Empires after 1919: Old, new, transformed

Jane Burbank, Frederick Cooper

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


    1919 was not the death knell of empires: it opened new imperial possibilities. The empires of the losers were destroyed; victors added new territories and a new element - the mandate - to their repertoires; Japan was recognized as a major imperial actor; the Soviet Union constituted a new form of empire; Germany, chafing at its exclusion from the world of empires, created the Third Reich; the US, after promoting a new international order, developed its own way of exercising power at a distance. This article describes the varied trajectories of empires in the decades after the First World War. It notes changes in discourse and international institutions after 1919, but argues against fitting 1919 into a linear narrative of 'empire to nation-state'. Self-determination proved a problematic concept both where it was implemented and where it was not. The forced breakup of the Ottoman Empire led to conflicts that have yet to be resolved. Anti-colonial movements fought oppression, but often sought alternatives to both old-style empires and the territorial state. Colonial empires were able to contain challenges, refine their methods of rule and claim international legitimacy. It took another catastrophe for colonial empires to be fundamentally threatened - by a war that was more the result of the reconfiguration of empires after 1919 than of their decline. The Japanese takeover of southeast Asia began the unraveling of European empires after 1945. Even then, political possibilities that reach well beyond the national continued to shape our world.

    Original languageEnglish (US)
    Pages (from-to)81-100
    Number of pages20
    JournalInternational Affairs
    Issue number1
    StatePublished - Jan 1 2019


    • International history

    ASJC Scopus subject areas

    • Sociology and Political Science
    • Political Science and International Relations


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