Europe Imperialism and Decolonization Essay

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European Imperialism and Decolonization:

Spectacular in Some Respects

Not Spectacular in Other Respects

European Imperialism and Decolonization:

Spectacular in Some Respects, Not Spectacular in Other Respects

The term "spectacular" is, in some respects, subjective. The collapse of European empires after 1945 was spectacular in some respects but not in others. The British Empire's decolonization after World War II can be logically called "spectacular" in its scope; however, it was not "spectacularly" surprising or shocking, for the Empire began decolonization decades before World War II. In contrast to the Empire's decolonization, France's decolonization can be logically called "spectacular" in both its scope and turmoil. According to research, these differing experiences of decolonization can be traced to several national and accidental factors.

Analysis of the British Empire's Decolonization

The Empire and Decolonization Prior to 1945

The most common type of imperial control was the "colony," directly ruled by a Governor representing the British Government and Crown (Luscombe) and a most impressive show of the British Empire's world domination prior to World War II was displayed at the British Empire Exhibition of 1924. In 1924, the Empire boasted significant possessions such as: India, consisting of 1,802,629 square miles, a population of 318,942,480 and annual revenue of £135,633,000; Canada, consisting of 3,603,336 square miles, a population of 8,788,480 and annual revenue of £78,512,435; and Australia, with 2,974,600 square miles, a population of 5,510,229 and annual revenue of £64,897,046 (Luscombe, British Empire in 1924). At that point in time, the Empire appeared to be at its apex but was already weakened due to four years of fighting in World War I and was beginning to decline (Luscombe, British Empire in 1924). The coming decades would see Great Britain's realization of its waning power and decolonization, commencing prior to 1945 but certainly accelerating after World War II. In 1931, Great Britain passed the Statute of Westminster, stating that the self-governing dominions of Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Ireland and Newfoundland were "autonomous communities within the British Empire, equal in status, in no way subordinate one to another in any aspect of their domestic or external affairs, though united by a common allegiance to the Crown, and freely associated as members of the British Commonwealth of Nations" (Encyclopedia Britannica). In addition, largely due to the Ottawa Conference of 1932 and aggressive U.S. tactics for dismantling the Empire's trade advantages with its countries, the Empire increasingly relied on "a protectionist policy" in an attempt to consolidate Its trading position with countries included in the Empire (Reynolds 7). Furthermore, Great Britain was moving away from imperialistic control of India with the Government of India Act of 1935, giving the British India colonies a great deal of autonomy (Smith 72). Both the Statute of Westminster and the Government of India Act were indicative of the "British response to dissent" in which the Great Britain handled colonial discontent by "progressively representative government tending towards eventual independence"(Smith 75). In sum, prior to the financially devastating impact of World War II, the Empire was already divesting Itself of major colonies.

The Empire and Decolonization After World War II

By the end of World War II in 1945, the Empire still ruled approximately 700 million people across the globe (Devine 163). Nevertheless, World War II proved financially devastating to the Empire: by some estimates, the War cost Great Britain approximately one quarter of Its national wealth (Reynolds 6). Despite the grave financial impact of the War, Great Britain was still a world power, with all the attendant financial burdens. According to Aron, Shai, "Britain ended the second world war 'in a state of virtual bankruptcy and with the status and commitment of a superpower'" (Shai 289). For example, as a conquering world power, Great Britain was required to share in the occupation and reconstruction of Germany while attempting to rebuild its own infrastructure and economy and while maintaining control over its 700 million subjects. As a result, Great Britain was faced with a situation of crushing demands and woefully inadequate finances. In partial answer to this predicament, Great Britain rapidly but peacefully accelerated decolonization so effectively that the Empire of 1965 ruled only 5 million people worldwide and the Empire of 1997 handed back 3 million of those subject to Hong Kong (Devine 163).

