spin-off company. Here at Birmingham, we can develop an agenda for change that both ECRs and senior colleagues can push for. That includes full-time, year-long contracts for Teaching Fellows, and perhaps representation for ECR workers on Departmental and College committees. On issues like visas and Work Link too, we’ll need the union to help us fight.

There are also ways we can help early career historians move through the phases of their career. By sharing CVs and cover letters, organising mock job interviews, and creating fairer, more transparent structures of support (perhaps including writing groups), we can build a better environment for young careers to flourish. Doing so would deepen our own professional community, too.

Creating spaces for open discussion, like this ECR forum, constitutes one small step towards building solidarity and collective initiative on the problems that face early career academics. In the next steps, we’d like to build that beyond the confines of History and Cultures, and start linking up with the rest of our university and with institutions across the West Midlands region. We have learned how difficult it is to resist the silo-effect of separate departments, colleges, and institutions. But we’ve also learned that inspiration can come from crossing those boundaries.


How Fascist Is Trump? (Re)Considering Nazi History in an Age of Populism

This guest post is by Dr. Frank Uekötter, and is based on a talk he delivered at the Centre for Modern & Contemporary History this week, in cooperation with the Institute for German Studies. A podcast is available here.


Image: Max Goldberg from USA, Trump Caucus, CCBY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons


The topic at hand allows two different perspectives, and I would like to make clear from the outset that I plan to explore both of them.

First, it is about an assessment of Donald Trump and his upcoming presidency: is this a return of fascism, or a twenty-first variety of fascism, a fascism 2.0? How far do we get when we read Donald Trump through the lens of fascism as it presents itself through the burgeoning historical literature?

But second, it is worthwhile to explore this connection in the opposite direction, too: how do recent trends in Nazi historiography and the literature on Italian fascism look in an effort to make sense of Trump?[1] Does existing scholarship provide proper guidance, or would a different literature offer deeper insights?

Of course, historical research has its own set of rules, and for good reasons, and nothing that I will say in the following shall be construed as to mean that political relevance is all that matters. However, the case for Nazi history has always been political as well as academic: it grew out of a conviction that the collapse of democracy during the inter-war years must never repeat itself. So when we see democracy under threat again all over the West, it pushes us to reflect on whether our historical literature, and our general style of engaging with the fascist past, provides the kind of help that it purports to offer.

Such an endeavour runs into two fundamental problems, one of a moral nature and one of a cognitive nature. In cognitive terms, it is perhaps obvious that any assessment of Trump’s rule is preliminary on day one of his presidency. We have an incoming administration that is fraught with tensions. It embraces isolationism and yet wants to go to war against what it calls “radical Islam”; it flirts with protectionism in an economy built on globalization; it wants to abolish Obamacare and protect entitlements; and it has yet to decide whether anthropogenic climate change is real or imagined. Nobody can possibly know how this will play out, and I will refrain from speculation as much as I can. Maybe Trump will have a great presidency, or an abysmal one, or one that is completely different from what we expect – we do not know, and we should not pretend otherwise.

This would be wise for moral reasons too. I am deeply disturbed by many things that Trump said on the campaign trail, and I am even more disturbed by the things that he did not say: I have yet to hear a serious commitment to democracy, the rule of law and human rights from Donald Trump. However, moral indignation has not kept Trump out of the White House, and I am not sure whether it will be helpful in the next four years either. The transition has already been a noisy one, and Trump’s presidency may be turbulent as well, with many statements and decisions that will provide fodder for cheap outrage. It may be amazingly simple to criticize Trump, and it may not even require a familiarity with current events: it may be sufficient to look at his hair, at his penchant for gold, or at Alec Baldwin on “Saturday Night Live”.

I think we need to do better: we need a more sophisticated critique of Donald Trump, and such a critique needs a clear understanding of the potential and the limits of historical precedents. And when it comes to historical precedents, fascism is clearly the defining one for Donald Trump, the event in collective memory that resonates more than any other. Of course, historical precedents never work out in every detail, but they leave traces in our collective imagination and our political language. And so there are good reasons to read Trump through the experience of fascism.


The Nazis ruled Germany for twelve years, and Mussolini was in power for 21 or 23 (depending on whether you count the farcical Republic of Salò), but our historical imagination has not given equal attention to all these years. The Second World War and the holocaust have dominated collective memory since the 1990s, and that has left its mark on research and teaching, for instance in the special degrees on the holocaust that some universities offer (the University of Birmingham being one of them). Books and exhibits in this vein typically speed through the early years of Nazi rule and devote most of their attention to the years since 1938.

But if I look at these years with a view to what we can learn about Trump, I find it very difficult to distil meaningful insights. There are certain things that we take for granted as we search for ways to engage with Trump: the freedom of speech, the right to protest and organize, an economy with plenty of opportunities, many of which are not subservient to Trump, and the assumption that there will be another presidential election four years from now. None of these certainties existed in 1938 and thereafter: Nazi rule was firmly entrenched, a war economy left no part of German society untouched, and personal freedom was constrained in a way that left little if any room for collective action.

Does it make any sense to compare these societies, given that the United States of 2017 is so vastly different from Nazi Germany between 1938 and 1945? I will later suggest two ways in which we can learn from this time period if we look at it as part of the full history of National Socialism. But looking at the years between 1938 and 1945 in isolation, I doubt that we can learn very much beyond the idea that it should never come to this again, which does not strike me as a controversial point. Whatever drove American voters on 8 November, I am fairly confident that they did not mean to vote for genocide and another world war.

We can learn more when we look at the early years of fascist rule. The first months of Hitler’s and Mussolini’s reign resonate with our contemporary situation, as it was anything but clear at that time where they would lead their countries. They only had general goals, and goals that were remarkably similar to Trump’s “Make America Great Again”. In his book To Hell and Back, for example, Ian Kershaw described the guiding thoughts of the early fascists as follows: “Italy could never be great under the leadership of the old notables.”[2] However, Hitler and Mussolini had very little in the way of blueprints for the immediate first steps. In fact, it was anything but clear whether Hitler and Mussolini would stay in office for long: their rule did not stabilize for more than a year after they came to power. It was quite plausible in 1922 and 1933 that Mussolini and Hitler would turn into noisy but brief episodes with little in the way of lasting significance, and the same holds true for Trump in 2017: he may just flame out in a Twitter-based supernova.

Having noted these similarities, however, there are also a number of important differences.


  1. Trump operates in a completely different constitutional context. Both Mussolini and Hitler came to power in ways that were technically constitutional, but they swiftly moved beyond constitutional rule. The Nazi’s Enabling Act (Ermächtigungsgesetz), passed by parliament in March 1933, marked the end of the Weimar constitution. A lot has been said about how Trump is “breaking the rules”, but none of that means that he will be unaccountable under the rules of one of the world’s oldest democracies. Today, Donald Trump will swear to “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States” to the best of his ability, and this Constitution places great emphasis on checks and balances – far more than constitutions in other Western democracies. Trump will need to work with two elected houses of parliament, with an independent judiciary, and with a vibrant civil society that can challenge the Trump administration in many different ways. In short, Trump will need to engage with a set of institutions that impose significant limits on autocratic rule. Of course, checks and balances do not work automatically. The institutional scaffolding of America’s democracy is already facing a test, as we see in the Senate confirmation hearings, and wrestling with that scaffolding may emerge as a defining characteristic of Trump’s presidency – but I very much doubt that Trump can eliminate other powers to the extent that Hitler and Mussolini could.
  2. A second crucial difference lies in the state of the economy. When Hitler came to power, the economy had effectively collapsed, and that gave him a mandate to shift economic policy in a new direction with deficit spending and a mandatory labour service. He was in a situation that was as close to a clean slate as is possible in a modern economy, and nothing of that kind exists in today’s America. Trump takes over a growing economy with low unemployment, and a lot of people will suffer if America really turns its back to economic globalization. To be sure, I do not think that the American economy is free of problems, but any problems that exist pale in comparison with the problems that Trump may create. Trump can create a lot of problems with trade wars, a botched health care law, or infrastructure investments that do not pay (read: the wall to Mexico). No blizzard of Twitter messages will distract from his responsibility for these crises.

