Category Archives: History on the streets

Cairo, Vienna, Athens: Empire and Class on Planet Bailout.

Aufruf (Anleihe), Vˆlkerbundanleihe, 1923.06.01
Aufruf (Anleihe), Völkerbundanleihe, 1923.06.01. (League of Nations Loan, Austrian tranche issue date: 1 June) Bildarchiv Austria, PLA16304352.

Nathan Marcus


HSE, St. Petersburg

The debates surrounding the Greek bailout have prompted a look at historical examples of foreign financial assistance. Writing on colonial bailouts and the Austrian financial reconstruction of the 1920s, Jamie Martin discerns continuities that boil down to curtailing a state’s sovereignty in order to ensure the servicing of foreign debt. Installing foreign commissions of control that curtailed fiscal policy and public spending, from the Ottoman Public Debt Administration or the bailout of Egypt’s Khedive to the League of Nations’ schemes during the interwar period, prevented default or allowed for the provision of new foreign loans.[1]

Martin concludes by criticizing the League’s interwar interventions for introducing semi-colonial methods to Europe, noting the dangers such a precedent created for the future sovereignty of European states. Of course sovereign states are never completely free to do as they please. Nor does it seem unreasonable that creditors of bankrupt states link the supply of new capital, or the partial forgiveness of existing debt, to certain conditions. This is particularly true in cases where public funds or state guarantees are involved because private institutions refuse to lend money at reasonable interest rates. What is reminiscent of colonialism then, is not the partial curtailing of sovereignty itself, but rather the kind and the extent of conditions that are imposed and they way they get realized, sometimes against the explicit will of voters.

Key to Martin’s argument is that the League’s financial assistance programmes, foremost the Austrian reconstruction scheme of the 1920s, were extensive creditor-imposed infringements of sovereignty not unlike their colonial precedents in Egypt and elsewhere, and that they went on to inspire IMF Structural Adjustment Programs in the post-WWII era. The Austrian intervention is, on this account, an important pivot from disciplining the Khedive to disciplining Alexis Tsipras. And while it is indeed helpful to look at these programmes through the wide-angled lens of financial imperialism across the twentieth century, we must not neglect the transnational and domestic class relations and specific social histories that underpinned such interventions. The League assistance provided to Austria did provoke loud outcries about the alleged “Ottomanization” of the country, both from the Socialist left and the Pan-German right, but it was also welcomed by Austria’s industrial and administrative elites. Upon League General Commissioner Alfred Zimmerman’s arrival in Vienna, the liberal Neue Freie Presse hailed him as a “friend of Austria” and wrote:

The General Commissioner will not act like a Tyrant, he will only strengthen the government’s backbone, he will give it the moral authority to do what it itself desires to do and what it must do in order to live up to its commitments and prevent a relapse into the economics of stagnation and bankruptcy.[2]

Installing a form of foreign control in Austria was thus not a measure all its citizens were equally opposed to. There is every reason to believe that the conservative Chancellor and former Prelate Ignaz Seipel himself pushed for the idea, which was coupled to a so-called Empowerment-law that would allow him to rule by decree and outflank the strong socialist opposition. But local elites welcomed the League and its measures not just as a bastion against socialism, but also as a guarantor for what they considered sound economic policy, budgetary transparency and important socioeconomic change. At the core of Austria’s predicament were its enormous budget deficit and the destructive hyperinflation it entailed, both of which required heavy and unpopular cut-backs in fiscal spending. The League’s involvement provided the government with a tool to overcome a disastrous political and budgetary stalemate and, more importantly, with a scapegoat to blame for unpopular measures and thereby safeguard political peace in the country.[3]

The truth is that Mr Zimmerman hardly played any meaningful role beyond that of a useful scapegoat. Even before the League loan for Austria had been floated on foreign capital markets, Austrian Chancellor Seipel and his government mocked Zimmerman, ignored his inquires and circumvented his control whenever possible. Zimmerman himself became increasingly frustrated and disillusioned (he blamed the fact that the empowerment law had not been implemented as agreed), but the League of Nations was too invested (perhaps much like the European leaders in Greece today) to announce the project a failure – and so it kept up public impression that it was coming along as planned. The reconstruction scheme still proved an initial success, with foreign confidence in Austria rebounding and foreign capital flowing into the country, contributing to a boom on the Vienna stock-exchange, the flow of foreign loans to its banks and industries and short-term financing of its foreign trade.

