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Professor Karl Hack

Karl Hack photo

Profile summary

Professional biography

I am a Professor of Asian and Imperial History, and have previously been Head of the School of History, Religious Studies, Sociology, Social Policy and Criminology, Head of History, and Chair of A326 Empire 1492-1975. Other posts have included being Chair of the History Department's Research Strategy Group, and Director of the Ferguson Research Centre for African and Asian Studies (2010-15). Prior to joining the Open University in 2006 I spent a happy decade at the Nanyang Technological University, in Singapore, working with schools, on heritage sites such as the Johore Battery, and reviewing the national history curriculum. In 2006, I was enticed away from the tropics by the chance to help produce the Open University's new module on Empires. I found this chance to make empire come alive for several hundred students a year irresistible, and moved to Oxford with my family and our Singapore rescue dog. 

Research interests

Funded Research Projects
During 2008-10 I had a British Academy funded project entitled ‘New sources and perspectives on the Asian Cold War’. For 2012-14 I had a British Academy grant for a project on violence and decolonisation. 

Thematic interests:
Decolonisation, insurgency, empire port cities, insurgent and anti-colonial perspectives, justice in decolonising and psotcolonial situations. I have interviewed ex-insurgents up to the level of party Secretary-General, and my current major projects are to complete a major history of the Malayan Emergency and its legacies, and an international collaboration on Western Military Power and the Transformation of Asia.

Geographical interests:
Empire east of India, and Southeast Asia historical to contemporary; British Empire in general for comparative research on insurgency, port cities, and decolonisation.

Research students
I have supervised research students in related areas - both at the Open University and in my previous job in Singapore - and would welcome further enquiries. Recent theses completed: Jane Berney, ‘The Contagious Diseases Ordinances of Hong Kong’ (2013), and Richard Duckett, ‘Special Operations Executive in Burma’ (2015). Current students are studying British counterinsurgency, and museums and empire.

Public Engagement and Impact

Television and radio
In 2010-2012 I was academic consultant for the BBC series Empire, a major five-part series telling the story of the British Empire in a new, thematic way, and wrote the free wallchart on ‘Selling the Empire’ (download free here), of which more than 50,000 were requested and an online series of lectures on Selling Empire. In 2013 I was interviewed for Radio 4s Terror Through Time series, appeared on Channel News Asia, and did further media work on the SAS in Malaya, and on conflict memory.

Military and Foreign Policy
I have spoken at the Royal United Services Institute, provided an article for their website in 2009, and have contributed to the Small Wars Journal. I have given papers at events open to military practitioners and the public in the UK, USA, Malaysia, and Singapore.

Public Memory and Commemoration
I have been interviewed for the National Museum of Singapore History Gallery, and publish on war memory. On 16 February 2012 I addressed ‘The Battle for Singapore’ event for more than 200 students and public, at Singapore’s Supreme Court. I testified as expert historical witness on communists in the case of Mohamad Sabu versus Utusan Malaysia, in the Penang High Court, Malaysia. I am also partner to the Imperial War Museum for a collaborative doctoral studentship.

Select Publications:


Karl Hack, with El Mechat, Marc Frey, Arnaud Nanta, Solofo Randrianja and Jean-Marc Regnault sous la direction de Pierre Brocheux, Les Decolonisations au XXe Siecle: Le Fin Des Empires Européens et Japonais (Paris: Colin Armand: 2012).

Karl Hack and Kevin Blackburn, War Memory and the Making of Modern Malaysia and Singapore (Singapore: NUS Press, 2012).

Karl Hack and Jean-Louis Margolin (eds.) with Karine Delaye, Singapore from Temasek to the 21st Century: Reinventing the Global City (Singapore: NUS Press, 2010).

Karl Hack and Kevin Blackburn (eds.), Forgotten Captives in Japanese Occupied Asia (London: Routledge, 2008, paperback and ebook 2009).

Karl Hack and Tobias Rettig (eds.), Colonial Armies in Southeast Asia (London: Routledge, 2006, paperback and ebook 2008).

Karl Hack and Kevin Blackburn, Did Singapore Have to Fall? (London: Routledge, 2004, paperback 2005).

C.C. Chin and Karl Hack (eds.), Dialogues with Chin Peng: New Light on the Malayan Communist Party (Singapore: Singapore University Press, 2004).  

