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Europe In Retrospect

by Raymond F. Betts

The Retreat from Empire

After 1945 members of the British royal family found unanticipated employment as ceremonial representatives on those many occasions when political power was transferred from Great Britain to its former colonies. The quick retreat from empire, generally labeled "decolonization," was one of the major characteristics of postwar world politics and stands as striking proof that the older Eurocentric state of global affairs now only has a place in the history books.

However, few were the prophets who had imagined the end of the empire would occur so quickly and completely. During the interwar years theorists estimated that colonies would remain part of political reality for perhaps another century. Even in the early 1950s, more than one experienced observer assumed that European rule in Black Africa could possibly continue until the year 2000. Such predictions were all grossly wrong. Within two decades empire was over in Africa too.

The singular fact of decolonization was the outward political ease with which most of it was accomplished. With few exceptions, negotiation and peaceful retreat, not bitter resistance, was the pattern. True, Europeans perceived what lay ahead if they did not negotiate, but for the most part the transferal of power was made without severe animosity, such that the ceremonies attended by members of the British royal family were decorous enough to appear in the Sunday pictorial supplements at home.

After the war the politics of the colonial world were altered by the appearance of mass-supported parliamentary parties, whose objective was to play the role of loyal opposition. In some regions, notably South Asia, politics had already been further advanced. Gandhi's efforts should be recalled, and parallel in time with them was the growth of a Communist party in Indochina under Ho Chi Minh. In North Africa there were also important political factions demanding an end to colonial rule. Yet by and large, the mass-supported party was a postwar phenomenon, and one born in a promising environment of political change. The major colonial powers, Great Britain and France, were already restructuring their colonial administration and their principles of rule.

Just the alterations in the official names by which these two great empires were called is an indication of the new mood of the times. The British Empire had become the British Commonwealth of Nations in the interwar period, but after 1945, it reappeared as the Commonwealth of Nations. The removal of the qualifying adjective suggested an official equality of the participating units. The French Empire was reclassified as the French Union in 1945, and then was redesignated "The Community" when General Charles de Gaulle returned to political power in 1958.

It is true that the French still hoped for a unified and integrated colonial community, while the British moved more toward autonomy and self-government. But both nations recognized that political change was necessary. By allowing colonial affairs to move from administration by Europeans to political participation by local populations, the home governments encouraged the move toward local government. The colonial councils, primarily appointed and consultative bodies in the prewar system, now became elective and responsible agents of government. It was in this changed environment that the parliamentary parties of the colonized peoples appeared.

By the 1950s, within a decade after their formation, these parties were transformed from a parliamentary to a nationalist status. Their leaders no longer saw the future as one in which they ought to work within the context of colonial government, but rather one in which they would direct the destinies of new nation-states.

As the political intentions of the colonial elites changed, the response of the colonial governments altered also. One after the other, the colonies were granted independence. Where a colonial administrative unit had stood one day, an independent nation stood the next. The vast majority of colonies in Black Africa, the Caribbean, and Oceania received independence in this peaceful manner.

However, there were two instances of severe colonial warfare, both of which proved the dire effects European resistance could precipitate.

In both Indochina and Algeria the French were determined to maintain their political status. In both colonial regions the outcome was extended warfare of a bitter sort. Between 1947 and 1954 the French in Indochina fought against the guerrilla armies of Ho Chi Minh. The war was an effort made by the French to prevent the collapse of empire immediately after World War II, and it was an effort on the part of Ho Chi Minh to make the provisional republic he had declared in 1945 a political reality. Finally, the French found themselves in a military debacle at Dien Bien Phu in the winter and spring of 1954. The Vietnamese forces had surrounded the French garrison there and soon were demolishing it. This French failure on the battlefield led to negotiation at the diplomatic table. In July of 1954, at Geneva, the French government recognized the existence of the People's Republic of North Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh had triumphed, but the war in Indochina would continue again in 1956, this time with the Americans replacing the French.

Beginning in November of 1954, and in part as a consequence of Ho Chi Minh's success, a National Liberation Front in Algeria engaged the French in guerrilla warfare. Determined not to allow a repetition of Indochina, and anxious to provide support for the large white settler population in the area, the French government eventually mounted a major military effort against the Algerian nationalists. Fighting continued until 1962 when the government of General de Gaulle finally negotiated a peace that assured an independent Algeria.

