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

Conclusion to The World Around 1914, Part I

What can we conclude about Gandhi’s world around 1914 and his role in it?

We see that European power spread across the world and organized life for hundreds of millions of non-Europeans; in this case, we have paid particular attention to the situation in South Africa and India. In India, a handful of civil servants ruled over hundreds of millions. In South Africa, a minority of whites of European descent ruled over a large population of Africans and some 200,000 Indians, most of whom had been brought to South Africa as indentured servants. European rule in non-European parts of the world meant many things to the indigenous and non-European societies. It meant that economies were transformed to fit the needs of the European economy or settlers. It meant that traditional ways of life, including farming, industry, trade, distribution of land, religious practices, and political and legal structures were molded around European demands and fears. In India, for example, a thriving textile industry was decimated and in its place came large-scale agricultural plantations, the opium trade, and masses of poor workers who flocked to the burgeoning cities to work in European factories or on plantations oriented around the European marketplace. In South Africa, European intervention meant that small-scale farming and herding was quickly replaced with large-scale plantations and huge mining operations, like that of the diamond king and ardent imperialist Cecil Rhodes. Indians and Africans were always employed in the most burdensome jobs. They were poorly paid and faced daunting taxes. In the meantime, tribal political structures were abolished. Both Africans and Indians fell within the jurisdiction of increasingly discriminatory European governments. European armies and police forces guaranteed this system, cracking down violently on opposition.

During his decades in South Africa, Gandhi challenged this system, beginning with small-scale actions and developing into mass civil protest. He asserted Indian rights in the deeply unequal South Africa. Gandhi represents an important trend at the time, non-European people who synthesized traditional ideals with Western notions in order to develop powerful anti-colonialist philosophies. By 1914, Europe was at the height of its power, but its very power and greatness sowed the seeds of its own demise. Gandhi understood this. He understood the contradictions between European actions and European rhetoric and ideals. He understood that his case would benefit from winning the hearts not just of his compatriots but of the British and European public as well. Satyagraha, the force of truth, is at once a deeply Indian ideal and a notion that contains influence from European thinking. It is no surprise that the collective farm that the Satyagrahis set up after being banned from living in the cities of the Transvaal was named not after an Indian thinker but after a Russia in the European tradition, the great writer and pacifist Leo Tolstoy, whose books The Kingdom of God is Within You and What is to be Done? provided roadmaps for Gandhi's development of an ascetic, anti-materialist life.  

From India to England, from Russia to South Africa, the world in 1914 was an interconnected place. For now, we leave Gandhi in London in 1914. He has volunteered for the army medical corps, as he did during the Second Boer War. The South Africa phase of Satyagraha has come to an end with ambiguous results. The conditions for Africans and Indians in South Africa will continue to deteriorate, despite Gandhi’s inspired resistance. We will find Gandhi next in India, leading the largest and most famous anti-colonial movement in world history, one that will transform the image of Gandhi from a political actor into a modern-day saint. Gandhi’s independence movement will redefine the relationship between European powers and the colonial word, and, indeed, he had already struck the first blow in 1909 by writing the book Hind Swaraj (Indian Home Rule), which was banned by the British already in 1910. If the period from 1914 to 1945 was one of the most violent periods in human history, it makes sense that it would also give rise to one of the greatest champions of non-violence. As we will see, the age of Stalin and Hitler, the age world wars and the Holocaust, is also the age of Mahatma Gandhi.

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