Karl Hack, Defence and Decolonisation in Southeast Asia (Richmond: Curzon, 2001).

Special Editions

Karl Hack (Joint editor with Sibylle Scheipers), Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History 43, 4 (November 2015), on 'Hostile Populations'.

Karl Hack (Special Editor), Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History 39, 4 (November 2011), on ‘Negotiating with the enemy’.

Karl Hack (Joint editor with Geoff Wade), ‘Asian Cold War Symposium’, special edition of the Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 40, 3 (October 2009).

Articles and Chapters

Karl Hack, ‘ “Between two terrors”: People’s History and the Malayan Emergency’, in Hannah Gurman (ed.), A People’s History of Insurgency (New York: Free Press, 2013).

Karl Hack, ‘ “Everyone lived in fear”: Malaya and the “British Way in Counter-Insurgency” ’: Small Wars & Insurgencies 23, 4/5 (2012).

Karl Hack, ‘Framing the History of Singapore’, in Nicholas Tarling (ed.), Studying Singapore's Past: C.M. Turnbull and the History of Modern Singapore (Singapore: NUS Press, 2012).


Teaching interests

I was course team chair for the presentation of A326 Empire 1492-1975 from 2009-16, having been co-chair during production, with more than 2,000 students over two presentations in its peak year. I have been on the course teams for A312 Total War and Social Change: Europe 1914-1955, and AXR312, the related summer school, as well as monitoring for A200 Exploring History: Medieval to Modern. I also contributed units to AD281 Introducing Global Heritage, and A327 Europe 1914-89: War, Peace, Modernity, and have been on the presentation team for A825 and A826, the taught and dissertation modules on the M.A in Local and Regional History. I also shared Chairing the production of A329: The Making of Welsh History, using innovative new direct authoring methods.

Research Activity

Research groups

NameTypeParent Unit
Empire and Postcolonial Studies Research GroupGroupFaculty of Arts
The Ferguson Centre for African and Asian StudiesCentreFaculty of Arts


Externally funded projects

The impact of participating in British counterinsurgency campaigns, 1945-1997, on British armed forces personnel

RoleStart dateEnd dateFunding source
Lead01/Oct/201430/Sep/2019AHRC Arts & Humanities Research Council
Research questions will revolve around the twin themes of perceptions of the enemy/populace, and experiences of violence: 1. What were attitudes towards combatants, general populace, ‘suspect’ populations and areas, and prisoners and detainees? How did these change during each campaign, and across campaigns? 2. What was the impact of: rules of engagement, past ‘repertoires of action’, and tendencies towards ‘rough justice’ and other tropes. 3. What policies, environments, attitudes and enemy approaches tended to fuel excessive violence, and which to limit violence in the first place, or to reverse the tide of excessive violence? 4. How did British troops perceive ‘race’ and culture, and how did this change across 1945-97, given changes in attitudes to race and multiculturalism in the UK? 5. How did troops experience and deal with violence and trauma, both as its authors and its victims? Applying these questions across 3-5 of the campaigns listed below will provide an overarching picture of troop mentality or ‘pysche’ and its changes. 1. Malayan Emergency: a rural Cold War campaign against an enemy perceived as ideological, with strong elements both of ‘counter-terror’ and of soft power and ‘winning hearts and minds’. 2. Mau Mau: a rural campaign with the enemy perceived as ‘non-rational’/primitive/tribal. 3. Cyprus: a predominantly urban campaign against an ethnic nationalist enemy. 4. Northern Ireland: a largely urban campaign when human rights and civil rights expectations were increasing. 5. Afghanistan: at an epilogue level, for how this echoes earlier trends or not, raising the question of continuities/discontinuities into the future. Most of the above campaigns have been the cause of major court cases raising the possibility of in-depth study and comparison of particular incidents. All can be studied using a blend of soldiers’ diaries (IWM, Army Museum, select regimental museums), oral history records, and the National Archives. Outputs: 1. A thesis of up to 100,000 words, with publication potential in entirety or parts. 2. Web output. The student should develop skills in bridging the archive/museum, academic world, and the public, by providing working papers, documents and commentary on topical parts of their work online, including through The OU’s unique OpenLearn platform, and its Research Centres.

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