The main reason for the temporary success of the League ‘s intervention lay not in foreign control of Austria’s budget, the pledging of revenues to foreign creditors and an infringement of Austrian sovereignty. Much like Greece today, the country’s economy was in dire need of hugely unpopular reforms, but the country’s political parties were too divided or lacked the necessary trust to find common ground and agree on changes. While politicians believed cutbacks were necessary, they were unwilling to take the blame and pay the political cost of implementing them. Meanwhile industrialists and bankers knew that only foreign loans could help rebuild the Austrian economy.[4] The most important contribution of the League was hence to give the government and the opposition the necessary moral and political cover to implement unpopular, but necessary changes, while blaming the cost in unemployment on Zimmerman, foreign financial interests, the League of Nations in Geneva, or even the Bank of England. The result was a balanced budget, a stable currency and economic recovery.

As charges of financial imperialism continue to be raised, its relationship to domestic class conflict should not be overlooked, even if the specifics of the latter are harder to grasp from case to case. Debt restructuring or financial reconstruction like in 1920s Austria inevitably required the balancing of public accounts through the curtailment of government expenditures and an increase in taxation. Given the existing balance of power between capitalists, industrialists, and the army on one hand and workers and unions on the other, supporting local elites’ self-allocated “right” to determine the nature of “their country’s” economic policies might have been the easiest way to lower borrowing costs. Where European intervention in nineteenth century Egypt, the League in 1920s Austria and the IMF’s Structural Adjustment Programs after WWII invariably failed was to protect those weakest in society from the costs of economic reform. Serving as a scapegoat, such interventions helped and sometimes encouraged entrenched national elites to impose measures in ways that disproportionately hurt the economically weak or politically powerless. It is this seeming disregard for the plain human suffering incurred by foreign bailouts that continues to evoke connotations of colonialism.

Importantly, after the League left Austria in 1926, the political polarization and blame-game returned and very quickly made Austria ungovernable. Political and economic elites squandered the opportunities League control had provided them with and instead led the country from one financial crisis to another. The fact that in Greece it is the left-wing Syriza that has negotiated reforms to supposedly heal the country’s economy might therefore present an important break in the continuity of economic government. If Syriza indeed gets re-elected and manages to form a coalition it will be a left-wing led government that will be forced to implement creditor demands in Greece, a fact that might or might not bode well for the future political stability of the country. Either way, observers of the situation will be well advised to pay close attention not just to creditor colonialism but also to internal Greek politics and class relations, which will significantly determine how it ends up exiting the current imbroglio.


[1] Mauro Megliani, Sovereign Debt: Genesis- Restructuring-Litigation (Springer, 2015), pp. 68-71.

[2] “Ankunft des Generalkomissärs in Wien“ in Neue Freie Presse, 15 Dec. 1922, p. 1. The original text reads as follows: „Der Generakomissär wird nicht den Tyrannen spielen, er wird nur der Regierung das Rückgrat stärken, er wird ihr die moralische Autorität geben das zu tun, was sie selber tun will und was sie tun muss, um ihren Pflichten zu genügen und den Rückfall in die Versumpfung und Bankerottiererwirtschaft zu verhindern.“ True to its political orientation, the socialist Arbeiterzeitung ignored Zimmerman’s arrival and the following day chose to mock the Neue Freie Presse’s adulations, commenting that with the General Commissioner’s appearance, Austria had ceased to be a “free and independent state.” “Die Ankunft” in Arbeiterzeitung, 16 Dec. 1922, p. 3.

[3] Tony Judt has argued similarly that it were domestic goals of change and reform that motivated most European statesmen to embrace the rhetoric of a united continent after 1945. See, Tony Judt, A Grand Illusion? An Essay on Europe (New York: NYU Press, 2011), p. 4.

[4] “Es ist ja auch Ihnen, hochverehrter Herr Minister bekannt, dass die wirtschaftliche Lage unseres Landes es unbedingt erforderlich erscheinen lässt, unseren heimischen Unternehmungen fremdes, wenn möglich westländisches Kapital zuzuführen. Nur mit Hilfe der billiger verzinslichen ausländischen Gelder wird es möglich sein, durch Investitionen die Productionsfähigkeit unserer Industrie auf eine konkurrenzfähige Höhe zu bringen.“ Vienna Chamber of Commerce to Minister Franckenstein, 26 Jun. 1924. Archiv der Republik, 01/9, Box 102.

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Big city street life

On the Guardian website today they have some pictures by John Thomson, the Edinburgh-born pioneer of street photography. There’s a topical picture of the day, of bonfire night in 1876 (fireworks are going off in the distance as I write this, unless it’s the kids upstairs stamping about) and a gallery of photos from the famous series he published with Adolphe Smith, Street life in London—a copy of the book has just gone up for sale at auction. (It first came out as a series of monthly magazines.)

A Boatwoman, by John ThomsonBut Street life in London was far from being Thomson’s first major work: for most of the decade from 1862 to 1872, he was living and working across east Asia, initially as an instrument-maker but then as a photographer. Wikipedia has these understated words about his exploits:

Thomson’s travels in China were often perilous, as he visited remote, almost unpopulated regions far inland. Most of the people he encountered had never seen a Westerner or camera before. His expeditions were also especially challenging because he had to transport his bulky wooden camera, many large, fragile glass plates, and potentially explosive chemicals.