The struggle in both Indochina and Algeria proved that guerrilla warfare was an effective means of wearing down the enemy. The excessive cost in lives and money of retaining colonial domination was one that sapped French national strength. Gaining the support of the local population, engaging in hit-and-run operations that disrupted military supply lines and frightened the local French populations, the guerrillas forced the French to increase the number of troops needed for policing activities. It was calculated that one guerrilla could hold down ten to twenty regular troops.

Guerrilla warfare - or its threat - was therefore a most useful, because a most dreadful, tactic available to the colonized peoples. It disrupted any semblance of colonial order, and it effected an isolation of the colonial authorities from the masses of the people.

Whether by force or through negotiation, the European retreat from empire was as quick as it was total. But the effects of the imperial age continued.

The Significance of Colonialism
Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru (1889-1964) of India once wrote that the "shock value" of European imperialism was all important. He meant that European culture, with its scientific and technological base, aroused other cultures from their centuries-old complacency or traditionalism.

The dichotomy between the "traditional" and the "modern," to which Nehru was alluding, has no doubt been exaggerated. Old and new were not always in opposition and, quite obviously, no culture has ever remained fixed. But the European colonial world, centered in the Eurafrican and Eurasian cities, did suggest a different pace and way of life.

Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the colonial world was one of two cultures. The introduction of a wage-based economy, of a modern transportation system, of new techniques in medicine and - equally important - of a value system based on the principles of change and material progress, altered the old order. The North African driving a donkey cart equipped with pneumatic tires is one example of such change, as is the Hindu peasant listening to his transistor radio. These daily scenes of the incongruous should not lead to the conclusion that the two cultures were consciously blended.

What occurred in the colonial setting was juxtaposition, not intermixture. Few of the benefits of European culture and fewer of the most important positions in colonial society were open to the African and Asian populations. Except for the small elites previously discussed, and except for an emerging commercial bourgeoisie most noticeable in the port cities of Southeast Asia, North and West Africa, access to the European side of the colonial world was highly restricted. In his remarkable colonial novel, A Passage to India (1924), the English author E. M. Forster depicts a lawn party held by some Indians for some British. He refers to it as a "bridge party," the irony being that there was a great gap between the two peoples, even though they were assembled on the same lawn.

If not a multiracial society, the Europeans provided a model for political and economic development that served as a major legacy of the imperial age. The very fact that the colonies emerged as nation-states, structured on European principles of national sovereignty and republicanism, and functioning with administrative bureaucracies, is an indication of the effects of alien rule. Moreover, in developing a counter-ideology with which to combat imperialism and the cultural smugness it implied, the indigenous leaders of Africa and Asia sought to adapt their own past to contemporary uses. The reformulation of local, precolonial history was often along the romantic nationalist lines that characterized similar European development a century before. Finally, a European trained military element, one of the most "modernized" segments of society, became a major political force. Many of the contemporary rulers in Africa in particular acquired their first public service in the European colonial armed forces.

Whether the term "modernization" or "Westernization" is used to describe the many social and economic alterations which made the world take on a common appearance, the fact remains that a primary agent in the process of change was European imperialism. Recently, critics have asked if similar change would not have occurred without colonial imperialism. The question is an interesting hypothetical one. But it in part contains its own answer. Only in the last two decades of European empire, in the period since World War II, were the most striking alterations in indigenous societies effected. It was at the time when colonial empire moved from political domination and administration to technological improvement that the "one world" of jet aircraft, television, industrial pollution, and four-lane highways appeared.

Concomitant with this Westernization, there was a new form of colonization taking place in Europe itself. For the first time since the era of the Viking invasions in the ninth century, Western Europe was the setting for a significant immigration of peoples whose homes were outside of the Continent. By the middle 1960s, over five hundred thousand Algerian workers were in France, and another one hundred thousand were found in Belgium and Germany. At the same time residents of the Commonwealth holding British passports appeared in large number in Great Britain. Indians from East Africa, blacks from Jamaica and Barbados, Pakistanis from the Indian subcontinent, resettled in the former seat of empire where they hoped to find economic opportunity. Finally, in the Netherlands there was a small but significant community of Moluccans who fled their native islands when the territory was turned over to the Indonesian government at the time of Dutch decolonization.

