From Imperial Nation-States to European Union: Discussing European History in an International Context with Anne-Isabelle Richard

Where does “Europe” stop, and where does the world outside Europe begin? It’s a question that’s engaged inhabitants of the peninsula of the great world continent for centuries, if also one that has assumed newly tragic dimensions as refugees from Balkan states, refugees from countries such as Syria, Iraq, Eritrea, and Afghanistan, and migrants from Sub-Saharan Africa test their chances in crossing the seas, boarding the trains, and hopping the fences that separate Europe from an ostensibly more dangerous, more cruel, and more hungry outside world. Seemingly freed of its old morally burdensome entanglements in its African, Asian and Caribbean colonies, a reformed, European Union-ized Continent faces the challenges of how it wants to interact with the world of former colonies, mandates, and other possessions that it once ruled and still, of course, holds a dominant trading relationship with.

Can history contextualize some of these debates? The work of Dr. Anne-Isabelle Richard, currently an Assistant Professor at the Institute for History at Leiden University, The Netherlands and the latest guest to the Global History Forum, unambiguously demonstrates that it can. In her work, Richard seeks to show how many of the activists in European countries – in particular France and the Netherlands, countries with big empires and interested both in European integration and the politics of colonialism – juggled the two projects of Europeanism and relations with its colonies throughout the twentieth century.

Moving beyond just a narrow diplomatic history focus, Richard’s work mines both state and non-state archives to show how an army of diplomats, pressure groups, anti-colonialists, socialists, and bureaucrats in international organizations such as the League of Nations represented part of a broader, decades long-conversation about the relationship between “Europe” as an ideological and institutional project, on the one hand, and colonial empire on the other. One part of her broader research agenda, this work – the fruits of her PhD at Cambridge University, a Fulbright Scholarship at Yale, and time as a Max Weber Post-Doctoral Fellow at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy – is currently being revised by Dr. Richard to become a book.

Recently, one of the Toynbee Prize Foundation’s Editors-at-Large, Columbia History Department PhD Candidate Lotte Houwink ten Cate, had the chance to sit down with Dr. Richard to discuss the latter’s ongoing work and her observations on the fields of European and international history today.

Meeting in Leiden, Richard’s current home base, the two engaged in a rich conversation, reproduced below.

Lotte Houwink ten Cate (LHTC): What are your main areas of research?

Anne-Isabelle Richard (AR): I work on the intersection of European and world history; my dissertation discussed the interwar period, Europeanist movements in France and the Netherlands, and the influence of colonialism on these movements. Britain, as the foremost colonial power, was also included in the analysis.

While at Yale, classes by Paul Kennedy and Jay Winter got me thinking about projects for European cooperation in the interwar period and what the influence of colonialism on these projects was. In 1929/30 French foreign minister Aristide Briand’s proposed ‘some sort of federal link’ between the European nations. The reactions by the other powers were hesitant to say the least. While people in the Netherlands defined themselves as Europeans, their global connections (Dutch East Indies) were more important than possible European cooperation projects. The French, who had a much bigger colonial empire, however emphasized European cooperation. So while in the Dutch case colonialism and Europeanism seemed mutually exclusive, in the French case, they were compatible, even interdependent.

That intrigued me: how did that work? This became the topic of my PhD at Cambridge, working with Robert Tombs, but also very much influenced by the late Christopher Bayly, Tim Harper and Richard Drayton. I began to consider the role of colonialism in thinking about world order, and hierarchies of race and civilization, and how that had shaped Europeans’ understanding of themselves, and how these questions became especially prominent after the First World War.

LHTC: How did you develop an interest in this kind of history?

AR: I studied both history and law at Leiden. In 2001, I spent a semester at UCL with Kathleen Burk, and there I wrote a BA thesis about the Marshall Plan and decolonization in Indonesia, which connected these at the time seemingly disparate historiographies. I have always been interested in international/political history, on the one hand, and colonial/world history, on the other hand and I have continued combining distinct historiographies. I’m interested in how they overlap. What are their mutual influences? How do national historiographies relate to each other even if they do not always ‘talk’ to each other?

LHTC: Would you consider looking more into legal history?