    In a way, Trump is a test for the power of globalization as an economic system. Unlike Trump, Hitler did not have to worry about the global economic context. World trade had already collapsed, and he could plot his economic recovery with a degree of autonomy that is unthinkable in the twenty-first century. Just think of the Mefo bills (MEFO-Wechsel), the clandestine financial tool that provided Nazi Germany with the fiscal resources for economic recovery: no government can pull off such a feat in today’s world economy. I also doubt that investments in infrastructure will have the same effect on unemployment as in the 1930s: building is a matter of expertise and technology rather than manual labour nowadays. And it is anyone’s guess how America’s growing debt burden will play out and how the Federal Reserve will react. Trump may squeeze some extra short-term economic growth out of infrastructure investments and expansion of fossil fuel production, but that leaves a long way to go towards an “economic miracle”. Or, to phrase it differently: a boost for Trump’s personal finances is more likely than a boost for America’s economy.

  1. A third difference lies in the demographics that underpin the regimes’ policies. Publications by Michael Wildt and others have shown the extent to which Nazi rule relied on support from a new generation of relatively young people, the “uncompromising generation” (Generation des Unbedingten).[3] Born in the years after 1900 and often academically trained, these people moved into powerful positions with unprecedented speed and contributed greatly to the dynamism of Nazi rule. Nothing of this kind exists today, and all evidence suggests that Trump gained a lot of support from older people. While the Nazis were to a significant extent a youth revolt, Trump thrived electorally on people in retirement or close to retirement – a political constituency that did not exist in the inter-war years because people lived shorter lives at that time. Dealing with bitter old people is an important challenge for ageing Western societies, and on this issue, the past does not provide, and cannot provide, very much by way of orientation.
  2. Mussolini and Hitler rose against the spectre of another revolutionary threat, namely a communist revolution, and effectively sold themselves to the bourgeoisie as the lesser evil. No such spectre exists in the United States: Bernie Sanders’ socialism is not revolutionary, if it is socialism at all, and “radical Islam”, the other spectre doing the rounds in recent years, does not stand a chance to win the next election. Of course, Trump railed against “the establishment” during his campaign, but I doubt that fear of the establishment can serve as the equivalent to fear of a socialist or Communist revolution in the inter-war years. After all, the majority of American people know what establishment rule is like. They know that America’s establishment never sent people to Siberia (though it did intern Japanese-Americans), never seized their land and property (though it did so to indigenous Americans), or set up collectives of a Soviet scale or type.
  3. Finally, Mussolini and Hitler had command over paramilitary units. Mussolini’s Blackshirts and the Nazis’ SA units were serious challenges for the powers of the state, and they played a significant role in their leaders’ rise to power from the street and their subsequent rule. To the best of my knowledge, Trump has never sought to build his own cadre of men under arms, and it would be rather odd to set up paramilitary units if you are in command of the U.S. security apparatus. When it comes to the use of violence, Trump will need to work with the institutions that exist.

But despite these five major differences, maybe we should not overstate the difference between the inter-war years and today’s society on this point. Today’s political parties no longer maintain paramilitary units, but they do operate in societies that bear the marks of brutalization. In the inter-war years, those who stood up for democracy faced a serious risk of getting killed, and we are slowly inching towards a similar situation in our own time: just think of Jo Cox, Gabrielle Giffords, or Trump’s casual talk about gun violence against Hillary Clinton. Furthermore, we should keep in mind that during the inter-war years, the threat came not just from the use of violence but also from the imagination of violence. Anger and guns make for a dangerous mix, and the imagination of armed struggle is a standing theme in America’s political discourse. Just listen to a right-wing media outlet of your choice.

Violence is typically the last resort in politics, an act of desperation after everything else has failed. In a way, it is odd that Trump focuses so much on brute force: after all, the president of the United States has plenty of other means at his disposal. But then, does Trump think this way? His rhetoric suggests an America on the verge of collapse, with all sorts of threats around and within it – and a desperate situation calls for desperate measures. As Trump said when he pitched his candidacy to black voters in August, “what the hell do you have to lose?” It is a slogan that resembles the famous 1932 election poster of the Nazis that called Hitler “our last hope” (Unsere letzte Hoffnung: Hitler). If the situation is desperate, everything looks legitimate.

The difference is that this perception made far more sense in late Weimar Germany than in today’s United States. In 1932, Germany really was at the nadir of the Great Depression, and it did not have a military that could defend the country. Today’s United States has the world’s most powerful military, it has top credit ratings from Moody’s and Fitch, and it can pay pensions for a huge baby boomer generation – it has a lot to lose. However, we know from the history of fascism how even imagined crises can linger and have consequences in the real world: think of “Jewish capitalism” or “Jewish Bolshevism” or Italy’s “wasted victory” in World War One. It is not that these notions were hard to disprove  – to “fact check” – but few people had an interest in speaking out on behalf of the Jews or Italy’s gains in the Great War, and it is an interesting question whether that is different today.

We may soon observe a stark imbalance of political representation. There are a lot of multinational corporations that stand to lose from protectionism, and these corporations can pay for large hordes of lobbyists. Capital will put its finger on the scale as much as it can. But is there a powerful group that is interested in speaking up on behalf of those without lobbyists: illegal immigrants, or Muslims, or poor people who lose their health insurance? And even if there are powerful voices pointing out realities, it remains to be seen whether it will gradually dawn on the Trump administration that the perceived crisis is more imagined than real.

Crisis in the Institutions: the Key Similarity

In a famous book of 1955, the recently deceased political scientist Karl Dietrich Bracher spoke of a “dissolution” of the Republic of Weimar.[4] Bracher argued that Germany’s first parliamentary democracy did not collapse suddenly on January 30, 1933. It suffered from a gradual and escalating crisis that sucked the lifeblood out of the democratic system. It is a precedent that has haunted Western democracies ever since, and one that makes for the most powerful connection between the experience of fascism and the events of 2016. America’s democracy is in crisis, and its decline began long before Trump launched his bid for the Republican nomination. For those who know the pre-1933 critique of Weimar democracy, a lot sounds terribly familiar: the obsession with scandals (real and imagined), charges of corruption and weakness, an obsession with nationalism that depicts opponents as unpatriotic (rather than people with other goals), and a disregard for institutions and the rule of law.

I am particularly eager to stress the last point. I have mentioned the permanence of the Constitution as one of the defining differences between Hitler and Trump, and that makes it particularly worrying that Republicans did not appear too much concerned about the Constitution in recent years. I do not think that it is an overstatement to speak of a silent crisis of the American Constitution. The Republicans refused to hold a hearing on Obama’s nominee for the Supreme Court, they held up confirmation hearings for many of his top officials for long periods without a clear rationale, they risked default on America’s federal debt in their quest to repeal the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), and they did not raise their voice when Trump suggested mass election fraud after the election without providing a trace of evidence. In short, they have met the rules and procedures of democracy with contempt unless it played out to their advantage, and that is a deeply disturbing thing. After all, rules and procedures are not some kind of addendum in a democracy – they are the soul of democracy, an essential feature that distinguishes democratic rule from the law of the jungle.