The presence in Europe of around 2 million emigres from the various colonial empires is explained chiefly by economic reasons. Crowding populations and limited opportunities in the decolonizing regions made Europe appear to be a continent of opportunity. Moreover, the economic surge - "the European miracle" - of the 1960s created a temporary labor scarcity on farms, in mines, and in factories. The colonial emigres formed something of an itinerant, alien proletariat, primarily interested in earning enough money to send to destitute families at home. However, the presence of such a significant new racial component led to social tensions and in England to an outbreak of racial violence. Moreover, as industrial unemployment increased in Europe in the 1970s many working-class Europeans saw the colonial proletariat as an immediate economic threat. Racism, formerly considered by Europeans to be a unique national condition of the United States, appeared in all of its ugliness in Europe.

The problem of temporarily displaced populations is in part a measure of the failure of the "revolution of expectations" in the former colonial world. Decolonization turned out to be a false promise for many Asians and Africans who realized that the economic order of the world was not dramatically changed as a result of the departure of the colonial administration.

After Imperialism
In the 1950s the French coined the expression "The Third World" to distinguish that vast portion of the globe that was removed from the West (Europe and the United States) and the Soviet Union. Originally, the term applied primarily to those newly emerging states which had no desire to affiliate with either of the two major world power blocs. It was at Bandung, in Indonesia, that the first sense of Third World solidarity was expressed in 1955. There, some twenty-nine nations from Africa and Asia convened in conference to condemn colonialism. Chou En Lai, foreign minister of the People's Republic of China, stated the purpose of the conference clearly: "The epoch when the Western powers controlled our destinies is over. The peoples of Asia and Africa must now guide their own destinies."

Since Bandung, the Third World nations have become as wary of Soviet intentions as they have of American. Both "superpowers" seem to be peddling influence, and on occasion both have found their technical assistance staffs sent packing by suspicious governments. In 1973 the Egyptians forced the Russians to leave, and in 1977 the Ethiopians forced the Americans to leave.

Such suspicions of the technologically advanced, militarily powerful, and economically rich nations have, in one form, been structured into an ideology of "neo-colonialism." According to this theory, Western influence remains as strong as it was before in the colonial regions, even though European flags and the personnel who served under them have left. Neo- colonialism suggests that economic exploitation continues, now primarily maintained by the multinational corporation and international aid rather than by the colonial administration.

The great amounts of military aid and capital investment made by the former colonial powers and the United States, notably in Africa, was the factual basis for neo-colonialism. It has been argued that such money and equipment could be manipulated to control the policies of the new sovereign states. And with the resources of large international conglomerates like International Telephone and Telegraph (ITT) and Unilever, domestic policy could be turned to the advantage of the foreign investor. Arguments such as these engendered new concerns. The first president of Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah, warned of a "new scramble for Africa, under the guise of aid."

Neo-colonialism is another form of ideological protest against the economic disparity in the contemporary world. The Third World is the world of poverty, of hunger, of exceedingly low per capita income. It remains dependent upon, hence sensitive to, the wealthy part of the world, which the West primarily occupies.

Like the battleship, empire was made obsolete by the Second World War. A creation of nineteenth-century power politics, such empire depended on a set of cultural values in which paternalism was a pivotal concept. The relationship of colonial ruler to colonized people was frequently symbolized in the statuary found in colonial city squares: the figure representing Europe was a sturdy adult; the figure representing the local population was a dependent child.

Different concepts of authority issued forth after 1945. In a belated way, the Wilsonian principle of "self-determination of nations" was realized on a worldwide scale. Hitlerian imperialism, the most horrendous form yet imposed, cast a gloomy shadow across all forms of empire. The United Nations stood for a new spirit of parity, of equality among nations. It is true that the long-vaunted principles of Western liberalism, particularly the notion of self-sufficient individuals deciding their own political fate, were seldom translated into the daily life of citizens living in the new nations. Military dictatorship and one-party rule were far more common than the English "Westminster Model" of parliamentary rule with a loyal opposition. Nonetheless, decolonization meant a world of quite different political proportions.

Europe is no longer the center of a political network cast over the Tropics. Now European chiefs of state make official visits to African and Asian capitals as frequently as leaders of the nations of the Third World come to Europe. Ours is an age of many lines of international diplomatic traffic. All roads do not lead to Rome-nor to Paris or London.

NEXT:  Chapter Fifteen: An Era of Booming Success

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