Colonial Violence

European Empires and the Use of Force

November 2017 9781849048071 352pp


Western interventions today have much in common with the countless violent conflicts that have occurred on Europe’s periphery since the conquest of the Americas. Like their predecessors, modern imperial wars are shaped by geography and terrain and by pronounced asymmetries of military organisation, resources, modes of warfare and cultures of violence. Today’s imperial wars are essentially civil wars, in which Western powers are only one player among many. As ever, the Western military machine is incapable of resolving political strife through force, or of engaging opponents with no reason to offer conventional combat, who instead rely on guerrilla warfare and terrorism. And, as they always have, local populations pay the price for these shortcomings.

Colonial Violence offers, for the first time, a coherent explanation of the logic of violent hostilities within the context of European expansion. Walter’s analysis reveals parallels between different empires and continuities spanning historical epochs. He concludes that recent Western military interventions, from Afghanistan to Mali, are not new wars, but stand in the 500-year-old tradition of transcultural violent conflict.


‘With its sophisticated analysis and thorough use of the scholarly literature on its subject, this is a study that nobody interested in the subject can afford to neglect.’ — Choice

‘[Colonial Violence] provides valuable insights on how environment, technology, race, fear, logistics, economics and other factors shaped the character of colonial clashes, and why empire is still a valuable mens of understanding organised violence in the contemporary world. [This book is] ambitious and challenging [and] will be of interest to scholars working in a variety of historical subfields.’ — H-Net

‘An important book that offers a clear point of view on the violence inherent to imperialism, whether Western or not. Worth considering alongside high rates of violence in recent and current non-Western warfare.’ — Jeremy Black, Professor of History, University of Exeter

‘It is excellent that Dierk Walter’s survey of colonial conflict has been translated into English. This is military history as it should be written: conceptually broad, chronologically ambitious, and — above all — transnational. His case for continuity — bridging colonial conquest, decolonisation, and recent interventions — will provoke, as it should, but that is the hallmark of an important book.’ — Sir Hew Strachan, Chichele Professor of the History of War, Oxford University

‘Broad canvas syntheses that put violence at the heart of the West’s engagement with the wider world have been rare — understanding and acceptance of the significance and consequences of its violence rarer still. Walter brings enormous comparative and summary power to its study, resulting in a highly readable and necessary work. Colonial Violence should stand as an elegant corrective, particularly in its emphasis on the continuity of violence through to the present day.’ — Ashley Jackson, Professor of Imperial and Military History, King’s College London; author of The British Empire: A Very Short Introduction

Colonial Violence offers a comprehensive, scholarly interpretation and synthesis of the pattern of military violence associated with imperialism since around 1600. Based on a wide and deep familiarity with imperial military campaigns and asymmetric conflict, its conclusions regarding the weakness of the imperial powers relative to their indigenous foes, the continuities in imperial campaigns over time and place, and the root cause of excessive violence in the imperial situation rather than in ideology, will surprise and challenge many readers. Well written and clearly organized, this study will doubtless become a standard account of imperial military violence.’ — Isabel Virginia Hull, John Stambaugh Professor of History, Cornell University

‘Walter, with forensic skill, comprehensively analyses the causes, courses, and consequences of colonial wars and violence. This startlingly good study should be read and thought over by all with an interest in Europe’s global imperial military reach over the past five hundred years.’ — David Killingray, Emeritus Professor, Goldsmiths London


Dierk Walter is a lecturer in Modern History at the Universities of Bern and Hamburg. His research focuses on the history of European expansion and Western military history since the eighteenth century. He has previously published a study on nineteenth-century Prussian military reform, and co-edited a number of volumes on military history and the Cold War.

The translation of this work was funded by Geisteswissenschaften International — Translation Funding for Work in the Humanities and Social Sciences from Germany, a joint initiative of the Fitz Thyssen Foundation, the German Federal Foreign Office, the collecting society VG WORT and the Börsenverein des Deutschen Buchhandels (German Publishers & Booksellers Association).

Request an academic inspection copy Request a press review copy
Inspection Copy Request
Review Copy Request
Join our mailing list

Subscribers receive exclusive discounts and early access to new books from Hurst.