In some respects, today’s crisis of democracy is even more dramatic than the crisis of the Weimar Republic. I am thinking of the media here. Weimar Germany had plenty of news outlets and legions of journalists while today’s media outlets have suffered from declining readerships and declining revenues for years on end, and they are now faced with a “Teflon president” who seems strangely immune to scrutiny and criticism: nothing sticks. Years of right-wing criticism of the “mainstream media”, along with a citizenry that thinks quality news comes for free, have taken their toll.

The fabric of America’s democracy is eroding, therefore, and there can be no doubt about who is at fault. As the German chancellor Joseph Wirth declared after the murder of the German secretary of state Walter Rathenau in 1922, “dieser Feind steht rechts” – the enemy is a right-wing enemy. And yet it would be short sighted to focus only on the ranks of the enemies in the defence of democracy. We can also read Weimar democracy as a lesson on how the democratic camp changes in the face of a mortal threat. If the Republic of Weimar looked weak and indecisive more often than not, this had a lot to do with how the forces of democracy were locked into unloved coalition governments for lack of a choice. Democracy changes if there is no viable alternative, and so do the democrats themselves: their discipline inevitably languishes if they see themselves as beyond serious competition. Hillary Clinton’s campaign, which always presented her as the inevitable candidate, should be a warning to democrats everywhere: if candidates think that they are the only thing that can forestall a disaster, they may learn that the voters actually prefer the disaster.

Scholars have long recognized that fascism did not come to power in an instant: it rose against the background of long-standing weaknesses in the political system. We can make a similar statement about Trump: he is not only the cause of America’s political crisis but also the symptom of a fundamental crisis of American democracy. However, the experience of fascism is not just about long-term trends – it also teaches lessons about the significance of random events. Hitler’s rule took an unexpected turn when the Reichstag burned and another turn when he arrested and killed the leaders of his SA in order to forestall a presumed putsch. Mussolini’s rule changed irrevocably after the murder of Giacomo Matteotti. Contingent events of this kind are difficult to anticipate by nature, but they matter enormously: a fundamental crisis can suspend the rules that usually govern an administration, and they can put a ruler and his reign on a new trajectory. Carl Schmitt famously argued that “sovereign is he who decides on the exception”.[5] Having read Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine, I am inclined to agree with Schmitt’s assessment.[6] In a society with plenty of rules and entrenched interests, emergency situations provide a kind of leverage that goes beyond politics as usual. (However, unlike Carl Schmitt, I do not think that authoritarian rule is a good thing.)

Trump could use a crisis to his advantage: a major terrorist attack, or a riot. In fact, I am inclined to say that he does not stand much of a chance without a major crisis: politics as usual may grind him and his revolutionary ambitions to pieces. But would it really work? A major terrorist attack may trigger memories of 9/11 and George W. Bush and all the lies and deceptions that he used to drag America into a disastrous war. But Bush II seems to have disappeared from America’s collective memory in mysterious ways. It began during his second term when he was slowly sliding towards insignificance, and now it is almost as if his presidency had never happened. Could a President Trump use an existential crisis in the way that Bush did? Even after 9/11, Bush had to fight hard to gain Congressional approval for war against Iraq – now imagine Trump requesting Congressional approval for war against North Korea or Iran! As it stands, this is an open question, and one with broader significance. When it comes to the future of democracy in the twenty-first century, one of the crucial questions is whether we still learn from experience.

In sum, we can and should reflect our current predicament in light of the experience of the inter-war years and the rise of fascism. Democracy and the rule of law was ascendant in the decades before 1914, it was remarkably stable all over the West after 1945 – but something happened in the inter-war years that made democracy unstable and unattractive.

Beyond this, however, the return of a crisis situation does not explain one crucial thing: why Trump? There were quite a few dictators who came to power in the inter-war years, but to the best of my knowledge, none of them was a real state mogul with bad hair. As a billionaire investor with a penchant for gold, Trump looks unique among the rulers of Western democracies. But is he?


Trumped Up?


Image: Trump Tower and Hotel Chicago, under construction September 2006. By Bonfire24k, via CC BY 2.5 Wikimedia.

I think there is a fascist template for Trump, a political profile that matches his personal CV and that few critics have spotted: the builder. Fascism thrived on large building projects that showed national determination and strength: land reclamation in the Pontine Marshes in Italy, the autostrada and the Autobahn projects, monumentalist urban construction programs. To be sure, the builder was not only a fascist figure: the link between political charisma and charismatic building projects worked in the United States as well. Just think of Eisenhower and the interstate system or Franklin D. Roosevelt and the programs of the New Deal: they provided concrete evidence that government made a difference, and they left an impression with voters.

After 1960, infrastructure programs were more of a source of troubles for political leaders: think Khrushchev and his Virgin Lands campaign, China and the Three Gorges dam, Berlin and its defunct new airport. But in the 1930s, politicians could build their careers on the quick and successful completion of large construction projects, and Donald Trump shows that the charisma of someone who “gets things built” is not dead. In fact, it may come back as a result of the opaque nature of today’s economy. In the twenty-first century world, a large building is one of the few achievements that everyone can grasp. When it comes to post-2008 bankers or corporate executives “failing upwards”  we struggle to understand the system connecting their achievements and their personal wealth. But if you have a large down town building with your name on it, everybody understands that you have made it.

Trump gives us a lens for the historiography here. It is rewarding to look at the scholarly literature on the Nazi era in this light, for the builder is a notable gap in our body of publications. We have a number of good works on the Nazi’s Autobahn project that have smoked out many of the project’s lingering myths – but we know surprisingly little about Fritz Todt, the man who built the Autobahn as Generalinspektor für das deutsche Straßenwesen (General Inspector of German Highway Engineering). Todt is perhaps the last “big Nazi” for whom we lack a decent book-length biography.[7] The same holds true for the institution that carried his name, the “Organisation Todt“, in spite of the fact that it is one of only two large organizations of the Nazi era that was named after an individual (the other was the Hitler Youth).

The Organisation Todt was a mushrooming institution that grew from small beginnings into a distinct political empire. It was a new creation of the Nazi regime, it stood outside the existing bureaucracy, and the standing of the Organisation Todt hinged on the quick realization of construction projects. These mushrooming administrative bodies were a key feature of the Nazi regime – the SS with its huge business empire was another example – and they contributed greatly to the dynamism of Nazi rule. They were not classic bureaucracies with rules and traditions – they were, in the words of Reinhard Heydrich, “kämpfende Verwaltungen” – “administrations in fighting mode”: government bodies beyond traditional modes of accountability that strived to “get things done” irrespective of costs. And as we know today, these bodies turned into monsters that did not stop until the end of Nazi rule, and their toll in monetary and human terms was obscene.

We should keep memory of these runaway institutions alive because Trump may soon face an important choice. Should he entrust his pet projects like infrastructure spending and deportation of illegal immigrants to existing institutions that are bound to the rule of law? Or should he create new institutions with weak oversight where everything depends on speed and “getting things done”? The Nazi experience suggests that the latter could make a world of difference. A new deportation task force would strive to achieve ever higher numbers of deportations and care about little else. More specifically, it would see government oversight and legal challenges as mere obstacles to its core mission – rather than the natural obligation of every agency of the U.S. government – and a deportation task force would compel the Trump administration to give it as much leeway as possible. In short, a new deportation task force may put the U.S. government on a path to a humanitarian disaster that could tarnish America’s international reputation beyond recall.