A Knife-grinder, by John Thomson

As these pictures of a boatwoman and a knife-grinder show, Thomson had plenty of experience of street photography before he returned to Britain and settled in London. But he’d also picked up some experience that would serve him in his later career as a portrait photographer in Mayfair (he got a royal warrant in 1881). This image, for example, shows Mao Changxi, a senior Chinese minister who appears to have a pretty diffident attitude to the camera:

Mao Changxi, by John ThomsonThese images are from the Wellcome Collection, which has a fine selection of Thomson’s Chinese photos to explore here. There’s a web resource at the National Library of Scotland, too, related to a past exhibition—but the photos there are a bit too small to appreciate. It’s a pity, as they include this beautiful land-and-seascape, which I’ve left small so it doesn’t appear too pixellated.

A Canton Junk, by John ThomsonNow there are fireworks going off on the back green, so I’ll leave it at that.

Click images for source — the higher-res Wellcome Collection images are released under a Creative Commons licence


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Maori remains

An announcement about an event on campus later in the week. Please contact June Jones for further information, not the Centre. Her email address is below.

Maori carved house post from Tanenuiarangi meeting house, Waipapa marae, University of AucklandThe University is pleased to be returning a collection of Maori human remains to representatives of the New Zealand Museum Te Papa in October 2013. As part of their visit, we are delighted to invite you to the following events:

The importance of returning Mäori remains to their homelands in Aotearoa New Zealand

Our Maori guests will explain the importance of returning human remains and Maori cultural objects. They will detail the research that has been taking place in New Zealand about how remains were collected for transport throughout Europe, and how remains are dealt with on their return. This will be a very moving seminar, and relevant for anyone interested in colonial history, repatriation work and ways in which minority groups can be honoured. The seminar is free, open to all members of the University and members of the public. No need to book, so please just come along and bring friends.

Venue: Arthur Thomson Lecture Theatre, Medical School.
Date: Thursday 17 October 2013.
Time: 4-5pm

A unique opportunity to hear Maori music and song!

After the repatriation seminar, we will be moving on to the newly opened Bramall Music Building.
Maori elders will be giving a presentation about
•         traditional Maori waiata (chants and songs)
•         musical instruments including the putatara (conch shell trumpet),
•         koauau and Nguru (two types of Maori flutes).

They will play the instruments and also sing examples of their waiata (chants and songs), which will form part of a formal handover ceremony of ancient Maori remains the following day.
This informal presentation will be a must for anyone interested in ancient forms of music, traditional native cultures and the richness of diverse inheritance. Come along to hear and meet our Maori guests.

This is a free event, open to members of the University and members of the public.

Venue: Foyer, Bramall Music building
Date: Thursday 17 October, 2013
Time: 5.30-6pm

For any further information, please contact Dr June Jones on

Click image for source


Garden cities

Plan du projet de la cité-jardin de Stains, 1920Our colleague Matt Houlbrook’s blog post today about Welwyn Garden City in 1920 got me thinking about the cité-jardin of Stains, north of Paris, built at about the same time and very much under the influence of les garden city across the Channel. I spent a happy afternoon wandering around it in September of last year with some friends, one of whom was working there on a public history and heritage project. You can read more about it in slightly erratic English here, or in greater detail in French here (or just look at the pictures, which are better on the French site). Stains, by the way, is pronounced more like ‘Stan’ than ‘stains’. I’ll admit I find it funny every time I see a sign for it somewhere on a main road in the Parisian banlieue.

The Stains cité-jardin was one of several ambitious social housing projects carried out in the Paris region in the 1920s and 30s. Here’s a striking modernist map produced by the Office public d’habitations du département de la Seine in 1933, showing where they all were:


Most of them ran into significant problems later—because they didn’t get the sustained investment they needed to maintain their initial high standards; because the very moderne layouts of public and private areas turned out to make for noisy, echoing, and unpleasantly exposed public spaces; above all, because local authorities lost interest in them and the people who’d been decanted into them. I found myself thinking of the ‘Bullring’—not the shopping centre in Birmingham but the social housing in central Liverpool whose official title is St Andrews Gardens, which ran into many of the same problems. I asked my mum about it just now; she texted back to say she remembered its bad reputation. (It’s now been redeveloped as student accommodation.) Here’s an excellent photo by Flickr user SomeDriftwood:

St Andrews Gardens

St Andrews Gardens is the sort of development—possibly the same one, anonymized as ‘Roundhouse’—where Howard Parker did the research for his classic urban ethnography, View from the boys (1974), which notes on p. 25 that:

In the 1950s the ‘gardens’ disappeared, due to vandalism and neglect, and the whole courtyard area was tarmaced. [This didn’t make the acoustics any less harsh.] Even a Housing Manager admitted that ‘Tarmac is a supreme example of dealing with things in an ad hoc manner. It is the Corporation’s message to the tenants—we’ve finished with you now, we give up.’ It was not until the 1960s that the air-raid shelters in the courtyard were removed.

