Sunday, September 09, 2007

Mugabe to Roth

It looks as if Zimbabwe is heading for the famine stage of its destruction by Robert Mugabe. This tragedy seems to confirm, all too bleakly, one's suspicions about the Dark Continent's inbuilt death wish - but doesn't it also make you wonder if much of the world (not only Africa) wasn't better off in the age of empires? I'm no historian, but haven't empires generally been pretty successful at maintaining peace and stability - the prerequisites for pretty much everything else. The Roman Empire under the Antonines, of course - and also, surely, the next great imperial heyday at the turn of the 20th century. It was peace at the expense of justice, perhaps - but which is ultimately more important or useful? In our age, we tend to favour justice over all. But peace is a prerequisite of justice too, isn't it?
This nostalgia for empire isn't a rightist phenomenon. Leaving aside the fact that British imperialism was very much a project of the enlighted, idealistic Left, there's also (for example) the eloquent and moving imperial nostalgia of the great writer Joseph Roth, very much a man of the Left, who had good reason to love and celebrate the Austro-Hungarian Empire under which he grew up. God knows the collapse of that empire - followed by the Soviet empire - caused enough grief. Anyone who hasn't read The Radetzky March really should.


  1. Famine was a recurring problem in India under British rule, Nige. "Late Victorian Holocausts" by Mike Davis is a good guide to this under - reported part of our imperial history.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Famine essentially halved the Irish population in hte mid-19th century through nearly a quarter of the population starving to death while another quarter emigrating. This while the British government continued to ship out foods such as grains from the catastrophic areas during the heights of the famine. This was effectively wilful genocide where the results of the ruling powers actions were easily known. So what does this tell us of the real character of these enlightened idealists?
    As Simon writes, the Raj is almost ubiquitously portrayed in nostalgic tones, completely ignoring the dreadful famines that existed there.
    Also one is looking at countries where the social order has been forcibly made along colonial lines so the areas have not had the opportunity to develop along the "natural" lines they might have developed had they not been attacked & subjugated by the relevant imperialising powers in the first place.

  4. Andrew:

    so the areas have not had the opportunity to develop along the "natural" lines they might have...

    You mean like the Balkans?

  5. Andrew

    "while the British government continued to ship out foods such as grains".

    The British government did no such thing. Merchants, traders and commercial enterprises - Irish, English and others - did that.

    Unless, of course, you think the Irish famine was the result of deliberate policy with the famine as its desired end. If you do, then I would suggest that your political/ethnic bias is getting in the way of your command of the facts.

  6. As well as the Mike Davis book - consider too the murderous nature of Hitler's eastern empire in the Ukraine and USSR. Or indeed Stalin's own brand of imperialism...

    Hitler hugely admired the Raj and wanted to make it a model for his own plans in the East.

    Still feeling nostalgic?

  7. Yes indeed - the Irish potato famine was the result of the lazybed system of potato cultivation and was only the worst of several. The response on mainland Britain included a massive charity appeal for famine relief that, ceteris paribus, was at least the equal of Live Aid. But far less annoying.