Workshop Report: “The Axis Powers and Decolonisation: Debating Perspectives, Difference, and Entanglements of the End of Empire in Germany, Italy and Japan”
by Giulio Salvati and Annalisa Urbano
The Explorative Workshop “The Axis Powers and Decolonisation: Debating Perspectives, Difference, and Entanglements of the End of Empire in Germany, Italy and Japan” took place on 13-14 December 2017 at the Forum Transregionale Studien in Berlin. It was convened by Annalisa Urbano (Université de Genève) and part of the strategic cooperation between the Forum Transregionale Studien and the Max Weber Stiftung – Deutsche Geisteswissenschaftliche Institute im Ausland.
Bridging academic traditions
For a long time, the alliance between Germany, Italy, and Japan – commonly known as the Axis Powers – has been seen as a military association defined by strictly pragmatic circumstances. Recently, these assumptions have been revised by a number of scholars who have highlighted how numerous exchanges existed among Germany, Italy, and Japan in the realms of ideology, sociopolitical projects, and imperial ambitions.
The workshop The Axis Powers and Decolonisation, organised by the Forum Transregionale Studien in December 2017, provided a unique opportunity to build upon this emerging scholarship. While current debates tend to limit their focus to the Axis’ military defeat in 1945, the workshop intended to push discussions further by testing two simple yet largely unexplored hypotheses. First, connections that developed among Germany, Italy, and Japan did not fade away with military defeat in 1945 but left a legacy that can be traced in the post-1945 period. Second, aspects of this legacy can be better understood when set against the background of broader processes unfolding across the globe and, more specifically, against the framework of decolonisation. A common legacy of all three powers is the debating of their future internationally after 1945, the territorial readjustments, and the movements of people in and out of the countries. In the last two decades, the dismantling of colonial empires has spurred burgeoning, compelling, and lively historiographic debates. Yet, works on decolonisation usually focus on case studies that spanned between the mid-1950s and the late 1970s. Thus, these studies rarely included the end of Axis empires into their discussions. Bringing together eleven scholars with different regional expertise, the workshop was an important occasion to bridge these different disciplines and historiographic traditions.
Facing similar challenges, finding similar solutions
The two-day workshop comprised of an introductory address and a concluding session, two group discussions, and five thematic sections entitled ‘Colonial Occupation and Alliances’, ‘Imagining a World after the Empire’, ‘Post-war Reconstruction’, ‘Restoration and Recovery’, ‘Legacies and Memories’. During each session, scholars introduced different sets of scholarships that soon revealed striking commonalities across continents. As a starting point, most participants considered the various ends of the war as the beginning of decolonisation. The ceasefires and peace treaties between Allies and the former Axis powers were signed at different times, yet they all contained a set of provisions aimed at ensuring post-war stability. In the process, millions of ethnic Japanese, Italians, and Germans were forcibly relocated to the mainland as they were perceived as “foreign settlers”. The removal of these groups living outside brand-new borders became a crucial task for the new military administrators. This also meant all war-torn societies faced the additional challenge of absorbing and integrating those former imperial subjects. This process proved to be an ongoing task that created various points of contact between politicians, diplomats, and social groups in former fascist ally countries. As soon as the first discussions unfolded at the conference, it became evident that intertwined notions of an ethnic, political, and social decolonisation structured the process of dismantling former Axis empires during and after World War II.
When does Colonialism end?
While the language and challenges of decolonisation provided scholars with a vocabulary for exchanging historical knowledge and interpretative frameworks, the question of when and whether decolonisation ended loomed large during the two-day workshop. Among other suggestions, Lori Watts proposed to understand decolonisation as an “ideology of emancipation” that could be deployed similarly by colonizers and colonized. Accordingly, it was a strategy to free oneself from a seemingly burdening relationship. At the same time, most presenters highlighted how colonialism itself remained an integral part of the post-Axis societies and post-war reconstruction. It was thus not surprising that in all three countries post-war governments immediately sought to maintain control over as many territories as possible through diplomacy and via new forms of international mandates. Legal terminology also figured prominently among discussions. While many agreed that the legal historical frameworks remained the main point of reference to frame the end of empire, it was also argued that the actual validity of these frames should always be questioned because the dismantlement of the imperial past was attempted in the social, cultural, political, and military field at different paces or not at all to this very day. Even after international treaties were sealed after the war and the empire disappeared from the public sphere, the empire continued, and still does, to shape the language and memory of colonialism.
Post-Colonial Empires or De-Imperialisation?
A number of positive outcomes as well as stimulating challenges emerged during the two-day workshop. All participants agreed that looking at the end of Axis empires might help us rethink the often too simplistic chronology and pace of decolonisation unfolding after the Second World War. Moreover, the workshop adopted a rather innovative spatial perspective. This not only allowed scholars to bring three different continents within the same analytical framework, it also made it possible to question categories defined by area studies or by the study of empire as well as by geographical binary divisions between metropoles and colonies. E. g., the burgeoning scholarship on the European postwar reconstruction has unintentionally reinforced the notion that after 1945 Germany had more in common with France than with its former ally Japan even if both faced similar challenges, such as the occupation regimes, a new political culture, and the displacement of their population.
At the same time, the workshop proved essential to highlight several shortcomings. One of the most pressing challenges was how to develop a shared vocabulary that would help capture the process of dismantlement of Axis empires while addressing the inherent contradictions of its particularities. A number of examples illustrated these contradictions. For instance, is there a vocabulary that could better render the different layers of force and violence that unfolded during the decolonisation of the fascist empires? Is there a language that better captures the actions of anti-fascist politicians who fought for maintaining control over colonies abroad or networks celebrating the colonial experience as “post-colonial empires”? The fascists developed ambitious yet imperfect imperial projects. For the discussants, addressing empire’s enduring presence after the end of the fascist regimes translated into the task of capturing continuities. In the case of Japan (as argued by Sherzod Muminov), other processes during the Cold War made it possible to erase the empire from public discourse. In many ways, the erasure was a step towards “de-imperialisation” that helped conceal problematic memories. Issues related to the use and coinage of different terms also highlighted a discomfort connected with the failure of previous scholarship to properly address paradoxes embedded in the Axis colonisation plans and the end of their empires.
In conclusion, the series of commonalities proves the deep ties that kept connecting the fate of the three Axis power well beyond World War II. As in the past years scholars have started “rediscovering” the imperial elements embedded in the Axis as forces that drove their actions, the workshop shows that this trajectory brings new questions to the fore about the end of those imperial projects. Therefore, future exchanges will have to develop a language to address their contradictory “afterlives” and manifold ends.
 Since Mark Mazower’s bestseller Hitler’s Empire in 2008 scholars have moved to discuss more nuanced explorations on the imperial elements in the Axis countries. A trajectory that seems far from ceasing anytime soon. Among the most recent book projects see, Sayaka Chatani, Nation-Empire: Ideology and Rural Youth Mobilization in Japan and Its Colonies (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2018); Stephen G. Gross, Export Empire: German Soft Power in Southeastern Europe, 1890-1945, New Studies in European History (Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015); Roberta Pergher, Fascist Borderlands: Nation, Empire and Italy’s Settlement Program, 1922-1943, New Studies in European History (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2017); Ruth Ben-Ghiat, Italian Fascism’s Empire Cinema, New Directions in National Cinemas (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2015).
Citation: Giulio Salvati and Annalisa Urbano, Workshop Report: “‘The Axis Powers and Decolonisation: Debating perspectives, difference, and entanglements of the end of empire in Germany, Italy and Japan’”, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 24.04.2018, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/9796.