Arie Dubnov and Laura Robson (eds.), Partitions: A Transnational History of Twentieth-Century Territorial Separatism (Stanford University Press, 2019).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you edit this book?

Arie Dubnov and Laura Robson (AD & LR): We were both participants (in different years) in an international seminar on decolonization that ran at the Library of Congress for ten years under (among others) William Roger Louis and Dane Kennedy. It is not too much to say that this seminar trained a generation of scholars across a wide variety of fields to think in coherent and broadly comparative terms about global processes of decolonization. Naturally, partition is one of the themes that emerges from such a study of decolonization, especially once it is studied across territories and time periods. We were both eager to learn the dynamics that made the division of lands into one of the paths for gaining independence for postcolonial states. The seminar gave us the idea, and the tools, to explore the connections among its different iterations and what they might tell us about the end of empire and the birth of a new postcolonial era.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

AD & LR: Our shared goal was to put together the first coherent collective history of the idea of partition, tracing its emergence in the aftermath of the First World War and locating its genealogy in the politics of twentieth-century empire and decolonization. It brings together several well-known scholars from three continents to examine the three most prominent instances of partition—Ireland, India, and Palestine—in tandem. The contributors deploy a wide variety of local perspectives and methodological approaches, as well as a broad spectrum of archival sources in a variety of languages, to answer the question of why and how this “moment of partition” occurred—that is, why partition emerged as a proposed solution for perceived or real ethno-national conflict across these totally disparate geographical and political spaces at this particular historical moment.

More specifically, we wanted to look historically at the peculiar idea of political and physical separation of peoples—how people came up with the idea, and when, and why. At the end of the journey, we can point to three significant conclusions. First is the need to understand how essentially modern both these conflicts and this solution are; both partition and the problems it purported to solve are, basically, twentieth-century phenomena. Secondly, our work revealed how deeply embedded the notion of ethnonational separation is in the politics of twentieth-century empire and decolonization. Thirdly, it has become clear that historical actors at one corner of the empire were acutely aware of “partition experiments” elsewhere and were obsessively comparing themselves to other sites.

Ultimately, we concluded that the idea of partition as “conflict resolution” is deeply flawed. Partition is anything but a natural solution to a long-standing and intractable problem. Instead, it is traceable to a very particular historical moment and explicable within the specific historical framework of British imperial collapse. When people promote it today, they do so for their particular political reasons and not because there has ever been any evidence that partition serves as a solution to anything.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

AD & LR: We have both worked—from rather different angles—on what might be called the politics of identity within an imperial and post-imperial context: how ethnic, communal, and national identities come to exist within imperial frames and often serve to support imperial causes. Laura has worked extensively on the politics of minorities in the colonial and postcolonial Arab world, with a particular focus on the imperial promotion of ethnonational identities and the violent consequences of such practices. Arie was trained as a historian of political thought, with emphasis on the history of Jewish nationalism and its ties with Britain. Working his way backward, from the history of Cold War liberalism to interwar politics, he was eager to see how the idea of partition was bundled up with notions of sovereignty, statehood, and postcolonial independence. In particular, he was curious to see whether the concept was imported in a top-down manner from the imperial metropole, or whether there were also local participation and promotion of partition politics.

For both of us, this project involved diving into entirely new literatures in other parts of the world—especially, of course, South Asia and Ireland, but other places as well—and thinking much more broadly and comparatively about transnational phenomena. It has been a hugely rewarding and intellectually exciting project, and it was really wonderful to work with so many tremendous scholars who were so knowledgeable about areas outside our usual ken.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

AD & LR: Well, we hope it will be read by students and scholars, of course, of the Middle East, of South Asia, of Europe, of empire and decolonization generally. But beyond that, we hope that this book will spark a reconsideration of the political idea of partition among political scientists and policy-makers, who have been much more sanguine about the prospects of partition as a solution to ethnic conflict than we, as historians, think they should be. If this book does anything, it points to the fact that partition, historically speaking, has never served as a “solution” to anything; in fact, it has invariably been associated with violence of the most extreme kind.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

AD & LR: Laura is finishing up a history of mass violence in the twentieth-century Middle East that will hopefully be out in the next year or so, as well as looking towards another book project about the origins of global refugee resettlement schemes. Arie is currently writing a monograph that will examine how ideas concerning imperial federalism gave rise to a new understanding of British imperial politics after WWI and how key Zionist thinkers from the period formed their own visions in response to it. And we are looking for another opportunity to collaborate, perhaps on a less depressing topic!

J: Given its many failures across the twentieth century, why do you think partition has retained its appeal as a possible “solution” for ethnic conflict? 

AD & LR: It is true that partition has had a remarkably long shelf life, and continues to appear as a policy proposal for all kinds of places, especially in the Middle East—not just Palestine/Israel, but also Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere. But partition is not being proposed because it works to reduce bloodshed. Instead, we would argue it regularly resurfaces because it continues to be both rhetorically and practically useful to a wide variety of external actors intent on maintaining and expanding their positions in places like Syria and Iraq. “Solutions” like partition elide external responsibility for contemporary postcolonial violence by assigning primordial sectarian origins to state collapse and civil war. They buttress the idea, valuable in so many different contexts, that the Middle East—and other places—are so fundamentally divided that security there is impossible without an external force acting as mediator. They offer both a rationale and a means for exerting physical influence on the ground. And when it goes wrong and turns violent—as partitions and transfers inevitably do—it can be presented as yet another example of why external political and military intervention will, unfortunately, be needed for the foreseeable future.


