Photo of Professor Martin Thomas

Professor Martin Thomas

D.Phil (Oxon)



01392 724183

My research and teaching focus on the following five main themes:

  • French colonial empire and European decolonization
  • Anti-colonial nationalism in North Africa
  • Colonial security services and state violence
  • Colonial insurgencies and ’dirty wars’
  • Intra-state conflicts and civilan casualties

I am currently working on the causes and consequences of the collapse of French and British colonial empires in Africa and Asia. I am especially interested in patterns of empire collapse and the nature and extent of political violence during contested decolonization. One outcome of this work is Fight or Flight: Britain, France and their Roads from Empire, a book published with Oxford University Press in 2014 (

I am also Principal Investigator on a three-year Leverhulme Trust network grant, Understanding Insugencies: Resonances from the Colonial Past. Based in Exeter's Centre for War, State and Society (CWSS), the network includes six partner inistitutions: in the UK. the Universities of Warwiick, Oxford and Glasgow; overseas, KITLV Leiden, Sciences Po, Paris, and the Université de Québec, Montreal. More details are available at:

My research has also focused on contested access to colonial economic resources and forms of state violence within colonial societies, notably in North Africa. Working with a Leverhulme Trust Research Fellowship between 2009-12, I completed a three-year project on 'Political Economies of Empire Violence and Police Repression'. The work centred on comparing the nature and scale of police intervention during colonial labour disputes, urban protests, and anti-colonial violence in the Depression era of the 1920s and 1930s. Ranging from North Africa to French Vietnam, a central proposition of this research is that policing of the colonial workplace remained a more significant priority for security forces than repression of anti-colonial nationalism. The resulting book, Violence and Colonial Order: Police, Workers and Protest in the European Colonial Empires, 1918-40, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2012. (

From 2012 I have worked with my colleague Professor Richard Toye on a further Leverhulme Trust research project on 'The Rhetoric of Empire: Managing Imperial Conflict between Britain and France'. Hosted by Exeter's Centre for the Study of War, State and Society, the aims of the project research are:

  • to compare the behaviour of British and French political elites by examining the language and rhetorical devices they employed during highpoints of imperial tension;
  • to reassess well-known colonial clashes between the two imperial powers as transformative experiences in the political cultures of Britain and France;
  • to use imperial crisis management as an index of colonialism in decline.

Research interests

My research interests focus on the following broad themes:

  • French colonialism and European decolonization:
  • Forms of anti-colonial protest in North Africa;
  • Colonial security service, policing, and the nature of state violence;
  • 'Dirty wars' and counter-insurgency, particularly human rights abuses in asymmetric conflicts;
  • French international politics since World War I.


My current research addresses two big questions: Why was the end of European empire bitterly - and violently - contested in some places but less so in others? And what were the underlying political economies of colonial violence in particular places? These questions feed into my work on European decolonization and the socio-economic determinants of coercive policing in North Africa, the Caribbean and colonial South East Asia. This is a development of my previous research into the role of information collection and political surveillance in ordering colonial societies. As part of that work, between 2008 and 2010, I was chief investigator on the ESRC project ‘Cultures of Repression: the Legacy of Colonial Violence and State Repression in the Maghreb’.

Recent Conference Papers

September 2018: 'Thinking through decolonisation,' University of Geneva conference on post-colonial transitions in West Africa.

September 2016: 'Insurgencies and War to Peace Transitions,' Understanding Insurgencies research network workshop, University of Exeter.

October 2014, ',Recasting Resistance: Delegitimizing Anti-Colonial Violence in Vietnam and Algeria after 1945' University of Quebec, Montreal.

December 2013, 'Violence and Colonial Order: Political Economies of Protest and Repression,' University of Brussels, Colonial Policing conference keynote.

October 2013, 'Feeding the Fury: The Political Economy of Algerian Dissent, 1940-45,' Jacques Berque Research Centre, Rabat.

