Perhaps the last significant words of praise for the British empire were spoken shortly before its last gasp: “Not merely [due] to sentiments which result from the racial origins of our two peoples, [I have come to] the realization of the importance for the whole of mankind to the existence of the British Empire.” The time was April 28, 1939; the place was the Reichstag in Berlin; and the speaker was Adolf Hitler. The last sentiment spoken by the ruler of a rival (and evil) empire, encapsulate the main theme of Empire, British scholar Niall Ferguson’s extraordinary homage on which a BBC documentary was based. Professor Ferguson tells the full story of Hitler’s treachery. In his final chapter, “Empire for Sale,” he traces Hitler’s manic hatred of the empire as expressed to his military henchmen in 1937 (The empire is “unsustainable . . . from the point of view of power politics”) through his perfidious brokering at Munich with the appeaser Neville Chamberlain in 1938 down to his conviction as late as January, 1942, that England must either “give up Europe and hold on to the East, or vice versa.”
Commenting on England and its empire’s darkest days, Ferguson can bring a light touch to even the most portentous. He observes that Neville Chamberlain—the son of Joseph Chamberlain, Britain’s first authentic imperialist politician—never shared his father’s passion, perhaps because as a young man he had been forced by his father to run a twenty-thousand-acre sisal estate in the Bahamas, which failed.
Not all modern-day historians will share Ferguson’s passion. If they choose to be cynical aboutEmpire, some may see its lavish illustrations and charts as being camera-ready and Ferguson’s stress points dictated by what makes for the best viewing. What cannot be denied is the industry of this young scholar to have read, literally, everything on his subject and to have rendered its encyclopedic detail accessible to that literate nonspecialist reader for whom he obviously intended it.
Why should Americans care about the history of the British empire? As Ferguson sees it, England’s colonial investment in North America—the one that broke away in 1776—is fast assuming a role worldwide more like Britain’s during its imperialist days. If the United States’ takeovers in Afghanistan and Iraq are to be viewed in Ferguson’s terms (as attempts to save those countries from the Taliban and Saddam Hussein, respectively, with a messianic zeal for which the builders of the British empire set the standard) has the time not come, Ferguson asks, for the United States to rethink its historic distaste for colonies and play an imperial role?
In “Conclusion: A New Imperialism,” Ferguson notes Prime Minister Tony Blair’s unreserved enthusiasm about what Britain can do for the rest of the world. Although Blair’s speech to his Labour cohorts came in the wake of the terrorist attacks in the United States on September 11, 2001, it was, for Ferguson, the first “global” words from a British prime minister since before the Suez crisis of 1954-1956. Blair called for “justice for the starving, the wretched, the dispossessed, the ignorant” and declared that the war to replace the Taliban regime in Afghanistan was part of “reordering” moves against the likes of Slobodan Miločević in Serbia and the “murderous gangsters” in Sierra Leone.
Empire can be seen as a stunning updating of Britain’s colonial record and a pitch to Americans to heed his comparisons of England’s old conquests to...
(The entire section is 1460 words.)