Frederick Cooper

Frederick Cooper

Professor of History, Department of History, New York University

On a day marked by a dominant focus on the next challenges of our society, thinking about history shows a way to look back to the future. Approaching his discipline as a means to answer the most pressing questions of today has been a main inspiration of historian Frederick Cooper’s stunning academic journey: from Yale to Harvard to Michigan to New York University, with guest professorships at the Ecole Normale Supérieure and the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, with countless acknowledgments like the Best Book in African Studies Award from the African Studies Association and fellowships from the Rockefeller Institute, the Guggenheim Foundation and the Mellon Foundation. Known worldwide for the articulation of the concept of ‘gatekeeper state’, co-author of a recent book on Empires in World History, Cooper brings an academic perspective that is rooted in years of research on labour and political movements in Africa and broader conceptualizations of colonialism, citizenship, equality, and development, as well as critical readings of overused concepts of globalization, identity, and modernity. With this background, Cooper seeks to transcend the common frameworks of the nation-state, and provide an alternative analysis of world history.

Breaking the Wall of National History. How Looking Beyond the Nation-State Helps Us Understand the Past, and Perhaps the Future



For an American with some knowledge of European history, it is a moving experience to drive past the remains of fortifications on the near the Rhine in Alsace and then to cross the river.  One simply drives past the abandoned customs and border-control post, with perhaps a fleeting thought of the thousands of people whose lives were lost as the frontier between France and Germany moved back and forth in the last century and a half.  Controlling borders and determining who crosses them is usually regarded as one of the basic attributes of sovereignty. That the Schengen countries have ceded this attribute to each other is a notable achievement. And our view of sovereignty in today's world becomes more complicated when we note that the boundaries of Schengen, of the Euro-zone, and of the Europe of 27 are not coterminous; sovereignty is apparently a divisible concept.


It remains to be seen how much this sharing of sovereignty captures the imagination of people across Europe–how much they will think of themselves as a European people–and whether being "European" is seen in inclusive or exclusionary terms.  The walls between most European nations, like that which once divided Berlin, are down, but the wall around Europe is becoming higher. And national sentiment coexists uneasily with the new Europe. Last month, the government of France proposed to create the "Maison de l'histoire de France" in the heart of Paris, and a group of distinguished historians wrote a letter to Le Monde denouncing this project as


an outdated and dangerous celebration of the French nation-state.  What sense does it make, they ask, to create a museum confined to national borders, when the future–like the past–of France can only be understood in terms of its connections to the rest of the world, and to Europe in particular.  They prefer a history of "encounters, connections, and mixtures." The museum, following the creation by the Sarkozy government of a ministry of "national identity," postulates a very French France set off against everyone else.  Such debates are not unique to France.  When President Wulff courageously declared that Muslims form an integral part of the German nation, not everybody applauded.

There is something that the French critics of the Maison de l'Histoire de la France omitted.  They want to see France in relation to Europe.  But French history has long had a wider reference, and even today, there are bits of France in the Caribbean and Indian Ocean.  As late as the 1950s, officials proudly proclaimed that France was one of the great Muslim nations of the world.  French leaders were then referring to the France of 110 million French people, of whom only 50 million lived in European France.


Ever since the conquest of Algeria in 1830, followed by the colonization of part of West Africa, much of the population of overseas France consisted of Muslims, and others followed a great variety of religious practices.  One of the other great Muslim powers of those times was Great Britain.  It too saw empire as a complex entity, with colonies, dominions, protectorates, federations of subordinated states, and informal ways of exercising power across the globe, among people of different faiths and cultures, and it too saw that shifting the balance among various forms of incorporation, if not necessarily political domination, was a way for Britain to preserve stature and economic power.

For much of the history of these empires, colonized people were marked as a category integral to the empire, but with no voice in running it.  France considered its Muslim peoples to be French subjects and nationals, but not citizens. They could be forced to work, made to live in segregated spaces, subjected to arbitrary punishments. But in wartime, the fiction that they were truly members of a


French or British–or up to 1918 German–empire brought out the hope that they would act like members of a community and fight loyally and willingly for Republic, King, or Kaiser.

We sometimes think that the 19th or early 20th century was the last gasp of empires, all overwhelmed by the national idea: one government for one people in one territory. On the contrary, new varieties of imperial power developed in the 20th century: Nazi Germany; Japan, which defeated Russia in 1905 and later took over Chinese territory and European and American colonies; the USSR, with its multiple national republics and after World War II, its subordinated states in eastern Europe; and in its own way the US, which didn't like colonies but did, and still does, occupations.  Elites aspiring to more power did not confine themselves to national boundaries.  Nor–and this is a main point of my current research–did the people who fought against the tyranny of these empires think that the opposition of empire and nation defined their only options.  Such a choice, they thought, was confining, another set of walls that cut across the reality of interconnected worlds in which people lived.

World War II shook up the world of empires more than any previous event in history, but it remained to be seen what possibilities would emerge and what would be foreclosed. At this time, there emerged a version of shared sovereignty that would influence the EU, but those ideas surfaced first in debates about how to reconfigure colonial empires.

