Cover image for Barbed wire : a political history
Barbed wire : a political history
Razac, Olivier.
Personal Author:
Uniform Title:
Histoire politique du barbelé. English
Publication Information:
New York : New Press : Distributed by W.W. Norton, [2002]

Physical Description:
x, 132 pages : illustrations ; 20 cm
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
TS271 .R39 2002 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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No less than the internal combustion engine, the transistor, or the silicon chip, barbed wire is a quintessentially modern invention, a product that has influenced the lives of millions of people across the globe since its invention in the late nineteenth century. Now in paperback, Barbed Wire: A Political History demonstrates that the invention of barbed wire was a major breakthrough with far-reaching consequences. Cheap and mass-produced, barbed wire accomplished what no other product did before it, or has since done more effectively: the control of vast amounts of open space.

Razac describes how barbed wire has been employed in the harnessing of nature, brutal mass warfare, political conquest and repression, and genocide. In a narrative that spans the history of the American frontier, the trenches of World War I, the Holocaust, and beyond, Barbed Wire: A Political History looks unflinchingly at a central and fascinating strand of modern life.

Author Notes

Olivier Razac is pursuing a doctoral degree in philosophy at the University of Paris

Reviews 3

Publisher's Weekly Review

Barbed wire excludes and includes. Its function is always to magnify the difference between the inside and the outside, writes historian and philosopher Razac in his brief but startling study of an emblematic innovation. First introduced in 1874 as an inexpensive means of fencing off U.S. prairie land, barbed wire quickly became not only a way to manage livestock but a means to contain Native Americans on reservations. Because of its mobility, low cost and extreme effectiveness, barbed wire was transformed literally and metaphorically into a staple of social regulation. Arguing that barbed wire is the political management of space, Razac traces how it radicalized trench warfare during WWI (making trenches safer, but rendering the battle field far more dangerous) and, electrified, literally defined the space of Nazi concentration camps (later, it became the symbol of the worst catastrophe of the century). Used for more than just imprisonment or physical separation, barbed wire, Razac says, helped make men's deaths... indistinguishable from their humiliation and their dehumanization. While he uses the American West, trench warfare and concentration camps as his most salient examples of the effect that barbed wire had on contemporary life and imagination, he also considers its brutal, authoritarian uses by the Allies in Japanese POW camps and in refugee camps from the Middle East to Kosovar. The simplicity and clarity of Razac's prose reinforces the enormous power and originality of his ideas, making this a vital work of cultural criticism. B&w photos. (July) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

According to French philosopher Razac, barbed wire has had consequences far beyond the Great Plains, where it was invented in 1874. Although he footnotes the standard history of the subject Henry D. McCallum and Frances T. McCallum's The Wire That Won the West (1965) his book is not intended as a reinterpretation or revision of that work. Instead, Razac spends much of his book focusing on three historical "landmarks" or "disasters" whose relationship to barbed wire cannot be ignored: He begins with white settlement on the plains and the resulting decimation of Native American tribes. Razac then moves to the trenches of World War I, where barbed wire contributed to the mass slaughter of men on the front lines. The third major landmark associated with barbed wire is the Holocaust and its concentration and death camps. What follows is a long philosophical essay on the political meaning of barbed wire. Unfortunately, Razac's argument falls short, failing to explain how barbed wire helped cause these major catastrophes. The best he can do is discuss the wire's symbolism. While sections covering the world wars are quite adequate, those on U.S. history, including Native Americans, contain errors and are embarrassingly simplistic. Razac tends to ramble, use excessive jargon, and coin his own complex terminology. The many interesting photographs only accentuate the text's lack of substantive historical content. An optional purchase. Charles K. Piehl, Minnesota State Univ., Mankato (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

Razac, a young French political philosopher, does not provide a comprehensive history of barbed wire. He scarcely mentions classic historical works on the subject, like Walter Prescott Webb's The Great Plains (1931), nor does he delve into barbed wire's technical evolution. The first of this brief book's three chapters focuses on three episodes that, to Razac, convey the political implications of barbed wire: fencing the American prairie and the subsequent "ethnocide" of North American Indians; the use of barbed wire in trench warfare in WW I; and the use of barbed wire in concentration camps in WW II. The second chapter is a philosophical treatise on the use of barbed wire for the political management of space and its emergence as a symbol of oppression. Razac views barbed wire as providing political authorities with an almost ideal instrument for managing space because of its simplicity, cheapness, and adaptability to multiple uses. A short concluding section deals with the contemporary use of barbed wire and its potential displacement by electronic means of maintaining spatial divisions. While containing a few insights, too many of Razac's arguments elaborate on the obvious. General and undergraduate collections. T. S. Reynolds Michigan Technological University

Table of Contents

Introductionp. ix
1. Three Historical Landmarksp. 1
America: Fencing In the Prairiep. 5
The First World War: The Trenchesp. 32
The Campp. 50
2. Barbed Wire and the Political Management of Spacep. 71
A Frontier Between Life and Deathp. 75
Guard the Herd and Kill the Beastp. 84
Barbed Wire and Surveillancep. 90
3. Barbed Wire Todayp. 97
Notesp. 115
Indexp. 125