USM Open Source History Text: The World at War: World History 1914-1945

Africa and the Limits of Self-Determination

In the 1920s and 1930s, we see two trends emerge in Africa. First, we see the imperial powers in Africa grappling with the development of new administrative and intellectual frameworks for their colonial rule. Second, we see the formation of a new sense of African identity and the beginnings of a new spirit of African nationalism, which pushed for independence on nationalist grounds and led to internal divisions within African communities.

As Europe emerged from war, the big questions in terms of colonial administration were how to effectively and inexpensively rule African colonies and how to justify this continued colonial domination in light of the wartime rhetoric about democracy, rights, and self‐determination, the ideals for which the entente powers and the United States claimed to be fighting. The most famous articulation this position on political realignment came from U.S. President Woodrow Wilson in his famous Fourteen Points. The Fourteen Points called for the right of national self‐determination and argued against militaristic and aggressive foreign policy. In his programmatic preface, Wilson proclaimed:
What we demand in this war, therefore, is nothing peculiar to ourselves. It is that the world be made fit and safe to live in; and particularly that it be made safe for every peaceloving nation which, like our own, wishes to live its own life, determine its own institutions, be assured of justice and fair dealing by the other peoples of the world as against force and selfish aggression. All the peoples of the world are in effect partners in this interest, and for our own part we see very clearly that unless justice be done to others it will not be done to us.
It was increasingly difficult to square this Wilsonian idealism with the facts on the ground in Africa or elsewhere in the colonial world. Increasingly, Wilson’s “All the peoples of the world” seemed to the peacemakers in Paris to include only Europeans and nations of European descent, like the United States, Canada, Australia, and South Africa. Jan Smuts, for example, Gandhi’s political combatant and one of the politicians behind South Africa’s slide toward Apartheid, was one of the main figures in constructing the terms of the peace in Paris. One important result of this is that South Africa was able to take possession of German Southwest Africa under Article 22 of the Covenant of the League of Nations. South Africa was able then to expand its brutal, racist rule into this new territory, ultimately controlling what would become the nation of Namibia until 1990. And rule over this territory provided South Africa to exert force on neighboring Angola, contributing to the decades-long civil war that raged in that country after its independence.

Nonetheless, it was becoming less acceptable, especially in Britain, to resort to repressive tactics to put down colonial dissent, though when the going got tough, violence was always ready and waiting. One should never underestimate the importance of massive and systematic violence in all areas of life to the sustaining of colonial regimes. Wilson was not the only one calling for a more humane, gentler reorientation of international relations. Already for over a decade before WWI, social reformers, missionary groups, and some liberals were calling into question the harshness of colonial exploits. Most famous among these critics of colonialism were E. D. Morel and Roger Casement, both of whom participated in a long campaign against the viciousness perpetrated against the Congolese in Belgian King Leopold’s Congo Free State. Morel and Casement (and their movement) eventually helped drive King Leopold from power, but they did little to change the overall dynamic of imperialism in the Congo or elsewhere, except perhaps to demand a better façade of humanism to cover up the exploitation. Their anti‐war stance during WWI, along with Vladimir Lenin’s call for anti‐imperialism, made their prospects for success in the postwar years more difficult, for Casement it was an impossibility as he was arrested, convicted, and sentenced to death on charges of treason for conspiring with the Germans. Casement’s execution in 1916 on extremely shaky grounds was as much a strike against vocal critique of British imperial policy as it was anything specific to his pro‐German activities, the sum of which amounted to nothing.

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