PhD defense: Fredrik Petersson and the League against Imperialism…

It is always great to see archive-based research on the history of transnational organizations and networks in the 1920s-1930s. This is, as Fredrik Petersson emphasizes in his work, “lost History” at its best: not only does these organizations’ work seem like a failure in the grand scheme of things – there is also a gaping gulf between their preoccupations, the world they operated in, and ours. It takes an effort to withdraw from the shadow of 1939-1945 and think about what these organizations meant for the people of these times, what were their activities, their networks, and their legacy.

This is exactly what Fredrik Petersson did in a PhD he presented today at the Åbo Akademi, in Turku. The subject was Willi Münzenberg, the League against Imperialism, and the Comintern, 1925-1933. While not exactly my field of studies, I got four insights from the work that I could use for my own research.

. First, the use Petersson did of the networks surrounding Münzenberg and characterizing the work of the League. The League appeared like a conglomerate of organizations and people, and this network analysis is extremely interesting.

. Second, the way he framed his work into the study of “lost History”, the “gaps and silences in the historical record”, to quote Josephine Fowler. The 1920s organizations revolving around the Comintern are parts of this lost history in more than one way: they are linked to communism, an ideology that lost; they were mostly undone in World War II, and their legacy mocked by those who rebuilt Western Europe after 1945; they are by necessity transnational, and thus beyond the scope of classical national historiographies; they are linked to decolonization and anti-colonialism, and thus still marginal in Western European historical thought. But for the people who worked in these networks and for their times, those were important things – less momentous, one can argue, than “what Hitler and Chamberlain did”, but nonetheless worthy of our attention if one is to understand what went on in those times.

. Petersson also had a little thing on Berlin as a place where the League’s secretariat worked. He used human geography and especially Doreen Massey and Pat Jess’s work in order to question the role of Berlin as a setting, a scene of possibilities and limitations for the people working there. This is something I would like to do when continuing to look at diplomats in Paris; like Berlin, Paris was a scene to a play, an actor in the lives of these diplomats, physically located networks and places of power, etc. It brought to mind this call for papers of the Diplomatic Cultures network.

. Finally, Petersson brought up prosopography as an approach susceptible to help make sense of networks of like-minded people working in specific, transnational spaces.

A very small gripe, to finish with, and nothing that takes away from the quality of Petersson’s extremely thorough work. Looking through the table of contents and the bibliography, I wondered how much academic and linguistic affiliations shaped the way this work was framed. Obviously, the PhD has strong roots in Comintern studies, and it did not communicate much with significant bodies of literature dealing for example with the League of Nations, 1920s transnational networks and the like (no Patricia Clavin, Andrew Webster or Susan Pedersen in the bibliography). It was also a study of which secondary literature was mostly German and English – nothing in French, despite the very vivid body of research on the subject that exists in French. Minor things, to be sure – but they show us how much the universal village of academic research, transcending academic divisions and language barriers, still is a distant horizon…

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