Michael Goebel, Freie Universität Berlin
Between the two World Wars, imperial centers such as London or Paris became bridgeheads for the spread of nationalism throughout the colonial world. As I argue in my recent book about Paris as an Anti-Imperial Metropolis, migration to European cities politicized many labor migrants, students, and exiles from Africa and Asia because it rendered more palpable the rights differentials that lay at the heart of imperialism. The spatial micro-concentration of places in Paris’s cityscape where the paths of young men from very different countries intersected further intensified this effect. Thus, the later Ho Chi Minh frequented specific Parisian venues, where he met Malagasies and Antilleans, with whom he then founded a communist-sponsored political organization that churned out some of the major anticolonialists of Asia and Africa.
Nowhere was this clustering greater than in the Latin Quarter. The map on the left shows the addresses of individuals from Vietnam, China, and Latin America who were surveyed by the Parisian police prefecture for their political activism between 1925 and 1927, revealing this heavy concentration in the surroundings of the Sorbonne and the Left Bank. What today has become a theme park for tourists, an increasing number of whom also hails from Asia and Latin America, was then still a genuine space for intellectual encounters and exchanges. The concentration of anti-imperial political activism in this neighborhood obviously testifies to the importance of students in these movements. The vast majority of anticolonialists in interwar Paris, moreover, were young men in their twenties. They thus shared not only the same space in Paris, but also distinct characteristics in terms of generational cohort and gender.
Rather than roaming the streets for one day during a stopover of an all-European tour, students and workers from French colonies stayed in Paris for an average of three years, before returning to their countries of origin. But new arrivals usually replaced those who left the city, often moving into the very apartments the returnees had just vacated. A steady back-and-forth movement between the metropole and specific places overseas emerged, sustained by the network formation that is typical of migratory processes in general. Letters written by Vietnamese students and intercepted by French police show that those based in Paris provided Vietnam-based relatives, friends, and fellow students with the information, the connections, and the money they needed in order to embark for France. The process also guaranteed that certain Parisian addresses would remain Vietnamese, Chinese, or Algerian throughout the interwar years, even though they hosted a succession of migrants.
Chinese students who went to France in the years after WWI, among them Deng Xiaoping, thus came mostly from specific provinces (Hunan and Sichuan especially) and in the cityscape of the Paris region headed to very specific places: The streets around a beancurd factory in La Garenne-Colombes, the Rue Traversière in Billancourt near the Renault plant, or a small apartment at 17 Rue Godefroy in the fourteenth arrondissement, from where Zhou Enlai ran a transcontinental communist youth association. Chinese students expelled from France in 1921 fanned the unrest in Shanghai in 1925-27, which in turn reverberated immediately in the French capital, centered on the very same Parisian Chinese micro-concentrations that the expellees of 1921 had left behind.
Chinese restaurants, and particularly one at 16 Rue Cujas in the heart of the Latin Quarter, also served as a stock exchange for the community, but they moreover brought together students, writers, and political activists from around the world. “South Americans (…) who love the exotic” went there, the Peruvian Marxist Armando Bazán recorded, as much as Antillean and West African anticolonialists and Vietnamese radicals in search of a venue to celebrate the Tết. Chinese restaurants seem to have been a hatchery of transnational anti-imperial activism in many cities: When French police sent an undercover agent to spy on the political activities of West African sailors in Hamburg in 1929, the sleuth went straight to a Chinese restaurant “in a dark and seedy alley” near the infamous Große Freiheit, as his report testified. The Indian revolutionary M.N. Roy, who founded the Mexican Communist Party in 1919, usually met with his international group of co-organizers at a Chinese restaurant in Mexico City’s Colonia Roma.
Tracing these networks, and the specific places in a city where they converged, has become much easier in recent years, owing to the changes brought about by digitalization. The growing leniency towards taking photographs in the public archives of many countries nowadays allows researchers to collect ever larger swathes of materials and, provided they are type-written, make them searchable with Optical Character Recognition technology. With a few mouse clicks it has become possible, for instance, to identify a whole series of individuals who over the course of two decades frequented a specific place. This technique also permits bridging archival cleavages that have long contributed to perpetuating historians’ methodological nationalism: Since, in the French case, different parts of the empire fell into the remit of different French authorities, whereas foreign citizens such as Latin Americans or Chinese were considered yet another category altogether, the information that the French state collected on Paris residents from overseas ended up in separate archives. This archival compartmentalization reinforced the assumption of distinct communities that barely interacted.
Although there were indeed limits to cross-ethnic cooperation, overseas students in the Latin Quarter lived literally next door to each other. Take the Rue Cujas. Ho Chi Minh walked through it on a daily basis in 1920 on his way to the Sainte-Geneviève Library, where he studied the history of colonialism. Between 1925 and 1930, the buildings with the numbers 16, 18, and 20 housed Vietnamese and Chinese servants and cooks, as well as students from Algeria, Azerbaijan, China, the Congo, Cuba, Egypt, Indonesia, Syria, Venezuela, and Vietnam. And this list includes only those who entered the radar of Parisian police for their political activism. Often textured by the turfs and theaters furnished by the French Commnist Party, interwar Paris thus developed a series of meeting places – cafés, restaurants, hostels, private apartments, libraries, headquarters of student associations, print shops, or trade union halls – that eventually formed a sort of urban anti-imperialist circuit.
Institutionalized through political organizations, such as the Intercolonial Union, and their mouthpieces, the cross-ethnic exchange that emerged in these places lubricated the transfer of political demands from one part of the Empire to another. Communism and Soviet nationality policy writ large again helped, especially in synchronizing calls for national independence as a one-size-fits-all solution to imperial grievances. But it was no accident that demands for West African and for Algerian independence first emerged out of this Parisian milieu. After WWII, this Parisian prequel to decolonization made it much harder to isolate, say, Algeria from Vietnam. This is why, like Sam Moyn, I remain unconvinced by Frederick Cooper’s account of the contingency of imperial disintegration.
Michael Goebel is Professor of Global and Latin American History at the Freie Universität Berlin. He is the author of Anti-Imperial Metropolis: Interwar Paris and the Seeds of Third World Nationalism (Cambridge University Press, 2015) and Argentina’s Partisan Past: Nationalism and the Politics of History (Liverpool University Press, 2011).