You may have noticed that so far I have not made a connection that seems to offer itself: Hitler was a racist, and so is Trump. I think the verdict is still out on this point. Of course, there can be no doubt that he has said racist things about Latinos and Muslims and that he depicted African Americans with stereotypes that are inherently racist (typical codewords: inner-city, lack of education). There is no excuse for these statements. But does he really mean these things? Nobody can doubt that Hitler hated Jews, and he swiftly had them eliminated from the payroll of government institutions after he came to power. I do not see a similar rush towards action in Trump’s administration. The Muslim travel ban seems to have disappeared from his agenda, and in a CBS interview just days after his election, Trump reduced the target number for deportations to two or three million. It is clear that many of Trump’s voters hate Latinos and Muslims but whether Trump himself hates them remains to be seen. It may just be the case that he simply does not care about them. Don’t get me wrong: I do think that this careless contempt would be outrageous, too. It would mean that millions of American residents have to live with existential uncertainties for years on end, and that would inevitably claim a toll in people’s lives. A government that does not care about the people within its realm is shameful. But it is different from a government that seeks to get rid of these people.

President Business?

Trump may not care about Latinos and Muslims, but he does care about his business interests. This deserves reflection in the present context because the link between fascism and capitalism has been a perennial discussion point. The Marxists famously argued that fascism was simply camouflage for the rule of capitalism, but the explanation never really worked: Hitler and Mussolini showed way too much agency along with their entourages, to be mere puppets of capitalists. Marxists also depicted fascism as a stage in history – while in fact, fascists made history not because of what they were but for how they developed. Now we have a real-life businessman in power, and for all the noise that he generates, I can hear an emerging refrain that may define his administration: don’t do anything that hurts business. But does that make him the embodiment of capitalist rule?

Just like Adolf Hitler, Donald Trump has published an autobiographical book that provides us with a window into his thinking. That is as far as this similarity goes, for Trump’s The Art of the Deal is rather different from Hitler’s Mein Kampf – it’s a business book, for one. The Art of the Deal shows how Trump does business. He sets high goals, then builds up pressure to the best of his ability, and then settles for a deal when the moment seems right. It is a revealing approach, not least for the things that it ignores. Trump does not seem to value research and development or creativity, two pillars of the American economy. His business case is also inherently sceptical of laws and institutions, as they may stand in the way of a deal. To put it more bluntly, Trump’s approach to business is about bending and breaking the rules, to an extent that is corrosive and deeply anti-social: if every businessman used the courts of law in the way that Trump did, America’s legal system would probably collapse. Now it seems that it has made (or kept) him rich, but I doubt that this is a good approach to economic policy.

After all, reliable rules are crucial for a modern economy. Investors rely on all sorts of rules when they make decisions: copyright law, contract law, property law, tax law, tariff law, etc. When a businessman signs a contract, he trusts that the other party cannot cancel it with a tweet. As we all know, Trump has sent tweets that suggest he can do exactly that, and I am sure that a lot of managers will follow closely what comes out of this. Is this the harbinger of a Trump administration where any rule can change at any moment? It would be a great opportunity for politically protected speculators and a nightmare for businesses that make long-term investments, and the latter are arguably more important for economic growth in the long term. Much has been made of the recent boom of the stock market, but in the long run, it’s the investments that count, and whether Trump can create a reliable framework for investments remains to be seen.

I mention all this not only to show that “capitalist rule” is a more ambiguous concept than orthodox Marxism suggests, since there are very different types of capitalists with divergent interests. The Nazi era also provides insights into what happens if a ruler is prone to erratic decisions and unexpected bursts of activism. For one thing, erratic rule relies on a second tier of decision makers who provide more stability and permanence, and Hitler was notably reluctant to fire people (it remains to be see how this will be the case with Trump, who built a media image on firing people). For another, unpredictability can create leverage, and some of Hitler’s successes were only possible because he was so hard to figure out. In other words, the jokes about Trump’s Twitter use are missing a much bigger question: what is the role of Twitter in his emerging style of governance? For those who know Nazi historiography, it may be a return of the “intentionalism versus functionalism debate” in a new disguise. Is Trump’s Twitter use a conscious strategy to draw attention away from other, more contentious issues? Is it camouflage for clever deals that are currently forged behind the scenes, deals that will emerge when the moment is right? Or is it just an obsession that incidentally generates noise that just happens to cloud people’s minds? Twitter is a new-ish medium, but it brings up questions that are anything but new, and the example shows that we can also learn from how historians of the Nazi era think (and not just from what they say).


Let me summarize my remarks in the following ten points.

