Do empires foment violence or prevent it? In recent years, historians have presented two radically different images of empire in modern European history. On the one hand, scholars of modern genocide, totalitarianism, and colonialism have increasingly pointed to European imperialism—alongside modern racism and nationalism—as the driving force in the rise of new kinds of total war, mass violence, and brutal conflict within Europe and between Europe and the world. On the other hand, social and legal historians have focused much attention on the positive features of modern European empires, including their capacity to manage multinational and multireligious populations through decentralized rule, imperial citizenship, and dynastic authority.
Common to both approaches is a new focus on law and the role of European empires in birthing modern international law. Here again we find a considerable debate between those historians who see the rise of international law as a legitimation of empire and humanitarianism and human rights as a pretext for colonialism and others who see a new kind of legal internationalism emerging in response to the realities of the first stage of European globalization and new ideas of liberalism and democracy.
This seminar will explore this historiographical debate through surveying the recent literature and examining various key European empires, chiefly the British, Austrian, French, German, Russian, and Soviet empires in the years between 1800 and 2000. We will track the interaction between law, violence, and imperialism through examination of key historical episodes, including diplomatic turning points such as the Congress of Vienna in 1814-1815 and the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, the rise of Jewish, Polish, and Muslim Questions in international European discourse, and the debates about nationalism and socialism. We will move from the nineteenth century through World War I into the interwar period, with a focus on the Soviet and German Empires’ competition and culminating with the question of the Soviet Bloc.
This colloquium is designed to offer students a chance to survey the recent overlapping historical literatures about European empire, international law, and political violence. We will special attention to topics such as human rights and humanitarianism, religious internationalism, the laws of war, and European nationalism. But most of all, we will use the case studies to examine the basic narrative of international legal history across the last two centuries.
This course is structured as a hybrid 4000-level and 5000-level seminar, with an enrollment divided between 2/3 advanced history department majors and 1/3 graduate students.