History Lecture 11: Cold War and Decolonization
The Berlin wall was taken down in November, 1989. It’s something we always refer to because it didn’t
actually come down. They let people cross it, and people could climb on it and party on it. It was a
revolution that ultimately resulted in the collapse of the Soviet Union. The US won and Capitalism won.
The end of the cold war had a profound effect across the world, especially in the colonial world.
What happened was, with the end of the Cold War, the colonies were no longer of interest to the
superpowers. They lost their political appeal, and they found themselves essentially overnight
irrelevant. They had no more funding and political support, and the rivalry was replaced with complete
indifference. This abandonment of colonial interest is especially prominent in the Horn of Africa. As soon
as the war ended, both sides dropped all support for Ethiopia and Somalia.
The powers, no longer having to support the client war, turned their attentions elsewhere. The US
started to focus on the War on Terror, and that has continued right up till now. The bright side is that
the dictators who were propped up by Washington and the USSR had no means of enforcing their rule,
and the political situation changed positively in some colonies. That doesn’t stand true for all of them.
As we talked about last week, the process of throwing off the yoke of colonial rule in Asia and Africa
started right after WW2. By the mid-seventies, most of the world was liberated. This was at the exact
same time as the cold war’s escalation. They influenced each other. In another way, it’s coming full
circle back to the colonial scramble in the Berlin Conference in the 1880s, where the Europeans talked
about how they were going to split up Africa.
In some ways, decolonization was very similar. It was poorly planned, rushed, and equally complex in
how it placed out and its consequences. There are three main reasons for decolonization. First, colonial
subjects wanted decolonization and independence and they began working for it. Second, WW2 led to a
decline in the capacity of Europeans to resist. Third, European powers decided it was in their best
interests to let their colonies go.
The desire to escape the rule of European powers spiked after WW2. Colonies were furious with how
Europe behaved after the 2 war. The war was hugely costly in both life and money, and the West was
putting forward democratic rhetoric. They said that it was antidemocratic and racist, and that the
fascists were evil. This was the ideology that Africans and Asians heard and experienced. And, after the
war, Europeans started tightening their grip on their territory. The colonizers were working even harder
after the war than they were in the 30s, as a means of stopping the spread of communism and
recovering their economies. Britain had fought off the Nazis alone in the battle for Berlin, and other
economies like France took a beating. So, all these powers saw the colonies as very important to the
process of rebuilding their economies. They saw them as even more vital as commercial territory. They
saw them as potentially valuable sources of the usual stuff: cheap labour, resources, and captive
markets. This was, of course, incredibly hypocritical. It further eroded any respect colonized people had
for their colonizing masters. A lot of these people in the war went home wanting to bring the fight against oppression home. Asia
was the first to get away from the European powers, with India breaking away in 1947. In a non-violent
way, India got the Brits to go home. Others in Asia and across Africa watched this happen, and they
were amazed and inspired, and doubly so because it happened without bloodshed. Ghandi was of
course the leader of this protest movement in India.
World War 2 really put the Europeans in an unflattering light. You had Europe and Japan as industrially
developed nation states, causing a massive war and dragging the whole world into it. They forced
everyone to take a side, and it was unbelievably violent. It was essentially nonstop slaughter. The
Imperial powers who did this began to look very uncivilized. The war heightened the confidence of the
colonial peoples because the colonial men were fighting just as well as the white men who were with
them. When they were fighting the Germans, they were killing white people, and it put them on even
ground. One last reason for independence was the movement of people to cities. When they got there,
they had the chance to organize unions and strikes. Right after the war, you had Africans striking and
demanding better working conditions and pay. You also had peasant riots. Literacy also contributed to
the independence movements, as the emergence of newspapers became crucial to the independence
movement and the spread of communications.
The colonial governments were very worried with the way things were going. The colonizers didn`t want
to improve things, and they were worried that the strikes could bubble up into something overtly
political. They didn`t want the strikes to continue on the path to independence. Faced with strikes, we
saw the authorities responding in different ways. On the one hand we saw some use repression and
brutally put down any kind of organization and protest. On the other hand, we saw some authorities
attempt to co-opt Unions and political Asians and Africans emerging. You saw efforts to buy off leaders
and take the fuel out of the growing movement. You probably won’t be surprised to hear that two
countries were infamous for their treatment of Africans. Belgium was brutal in the Congo, and Portugal
was ruthless in Angola and Mozambique.
Others thought that a middle ground approach would do the trick, but they wanted to find a way to
maintain their economic benefits that came with being colonial rulers, while at the same time offsetting
the ideological baggage that we beginning to emerge after WW2. The rise of leftist, social democratic
governments made the idea of colonization look less appealing at home, and the colonies were starting
to revolt. Being an imperial power was becoming something of a dirty word after WW2. So, the
Europeans tried to find the best of both worlds. Britain and France began to (using force or threat of
violence) include colonial subjects in the running of thei