Something similar happened to the nice little individual vegetable gardens in the areas behind the blocks in the cité-jardin de Stains that I visited, though the ones I saw had just been allowed to become overgrown and litter-strewn—they hadn’t been tarmacked over, and the whole area is now getting a bit of attention (whereas other parts of the Paris banlieue, including more recent cités a few streets away, are indeed given the neglect/tarmac/demolish treatment).

Not too far from Stains, and particularly hard to read in the upper right-hand part of the map, was the housing development of La Muette at Drancy:


These were the first high-rise residential tower blocks in France, built in 1931–34. The whole complex was confiscated by the Nazis after the occupation of France, and the horseshoe shaped low-rise complex to the upper left—built around a courtyard with the unfriendly dimensions of 200m long by 40m wide, and incomplete at the time—became the Drancy internment camp, used first as a police detention centre and then more notoriously as a holding camp for Jews prior to their deportation to the death camps. As well as building watchtowers and surrounding the place with barbed wire, they tarmacked the courtyard.

Click images for source

Editorial update: I corrected a reference to ‘the Bulks’:
this wasn’t a shortened nickname for the Bullring, it turns out,
but an invention of the predictive text editor on my mum’s mobile.

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Scholarship of blackness

NYC sidewalk

It’s Black History Month, and a series of related events is running here at the University of Birmingham. We also have a tumblr on the scholarship of blackness, with research on the subject that’s being done here. Check it out!

Image: a woman on 5th Avenue, New York City, 1960s. Click for source, which is the always-excellent—though US-focused—Black History Album.

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Recalling 1993

1993 calling at the New Museum, NYCWe’re holding a conference on the long 1980s soon, but things move faster in New York—it’s the city that never sleeps—and the New Museum on the Bowery is already casting a historical eye back on the 1990s with a new exhibition, NYC 1993: Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star. (Warning, their website is slightly annoying.)

All very well. But I’m posting about it here because they’ve organized a truly excellent piece of public history to accompany it, entitled Recalling 1993. It’s a beautifully simple idea that must have been a heck of a job to organize: dial 1-855-FOR-1993 from any public payphone* in Manhattan, for free, and hear what was happening in that neighbourhood—or even on that corner—in 1993.

The only problem is that you have to be on the island of Manhattan to take advantage of it. But there’s a sample on the website, at least, and the bridge and tunnel crowd and other non-Manhattanites can admire the idea—and even if we can’t nip down and visit the building, which opened in 2008 and is quite remarkable, we can read about it.

*Yes, I’m surprised there are so many public payphones left in Manhattan too, but there it is. A lot of them are in, or in front of, shops, I think—but here’s one that almost has room for Clark Kent to change in just down the road from the museum.

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Fluctuat nec mergitur

Sign showing height of floodwaters at rue de Charonne, 1910 Paris flood

I was walking down the rue du Faubourg Saint-Antoine toward Bastille last night, in the rain, on my last night in Paris, when I spotted this little sign, down near knee height on the corner of the rue de Charonne:


‘Flood, January 1910’

A flood that reaches knee height doesn’t sound that impressive, but this corner is about a kilometre away from the Seine. The flood of 1910 was a terrific disaster, the worst in 250 years. On the map of the area below, the pale blue indicates the area where roadways were flooded; the yellow, areas where basements were flooded. A quarter of the city’s buildings were affected.

Map of 1910 Paris floodwaters around Bastille

The 1910 flood, and modern-day flood risk, around Bastille

The pink area is where the French utility EDF/GDF reckons there’d be fragilisation of the electricity supply if a flood on the same scale hit the city today. The map* is part of the city’s disaster planning, which is extensive. The river height in the city is measured on a scale at the Pont d’Austerlitz: a water level 3.5 metres above the average level would be a yellow alert, 6 metres a red alert–the likely cost of repairing the damage from a flood this bad is estimated at over five billion euros. The 1910 flood peaked at 8.6 metres.


(Click image for source)

I first read about the flood in this article from the London Review of Books—a review of Jeffrey H. Jackson’s Paris under water, which came out in 2010 to coincide with the centenary. Meanwhile, I got back to Britain after ten days away to find flood warnings across the country for the second time in a month.

The title of this post, by the way, is the motto of the city of Paris: “It floats, nor does it sink”.

*This is a lo-res extract; you can download a large PDF of the full thing from the Paris city council website here. Facts about disaster preparation today were drawn from this 2009 article in Le Figaro.

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