This is a history that has largely been forgotten, both in France and in its former colonies. The primary demand of most African political leaders after 1945 was not for independence, but to acquire the full rights of the French citizen.  France, they knew, was in a fragile economic, military, and political situation.  After Europe's own experience with Nazi racism, the appeal to the natural superiority of white people was no longer plausible. France and England needed both African resources and renewed legitimacy more than ever.  France now sought to integrate a few elites from the colonies into its political system, but the first Africans elected to the French parliament quickly made clear that they would not cooperate unless the status of colonial subject were abolished and all inhabitants of the colonies acquired the quality of the French citizen.  Such a promise could no longer be restricted to people who conformed to a predefined notion of "Frenchness."  The constitution of 1946 allowed overseas citizens to retain their personal status under Islamic or customary law, regulating marriage, filiation, and inheritance in a variety of ways, not just under the French civil code.

France, in theory, would be both egalitarian and multicultural.  In practice, each element of political and civil practice was subject to conflict, but African political and social movements claimed the full range of rights.  In Algeria, settlers of European origin, with the connivance of party leaders in France, were able to prevent Muslims from exercising such rights, but in subsaharan Africa, the voting public steadily grew and workers acquired the legal right to pay and benefits equal to those of European citizens. Not the least of the rights of the new French citizens was that of "free circulation," entering and leaving European France and becoming candidates for French civil service jobs.

One French deputy in 1946 had worried that since the overseas population exceeded that of European France, the latter would become the colony of its former colonies. But that was not what most African leaders sought.  Leopold Senghor of


Senegal, for example, wanted each African territory to have autonomy for its internal affairs, as would European France, for all French African territories to constitute together an African federation–with legislature and executive--that would govern the entire region, and for this federation to participate as a single unit in a French confederation, distinguished by its recognition of the national identity and equality of each component, France and Africa alike. Other Africans wanted to omit the African federation and federate directly with European  France. But the French government meanwhile was having second thoughts about its own insistence on central control, for that gave it little basis on which to resist demands for full economic and social equality, at high cost to the French taxpayer. The government was now willing to concede some of the principle demands to African politicians, including universal suffrage and internal self-government, hoping to make African governments responsible for the costs of their own development, with French assistance but not the assumption of entitlement to equality.

African leaders referred frequently to a "Franco-African Community."  French leaders sometimes spoke of "Eurafrique."   French leaders hoped that European partners would share the burdens of economic development overseas and that African products would find a market in Europe; Africans hoped to find new opportunities.

When Charles de Gaulle came to power in 1958, he was so anxious to maintain


a polity that was both French and extra-European, that he accepted that African territories would now be called "Member States" of a "French Community," that they would have the right to leave if they so chose, and that each Member State would have its own nationality, with the French nationality "superposed"on top.

We know that hopes for African federation and Franco-African confederation came to naught. My current project attempts to explain how and why the plans unraveled–too expensive for France, too much attachment to territorial political bases for African politicians, too many issues of cultural difference and political assertion for either side--but the point for now is the seriousness of the attempt–and the fact that it was only in 1960 that Franco-African confederation became excluded from the realm of possibility.

By that time, French leaders had decided that they wanted confederation for themselves.  They were willing to give up some of the prerogatives of the sovereign state, in order to have the advantages of a European common market, and later more complex forms of shared governance.   Few remember that thinking about confederal forms of power began in writing a constitution for a transformed French empire in 1946.

For a Senegalese Muslim in the 1950s, marriage and inheritance could be regulated under Islamic law, and he could vote in a French election, come to European France if he found the means to do so, and claim equal wages and benefits as a French citizen.  Now, in 2010, France tries to keep out the children of the people it once tried to keep in.  Many influential politicians proclaim that practicing Islam and practicing French citizenship are incompatible. Others insist that a republic cannot recognize difference among its citizens without jeopardizing the ideal of equality.  They do not realize that the constitutions of the 4th and 5th republics recognized the right of people in what was then a large part of France to be both equal and different.  And if the French government's use of repressive violence to keep Algeria French has received belated recognition, the possibility of an inclusive citizenship between 1945 and 1960 is seldom mentioned by critics as well as apologists for French colonial actions.  African governments have largely erased the history of the effort to claim an inclusive French citizenship, preferring a myth of a triumphal struggle for national independence.  The read-back of history as the victory of nation over empire was itself part of the process of foreclosing alternatives to the power of national elites that emerged within each state.

The other great collapse of empire in the 20th century occurred in 1989 and 1991, and part of it occurred right here: the end of the Soviet Union and its dominance over much of eastern Europe.  If at first it seemed to entail the emergence of another round of new nations, the alternatives were wider than that.  Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and others all wanted to join the European Union, and give up some of their precious national autonomy. The USSR split up along lines of national republics, but the biggest piece called itself, significantly, the Russian Federation and it, like its predecessor, recognized republics within itself.  Boris Yeltsin told the leaders of Tatarstan, "Take as much sovereignty as you can swallow." Vladimir Putin took some of that sovereignty back, but Tatarstan retains considerable autonomy in cultural and political terms within the Russian Federation.

The lesson for us today is that the walls of the nation-state are of much more recent origin and much less all-embracing than we ordinarily think.  The struggle of people to control their own destiny has not been limited to the idea that one people in one territory should be ruled by one government. The members of the EU are still getting used to the idea of shared and layered sovereignty, even as they enjoy the freedom of travel and the economic advantages that ensue from it.  In some parts of Europe–the Balkans and Rwanda in the 1990s–the myth of a single people in a single territory has confronted the reality that people did not live that way. Much blood was shed to try to make the reality conform to the myth. We run the risk, in some moments, of imagining as an alien "other" people whom, in other moments, we lived alongside.  The walls of national identity are recent constructions. We can build them higher or we can tear them down.