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In 1918, American President Woodrow Wilson announced his Fourteen Points: a peace proposal to end World War I. One of the most famous points was the following statement:
National aspirations must be respected; peoples may now be dominated and governed only by their own consent. 'Self-determination' is not a mere phrase. It is an imperative principle of actions which statesmen will henceforth ignore at their peril."1
Self-determination was meant to address colonial claims. Wilson's critics later argued that his suggestions did not go far enough. Indeed, it was not until after the Second World War that European colonies truly began to gain political independence.
During the 20th Century, many former European colonies gained independence.
Colonial conquest existed throughout history when large empires or stronger neighbors conquered smaller and weaker countries. Colonialism was not limited to Europe. However, starting from the 15th Century, it was mainly European powers that set across the world during the Age of Discovery and Conquest. The leading colonial powers with overseas colonies were:
And others. Meanwhile, the Ottoman Empire (Turkey) controlled parts of southern Europe, such as the Balkans, the Caucasus, and the Middle East.
On the eve of the First World War, Britain was the largest empire of its time regarding territorial possessions and population size: roughly a quarter of the Earth's land surface and population, respectively. At one point or another, the British Empire had colonial possessions in Africa, Australia, North and South America, Asia, and the Middle East. The British did not formally incorporate some parts of the empire. For example, in the Middle East, Palestine was under British mandate until 1948.
Even the United States briefly possessed formal colonies, such as the Philippines, acquired from Spain after the Spanish-American War (1898).
Some of the independent states of the 21st Century were part of larger imperial blocs in the 19th Century. As the empires weakened through wars and overextension, these countries gained independence.
In the 19th Century, Russia and the Ottoman Empire, and other great powers, engaged in several conflicts, including:
Gradually, the Ottoman Empire grew weaker. At the same time, Russia took on the role of a defender of its fellow Orthodox Christians in the Balkans and Caucasus. As a result of some of these conflicts, the following states gained independence from the Ottomans:
World War I was the first major global conflict fought by over 30 countries on multiple fronts, including Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. Some historians describe World War I as a war between all major European empires. One of the results of this event was the dissolution of three key empires: the Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman, and Russian Empires. New states formed in Europe in the aftermath, including:
Decolonization is a process through which a former colony gains independence from a colonial empire or another type of powerful state.
The first significant wave of decolonization occurred during the interwar period between the two world wars of the 20th Century.
U.S. President Woodrow Wilson created his Fourteen Points to foster a framework for international peace. His concept of self-determination was to allow people around the world to choose their paths.
The mandate for Palestine, 1922-1923. Source: the British government, Wikipedia Commons (public domain).
The League of Nations, formed after World War I, became that very international peace organization.
The mandate system was one way in which the League of Nations pursued self-determination to a limited extent.
Ultimately, the League failed to prevent aggressive actions by several countries, including Italy, Japan, and Germany, in the 1930s. Consequently, it was dissolved and replaced with the United Nations in 1945.
The Cold War was a prolonged conflict between two powerful states, the United States, a self-described liberal democracy, and the Soviet Union, a socialist (Communist) country. The conflict began after the Second World War and ended in 1991. During the Cold War, the rivalry between these two countries split the world into two blocs of alliances.
At this time, the United States subscribed to the foreign policy of containment. This policy meant that the Americans challenged Communism and socialism around the globe. As the former colonies gained independence, the U.S. feared that they would join their rival's camp.
The causes of postwar decolonization were complex:
The first half of the Cold War was a crucial period for decolonization because several former colonies gained formal independence. However, many problems remained, including:
The Global South describes parts of Asia, and Africa, as well as Central and South America, to highlight the socio-economic inequalities, in part, derived from their colonial past. This term replaced the "Third World."
Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India after that country, gained independence in 1947. Source: Wikipedia Commons (public domain).
There are many examples of decolonized states after World War Two, including:
|Date||Independent state||Former colonial ruler|
|1945||Vietnam (Southeast Asia)|
|1943||Lebanon (Middle East)|
|1946||Syria (Middle East)|
|1946||The Philippines (Southeast Asia)|
|1947||India (South Asia)|
|1947||Pakistan (South Asia)|
|1948||Palestine and Israel (Middle East)|
|1945-1949||Indonesia (Southeast Asia)|
|1950||The Democratic Republic of the Congo (Africa)|
|1953||Cambodia (Southeast Asia)|
|1953||Laos (Southeast Asia)|
|1960||Republic of Mali (Africa)|
|1960||Burkina Faso (Africa)|
|1966||Cooperative Republic of Guyana (South America)|
|1981||Belize (Central America)|
|1997||Hong Kong (returned to China)|
At times, decolonization was a violent process. The former empires did not want to let go of their colonies entirely. Also, the U.S. feared the spread of left-wing politics in the newly independent states rather than allowing them to choose their path. Finally, decolonization, at times, accompanied international power struggles. These issues led to:
Such was the case with the Angolan Civil War (1975-2002). This African country was decolonized from Portugal, and the war involved the interests of the United States, Cuba, the Soviet Union, and South Africa.
