Hidden Narratives, Forgotten Stories: Anti-Colonialism and Stockholm, 1917-1921

A Call For Peace. May 1 Demonstration in Stockholm 1917

A Call For Peace. May 1 Demonstration in Stockholm 1917

Below follow an introduction to a research project I am trying to develop on transnational anti-colonialism in the spatial and temporal setting of Stockholm between 1917-1921. Focus is on tracing largely unknown anti-colonial narratives, which, here is designated as “hidden narratives and forgotten stories”. Please observe: this is a work in progress, and any funding has not yet been secured for the project, but I would not mind hearing of your opinion about the idea and general scope of the theme. (16.3.2017)

Thematic and chronological outline of the project:

In 1917, leaders of the European socialist movement selected Stockholm as the most suitable and logical place to discuss a solution to the on-going political conflict on the European continent. At the same moment, anti-colonial activists living in Europe perceived the idea from a different perspective. With the outbreak of the Russian revolution in February, the socialist movement welcomed the changing political and social scenario in Russia and called for an international conference to be convened in the Swedish capital, namely the “Stockholm Peace Conference”. However, representatives of socialist parties in Germany, France and Great Britain declared their intention of not attending the conference due to national alignments in the on-going war. Yet, the Belgian socialist Camille Huysmans together with the Swedish social democratic leader Hjalmar Branting took stride in forming the “Netherlands-Scandinavian Committee” to show that the despite of the frail character of the socialist movement in Europe, it nevertheless aimed at putting forward plausible solutions that could aid in solving the societal situation or in reviving the international activities of the socialist movement. As the war had assumed the character of an “imperial war”, positing former and new power alliances in cooperation with or against each other, hence the Great War remark, the widespread belief among the involved nations was that the conflict was “a war to end all wars”, aiming to put an end to historical power disputes among the nations of Europe, an issue connected to global factors as claims of power through the geography of colonialism and imperialism. On the other hand, the Great War had seriously altered the functional and structural conditions of anti-colonialism as an idea and movement as it had emerged in the beginning of the twentieth century. The Great War created a global political geography that changed the political space for anti-colonial activists in Europe, Asia, and the USA. The “Stockholm Peace Conference” thus appeared as one of few available opportunities for anti-colonial activists to put forward their demands of national independence. Travelling from various locations in Europe and known of having been present in Stockholm in 1917 were delegations from Egypt, Persia, Finland, India, Poland, the Jewish association “Poale Zion”, Armenia (which highlighted Turkish oppression and the genocide of the Armenian population), the Balkan countries, and an Islamic association. While the history of the peace conference, and the reasons for why it never happened, has been covered extensively in previous research (Kan, 2005; Mazower, 2012; Mishra, 2012; Conrad and Sachsenmeier, 2007; Manela, 2007; Nishikawa, 2010; Kirby, 1986), the activities, demands and connections of the anti-colonial delegations and their representatives remain hidden and forgotten, excluded from an historiographical tradition that has been defined either by national frameworks or the history of Swedish and European labour movements.

Stockholm and the proposed peace conference initiated a spatial and temporal setting for anti-colonialism, a point of departure that encouraged anti-colonial activists at a moment when nothing and everything seemed possible. However, this would continue in Stockholm after 1917, having several anti-colonial activists remain in the city. The historical understanding of Sweden and Stockholm in 1917 and the aftermath of the Great War in 1918, has primarily focused on the consequences of the social and political tensions as they emerged in the nation, for example food riots and social upheaval; and the fractionalization of the political left and general fear of revolution because of the Bolshevik coup d’état in Soviet Russia in October 1917. Further, the project suggest that the conference can be interpreted as the rehearsal of things about to unfold, meaning, similar patterns of ignorance vis-a-vi the colonial question at the Stockholm conference appeared at the Versailles Peace Conference in 1919. Erez Manela’s study (2007) of the “Wilsonian moment” in Versailles depicts how the introduction of liberal internationalism and the idea of a gradual transference of national independence to the colonies turned, however, into a mirage having the colonial delegates being treated with silence and indifference. But, at the same time existed a transnational world in Stockholm, connecting separate identities from colonized states and nations, sharing similar objectives among people and associations regardless of nationality (Iriye: 2013, p.15).