The rapid but relatively peaceful success of the Empire's decolonization is attributed to several factors. First, Great Britain's government was relatively stable (Reynolds 77), so much so that even the Suez Canal Crisis of 1956 showed the strength of Great Britain's government (Smith 78). Secondly, Great Britain had a very favorable relationship with the United States, which emerged as a financial and military superpower after World War II (Smith 75). A third factor was Great Britain's "national psychology" toward its colonial subjects: prior to World War II, Great Britain was already moving its colonies toward increasing self-government; after World War II, Great Britain concluded that if Imperial control was not wanted by these subjects and if Great Britain was not inclined to suppress their dissent, the best solution was to simply leave (Smith 81). Finally, with the exception of Nasser's Suez Canal Incident of 1956, Great Britain had considerable luck in the nature and amenability of the colonial subjects with whom it dealt in decolonization (Smith 98-99). Due to these factors and despite considerable divestiture of Its holdings, "Britain was still the world's third major state in the 1940s and 1950s-economically, militarily and in nuclear capability" (Reynolds 7). Consequently, while international financial and political matters eventually led to Great Britain's current status as a regional power rather than a world power (Reynolds 19), it cannot logically be said that Great Britain's decolonization was a spectacular collapse across the board.

Analysis of France's Decolonization

French Decolonization Prior to 1945

France stands in sharp contrast to the British Empire and France's decolonization is much closer to the concept of a spectacular collapse. France's efforts at decolonization prior to 1945 were essentially nonexistent, as France maintained a "steadfast refusal to consider even eventual separation a viable political option" (Smith 73). Consequently, whether dealing with Indochina, Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria or West Africa or Equatorial Africa, France's approach was a rigid in its preservation of French rule (Smith 84). This rigidity and refusal to even consider decolonization prior to World War II left France and its colonies ill-prepared for a peaceful transfer of power after World War II.

French Decolonization after World War II

French decolonization after World War II resulted in "social trauma and political convulsion at home" (Devine 163). True to Its pre-WWII policies, post-WWII France maintained the attitude that any colonial demands for change that might eliminate French presence in that colony were "immediately to be squelched" (Smith 84). France held fast to this unbending policy in Vietnam, Algeria, Morocco and the Ivory Coast, for example, succeeding in maintaining its authority in the Ivory Coast alone (Smith 44-45). Perhaps the most dramatic failure occurred in Algeria, to which France doggedly clung to the large French national population residing in Algeria, France's need for Algeria's resources, and the strategic location of the Algerian capital of Algiers as a French outpost (Smith 98). Algeria's determination for autonomy vs. France's determination to hold Algeria in its grasp resulted in a bloody 8-year war with terrorism and torture from both sides. As a result, when Algeria achieved independence in 1962, it gave Europeans the choice of "a suitcase or a coffin" and only a handful of Europeans remained in Algeria by 1963 (Doody).

The relatively spectacular collapse of France's colonial empire after World War II is attributed to several factors. First, the "national psychology" of France essentially took the loss of a colony personally, equating the loss of a colony as a failure of the people of France (Smith 80). Secondly, the government of France was volatile and fractious: according to Smith, France's government was "plagued by disloyal opposition from both the Right and Left, by a multiparty system, and by a notoriously weak executive" (Smith 77); consequently, "Inability fed upon inability until the default of government authority reached such proportions that, at the first serious threat of military insubordination, the regime totally collapsed" (Smith 79). As a result, France's government was unable to peacefully and effectively solve the problems inherent in decolonization (Smith 77). A third factor in France's decolonization difficulties was its poor relationship with the U.S.: Franklin D. Roosevelt reportedly hated de Gaulle (Smith 75); consequently, it was more difficult for France to work with the world's greatest financial and military power in order to ease any governmental difficulties, including decolonization. Finally, France was relatively unlucky in its colonial "foes" and was forced to deal with colonial opposition that was unwilling to negotiate and determined to rid itself of France.


While post-WWII decolonization was breathtaking in its scope, painting all European Empire decolonization with a single "spectacular collapse" brushstroke would be inaccurate. Great Britain's decolonization began decades prior to 1945 and was rapidly accelerated by Great Britain's realistic approach to post-1945…

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