Fight or Flight: Britain, France, and Their Roads from Empire by Martin Thomas.

Author:Walker, David B.
Position:Book review

Thomas, Martin. Fight or Flight: Britain, France, and Their Roads from Empire. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014. xxi + 539 pages. Hardcover, $39.95.

A prolific historian of twentieth-century French imperialism and widely regarded as a leading expert on the interwar period, Martin Thomas has increasingly broadened his focus in recent years to explore comparisons between the British and French colonial states by way of their use of intelligence agencies, violence, and police services. In Fight or Flight: Britain, France, and Their Roads from Empire, Thomas turns his attention the incredibly daunting task of offering a comparative analysis of British and French decolonization in Asia and Africa. Despite what the publisher's blurb for Fight or Flight suggests, a handful of others have published single-volume comparisons of decolonization. None of these books, however, has achieved anything that could accurately be described as going beyond the mere introductory-level survey in terms of detail and sophistication. Not only does Fight or Flight surpass its predecessors in this way, but it also approaches its subject from a fresh perspective by studying the differing levels of violence that marked both British and French decolonization. Believing that the "hardest problem to solve is why wars and violence erupted in some colonies in the throes of decolonization but not in others" (p. xv), Thomas argues that "this issue turned on the choices made by the imperial powers and their opponents about resisting the end of empire or negotiating it, about fight or flight" (p. 3).

Thomas's comparative case studies lead to some conclusions that will be of particular interest to historians of British decolonization. It has long been accepted that the end of France's colonial empire was an especially bloody affair that witnessed the two most violent wars of decolonization in Indochina and Algeria. Due to the fact that British decolonization produced nothing on the scale of a Dien Bien Phu, it was traditionally believed that Britain had disengaged from empire in a more benevolent manner. Yet, a spate of recent studies on British counterinsurgency efforts in Palestine, Malaya, Cyprus, and Kenya has severely qualified this view. Should the distinctions be completely done away with? Thomas suggests not, explaining that differences in the British and French political traditions did, indeed, make the former more likely to opt for a flight strategy. Ultimately, he...

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