Independence Movements and Decolonization

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While there were only a handful of true proxy wars over the course of the Cold War, there were dozens of successful movements of independence.  As quickly as European empires had grown in the second half of the nineteenth century, they collapsed in the decades following World War II in a phenomenon known as decolonization.  In the inverse of the Scramble for Africa, nearly the entire continent of Africa remained colonized by European powers as of World War II but nearly all of it was independent by the end of the 1960s.  Likewise, European possessions in Asia all but vanished in the postwar era.      

Given the rapidity with which the empires collapsed it is tempting to imagine that the European states simply acknowledged the moral bankruptcy of imperialism after World War II and peacefully relinquished their possessions.  Instead, however, decolonization was often as bloody and inhumane as had been the establishment of empire in the first place.  In some cases, such as Dutch control of Indonesia and French sovereignty in Indochina, European powers clung desperately to colonies in the name of retaining their geopolitical relevance.  In others, such as the British in Kenya and the French in Algeria, large numbers of white settlers refused to be “abandoned” by the European metropole (parent state of a colony), leading to sometimes staggering levels of violence.  That being noted, there were also major (soon to be former) colonies that achieved independence without the need for violent insurrection against their imperial masters.  (Note: given the very large number of countries that achieved independence during the period of decolonization, this chapter concentrates on some of the particularly consequential cases in terms of their geopolitical impact at the time and since).


The case of India is iconic in that regard.  Long the “jewel in the crown of the British empire,” India was both an economic powerhouse and a massive symbol of British prestige.  By World War II, however, the Indian National Congress had agitated for independence for almost sixty years.  An astonishing 2.5 million Indian troops served the British Empire during World War II despite the growth in nationalist sentiment, but returned after victory in Europe was achieved to find a social and political system still designed to keep Indians from positions of importance in the Indian administration.  Peaceful protests before the war grew in intensity during it, and in the aftermath (in part because of the financial devastation of the war), a critical mass of British politicians finally conceded that India would have to be granted independence in the near future.  The British state established the date of independence as July 18, 1947.

The British government, however, made it clear that the actual logistics of independence and of organizing a new government were to be left to the Indians.  A conflict exploded between the Indian Muslim League and the Hindu-dominated Congress Party, with the former demanding an independent Muslim state.  The British came to support the idea and finally the Congress Party conceded to it despite the vociferous resistance of the independence leader Mahatma Gandhi.  When independence became a reality, India was divided between a non-contiguous Muslim state, Pakistan, and a majority-Hindu state, India.  

This event is referred to as “The Partition.”  Millions of Muslims were driven from India and millions of Hindus and Sikhs were driven from Pakistan, leading to countless acts of violence during the expulsion of both Muslims and Hindus from what had been their homes.  Hundreds of thousands, and possibly more than a million people died, and the states of Pakistan and India remain at loggerheads to the present.  Gandhi himself, who bitterly opposed the Partition, was murdered by a Hindu extremist in 1948.

Four nations (India, Pakistan, Dominion of Ceylon, and Union of Burma) that gained independence in 1947 and 1948
Four nations (India, Pakistan, Dominion of Ceylon, and Union of Burma) that gained independence in 1947 and 1948

Religious (and ethnic) divides within former colonies were not unique to India.  Many countries that sought independence were products of imperialism in the first place – the “national” borders of states like Iraq, Ghana, and Rwanda had been arbitrarily created by the imperial powers decades earlier with complete disregard for the religious and ethnic differences of the people who lived within the borders.  In the Iraqi example, both Sunni and Shia Muslims, Christian Arabs (the Assyrians, many of whom claim a direct line of descent from ancient Assyria), different Arab ethnicities, and Kurds all lived side-by-side.  Its very existence was due to a harebrained scheme by Winston Churchill, foreign secretary of the British governments after World War I, to lump together different oil-producing regions in one convenient state under British domination.  Iraq’s ethnic and religious diversity did not guarantee violent conflict, of course, but when circumstances arose that inspired conflict, violence could, and often did, result.


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Exodus by Leon Uris
This #1 New York Times international bestseller tells the epic history of Israel’s birth through the eyes of two generations of Jews as they fight to reclaim their homeland. Leon Uris tactfully meshes together the story of two 19th century Jewish brothers who seek refuge in Palestine with the 20th-century story of how Israel gained its independence after World War II. Rich in historical accuracy and compelling characters, this literary classic sheds light on the long history of the Jewish diaspora, their struggles for liberation, and the costs of war. One of Uris’s best works, Exodus is just as relevant today as it was when it was first published in 1958.