By situating a transnational history of anti-colonialism in Stockholm 1917-1921, this disclose why and how the official position of Swedish neutrality turned the Swedish capital into an anti-colonial space for activists seeking an opportunity of spreading knowledge about colonial oppression, and at the same time, to seek political refuge. Samuel Moyn states in The Last Utopia (2010) that “anti-colonialist ideology” had its origins in tiny groups often characterized “on the far left”, and are frequently linked to student or immigrant networks in metropoles with their own versions of internationalism and nationalism. Thus, the research project will contribute in disclosing the Swedish capital as a crucial “anti-colonial metropole” at a certain moment in time, and further, highlight the historical lacuna of anti-colonialism in Stockholm as a hidden narrative and forgotten story.

“Against the Cruelties in Syria”: Revisiting History to Understand Syria Today

Appeal from the "Against the Cruelties in Syria" committee, December 1925The war and terror in Syria has taken on horrific proportions, yet, and as sad as this may sound, this is nothing new to the country or region in itself. In 1925, the French mandate forces, which, in other words, was how the colonial powers rephrased their control over the colonies after the establishment of the League of Nations and with the Versailles Peace Treaty in 1919, brutally suppressed a tribal uprising in Syria. Similar to the situation in Syria today, numerous people (men, women and children) were affected by the military measures to bring order to the country, yet this time it was the French military. However, the consequence of these measures provoked a strong reaction in Europe, and became part of the nucleus that later would constitute the formation of the League against Imperialism (1927-37), a leading petitioner and protester against colonialism and imperialism during the interwar years.

The reactions on the disastrous situation and violence in Syria was concentrated in the committee “Against the Cruelties in Syria” (in German: Gegen die Greuel in Syria), the creation of the prominent German communist Willi Münzenberg (1889-1940) and the communist mass organization the Internationale Arbeiterhilfe (1921-35), who was (and still is) described and perceived as the leading persona during the interwar years in designing and shaping the propaganda campaigns of the communist movement, ideas which from time to time evolved into transnational enterprises. Yet the history of the “Against the Cruelties in Syria” committee is a short one. The committee was initiated in December 1925, and dissolved in the beginning of 1926, fused with the anti-colonial organisation the League against Colonial Oppression (LACO; in German: Liga gegen koloniale Unterdrückung), which later acted as the official organiser of the “First International Congress against Colonialism and Imperialism” in Brussels at Palais d’Egmont on 10-14 February, 1927. The congress also witnessed the establishment of the League against Imperialism.

The peculiar idea behind the Against the Cruelties in Syria committee was to get leftwing intellectuals and leading politicans in the European socialist movement to support the political message. Prominent people involved in the committee were, for example, Ernst Toller, Henri Guilbeaux, Weiland Herzfelde (brother to artist John Heartfield), George Ledebour.

The leading principle for the committee was to raise awareness by signing petitions, publish declarations of protests, and arrange public demonstrations. Hence, this is pretty much the blueprint of twentieth century political activism, however, activism these days rather transmitted through the dynamics of social media. Yet at this point, it was a question of acting and interacting for the sole reason of spurring some kind of reaction on what was happening outside of Europe’s borders and its power structures, particularly to illustrate and inform about dramas enacted in colonial and semi-colonial countries. This so-called Syria committee promised to, which it to some degree managed to do, raise awareness and material relief in Europe on the drastic and gruesome effects of the mandate system, i.e. the continuance of colonialism after the “Great War“.

What now is happening in Syria deserves a similar reaction from prominent individuals in Europe and beyond, or can just one simply say that there already exists an abundance of political and moral support that seeks a solution to the onslaught? The clock is ticking and so does the lives of ordinary men, women and children, caught in the maelstrom of violence due to the power struggle of the Syrian regime and the national liberation movement.