Where is research on imperialism expanding to? A necessary discussion, also with regard to the resurgence of imperialism in Europe

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Moderation: Dieter Langewiesche (Tübingen)

Martin Aust (Bonn)
Ulrike von Hirschhausen (Rostock)
Martin Schulze Wessel (München)
Benedikt Stuchtey (Marburg)
Ricarda Vulpius (Münster)


Research on empire has been booming for a long time. Understood as a complex political entity with a centre of power and dominated peripheries, empire is a phenomenon that is not only characteristic of ancient and medieval history, but also of modernity in many regions of the world. In the present, the discussion on the concept of empire, whose characteristics also include the aspiration to establish dominance over other nations and ethnic groups, has gained new topicality due to the power-political claims of Russia and China.


The round table will discuss perspectives and blind spots in current empire research. The question is to what extent the often proclaimed claim of bringing postcolonial questions into empire research has been fulfilled. Especially with regard to current political developments, the question also arises as to whether research on "empire" does not require a much stronger return to the paradigm of "imperialism". Empires tend to conceive of themselves as their own world and create their own myths. In the spirit of the theme of the Historikertag, it must therefore also be asked whether it is possible between the societies of the West and empires such as Russia and China, and also interimperially, to reach an understanding on "facts" and on a small denominator of common interpretations of these facts.


The event takes up questions that have been controversially discussed in historical scholarship since 2014 and increasingly since 24 February 2022.


Martin Aust: Unintended Complicity? Empire History and Neo-Imperialism


After 1989, Eastern European history worked to overcome the East-West division in historiography as well. Themes and cooperations were to be merged into a European and ultimately globalised history. The imperial history of Russia made a significant contribution to this. The management of diversity in empires, whether inclusive or violent, is a major thematic field in which Russia has become comparatively and relationally an integrative part of a global history of empires. However, Russia's domestic and foreign policy of recent years, and even more so the recent invasion of Ukraine in 2022, show the state of Russia with precisely those attributes to which historiography after 1989/91 no longer wanted to see Russia stereotypically reduced: Dictatorship, internal repression, external aggression, war of aggression and mass crimes. The keynote lecture will discuss the question of whether empire history must admit to an unwanted complicity in Russia's neo-imperial project and what research tasks lie ahead for empire history.


Ulrike von Hirschhausen: Neo-Imperialism as an Explanation? A critique


Empire and (neo-)imperialism have returned to our language. China's expansionist policies, for example through its project of a new "Silk Road", and especially Russia's war of aggression against Ukraine have made these terms part of today's political vocabulary again. Timothy Snyder has even called the Russian aggression since 24 February 2022 a "colonial war".


But do these terms really help to better understand the present? Or are they stopgaps that only refer back to the very different world of empires? The lecture explains the problematic nature of terms such as imperialism and empire and criticises above all the centre perspective of these semantics. There was usually no room for the dependence of metropolises on their peripheral regions, and power flows in such accesses basically only flowed from Western centres to non-European regions. The concept of colonial war also completely misses the reality of the global alliance in which Ukraine is currently involved. But then, what terms more clearly close up the present of aggression, expansion and revision that we observe today? And why can they also not do without the roots of the imperial past? Against this backdrop, the lecture will conclude by outlining proposals with which approaches we can approach the history of empires and the present of neo-imperial politics in the future.


Martin Schulze Wessel: Empire and Imperialism. On the Significance of the History of Powers for the History of Empire


Research on empire in recent decades has been primarily interested in the internal order of empire, such as the abilities of imperial elites to deal with the heteroginity of empires. In contrast, the history of imperialism - that is, the question of the expansion of empires and the driving forces behind it - has receded into the background. This void in empire studies is particularly striking in light of the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine.

The short lecture will ask what older research on imperialism - such as Hans-Ulrich Wehler's "Bismarck und der Imperialismus" (1969) or Dietrich Geyer's "Der russische Imperialismus" (1977) - still has to tell us today. What is the value of geopolitical approaches such as those advocated by John LeDonne (The Russian empire and the world: 1700 - 1917. The geopolitics of expansion and containment, New York 1997)? How can the dynamics of power politics be meaningfully integrated into empire studies today?

The lecture is intended as a plea to bring imperialism and power history back into empire history.


Ricarda Vulpius: Empire and Nation Studies. On the Significance of Denormativised Historiography


The New Empire Studies has considerably advanced research on the Russian Empire. Even after Russia's invasion of Ukraine, there is no need for a fundamental change. It is crucial for historical research not to take a judgmental view of the phenomenon of empire any more than of that of the nation. Neither can it be helpful to regard empires in the tradition of the 19th century and its national movements as a stage of development to be overcome; nor should empires be regarded with imperial nostalgia as per se peace-keeping state structures that balance out ethnic and religious conflicts, with the end of which previously suppressed potential for violence broke through.

This contribution calls for precise definitions to distinguish between different forms of imperial politics, so that processes that are analytically subsumed under colonialism as a matter of course in research on maritime empires are not treated as parts of an „absolutist“, cameralistic or ideologically driven state expansion in the case of the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union or the Russian Federation merely because of their continental expansion. Conceptualisations must stand up to multi-perspective consideration and include the perspective of the Russian population as well as that of the non-Russian population.


Benedikt Stuchtey:

The keynote lecture is dedicated to the questions of security raised by imperial rule and the production of insecurity in colonial and inter-colonial contexts from a "Western" perspective. It will discuss how the processes of colonisation and decolonisation were interwoven with the dynamics of (in)security in the history of the British Empire and other selected Western European colonial empires.

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