HST 504 – Week 7
“direct and assimilation rule”
A Web of Unseemly Promises: The Hussein-McMahon letters, the Balfour Declaration, and the Sykes-
The Great War had profound impact on international relations not only in Europe but also around
the world. The war created a paradoxical situation.
On the one hand, all the Great Powers had no choice but to draw significantly on their colonial
resources for the war effort.
Millions of non-Europeans fought on the battlefields in Europe, while colonies mobilized for war
The Europeans relentlessly exploited their colonies as the war of attrition drained their own
capacity to manufacture goods and munitions.
On the other hand, by drawing them into the conflict, the war significantly transformed the
The growth of industrial production outside of Europe changed the socio-economic fabric of the
Many regions experienced tremendous industrialization and modernization, which fuelled
resentment towards the colonial overseers.
Amidst all the fighting, many (including Wilson and Lenin) concluded that imperialism was one of
the key causes of the Great War.
Yet, at the war’s end, the Great Powers did not believe that the right to self-determination should
apply to the colonized territories.
They all saw the war as an opportunity to expand at the expense of the war’s losers.
In the postwar years, they legitimized their colonial aggrandizements through a system of
territorial mandates under the League of Nations. Almost from the very beginning of the war, it was clear that one of the key objectives of all the
belligerents was colonial expansion.
The Great War pushed the Great Powers to take a somewhat contradictory approach to
On the one hand, they needed allies and resources.
They provided incentives to their own colonies and those of their enemies (with promises of self-
rule or independence) and to other Great Powers (with promises of territory or influence).
On the other hand, the war’s enormous costs pressured them to obtain greater gains, especially
those of the imperial kind.
Hence, throughout the war, all the Great Powers (especially Britain and France) made conflicting
promises and commitments to each other and to their colonies.
Firstly, in 1915 and 1916, the British high commissioner to Egypt, Sir Henry McMahon, and the
Arab Sharif Hussein of Mecca exchanged letters.
The British were hoping to convince the Arabs to revolt against the Ottomans (who had aligned
In return, the British made a promise to support Arab independence across the Middle East.
By the summer of 1916, the Arabs revolted (and thwarted the Ottoman Empire’s attempt to
declare a Holy War against the Allies), believing that their contribution to the war effort would be
Secondly, Britain and France bought Italian allegiance by promising Rome control over the
Soon after, the British and the French began to negotiate over postwar settlements.
Under the Sykes-Picot Agreement, the two were carving out colonial possessions in the Middle
This went in direct contradiction to the promises made to the Arabs.
As if the situation was not complicated enough, the British searched for more allies with even
more flagrant promises.
London wanted to gain the loyalty of the Jewish lobby in Britain and the United States, taking a
pro-Zionist stance on Palestine.
The ensuing Balfour Declaration made a commitment to create a homeland for the Jews in