Agree to imperialism

Europe between colonialism and decolonization

Prof. Dr. Gabriele Metzler

Prof. Dr. Gabriele Metzler

is Professor of the History of Western Europe and Transatlantic Relations at the Institute for Historical Studies at the Humboldt University in Berlin and Director of the Affiliated Institute Center Marc Bloch.

Her main research interests are: Change in statehood since 1945; State and Terrorism as well as the History of Western European Societies in the Experience of Decolonization.

European colonialism has shaped large parts of the world for centuries; it reached its peak in the era of high imperialism at the end of the 19th century. The assessment of European expansion and the exercise of power is controversial. What is certain, however, is that it changed not only the affected regions of the world, but also the European societies.

Beginning of an era: a bronze relief in a fort in Maputo, the capital of Mozambique, shows its conquest and occupation by the Portuguese ... (& copy picture-alliance, Okapia KG, Germany)

In 1978, Edward Said, an American literary theorist of Palestinian origin, published a book with which he intellectually turned the world of colonialism and decolonization off its hinges.

Only a few years earlier, with the withdrawal of the Portuguese from Angola, Mozambique and Guinea-Bissau, an era had come to an end that had begun with the discovery of America in 1492 and had left its mark on global developments over the centuries. Like none of the ancient empires before - and also none of the new "empires" afterwards - the Europeans were able to rule large parts of the world directly or indirectly. They succeeded in asserting their interests there, in shaping local economies and lifestyles, forms of government and guiding principles, and in achieving effects that went far beyond their actual presence. Against this background one can actually speak of the "subjugation of the world" by the Europeans, as the historian Wolfgang Reinhard did.

Much had contributed to the successful expansion of Europe: a desire for discovery and scientific curiosity, paired with military superiority; soon - since the 18th century at the latest - capitalist ambition and a missionary drive to spread civilization and orthodoxy over the world. Above all, the European societies themselves benefited from this.

But many historians have also referred to achievements such as modern infrastructures, the school system and scientific institutions that have come to other parts of the world as a result of European expansion. And even the national movements in Asia and Africa, which defended themselves against European rule in the 20th century, seemed to follow the European model and to strive for their own national statehood.

However, this rather positive view of European colonialism was already being called into question in the western publics and subcultures of the 1950s and 1960s. Critical voices pointed to the costs, the economic exploitation and the social and political upheavals that had come with European rule. But even those who held this critical view thought the world in terms of "Europe here, Europe there" and interpreted them as two spheres, one of which would have unlawfully influenced and subjugated the other.

And then came Said. With his study "Orientalism" he presented a new look at the colonial past. According to him, the Orient (with Said the Middle East and the Arab world), which the Europeans supposedly civilized (or from a critical point of view: subjugated and exploited), did not exist, it was nothing more than a construction of Western sciences and literatures. With the Orient, according to Said, the European Orient and Islamic Studies had created the image of a space that they systematically presented as "different" from Europe. In this way everything could be ascribed to this space that "Europe" should not be: irrational and uncontrolled, exotic and mysterious, fanatically religious. From the construction of such "alterity" - an otherness understood as fundamentally - the people of Europe would have gained their own identity and could have confirmed and strengthened themselves again and again in the encounter with the other.

With this thesis, which was met with contradiction, Said not only shook the beloved conviction that the Europeans had fulfilled a "civilization mission" in outside Europe, but also dissolved the borders between Europe and the colonies. For, from his point of view, imperialism and colonialism took place simultaneously in Europe and outside Europe.