AR: I am less interested in the traditional kind of legal history, i.e. Roman Law. I might explore legal aspects coming out of my work at some point, there is some very inspiring scholarship coming out in this field (Meredith Terretta, Natasha Wheatley etc.). I think that when working on legal issues, you have to approach it not just as a historian, but also as a lawyer. Lawyers think in a different manner and use a different language, Dutch and legal Dutch are not the same for example, so it would be quite different from what I do now.

LHTC: How would you define global history? And do you prefer to use the term “global history” or “world history”?

AR: First, I think it is important to note that there are two types of this kind of history; the one encompasses the entire globe, whereas the other mostly looks at—drawing on Christopher Bayly’s notion of “sensitivity”—being open to connections across various spaces in the world and thinking history contextually. At Cambridge the kind of sensitivity as defined by Bayly is what’s meant with “world history”, whereas global history is regarded to be a more all-encompassing history. Elsewhere these definitions can be used exactly the other way around, and I do get the sense that that understanding is prevailing. What is problematic is that, often, terms are being used without proper definitions of what is meant by them. More important than the label is an explanation of what we exactly mean by these terms.

Related to this we, of course, have “transnational history.” In my view transnational history can be understood in three different ways: firstly as an anti-nationalist project — a way in which history can contribute to providing a broader perspective, the opposite of nationalist Whig history (not unlike Jeremy Adelman’s argument about Global History recently). Secondly, transnational history as a subject, for instance when one examines transnational groups, as I do in my work. I look at movements which were active across several countries, and which were mostly non-state actors (although people constantly shifted roles). Thirdly, transnational history as a methodology, in adopting a transnational perspective, looking beyond the nation state. This comes back to Bayly’s notion of sensitivity — being attuned to connections between different territories and areas of the globe (although transnational history is not necessarily global). Connected to this is the use of various types of archives in different countries. The great potential here is the ability to connect seemingly distinct historiographies. But the danger is being very well-versed in one aspect, but having a more superficial knowledge of others. Language issues play a role here too of course.

LHTC: Is this kind of transnational history different from international history?

AR: Not necesarily, although again it depends on how it is defined. Erez Manela defined international history as the history of international society, and I think that that is a very useful description. It broadens international history to include besides the history of international relations or international organizations, also more informal (transnational) groups and processes operating on an international level.

My work is a broadly defined history of international society, rather than the history of international organizations.  I find the interaction between official channels and civil society particularly interesting. Hence, I use transnational history as a topic and partly also as a methodology. What I find striking is how a transnational perspective can show how national these clubs working for, for example, European cooperation were. Although they might be working for an internationalist or transnational goal and might be trans- or internationally organized, when you look at the way they frame their thinking, you see how nationally determined they often were. If you only looked at the Dutch side of this history, these activists seem very international. But if you place them in a transnational or even a broad comparative framework, you realize how nationally determined these clubs were. Precisely the transnational method lays bare the national specificity.

LHTC: There is currently a wave of scholarship being published on the League Nations, works by Susan Pedersen and Patricia Clavin. How do you situate your own work in this wave?

AR: I like their work a lot. Patricia Clavin was my external examiner. Together with, for example, Glenda Sluga, Madeleine Herren-Oesch, and Sandrine Kott, Patricia and Susan form a sort of group of inspiring female professors in this field. Patricia and Susan were also involved in the Oslo Contemporary International History Network, led by Hilde Waage and Hanne Hagtvedt Vik which brought together younger and more established scholars from Norway and across the globe. It was very inspiring, much like the Decolonization Seminar at the Kluge Center of the Library of Congress.

But to come back to transnational history, that is strongly represented in new works about the League of Nations. What has struck me in histories of European integration is that the pioneers, mostly French scholars, started out as transnational historians (perhaps avant la lettre), but later seem to have returned to diplomatic history, as these sources became available. They certainly connected European cooperation with the League, which is natural given French activists’ networks. In the Anglophone historiography this connection is more rare, as is the connection between European cooperation and the colonial world. One might say that currently the historiography of European cooperation is divided between those who adopt an institutional lens in their work on the EU and its forerunners, and those who attempt to put the integration process into a transnational frame that engages non-institutional sources.

