sehepunkte 24 (2024), Nr. 3

Erik Linstrum: Age of Emergency

We have come a long way from the historiographical view of the immediate post-colonial decades that Empire was virtually absent in the daily life of Britons in the metropole. Pioneering work such as by John M. MacKenzie, Anne McClintock or Catherine Hall have long revised this view. In recent years, interest in this question appears to have been revived, with scholars increasingly opting to explore specific themes and uncovering the whole ambiguity and complexity of the subject. The book by Erik Linstrum, Associate Professor of History at the University of Virginia, is an outstanding example of this. Linstrum, who has previously written a prize-winning monograph on psychology in the British Empire, explores here how the violence of the colonial wars at the end of the British Empire (the focus is nearly exclusively on the wars in Malaya, Kenya and Cyprus) was present in quotidian life in Britain in the 1950s and 1960s. The author also aims here to connect to more recent work on British decolonisation which challenges the view that it had been a relatively smooth and comparatively less violent process. Linstrum's specific argument, however, is that this violence, though geographically distant, was always quite present in British metropolitan society; it was 'a fact of life in postwar Britain' (1). In his introduction, Linstrum convincingly rejects the still-common view that simple denial was the predominant way of dealing with this, or that the state and censorship had largely shielded such violence from view. Instead, the 'challenge for the British people was to find ways of living with the violence that they could not simply ignore' (4).

By and large, Linstrum identifies three strategies used to deal with the uncomfortable truths about colonial violence. The first was to cast doubt on facts about violence. The second was to distinguish between knowledge of violence and the duty to act on it, citing the supposed risk of speaking up to authority. The third was to celebrate visions of racial struggle or aestheticise the grim fatalism of dirty wars (9-10). For theoretical underpinning, the author here does not add specific concepts of his own, but instead concisely discusses in the introduction the existing work on secrecy and on human ways of coping with uncomfortable knowledge. As the book makes clear, the strategies employed were remarkably successful for most Britons. While knowledge about atrocity reached them, they found ways of going on with life without too much consequence.

Over five chapters, Linstrum discusses how knowledge about colonial violence reached British society via the different media and in what manner this violence was framed in each case. A first chapter serves to present organisations, actors, forms and languages of dissent and thus to demonstrate that the acceptance of colonial violence in metropolitan Britain did not need to be self-evident. Writing in always fluent prose, the author goes through the media of letter-writing, newspaper, radio and television reporting, theatre productions and television shows. The succession of quotes and episodes that Linstrum interweaves into his narrative (the endnotes testify to the impressive variety and scope of the material consulted) are generally highly intriguing and relevant and Linstrum is masterful in teasing out the moral subtexts of each. His feel for the ambiguity and nuances of the subject are also commendable. He notes the temporal specificities of the age: while some of his findings would certainly also apply to earlier periods, there are also a number of particularities to the time period after 1945: not only new technologies, but also for instance the memory of fascist violence and the mass use of conscripts in colonial conflicts.

The author is equally attentive to the varying political orientations of those writing about, performing, or showing colonial violence, and how this affects its framing. While overall the division of political views, from anti-imperialist denunciation of colonial violence on the left to the celebration of racial violence on the right wing, is not surprising, some elements uncovered by Linstrum still are. Particularly interesting is his exploration of how the violence of empire for those in the liberal political centre became framed. It was presented largely in a fatalistic way - as a burden to morality but also one seemingly inevitable in wars now widely recognised as dirty. This fatalism generally precluded the need to act on this knowledge. It was an attitude shared to an extent by Church and humanitarian actors who for the most part chose to protest to the Government but out of deference to authority largely avoided addressing the public. While the implication of these actors in colonial violence is not necessarily new, it is still disturbing to see how blatantly apologetic of violence some could also be. Further to the right of the political spectrum, Linstrum's findings that illiberal militarism held appeal to larger sections of British society is also noteworthy. While the author's focus is on the white British majority, he also includes emigré, non-white actors (mostly in London) and traces how these changed the landscape of opposition to colonial war.

Interestingly, it was not only politics which determined framing: Linstrum is also strong in outlining how the pressures and constraints of format influenced the portrayal (or non-portrayal) of colonial violence, such as in the new format of television or also through the criterion of rigid objectivity that the professionalising journalist métier of this age was expected to adhere to.

In his conclusion, the author looks beyond the 1950s and 1960s to how the violence in Malaya, Kenya and Cyprus was memorialised in Britain after those wars had ended. This raises a number of new questions that obviously cannot be answered entirely in the short conclusion. One is the question of comparability. Linstrum notes for instance the French-Algerian activism in the 1990s for access to archival sources on the Algerian War. He claims there was no British equivalent to this as so much had already been known about colonial violence in the UK while these wars were still ongoing (209) - a claim that, the reviewer thinks, probably requires more research. Overall, the conclusion suggests that Britons did not really change their ways of dealing with this colonial violence after it had actually become history. It was still openly spoken about, but such talk and concomitant scandalisation generally subsided rather quickly, only to recur in similar form again later (and so forth). Here, the reviewer was reminded particularly forcefully of the work by Paul Bijl on the remembrance of Dutch colonial atrocities in Indonesia. [1] It is unfortunate that Bijl does not appear in the bibliography of Age of Emergency - the books would have certainly made for a fertile dialogue. That, however, is only a minor fault in an otherwise highly convincing book that seems also to speak to our present. Linstrum's closing statement should indeed give us all pause: 'Living with violence at once remote and inescapable, existential and futile, unsettling and unstoppable, is no small part of the postcolonial condition' (214).


[1] Paul Bijl: Emerging Memory. Photographs of Colonial Atrocity in Dutch Cultural Remembrance, Amsterdam 2015.

Rezension über:

Erik Linstrum: Age of Emergency. Living with Violence at the End of the British Empire, Oxford: Oxford University Press 2023, X + 313 S., 26 s/w-Abb., ISBN 978-0-19-757203-0, EUR 26,99

Rezension von:
Tom Menger
Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München
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Tom Menger: Rezension von: Erik Linstrum: Age of Emergency. Living with Violence at the End of the British Empire, Oxford: Oxford University Press 2023, in: sehepunkte 24 (2024), Nr. 3 [15.03.2024], URL:

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