  1. Trump will need to work with a rigid institutional framework and a responsive civil society for the foreseeable future, and that makes for a crucial difference to Mussolini and Hitler, who quickly moved beyond these constraints. What that means is that Trump’s rule will depend to a great extent on other policy makers and on society at large. Unlike what his rhetoric suggests, he can actually achieve very little without a population that is willing to go along. In other words, Trump’s rule may become a test for America’s political institutions and American society.
    Do checks and balances actually work? And how far do people go in pleasing a president who relishes in self-admiration? As you may know, Trump sent a self-congratulatory tweet after executives from the Sprint telecommunications company called him to say that they have created 5,000 jobs. The Obama administration blocked a merger of Sprint and T-Mobile in 2014, and when Sprint tries again, a lot of managers will watch to see whether that phone call was a clever strategy. Another place to look at will be Trump’s hotels and resorts in Washington and elsewhere: will this be the place that politicians and lobbyists go to in droves? Or will this be the place that every respectable person avoids because they know that this is where the cronies are? We may soon learn a lot (more) about the corporate ethics of America’s business world.
  2. Fascism in Italy and Germany had a clear set of goals and priorities. Whether Trump has clear priorities beyond his personal business interests is an open question. As it stands, there are stark tensions between his guiding thoughts and enormous tensions within his administration, and it remains to be seen how, and to what extent, these tensions will iron out. Trump has pledged to change the way Washington works, to “drain the swamp”, but maybe things are more complicated: maybe Trump just does not care about the swamp. Maybe America has elected a president that does not care for anything beyond his ego and his personal business interests. It is quite possible that we will need to criticize Trump not for what he does but for what he does not do. His administration may not repeal civil rights legislation, but it may not care about enforcing it. Trump may not deport millions of migrants, but he may not care about leaving them in a state of uncertainty. It will be important to criticize this negligence, but it will be a type of critique that is different from the critique of fascism. No one ever criticized Hitler for not enforcing the Nurnberg Laws.
  3. An erratic, unpredictable leader depends crucially on a second tier of policy makers and officials who “work towards the Führer”, to use the phrase made famous by Ian Kershaw. Hitler drew that second tier from the ranks of the Nazi movement, and he stuck with loyalists even if there proved incompetent or corrupt. Trump does not have anything of this kind. Hitler could trust in the loyalty of his inner circle because, first, they had been with him during the years of struggle (the Kampfzeit, in Nazi language), and, second, they were nothing without him. Trump’s inner circle is full of people who owe him very little – and certainly not their careers – and who know how loyalty has played out for Chris Christie and Rudy Giuliani. (And I do not even mention the administrative rank and file that is unlikely to “work towards Trump” in the way German officials worked towards Hitler.) In other words, loyalty may emerge as a critical issue in the Trump administration very soon. For example, the designated Secretary of State Rex Tillerson may soon wonder whether his commitment to Donald Trump, who selected him on the base of several recommendations and a two-hour interview, really matters more than his lifelong commitment to Exxon-Mobil.
  4. This discussion has focused overwhelmingly on the years before and just after the fascists came to power in Germany and Italy. It is in these years that we find similarities and inspiration for our current predicament. I have not completely ignored the latter years of Nazi rule: the cancerous growth of unaccountable institutions did not become a problem until after the consolidation of Nazi rule, and the intentionalism versus functionalism controversy is about the origins of the holocaust (though that reference was about analogous methodologies, not a comparison of actual events). In short, I find it very difficult to draw lessons from the last six or seven years of Nazi rule that would matter with a view to Trump, and maybe we should reflect on why this period figures so prominently in research, teaching, and collective memory. I say this specifically with a view to holocaust and genocide studies, an academic fields whose rationale has always been political as well as academic, and where it is customary to “fast-forward” until 1938 or so when things get “interesting”: this approach may not be as helpful for the challenges of the twenty-first century as we tend to assume. It is perhaps time to reflect on the political case for holocaust studies.
  5. I have stressed the similarities in the early years of fascism, but maybe I should be more specific about the nature of these similarities: they are about the threat to democracy, human rights, the rule of law, and the social and cultural scaffolding of an open society. Similarities are less clear when it comes to the precise nature of the threat: the fascist movement was very different from Trump’s movement, he operates in an economic and political context that is vastly different, and treating Trump as fascism 2.0 may obscure more than it reveals. In short, the key story is about the erosion of democracy, and it is helpful to remember that this did not only occur in Italy and Germany: it was a pan-European phenomenon during the inter-war years, and the collapse of democracy did not inevitably lead to fascist rule. Authoritarian rule comes in different forms. Only some of them are fascist, but they are all despicable.
  6. Fascism was inherently unstable in Italy and Germany, and its trajectory was subject to intended and unintended oscillations.[8] We know from the historical record that these oscillations provoked dramatic fluctuations in contemporary assessments: few people made it through the twelve years of Nazi rule without a change of opinions – a point that is often lost on scholars who seek to identify previously unknown Nazi connections. We should not repeat this mistake in our critique of Trump and we should not criticise on the basis of “the stronger, the better” (or, in my case, the more fascist Trump looks, the more convincing my analysis). For example, if Trump brings China to end its blatant dumping through subsidies on steel production, why not give him his due?
  7. We would probably be more relaxed in our approach to Trump if the experience of fascism had not taught us to think in terms of moral absolutes. A powerful strand in our current political discourse treats Nazism as a form of evil. In fact, I would argue that moral clarity (or the illusion thereof) ranks among the attractions that Nazi history has to offer in the twenty-first century: in a contemporary society full of moral ambiguities, it is strangely reassuring to have one regime where everything is clear. However, a sense of moral clarity leaves no option beyond fierce resistance: you cannot negotiate with evil. The West went to war against fascism, but going to war against Trump is foolish politically and intellectually. When it comes to political commentary, we should value accuracy and sophistication over moral vigour, and maybe we should also rethink our narratives of the Nazi era accordingly: maybe we should give more room to the ambiguous stories, to the people who faced moral dilemmas where it is difficult to say even in retrospect who was right and who was wrong.[9]
  8. The political case for holocaust studies rests on teleology. The Nazi experience teaches us what racism, eugenics, nationalism, anti-Semitism and the like can lead to – namely to genocide. It is a powerful case, and I am gratified to see that it is part of the West’s political DNA: never again! But teleologies are tricky in that they focus attention on a potential upcoming disaster. In other words, it brings us to criticize racism for what it can produce in the long run, rather than to criticize racism in its own right. It is easy to see an infatuation with a great upcoming disaster in anti-Trump rhetoric, an anticipation of escalation – but what about the smaller, quotidian disasters: the sense of insecurity among Muslims and Latinos, the brutalization of society, the emptiness of the political discourse, the collusion of interests? The Trump presidency may not lead to mass incarceration, or a stock market crash, or another war, and yet it may still be a disastrous presidency.
  9. When it comes to the erosion of democracy and the slide towards authoritarian rule, fascism is the experience that defines our collective memory. However, it defines our collective memory only because we look at the history of democracy in such a narrow way: we look only at the West, and only at the big countries. Authoritarian rule in inter-war Poland and Hungary has not entered the collective memory of Western democracies, nor have the many collapses of democratic rule in the Global South. Failing non-Western democracies appear as “something completely different” – but why? For scholars of the Global South, Trump looks very familiar: a rich man who wins an election with dubious means. In 2014, the Economist proclaimed a new age of crony capitalism and launched an index to gauge the extent of crony capitalism in various countries.[10] It seems that the United States has joined the trend.
  10. What all this comes down to is that we should reflect critically on why we are so obsessed with fascism in our critique of Trump. We can learn something from the experience of fascism: it provides lessons on democracies in danger, the dynamisms of power, and erratic leaders. But we can also learn from the many other open societies that have faced an authoritarian challenge. Democracy and human rights are always under threat, and the threat can come from many sides: from racist prejudice, from capitalist interests, or from smart-phone users who think that reliable news come for free. In other words, our infatuation with fascism grows from a sense of Western exceptionalism: a lingering Western arrogance that this is the only challenge to democracy that matters. And our infatuation with fascism stems from the discreet charm of dialectical thinking: the neat all-inclusive package of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis that frames collective memory. It goes like this: at some point, the West committed itself to democracy, human rights, and the rule of law; then it failed to honour this commitment when it succumbed to fascism; and now we can make good on this failure by keeping memory of our past sins alive. It’s a popular tacking motion of thought, easy to understand and remember, and it’s a terribly incomplete history of modern democracy.

For a long time, America nourished a sense of moral exceptionalism: the city on the hill that committed itself to a higher standard than other countries. It has always been more convincing as a myth than as a description of reality, and the election of Donald Trump may well mark the end of the entire idea: neither Trump nor his voters seem to care about the idea of America as a moral example, or about the president as the leader of the free world. So if America no longer sees itself as exceptional, why should we treat it as such and compare it only to large advanced modern countries of the West? The story of democracy, human rights, and the rule of law is a global one, and we should situate the story of Trump accordingly. The story of fascism is an important part of this global story. But it is just one of many stories that are waiting to be told.


[1]    I will focus on Germany and Italy in the following, with more emphasis on the former. I am aware that Spain, Italy, Hungary, and Romania had fascist governments as well, but I doubt that they can contribute much to the question at hand.

[2]    Ian Kershaw, To Hell and Back. Europe, 1914-1949 (London: Penguin, 2016), p. 135.

[3]    Michael Wildt, An Uncompromising Generation. The Nazi Leadership of the Reich Security Main Office (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2009).

[4]    Karl Dietrich Bracher, Die Auflösung der Weimarer Republik. Eine Studie zum Problem des Machtverfalls in der Demokratie (Stuttgart: Ring-Verlag, 1955).

[5]    Carl Schmitt, Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1985), p. 5.

[6]    Cf. Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine. The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (New York: Henry Holt, 2007).

[7]    I am aware of Franz W. Seidler, Fritz Todt. Baumeister des Dritten Reiches (Schnellbach: Bublies, 2000 [originally Munich: Herbig, 1986). It is a book-length biography, but not decent.

[8]    It was different in Spain and Portugal – part of the reason why these countries are not discussed in this presentation.

[9]    For my own attempt to tell these ambiguous stories, see Frank Uekoetter, The Green and the Brown. A History of Conservation in Nazi Germany (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006).

[10]   The Economist of March 15th, 2014.

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Where are You From? Making the Brazilian Northeast: A Region in the Nation and the World (1924-1968)

Our guest blog-post this week is by today’s research seminar speaker, and a new member of the Birmingham History Dept., Dr. Courtney J. Campbell. Thanks Courtney!



The Carnaval block known as the Cordão das Coca-Colas, which, following World War II, consisted of men who dressed as Brazilian women who had dated U.S. soldiers during the war, in order to ridicule the women. Cordão das Coca-Colas, Arquivo Nirez, Fortaleza, Ceará.