The current ongoing crisis of Israel – Palestine is both a result of arbitrary borders drawn up by former imperial powers as well as a unique case of a nationalist movement achieving its goals for an ethnic-religious homeland.  The British had held the “mandate” (political governorship) of the territory of Palestine before WWII, having seized it after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.  Thousands of European Jews had been immigrating to Palestine since around the turn of the century, fleeing anti-Semitism in Europe and hoping to create a Jewish state as part of the Zionist movement founded during the Dreyfus Affair in France.

During World War I, the British had both promised to support the creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine while also assuring various Arab leaders that Britain would aid them in creating independent states in the aftermath of the Ottoman Empire’s expected demise. Even the official British declaration that offered support for a Jewish homeland – the Balfour Declaration of 1917 – specifically included language that promised the Arabs of Palestine (both Muslim and Christian) support in ensuring their own “civil and religious rights.” In other words, the dominant European power in the area at the time, and the one that was to directly rule it from 1920 – 1947, tried to appease both sides with vague assurances.

After World War I, however, the British established control over a large swath of territory that included the future state of Israel, frustrating Arab hopes for their own independence.  Countries like Iraq, Transjordan, and the Nadj (forerunner to today’s Saudi Arabia) were simply invented by British politicians, often with compliant Arab leaders dropped onto newly-invented thrones in the process.  Meanwhile, between 1918 and 1939, the Jewish population of Palestine went from roughly 60,000 to 650,000 as Jews attracted to Zionism moved to the area. The entire period was replete with riots and growing hostility between the Arab and Jewish populations, with the British trying (and generally failing) to keep the peace.  As war loomed in 1939 the British even tried to restrict Jewish immigration to avoid alienating the region’s Arab majority.

After World War II, the British proved unable and unwilling to try to manage the volatile region, turning the territory over to the newly-created United Nations in April of 1947. The UN’s plan to divide the territory into two states – one for Arabs and one for Jews – was rejected by all of the countries in the region, and Israel’s creation as a formal state in May of 1948 saw nine months of war between the Jews of the newly-created state of Israel and a coalition of the surrounding Arab states: Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon, along with small numbers of volunteers from other Arab countries.


While the cases of India and Israel were, and are, of tremendous geopolitical significance, the most striking case of decolonization at the time was the wave of independence movements across Africa in the 1950s and 1960s.  Africa had been the main target of the European imperialism of the late nineteenth century.  The Scramble for Africa was both astonishingly quick (lasting from the 1880s until about 1900) and amazingly complete, with all of Africa but Liberia and Ethiopia taken over by one European state or another.  In the postwar era, almost every African country secured independence just as quickly; the whole edifice of European empire in Africa collapsed as rapidly as it had arisen a bit over a half century earlier.  In turn, in some places this process was peaceful, but in many it was extremely violent.

In Kenya, hundreds of thousands of white colonists were not interested in independence from Britain.  By 1952, a complex web of nationalist rebels, impoverished villagers and farmers, and counter-insurgent fighters plunged the country into a civil war.  The British and native white Kenyans reacted to the uprising by creating concentration camps, imprisoning rebels and slowly starving them to death in the hills.  The rebels, disparagingly referred to as “Mau Maus” (meaning something like “hill savages”), in turn, attacked white civilians, in many cases murdering them outright.  Finally, after 11 years of war, Kenya was granted its independence and elected a former insurgent leader as its first president.  Ironically, while British forces were in a dominant position militarily, the British state was financially over-extended.  Thus, Britain granted Kenyan independence in 1963.

While most former colonies adopted official policies of racial equality, and for the first time since the Scramble black Africans achieved political power almost everywhere, there was one striking exception: South Africa.  South Africa had always been an unusual British colony. 21% of the South African population was white, divided between the descendents of British settlers and the older Dutch colony of Afrikaners who had been conquered and then incorporated by the British at the end of the nineteenth century.  The Afrikaners in particular were virulently racist and intransigent, unwilling to share power with the black majority.  As early as 1950 white South Africans (British and Afrikaner alike) emphatically insisted on the continuation of a policy known as Apartheid: the legal separation of whites and blacks and the complete subordination of the latter to the former.  

South Africa became independent from Britain in 1961, but Apartheid remained as the backbone of the South African legal system, systematically repressing and oppressing the majority black population.  Even as overtly racist laws were repealed elsewhere – not least in the United States as a result of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s – Apartheid remained resolutely intact.  That system would remain in place until 1991, when the system finally collapsed and the long-imprisoned anti-Apartheid activist leader Nelson Mandela was released, soon becoming South Africa’s first black president.

