The Duck of Minerva

6+1 Questions

What’s the Title?

Lerner, Adam B., 2022. From the Ashes of History: Collective Trauma and the Making of International Politics. Oxford University Press.

It argues that?

Collective trauma, especially when generated by instances of mass violence, is a foundational force in international politics – one that shapes politics within and between states for generations.

Tell us why it matters.

Some of the most potent forces in contemporary international politics pivot around collective trauma. Right-wing parties in many countries – including Russia, Hungary, Turkey, India, and Poland – invoke past instances of mass violence to stoke ethnonationalism. Transnational movements, mostly on the left, demand reparations and redress for colonialism, slavery, and genocide.

Why will we buy the argument?

I substantiate the argument through three cases and discourse analyses of tens of thousands of primary documents. I show how collective trauma played a pivotal role in shaping India’s post-independence autarky, the narration of collective trauma at the 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann shifted Israeli foreign-policy imaginaries, and post-traumatic stress disorder became a tool for critics of the US War on Terror to rhetorically expand its consequences, making faraway conflicts feel more proximate for American voters.

Why’d you write it?

My interest began with a passion for Indian politics that developed during my 2013-2014 Henry Luce Scholarship in Delhi. I worked at The Caravan magazine and reported two stories about the byzantine rules foreign businesses face operating in India. Government officials repeatedly defended those rules by pointing to the legacy of British exploitation under colonialism.

The next year I wrote my MPhil dissertation – and a subsequent article – on the effects of the 1984 Bhopal disaster on Indian foreign policy. My interviews and archival research turned up similar themes about lingering fears of foreign exploitation. I also found little in international-relations theory to help account for this pattern.

So when I began my PhD, I decided to take a step back from Indian politics and develop my own theories about collective trauma and international politics. I had some exposure to trauma studies scholarship from my undergraduate English degree and I thought that might prove a useful addition. It took a few years, but I finally settled on what I found to be a compelling framework.

If you could do it again, what would you do differently?

I wish I could have added a case that draws more on oral history or semi-structured interviews, rather than archival documents. Trauma is quite a personal experience, so closer analysis of real people’s voices would have yielded additional insight. However, interviews with victims of mass violence would have raised some tricky ethical questions that drawing on archives helped circumvent.

Also, I completed the manuscript during the beginning of the pandemic and, obviously, if the book were written five years later, I would have had more to say on that – perhaps I’ll be inspired to write a follow up in the future?

Was it hard to get it published?

To be honest, the process was relatively smooth, which I know is not the norm for most junior scholars. I owe that to having had a senior colleague (Laura Sjoberg) join my department shortly after I arrived. She walked me through the book proposal, submission, and revision process and made sure I didn’t take rejection too hard. I submitted the proposal to four publishers and received requests for a full manuscript from two. Ultimately, I selected the publisher I felt was most enthusiastic about the project and it turned out to be a great decision. Thanks to Laura’s help and that of other colleagues and friends, I was able to finish the manuscript during lockdowns. It went out to three reviewers and the feedback was sufficiently positive that the publisher gave me a contract on the basis of a letter outlining my plans for revision. I spent the summer of 2021 revising and did more back-and-forth with my editor until that fall.