Occupation Studies

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Maastricht University

Occupation Studies: A Manifesto

Camilo Erlichman, Maastricht University


The phenomenon of military occupation has long exerted a particular fascination upon both scholars and careful observers of current events. In the earliest forms of historical writing, such as Thucydides’ account of the Peloponnesian War, the experience of a territory being seized by a ‘foreign ruler’ and the ensuing consequences for the inhabitants of that area forms an integral part of the narrative. War and peace were guiding subjects in most historical works from Antiquity to the Renaissance, and it is not surprising that descriptions of occupation pervade many accounts of armed conflict. As a scholarly subject, military occupation has always been present, though perhaps primarily as a theme submerged in other stories of victory and defeat, conquest or loss, rather than explicitly as a subject in its own right.


A New Conceptual Understanding

It is only in recent years, however, that scholars have developed a more conceptual understanding of military occupation as a distinctive form of rule that distinguishes itself from other types of political power and that deserves to be treated as a separate research subject. Most significantly perhaps, the emergence of this form of rule has been linked to the breakthrough of the concept of popular sovereignty and the emergence of the nation state. As the work of a diverse group of scholars, such as that of the political scientist Peter Stirk and the legal scholar Eyal Benvenisti well demonstrates, the modern notion of occupation, understood not as the taking of a territory in the form of conquest, but rather as the temporary control of a territory without the absorption of sovereignty rights, could only take hold after the French Revolution. The French Revolution marked the breakthrough of a new conception of sovereignty, one that was inherently linked to the notion that sovereignty lay with the inhabitants of a territory, whose loyalty was bound to their nation state and could not simply be transferred to a new ruler by force. The control of territory as a result of military conflict therefore required the introduction and justification of a new type of regime that could be defined by its temporary nature. This marked the birth of military occupation as a distinctive concept in international law, which found its foremost expression in its codification in the Hague Conventions of 1899/1907.

Quite whether occupation is an emphatically modern phenomenon or whether it can also be identified in pre-modern times remains contested amongst scholars. Historians, especially those grappling with the distinction between imperial rule and occupation, have tended to experience difficulties in applying the neat definitions prevalent in much social-sciences writing on the subject. These debates notwithstanding, the new focus on analysing military occupation as a distinctive power relationship between rulers and ruled, one that is different from other ruling systems and characterised by the lack of intrinsic popular legitimacy, suggests that military occupation needs to be understood on its own terms. As a ruling regime sui generis, it has to be approached through a set of research questions designed to shed more light on its peculiarities and the social experiences it engenders.

Understanding how occupations function and what type of social, political, and cultural dynamics they trigger is not, however, an end in itself. Such work is of vital importance for current debates about the use of military occupation as a tool in international politics. Military occupation affects millions of people around the globe, and will continue to do so in the foreseeable future. The last two decades have been a period of intensified military occupations intended to bring about ‘regime change’ and ‘democratisation’. As we now know, almost all of these recent experiments have ended in resolute failure, of which the recent departure of troops in Afghanistan, leaving behind a ravaged country on the verge of being taken over by those very groups that the occupations set out to expel from power, is but the most egregious example.


Demystifying Occupation

When engaging with new cases of military occupation, those in power inevitably tend to look to history for guidance, trying to distil from their country’s experience the magic formula that renders an occupation ‘successful’. Unfortunately, in most cases their understanding of the past has been poor or highly selective, evincing a naive belief in the application of presumably positive lessons from the past, while disregarding both the vastly different historical context in which those occupations unfolded as well as the much more troubled record of the cases that are conventionally held up as exemplary. The post-war occupations of Germany and Japan have often served that very purpose by being turned into what Susan Carruthers has aptly exposed as the myth of the ‘good occupation’: model occupations that, in the imagination of the occupiers, were divested from all murky elements, and romanticised as successful demonstrations of how occupations generate democratic regimes. The consequences of this exercise in mystification have often been tragic and the recent record of planning and executing occupations has seldom been a positive one, despite the wealth of historical evidence available that would have allowed for a more emphatic appreciation of the inherent intricacies of running occupations.

Studying military occupation therefore serves both a scholarly and a broader societal purpose, by demystifying the experience of occupation and providing an empirically rigorous understanding of different cases of occupation, the multifaceted nature of which is hardly ever accurately captured through binary terms such as ‘success’ or ‘failure’.


A Pluralist Network

The establishment of the Occupation Studies Research Network is intended as a step towards the achievement of the broader objective of reaching a fuller comprehension of military occupation as a distinctive type of rule. It seeks to function as a hub for the interaction of a diverse and interdisciplinary group of scholars, who far too rarely have opportunities to engage with one another’s work. Rooted in different disciplinary traditions and working within the confines of specific spatial and temporal boundaries, those interested in the phenomenon of occupation are only seldom confronted in their daily scholarly lives with work that does not relate to their immediate research preoccupations. This is not surprising. Given the high levels of specialisation current in the study of most individual cases of military occupation, it has become impossible for any individual scholar to master the sophisticated literatures that have emerged on all such cases. Even for those working on a single case – such as on the German occupation of France during the Second World War, the literature on which fills entire libraries – achieving a comprehensive understanding of the field has become inherently difficult, if not impossible, for any single scholar.

The lack of a more holistic understanding of the phenomenon of occupation is to be regretted. Not only does it prevent a more fundamental grasp of how occupations function as ruling regimes and what impact they have upon the occupiers and the occupied. It also inhibits the sharing of innovative theoretical and methodological approaches. This prevents the identification of real lacunas in our comprehension of occupation and the development of a shared research agenda to address such gaps.


Towards a Common Research Agenda

The present network hopes to help remedy these predicaments. It seeks to be an open, pluralist platform for the exchange of ideas on the study of military occupation and for the sharing of research results, while simultaneously making available resources for a broader public interested in cutting-edge research on the subject. In doing so, it gravitates around the exploration of occupation as a dynamic power relationship between occupiers and occupiers that can be analysed at five levels, including:

i) Government: the ruling techniques of the occupiers and the varied responses of the occupied;
ii) Rules: how the experience of occupation has affected international and national legal systems (and less formal rules and behavioural norms);
iii) Social interactions: between occupiers and occupied, including questions of race, gender and national (and other) identities;
iv) Legacies: the social, political, cultural and economic legacies of occupation;
v) Memories: the diverse memories of occupation.

By putting these five themes centre stage, the network seeks to lend a degree of focus to the exploration of occupation and to create a common ground for discussion amongst its members. Just as with any scholarly subject, however, the focus of the network will shift over time, reflecting the ways in which the debate about the phenomenon of occupation will inevitably evolve in the future. If, by then, the network will have contributed to moving the research agenda forward and to developing a set of novel research questions, then it will have achieved its main objective.

Camilo Erlichman is Assistant Professor in History at Maastricht University.