British colonies were not alone in struggling to achieve independence, nor in the legacy of racial division that remained from the period of colonization.  One of the most violent struggles for independence of the period of decolonization in Africa occurred in the French territory of Algeria.  The struggles surrounding Algerian independence, which began in 1952, were among the bloodiest wars of decolonization.  Hundreds of thousands of Algerians died, along with tens of thousands of French and pieds-noires (“black feet,” the pejorative term invented by the French for the white residents of Algeria).  The heart of the conflict had to do with a concept of French identity: particularly on the political right, many French citizens felt that France’s remaining colonies were vital to its status as an important geopolitical power.  Likewise, many in France were ashamed of the French defeat and occupation in World War II and refused to simply give up France’s empire without a struggle.  This sentiment was felt particularly acutely by the French officer corps, with many French officers having only ever been on the losing side of wars (World War II and Indochina).  They were thus determined to hold on to Algeria at all costs. 

On the other hand, many French citizens realized all too well that the values the Fourth French Republic supposedly stood for – liberty, equality, and fraternity – were precisely what had been denied the native people of Algeria since it was first conquered by France during the restored monarchy under the Bourbons in the early nineteenth century.  In fact, “native” Algerians were divided legally along racial and religious lines: Muslim Arab and Berber Algerians were denied access to political power and usually worked in lower-paying jobs, while white, Catholic Algerians (descendents of both French and Italian settlers) were fully enfranchised French citizens.  In 1954, a National Liberation Front (FLN) composed of Arab and Berber Algerians demanded independence from France and launched a campaign of attacks on both French officials and, soon, pieds-noires civilians. 

The French response was brutal.  French troops, many fresh from the defeat in Indochina, responded to the National Liberation Front with complete disregard for human rights, the legal conduct of soldiers in relation to civilians, or concern for the guilt or innocence of those suspected of supporting the rebellion.  Infamously, the army resorted almost immediately to a systematic campaign of torture against captured rebels and those suspected of having information that could aid the French.  Algerian civilians were often caught in the middle of the fighting, with the French army targeting the civilian populace when it saw fit.  While the torture campaign was kept out of the press, rumors of its prevalence soon spread to continental France, inspiring an enormous debate as to the necessity and value of holding on to Algeria.  The war grew in Algeria even as France itself was increasingly torn apart by the conflict.

Within a few years, as the anti-war protest campaign grew in France itself, many soldiers both in Algeria and in other parts of France and French territories grew disgusted with what they regarded as the weak-kneed vacillation on the part of republican politicians.  Those soldiers created ultra-rightist terrorist groups, launching attacks on prominent intellectuals who spoke out against the war (the most prominent French philosopher at the time, Jean-Paul Sartre, had his apartment in Paris destroyed in a bomb attack).  Troops launched an attempted coup in Algeria in 1958 and briefly succeeded in seizing control of the French-held island of Corsica as well.

It was in this context of near-civil war, with the government of the Fourth Republic paralyzed and the prospect of a new right-wing military dictatorship all too real, that the leader of the Free French forces in World War II, Charles de Gaulle, volunteered to “rescue” France from its predicament, with the support of the army.  He placated the army temporarily, but when it became clear he intended to pull France out of Algeria, a paramilitary terrorist group twice tried to assassinate him.  De Gaulle narrowly survived the assassination attempts and forced through a new constitution that vested considerable new powers in the office of the president.  De Gaulle opened negotiations with the FLN in 1960, leading to the ratification of Algerian independence in 1962 by a large majority of French voters.  Despite being an ardent believer in the French need for “greatness,” De Gaulle was perceptive enough to know that the battle for Algeria was lost before it had begun.

In the aftermath of the Algerian War, millions of white Algerians moved to France, many of them feeling betrayed and embittered.  They became the core of a new French political far-right, openly racist and opposed to immigration from France’s former colonies.  Many members of that resurgent right wing coalesced in the first openly fascistic party in France since the end of World War II: the Front National.  Racist, anti-Semitic, and obsessed with a notion of French identity embedded in the culture of the Vichy Regime (i.e. the French fascist puppet state under Nazi occupation), the National Front remains a powerful force in French politics to this day. 

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Ghandi: By Elliott & Fry (see [1]) –, Public Domain,

Partition of India map: Public Domain,

This text was adapted (with permission) from:

  • Western Civilization: A Concise History – Volumes 1-3
    by Dr. Christopher Brooks
  • World History Cultures, States, and Societies to 1500
    by Eugene Berger, Ph.D, George L. Israel, Ph.D., Charlotte Miller, Ph.D., Brian Parkinson, Ph.D., Andrew Reeves, Ph.D, and Nadejda Williams, Ph.D.
    CC BY-SA
  • Modern World History
    by Dan Allosso, Bemidji State University and Tom Williford, Southwest Minnesota State University

I’ve taken excerpts from the above-mentioned resources and heavily edited and added to them for my intended audience. While I’ve received permission to use/adapt these books, none of the above endorses Guest Hollow or my use of their materials.

Information was also taken from Wikipedia under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License and other resources (listed in the individual page credits).

This online book is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Beowulf the Fox Terrier dog and the Greek & Latin roots graphic © Jennifer Guest

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