The Vietnam War (1955-1975) was a complex conflict with many participants that arose from Vietnam's (Indochina) independence from France. The U.S. gradually became more involved in this war: from sending military advisors to dropping more bombs on Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia than all bombs used in the history of warfare at that time. The Americans wanted to prevent Vietnam from pursuing socialist politics for fear of that country falling into the Soviet camp. The two sides were:
Viet Cong guerillas, 1966. Source: U.S. Army, Wikipedia Commons (public domain).
Despite American military superiority, unable to win, the U.S. withdrew from the conflict through the Paris Peace Accords in 1973. Three years later, the two states united as the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.
|Patrice Lumumba||The Democratic Republic of the Congo||Patrice Lumumba (1925-1961) was a key independence leader in Congo, Belgium's African colony. He became the first Prime Minister after Congo was decolonized and served as a source of hope for all of Africa.Lumumba pursued independent, left-wing politics and sought help from the Soviet Union. For this reason, in 1961, he was tortured and assassinated with the involvement of Belgium and the CIA. In 2022, the Belgian government returned his tooth to the Congolese people because that was all that remained after Lumumba's body was thrown into acid.|
|Thomas Sankara||Burkina Faso||Thomas Sankara (1949-1987) was a revolutionary and a President of Burkina Faso in the 1980s. Many called him Africa's Che Guevara, a critical leader of the Latin American revolutionary. Sankara was a promising African statesman whose focus was self-sufficiency.In 1987, Sankara was assassinated by his political opponents. One of their grievances was Sankara's policies independent from France, Burkina Faso's former colonial ruler.|
Patrice Lumumba, 1960. Source: Nationaal Archief, Wikipedia Commons (public domain).
In the 21st Century, much remains to be done for the former colonies, such as addressing the socio-economic inequalities in the Global South. Furthermore, some members of the civil society in the former European colonies wanted to go further than their political independence attained earlier. They argue that the former empires had recorded their histories. Therefore, the ongoing process of decolonization needs to translate into defining their histories as a way of reclaiming their identities.
The Cold War made the process of decolonization more complicated. After the Second World War, many former European colonies gained independence, for instance, Syria, India, Pakistan, and Vietnam. However, because the Cold War divided the world into an American and Soviet sphere of influence, respectively, these newly independent countries joined one of the two camps, willingly or under pressure.
Postwar decolonization shaped the postwar world in a number of ways. Some countries around the world gained formal independence, including Syria (1945) from France, the Philippines (1946) from the U.S., India (1947) and Pakistan (1947) from Britain, and many others. By gaining independence, these countries were able to pursue their own politics.
However, the world was effectively divided into two camps during the Cold War, the American bloc and the Soviet bloc, and many newly independent countries were pushed into one or the other. For instance, the U.S. pursued a global policy of containment fearing that the newly decolonized states would engage in left-wing politics rather than allowing them to pursue their own path. In some cases, the results were devastating, such as the Vietnam War (1955-1975).
In general, decolonization after World War I followed a similar pattern to that of the period after World War II. The First World War led to the dissolution of the Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian, and Russian Empires which led to the establishment of independent states. For example, Saudi Arabia was founded in the early 1930s because it was no longer under Ottoman control. Similarly, the Second World War led to the decline of the British and French empires, which led to the independence of their former colonies or mandates. For example, Syria gained independence from France in 1945, and India and Pakistan gained independence from Britain in 1947. There were also nationalist movements in the colonies seeking independence. The Cold War complicated matters in the second half of the 20th century because it split the world into an American and Soviet sphere of influence. Newly independent countries were often pushed to join one or the other. At times, this situation led to conflict, such as Vietnam's independence from France which developed into the Vietnam War (1955-1975) after the Americans got involved in fear of the left-wing politics in that country.
There were several reasons for decolonization immediately after the Second World War. Some colonial powers, such as France and Britain, lost a significant amount of resources: France was occupied, whereas Britain fought in the war from the onset. Their status also declined. For example, France and Britain lost their mandates over Syria and Palestine, respectively. Furthermore, the establishment of the United Nations pressured colonial powers to give up their rule and allow for the independence of their former colonies. The United Nations continued a process that began after World War I when U.S. President Woodrow Wilson advocated for the self-determination of nations around the world. Another parallel to the First World War was the dissolution of empires (Ottomans, Austro-Hungary, and Russia).
The goal of decolonization was for the former colonies, especially European colonies, to achieve true sovereignty (independence). This sovereignty meant not only the establishment of independent states (political entities), but also control over one's own economic future and culture.
Which international organization pressured colonial empires to allow decolonization after 1945?
Which war led to the dissolution of the Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian, and Russian empires?
World War I
Who proposed the idea of national self-determination?
Romania, Montenegro, Greece, Bulgaria, and Serbia gained independence from which empire?
Which country had a mandate over Palestine until 1948?
What was the American foreign policy during the Cold War called?
When did India and Pakistan become independent from Britain?
Which African leader was assassinated with the involvement of the Belgian government?
What is decolonization?
20th-century decolonization was a process through which new countries emerged as colonial European empires dissolved.
Which one was the biggest empire on the eve of WWI?
Which 20th-century decolonization process transformed into a prolonged international conflict?
Which European country controlled Indonesia until 1949?
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