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Tuesday, January 25, 2005
A short history of the British Empire

Julia Bernstein '07 wrote an op-ed in The D last week on the Prince Harry's Nazi costume fiasco. In her piece, she also suggested that Harry ought to have known better not to dress up like a Nazi because of the British Empire's history. Here's what I wrote in response. The D, alas, has not published it yet, and I don't think they will, so up it goes:
Julia Bernstein's right to point out that Prince Harry was stupid to dress up as a Nazi. Where she falters is in her analysis of the British Empire, whose "rich history" she believes ought to have reminded Harry not to do what he did. Implicit here is the belief that there are meaningful similarities between the Third Reich and the British Empire, even if the two entities are ultimately incommensurable. This belief is quite false.

Now it is true that Hitler admired the British Empire for its "Nordic genius" (ignoring the fact that the pro-imperialist Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli was a Jew). But the feeling wasn't mutual, and in fact the history of Anglo-Germanic relations is laden with conflict. Britain fought Germany in two World Wars, for example. As for the question of race, the similarities between the two empires are superficial. The Third Reich was racialism writ large, but race was only one dimension of British imperial policy. As historians like David Cannadine have pointed out, there was much more to the British Empire than just race. Class, for example -- a permanent domestic concern -- as Cannadine argues in his book Ornamentalism, mattered as well, as did business and economic interests, fear of other European powers, and yes, philanthropy (the British did after all spearhead the anti-slavery movement in the first half of the 19th century).

The consequences of the British Empire were accordingly mixed. In strict economic terms – costs vs. profits and taxes – for instance, the British state did not really benefit from its colonies, as economic historians Lance Davis and Robert Huttenback have shown. In the opposite direction, however, Britain brought useful technology, organization, and capital to many parts of the world; these yielded benefits to the native peoples even in the absence of goodwill on the part of the British. Therefore, it’s not self-evident that the British Empire "may have amplified the tsunami’s devastation decades later"; it’s not even clear whether a meaningful relationship exists between the Empire and the damage wrought by the disaster at all. Over fifty years have elapsed since Britain withdrew from India and Sri Lanka. Can the Empire really be blamed for their lack of emergency preparedness? (I dare say that were a similar tsunami to hit London, things would be much worse.)

Given the above, there seems little reason -- Harry’s Nazi costume being an exception -- to get upset at a fancy dress party with colonial trappings. Nonetheless, Ms. Bernstein claims that the choice of a "native and colonial" theme displayed "incredible insensitivity," especially at a time when "much of their former empire is in so much distress." In the first place, Britain, the royal family included, contributed substantially to disaster relief, and can hardly be called insensitive. Second, for insensitivity to be significant, some people must be deliberately insensitive and others must feel the insensitivity keenly. But I’m pretty certain that all the partygoers wanted was to have a good time, and I’m very sure that most of Britain’s former colonial subjects in India and Sri Lanka have better things to do with their lives than to get upset over the social lives of British royals.