— Where are you from?

— I grew up down the road. / I am from Ortonville. / I’m from a small town. You’ve probably never heard of it. / I am from Michigan. / I am a Midwesterner. / I’m from the United States. / I grew up not too far from Canada. / I grew up in the United States, but have lived here for years. / I’m from the U.S. – just got here a month ago. / I’m not from around here.

How you answer the basic question of origin – the depth of detail, specifics of location, or generalities of nation or region you offer – likely depends on who asked, where you were at the moment, and what was happening around you. The responses reflect a constant negotiation of geographic scale in our everyday understandings of a sense of place. For the questioner, the responses also come packaged with cultural characteristics, accents, historical narrative, and stereotypes.

My book focuses on the Brazilian Northeast—the region of Brazil considered at once the poorest, the most backward, the most rebellious, and yet the most culturally authentic. It emphasizes that notions of ‘north-easterness’ circulated among social classes and reflected increasing concerns of north-easterners from several walks of life with their place in the world at a moment of intense international and national change.

Within Brazil, the north-eastern region is considered at once the poorest, the most backward, the most rebellious, and yet the most culturally authentic region. Its cultural authenticity comes from a sense of isolation: the region is accepted as disengaged from the world around it and rooted in a rustic, illiterate past. It is in the Northeast that Brazilian culture is often thought to hide from the world around it, remaining untouched and pure, yet underdeveloped.

My book argues, on the contrary, that ideas about the region and its meaning circulated among social groups and across international lines. In a nation that either disparaged or folklorised their region, north-easterners brought their hopes and grievances directly to an international sphere, stepping out of their expected place and generating conflicted responses at the national level. As the region’s international status changed, so did what its residents chose to preserve of its culture, how they defined the culture, who they considered to belong within it, and who they chose to represent it symbolically.

Each chapter of my book presents a different event or moment of intense international interaction in which meanings of the Northeast and its place in the world are questioned and debated. It begins in 1926 with the Regionalist Conference of Recife (Chapter 1) and ends in 1968 with a change in focus of the international aid project called the Alliance for Progress and Martha Vasconcellos’ victory as Miss Universe. Along the way, it examines a protest by north-eastern fishermen and an Orson Welles movie about it (Chapter 2), international dating and allegorical representations of it during World War II (Chapter 3), a mobilization to bring a World Cup soccer match to Recife in 1950 (Chapter 4), debates over the ability of different Miss Brazil contestants to represent their region and nation at the Miss Universe events (Chapter 5), and interactions between the U.S. Alliance for Progress, Brazil’s Superintendency of Development for the Northeast (SUDENE), and the popular culture and education movement known as the Movimento de Cultura Popular (MCP – Popular Culture Movement, Chapter 6).

My analysis of international events in the north-eastern region demonstrates that regional identity in the Northeast is multivalent by nature and in a process of constant negotiation between state and intellectual invention and popular imagination, mediated by the region’s inhabitants and exiles. Becoming north-eastern, then, is better understood as an incomplete process of negotiation, mediation, contestation, and only brief moments of consensus.

Understanding the relationship between region, nation, and world is important not only for interpreting the Northeast or Brazil, but for understanding the development of the modern nation. Oaxaca in Mexico, the Scottish Highlands in the UK, the Deep South in the U.S., and Southern Italy are examples of one region—often the poorest—serving as counterpoint to the more dynamic regions of the nation as the area considered ‘backwards’, yet culturally ‘authentic’. Understanding the nation as an interrelated yet unequal group of regions became a portable, internationally repeated way of imagining the nation in the 20th century. The Brazilian Northeast serves as an example of how regions and their cultural identities were solidified through their engagement with the world around them at a moment of intense international change and an expanding international consumer culture.

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North African Phosphate, Global Food Regimes and the Legacies of Empire

This week’s post is re-blogged from from the French newspaper Libération and its Africa blog, by kind permission.

Entrée d’une galerie de la mine de Khouribga. Photographie tirée d’une publicité de l’Office Chérifien des Phosphates de 1952. FR ANOM. Aix-en-Provence : BIB AOM //4911 Office chérifien des phosphates. – Les realisations de l’Office en faveur de son personnel journalier, Rabat : Maroc-Matin, 1952.

Why did you decide to study the history of North African phosphates?

North African phosphates are important mainly because they contain phosphorous. Along with nitrogen and potassium, phosphorous is an element vital to plant growth and soil fertility. Without fertilizer made partly from phosphate-derived phosphorous, the expanded food production achieved in the twentieth century and the global food system we have today would be essentially impossible. As Dana Cordell and others have pointed out, where once local manure and imported guano provided alternatives, humans now depend completely on phosphorous extracted from phosphate rock to feed the world’s population. Moreover, supplies of rock phosphate are neither unlimited nor renewable. Like oil, rock phosphate is a finite resource and reserves are likely to last another 50-100 years only. The vast majority of remaining phosphate rock reserves are in North Africa, mainly in Morocco, which alone controls almost 6 billion of the remaining 15 billion tons.

So the history of this powdery rock is intimately related to the food eaten every day around the world – not for nothing does the Moroccan state phosphate company (OCP), prominently feature ticking world population and arable land counters on its website. With few exceptions, historians and social scientists have neglected phosphate mining in North Africa, especially by contrast with the better known cases of Pacific islands like Nauru and Banaba. Increasing attention has been given to hydrocarbons like oil and coal, and to commodities more generally, without studying the extractive processes that underpin the world’s food production system.

I was also interested by the fact that phosphate mining came into being in the last decades of European colonial empire in North Africa, between 1900 and 1960. The creation of the industry in the colonial situation left behind important legacies for the independent states of North Africa. Tunisia, Algeria and especially Morocco all came to independence endowed with substantial, and inter-connected phosphate mining infrastructure: mines, railways, engineers, miners and whole towns focused on phosphate. The phosphate mining companies themselves became important actors in the shaping of North African countries after independence, especially in Morocco, where the OCP provided significant revenue and geo-political clout to the state. So I chose to study the ways in which phosphate mining as a system shaped both the global food regime but also the transition from a world of colonial empire to one of national states.

What are the origins of phosphate mining in North Africa?

The first discoveries took place in the 1890s in the Tunisian mining basin around Gafsa. By 1900 mining in Gafsa was established, as guano production fell away worldwide. From its inception the industry was marked by intense political and legal combat, both between French and settler colonial capitalists, and locally in terms of the use of common land for mining or in terms of local farmers’ opposition to mine work. The Gafsa mines rapidly drew in miners from across the Maghreb, especially from the Moroccan Atlas, but also from Sicily and from Algeria. As Hamza Meddeb has shown, for many years local farmers around Gafsa, as across much of the Maghreb, combined mine work with seasonal agricultural work, to the dismay of the mining companies. The details of geology and geography also proved decisive to the history of each site: at Metlaouï (Al-Mitlawi) in Tunisia the phosphate rock was massive and solid, but just across the border at Tbessa in Algeria it was crumbly, requiring different methods and expertise to mitigate the risk of collapse. Disasters nevertheless occurred and it is telling that in one case, a mine collapse at Metlaouï in October 1900, the French colonial archive dedicates more attention to the suicide of the French chief engineer than to the 32 “Arab and Sicilian” dead. The mining companies also fought for access to railways to control transport costs, and in some cases, such as that of the Compagnie des Phosphates et du Chemin de Fer de Sfax-Gafsa(CPG), they built and owned their own lines, shaping the wider landscape.