September 2013, 'Legacies of Fight or Flight: Contested Decolonization in Contested Memory,' Institute of Historical Research, London.

July 2011, 'Coolies, Communists and Capital: Policing the Rubber Crash in Malaya and Indochina,' 'Colonial Circulations' Conference, University of Bristol.

June 2011, 'Locating Colonial Violence: The Role of Police and Labour Control,' Workshop on Comparative Colonial Violence, Paris I.

February 2011, 'Ringleaders, Mobs, and Enemies: Defining ‘Minimum Force’ in Colonial Protest Policing after 1914,' International Studies Association Conference, Montreal.

Research supervision

I am happy to offer research supervision in the following broad areas:

  • French colonial history in the late nineteenth and twentieth century;
  • Colonial conflicts in Africa and Asia and the end of European colonial rule;
  • colonial policing and the collection of information in colonial societies;
  • French international politics since 1919;
  • French and British decolonization.

Research students

I currently supervise PhD students working on various facets of French, French colonial, and international history in the twentieth century. Their research topics fall into two strands: French political and social history and late imperial history. My current students are working on the following topics:

  • the treatment of Displaced Persons in the French Zone of Occupation in post-war Germany;
  • colonial worker protest and trade unionism;
  • the construction and political culture of French Mandate Syria;
  • colonial counter-insurgency and cultures of violence in wars of decolonization;
  • Franco-British colonial rivalry and the politics of imperial rhetoric.

Other information

First Director of the University’s Centre for the Study of War, State and Society

Associate Fellow, Exeter Centre for Ethno-Political Studies

Member of the Editorial Advisory Board: Intelligence and National Security, War & Society.

Member of the Editorial Advisory Board: International History Review, 2000-2003; French Historical Studies, 2008-11.

Member of the Society for French Historical Studies and the French Colonial History Society

Member of the Study Group on Intelligence

Member of the British International History Group

Member of the Peer Review College of the ESRC

Reviewer for the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, and the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia

External Examiner, King’s College, London, BA War Studies programme, 2000-2004; London School of Economics, BA International History programme, 2005-2009; and the University of Wales, Aberystwyth, BA History programme, 2005-2009.

PhD External Examiner for the Universities of Oxford, Cambridge, LSE, King’s College, London, UEA, and Sydney.


Martin studied Modern History at Oxford University graduating with first class honours in 1985. He returned to Oxford where he completed his D.Phil in 1991. He taught at the University of the West of England, Bristol for eleven years before joining the Exeter History Department in 2003. He was awarded a Philip Leverhulme prize for outstanding research in 2002 and has been both a Leverhulme Trust Research Fellow and a fellow of the Independent Social Research Foundation.

He is the author of eight books and several articles and book chapters on various aspects of French foreign and colonial policy, Franco-British relations, colonial security services, violence and the colonial state. His study of colonial 'intelligence states', Empires of Intelligence: Security Services and Colonial Disorder after 1914 was published by the University of California Press in 2007. A co-authored study of the collapse of European colonial empires, Crises of Empire: Decolonization and Europe's Imperial States, 1918-1975, was published by Hodder Education in 2008. A further comparative study, Violence and Colonial Order: Police, Workers and Protest in the European Colonial Empires, 1918-40, was published with Cambridge University Press in 2012. Recent works include Fight or Flight: Britain, France and the their Roads from Empire, and, with Richard Toye, Arguing about Empire, both books published with Oxford University Press in 2014 and 2017 respectively.

Martin is Director of the Centre for the Study of War, State and Society (CWSS), a research centre dedicated to the study of the impact of conflicts on states, communities, and international systems. He is also a member of the British International History Group, the French Colonial History Society, and the Study Group on Intelligence, and has served on the editorial boards of the International History Review, Intelligence and National Security, Diplomacy & Statecraft, War & Society, and French Historical Studies. In 2016 he was a professeur invité at Sciences Po. Saint-Germain-en-Laye.