The End of Empires: Decline, Erosion, and Implosion

Römer- und Pelizaeus-Museum Hildesheim, October 2-6th, 2018

Conceptional Thoughts on the End of Empires

Empire studies and the imperial turn have flourished in recent decades. Empires have been evaluated from different perspectives and scrutinized by using different methods and approaches. However, there are still major shortcomings and lacunae in previous studies that need to be addressed. The classifications and definitions proposed thus are still debatable, and the selection of what is regarded as representing an “empire” is rather unsystematic. Comprehensive structural connections that transcend eras and historical periods have only partially been taken into consideration. This is often due to a lack of concrete questions and concepts and an awareness that has only recently arisen of different types of empires through all periods. And last but not at least, recent empire studies still tend to focus primarily upon the modern and contemporary eras.

As a consequence, they are not only chronologically concentrated on recent centuries, they are also prone to a Eurocentric perspective. The conference in Hildesheim is part of a new project which aims at overcoming these deficits by providing an entirely new basis to comparative empire studies. 

The publication from the Hildesheim conference led to five fundamental results:

1. Individual case studies of empires have been and continue to be subjects of isolated inquiries that focus on the phenomenon of empire on a case-by-case basis, often in isolation from each other.  

2. Historical empires and imperial powers have been compared arbitrarily with each other. Many times, these studies have been guided by a Eurocentric view without seriously taking into account global history in its far-reaching geographical and chronological dimensions.

3. However, there are still empires of global regions which have not been considered and periods which have not appropriately been taken into consideration with regard to empires that have collapsed, eroded, or imploded. These gaps will be closed with this second conference in Hildesheim. As a result, a well-chosen number of additional imperial orders and formations that historically collapsed, eroded, or imploded will be analyzed in a systematic way.

4. The approach chosen by different sections of this conference is defined in the following way:

5. The aims of this conference will be achieved by a set of unified questions addressed to each individual study. 

The Hildesheim conference in October 2018 will focus at the comparative level on a specific group of states which are commonly labeled as “empires” and which are encountered through all historical periods. There were many reasons for their respective collapses, erosions, or implosions.

Vorträge der Tagung

Di., 02.10.18, Beginn: 14:00 Uhr

Antike/ Antiquity

Islam/ The Muslim World

Afrika und China/ Africa and China

Indien und Südost-Asien/ India and Southeast Asia

Amerikas/ Americas

Mittelalter und Neuzeit/ Middle Ages and Modern History

Zeitgeschichte I: Ende Erster Weltkrieg/ Contemporary History I: The End of World War I

Zeitgeschichte II: Ende Zweiter Weltkrieg/ Contemporary History II: The End of World War II

Zeitgeschichte III: Ende Kalter Krieg/ Contemporary History III: The End of the Cold War

I. Material History with Regard to Empires that Declined, Eroded, or Imploded

1. The question of power vacuum, neighbors, power history and power politics context, antagonistic powers;

2. The question of leadership, change of dynasties, institutional decay, representatives, apparatus, armies, institutions, administration, center/periphery, centralization/decentralization; 

3. The question of the “relevant power area”, expansion (growth from within towards the outside or from the outside), establishment, integration, self-presentation, openness, uncertainty, “the dynamics of unstable borders”, hypocrisy (as the price of imperialism and of empires) and legitimation, missions, promises, communication both within and to the outside, capabilities for reform, resistance, and regeneration;

4. Reactions and perceptions by third parties in real history;

5. The question of a long-lasting erosion, creeping and protracted decline, or abrupt end and total collapse.

II. Reception History of Empires that Declined, Eroded, or Imploded

1. The question of ending heritage, legacy, and achievement of civilization; 

2. The question of ending imagined receptions: removals, historical fictions, stylization, over-interpretation, and disproportions in ascribing significance; 

3. The question of failed references to historical empires and forerunners as well as missing generations of historical consciousness and tradition and the lack of imperial image continuity; 

4. Historiography: how historians and their schools treated the cases of empires that declined, eroded, or imploded and who failed to capitalize an “empire”?

5. The state of modern research and comparisons spreading across eras (analogies, parallels, differences). 

When observing, describing and analyzing these scenarios all over the world through the centuries, fundamental questions arise that will be addressed in this conference:

- Is the ephemerality and early collapse or reduction of these states due to structure, i.e., viewed through the lens of comparative empire history, were they ill-conceived and defective? 

- And if so, do their collapse, erosion, or implosion as well as their focus on war, conquest, and predation reflect a specific type of proto-empire that had to fail because of its internal organization?  

- Or, do we have to prefer another explanation concerning the development of these states? 

Thus, what we face does not represent a specific type of (proto-)empire at all. Early collapse and reduction are not due to misconstruction but rather to external factors such as omnipotent rivals or simply contingency. As a consequence, what we observe is just the characteristic beginnings of any known empire. However, targeted development was cut off from the outside and the prospective empire was simply decapitated. The conference will address these fundamental questions by singling out a series of such “empires that declined, eroded, or imploded” and by adhering to a global and universal dimension in empire studies. In geographical terms, it attempts to take into account the entire globe, and in chronological terms, all eras from antiquity through the very present time. This voices an expressed dissociation of any Eurocentric focus and includes the attempt to place empire studies within a world history perspective. Consequently, this implies an effort to provide an approach that is both clearly structured in methodological terms and uniform and consistent by developing a general set of questions that guarantee the possibility of comparing and distinguishing. In this way, the intent is to examine not only already well-established empires, but also to illuminate forgotten ones. In an ideal form, we ask all contributors to summarize in a third part the following aspects:

III. Final Step: Summary and Conclusion

1. Sources: a) Written sources, b) Non-written sources;

2. Space:  a) Spatial dimension, b) Environment, c) Expansion, d) Territorial losses, 

e) Reach (Interventionsreichweite);

4. Time/History: a) Genesis, b) Rise, c) Decline, d) Collapse, e) Administration, i.e. Structure of the empire (improvisation versus “grand design”), f) Tradition (self-reflecting embedding in a larger historical context)     

5. Power/Structure: a) Empire Biographies: Conquerors, Emperors, and Losers, b) Structure of  the state/modes of government, c) Heterogeneity (multiethnic, multilingual, regional diversity), d) Elites and their functions (political, religious, economical, intellectual, consultative), e) Bureaucracies and their agendas (Herrschaftsdurchdringung), f) War and army, g) Dichotomy center – periphery, and the in-betweens, h) Competitors (Konkurrenzbeherrschung versus Konkurrenzlosigkeit), i) Ideology and strategies of communication and legitimation, j) Strategies of integration and threats of disintegration (identities), k) Religion and cult, l) Crisis and resistance to crisis/crisis management, m) Economy and economic strategies (taxes and/versus tribute), n) Mobility (communication and information), o) Trade policy, p) Currency as a factor of integration  

6. Reception: 

a) Architecture and representation, b) Historical heritage (official and popular culture of later epochs), c) Contemporary historiography, d) Scholarly historiography of our times  

We are well aware that it will not be possible for each contribution to deal with every single aspect of this general set of questions. However, we hope that it will deliver a useful agenda for comparison and contrast, thus fostering the discussion as well as further studies.

The proceedings of this conference will be published in the new series “Studies in Universal and Cultural History” (Springer Verlag) (see informations at the end of the brochure).