The Gafsa mines provided a paradigm and a resource for phosphate mining across the colonial Maghreb: I describe this as an ‘archipelago’ of ‘Phosphatevilles’ across North Africa. The major discoveries made in Morocco at the close of World War One were influenced by settlers, miners, engineers and political-economic lessons learned in Tunisia and Algeria before 1914. For example the French Resident-General, Hubert Lyautey, deliberately shaped the OCP after 1918 as a quasi-public institution to avoid the power that private mining interests had acquired in Tunisia and Algeria. Khouribga, in the El Borouj region of Morocco, on the Oulad Abdoun plateau some 120 km south-east of Casablanca, quickly became the most potent phosphate mine in North Africa. Indeed after independence the OCP, building on its late colonial status, came to dominate African phosphate production. By 1962 it had therefore acquired significant investments in Togolese, Beninois, and Algerian phosphate companies, re-formulating the inter-connected phosphate archipelago of the colonial period. In time Morocco also became the country that controlled the largest global reserves, including at Bu-Craa in Western Sahara.

What characterized mining work in the period you study?

Mobility and migration, for instance from the Atlas to Khouribga, or across the Maghreb to Tunisia, or even to the coal mines of the Nord-Pas de Calais, was a key characteristic. Another, of course, was the dangers and difficulties of mining, both from collapses and also from health risks and disease, for example lung illnesses like silicosis. Another danger came from corporate and colonial health strategies such as the use of DDT spraying of miners, even as the increased use of power shovels and open cast mining reduced overall personnel underground.

Second, miners constantly resisted and subverted a labour regime organized around colonial racial hierarchy and the distinction between settler and indigenous, citizen and subject. For example they sold on corporate identity documents to other workers in order to control their own mobility and work seasons.

Third, the mines also became centres for labour organization, which by the 1930s was marked by both anti-colonial nationalism and by debates on indigenous labour rights within unions such as the CGT. In the wake of the Vichy regime and the US occupation of North Africa, some mining engineers and managers were fired, with the support of the unions, for collaboration with the Nazis.

Finally, by the 1950s mining sites such as Khouribga and Louis-Gentil (Youssoufia) became showcases in which the French authorities tried to demonstrate the political benevolence and the developmental investments of French power against a backdrop of anti-colonial insurgency across the region. The provision of schools, housing, hospitals and even holiday camps for miners’ children was vaunted in late colonial propaganda as a justification for French rule – even as the ‘Phosphatevilles’ became hotbeds of anti-colonial activity.

Although this project is in its early stages, I hope to develop it in particular by building an archive of interviews and documentation on the experience of phosphate mine labour across the colonial and postcolonial Maghreb, to complement the more imperial and global dimensions of the story and show how the agro-chemical revolution in the world nutritional regime rested on the specific, and often forgotten social and economic history of late-colonial phosphate extraction.

Simon Jackson, University of Birmingham

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Guest Post: The Imperial Sociology of the ‘tribe’ in Afghanistan

 This week’s guest blog-post comes from our Modern & Contemporary History Research Seminar speaker this week,

Dr. Nivi Manchanda (Leiden)



‘Pashtun Tribal Map’ Source: University of West Florida.


“When one says “Afghan people” what I believe they are really saying is “tribal member”. Every single Afghan is a part of a tribe and understands how the tribe operates and why. This is key for us to understand. Understanding and operating within the tribal world is the only way we can ever know who our friends and enemies are, how the Afghan people think and what is important to them. Because, above all, they are tribesmen first.”[1]


For 200 years, from the time of the first engagement of the British imperialists with the country, to debates and strategies connected with the post 9/11 occupation, the “tribe” has been a notion intimately related to the West’s study of and involvement in Afghanistan. A particular lens through which the early East India Company administrators made sense of the alien people they were encountering, “the tribes” soon became the irrefutable marker of Afghan society, polity, and culture.


Indeed, the “tribe”, as a generic signifier for most relations and identities in Afghanistan appears to have displaced the need for a deep theoretical engagement with the changing political and social configurations in the country. This concept, widely used in the British Empire and initially deployed to capture a specific network of relations at a given historical juncture, has become increasingly de-historicised, losing any conceptual purchase and clarity it may once have had. Exemplified in the above statement by US General Jim Gant in 2009, it remains a dominant trope in the Western analysis and understanding of Afghanistan.


Even those such as Barnett Rubin and Thomas Barfield, that have recognised that the discourse of tribalism is problematic have not fully acknowledged its historical pedigree as a practice borne out of imperial violence. A key aim of my research then, is to unearth and make explicit the ways in which colonialism inheres within the very concept of tribe.


Tribes in Afghanistan are read as having a “potted history”. Popular images of Afghans, or more precisely Pashtuns, on whom the bulk of historiography has focused, have changed in line with the rise and fall of outside interest in the country[2]. Indeed there still exists considerable confusion about who exactly the Afghans, the Pashtuns, and the Pathans are and what their relation to each other is. For Shah Mahmoud Hanifi, for instance, Afghans, Pashtuns, and Pathans are distinct and separable groups because each group comes to “textual light and social life” in different historical contexts, and each group has its own dynamic historical relationship to Pashto and other languages, including Persian and Indian and Turkic languages. In the nineteenth century, meanwhile, “Pathan” frontier tribesmen were depicted as independent warriors in the British Empire and were prominent in the British (and possibly wider) consciousness as actors in the Great Game that was assumed to define Central Asia at the time.[3]


More recently, there has been a return to the original nineteenth-century narrative – or what Richard Tapper has called the “Kipling version” – of the Afghans first and foremost as tribesmen, driven by tribal logics and “ethnic” concerns.[4] In this vein, prominent Afghanistan scholar Olivier Roy has argued that the rise of the Taliban should be seen as “la revanche des Pachtounes”, or the revenge of the Pashtuns, especially the Durrani, currently considered the biggest and most prominent “tribal group”, in spite of the Taliban’s own insistence that they are an anti-feudal and “anti-tribal” movement.[5] This notion has become so widely accepted that it could be blithely remarked in 2010 that “[t]o be a Taliban today means little more than to be a Pashtun tribesman who believes that his fundamental beliefs and customary way of life, including the right to bear arms or defend the tribal homeland and protect its women, are threatened by foreign invaders”.[6]


In my research and in my talk at the Centre for Modern & Contemporary History, then, I map the way in which the term “tribe” has been deployed in the Afghan context, further problematising the concept and showing how a monolithic and unreflective body of work has become the norm in reference to Afghan social organisation.

[1] Jim Gant, “One Tribe at a Time: A Strategy for Success in Afghanistan” (Los Angeles, CA: Nine Sisters Imports, 2009), 11.
[2] See Hanifi, “Quandaries of the Afghan Nation”. Here I use the words interchangeably to remain consistent with the spirit in which they were employed by the British at the time.
[3] Contrary to popular belief, The Great Game was far from the only or even the most important narrative at the time. For more on this see: Benjamin Hopkins, The Making of Modern Afghanistan, 34; and Martin Bayly, “The ‘Re-turn’ to Empire in IR: Colonial Knowledge Communities and the Construction of the Idea of the Afghan polity, 1809–38”, Review of International Studies 7, forthcoming.
[4] Tapper, “Studying Pashtuns in Barth’s Shadow”, 228.
[5] Roy, cited in Tapper, “Studying Pashtuns in Barth’s Shadow”, 227.
[6] Scott Atran, Talking to the Enemy: Violent Extremism, Sacred Values and What it Means to be Human (London: Penguin, 2011), 262.