In my work I’ve used international history and world history lenses to look at Europe, in my next project I will use these perspectives to think about African actors and their relations to Europe. The clubs of people who became active around a certain goal have my interest. Whether their campaigns succeeded in securing their desired outcome (in the immediate term) is less the point, since their campaigning drove debates and therefore outcomes.

LHTC: What do you think about the sometimes assumed tension between European history and world history?

AR: I would like to argue for understanding European history as part of world hisory. It is often suggested that when you study Europe Eurocentricism and parochialism cannot be far behind. Whilst when you study, for example, South East Asia this is not necessarily the case. The history of European dominance of course makes Europe different from other continents and this has to be accounted for, but nowadays world history is sometimes everything except Europe. However, thinking of European history as part of world history could result in new perspectives, also when thinking about calls to decolonize the curriculum.

LHTC: What do you consider the classics in your field? And what are you reading at the moment?

AR: Perhaps this is because I just came across my university notes, but the first things that comes to mind are the works of Ronald Robinson and John Gallagher: the article “The Imperialism of Free Trade” and their later book Africa and the Victorians: The Official Mind of Imperialism. Beyond that, of course there are the more recent classics such as Christopher Bayly’s The Birth of the Modern World or David Scott’s Conscripts of Modernity. You need to read through the classics in order to understand the postcolonial literature, in order to be able to continue the conversation and to situate new historiography in its context.

The same goes for, for example, French historiography, which is often easily dismissed. It’s strange, because France used to be quite avant-garde. It is very unfortunate that even in the Netherlands, which abroad is still hailed as a linguist’s haven, students are more and more given set chapters, while they read fewer languages. Not long ago, a reading ability in English, German and French would have been required, unlike today. I’m currently re-reading Patricia Clavin’s Securing the World Economy: The Reinvention of the League of Nations, 1920-1946, which is fascinating and so filled with personal aspects that it’s bedtime reading as well.

LHTC: Besides preparing your dissertation for publication, what else are you working on at the moment?

AR: I am starting a new project on African perspectives on Eurafrica, for which I received a 4-year NWO (Dutch research organization) Veni grant. It’s very exciting. Eurafrica is usually approached from a European, or a more specifically French perspective, and in my new project I will approach it from various African perspectives, focusing on Senegal ad Ghana. I want to see what African actors thought about Eurafrican projects, did they reject them, embrace them or use them for their own purposes? A part of the Eurafrica project would be to establish the role and possibilities of African actors in relation to the European Union.

Now, access to sources is an issue. My favorite sources are personal archives. Of course, one has to know what’s in the official archives, but it’s through personal archives that you get a real feeling for the people you’re writing about, for what they thought about each other, what they wrote amongst themselves. During the preparations for my article on the Congress of Puteaux, I worked in the archive of [French socialist] Marceau Pivert. He went to the United States just before the outbreak of the Second World War, and from there to Mexico. While in Mexico, he corresponded with his comrades Fenner Brockway and John McNair in Britain about what was happening in Europe. These letters contained so many details, for example the murder of the Dutch communist Henk Sneevliet was discussed, very movingly, and in between personal stories, you really come to an understanding about their views of the future.

Smaller projects that I’m working on are Visions of Empire in Dutch History, with colleagues Rene Koekkoek and Arthur Weststeijn. It’s about thinking of a new research agenda for Dutch empire: connecting the early modern period to the postcolonial situation; seeing ‘Dutch’ history broadly, moving beyond national borders, explicitly informed by influences and actors from across the globe. So above all a transnational and transimperial approach and an approach that understands intellectual history as going beyond the big names of systemic thinkers, and includes visions of empire as negotiated in (day-to-day) practice.

The other project is about Global Regionalism, with my colleague from Leiden, Alanna O’Malley. Thinking about world order and alternatives to the nation state, from formal federations such as the West Indies Federation to more imagined communities such as Eurafrica and from institutions to individual activists.

For the moment, however, the researcher to watch is Anne-Isabelle Richard, whose Colonialism and the European Movement in France and the Netherlands, 1925-1936 we hope to see published as a monograph with a major publisher shortly. In the meantime, we thank Dr. Richard for participating in this latest installment of the Global History Forum, and wish her the best of luck as she blazes a trail in internationalizing the study of modern European history.

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