Excerpt from the book:

From the introduction

Partition is having a moment. In the past twenty years, the idea of physically dividing territories along ethno-religious lines as a solution to communal strife has suddenly reemerged, conveniently divorced from its disastrously violent history, as a fashionable technique of “conflict resolution.” From the 1995 Dayton accords that brought an end to the ruthless wars in the former Yugoslavia to the savage civil war and refugee crisis in Syria today, from the ongoing negotiations over Israel-Palestine to the recent carving up of Sudan, varying forms of internationally organized, ethnically based re-divisions of territory have repeatedly been proposed – and in some cases implemented – as a useful tool for solving intractable ethnic conflicts. Such contemporary discussions depict partition as a natural and even inevitable, if regrettable, answer to widely divergent but equally intractable problems of ethnic conflict across the globe.

It was not always so. Far from representing a natural solution to ethnic conflict, the concept of partition is no more than a hundred years old, a product of the exceptional violence of the twentieth century. It first emerged out of the new conversations surrounding ethnicity, nationhood, and citizenship during and immediately after the First World War, unfolding against a backdrop of European imperial politics. The wartime collapse of the old central European and Ottoman empires and the emergence of new notions of the nation-state highlighted an essential paradox: the rise of new anti-colonial nationalisms and a formidable discourse of national sovereignty at precisely the same moment that the power, authority, and ambition of the British and French empires were reaching their zenith. Facing this difficulty, the political and diplomatic leadership of the old “Great Powers” began envisioning a new global order comprising self-consciously modern, sovereign, more-or-less ethnically homogenous states under the continued economic authority of the old imperial players.

Partition, then, represented one piece of an imperially sponsored remaking of the global order along ethno-national lines, one that could also encompass other modes of aligning national populations with political borders: population transfer, mass deportations, and forcible denationalization, accompanied by a political narrative of self-determination for national populations and protections newly designated “minorities.” The multiple treaties of the immediate post-WWI era – encompassing Versailles, Sèvres, and Lausanne, the many minorities treaties with eastern Europe, and the League of Nations “mandate” agreements under which much of the Middle East would be governed for the next three decades – all provided a venue for articulating a new “internationalist” vision that bore the imprint of both nationalist discourse and imperial ambition, with the intention of containing the former and extending the latter. These agreements sought to construct a new political language of ethnic separatism alongside an equally novel language of self-determination, while protecting and disguising continuities and even expansions of British and French imperial power. The division of Ireland in the early 1920s thus cannot be disentangled from simultaneous conversations about mass population resettlement in Iraq and Syria; brutal population exchanges between Bulgaria and Greece and between Greece and Turkey; and the emergence of new boundaries and new categories of “minority” and “majority” in Poland, Romania, and other former Habsburg and Russian imperial territories. The idea of partition emerged alongside other hybrid approaches like the mandate system – that awkward “compromise between partisans of imperial annexation and those who wanted all colonies placed under international control,” as historian Susan Pedersen has it – and similarly encouraged colonial subjects to use the language of nation-statehood to advocate for sovereignty.

Unlike the mandates, these partitions mostly did not involve new internationalist bodies like the League of Nations; they were products of dialogue and negotiations along, within, and across the traditional metropole-colony axis. Partition, as an idea and strategy, belonged firmly within the imperial realm; it was less a vehicle for internationalization than a novel, sophisticated dīvide et īmpera tactic that sought to coopt the new global tilt towards the ethnic nation-state. As such, the meaning of partition necessarily shifted after a second world war and the concomitant collapse of British imperial rule. Schemes that were originally conceived as part of a new type of imperial governance in the guise of internationalism turned out to offer quick and dirty exit strategies and the possibility of continued post-colonial influence for Britain, and began to interest policymakers in extra-British contexts. Following the Second World War, two further partitions were proposed and partially enacted in the decolonizing territories of India-Pakistan and Israel-Palestine, accompanied by a level of violence and dislocation unprecedented in either place (though perhaps matched by the brutality of the almost simultaneous mass population expulsions in eastern Europe). By midcentury, the political “solution” of partition had arrived with a vengeance.

This volume examines the three earliest and most prominent instances of partition – Ireland, India, and Palestine – in tandem. Our goal is to understand why and how this “moment of partition” occurred – that is, why partition emerged as a proposed solution for perceived or real communal and ethno-national conflict across these totally disparate geographical and political spaces at this particular historical moment. Making use of the transnational framework of the British Empire, the central originary space for the idea of partition, it seeks to go beyond side-by-side comparison to find concrete connections among the three cases: the mutual influences, shared personnel, economic justifications, material interests, and political networks that propelled the idea of partition forward, resulted in the violent creation of (theoretically) ethnically specific post-colonial political spaces, and set the stage for subsequent partitions in Germany, Korea, and Vietnam, among others. Such a juxtaposition of cases allows us to understand partition more accurately as a transnational rather than a local phenomenon, a consequence of decolonization and the global upheavals of the interwar era, rather than an expression of permanently incompatible ethnic or religious identities in benighted areas of the world. In other words, this volume seeks to move the scholarship beyond “area studies” as well as the nationalist frameworks that served in the first instance to promote partition as a natural phenomenon and have buttressed its political formulations ever since.