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

An Introduction to the World Around 1914: The World of Young Mohandas Gandhi (1869-1914)

I would like to begin this chapter in the Indian province of Gujarat in 1869 and with the birth of one of the twentieth century’s most renowned people, the future Indian national leader Mohandas Karamchand (or Mahatma) Gandhi. Why begin here? The reason is twofold. First, during the nineteenth century and until the end of the Second World War India was controlled by the British, and the Britain Empire was the principle power in the world. By 1914, the British Empire included Australia, Canada, India, Hong Kong, huge portions of southern Africa, Egypt, the African Gold Coast, parts of the southeast Asian archipelago known today as Indonesia, New Zealand, Burma, Barbados, and many other territories. The British Empire dominated the world map. Its navy dominated the world’s seas. Its financial markets powered the world’s economy. Its industrial power set it apart from all rival states. Its exports transformed long-entrenched patterns of production and exchange and ushered in a new era of European dominance of the emerging global economy. It is fitting, therefore, that we begin in the British Empire.

If the above is true, why not have our start in London, the capital city of this great empire? If we were concentrating on the 18th or even the early 19th century, this would make perfect sense. It could well be argued that before and even just after the American War of Independence, Britain had reached its pinnacle of world power, accounting for huge percentages of the world’s industrial and commercial output. The British were the first state to build railroads, to mine coal for industrial purposes, to extract iron in massive proportions, to develop an industrial core based on steam power, and to build a navy that could control the seas from northern Europe to China and Japan.

By the mid-19th century, however, Britain’s power was becoming more and more dependent on its colonial possessions, and India was Britain’s colonial crown jewel. The center of the empire, Britain itself, had started to fade from its central position in the world. The late 19th century saw two other industrial powers surpass Britain in industrial production. One was the recently war-torn United States, which emerged from its Civil War and subsequent period of Reconstruction with a new national self-understanding. The United States began a process of heavy industrialization, beginning during its Civil War, a process that depended on agricultural improvements, westward expansion, and perhaps most significantly huge waves of new immigrants who provided industry with a cheap, renewable labor supply. The other main competitor was closer to home, the newly united (1881) German Empire, formed out of a series of wars in the 1860s and 1870s. By the 1880s, the German Empire had consolidated its territorial gains and was industrializing quickly. Before long, Germany, not Great Britain, was Europe’s largest industrial producer. Germany had some marked advantages over England: a larger population, a bigger army, and a better strategic position to take advantage of European trade (and trade within Europe was the most active in the world at this time). What Germany didn’t have was a colonial empire. As of Gandhi’s birth year, Germany had no adequate naval force to go out into the world and seize one. What’s more, the prospect of Germany acquiring for itself a territory like India was impossible. India’s 300 million people (as of 1901) were more than the entire population of Europe combined. Apart from China, there was no bigger colonial prize. It is no surprise, therefore, that British foreign policy revolved almost as much around India as it did London. More accurately, British foreign policy revolved around the London-Bombay connection. Its aims were to maintain and strengthen this connection by diplomacy or brute force, in other words by whatever means necessary. British involvement in Egypt and the Middle East, for example, was largely done out of concern for the safety of its Indian empire. Lord George Curzon, the British Viceroy (governor) of India, perfectly captured the perception of India’s importance to the British Empire, stating in 1901, “As long as we rule India, we are the greatest power in the world. If we lose it, we shall drop straightaway to a third-rate power.”

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