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Rule Britannia (english)

Christopher on: Peter Wende “The British Empire”, translated by Nicola Clayton-Stead

Judgement of the British Empire changes. Criticism and agreement, ascertainment and doubt balance each other out. A dispute with tradition. Even at the time of the Empire, frustration alternated with admiration for heroes. Although only few years apart, there lay worlds between Oscar Wildes’ sceptical “Ave Imperatrix” and Rudyard Kiplings’ “The White man’s burden’. But despite all this, the moral key balance remains unfinished. And with it the question remains unanswered of whether, for those affected, the British Empire was a curse or a blessing. Peter Wende’s book “The British Empire” considers this in the historical middle way. A way which leads from the first colonies in North America and West India to the decolonisation of the twentieth century. Peter Wende, born in 1936, published early on the main focus of his research into English history.

As successor to Adolf Mattias Birke, he ran the German Historical Institute in London from 1999 to 2000. Here Wende published “British Envoys to Germany”, the story of the English envoys between 1815 and 1866, among many others. Moreover, Peter Wende also involved himself in further publications with German-British relations. In 1999 he published an analysis of German-British relations in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in “Rivalität und Partnershaft”. As early as 1997, he produced a comparable study entitled “Reform in Britain and Germany” about the development in both countries between 1750 and 1850. Aside from German-British relations, since 1980 Wende has involved himself with the emergence of modern structures in England, in which he has examined the interplay between king and parliament. In his most recent book, Wende described the British Empire as a form of power that was complex and very prone to change. And so the author differentiated essentially three phases: an early phase, an expansion phase as well as a phase of decolonisation.

In the early phase of the Empire, England’s colonial politics followed no “Masterplan”. Its development centered on the needs of its motherland. The consequences were the extension of the North American colonies and the creation of a mercantile trading area. And considering this, the actual exploitation of the “New World” doesn’t stand so prominently in the foreground as much as the establishment of refugees fleeing on the grounds of belief and economic migrants. Economically, England took over the role of middle man from her American colonies. She sold a third more products and controlled the import of goods into the colonies.

The second phase fluctuates between consolidation and expansion. It began with the secession of American colonies and ended with high imperialism. The controlled trade of raw materials and agrarian products stood in the background. In England interest grew for free trade. New regions came into a range of vision. However, the Empire was still no family affair. Descent and skin colour remained an indicator of capability. As a result, the importance of colonies differed. Citizen freedoms were enjoyed quicker by areas of white settlements. Up until the middle of the last century, India and other parts of Africa were under direct sovereignty from England.

Finally, the third phase consisted of the erosion of the Empire. The reasons were grounded in the growth of independence of the colonies and in the diminishing influence of the motherland. This tendency was strengthened by an increasingly expensive management of the colonies as well as the uprise of internal European conflicts. And so the first, and above of all second world war, did not only clarify the bounds of possibility, but also accelerated the transformation of the colonial empire into an egalitarian union of states.

Empires come and go. Yet rarely is the history of this process left so well documented as in the case of the British Empire. Its development reminds us of the current globalisation tendencies. England’s intervention in the most different of regions and her management as well as her economical connection, grounded a hegemony of unknown dimensions. Similar to our modern era, the size and power of a nation stood in no direct proportion. In contrast, the bigger her ruling area became the more accurately the governing of her power claims had to be weighed up. Contrary to many a British omnipotent fantasy, this Empire also formed no uniform whole. Cultural and ethnical differences of the former regions created the character of the Empire just like the intervention of white colonists.

Traditional ideas constantly collided with the colonial principles of order and forced conformity. Examples of this are: India, Sudan and South Africa. In the management of this global imperialism, England came into contact with geographical and organisational boarders. The roomy expansion caused constant problems. Difficulties, which arose from the implementation of modern ships or from telegraphy, were not fully compensated for. Governers were often left to their own resources and were dependent on the willingness of the inhabitants to compromise for the management of the colony. A further challenge to the stability of the empire arose from economic and cultural inclusion of the tradictional elites. Military service, university attendance or administrational work levelled out the differences and with it carried the bud of emancipation which was later to come. Therefore, also similar to the globalisation process of today, the British Empire dominated the balance of interests between the centre and periphery. A balance, which as Peter Wende impressionably verifies, compelled the British government to realise time and time again the limitations of her means.

Peter Wende
Das britische Empire
Geschichte eines Weltreiches
Beck-Verlag
ISBN 978-3-406-57073-5
24,90 Euro

German version 

We like to thank for translating the text.