Decolonization: A Short History by Jan C. Jansen and Jürgen Osterhammel

This is part of our special feature, Beyond Eurafrica: Encounters in a Globalized World.

The ambitious aim of Jansen and Osterhammel’s Decolonization is to provide a comparative evaluation of an immensely complex global historical process in a relatively concise volume. The authors revised and expanded their original 2013 German language version for the current text, whose purpose is to explain how the de-legitimation of European colonial rule over Africa and Asia during the course of the twentieth century involved a broad array of structural and normative factors. They work to accomplish this goal by incorporating recent scholarly debates that locate decolonization in the contexts of the world wars and the global Cold War. Even though their analyses reveal economic and cultural fissures that subvert their central argument, the seven chapters achieve a rich synthesis that makes this book valuable for specialized undergraduate courses and a thoughtful primer for researchers pursuing new avenues of inquiry into the subfields of decolonization.

Jansen and Osterhammel separate the chapters by theme and arrange them within a general chronological organization. The first chapter on “Decolonization as Moment and Process” justifies this approach with the assertion that the most accurate accounts of such world historical events draw together multiple interpretive perspectives over a time period ranging beyond any single moment of institutional power transfer, which most often occurred in Africa and Asia during the three decades following the Second World War. The authors make clear their overarching claim that the examples of decolonization in their survey involved interdependent political and cultural dimensions, but they also take care to mention proto-decolonizing periods (during the 1700s and 1800s) and instances of colonial disintegration (in the Soviet Union) they exclude from the remainder of their analyses.

After the authors define the scope of their project, they sharpen their narrative focus in the second and third chapters. The second chapter examines the late colonial phase between the world wars, assessing divergent European experiments in decentralization and integration that responded to financial pressures and indigenous expectations of reform. Jansen and Osterhammel cover contemporary innovations concerning modern governance in a cursory fashion, which may confound a general audience attempting to understand early proposals on “layered sovereignty” (47) or how European scientists and civil servants propelled colonial policy into an era of “exploitative maturity” (55). Regrettably, the authors undermine some of the coherence and accessibility of this section when trying to cast such a wide net over a number of different developments and historiographical trends in the limited page count.

By contrast, the series of narratives concerning postwar “Paths to Sovereignty” that shape the third chapter furnish the clearest comparative analyses in the book. The writers devote significant space to the major turning points in the process of Indian independence (1947-48), the Algerian War (1954-62), and the Congo Crisis (1959-65). They reserve their most insightful commentary on how combining analytic frameworks – via regional, international, and imperial viewpoints – offer us a more usefully nuanced geopolitical interpretation of the Suez Crisis (1956). In each case, the economic and cultural elements of decolonization are minimized in favor of detailed descriptions concentrating on institutional political change.

Readers find more intersectional evaluations in the other half of the volume, which abandons the chronological narrative structure of the second and third chapters for conceptual explorations of themes with longitudinal significance. Unfortunately, certain observations in the latter sections run counter to Jansen and Osterhammel’s overarching assertion that decolonization necessarily involved widespread rejection of the ideologies that buttressed European colonization. For instance, they argue that the cumulative impact of colonization amounted to an economic revolution that could not be fully reversed, and that economic decolonization was often a “matter of degree” (137). Liberated countries frequently appropriated schemes involving various forms of modernization, but many of the new nation-states later became indebted to the global north in the final decades of the last century, furthering neocolonial interests that perpetuated exploitation. The fifth chapter directly follows up on these tensions, but makes a point about the de-legitimation of colonialism more in line with the purpose of the volume. During the Cold War, the global south employed strategic economic alliances and international forums to respond to neocolonial pressures, attracting the attention of global audiences who became more critical of colonial violence and human rights violations.

Even though their close examinations of aspects of decolonization occasionally unsettle the broader judgments the authors make in the first chapter regarding normative facets of colonial transformations, the second half of the book is thought provoking in its appraisals of the legacies of colonization and decolonization. After a brief introduction on the reciprocal relationships between the theories and practices of resistance to colonialism, the sixth chapter takes note of the polyphonic quality of the debates on political sovereignty and the ways iconic midcentury activists such as Aimé Césaire and Frantz Fanon explored the social psychology of colonialism. In the final pages of the chapter, the authors offer several sharp observations concerning the distinctions between postcolonial theory and ideas spawned more directly from decolonization. Once again, they admit that the reversal of colonial values is somewhat incomplete, noting that we have yet to elaborate a postcolonial theory of decolonization that will acquire the same popular momentum as the trenchant criticisms of neocolonialism.

The chapter on “Legacies and Memories” is an interesting thought piece on the remnants of decolonization when it dares to venture beyond demographics into socio-cultural repercussions, though additional theoretical grounding regarding memory as a vehicle for cultural expression would be very helpful. The authors are apparently referring to the social construction of collective memory as first defined by Maurice Halbwachs and expanded upon by numerous historical scholars addressing public forms of commemoration during the past few decades. It remains to be seen whether investing time, objects, and gestures imbued with symbolic significance drawn from colonial controversies can truly heal the deepest injuries inflicted by extreme violence. However, as the authors indicate, certain political figures have believed public displays of regret and compassion to be a useful form of soft diplomacy in such cases.

Compared with recent volumes also reaching for a panoptic perspective, such as Dane Kennedy’s Decolonization: A Very Short Introduction, Jansen and Osterhammel’s volume serves as a much more helpful guide for researchers, even if it sacrifices a degree of narrative coherence and analytic consistency to do justice to the various conceptual tensions inherent in decolonization. The references for further reading at the end of the book reflect a thoroughly up-to-date familiarity with the subfields, and the chapters offer profitable advice for advancing the current state of research. As an overview of the subject, Jansen and Osterhammel’s Decolonization is so stimulating to think with precisely because it is unable to entirely prove its point about the de-legitimation of colonial ideologies; this reminds other scholars that expansive claims often require critical inspection as we endeavor to develop the frontiers of knowledge in world history.


Reviewed by Michael Collins

Decolonization: A Short History
by Jan C. Jansen and Jürgen Osterhammel, trans., by Jeremiah Riemer
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Hardcover / 252 pages / 2017
ISBN: 9781400884889

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Published on March 1, 2018.


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