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Watchdogs for Watchdogs? VW emissions testing scandal shows that environmental governance is in trouble

Frank Uekötter, University of Birmingham

If we cannot figure out how to properly test car emissions, we might as well give up on regulating forests, factories or garbage dumps. After all, cars ought to be ideal targets for environmental regulators. They’re largely standardised – most look and act more or less the same – and they’re produced by the thousand or million. Test one Volkswagen Polo and you should have tested them all. In theory.

Yet it hasn’t worked like that in practice. A month after the VW scandal broke most eyes are still on the German carmaker and its plunging shares, the desk clearing in management, and its hectic efforts at retrofitting. Fewer people are reflecting on what the scandal means for our system of environmental governance. This is missing the bigger story.

Bypassing the system

In a way, the emissions scandal shows there is a difference between clever cheating and dumb cheating. By its own admission, Volkswagen tampered with the car’s software in order to get good emission figures in testing mode. This is dumb cheating, especially if you get caught: it’s clearly against the rules.

But what if car manufacturers and regulators agree on a set of rules for testing that could deliver good figures for fuel efficiency? It is widely known that cars achieve notably better mileage per gallon on the test stand than in everyday practice. In fact, the difference has increased dramatically in recent years: according to the International Council on Clean Transportation, the NGO whose emission tests led to the fall of Volkswagen, the gap between official and actual carbon dioxide emissions in new European cars grew from 8% in 2001 to 40% in 2014. Such a divergence is clearly misleading customers and the general public, but it’s not illegal. That’s smart cheating.

Das going to cost you.
Reuters Pictures/Darren Ornitz

Standard setting on environmental matters is a murky area that few people bother to enter. Scientific results may provide some guidance, but there is always room for interpretation, and many rules and regulations are negotiated behind closed doors. The botched numbers for fuel efficiency are a good occasion to take a closer look. Is this the power of the automobile industry at work? Is this about lazy bureaucrats whose principal aim in life is to be out of the office at five? Or maybe it is about a third party such as the facilities that do the actual testing?

Testing times

Negotiations over test procedures are inherently boring, but they matter a lot. If the upcoming Paris climate summit finally seals a deal on global warming, it will all be about numbers, and there will be endless worries if we can no longer trust them. Thanks to standardised mass production, cars should be one relatively simple part of a global system of emissions regulations. If we cannot secure reliable numbers here, we are in trouble when it comes to forests, soils, and other parts of the biosphere.

The trouble with test procedures is particularly disturbing since there really is not much room for debate. It is obvious that numbers should be accurate and that tests should reflect the real world. It’s also clear that an independent authority should certify the rules. The Volkswagen scandal indicates the industrial economies of the West cannot sustain that kind of independence anymore.

When today’s framework of environmental governance evolved in the 1970s, the general idea was that environmental ministries and other government bodies would serve as a counterweight to the vested interest. Now it turns out that the presumed watchdog is curiously reluctant to bark. A lot has been written over the last month about the loss of trust, but it’s really a matter of institutions rather than morals. Maybe we need a watchdog for the watchdog?

Volkswagen has shown the huge toll of dumb cheating, but the scandal also suggests the risk of getting caught was not significant. The story only broke because of a study that worked with a grand total of three cars, two of which happened to be Volkswagens. A cash-strapped NGO could not afford to cast a wider net, and it was a matter of luck that it made the right choices. No system of environmental governance can rely on these kinds of coincidences.

Volkswagen’s managers are red-faced, but that will be a temporary thing. They will either change their corporate culture, or there will be no more Volkswagen managers. Whether regulators are red-faced is anyone’s guess, but they certainly should be embarrassed. The question is whether anyone bothers to look them in the face.

The Conversation

Frank Uekötter, Reader in Environmental Humanities, University of Birmingham

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Writing the History of Food Security since 1945

This week’s guest post comes from Dr. Silvia Salvatici, Associate Professor of Contemporary History at the University of Milan. She writes on post-war societies, women refugees, gender and human rights, and European displaced persons in the aftermath of WWII.

Here she introduces some new research on the history of global food security, a topic connected to the Modern & Contemporary History Centre’s upcoming winter roundtable, on 4 December, on the theme “Disentangling the World: The Politics of Autarky after the First World War“.


Writing the History of Food Security since 1945

DP children in Rosenheim, Germany, 1946, pictured before beginning their evening meal. National Archives and Records Administration, USA, 260-MGG-1062-08. Photo courtesy of Silvia Salvatici.


Silvia Salvatici (Università di Milano)

In 1993 the authors of a bibliographic survey conducted for the Institute of Development Studies noted that in the literature “there is no single definition” of food security “but rather a complex weave of inter-related strands, which are adjusted to suit the needs and priority of individual users”[1]. More than twenty years later, this assertion still seems to hold true, in spite of a proliferation of studies that have opened up specific areas of research across a variety of disciplines linking food security to processes of globalization, environmental issues, human rights and individual crisis regions.

The absence of any “single definition” and the presence of different sets of “priorities of individual users” reveal how varied and complex the scholarship is, but they also provide an important opportunity to historians seeking to interpret the measures deployed in the past to combat hunger and malnutrition. The expression “food security” itself, for example, entered current usage in the early nineteen seventies, when the international community was forced to deal with an unexpected dearth of agricultural products on markets and a food crisis afflicting the world’s poorest regions.

In recent years historical studies have been mainly concerned with the meanings attributed to the idea of food security – even if this wasn’t always the expression used – and on how those attributed meanings led to initiatives to alleviate food insecurity. Adopting a variety of perspectives and chronologies, such studies have drawn attention to the many different players and principles involved in determining food needs and the measures aimed at satisfying them.

One of the main streams of scholarship has viewed food security as a matter for global governance and it has looked at the role assumed by international organizations in this regard. In line with this approach, a number of studies have identified the period following the Second World War as a transitional phase, when food security began to be addressed as a separate issue within the United Nations with the setting up of the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO, 1945) and later the World Food Programme (WFP, 1961). The end of the Second World War has, thus, come to be seen as the beginning of a period that ushered in contemporary food policies. How these policies subsequently unfolded has itself now become a topic of special interest for scholars.

Accordingly, the articles of a recent special issue of the journal Contemporanea: Rivista di storia dell’800 e del ‘900 devoted to “Food Security in the Contemporary World” all focus on global food policies during the second half of the twentieth century[2]. They analyze the institutional framework represented by the United Nations, the ideology of development, and the role of food security in international relations as connecting threads during the decades that followed the end of the Second World War.

However, like many recent studies, this special issue considers 1945 less as a departure point and more as a pivot that needs to be contextualized within a longer chronology, including both the interwar years and the time after the Second World War. In fact, an important cluster of studies has emphasized how the idea endorsed by the United Nations – that food security was a matter for concerted global governance – was already visible in the earlier activities of the League of Nations.

Studying food security as a matter for global governance allows us to trace extended chronologies and identify new turning points, and to this end the history of international organizations (IOs) can offer useful insights. However, the essays in the special issue of Contemporanea show how the role of international organizations can only be fully grasped by looking closely not just at IOs themselves, but at the many players – national governments, non-state actors, experts – who were involved in designing and implementing measures against hunger and malnutrition. This cluster of studies provides a compelling picture of the current state of the research and it also suggests, we hope, new areas that modern and contemporary historians might begin to explore.

[1] M. Smith, M., J. Pointing, and S. Maxwell, Household Food Security: Concepts and Definitions. An annotated Bibliography, Brighton, Institute of Development Studies, 1993, p. 136.

[2] “Food Security in the Contemporary World”, special issue of Contemporanea. Rivista di storia dell’800 e del ‘900, essays of Heike Wieters, Silvia Inaudi, Elisa Grandi, Ruth Jachertz, Alana Mann

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