Friday, August 29, 2014

Since 1939 - Retreat From Empire - World History

In 1939 European colonial powers still controlled much of Asia, the Caribbean and the Pacific and almost all of Africa. The dissolution of their empires after 1945, frequently accompanied by violence, was one of the most remarkable transformations of the modern world. By the 1990s only a handful of European dependencies remained.

BY 1939 THERE WERE already significant nationalist movements in some European colonies. Britain, France and the Netherlands were also, to varying degree, committed to the evolution of their colonial territories towards self-government, and this commitment was reinforced, in the case of Great Britain and France, by the terms under which they had been granted mandates by the League of Nations over territories formerly part of the German and Ottoman empires.

The Second World War accelerated these developments. The Italian empire was dismembered entirely, while after the war the remaining European colonial powers no longer had the economic muscle to enforce imperial rule. Furthermore, international politics were dominated by the two avowedly anti-colonial superpowers, the United States and the USSR. In addition, in east Asia, where the British, French and Dutch set about attempting to restore control of colonies overrun by the Japanese in the war, nationalists were unwilling to return to dependence. Similarly, in north Africa, Anglo-American occupation of French colonies during the war revitalized the independence movements there, while in British India independence had already been promised during the war in an unsuccessful attempt to secure the cooperation of the nationalist Congress.


In was in Asia that nationalists and, in some colonies, communists, presented the greatest challenges to European colonialism. The British, knowing they could not hold India on pre-war terms, advanced the sub-continent rapidly towards independence in 1947. Neither Britain nor Congress was able to resist the Muslim campaign for a separate state of Pakistan, and India was partitioned in circumstances of great violence. The following year Britain abandoned its mandate in Palestine, and withdraw from Ceylon and Burma. In Malaya a long struggle against communist insurgents culminated in Britain granting independence in 1957. The Dutch never regained control of the Dutch East Indies after the Japanese left and independence was finally achieved in 1949. In Vietnam, communists and nationalists opposed the restored French administrations. After prolonged conflict and military defeat at Dien Bien Phu, the French abandoned their Far Eastern empire.

The French were also engulfed in violent anti-colonial conflict in north Africa. Tunisia and Morocco were given independence in 1956. The French withdrew from Algeria in 1962 after eight years of brutal war – between French settlers, Algeria nationalists, Islamic insurgents and the French army – had threatened civil war at home. In the Middle East, French and British credibility was damaged by the Suez invasion in 1956. British influence in the region and her world status were further diminished by retreat from Cyprus and Aden in 1960 and 1967 and the announcement in 1968 that British forces east of Suez would be withdrawn.

In sub-Saharan Africa, where nationalist movements were initially less developed, Britain and France sought relief from their domestic economic problems by vigorous exploitation of African resources. Economic concerns, as well as a desire to obstruct a possible extension of South African influence, also led to the establishment of a short-lived federation of Britain’s central African territories. However, Britain, facing mounting nationalism and keen to avoid wholesale rupture of British-African relations which might encourage the spread of Cold War rivalries to Africa, withdrew from west Africa, beginning with the Gold Coast (Ghana) in 1957. Though settlers resisted a transition to African majority rule in east and central Africa, independence nonetheless came after 1960, precipitated when France under de Gaulle suddenly withdrew from all its tropical African colonies and Belgium retreated from the Congo, in the process provoking a bloody civil war. Italy’s African colonies, Libya and Somalia placed under UN control in 1945, became independent in 1951 and 1960. Portugal alone still clung to its colonies, Angola and Mozambique, but both had broken free by 1975 after bitter guerilla wars.

The colonial legacy

Though the winding up of colonial empires continued through the 1970s and 1980s in the Caribbean and the South Pacific and into the 1990s – Hong Kong was returned to China by the British in 1977 – by the beginning of the 1970s the age of European overseas empires war was effectively past. In the process of decolonization, not only had many former dependencies faced rapid, sometimes violent, political change, a number of divisions within their new borders. In varying degrees, most also confronted economic problems that for some would prove all but insuperable.

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