History Optional Paper-2 Solution – 1988: Q.8

Q.8 Write a critical note on the process of decolonization accelerated by the Second World War. [1988, 60 Marks]


At the end of the Second World War in 1945, the nations of Europe still claimed ownership of vast areas of the rest of the world, particularly in Asia and Africa.

  • Britain’s Empire was the largest in area, consisting of India, Burma, Ceylon, Malaya, enormous tracts of Africa and many assorted islands and other territories, such as Cyprus, Hong Kong, the West Indies, the Falkland Islands and Gibraltar.
  • France had the second largest empire, with territories in Africa, Inda-China and the West Indies.
  • In addition, Britain and France still held land in the Middle East, taken from Turkey at the end of the First World War. Britain held Trans-Jordan and Palestine and France held Syria. They were known as ‘mandated’ territories, which meant that Britain and France were intended to ‘look after’ them and prepare them for independence.
  • Other important empires were those of the Netherlands (Dutch East Indies), Belgium (Congo and Ruanda Urundi), Portugal (Angola, Mozambique and Guinea), Spain (Spanish Sahara, Ifni, Spanish Morocco and Spanish Guinea) and Italy (Libya, Somalia and Eritrea).

The Second World War gave a great stimulus to nationalist movements in a number of ways:

  • Before the war colonial peoples believed it would be impossible to defeat the militarily superior Europeans by force of arms. Japanese successes in the early Part of the war showed that it was possible for non-Europeans to defeat European armies. Japanese forces captured the British territories of Malaya, Singapore, Hong Kong and Burma the Dutch East Indies and French Indo-China. Although the Japanese were eventually defeated, the nationalists, many of whom had fought against the Japanese, had no intention of tamely accepting European rule again. After all, Britain, France and Holland had failed miserably to protect their subjects, thus destroying any claim to legitimacy they might have had. If necessary,. nationalists would continue to fight against the Europeans, using the guerrilla tactics they had learned fighting the Japanese. This is exactly what happened in Indo-China, the Dutch East Indies, Malaya and Burma.
  • Asians and Africans became more aware of social and political matters as a result of their involvement in the war. Some 374 000 Africans were recruited into the British armed forces. The vast majority of them had never left their homeland before, and they were appalled at the contrast between the primitive living conditions in Africa and the relatively comfortable conditions they experienced even as members of the armed forces.
  • Some Asian nationalist leaders worked with the Japanese, thinking that after the war there would be more chance of independence being granted by the Japanese than by the Europeans. Many of them, like Dr Sukarno in the Dutch East Indies gained experience helping to govern the occupied areas. Sukarno later became the first president of lndonesia ( 1949).
  • Some European policies during the war encouraged colonial peoples to expect independence as soon as the war was over. The Dutch government, shocked that people were so ready to co-operate with the Japanese in the East Indies, offered them some degree of independence as soon as the Japanese were defeated. The 1941 Atlantic Charter set out joint Anglo-American thinking about how the world should be organized after the war. Two of the points mentioned were:
    • Nations should not expand by taking territory from other nations.
    • All peoples should have the right to choose their own form of government.
    Though Churchill later said that this only applied to victims of Hitler’s aggression, the hopes of Asian and African peoples had been raised.
  • The war weakened the European states, so that in the end, they were not militarily or economicaly strong enought to hold on to their far-flung empires in the face of really determined campaigns for independence. The British were the first to recognize this because, as Bernard Porter pointed out: The British Empire had always been a cheapskate affair. Governments had never wanted to spend money on it or commit more than the minimum of personnel to it, or trouble the British people within it too much. The best way to manage things was to devolve the ruling of colonial possessions (and the expense) to settlers or local traditional rulers (chiefs). This had its advantage but it also diluted Britain’s power.
    Consequently the British responded by giving independence to India ( 1 947).
    After that, British policy was to delay independence as long as possible but give way when the pressure became irresistible At the same time the British concentrated on making their withdrawals ‘look good’. It was important to give impression that they were in control of the process.  It was a further ten years before the Gold Coast became the first British territory in Africa to win independence; this became a great source of inspiration for other African colonies. As Iain Macleod (British Colonial Secretary) later put it: ‘we could not possibly have held by force our territories in Africa; the march of men towards freedom cannot be halted; it can only be guided‘.
  • The French, Dutch, Spanish and Portuguese reacted differently and seemed determined to preserve their empires. But this involved them in costly military campaigns, and eventually they all had to admit defeat.
  • Colonial powers like Dutch, Spanish, Belgium, Portugal were even more determined than France to hold on to their overseas possessions. This was probably because, being less wealthy than Britain and France, they lacked  the resources. to sustain neo-colonialism. There was no way that they would be able to maintain the equivalent of the British Commonwealth or the French influence over their former colonies, against competition from foreign capital.

Outside pressures

There were several outside pressures on the colonial powers to give up their empires. The USA was hostile to building up empires and owning colonies. During the war, President Roosevelt made it clear that he took the Atlantic Charter to apply to all peoples, not just those taken over by the Germans. He and his successor, Truman, pressurized the British government to speed up independence for India. Churchill’s imperialism irritated the Americans to such an extent that they were determined not to do anything that would help Britain to keep its empire.

One reason given by the Americans for wanting to see the end of the European empires was that delays in granting independence to European colonies in Asia and Africa would encourage the development of communism in those areas. More important was the fact that the Americans looked on the newly-independent nations as potential markets into which they could force their way and establish both economic and political influence. In the eyes of the USA, imperially protected markets gave the British and other Europeans an unfair advantage.

The United Nations Organization, under American influence, came out firmly against imperialism and demanded a step-by-step programme for decolonization. The USSR also added its voice to the chorus and constantly denounced imperialism. As well as putting the European states under pressure, this encouraged nationalists all over the world to intensify their campaigns.

Though the process of decolonization accelerated by the Second World War, it still took over 30 years for complete decolonization. By 1975 most of these colonial territories had gained their independence. Sometimes, as in the Dutch and French colonies, they had to fight for it against determined European resistance.


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